Kathy, the one woman powerhouse behind thedreamygiraffe, quit her day job without really having a plan B. While living off of the savings she had in mind for a down payment on a house, she discovered that her paintings were a way to bring in additional income while doing what she loved. Not too long after that, she found Etsy as a platform to showcase her work and realized she wouldn’t need to return to a conventional day job to stay on her feet.
Your full time selling experience on Etsy is what some may consider “backwards”. Can you give us a little back story on how you found your success on Etsy to empower your full time art career?
My story is indeed a bit backwards! Most of the time, you hear about people working 9 to 5s and growing their businesses slowly but steadily in the afternoons and on weekends until one day, maybe even years later, they’re successful enough can say “I quit!” and walk away from their day job. My story actually began with “I quit”…and at the time, I really had no intentions of making a living as an artist. First, I have to explain that I am not a girl who flies by the seat of her pants. I am not Miss Spontaneous. I am a girl who like to have a Plan C in case Plan B doesn’t cut it.
I worked as a legal assistant at a law firm and though I’d once really liked my job, over time I’d become completely miserable there. The phrase “emotional basket case” probably wouldn’t be too much of a exaggeration. One day, in August of 2005, my boss and I had been having a conversation and he said, “I think that’s it, unless you have anything to add?” And I knew, at that moment, I couldn’t be there for another minute and I found myself saying that I did have something to add and when he asked what it was, I said, “I quit.”
I had no Plan C. No Plan B. I actually was a bit in shock, I think: I just quit my job. Oh, my goodness: I just quit my job. Somehow, in life, things tend to happen just when they’re supposed to, though, and I can honestly say, had I not quit at a different time, things would’ve been totally different. Had I quit two months earlier or six months later, I probably would’ve, after saying “I quit”, immediately spiffed up my resume, sent it out to a dozen potential employers, and right now, at 6:30 a.m. on a Monday morning, I’d be getting ready to go in for another week at the office. But, when I quit, my sister, who lives two and a half hours away, happened to be very pregnant. So, I decided to take a two week vacation and put off job-hunting until after my first niece was born in September. While waiting for Kaylee to arrive, I discovered little collectible works of art called ACEOs (Art Cards Editions & Originals) being created and sold on an auction site. ACEOs were hugely popular at the time and some people were selling these 2.5″ x 3.5″ pieces for a hundred dollars or more each. So, I bought a set of Prismacolor colored pencils and did a few ACEOs. And then a few more. And I put them up for sale…and people bid! People were willing to pay me for them!
After Kaylee’s birth, my sister had some complications and I didn’t have a day job to hurry back to, so I was able to be there for her and that meant so much to me. I loved that freedom and wasn’t ready to give it up yet. So I decided, hey, I’ve made a little bit of money selling ACEOs. Maybe I could try selling my other art, too. This whole new world that I hadn’t even realized was possible — wait, people can actually make a living as artists?!?! — appeared. And I wanted to explore it. I didn’t want to close the door on it. So, I decided I’d give it four months or so, until the first of the year, and see what happened. And, of course, four months passed, and I couldn’t give up yet, so I decided to give it a couple more. Though Etsy actually was launched about the same time I quit my day job, it was almost a full year, June of 2006, before I discovered Etsy and it was definitely a turning point for me. Before Etsy, I was floundering and grasping at straws. I honestly didn’t have much of a clue what I was doing. But I was determined that somehow I was going to make this work. Without Etsy, that wouldn’t have happened.
Did you have savings? How were you doing financially?
I was preparing, but a career as an artist was not what I was preparing for. I was very, very fortunate that I had been very frugal while working that “real job”. I was actually scrimping and squirreling away every cent to be able to buy a house one day. When I first started, I truly had no income coming in. I’m single, so it was just me, the sole breadwinner — and I wasn’t winning much bread! The first two years, I mostly lived off my savings account. I decided to trade in my dream of that little house with a white picket fence for something else, for this. To be able to do what I love for a living. And it was worth it. I look at it this way: I could possibly maybe be a homeowner by now. But I’d be living in that house truly unhappy. It’ll be a long while now before I can buy that house…but, though I may not own it, I have a roof over my head and I’m happy.
How long were you selling on Etsy before you realized you would not need to go back to a day job?
I was actually selling on Etsy a year before my sales became regular and consistent enough where it went from “I’m going to make this work” to “Hey, wait a minute…This IS working.” It would’ve happened a lot quicker for me, I think, but I was under the same assumption I see a lot of new sellers making: That all you have to do is list it and people will buy it. You just make art and it’ll sell! Wheee!
Once I realized that there’s a lot more to it than that, that the sales don’t just come rolling in…once I started doing more than just making the art and sitting back and waiting…then things started happening. I’d been having to make a trip at the end of every month to the bank, to transfer money from my savings account to my checking, to pay the next month’s bills. I kept saying my ultimate goal would be to NOT have to make that trip anymore, to finally, actually make the money each month to pay for the next month’s bills without having to dip into my savings account. And it took a while…but I got to that point!
What are the most effective ways you have promoted and marketed your Etsy busines? What’s you’re best marketing tip?
Honestly, from November of 2006 to August of this year, renewing multiple times a day was what worked best for me and it was pretty much the only promotion I did. However, that’s become an ineffective strategy for me recently. I think it’s still a valuable tool, to keep your shop fresh and from being at the bottom of search results, but it no longer garners the additional views it once did. Since renewing isn’t working as well as it used to, I’m in the process of revamping my marketing strategies and finding what will work best for me now…but my best marketing tip is to find what works for YOU. Not every promotional tool will be effective for every shop. It disheartens me when I see people say “This absolutely doesn’t work!” or “This absolutely will work!”, because I hate to see people not try things that might work for them just because they didn’t work for someone else — or be disappointed that something didn’t work for them just because it DID work for someone else. You have to find what works for you and keep in mind that just because something once worked for you, doesn’t mean it always will. So you have to be flexible, willing to try new things, and ready to dust yourself off and get up and get going again after you take a tumble, so to speak.
What have you found to be unsuccessful promotion or something that’s just not working for your shop?
Personally, any marketing that’s not targeted isn’t going to be effective. For instance, I could friend 1000 people on MySpace. But 980 of them might not be at all interested in paintings of cute big-eyed girls. You have to know your market, and find it. For me, the most unsuccessful promotion is putting your eggs in too many baskets. I know, I know: The most common advice is to not put your eggs in one basket. But I think there’s also a danger of going to the other extreme. It’s better, I think, to have focused marketing than to spread yourself too thin. Creating an account at 1000 different social networks isn’t going to get you very far if you don’t spend time actually using any of them because you’re so busy creating a profile and moving on to the next hot spot. (See our Seller Handbook how-to on social networking for more help on this.)
Would you walk us through what a typical workday might entail being your own boss?
Oh, I wish I had a typical day and I envy people who can stick to a schedule, because it’s so hard for me to do so consistently. But here’s the order I aim to follow as much as possible:
- I get up at 5 am everyday. I’m not a night owl. I’m only 31, but I’ve always been a bit of an old lady at heart when it comes to sleep. 11pm is a late night for me.
- I answer e-mails and Conversations and leave feedback first thing.
- Then, on an ideal day, I spend the morning marketing and the afternoon painting. I ship twice a week, usually on Tuesdays and Fridays. I used to ship everyday, but it just wasn’t time-effective for me, since I live out in the country and have to drive a good distance to the post office. I do try to actually get orders packaged as they come in, so I don’t get overwhelmed.
- Balance is a bit of an issue for me. If I’m not mindful, I could spend days and days painting and then realize, hey, wait a second, I haven’t updated my blog in two weeks. Or get really into marketing and realize: Okay, I’ve not picked up a paintbrush in five days. So I work best when I have a set list of things that need to be done, and do them one at a time, varying it up, so I make sure I don’t neglect anything. Sometimes, I even set a timer to keep from taking longer than I’d intended to on one particular task.
What do you enjoy most about not having a day job? Is there anything you miss?
Kaylee is so special to me. From the moment I found out my sister was going to have a baby, it was super important to me not to be what I call a “Christmas aunt.” I didn’t want to be someone she just saw on the major holidays and got a card from on her birthday. Getting to do my art for a living will always have a bit of an extra meaning because this amazing adventure began at the same time she came into the world. Even though she lives in another state and I don’t get to see her every day, I’ve been able to be there for her first word, her first steps, and so many other things I would’ve missed out on if I had a day job. That’s my number one favorite thing.
Aside from that, I enjoy just about EVERYTHING about not having a day job: I get to do what I truly love everyday. Work is fun. I’m able to spend each day being creative. The supplies! I actually get e-mails from people telling me that my work makes them happy. I have had the opportunity to send my work to places like Finland and Australia. I don’t need anyone’s permission to take a sick day, if I need one. I can stay in my pajamas all day if I want to. I could go on for days. There’s so much I love about it!
What do I miss about having a day job? I miss getting to spend all day with the wonderful women who started out as co-workers but became some of my closest friends. And, of course, I miss the steady paycheck.
If you could go back in time before you took the plunge, what advice would you give yourself knowing what you know now? What would you tell someone else?
Don’t expect to make regular and consistent sales overnight. Don’t expect it to be easy. And please, please don’t let yourself get discouraged by falling into the trap of comparing your success to that of others. Everyone has different circumstances and each individual’s level of success is dependent on so very many behind the scenes factors you just can’t know by merely peeking at their numbers.
I’d tell them the above, but I’d add: Read the Dos and Don’ts. Read every bit of advice you can find on the forums. Become familiar with the site and its rules. Buy something so you actually know the process your buyers will go through. Do not wait until your first sale to figure out what to do after you make a sale. Research. Google. Find out all the licenses you will need and local laws you must adhere to for having a small home-based business. Don’t wait until April 15th to figure out tax stuff. Everything can seem so scary and overwhelming…but just make a list of the things you need to do, do one thing at a time, and don’t give up.
How’s it going so far? Are you supporting yourself?
It took three years, but this summer I finally got to the point of making monthly what I made at my last “real job” as a legal assistant. That was a huge accomplishment for me, so I’d say it’s going pretty well! Of course, this income is divided a bit differently, since quite a bit of it goes back into the business, so I don’t have free spending money the way I did while at my “real job.” But there’s also the fact that, at that “real job,” the salary was set. In that world, I’d get raises here and there, but still, my earning potential was kind of limited. There was a definite ceiling: This is as high as you go. Here, in this world of being your own boss, though it’s difficult at first and there will be struggles and you DO have to spend money to make money — you also have to see that, if you’re willing to work hard and not give up — those limits aren’t there.
In 2008, I’ve doubled the sales figures I had in 2007. In 2009, I’d love to double the sales figures I made in 2008. And it’s possible. At a law firm, I could work hard, but at the end of the day, no matter how hard I worked, there’s no way I’d double my salary from one year to the next. I think it’s important to give a realistic account of just what it means to be self-employed, to have your own business, to “quit your day job,” so in all honesty, this fall, I have experienced a bit of a disheartening slump. I went from one of the best months ever to one of the worst months ever without changing anything I did. But that’s a very valuable lesson to learn, something to keep in the back of your head: no matter how far you come, no matter how your business grows, there will always be ups and downs. You just have to remember both sides of that. You have to remember in down times that an up will follow. And when you’re in an upswing, you have to remember to be prepared for the lean times, too.
I can pay my bills (including health insurance). I’m able to buy what I need. Do I still have to count every penny? Yes. There aren’t many luxuries — when I splurge it’s usually handmade soap from a shop here! But I’m better off now than I was last fall. And I plan to keep going, keep pushing, keep learning and try, try again-ing. And hopefully, next fall, I’ll be saying: I’m better off now than I was last fall.
What other goals do you wish to accomplish in the coming year for your Etsy business?
Long term, I’d love nothing more than to completely diversify my product line. I absolutely adore painting, but I also want to be able to, in the future, offer everything from handmade cards to limited edition storybooks and zines to art dolls and softies. I truly can’t think of a creative medium I don’t want to try! Of course, there are only so many hours in the day and I’m a one-woman show, so I’d have to say if I could only accomplish one thing in the upcoming year, it’d be, on December 31, 2009, for a buyer to stumble upon my shop and see just as many paintings of little boys as little girls, and to have each ethnicity and skin color in the world fully represented. It’s so easy, as an artist, to paint yourself, to have your work be sort of be self-portraits…but the most awesome words I hear are when someone sends a Conversation to say, “Oh, my goodness! This little girl looks just like me/my sister/my best friend.” I want anyone and everyone to peek at The Dreamy Giraffe Collection and see a little girl who looks just like them, their sister, their best friend. I want moms of l’il boys to have cute art for their sons’ rooms, too!
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I think I’ve been long-winded enough, but I would like to thank all of the people who helped me get to this point. My mom (who is the Official Dreamy Consultant For All Things That Need Consulting) and the rest of my family, my friends, everyone who has purchased from my shop, each person who sent a kind convo or e-mail, Etsians (especially JennaAppleton, Stilettoheights, & littleput) who were so generous with tips and advice when I asked, and of course, the guys who created Etsy. I am a one-woman business — but I certainly couldn’t have done this alone.
Thanks to Kathy for sharing her story and business with us! Check out the related items below to see some of her work.
You can find some of our previous Quit Your Day Job posts here.