Throughout the long journey to hand-screenprinting her own collection of textiles, Ohio-based designer Andrea Whalen “wanted to create a line that comes with a history already built-in — a story of the hands that drew, carved, and placed every motif.” With the advent of Internet inspiration and commerce, Andrea created the first patterns as Domesticate, her own label at on-demand fabric, wallpaper, and gift wrap producer, Spoonflower. Amazed that the product of her creative passion sold well on the site to a widespread clientele, Andrea set out to build an additional business entirely her own. Virginia Kraft, named for Andrea’s grandmother who taught her that “good things… take time and love to create… all the best things do,” allows the entrepreneur to take part in all aspects of the operation, including necessary downtime during which she explores and seeks inspiration. “Coming up with new ideas is my favorite part!” Andrea shares. “I had to stop seeing it as a luxury and more of a necessity.”
To people who have many ideas and no clear indication of where to start, she advises choosing “what you’d like to wake up and get to do every day.” For her, that thing is designing fabric. “It’s this energy inside me that I’ve been given to nurture and explore for whatever reason… and I send it off to become a part of people’s homes and lives.” —Annie
Photography by Andrea Whalen
Why did you decide to start your own business?
The absolute freedom to use my time, creativity, energy, and resources to explore my passions. I’ve loved art and creating since I was a kid, but I never dreamt of a career in fabric design until about 11 years ago. I was on bed rest with my second child and spent a lot of time on blogs (which were a completely new concept to me then). It was actually on Design*Sponge where I read about a fabric designer and thought, “That’s someone’s job?! How do I get to do THAT?!” I single-mindedly set out to become a fabric designer. Even though working for a large company was something I would’ve considered, I always envisioned having my own line and working for myself. After working so many different types of jobs, being able to create my own work environment really appealed to me.
When you first decided to start your own business, how did you define what it would be?
I didn’t set out to define it, at least not in the beginning stages. I just wanted to create. Opportunity came to me when I read about Spoonflower, a digital print-on-demand fabric company. They began beta testing in 2008 and I immediately signed up. It was the best way to get my work out there without any risk – no overhead, no commitment – just my time. I really had no idea if anything would sell. That first sale I earned about $1.75 (10% of the sale price) and I was ecstatic that anyone would want to spend any amount of money on something I created. Domesticate was born and continued to grow as Spoonflower reached more people. I began to get noticed by interior designers and bloggers, and found that I loved working with them — I think because they were an endless source of inspiration and creativity. They got my vision for what I was making and respected the process.
For a while, Domesticate entirely filled my need to create, but I realized it represents only one side of my aesthetic. I was also on the computer all the time, especially with added freelance work, and I missed creating with my hands. I wanted something that was more “me” and how I actually lived at home. I wanted to be involved in the entire process, which I knew would mean more risk — especially financially — but the payoff would be greater in all aspects. I met with a business coach, Jess Lively, who was instrumental in helping me figure out and edit my ideas. She was the one who said I should name the business after my grandmother, Virginia Kraft, when I told her how much she and all the incredible women in my family helped to shape me. I wanted this line to be about more than creating beautiful fabric, so I started The Virginia Kraft Fund, which will help kids in my area participate in extracurricular activities, and perhaps with school necessities, that their families can’t afford. I will always want any business I own to give back in some way.
I guess, in time, it started to define itself. I still have visions of adding other things to my lineup — wallpaper, a retail store, even furniture — and I’m currently working on another new line that will be hand-screenprinted and hit the higher-end market. For now, I wake up every morning wanting to design fabric, so I’m sticking with that. I actually dream about fabric designs! If someone has a lot of ideas and doesn’t know where to begin, I say go with that — what you’d like to wake up and get to do every day. (I can thank my dad for that lesson. Thanks, Pop.)
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
One of the best things I heard was to really get a grasp on my target customer — all the details. I made up a muse in my mind and wrote a whole story for her: she’s late twenties/early thirties, still single but looking forward to a family. She grew up in the Midwest but inherited an older country home from a great aunt who traveled the world. She gets to mix her relaxed Midwestern aesthetic with her aunt’s global finds. I’ve also left room for her to evolve, as I’m sure the company will. Perhaps she has kids, then she’ll definitely need to decorate their rooms (which of course I’m working on, too). It may sound silly to get that involved with it, but it’s something I really enjoy thinking about. Maybe she’ll do some traveling of her own and that will influence the way she lives at home as well.
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
Bootstrapping! I had some money saved to hire someone to create a logo and website, but everything else took time. I ordered supplies as I received money from the other line. Thankfully, Domesticate is fairly passive income — which is a great gig if you can get it — so once I hand the funds, I at least had some time to work on things. I was always envious of other people who seemed to go from idea to launching in a few months. It took me 18 months from concept to launch.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
I can’t do it all myself, not if I want to grow. It’s really hard for me to ask for help, which is strange because I enjoy collaboration. Maybe I hate admitting that I need help. I’ve always enjoyed learning every aspect about any job, and I want to be involved and understand what’s happening in my own company, but I literally do not have time to do everything that needs to be done. I would never see my family. Or sleep.
Also, it’s okay to take the advice of friends and family, but ultimately you have to listen to your gut.
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experience?
I’m a big believer in letting things grow organically, but I listened to other people who were telling me I should be selling products when I wasn’t ready. It wasn’t a disaster, but it wasted my time and money and I really hate that. Again, listen to your gut! It’s okay to be nervous about taking the next step, but you should at least be excited at the prospect.
I take failures as stepping stones. I let them elevate what I do and how I do it. It can absolutely be discouraging, but I try to be grateful for having learned what not to do, and learning is never a bad thing!
What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?
Creative time. I’ve started trying to schedule at least one day a week to just sketch and find new inspiration, even if that’s just getting out of the house (where my studio is) and going for a walk, or shopping at a favorite vintage store. It used to make me really anxious to take this time, almost like I was slacking off or something, but now I realize how important it is to the future of the company, not to mention my peace of mind. Coming up with new ideas is my favorite part! I had to stop seeing it as a luxury and more of a necessity.
Can you name your greatest success in your business experience?
The greatest tangible success so far was being featured in the July/August 2015 issue of House Beautiful. It was such a surreal moment and I’m so grateful for it! Sharing space in the same publication as some of my favorite designers is a dream come true.
I also recently hired someone to help me a few hours a week, though I’m wanting to expand her role in the future, as she’s pretty amazing. Finding someone that can do the work, who is also honest and offers a different perspective, is definitely a success.
Other than that, I try to allow myself to celebrate the smaller victories, too, whether it’s executing a new design or completing an order ahead of schedule. It keeps me motivated. Just being grateful for getting up every morning and doing what I love while getting paid for it is a great success!
What business books and resources would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
I love A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, by Daniel H. Pink. It was sort of like a pat on the back for my childhood self who spent so much time being creative.
As so many creative types are, I tend to hunker down with my introverted ways where I’m comfortable. Great for creating but not so much for the business side of things. How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie is really a lot of common sense information, but I find that reading it helps me to keep those lessons on my mind when I’m dealing with others.
I love podcasts (especially good while doing creative work) and Jess Lively’s series, The Lively Show, has some of the best. The one with ban.do founder Jen Gotch is a favorite. I’m also just getting into Todd Henry’s podcasts and his books are next on my list.
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
1. Find a support system, whether that’s friends, family, or a group of entrepreneurs. I’ve been blessed with all three and I owe much of my success to them.
2. Ask yourself the “whys” first and let the “hows” come later. Starting and running a business is deeply rewarding, but it’s not easy. You’ll have those moments where you’ll need to remind yourself why you’re doing this.
3. Make it personal. I hate it when people say “you are not your work.” I absolutely AM my work, but my work isn’t just about making things to sell. My work represents my passion and creativity, my love and gratitude, my past and future, my time spent away from family; it’s this energy inside me that I’ve been given to nurture and explore for whatever reason — but it is absolutely me, and I send it off to become a part of people’s homes and lives. My work is authentic and I urge anyone starting a business to make theirs authentic, too. Oprah moment over ;)