Kaye Blegvad first caught my attention when I stumbled upon her interview on Your Dreams My Nightmares, an interview podcast hosted by Sam Weber featuring his conversations with illustrators, designers and artists. Her sincerity and gentle intelligence were as apparent in her chat as they are in her work; from her signature illustration style, to her line of handmade jewelry, Datter Industries — I’m eying her cat face ring — to her self-run, tongue-in-cheek pornographic magazine, Horizontal Press. Her process is always part of the finished product, and the subtle humor and commentary she injects into everything she touches is charmingly earnest.
Kaye currently lives and works in Brooklyn, but when she’s craving a change of scenery, she’ll hop over the ocean to live in London, England, where she grew up. And despite her busy schedule, she took the time to chat with us about how hobbies can be lucrative, streamlining your management so you can get to the things that matter, and the importance of enjoying what you do, “otherwise, you may as well be working for someone else.” –Sabrina
Why did you decide to start your own business?
It wasn’t really a conscious decision for me — I didn’t set out thinking, “okay, this is going to become a business.” I’ve just always made stuff, and I knew that was what I wanted to do. I hardly dared to think that I might actually be able to earn a living from it, I just wanted to try to get my work out there. As an illustrator, the easiest way for me to do that was to sell prints and zines, which I began doing in college. A lot of illustrators I knew and looked up to did the same — it felt like it was just “the done thing.” When I started making jewelry, I saw it as a hobby, something fun to do that was separate from my “real work.” So when I started selling jewelry, I just thought that at best it might make the hobby pay for itself. I wasn’t really looking for profit or growth, and the fact that people liked my work and a business grew around it was a pleasant surprise.
In a way, I think it helped that I didn’t have the pressure of really seeing it as “a business” at first; I was just testing the waters, finding out what people responded to. I was lucky that people did respond to my work, but I wouldn’t have felt that it was a great loss if it hadn’t gone anywhere.
When you first decided to start your own business, how did you define what your business would be?
The illustration side of my business has always primarily been an outlet for the work I’m making at any given time, so it has changed and developed along with my work. I never really defined it as anything other than “stuff made by Kaye Blegvad.” So it’s taken different shapes at different times — at first it was all paper goods, greetings cards, prints; then it became illustrated kits and paper assembly crafts; recently it’s almost exclusively ceramics. And then I just launched a new side project — Horizontal Press — which is a small press specializing in, um, dirty zines and prints. I’d been really missing the paper side of things, and it feels good to be making printed matter again.
With the jewelry business, the only thing I really defined upfront was that I saw it as separate to my illustration. That’s why I gave it a different name — Datter Industries — and had it on a separate website. It definitely does relate to the rest of my work, but I always saw it as a different entity. Other than that, I kind of had to define it after it had already begun, since I didn’t have much of a plan for it.
At first I was just making pieces that I wanted myself — things I thought would be cool but couldn’t find anywhere. As time’s gone on I’ve figured out specific areas that interest me, and things that I want to avoid. For a while I felt pressure to fit in as a “fashion” brand, to make lookbooks with beautiful models, to bring out collections with the seasons, and I felt like I was failing if I didn’t do that. But now I feel happier for it to grow at its own pace; I only make a new design if I have an idea I’m really excited about, rather than feeling that I have to churn pieces out each season. That may not be the best business model, but it’s better for me, both mentally and creatively. I feel that the most important thing about running your own business is that you have to enjoy it. Otherwise, you may as well be working for someone else.
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
A few people I knew who’d had businesses for a while all said variations on the same thing: be professional, but also be personal. Make sure you’re always on time, deliver things when promised, be polite and helpful to customers and clients — but don’t be professional in a blank, corporate way. People come to you because you’re a small business, so put a little of yourself in it. I try to be friendly and honest in emails, while also being professional — but no “Dear Sir or Madam” or weird business speak. I want to show I’m actually a person!
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
Honestly, it was the mundane, logistical parts. Shipping, accounting, emails, time management. When you’re first starting out and the business is small, it feels like all that stuff only takes a couple minutes. And then suddenly you realize it’s taking up all of your time, and you’re hardly doing the thing that the business is meant to be about. Streamlining all that was a steep learning curve — finding shipping software, bookkeeping programs… I’m still working on the time management. Somehow there’s always some deadline that’s crept up on me!
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
I’ve always found pricing very difficult. At first, I wanted to make things at a very low price point, something that me and my fellow broke-artist friends could afford. I looked at the costs of production and marked pieces up based on that, not factoring in time and labor at all — I was basically just looking at a piece and thinking “I would be able to spend X amount on that” and calling that the price. Then there was a point where I started to get busy, and was churning orders out, working crazy hours, replying to countless emails, totally exhausted, and I realized I was probably making about $3/hr. It’s really important to value your time and effort, and to factor it in to your pricing. I still try to keep my pieces as affordable as I possibly can, but it was an important discovery that pricing based on your own finances is not necessarily going to be good for your health and sanity!
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences?
I don’t know if this is a failure, or just a disaster! This just happened a few weeks ago and I’m only just done dealing with it. With the new small press I just started, Horizontal Press, I published an edition of 13 small zines. I had them printed out of town, and as the launch date neared, the printer hadn’t quite finished everything. So I had him send me a couple copies of everything ahead of time, so I could take product photographs and launch the site on time, and then he shipped all the rest of the copies a few days later. I received the advance copies quickly, launched the site, and it went really well. I had a bunch of orders in the first couple days. And then I realized… the second parcel, containing hundreds and hundreds of zines, had gotten lost in the mail. It was a total crisis. I had to order rush reprints, which is expensive, and then I had to email all the customers to tell them that their orders would be late. Not a good start!
Luckily, people were very understanding, and the printer managed to get the reprints done at lightning speed. Most people’s orders were shipped only a few days late. But damn, I think I got a lot of new grey hairs dealing with that. I will never offer something for sale without having the product in hand again.
What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?
Ha! My time, my social life, my ability to relax… Worth it, though!
Can you name your greatest success in your business experiences?
I think just the fact that I’m able to do this at all. I’m still kind of amazed that this is actually my job, for real, I just get to do this for a living. There’s no specific success or event in there, I’m just really grateful and happy that this works for me, and that I have the opportunity to keep making things.
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
1. Do you really, really enjoy what you will be doing? If it’s making something, do you like making it so much that you’d still like it if you were making it over and over again? Will you still enjoy it if you’re doing it all day, every day? If you don’t really love it, it will turn into a burden. Some things are only enjoyable when they’re a hobby, or done for fun, and turning them into a business can spoil that. So make sure you absolutely love what you’re going to be doing!
2. How much are you willing to put into this before you start seeing results? Some businesses require an enormous amount of time, money, and preparation before they’re ready to see the light of day. Others can start putting little feelers out very early, and grow organically. You need to figure out what you’d need before your business can go live, and weigh up the risks. It’s hard to predict how things will be received, so I think it’s often worth starting small, not trying to do too much at the beginning.
3. If your business is going to be your sole income, this is a big one: can you deal with being pretty broke for a while? Luckily the broke artist thing is hip, but you’ve gotta make sure you’re really ready to embrace it, just in case your business is a slow burner.