Dolan of dolangeiman claims to be a no B.S. kind of guy. Today he outlines his creative journey toward selling his artwork as a full-time job, through which he can support himself and his fiancé, save money for retirement, and have adequate business and health insurance. Dolan worked in various positions after college, including an entertainment host job at a nightspot in Chicago, before meeting his fiancé and working together to formulate a business plan for his art career. Keep reading to find out why Dolan’s task lists make him feel sorry for his future children, why an email newsletter is the cornerstone to his marketing, and how a daily dose of chocolate fits into this recipe for success.
How did you originally get into the business of making things?
To answer this question, I’m going to drop you in the middle of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia 25 years ago. You will see a large, brick colonial farmhouse built in 1796. If you look closely at the bricks, as I did on that day, you would notice that they contain small bits of quartz, gravel, rock and shell. My mother told me that 200 years ago, women and men dug deep into the creek, pulled up large chunks of thick muddy clay, packed the clay into rectangles and then put them into a large oven to create bricks. I couldn’t comprehend this type of creating entirely, but something ignited inside me and I became intensely interested in making something, anything. That summer, and many summers thereafter, my mother and I smashed poke berries in big horse troughs, dipped T-shirts and skirts in the purple brine to create our own dyed fabrics and constructed wooden mouse-trap-style games out of old wood scraps. My mother was never at a loss for new activities.
When I was a little older, she started her own art career as a watercolor artist. She participated in art fairs around the state, and through her sales she was able to put me through college — and suggested I study art. During school, when I needed money, the first thing that came to my mind was “What can I make to sell?” I relied on my creativity because it was the one thing I possessed that set me apart from others. After college, I switched gears a lot but always found avenues to sell artwork, whether on the street or in a gallery or at a friend’s office over a lunch break. I learned that if I treated my artwork as a business, I could figure out formulas for selling and creating that would last longer than a few months. And here I am!
Tell us about your previous working situation.
I have had a sundry of work experiences, but my most recent job was working at a club in downtown Chicago. I needed cash and I needed it badly. I was selling art at a few art fairs, but I was still not connected with the right people — this was before Etsy and the blogosphere. So I thought, “Where can I work where I can meet people and tell them about my art in a way that doesn’t seem underhanded?” The natural answer, of course, was in the realm of nightlife. After I was hired as an entertainment host, my manager said, “Okay, here’s what the boss wants you to do: show up on time, dress like a crazy artist, be creative, and make the guests happy.” Done. The first day of my job I dressed in drag. The next night I created an outfit that was part pirate, part geisha, and the theme changed every night — people loved it. After a while, though, the long nights started to wear me down, and I wasn’t spending enough time with my fiancé and art business partner, Ali. Our relationship was slipping and just about the time we were beginning to struggle, a friend of mine showed up looking for a couch to crash on. He happened to be a web designer, so we “hired” him to design and code a website for us in exchange for room and board. With the website creation and launch we were able start down a more direct path with my artwork, leaving the entertainment job behind.
When you first started selling on Etsy, did you have dreams or goals of eventually quitting your day job?
Well, when I first started selling on Etsy I had just shifted my focus from selling my clothing line (Rescued Clothing) and was trying to feel out the market for my print work. I was still heavily participating in art fairs and wanted to see if I could travel less and spend more time creating. I had dabbled in e-commerce before, but I thought Etsy would provide a more structured and trusted marketplace for my customers. I also wanted to connect with a larger audience — so when I sold my first print to Australia, I was ecstatic! A few months later, I was contacted by Elle Girl Korea and then Glamour Netherlands, both interested in promoting my work. These things never would have happened if I hadn’t made a shop on Etsy.
Did you do anything to prepare ahead of time? Feel free to give us the nitty gritty business details.
Ali and I did develop a business plan for everything we are doing today. It wasn’t a formal plan that you’d take to the bank to request a loan, but we did define a vision and the different ways we could use my creativity to make money. I did a lot of odd jobs like functional shelving using my Rescued Wood Construction aesthetic and creating small collages for party favors, as well as the clothing line I mentioned before. Over time, we started selling enough artwork that we could focus our operations on the artwork business. Ali also worked full time, then part time and finally one day a week with an art non-profit to help supplement our income. During this period of defining and growing our business, Ali also did a tremendous amount of reading and research, digging into all sorts of business models. When you’re first starting out, it’s helpful to join the newsletters, read the blogs, and follow the tweets of all the artists and businesses that you find inspirational.
What are the most effective ways you have promoted and marketed your Etsy business? What’s your best marketing tip?
We try to drive most of the traffic to our Etsy shop via our various websites (dolangeiman.com, Facebook, Twitter, etc). Each site is a piece in an interconnected marketing plan, circulating traffic around to each of our different online spokes. We also drive a lot of traffic to the shop by way of including our Etsy shop URL in addition to our main website on the majority of our print collateral. We distribute thousands of postcards at art fairs each year and each card includes instructions for shopping online.
As far as sales go, our best marketing tip is to distribute an email newsletter. This has been the cornerstone of our marketing plan for a long time. Unfortunately, sporadic text-based email newsletters just don’t cut it these days. Thankfully, there are a lot of software providers that cater to creative types and small business owners. We work with Patron Technology — their niche is arts, non-profits and creative businesses and they offer many e-marketing resources for newcomers.
What have you found to be an unsuccessful promotion?
Any time anyone comes to me with a proposal that reads like this I am dubious: “We’d love to have your art. The pay isn’t great, but you’ll get great exposure and we’ll heavily promote your work.” Be wary of these kinds of promotional deals. Unless it’s for your mom’s church group or a really large company with the clout to back it, don’t give your creativity away for free.
Walk us through your typical workday.
- 7 a.m. My alarm sounds (or pre-alarm at 6:00 – 6:30 by our cat, Racine).
- Make some hot tea (I stopped drinking caffeine a year ago per the doctor’s orders. (“You say you get these panic attacks after ten cups of coffee, huh?”)
- Get dressed and eat some cereal or bacon and eggs. I love bacon.
- Head to the studio, which is five minutes away. We saved our pennies so we could eventually separate church and state, and I’ve been living in an apartment away from my studio for a few years now. I love it.
- 8:30 a.m. If any orders came in the previous day, I take this time to package those and take them to FedEx for shipping. I find I am a little more alert in the a.m. and less likely to send a package to New Zealand that is marked for New Jersey. (It has happened. Somewhere in the great mail room in the sky there is a piece of art waiting for a home.)
- 9:30 a.m. I am already started on a project or my task list for the day. Ali creates wonderful task lists — I already feel sorry for our children, should we ever have them. A list of chores is one thing, but a typed, single-spaced document with a list of jobs and their corresponding time limits is a totally different force to contend with.
- 12:00 p.m. By noon, I am knee-deep in a pile of paintings or collages. I usually have several projects going at once. Right now, for example, I am working on three commissions, five small paintings and putting the finishing touches on six other pieces. Working this way helps me to stay focused on the larger picture and also keeps me from getting burnt-out. If I start to lose focus on a piece or if it’s just frustrating me, instead of painting over it I will move on to another piece and then come back to the other later.
- 12:00 – 2:00 p.m. Lunch happens at some point during this time. Sometimes Ali and I will have time during lunch to start discussing recent phone calls or emails, but usually I am just hungry and eat like a wild animal. It’s kind of like high school in that I try to scarf down everything in fifteen minutes and then rush to the next class, or in my case, the next painting.
- 2:15 p.m. After lunch Ali and I go over any pertinent emails, like interviews or client questions, or larger items on the task line. This is also where I contemplate making a run for chocolate.
- 3:15 p.m. I get back from the corner store where I have just overdosed on chocolate bars. Then I dive into some emails.
- 4:00 – 9:00 p.m. By this time I am ready for my second wind. This is when I try to work on larger artwork and get started on pieces for the next day or two, allowing them to dry for the next day. This is also when I try to find some seriously upbeat music to play. If I can get in a groove and be left alone for these few hours of the day, I can usually knock out a lot of work.
- 8:00 – 11:00 p.m. Dinner happens sometime in this time range, it fluctuates. I don’t like to stop for anything when I am on a roll, but sometimes a juicy BBQ sandwich just calls to me.
- 12:00 a.m. I try to be in bed by midnight these days. Once the art fair season rolls around, less sleep happens, so I try to stock up when I can. Being in bed by midnight allows me an hour or two of reading before Racine eventually crawls up and bites me on the nose to tell me it’s time to go to sleep.
What do you enjoy most about not having a day job? Is there anything you miss?
Most of my fans and peers know me as a straight shooter, so I’m not going to B.S. the readers here. Working for myself is no joke. For me to succeed in the way I want to — that is, selling enough of my artwork to support myself and my fiancé, save money for retirement each month, and have adequate business and health insurance — I have to work each and every day. This is not a fantasy world of little butterflies and crocheted kittens (well, not always). It’s a brutal business and can be a little harrowing at times. I love it, but it’s definitely not a cake walk.
When Etsy came along, Ali and I did back flips because we knew that a ton of the hard work was being done for us. How else can you get your art in front of hundreds of thousands of people all over the world and have this work be for sale in a trusted marketplace for any consumer to browse through? It’s brilliant. And it works while you sleep, which I love, because I have already tried to work while I sleep with no great success. I guess to revisit the question, the part I enjoy most about not having to work for someone else is knowing that all the hard work I am doing is actually for a purpose and that everything I work on has a clear result.
What’s the hardest part about running your own business?
The most difficult part of running my own business is learning how to take a break. It’s crucial for the creative mind to step away from the art realm every now and then and get refueled. For me, down time means convening with nature, being outside. In Chicago, it’s a little hard to be outside all of the time so I have to find other methods of relaxing. I’m doing yoga now and going to more events around town, but it’s really hard to beat a mountain stream for some deep meditation.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself? What advice would you give someone else?
I think if I went back in time I would probably tell myself to invent Etsy. Also I would probably tell myself to eat more bacon and go fishing more — which, honestly, is still sound advice for me today. As far as real business advice, I would say find something you really enjoy doing because that will outlast all of the hurdles and obstacles in your life and, at the end of the day, will be meaningful. It’s a proven fact that if you enjoy what you do you will be more efficient and more productive. Etsy has a gazillion Forum posts and newsletters to help you along the way. And you can always email me, as well. Yes, I do have a consulting fee, but I am willing to reduce the rate for gifts of chocolate.
What goals do you wish to accomplish in the coming year for your Etsy business?
I’d like to find a way to bring larger clients to my Etsy shop and convince them that it’s okay to spend $3,000 buying artwork via Etsy, like they do at art fairs. If I can convince my clients to purchase my larger works from my online shop then I will travel less and be able to focus more on new projects and new creative avenues.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I haven’t really introduced Ali yet, formally, and I’d like to take this opportunity to do that. Ali and I met in December 2002. I had been in Chicago for a few weeks and she somehow tracked me down and threw her woman snare on me. Actually, she walked into my space and asked me about my business plan and that woke me up from my day-to-day artist life. She taught me how to plan for the future, which was a novel concept to me, but one that has allowed me to grow consistently each year. I am aware that many of your readers can’t necessarily go out and grab a business partner like that, so I would encourage them to do a few things:
- First, develop a schedule that allows time for both business and creative development. Easier said than done, I know, but it’s invaluable to your success.
- Second, network with the active online community of creators. I think most members of the Etsy community are very open and approachable when it comes to talking shop, often trading insights into different areas of expertise.
- Third, be a voracious reader. Ali taught herself everything about arts administration and business development just by reading and then trying things out. Bookmark or print articles and carry them with you everywhere; you’ll find a few minutes in each day to squeeze it in.
- Lastly, work your tail off, but also remember to take a step back from everything once in a while. Go for a hike, do some yoga, spend the day cooking, whatever. It’s amazing how many times we’ve found ourselves going 100 miles an hour on something only to step back, reflect, and realize we need to change our direction. This perspective is not always easy to obtain so make sure you occasionally let your mind go to a place where new ideas and direction can float to the forefront.
Thanks to Dolan for sharing his story. You can see some of Dolan‘s beautiful work in the Related Items. Check out previous Quit Your Day Job posts here.