biz ladiesLife & Business

Biz Ladies Profile: Lisa Congdon

by Stephanie

Lisa Congdon For the past two and a half years, I’ve been lucky to help run the Biz Ladies series here on Design*Sponge. I’ve had the opportunity to work with a variety of talented, brilliant and innovative biz ladies and fellas and have learned a tremendous amount about the creative business realm.

As this series enters another year, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the more personal side of business ownership by profiling creatives who have experienced the process first-hand and have been able to establish, maintain and grow their businesses over time. So today we are launching the Biz Ladies Profile series with the talented artist Lisa Congdon.

Starting small and becoming a recognizable artist in the community, Lisa has become a true trailblazer for illustrators and continues to help educate others on how to follow a similar journey. Thanks, Lisa, for sharing your biz story and kicking off this exciting new series! I hope you all enjoy! — Stephanie

Read Lisa’s profile after the jump . . .

Why did you decide to start your own business?

When I started Lisa Congdon Art & Illustration in 2007, it was a tiny operation. In fact, at the time, I wouldn’t have even said I had a “business” because I was just selling a few things on Etsy. I thought of myself as an artist, not as a person who had a business. Right around that time, I left my non-profit job and opened a retail brick-and-mortar gift store in San Francisco with my friend Rena Tom called Rare Device. We sold stationery and jewelry, ceramics, art prints and all kinds of cool things. I even began selling some of my own work there. Rena, who was an experienced retailer, taught me a lot about the “back end” of small business ownership. I began thinking differently about how I could approach my art practice and that I might at some point be able to make a living from it. The following year in 2008, I signed with the illustration agent Lilla Rogers Studio and began taking illustration clients. I ramped up my Etsy Shop. I began selling prints on 20×200. I set myself up to take fine art commissions. I built a website, set up a Facebook page and a Twitter account. I was officially in business! In fact, Lisa Congdon Art & Illustration had became so strong by 2010 that I no longer had time for the retail store Rare Device, and Rena and I sold that business in early 2011.

Lisa’s new fabric line (coming out this spring) for Cloud9

When you first decided to start your own business, how did you define what your business would be?

As an artist, there are some very clear paths that one can take to make a living, including selling fine art (either through a gallery or by oneself), selling prints and other products or through licensing and illustration. There are also other ways (and variations on all these things), but these are some of the most common. My approach in the beginning was to try as many of these things as I could manage in my schedule in order to a) make a full living and b) see what appealed to me. Six years later, I still do some combination of all the things I listed in some way or another. I find that they all contribute to my income or to my creative path.

A montage of hand-lettered quotes by Lisa. One hundred of them will be published as a book by Chronicle Books in 2014.

What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?

Get out of debt and save money (see below).

What was the most difficult part of starting your business?

Getting my financial house in order. This is the dirty part of business ownership that no one ever talks about. All of the other stuff (making art, working with clients, promoting my business, etc.) felt easy and fun. But I was in debt after years of careless spending while I had a decent-paying full-time job. I knew that if I was going to be self-employed, I needed to pay off my debt and become as adept as possible at managing my money. I enlisted a team of trusted people and organizations to help me do this. I consolidated my debt (I recently finished paying off over $60,000 in credit card debt and business loans), hired an accountant who taught me how to (and the importance of) tracking and reconciling all my expenses and income in QuickBooks and I began a path of savings. Saving money is incredibly important when you are self-employed because we must pay our own taxes quarterly, so a portion of every check should be put away for that purpose. I am now debt-free, have savings, plan for the future and do my own bookkeeping every month.

Illustrated by Lisa Congdon, designed by Anna Dorfman for Simon & Schuster

Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?

The way you treat others matters, and it matters a lot. Kindness — to customers, collaborators, art directors, clients, vendors, blog readers, people who come to hear you speak — makes the world a better place. It makes the art and illustration world less cutthroat. It makes your job easier. It makes everyone else’s job easier. It makes us all feel better at the end of the day.

Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences?

I can think of so many! And I think my greatest moments of failure have always happened when I knew from the beginning that I should have been doing something differently. I have learned to listen to my gut in the beginning. There is a difference between the fear that comes from stepping outside my comfort zone (which is healthy and good) and the fear that comes from taking on too many projects at once or working with a client with whom I don’t feel aligned or doing something “just for the money.” I am learning to listen to my internal voice when I know from the beginning something isn’t a good idea, and I find that I have fewer failures as a result. That said, you can’t ever be sure, and failures are inevitable. The good news is, we learn from them, so in a way they are sort of necessary.

New cards by Lisa for Hello Lucky, photo by Edyta Szyszlo Photography

Can you name your greatest success in your business experiences?

I feel really grateful to have had a lot of good things happen in my professional life over the past several years. I think, overall, the thing that I am most grateful for (which is, in turn, my greatest success) is that I can get out of bed every morning and draw pictures for a living. I never went to art school or business school. I am regular person. It took me some time and thousands of hours of practice, and I definitely learned from other people, but I mostly figured out how to do it by myself. And I’m proud of that.

In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?

I made a little flow chart to illustrate three important questions you should ask yourself in the beginning. I am sure there are other important questions, but these are three important ones:

Biz Ladies Profile Lisa Congdon

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  • I love this new Biz Ladies series. I’m always curious about how others started, and the paths they took. Lisa Congdon’s flow chart breaks it down so simply; helping to keep focused.

  • great profile!
    i like how to get it flowing with that cool flow chart ;-)
    lots of good stuff here. thank you.

  • i found this incredibly encouraging and stimulating. it’s comforting to know that every successful lady starts out in a similar place of uncertainty. thanks for sharing your story, lisa!

  • Thank you for posting this. I have read countless “start-a-biz-doing-what-you-love” stories and this one might just be my fave. Great advice and a great addition to this series!

  • I love the candor here. Thank you, Lisa. And I particularly appreciate the very last graphic, it’s simplicity. This is an important discipline that I tend to make more complicated than it should be. More and more I want that visual reminder of my goals within easy view, on my wall even, to keep me steady, on track and to help me make smart decisions. I think I’ll mark off some time to do just that. Thank you! Great post.

  • Great feature! It’s encouraging to see an example of hard work paying off in a creative life that does not necessarily involve fancy degrees/formal training. Inspiring!

  • Great profile, very inspiring in a I CAN do this too! way. Now it’s time for the soul-searching of “this” and Ready, Set, Go!

  • Lisa seems so down-to-earth, friendly and encouraging of other creative folks. It’s really inspiring and fun to read her profile. Thanks for being so honest about the debt/financial aspects; makes it easy to relate and seems like an attainable future! Thanks for inspiring…

  • Wonderful, inspiring AND very encouraging ! ! ! Like all things in life: planning, planning and more planning! Love the part about financial planning – whether job or vacation – it’s important to stay out of debt and be realistic about your goals (and to HAVE goals). Again, another terrific entry by Design*Sponge. Thanks for the inside wisdom!

  • I am drawing YOUR flow chart on our 10′ X 14′ entry wall that I painted in chalkboard paint in the new year because THIS is the paradigm I want my children to live by! I thank you for putting it in writing. With gratitude — Yvonne :)

  • “I never went to art school or business school. I am regular person.” This statement alone is so inspiring to me because I always feel like being a regular person who just picked it up puts me at some disadvantage. Thanks for this great interview!

  • I’ve been following Lisa’s work for some time and am continually inspired by her positive and brave outlook. Great post!

  • This is great! I love how clear and real Lisa is, it is both inspiring and doable with actual things I can take away and put into practice right now. Thank you!

  • So many things about this post resonated for me. I love the fact that Lisa still does a little bit of everything to make a living. I’m on that same path and it’s reassuring to know it’s working out for her. And I also liked the part about fear – the good and not so good. It’s so satisfying to push through to the other side and have the fear behind you. I always enjoy the Biz Ladies posts!

  • Thanks Lisa! I have been a long time admirer of your work. This is such an inspiring interview and came just at the right time for me and my growing creative business.

  • Thanks so much for this interview! I’m a huge Lisa Congdon fan, and take a lot of inspiration from her journey (I too came to illustration beyond the age of 30), and reading more about how Lisa actually does business is really encouraging! I just opened my first Etsy shop last week, and really feel at the beginning of learning the ropes where actually running a business is concerned (as Lisa says, the fun stuff is easy!) and the flowchart above is SO helpful – I’m just about to dig into my pile of books now to read more about setting goals (and go through the Biz Ladies archives again!). Thanks once again. I really look forward to more in the series.

  • Lisa, thank you for such an open and honest account of your experience as a creative “biz lady”. I always enjoy reading about the lessons biz owners have learned over time because, let’s be honest, none of us have it all figured out from the beginning. Oh, and I absolutely adore your flow chart. I’m going to print it out and post it above my desk!

  • After reading this I realized that I may be moving too fast for my own good. On the other hand, knowing that it’s possible to pursue ALL of your passions without sacrificing anything is inspiring. I think posts of this nature are a great addition to the site.

  • Thank you so much for the inspiring and honest interview with Lisa, especially the frank discussion on finances. I’m encouraged to stay focused on my goals–it can be done!!

  • I really appreciated this article and hope to see more of it. I loved Lisa’s advice and illustration about what to consider before you start a new business. All of the information was very helpful.

  • Such a wonderful interview! I love Lisa’s illustrations, and I also think she is an amazing person. She definitely follows her own advice about being kind — I have always felt that from her in person and online. So happy for her success!