atlanta's independent entrepreneur network
LRBN: We’re in this (metaphorical) elevator together for 30 floors – Hi there, what do you do?
MA: I am an artist. Abstract acrylic on canvas, and oils too.
LRBN: Was that always the plan? How long did it take you to go from ideation to implementation?
MA: Not always the plan, although when I was a little kid, my parents always said I would be an artist, but I thought that was ridiculous, totally not doable. So I studied International Affairs (even though my mom begged me not to, and to do design instead.)
But after undergrad, I went to Portfolio Center (I had never even turned on a Mac before.) and studied graphic design. I learned about proportion, hierarchy, layout, movement, color meaning and saturation ... and that I can make anything in the world I want to. I moved to New York because I got a really coveted internship at Landor, my dream job!! Even though it was so cool to work with people who are obviously the best of the best, I hated every second of it. Long hours, tedious work, plus I spent most of my time dealing with fonts that wouldn't load, and software glitches. YUCK!!
So, to relieve stress, I started painting and blogging. I met a girl, she had a shop, she bought a painting ... and the rest is history.
LRBN: Funny how what you're meant to do keeps pushing at you sometimes until you're finally doing it, huh?
I'm guessing there are lots of amazing artists out there that inspire you, but are there any people that have influenced you in a businessy way? Any one whose model has sparked something for your own?
MA: Well they are mostly bloggers or artists who blog. I secretly want to BE Lena Corwin. She is a really talented pattern and textile designer, and she publishes artistic books. When I first started blogging and trying to market myself, I kept thinking that I wanted to be like Lena and work at home and make stuff and have people buy it!
LRBN: Has it worked out that way?
MA: Well, yes in a way. My husband is pretty successful, so I didn't need to pull in too much money at first, which meant I could be very experimental. And he really pushes me to be better and better. He has taught me so much about selling and customer service and marketing, skills I didn't realize would be so freaking handy! Now I work from home, but will have to move to a studio soon, and I make a decent living from doing what I love!
LRBN: That's great - congratulations! Any selling and marketing tips from him you might share?
MA: I think most people find me through my blog. It isn't fancy or particularly popular, but I post about my home, design and my art. Also, I have made friends with bloggers who have a bigger audience than I do, so I sometimes contact them when I have a sale or to do a promotion. I named a painting after a blogger-friend and she posted it on her site, and it
brought tons of people over to visit my blog, which links directly to my store. I’m also very disciplined about commissions and people who contact me for special requests. I always reply, and if they give me a phone number, I call them right away. I always follow up with people via email, send professional invoices and receipts, and never act surprised when someone wants to pay me a lot of money. It’s still hard to be like, "Really? You’re sure? Ok, if you say so."
LRBN: Those are all great practices. Thanks for sharing them! Aside from people wanting to pay you lots of money for what you do, any surprises to owning your own business (positive or otherwise)?
MA: Hmm, I guess I am always surprised by how people behave. I think that when someone contacts me or decides to buy a painting or make a commission, it is very emotional for them, because that’s what art is. Some days I might get a random email from someone who is very moved by a piece of mine, but they can't afford it. I appreciate the note, so I send them something for free - something small like a print, and they are so happy! Other times I bend over backward to help someone, or eat the shipping overcharge, or whatever, to help them out, and they treat me like their personal work monkey. Or I will be on the phone with someone who goes through all my paintings saying they are not good enough, or could I add pink to something and let her see how it looks, or could she pay me $300 even thought it costs $1,000! Oh, and taxes ... taxes.
LRBN: What's the biggest mistake you’ve made along the way? (Hopefully not on taxes.)
MA: HA! My biggest mistake was not marketing myself for a long time, and not painting enough. Mostly though what I am learning now is to not undervalue my work. I used to be so surprised when someone wanted to buy something, that at first I was off-handedly offering discounts. I had this lady once who wanted two large and expensive commissions. I gave her a huge discount because I thought she would balk at the price. Well, it turned out she was really well off, and it was a drop in the bucket for her, but I ended up feeling resentful because I spent so much time on her project, and it turned into this intense, stressful thing. So, I learned to be honest about what an item costs because of the time, emotional commitment and extras like shipping! Oh, the shipping. That is another mistake I made. It is so expensive! I was trying to find a way in between art packagers and spending an hour packing each painting myself. A painting was destroyed by UPS, and they didn't pay me the insurance claim because they didn't pack it themselves. Now I just say, this is shipping, take it or leave it. By that, I mean that I use a great company to ship my larger paintings, and if a client wants me to pack it myself and USPS it, no problem! But it’s at their own risk.
LRBN: How did you build up your customer/fan base? It seems like a lot of your clientele may come from your blog?
MA: Most of my clientele are artistic, stylish women who either blog or read blogs for their own businesses. I also work with a gallery here in Atlanta that has exposed me to high-end interior designers and people who are busy professionals who just buy paintings or commissions for their home or office in groups.
During my time blogging and getting to know design bloggers in this tiny little industry there is, I realized that there is a popular "it" person for each little niche area. The interor designer blogger everyone uses, the party planner, the stylist, the stationary designer, the magazine editors. So I decided I want to be the "it" painter. And I just told myself that I already am. I am not, in reality, but some day, I WILL BE!
LRBN: Nice! Any advice for enterprising indiepreneurs?
MA: Yes. Do what you love, and do it a lot. At first I was so overwhelmed by how much art I was seeing online, like when I first started reading Design Sponge in 2006 or so. I thought I had to make little birds and little rainbows because it looked like that is what was selling. Well, I tried it - it was not true to my style or my heart, and I felt like an imposter. So figure out what is at the core essence of what you love. Color is the thing for me. I would just sit and think about color combinations, or see an interior shot in a magazine and be OBSESSED with the color combo, or proportion of elements in the room for days ... my poor husband. So I started painting just what I wanted to look at. I never dreamed anyone would buy it. So when you find it, do it, all the time. You could spend the day laying around, or spend it
painting. Even if you think it isn't your best work, keep going, waste paint, canvas, paint over and over something until you like it. My best selling and most popular paintings were all mistakes and shitty paintings that sat around before I had an idea and painted over them. The business stuff you will learn over time. Just act exactly how you want someone to treat you. Be engaging, genuine and warm, and have integrity in everything you do. If you mess up big time, admit it, send them a free something, and move on.
LRBN: What’s next?
MA: I would like to have gallery representation in other major cities like Miami, LA and New York. My dream is to expand to the point that I have an intern to deal with shipping, and prints, and finishing paintings with frames and wiring, all the boring stuff. I can paint my heart out all day long. And I want to experiment! Huge canvases, portraits. I want to take classes since I have never been classically trained. I want to participate with huge art installations and fashion shows and cool new restaurants. I want to keep waking up every day excited to see what has landed in my inbox, and
where it will take me. I am very popular in Australia - I was just telling my friend that I would love to go there for a few months, paint like crazy, and leave it all there with a gallery to sell for me!
LRBN: Wow, that sounds awesome. I want to do that too ... minus the painting part - haha! =) Any parting words? (Please feel free to shamelessly promote yourself here if you so desire…)
MA: Haha. Parting words: www.michellearmas.bigcartel.com.