Life & BusinessQ&A

Q&A: Celebrating Creative Businesses in Erin Austen Abbott’s How to Make It

by Kelli Kehler

Owning a creative business and living a life centered around an artistic trade is a romantic notion, a dream for many who yearn to make one-of-a-kind goods with their hands. But to really make it as a creative entrepreneur is not an easy feat, and as a business with untraditional practices and methods, the path to success inevitably comes with its own unique set of challenges.

Design*Sponge’s own Erin Austen Abbott knows the tales of creative makers through and through — after opening her Oxford, MS shop Amelia in 2009, she became enamored with the stories of the makers whose goods she stocked on her shelves. She continued to admire and document the journeys of these small businesses through an Instagram series over the years, and Erin spent most of 2015 traveling the country to photograph and interview 25 of the creative industry’s successful business owners to write her newly released book, How to Make It: 25 Makers Share The Secrets to Building a Creative Business.

Today Erin is sharing with us about commonalities she’s observed in creative entrepreneurs, what she learned from the trials of these makers, and what touring with bands and selling merchandise has to do with all of it. —Kelli

Photography by Erin Austen Abbott

Image above: A scene from the workspace of Tennessee-based handmade ceramics shop Paper & Clay.

Design*Sponge: Your relationship with makers seems to have started with your shop, Amelia. What initially drew you to small businesses and creatives who make unique products, and how did that fuel your desire to start your own retail venture?

Erin: For me, it’s always been about the hunt. I used to tour with bands, doing their merchandise, and I would always look for shops in each town where I was working that sold items that no one else had. Handmade goods that I couldn’t find anywhere else. When I was looking to get off the road and just be home, opening up a shop like the one I was always looking for felt like the most logical next step.

Image above: Owner of Paper & Clay, Brit McDaniel spins one of her beautiful ceramic pieces to life. 

How did the process come about to write your own book about makers?

Back in 2011, I started a series on my Instagram called Studio Stories. It was a peek into the day and processes of the artists that I stocked at Amelia. I did that series up until the end of 2015, but sold the concept of the series to Chronicle Books in 2014. I took all of 2015 to travel the country and photograph and write How To Make It.

Images above: A wall of vibrant embroidery threads and below, Stephanie Housley, founder of embroidery business Coral & Tusk.

What's the biggest lesson you learned in making a book come to life?

I think the biggest lesson for me was I can’t do it all. I think my shop suffered while I was gone so much. I’m just a small business owner and couldn’t afford to keep the shop open and buy new merchandise all the time while I was gone. So I went on a buying hold for a year, which, in retail, can hurt your sales. I would like to write more books and have now taken measures in my business to allow myself to do both seamlessly. This meant me moving to a different location and putting more of a focus on the online store side of my business. I now have an office in my new space, which is bigger than the 187 square feet I was in before. I can write during shop hours, and pause when people stop in. I didn’t have the space to do that before and I would wake at 4 am to write, work all day, then write again until 9:30 at night.

I am now in a space that has room for passive income, so I don’t have to be in a spot that depends on foot traffic. I’m also starting a new way of shopping at Amelia — in August 2017 — when I’ll introduce a new themed, curated collection every two months of limited edition goods, often items that I’ve worked to design with the makers directly. This will bring new items to the shop all the time, but once the buying is done, I can spend time writing rather than always looking for new goods and keeping up with restocking, etc.

Image above: Illustrator, printmaker and surface designer Jen Hewett working in her studio. 

What's the most powerful takeaway or overall theme you absorbed from the creatives you feature in your book?

Don’t be scared to outsource if something is not your strong suit. There’s no shame in needing help and asking for it. It only helps you to bring a strong product to the market. Also, if you are just starting out, or still in school, take a business course. Every single artist in the book mentioned that they wish they had taken business courses or that their art degree made it mandatory to take at least one course in business. They felt that they would thrive more with a little information in that department.

Image above: Ephemera and daily work tools in the studio of artist Kate Roebuck.

In all your experiences with makers and creative types over the years, have you noticed any common personality traits or themes that these types of business owners seem to possess?

All the most successful makers are very organized or hire someone that is organized to help them manage. Organization seemed to follow suit with each artist as something that would derail their business without.

Image above: A snapshot of weaver Maryanne Moodie‘s trusted materials. 

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