Welcome to our fairly new Etsy Interview Series! After attending Renegade Craft Fair Chicago in December 2014, I just HAD to get to know some of the wonderful designers! Lucky for you, I’ve spoken with many designers, Etsy shop owners, handmade business owners and more. Get ready to learn from the best folks!
Today we get to meet Sadie Solomon from EmmieBean!
What is it like running a website and an Etsy store?
It’s been a dream to run my own business and make a living doing something I love. Etsy has been great. Back in 2009 when I was first starting out, Etsy definitely helped me get my business off the ground. It offered me a way to reach a wider audience all over the world that I never would have been able to work with otherwise. When I shipped my first portrait to Mumbai, and then Dublin, and then Hong Kong, it hit me how broad Etsy’s reach was. I will say that Etsy has changed a little bit over the years as millions of people have joined and the site has grown and changed. It used to feel like this tiny community, probably because nobody had really heard of it (haha!), but you’d recognize other sellers on the front page and in the same treasuries as you, and share tips and there was sort of this exciting energy about it all. Not all that different than the way indie handmade markets feel today. Etsy is so big now that it doesn’t quite have that same feel, so in 2014 I decided to expand and start my own website with a cleaner, easier-to-use interface. It’s worked really well for me having my own website, which doesn’t require my customers to log into Etsy when they want to buy something from me. I also have a lot more control over the look and layout of the entire site, which is important as a business owner and a creative person. So I’d say the bonus of Etsy is the wide reach, but the bonus of having your own site is the control over form and function.
What are the challenges of doing commission pieces?
Like any work that involves back-and-forth between the artist and client, it’s a given that you won’t always create something that is exactly what the customer imagined, and they’ll often ask for small changes. I realized this after the first dozen or so illustrations, and decided to work that time for customer feedback and edits into the timeline for each commissioned piece. I’d really recommend that to anyone doing commissioned work. Part of what makes it so fun is the interactive element of it. You’ll send the customer a first version, they’ll ask for a tweak to someone’s hair, or a minor change to the background, and you end up creating exactly what they had in mind. In your mind, sometimes it ends up better than the original because of the suggestions, and sometimes it doesn’t, but you’ve ended up making the artistic process feel democratic. I personally prefer that, over working quietly in a studio on my own work, with no feedback or dialogue between myself and the person who’s going to be purchasing my work. I’ve never really been entirely comfortable with the notion of fine art because I feel like you don’t have the same reach and it’s not as financially accessible to the rest of the population. People often ask me why I don’t charge more for each piece, and honestly, a lot of it is not wanting to remove a huge percentage of my customers who often have some of the more interesting photographs to work on. I like doing work that isn’t exclusive so my customer base stays diverse.
What is your favorite part about doing commission pieces?
I love that the subject matter is always different. Each photograph offers a new challenge, a new color palette, a new opportunity to connect with a different customer and create something that will hopefully be meaningful in their life. I definitely don’t take for granted the fact that I get to create art that someone might be looking at every day, or that they’ll surprise a friend with, or that captures someone or something that means a great deal to them. It’s a really unique bond I end up sharing with each customer. There’s nothing that makes me happier than having someone come up to me at a craft show, remind me of the piece I did for them, and tell me it’s brought them joy. I feel really lucky that anyone would want something I made to be a part of their lives like that.
How did you develop your style?
I worked on a series of illustrations in college that were based on vintage photographs of a dear friend, now my mother-in-law. She lived this amazing life in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 70s and had 500+ slides of her as a child and teenager that were so unique, with retro colors and intricate, quirky outfits. There was this shot of her in a trailer park holding a raccoon on a leash that really struck me as one of the funniest and more bizarre scenarios I’d ever seen and I wanted to pay homage to it. I think I secretly wanted to be a part of that world, so I developed a style and color palette that embodied her experience with all of these strange, funny people and places. I showed them at a gallery and got a good response, so I decided to expand that style to accommodate other people’s quirky, odd vintage photos. After several years of working on commissioned pieces of old polaroids and film photos, I realized it’s really hard to see the kind of detail in those old degraded shots you need to really draw lifelike portraits. They were all coming out sort of amateurish and cartoonish, which I had originally liked, but decided didn’t serve the direction I wanted to go in. So now I do less vintage photos, and more current shots taken in the last 10 years, but I definitely still prefer the quirkier, funny types of photographs and bring that original vintage color palette to these more modern moments. Tomato red, light aqua blue, mustard yellow, pistachio green… I just love those 1960s and 1970s colors you might have seen on an old sofa, stove or fridge.
What inspires you?
All of the makers I work with at the indie craft fairs, and the handmade movement. There is an entire generation of creative people making things with their hands, selling their own wares, and blazing their own trails. We’re like a bunch of traveling gypsies, and everyone is so excited to be doing what we’re doing. It’s a contagious, fun atmosphere and I’ve met so many great people doing this.
What are three keys to your success as a small business owner?
Making lists, always finding things I can improve, and not accepting failure as an option.
What has been your biggest struggle as a small business owner?
Probably not having coworkers. While I do a lot of craft fairs and have a group of “coworkers” via those, it is definitely hard sometimes not having the normal water cooler conversations on a daily basis. I make an effort to stay connected with maker friends via Instagram, and always have coffee or lunch with my other self-employed friends throughout the week so I have other “work” interactions. I also advise a group of student artists at the University on Fridays, which gets me out of the studio and talking about art.
Why did you go from hobby to business, or was business always your goal?
I started out part-time, working on my Etsy orders at night and on weekends after my day job as a Graphic Designer. After a few years of doing this, I had enough orders flowing in that I was able to quit my day job and move to full-time. I always knew that I wanted to make a living doing something that was creative, but I don’t know that I specifically planned to run my own business. I was studying Graphic Design in college and designing an Arts zine, and figured I would go into Editorial Design once I graduated. But at the time, before the resurgence of magazines that’s happened in the last couple years, magazines and newspapers were folding left and right and it didn’t seem like the wisest career move. My friends and I discussed creating our own magazine and wrote out a business plan, but in the end we ended up getting pulled in different directions for work. I had been developing my style in illustration while in college, and opened an Etsy shop on a whim, and it sort of took off. I got really lucky with a few unexpected features on sites like Apartment Therapy and MSNBC’s TODAY, and that sort of helped get the word out.
What’s next for EmmieBean?
I set a few goals every year for the business, and the goal for 2015 is to focus more on social media. I’m terrible at it! I think as small business owners we tend to get so busy with the day to day that certain things have to get deprioritized. I’ve been so busy with orders that I have never really given my Instagram or Facebook pages the love they deserve. I see some of my maker friends putting out these amazing Instagram photos every day and I keep telling myself I need to get my butt in gear… So hopefully 2015 is the year for that! 2013 was the year of figuring out which handmade marketplaces were best for EmmieBean, 2014 was the year of the new website, and 2015 will be the year I finally figure out the secret to successful social media management (I hope!).
Any tips for following your dreams?
Be optimistic and hopeful about the future, plan as much as you can, test out the waters at nights and on weekends with your idea while you have the income of a day job and if you’re successful, take the leap! Right now is a great, exciting time for DIYers and handmade makers because people want to buy local and support smaller, American-made businesses. It’s a TON of work, and you’ll end up having to work a lot of weekends. Over the holidays your friends and family will wonder if you ran away and joined the circus because they haven’t seen you for two months, but it’s worth it for the satisfaction of building something with your own two hands and being your own ringleader.