Today’s Biz Ladies Profile comes to us from artist and designer Amelie Mancini. Starting off as a painter, Amelie learned, first hand, how difficult it was to make it in the fine art world. After many full-time and temporary side job attempts, she finally found her niche creating original block print items. Amelie has now expanded her product line, offering different printed fabrics and wood items. Today she shares a bit about her creative career journey with us. Thank you so much, Amelie, for sharing with us today! —Stephanie
Photo above by Jen Causey
Read the full interview after the jump…
Why did you decide to start your own business?
For years I tried to make it as a painter, which turned out to be really, really hard. So I had to have a lot of other jobs to pay the bills: I worked in a bookstore, in restaurants, I assisted other artists, I worked as a commercial painter, a fabricator, etc. I sold a painting every now and then, but never enough to make a living. Teaching wasn’t something I wanted to do, but I also didn’t want to keep alternating bar jobs and art jobs forever. I knew I wanted to be my own boss and have my own studio and spending all this time and energy working for other people grew more and more difficult.
Eventually I decided to try something new: I had just finished a series of really big paintings about baseball, which got some great reviews but didn’t sell, and I thought, why not try a new technique? I became interested in block printing, specifically linocuts, mainly because it was super cheap. Carving felt great and I loved how vibrant the inks were. I was fairly obsessed with baseball cards at the time and so I decided to make my own baseball cards, for fun. I printed about 50 packs of cards and figured I’d try to sell them at a market in Brooklyn and see if anyone else liked them. I sold out at my first market, so I printed more, I set up a website and started selling them online.
Then Design*Sponge posted about them a week before Christmas and boy, things really took off then. Orders started pouring in, as well as more press. I couldn’t really believe what was happening, but I also saw that I could turn this little side-project into a real business.
Of course there were a lot of challenges ahead of me. Almost overnight I had to figure out where to buy supplies in bulk, what was the most efficient way to print, to ship, how to deal with customers, whether I needed to trademark my designs, etc. I still had a full-time day job so I could only work on Left Field Cards nights and weekends and I could barely keep up. I knew that in order to grow the business I would have to quit my job eventually, and that was pretty scary financially but I just had to do it, so a few months later I took a leap.
Then two years later I decided to start a second business. I needed a little break from all that baseball and wanted to explore new things, in particular woodworking and printing on fabric. I came up with some new designs, set up a second website and voila! Just like with kids (I’m told), it’s much easier the second time around.
photo by Jen Causey
When you first decided to start your own business, how did you define what your business would be?
I didn’t really sit down and write a business plan, although that’s the first thing you’re supposed to do. I had a ton of conversations with my family and my friends, and did a little bit of “market research” to see what others were doing and come up with work that was very different from what existed, but I have a very visual and intuitive way of working. I mostly come up with ideas and designs by letting my hands figure it out. It’s important to let things develop organically while still being aware of where you’re headed. Running a business – but also making art in general – is a constant process of improvisation and editing.
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
It’s not really specifically business-related, but it’s “Find your peers.” It’s essential for artists and makers to find a community. You can’t create in a vacuum and you also need the support of others who “get it,” who run into the same problems as you, who have similar questions about art and design and small business. Finding your peers will allow you to bounce ideas off each other, compare experiences, share stories, learn new techniques. Instagram is an amazing place to do that. People are trading work, meeting up in real life, helping each other out and it’s just fantastic. But finding your peers also means finding your customers, knowing who they are, what they see and value in your work. All of this will help you grow your business, develop your voice, understand what your strengths are, what your identity is, what makes you YOU.
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
Pricing my work. I didn’t know how to figure it out. I was inexperienced, disorganized and overwhelmed and couldn’t keep track of my expenses or of how much time I was putting into a particular piece, and so I was basically trying to wildly guess how much people would be willing to pay for something, which is a ridiculous way of doing things. I was worried that no one would buy anything if my prices were too high, but also if my prices were too low. And I felt so lucky to be able to make a living doing something I loved, that I almost felt uncomfortable putting a price tag on things. It seems really silly now, but it took me a while to finally get it and start doing the math.
Handmade products are generally expensive because they cost a lot of money to make, whether it’s supplies or labor. It helps to know that I didn’t pull that number out of thin air. Now I feel like my prices are fair and honest and are an accurate reflection of the work, time and love I put into my products. It saddens me whenever I see someone underselling their work, because not only are they hurting themselves financially but they’re also not being fair to other makers.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
You can’t do it alone. Running my own business has been and continues to be the hardest and scariest thing I’ve ever done. It’s also the most exciting and rewarding, but I would be nowhere without my fiance and my family, who are all incredibly supportive and generous and believe in me even when I doubt myself. I also depend on the people who work for me now and I am grateful for their dedication and their professionalism.
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences?
When I started Left Field Cards I only envisioned selling the cards either at markets or directly through the website. I didn’t think about wholesale because I didn’t know anything about the retail business. My customers were all people who had read an article about me somewhere or people I was talking to in person at the market. Pretty soon though I got some wholesale requests from stores, but selling the cards through a store was a whole different thing: I realized that without an explanation most people did not understand what the cards were, and so sales weren’t amazing. My cards were weird, unique, original, which was their strength but also their flaw – they usually required an introduction. I had a problem of packaging, of advertising, of display, all things I could not figure out on my own. I tried and tried until I finally accepted that maybe wholesale was just not the right outlet for the cards. My margins were pretty low, my sales through the website were pretty good, so it just wasn’t worth the headache. Going forward, when I design a new product I always ask myself, do I want to wholesale this? Can I wholesale this? What will it look like in a store? It’s hard to run a business without doing wholesale, unless your web traffic is amazing on its own, but sometimes it just doesn’t make sense.
Can you name your greatest success in your business experiences?
Being able to hire people feels like my biggest accomplishment. It brings a whole new set of challenges but it also makes me feel pretty proud of what I was able to accomplish. I love the freedom of working alone in the studio and I definitely need it to come up with new ideas, but I like knowing that this thing I’m doing is growing bigger than just me. Hopefully soon I will be able to have a full-time assistant, and I dream of someday having a shipping manager, an accountant, a sales person, a studio manager… I would like that very much indeed.
What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
Honestly, the Biz Ladies columns are pretty amazing! I also recommend the Small Business Association which provides help to small businesses writing a business plan, getting a loan, etc.
photo by Jen Causey
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
1. How much do you want this? Running your own business is going to be the hardest thing you’ve ever done, it will take all of your time and while there will be highs, there will also be plenty of lows. It takes a toll on you and so you’d better be sure there’s absolutely nothing else you’d rather be doing.
2. Know your strengths and weaknesses. Be ready to do as much as you can yourself to start but know when to hire someone. It can be hard to recognize what can only be done by you, and what can be done by someone else. You probably don’t need to be the person printing out shipping labels, or ironing fabric, but maybe even making every single piece yourself? At first I printed and sewed every single one of my tea towels, which literally took days, then I realized I could pay someone to do it for me, and do it better and faster. Hiring a part-time printer and a seamstress meant less money upfront and less immediate control, but better quality in the end and more time for me to come up with new designs.
3. Make great work. Work extra hard to create original pieces, spend time developing your voice and your esthetic. Never copy someone else’s work. That’s lazy and unprofessional. Have high standards for yourself, be unique, be different, and trust that with time your efforts and talents will be recognized. Be patient and never give up.