Growing up, I (thought I) wanted to be a surgeon. I took math and science in high school, and it wasn’t until my senior year when I realized that just because I was good at something didn’t mean it was what I should or would be happy doing. In the second semester of my final year, I begged the art teacher to give me a chance to gain the credits needed to apply to a BAA program, and after pulling all-nighters to prepare a massive portfolio, he gave me the credits I needed. Since then, the last time I studied human anatomy was in my first-year technical drawing class in art school.
Gabriella K. Levy‘s story is a similar one. Despite her decade-plus-long love for ceramics, she often shied away from the idea of art as a career for fear that it might bring a lifetime of financial instability — but her college experience opened her eyes to the emerging world of creative entrepreneurs in today’s versatile and multidisciplinary industry. Not before long did she realize that combining her left and right brain strengths in business and creative could lead to exponential success.
Forever passionate about functional art, Gabriella’s boutique lighting company, immerLit, explores her fascination with the artistic use of unlikely materials, specifically porcelain, and objects as useful art. Her translucent light fixtures aim to capture the natural beauty of the materials she uses when combined with the interplay of light. Each piece is designed and handcrafted to be beautiful when turned on and off. Much like the path to starting her own business, her pieces are a juxtaposition of simple and complex, and today, Gabriella is sharing more about her journey into business and the poignant lessons learned along the way. –Sabrina
Why did you decide to start your own business, versus work for someone else?
To be completely honest, I think I was trying to prove something. I have always studied and loved ceramics since a young age. I spent much of my time in college in the ceramics studio and felt at home there, but I never considered myself an artist. Something about that word never sat well with me. I chose to balance out my curriculum with business and management courses, knowing that the stereotypical life of an artist was not what I wanted. I was a creative person, with a niche talent, who could also read an income statement and write a business plan. Starting my own business made sense.
In recent years, the creative entrepreneur has emerged as a popular alternative career path to the artist, and I have embraced this profession — one that is much more multidisciplinary and versatile and one that encompasses some of my best qualities.
Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work?
I have always been passionate about functional art and the creative use of unlikely materials. I am also enamored and obsessed with the natural beauty of translucent porcelain. immerLit, a boutique custom lighting company, brings all of this to life. I knew that this material was special and using it in this way was unique. I wanted each and every piece to be customizable and unique to its home. The result has become individually designed and handcrafted lighting fixtures, candle votives and centerpieces that elegantly illuminate spaces with the interplay between porcelain, translucency and light. Balanced in its “complex simplicity,” immerLit’s signature porcelain seamlessly integrates fine art, design and function and stays true to a contemporary, natural aesthetic. I have to admit that I’m still in awe when I plug in a fixture and the porcelain illuminates. It almost seems too good to be true.
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
To learn to be patient: in your expectations of others, with your own creativity and in awaiting success. As the saying goes — nothing happens overnight.
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
Focusing on only a task or two at a time. As a small business owner, there is a never-ending to-do list. I have learned that it is not only impossible to tackle the whole list at once, but detrimental to the quality of the outcome to try. I find that making daily and weekly goal lists helps to organize my time and thoughts.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
Thus far, I’d have to say it’s been an adjustment for me to understand and accept that I am not my target audience. I’ve priced myself out of my own fixtures (at least at this point in my life); it’s a funny phenomenon and I think a reality for many up-and-coming artists/designers.
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences that you learned from or that helped you improve your business or the way you work?
Failures in business are tough to decipher because they typically lead to a new idea, lesson learned and, ultimately, positive solutions. On the technical side, porcelain is a very finicky clay body that requires precise recipes, firing times, etc. I’ve had my fair share of cracking and warping. It would be virtually impossible not to.
If you were magically given 3 more hours per day, what would you do with them?
I would devote them to the things that tend to get shafted due to work and time in the studio: sleep, cooking at home, exercising, etc.
What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?
My savings account. I’ve invested in myself and immerLit with all I’ve got — not only monetarily, but mentally and emotionally, too. I continue to have faith (99.9% of the time) that the investment will ultimately be worth the sacrifice.
Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your business experiences?
I still feel that each and every order, no matter how big or small, is a great success. Someone is choosing something that I created as a permanent fixture in their home. Considering the multitude of beautiful lighting fixtures out there, it’s pretty incredible. immerLit has also recently been accepted into a trade show in early 2016, where I’ll debut my first collection of large-scale fixtures. I didn’t think I’d be in this position only two years in!
What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
I would just recommend never counting anyone (acquaintances/friends/family/friends of friends) out. I’m always surprised by the wealth of knowledge and connections people are willing to share if you ask. Help is essential to starting any business, and if you can get it for free (or buying someone lunch or a cup of coffee), then why not?
Has failing at something or quitting ever led to success for you? Walk us through that.
I spent much of my childhood and into my teens playing the piano as an extracurricular activity. I never chose to practice on my own; I preferred to spend my time in other ways, eventually stopped lessons and soon after stopped playing altogether. At the time, this was a great success in my eyes, I had more time for friends, dance classes etc. But the real success came as a surprise years later. What I neglected to consider at the time was how I might feel about not being able to play the piano in the future. I wish I had never stopped playing; I think about it often. This serves as a reminder to never discount the future value of present efforts, an idea that remains in the back of my mind during any important decision-making.
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
1. The ability to separate yourself a bit from your creative work. It can become a hinderance to further success when you can no longer look at your work with an objective eye. This is always easier said than done.
2. Everything cannot be planned and accounted for beforehand. No matter how meticulous you and your team are in crossing all t’s and dotting all i’s, unexpected problems and curveballs will arise.
3. How hard it actually is. Owning a small business can be romanticized in the many success stories we hear about. Nothing can truly prepare you for the roller coaster that is creative entrepreneurship. Self-discipline and learning how to deal with rejection are key.
What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious?
The hardest thing I’ve encountered has been pricing. While the market can help dictate a price range (only to a certain degree), it is up to you to decide on a product’s price tag. This is a much harder job when your product is a custom, one-of-a-kind piece of functional art. Aside from assuring that you’re covering material costs, you must consider your time (labor), among other things. How do you charge yourself? By the hour? At the same hourly rate as a high-paid lawyer? At minimum wage? And then how do you determine your markup? It’s an evolving process and one that I think many creative entrepreneurs struggle with (at least in the beginning).