When she first started designing nostalgic keepsakes for lovers of Leeds, illustrator Milly McDougall never imagined that she would be surpassing five-thousand sales so quickly.
Milly founded her small business, Millistrations, on Instagram and Etsy just less than a year ago. After seeing the digital drawings she had been creating to fill her time during the first lockdown, Milly’s family and friends started asking for commissions. Ten months later, business is booming, and she hasn’t looked back once.
“I wouldn’t say I planned to open a shop or to sell my photography and illustrations,” Milly reflects. “But I’ve always known that I wanted to have a small business one day.” After struggling to get a few start-ups off the ground, Milly remarks that being furloughed gave her the space to slow down and be creative in a way that she enjoyed. Opening Millistrations never felt like work, and she is convinced that this is the key to running a successful shop.
As the name suggests, Milly is the leading lady of Millistrations, but she admits that the ship would not run as smoothly without some crucial helping hands. “I use an external printing company, which saves me holding any stock or trying to learn how to use a professional printer. I also have my amazing mum who lent me a DSLR camera for university and she helps me with my invoices. My soon-to-be-pro-web-designer-sister is also in the middle of creating a website for me, which is very exciting!”
Whilst most small businesses have struggled to stay afloat during 2020, Millistrations has flourished. “I don’t think the prints would have received as much attention if lockdown didn’t happen,” Milly muses, explaining that she thinks the high number of orders in her first few days were down to students having their time at university cut short and wanting memorabilia. Whatever the catalyst for her initial success, it’s fair to say that the quality of her prints - and the photos on them - really do speak for themselves. One of her most popular collections is a series of street signs from in and around Hyde Park. From the Manors to the Hessles, and from the Waltons to the Harolds, this series makes the perfect gift for anyone wanting to remember the glory days of living in LS6. Responding to the demand from her Leeds-based customers, in November 2020, Milly proved her business’s versatility by designing a 2021 calendar filled with original photography of Leeds and Hyde Park.
As well as her five-thousand Instagram followers, the Leeds independent scene seems to have picked up on Milly’s successes during 2020 too, with one business even reaching out for her help. Leeds’ beloved The Old Red Bus Station was a standout collaboration that helped kick start Milly’s reach in the city: “A staff member reached out near the beginning of Millistrations, asking if I had any photos of the building to give to a manager struggling in lockdown. I turned some of the photos into prints and sold them on my Etsy with 100% of the profits going to their ‘Save The Old Red’ campaign.” Overall, Milly and The Old Red Bus Station managed to raise over £300, spreading awareness of supporting Leeds’ independent scene throughout the Coronavirus outbreak in the process.
Still, it sounds like 2020 is only the beginning for Milly and her business. She is currently working on some “alternative leaver’s hoodies, t-shirts and sweatshirts for students who will miss out on graduations and their final year”. She casually adds that she also has plans to move to Australia as soon as the Coronavirus restrictions allow, and hopes to start a ‘Millistrations Australia’ whilst she’s out there: “All my fingers and toes are crossed that we will be just as popular down-under as we are in Leeds”.
With so many exciting plans in the pipeline, Milly’s small business demonstrates how fostering your creativity - even in the most trying of times - can lead to exciting and unexpected success.
To support Millistrations, and find out more about Milly’s work, visit etsy.com/uk/shop/Millistration
Words by Morgan Hartley