“I don’t understand how you can be a public persona but also be a very diligent and focused artist.” Barry Jenkins, Director of If Beale Street Could Talk
When I started my business in 1995, I may as well have been blindfolded. The fact that my eyes were in perfect working condition did nothing to prevent me from bumbling, stumbling, and falling flat on my face as I tried to figure out exactly what it meant to be an artist with my own business. I had what was, by today’s standards, a Flinstonian-sized desktop computer, as well as an inkjet printer, and fierce ambition. The rest I made up as I went along.
The short story is that I did what I set out to do: I built a colorful, inspiring brand of stationery and gift items that was licensed and sold around the world. In the process, I did something else that I had no way of knowing would become one of the things I loved most about it. I shared my work, built my brand, and grew my business without social media. (Although it just so happens that, in 1995, with my own website and “online journal”, I was just ahead of the wave of technological wonders to come in the twenty-first century.)
Here’s a less abridged version of how all of this unfolded, and the lessons I learned along the way. . .
Build meaningful relationships.
Back in the late nineties, I had the freedom to grow my business slowly and steadily, with enough time and flexibility to make mistakes, correct and recover from them, and then keep moving forward. I did this with the encouragement and guidance of a few of my earliest sales reps—women who knew the wholesale gift industry well and saw something in me they believed worthy of their time, attention, and tutelage. That something, in the beginning, was likely as simple as the fact that the greeting cards I’d created sold well. But over time it became about real friendship, where conversations that might have started with ideas for package design ventured into things like marriage, friendship, and, life.
I didn’t learn from these women because they taught an e-course. I wasn’t an anonymous face on a platform they built to monetize their insights and wisdom from their years as greeting card reps. We had a relationship. They were personally invested in the growth and success of my business, not merely because more sales for me meant more commissions for them, but because we were friends. We didn’t schedule phone calls or video chats. We just picked up the receiver on our land lines and dialed each other’s numbers (without any warning whatsoever!)
Make sure your measurements of success actually mean something.
Do you know how I knew my work was resonating with others? My greeting cards, which had my artwork and my sentiments, sold. They sold across state lines, in small towns and big cities. I knew my business was succeeding because the numbers in my profit and loss statements were increasing. I did not have to rely on likes or shares or tweets—only sales. I knew my work was compelling because I was getting orders, sales reps, and license contracts.
Be patient. Do your work. Stay focused.
My first rep made sure I understood that a wholesale order from a store was nice, but what really mattered was a reorder. Receiving this particular tidbit of advice early on established a foundation of patience with regard to my work. I’ve just received an order from a new account? That’s great news. Now let’s go fill that order and then return to all the other tasks associated with this endeavor—talking to sales reps, paying bills, and designing new cards.
While all of this was happening, I did not have to spend any time checking statistics or numbers of any sort on any social media platform. The most visceral indicator that my business was growing was the screech and rumble of my fax machine. At all times of day and night, the slick, curled pages of the machine came spilling out, letting me know I was on the right track.
I didn’t have to post pictures of my lunch or selfies of me sitting next to shelves full of inventory. All I had to do was create inspiring designs, fill my orders, and take care of my reps. ( I can’t tell you how many times my sales reps thanked me for paying them on time.) My work was to do my work.
Here’s another thing that happened while I was building my business: I got to meet and spend time with one of my heroes—SARK—an author and artist whose first book literally changed my life, showing me what was possible and giving me permission to pursue my crazy dreams. After following of her work closely during my first few years in business (and bursting into tears the first time I met her in person at a book signing), I had the opportunity to be a short-term assistant of sorts for her at another book signing.
My tasks that evening were simple and straightforward—mainly having to do with organizing the line of people wanting her to sign books after she spoke. She had a couple of other people with her, and I relished the opportunity to be part of her team, if only for one evening. After she signed books and the crowd melted away, I asked if there was anything else she needed. To my surprise, she invited me to dinner. A little while later, a small group of us were cozied up in a corner booth at one my favorite restaurants, and I was realizing a dream.
I got to talk to SARK about nothing in particular—about her life on the road and my experiences learning how to surf. She met my husband; I met one of her business partners. At the end of the night, she went to her hotel and I went back to my apartment. Within the space of just a few hours, this woman who had changed my life became my friend.
The next day, I wrote about SARK’s book event on my own makeshift blog. In my description of the evening, I specifically did not mention our time together at dinner after the event. That experience felt special, and my intuition told me that if I shared those details with the public, then everyone who volunteered to be her assistant at these events would expect the same invitation. So I talked about her book and about the crowd. I talked about how much fun it was getting a close-up glimpse of her life as a well-known author.
I saw SARK a few months later in New York City while I was exhibiting at the National Stationery Show. She happened to be having another book event that week, so I went. While signing books and talking to her New York fans, she looked up, saw me and, after giving me a huge hug, she gave me a pointed look and thanked me for my discretion.
To this day, that tiny exchange makes me smile. Twenty years ago, we didn’t have to—didn’t really want to—share every moment of our evening together with the whole world. For me, it was more important to maintain at least some semblance of privacy for someone who was a very public figure. The thought of exploiting this very personal exchange in a veiled effort to garner more attention for myself (“Look! I got to have dinner with SARK!”) simply didn’t feel like the right or respectful thing to do.
I know the information age has unleashed a tidal wave of opportunities for artists to create, share, and sell their work. I know it has helped people connect in ways that would never have been possible just thirty years ago. I also know that when I look back at my experience as a budding entrepreneur, I am most grateful for something I could have never predicted: I had the freedom to focus on my work without having to concern myself with whether or not I was receiving likes, followers, tweets, or hearts. I measured the health of my business by the number on my balance sheet.
I’m grateful to have experienced such an extraordinary transition in human history—to have made the leap from what was a primarily analog enterprise into the brave new digital world has been a wild and, yes, inspiring ride. I don’t wish for a “simpler time”; I know there’s no going back. My determination is not to hold onto to outdated ways of expressing myself (although I have reinvigorated my blog, of all things, which feels practically retro), but to remember the lessons I was able to learn when social media wasn’t even a blip on the cultural radar. The habits I developed before WordPress or Facebook or Instagram enabled me to build a foundation of substance. That is what I will always return to; that is what I’ll keep.