Today I’m thrilled to launch the first post of a brand new series: Small Business Spotlight! Because I’ve got a passion for small businesses, and hope to someday run my own full-time, I thought it would be awesome to interview successful small business owners of all sorts.
Here to kick off this series with me is Kim from the cheerful home blog Yellow Brick Home, and – for the last year – the artist who paints the totally fetching miniature pet portraits from The Pet Shop. Her catchy blog voice, cheerful condo decor, and (of course) her small business have all been inspiring me for the last year – so when I decided to launch this series I couldn’t wait to include her.
This summer I was lucky enough to see Kim’s work up close and personal, when I ordered portraits of my friend’s three dogs as a 30th birthday gift. Kim was great to work with and the paintings were a huge hit at the party.
Q: What inspired you to launch The Pet Shop? How did you find your niche product (miniature pet portraits)?
The Pet Shop was totally unplanned and definitely unexpected. Scott and I are the make-each-other-a-gift sort of folk, mostly because gifts are more personal that way, but also because it saves money! Several years ago, Scott was on the I want a dog! train (this was before we adopted our crazy, adorable Jack), and as a birthday gift, I painted him a Boston Terrier. It was meant to be a joke, but he loved it. We shared the tiny portrait on our blog, Yellow Brick Home, and many readers started asking about getting their own paintings done! I was a little shocked, and at first, I didn’t take it too seriously. But after friends and family started requesting pet portraits as gifts, I began to realize that maybe I was on to something. My first several clients were friends or friends of friends, and last September, I officially launched the Pet Shop through the blog. With the start of the Shop, there was a huge learning curve. I read up and researched pricing artwork (something I hadn’t done since I sold small photo prints in my college days), and over time, I think I’m finally getting the hang of it. The response has been amazing, and I’m thankful every day.
Q: I know you recently responded to customer input and added a second size portrait to your offerings. Why did you choose, at first, to only offer the one size?
The original Boston was painted on a 5″x5″ wood panel, and while I liked that size, honestly, I found that 4″x4″ panels were not only more cost effective, but they were damn cute. I know it seems strange to explain it that way, but they were small, and they were cute. My first clients responded well to this size, and I found a niche creating tiny, affordable custom art. Because of the size, the production time is cut down (which goes back to the affordability), and there’s something to be said about something so sweet and simple that you can just hold in your hand or tuck on your bookshelf. I was stubborn at keeping only one size, but ultimately, the demand grew for something larger. For the one year anniversary of our Shop, I chose to also offer the 6″x6″ which can still qualify as small, but it’s more than double the square inches of canvas space. It’s a win for me, and it’s a win for you.
Q: What are some of the unique challenges you face with your business?
For me, I’ve found that new technology affects the photos that clients send me, and my work is based entirely around a photo. For example, most people gather photos on their smart phones as opposed to a regular camera. While this is totally okay (and honestly, it’s so convenient, so why not?), I find that I need several back up photos to make sure I pick up the details from all angles on each pet I paint. Sometimes subtle spots on paws or the chest don’t get picked up with phones and the (admittedly cool) filters that people use. I’m struggling to find an answer to this question, but if I had to pick something that I find myself saying out loud, “grumble, grumble!”, this would be it. Overall, my clients are fantastic and are always more than willing to provide more information and photos when I request it. And I can be pesky that way, so if you place an order, expect this!
Q: How would you describe your first experience at Renegade Craft Fair, and how did participation in it affect your business?
Our first year at the Fair was amazing! I wasn’t planning on selling custom portraiture at the Fair, but several people asked, so I started taking orders on the spot. It made for a ridiculously hectic month leading up to Christmas, but many of those clients have been repeat customers over the course of the last year! They buy for birthdays, anniversaries, wedding gifts, and of course, for themselves. We applied to the Fair on a whim, and I went in it with my friend Pete who sells these amazing hand-crafted “old man” pipes. A few days before Scott and I left for a 10 day trip to celebrate our 2 year anniversary on the California coast, we found out we were accepted! The timing couldn’t have been worse (I would only have 3 weeks upon returning to get ready for the Fair – from scratch!), but I hustled. Scott and I brainstormed ideas, I stayed up until 3 am every night painting, we crafted all of our display pieces after too many trips to Home Depot, and I found all my vendors for prints, bags, and archival sleeves (local and otherwise) that I still use to this day. We’ve been accepted again this year, and this time I’m much more prepared! You can see our booth in Chicago the weekend of December 3rd and 4th.
Q: I think that you still work full-time, in addition to running The Pet Shop and blogging at Yellow Brick Home. How do you maintain balance?
Balance is all relative, right? Kidding. After a lot of option weighing, I left my full time job at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago last August. I officially became a full time freelance creative (hey, that’s what my accountant calls it!) on September 1st, 2010. I can’t believe I just celebrated a year of freelance, and I feel extremely thankful for this. Any spare time I had in the beginning went towards building the Yellow Brick Home brand identity, and although our blog is sponsor-free, our content fuels traffic towards the Pet Shop, so I do take it seriously – just not so serious that it’s not fun anymore (although, everyone has their bad days, too!). In addition to penning our blog with Scott and running the Shop (which takes up the majority of my time), I also work a few days a week doing post-production work in a Chicago West Loop photography studio. I love that I always have my foot in the door with photography, since that’s what I studied in school (I have a degree in Fine Arts). However, juggling those three things can be hard; I’m not going to pretend it’s easy. I’m consistently working on the answer to this question every day – when you’re your own boss (especially a slave driver like me, har-har!), you have no one to rely on but yourself. But I try to remind myself that everyone needs time off. Everyone needs a lunch break (funny that I have to tell myself that). And everyone needs the evenings to cuddle their kitties, walk their pups, and watch Modern Family.
Q: Do you have any specific tips regarding photography for readers who are considering ordering a pet portrait?
After I receive an order, I send every client a list of things I’ll need from them to get started. This includes their input on background color, their pet’s favorite activities and toys, and most importantly, photographs. I include a few starter tips, but this is my biggest piece of advice: Get down at your pet’s level to snap a photo. If it’s a cat, wait until they’re sitting on a windowsill, then get down on your knee. If it’s a tiny dog, use a friend, boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse to help you. Photos taken at your pets level translate the best to canvas, but I will admit that some non-traditional poses work just as great (and some of my favorite paintings have come from some unlikely images). Secondly, photos of your pet on a hard surface helps. This allows me to see their paws, as opposed to those furry toes digging into a cushy comforter. With that said, I’m willing to work with a variety of images, and if I need more information, I will ask. The goal is to get the best possible portrait, and this requires an open communication between me and the client.
Q: And finally, the oldie-but-goody: What advice would you share with new business owners, or people who are thinking of launching a business?
It’s scary, yes. But if you’re honest with yourself and your goals – and you feel positive – then what’s holding you back? It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, so starting at a pace your comfortable with now can only help you in the future. I was painting on the side for almost a year (and doing photography for close to 10 years) before I finally left my full time job. Before then, I juggled my 9-5 with client emails and painting in the evenings and weekends. I was fortunate enough to go full time freelance when I realized that I could receive a contractual steady income with the photo studio (owned and operated by a very good friend of mine). I was scared out of my wits, but I know myself well, and I knew I wouldn’t allow myself to go down without a fight. If you have the drive and heart to stand behind a brand that you love, the only person stopping you from succeeding is yourself. Cheesy, but holy cow, it’s so true. In addition, surrounding yourself with support and encouragement is vital. Scott has been my biggest fan from day one, and he never doubted my decision to leave my job at the Art Institute. Having him root for me pushes me along, and if nothing else, I want to prove him right (just don’t tell him that). Don’t allow outside negativity to affect you, and if it happens, learn to leave those doubters in your dust.
In addition to surrounding yourself with positive energy, put yourself out there. Invest in marketing materials such as business cards and postcards, and carry them with you! Think about the clientele you hope to have, and reach out to them in their forums. For example, working with pet portraiture, I’ve found that donating to local animal shelters for fundraisers is not only an amazing opportunity to stand behind a cause we believe in, but we reach an audience that is specific to us. Blog about your work and use social media to your advantage. At the same time, once you gain followers and supporters, stay active. Leave feedback for them on their networking sites. Be each other’s shoulders to lean on.
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I’d like to give Kim a HUGE thanks for taking the time to participate! I’m sure I’m not the only one who found this super interesting and inspiring. And if you’re thinking about giving some miniature Pet Portraits as holiday gifts, I’d recommend that you order soon – because this is one item that’s sure to fly off the proverbial shelves this holiday season!