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Tara: Hey everyone, welcome to Profit. Power. Pursuit. I’m Tara Gentile, your host, and together with CreativeLive, we explore the unique strategies that creative entrepreneurs use to take control of their lives, profit from their passions, and pursue what’s truly important to them.
This week, I talk with Erin Dollar, the founder of, and textile designer behind, the home decor brand Cotton & Flax. Her striking hand-drawn patterns set her textiles apart as a blend of fine art and fine craft. Her work has been carried in retail stores across the USA and Canada, including West Elm and CB2. Erin and I discuss how she discovered print-making, how she ramps up production for big orders from companies like West Elm, and how she manages her time while largely running the business by herself.
Erin Dollar, welcome to Profit. Power. Pursuit. Thank you so much for joining me.
Erin: Thanks so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Tara: Absolutely. So I’d love to start off by talking about how you decided on print-making, because when I was in college, I don’t think I even realized that print-making was a thing.
Erin: I mean, yeah. Honestly, I didn’t know either. I think I, you know, I was just telling someone about this the other day about when I went to college, I had this vision for my life, and I was going to be … I was going to study poetry and environmental studies, and I was going to live up in a Redwood tree and just be like writing my amazing poetry, and yeah, about a year into college, that, I realized, probably to my benefit, that that was a terrible idea for me. Maybe for someone else, but not for me, and so you know, I was focused on a lot of creative pursuits at that time. I’ve always been interested in fine arts, and so I was studying for a fine arts major, and you know, it wasn’t until probably my second or third year of being at the university that I discovered the print-making program, and I just fell instantly in love. I, you know, I got into the studio, I started trying my hand at some of these techniques, and it was just … it’s hard to describe, because you know, I think a lot of people look at art and they think, oh, you know, what’s really the difference between making a painting or making a print or making a drawing, and for a lot of us artists, I think when you find your medium, something just clicks in your brain, and it just … it’s an amazing, unforgettable moment in my life, and I think that it was something that once I found that place, once I found that studio and those processes, I didn’t want to do anything else. So it was sort of luck.
Tara: Wow, that is fascinating. So when you first got started, did you have a vision for it? Like did you make your first print and think wow, I can just see all of the possibilities for this?
Erin: Yeah, yeah.
Tara: Or was it something that more unfolded over time? More of a process.
Erin: Yeah, well, when I was in school, it was really more of a creative sort of discovery process at that point. I think the idea of running a business was sort of pretty far from my mind at that point. Obviously, I think one of the biggest differences with thinking about print-making rather than other artistic pursuits is that prints are generally created in multiples, so you have the opportunity to be able to sell them. And you know, you can sell all pieces of art, but I think prints are uniquely suited to reach a wider audience, because you can make multiples and sell them to multiple people, and really disseminate your work in a very different way than if you spend a year making one painting and it’s, of course, really beautiful and really incredible experience to create those larger pieces of work, but then, you know, that goes to one gallery or one museum or one owner, and it’s a little bit … it’s just a sort of different way to … to experience your art when you’re creating multiples versus creating one-of-a-kind pieces, and of course, prints are really special and one-of-a-kind in their own ways, but I think it … sort of that process of creating, you know, editions of prints, you know, up to 50 prints, you know, even more at a time, you start to think, okay, well, I’m not going to keep all 50 of these prints, where are these going to go?
So I think naturally something in your brain as a print-maker starts to kind of turn. Okay, where are these going to live? Who am I going to disseminate these to? Am I going to sell some of these prints or am I going to put these into my own personal collection? I think it presents a little bit more of a challenge in terms of the archival process maybe than other artists have to deal with, so yeah, it’s interesting. It sort of fed naturally into … into my business later on in life. I think … I think sort of part of why I started my business was circumstantial. I graduated from college in the middle of the recession. It was 2008, and so it was just the beginning of the real downturn, especially where I was living in Portland, it’s already hard to find creative work, and so instead of sort of piecing together a bunch of part-time jobs and just really not enjoying my work life, I decided to start selling some of those fine art prints that I had created during college.
Tara: So it sounds like print-makers might be the natural entrepreneurs of the maker world.
Erin: Yeah, yeah. And I don’t know that everyone relates to that necessarily, but for me, it was a really obvious … an obvious choice, because I had all of these extra prints from my editions laying around and you know, kind of just sitting in a flat file, and it seemed like, you know, why not try to put these out there. I’d been getting a lot of great feedback when I would do gallery shows and things like that, and you know, it seemed like why not just go ahead and start. You know, in 2008, it was so easy just to go ahead, start an Etsy shop, see how that works out, and you know, it kind of changed from there, and I rebranded under Cotton & Flax a little bit later on, but that was really my first sort of taste of, yeah, being a creative entrepreneur and kind of getting my work out there in a bigger way.
Tara: Love it. So let’s talk about where you are right now in your business.
Tara: How is your print-making business currently generating revenue?
Erin: Yeah, yeah. So it’s a lot of things. I think a lot of artists and creative people understand that process of needing to have, you know, I don’t know if it’s wearing a bunch of different hats or having a bunch of different sort of buckets to collect the money that comes in, but it’s very rarely I think one thing. So for me, I have Cotton & Flax, which is my product-based business, and that has, you know, a range of home decor products that I sell both online and direct to other business, so I have both the retail and the wholesale side. The wholesale side is generally to smaller indie shops, little boutiques around the country, but I also sometimes do sell to larger mass market stores like West Elm or CB2. So those experiences are pretty, pretty different, but really, really great in terms of generating income for the product side of the business as well as obviously the ecommerce side where it’s my … my customers coming directly to me and purchasing things for their homes or you know, for gifts. So that’s sort of one-third of how I’m making my income.
Another third would be teaching. So I do both creative classes, creative workshops that are based mostly in print-making. I do teach block printing and silk screen printing, and you know, some sort of, like, more hands on monoprinting classes from time to time, or poster printing. Those things that are more rooted in my … my creative practice. But then I also do some amount of teaching around creative entrepreneurship, people who are also interested in running creative businesses who want to get tips or tricks from me about how to grow their social media presence or how to share their work in a compelling way online, and so I do some amount of education around those topics as well, so that’s kind of another third.
And then the last third is licensing. So I … part of my practice through Cotton & Flax is creating all of these beautiful patterns and some of them get added into my product business and you know, get used there, but then I have a lot of extra patterns that I’ve developed that, you know, don’t … that end up kind of languishing because I just don’t have the resources to create 100 new products a year. That would be really overwhelming for me. It isn’t something I’m interested in taking on. And so now, I have the opportunity to license those patterns to other companies for them to put on products or to use in other … other fields.
So it’s kind of a nice three-pronged revenue generation system at this point. It’s something that I feel pretty comfortable with. I think it’s … it always sort of shifts, and sometimes the products are bringing in more income and sometimes the teaching is bringing more income in, and you know, I just kind of go with the flow.
Tara: Got you. So you mentioned thirds. Does that break down revenue-wise as well? So like a third for products, a third for licensing, and a third for teaching?
Erin: I mean, honestly, no. Generally, the products business is the main bread and butter of the income for me. This year, I’ve been doing a lot more teaching. For whatever reason, there’s been a huge demand for that. I’ve been getting in touch … I’ve had a lot of consulting work kind of come to me naturally just as people have been exposed to some of my classes online and so that side of the business, the teaching third, I guess, has really grown a lot in the last maybe six or seven months to where that is probably taking up more of that revenue base than it was before. Licensing is still a pretty small component of that because it’s something that I haven’t really thrown myself into wholeheartedly yet. I’m more passionate about growing the product business than I am about starting a second career as sort of an illustrator, so yeah. It’s uneven. I would love to see it become more even, and to maybe hand off some of those duties for the product-based business to, you know, other assistants or employees, and kind of move towards the licensing side eventually, but for right now, it’s a little bit more heavily weighted towards the product business in terms of revenue generation.
Tara: Got ya, got ya, got ya. So how do you plan for that money situation, because I think that’s a pretty tricky equation for a lot of creative entrepreneurs?
Erin: Right. Exactly. And that’s part of why I think most of us don’t just earn income from our product business. I think we all generally figure out what that ebb and flow looks like. We know that obviously, a lot more revenue’s coming in towards the end of the year around the Christmas holiday, and it’s just you kind of have to figure out what that ebb and flow looks like for your business and kind of make adjustments based on that, and for me, that means that I do … I generally would do a lot more teaching during the beginning of the year and maybe in the late summer, early fall months when I don’t have trade shows to be doing and I don’t have as much demand for my product-based business as I do towards the end of the year when I’m just too busy to be teaching classes.
I think, you know, if someone invited me to come and teach a workshop in November or December, I would have to say no, because it’s just too many … too many things to be juggling at that point in the year, but it’s nice that I get to kind of … the side benefit of that is just that I get to keep myself engaged with my work and really stay interested in what I’m doing, because I think that another thing that I’ve learned from doing the product business for Cotton & Flax for years is that I think that it’s not … it’s not enough to keep me interested. It’s really an amazing challenge and I love developing the products, but I think that being most of the time by myself in the studio developing these things and then putting them out into the world, I miss that human contact and I miss sharing the sort of artistry of the print-making side with people, and so having those … those opportunities to teach and to … to share that love of print-making with people in the flesh, that’s really, really important to me.
Tara: Got it. So I love that you talked about the ebb and flow and kind of adding things in during those ebb periods.
Erin: Mmhmm. Right. Exactly.
Tara: You know, when I talked to Melanie Duncan, it was very much the same thing. She started an apparel company and kind of figured that all out, found out where that ebb period was, and then started another company on top of that to even things out and to maximize her revenue flow.
Erin: Mmhmm. Mmhmm.
Tara: I just think that’s really helpful for helping people figure out that kind of long-term planning around the ups and downs of making money when you’re working for yourself or when you have your own company.
Erin: Well, yeah, and I think that it can be, you know, I’ll speak for myself. I don’t know if this is something that all makers or people who are selling their products that they create online, you know, I … I would always have these really sort of depressing episodes in like February or March where things would slow down and for whatever reason, my brain would just forget that that was natural in the course of my company. It’s like I can look at sales documents and be like, oh, yeah, this happens pretty much every year, that, you know, folks are getting ready to pay their taxes, and they’ve, you know, they’ve done all their holiday shopping, they’re not coming back for gifts for a little while, yet, and I would take it so personally somehow. It was really kind of ridiculous, but you know, when you look at the numbers, it’s like, oh no, this is the natural ebb and flow of my sales cycle, but I think that … you know, we’re human. We forget to kind of keep those things in check, especially when our egos are involved. You know, my ego is so involved in my work because it’s all my original designs, and you know, I’m involved in so much of the creation process that when things slow down, I do take it really personally, which is so dangerous. I think it’s one of those things, being able to kind of create space for that ebb and flow and to understand there are other ways for me to occupy my time during a slower period that are productive, that are enriching for me and my creative life and will build upon the business that I’ve already created with the product line.
Tara: I’m so glad you brought that up, because I think it’s so common. I deal with the same thing. In fact, I even pride myself …
Tara: On planning so that it doesn’t happen, but you know, inevitably, there are times where it still does.
Erin: Yeah, and I’ve gotten better this year at … my calendar is so much better, like, flushed out. Even from, you know, January 1, I have most of the year kind of roughly planned out, which is a huge, huge thing for me, and it helps me to remember, oh, you know, I am going to have some time in early March maybe to do some teaching. I’ll reach out to … to studios or make a plan for how I’m going to market a class a little bit before then, and you know, so I don’t get into these periods of sort of looking up and thinking, oh, there’s no orders, what am I supposed to be doing right now? That’s not a thing in my life anymore.
Tara: So you mentioned that your products are sold in some pretty big stores, like West Elm, which happens to be a personal favorite of mine.
Erin: Yeah. They’re amazing.
Tara: So how have you been able to scale your production to meet that kind of demand, those kind of orders?
Erin: Yeah, for me, the answer has come from finding contract helpers. I know that for a lot of businesses, they look to make, like, in-house sort of hiring decisions to scale up those production elements, but for me, it really was wanting to get things almost completely off of my plate, and luckily, I was able to find a group of contract sewers here in L.A. that I can just drop off, you know, cut pieces of printed fabric, and then show up, and hey, the pillows are done. This is great. It’s very, like, it’s very hands off, and it took me a long time to find those trusted partners, but in my mind, I would much rather have a team of experts at my disposal, rather than doing the sort of hiring hunt to find the perfect people to bring in and, you know, have in the studio with me. That has been a better fit. But that’s not true for everyone, obviously, but I think that in my mind, I’m … it’s almost … it’s almost like I’m avoiding hiring people in some ways.
It’s not that I look at hiring as a failure, but I would much rather search out … L.A. in particular is such an incredible resource for creative people, because almost anything you might need is somewhere here in this city. It’s an enormous resource, and so it just takes a little bit of digging to find those experts who are already set up to help you with whatever it is that you might need for your … for your product-based business. So in my mind, the challenge was really find those people who know exactly what you need and how to give it to you, and so when I found that group of sewing people to help me, it was just like angels singing, yes, okay, I don’t need to hire a bunch of helpers to come in and hang with me in the studio and bring their sewing machines in. This was much more … much better fit for my business. But in terms of working with somebody like West Elm, those … those accounts are coming in, you know, maybe a few times a year. This isn’t steady work that’s happening all year round, it’s really coming in bursts, right? So they place an order, and then I have to fulfill that order within a couple of months, and for me, it’s enough of kind of a cushion of time that I can plan around, okay, I can reach out to my sewing helper and ramp it up on their end. But for me, but my … my personal workflow doesn’t change all that much. Luckily. Gosh, yeah, because otherwise, it can really derail the whole process if all of a sudden I’m in charge of sewing hundreds and hundreds of napkins or hundreds and hundreds of pillows. It’s lucky that I’m able to kind of pass off that work.
Tara: Got it. So you’re really focused on the print work.
Tara: And then you’re dropping that off for the finished sewing.
Erin: Yeah, exactly. And so my … my expertise is really in prototyping the product, creating, you know, exactly what I want it to look like, figuring out the pattern, the layout, the color, all of those kind of aesthetic elements, and then I hand that off to a local production partner, and they actually manufacture it using the … the fabrics that I’ve chosen, the fabrics that I’ve printed on. You know, I still do a lot of the direct silk screen printing onto the fabric, so that’s, you know, that’s still very much my responsibility, and that’s something that I could outsource, but at this point, I really choose not to, because it’s probably where the heart of the business is for me. I think in a lot of ways, that will probably be, even though it would be an easy … easy part to hand off to a production partner, it’s something that I still really cling to.
Maybe in a sort of irrational way, because I love that part of the process, and I still feel so deeply connected to it. For me, the sewing was something that I felt more comfortable handing off, because the passion for sewing isn’t as … it’s not there as much to me as for the print-making side. So yeah, I think there’s definitely things that I’ve done to kind of relieve some of that stress around taking in bigger orders, because that’s the worst, right? If you can’t … if you can’t scale up your business to meet that higher demand, if … if getting a big order like that only represents stress and anxiety and oh my God, I can’t handle this much work, then you know, your business is naturally going to be limited to working with much smaller partners and not being able to reach that wider audience, and I didn’t want to limit myself in that way.
Tara: All right, let’s talk about this pricing piece for a little bit, because of course, that’s a big challenge for people as well.
Erin: Oh, yeah.
Tara: How are you going to price your work so that it still sells, so that West Elm can still sell it …
Tara: And make what they want to make? How can you price it so that you’re still profitable, even when you’re outsourcing all this extra work as well?
Erin: Right, exactly. Pricing is really tough, and I … you know, I think the general sort of thought is that it should be some … some blend of materials cost and your time and, you know, all of those things, and then multiply it by a certain amount so that you can have that wholesale margin, and you’ll be able to retail it to … to other shops, but honestly, there’s so much more that goes into that, right? You have to think about the pricing in terms of what kind of value does that project to your customers, because you know, maybe I could sell something at a lower price-point, but it might not make sense to sell it there, because there might be an assumed judgment about the quality of the item that I’m selling, and so you know, on the other side of that, there are some items that the profit margin is really, really, really slim, almost to the point of why am I even bothering to have this product, it’s not making me very much money, but at the same time, it actually adds value to the business as a whole, because it’s the type of lifestyle product that my customers really are excited to see, and even if it maybe at that much higher price point that not a lot of folks are able to purchase it, it’s something that rounds out the collection and tells a larger story about the type of home that I’m helping my customers decorate for. Does that make sense?
It’s sort of, you know, it’s … it’s more than just time plus materials plus, you know, add your wholesale margin in. There’s a lot … lot more moving parts that I have to consider to make sure that I’m kind of in that sweet spot. Keeping margins low enough, though, to work with those bigger … those bigger retailers like West Elm is really tricky, and honestly, in some ways, I think that they are getting savvy, too, about understanding that there’s going to be a difference between a vendor like me, who’s handcrafting and working with local partners to handcraft all of these amazing products versus somebody who’s got their production completely abroad, and you know, they … they might have much better margins, and they … and there’s some flexibility there.
I think that that was something that really intimidated me at first, but I think that there is a benefit for West Elm to work with a company like mine. They get a little bit of that cool credibility from working with an up and coming designer, and they’re willing to be a little bit more flexible on those margins for that … the ability to have some of that cultural cache of working with indie designers. So yeah, I think, you know, my advice to other up and coming sort of young designers who are creating these products themselves, I think just like don’t be intimidated by that process. If they’re coming to you, that means that they see something in your work that they think is really marketable, and so, you know, be able to kind of ask for what you need to … to be able to work with a big partner like that. There’s more flexibility than you might think.
Tara: Oh, I am so glad you shared that. I’m really excited about that trend.
Tara: Because I’ve … I’ve certainly had friends who were nearly put out of business by the, you know, big Anthropologie order or whatever.
Erin: Yeah, no, it can be a huge thing, and I think it can really be a make or break point for a lot of businesses when they finally get that recognition from a big retailer like that. It can be really exciting, a huge ego boost, you know, it’s fun. It’s always fun for me to hear my customers say, “Oh, I saw your work at West Elm,” or, “I saw your work at CB2,” and you know, that, I think, is meaningful, not just for me, but also for my customers to see my work at that level. I think it’s a fun, fun thing to experience, but yeah, the logistics can be … can be complicated. The contracts are insane, there’s a lot of stuff to go over, and you know, it’s something that I think that a lot of makers and folks who are focused more on an ecommerce business that get approached by these bigger companies aren’t always ready for, and so I think, you know, the best thing that I did to prepare for that was to have those partners who I could work with at a moment’s notice to be able to help me reach those levels of production that I really needed to get to on a quick turnaround. I think that that was such a valuable asset for me to be able to have.
Tara: So you mentioned that you prepared for it. Was working with big brands like West Elm or Anthropologie sort of a goal for you from the get go?
Erin: Yeah, no, absolutely, and I don’t think that … my goal really isn’t just to work with any sort of big, you know, mass market brand. There were definitely a handful, and still are kind of a few that I would like to work with at some point, just because I love the … the direction that they’re going as a brand, that they’re valuing artisan-made products, they have a really great eye for aesthetics, there’s … you know, and that would include West Elm, that would include CB2, that would include Anthropologie. There’s a lot of businesses like that that I think have that mass market appeal, but really do a great job with aesthetics. They almost have like this art direction appeal that I really love. There’s this … this eye for aesthetics or for style that I … that I’m just totally drawn to, and I think my customers are drawn to as well, so it’s nice to … nice to try and find ways to work with those bigger brands and get a little bit more of that exposure. But honestly, working with smaller business and, you know, boutiques that I’m selling to as well, those can be just as fun, and I think that seeing the impact of these small businesses around the country who are focused on more designer-made goods and things that are handmade, I think that they’re making a really big impact in their communities, and really sharing that love of handmade objects with their customers, and you know, not to knock the indies in favor of working with big brands, because I think that there’s power in those relationships as well.
Tara: All right, before we move on from this part of the conversation, let’s talk about one more thing.
Tara: Which is how have you connected with retail brands thus far. What have been the best ways for you to get in front of those big brands and start working with them as a retail account?
Erin: Yeah, absolutely. I do about two big product releases a year, and I don’t always have the ability to go and do trade shows and do those big wholesale trade shows where retail buyers are going and walking the floor and looking for new brands to carry in their shops, so my solution to that is to do those shows when I have the time or when I have the budget to be able to do them, but in the meantime, to also be able to send out a catalog or a really beautiful pdf mailer on … over email that shows all my new products. They’re styled in a beautiful way, they’re photographed really beautifully.
I try to do a really strong focus on lifestyle photography so that my … my retail customers can understand sort of who my customer demographic is, what their values are, what their style is like, and just sort of showcase that in the most beautiful, professional way that I can, and whether it’s in person or sending them something in the mail or something over email just to be able to highlight those products as strongly as I can on a regular basis. And you know, finding the name of a buyer for a retail store isn’t usually that hard. A lot of them have, you know, their own websites where you can kind of go and read a little bit more about the store. If it’s a local shop, you can go in person and talk to them about, you know, how things are going with their shop, what they’re seeing is doing well, what their sales are like, and kind of get a sense of what their needs are, and reach out to them with sort of a new product that might intrigue their audience as well. So for me, just that direct contact kind of highlighting my products in the best way that I can, and making sure that they have what they need has really worked well.
Tara: So it sounds like you marketing to retailers isn’t all that different from you marketing to consumers. The process might be a little different, but you know, you’re still kind of following the same cues.
Erin: Yeah, yeah, it’s definitely not. I think that retail buyers have a very specific set of needs. They need to understand how it’s going to look on a shelf, what the packaging is like, you know, how the price point fits in with their other goods that they carry, but generally, they’re looking for the same things. They’re looking for beautiful products that their customers are going to love, and you know, I think that most of the … most of the time, there’s a lot of that overlap. The retail buyers who are buying my work would probably buy it for their own homes as well, which is really nice. It’s fun … fun way to tie it all together.
Tara: Awesome. Let’s talk a little bit more about your team. You’ve mentioned that you have out-of-house production partners. Do you have any team members or contractors that you work with in-house to help you get work done?
Erin: Yeah. So generally, I have a personal assistant that I will hire for like the last quarter of the year. Generally, my time is sort of managed well enough that I don’t need any in-house help at this point. Honestly, it would be great to have, but it’s something that I just don’t have the budget for at this point. So I don’t have any in-house employees, except for really at that tail-end of the year when things get so, so busy with holiday production and shipping out orders and wanting to make sure that we get everything fulfilled really quickly. We want to make sure everyone gets their gifts on time, so that’s important to me to make sure that I have a small team of either one or two assistants for that part of the year, but during the rest of the year, I … I generally don’t have any employees. I will occasionally take on an intern from a local university who is curious about either social media marketing or business operations and want to kind of get a sense of how a business of my size works and what the moving parts look like, but I think most people who’ve had an intern understand that like that’s not really an employee, that’s somebody who’s sort of almost is job shadowing, and it’s an educational process for them, but the benefit that I get from that is a fresh set of eyes on everything that I’m doing. A lot of these younger folks have some really, really great ideas to bring to the table and I think are excited to get the opportunity to have input in a big way. For a company like mine where it’s really just me steering the ship, you know, one other person contributing ideas can make a huge impact, so that’s, you know, that’s the benefit for me, even though they’re technically not, you know, a full-time employee who’s doing work for me. Just that fresh infusion of brain power can be really invigorating to the business.
Tara: I love that. Can you tell us about maybe a specific idea that intern had and why you were so excited about it?
Erin: Well, yeah. Honestly, it’s … some of the ideas might not be that glamorous, but they … you know, I feel like they always have a tendency to catch these little things that we can tweak or shift to just make a much bigger impact. One of the things that … I had an intern a couple cycles back who was focused kind of on the editorial side. She was really interested in the blog, which is something that I wish that I could keep up with more, but you know, as I said, because it’s just me, I only have time for updates sort of on a periodic basis, and she was really interested in just kind of getting things there, a little bit more regimented, getting a better content calendar together, and one of the things that she proposed was just putting together like a monthly recap every month, because we had been letting all of these little details of the process slip through the crack, right, and so there were all these moments during the month where, you know, we would get a press mention somewhere or, you know, we’d get a new stockist that was carrying my work, or you know, any of those little details that maybe would get mentioned on social media, and then never talked about again.
It was a nice way to sort of create these monthly recaps on the blog, to highlight all of those little things that were happening in a bigger way, remind people of all of the exciting things that are going on in the studio during any given month, and honestly, weirdly, it kind of had a benefit for myself as well, because I think a lot of the time, I get so bogged down in the details of what’s going on in the business that I forget to kind of take a moment to look up and celebrate all of the things that have happened in a week, in a month, in a year, and it can just feel like everything’s kind of flying by, and you don’t get to have that sort of celebratory moment for like whoo, we got mentioned in a magazine, woo, we got like four new stockists in Canada, that’s amazing. Taking that time every month to remind both my customers and my fans that this stuff is happening, as well as reminding myself that it’s happening, honestly, you know, that was something that an intern proposed to me, and we executed, and it’s been going on on the blog for about a year now, and it’s just … it’s made a huge difference. It’s made a huge difference in how I feel about the business and in how I think our customers are perceiving everything that’s going on.
Tara: You mentioned that you manage your time pretty well, and this is definitely something that our listeners always want to hear more about. So do you have any particular systems or tools that you use to manage your time well?
Erin: Yeah. So I’m obsessed with Google Calendar. I am on there way too much fine-tuning everything, and that’s really where I put together that sort of content calendar, that promotional calendar, where I sort of plan for the different product releases that I’m going to have during the year, and then work backwards to figure out when I need to be focused on more production tasks, when I need to be developing different marketing for … for different product releases, for different holidays, or anything that might be going on, planning for when I’m going to be at trade shows or in-person sales and events, and kind of just mapping out the year. So I really, really depend … God, I mean, if my Google Calendar disappeared, I would be in so much trouble.
Tara: Oh, yeah.
Erin: I should really figure out like a backup for my backup for that, because it’s probably the most vital tool that helps get me … get me through the day and to help me stay on track with my goal setting for all of the things that I want to accomplish in a given year. I think that if I didn’t have those things mapped out on the calendar, it just wouldn’t happen. I wouldn’t make time for those things if I hadn’t blocked them out as tasks, as things to check off of my calendar. So that’s a big one for me, and I think that making sure that I have those … those product releases especially planned for and all of the … all of the things that need to go into a product release, you know, booking time with the photographer to make sure that everything gets photographed really beautifully for our catalog. You know, making sure that I make time to edit all of these photos that are going into the web shop, you know, writing the copy, all of these little tiny tasks that maybe, you know, only take a few hours at a time, but if they get left off the schedule, oh my God, it’s so disastrous, and it piles up, you know. Having that real plan in place, especially for those big things like a product release has been really, really valuable. And it’s something that took, God, at least a year and a half, two years to really get that ironed out. The first year, it was not as … not as smoothly planned as it is now. It took … it took a long time to figure that out for myself.
Tara: Okay, let’s dive into this a little bit more, because I … I love this stuff.
Tara: Can you tell us what the actual process, your process looks like for getting a goal onto your calendar.
Erin: Sure, sure.
Tara: And really filling in all the details, all the extra things that need to happen to make that goal accomplished?
Erin: Right, right. So for example, like with a product release like I’m going to be having in the fall, I’m trying to plan a product release that’s going to happen I guess in mid-August, really, to kind of time it with New York Now, which is the big sort of wholesale trade show that happens towards the end of the year for buyers to … retail buyers to come through and make purchases for their stores for the holiday season. So I need to have all of those sort of holiday releases ready by mid-August and ready to launch. So for me, that means I need to kind of go through my calendar and figure out, okay, if I need, you know, a week to plan for a photoshoot for that fall or for a fall/winter release, and you know, that means maybe an hour on the phone with my photographer planning for where the location is going to be, what props we’re going to need, what time we’re going to shoot, what day we’re going to shoot, you know, get that planning process on the calendar, as well as the actual shoot day needs to be on the calendar, as well as, you know, what day she’s going to deliver the photos so I can edit things and make any last minute tweaks. You know, it’s pretty much every … you know, I know that the photography’s part of it, the writing is part of it, so scheduling time on the calendar for writing the product descriptions, writing the copy for the catalog that I’m going to need to create, what day do I need to send the catalog to the printer to make sure I get it in time for the product release day so that I can send it out to my retail buyers. You know, all of those things I think some of them have hard and fast deadlines. Like obviously, if there’s a cutoff day for printing, I need to make sure that I meet that deadline so that goes on the calendar really early, and some of them are a little more fuzzy, right? Like I can … I can schedule some time to do maybe some brainstorming about how I’ll be talking about this release on social media and write down some ideas so I’m not creating everything from scratch on the go.
I think that that, that to me has been really important is to not undervalue my ability to plan ahead for basically any aspect of my business. And I don’t want that to come across as not being genuine and in the moment when I’m actually sharing things on social media, because there’s a time and a place for that, too, but I, especially when it comes to a product release or a part of my business that I take really seriously and I put a lot of effort towards, I don’t want to leave those last minute details like how am I going to talk about this on Instagram to chance. I want to make sure that I have a plan in place, I have ideas written down, that I’ve taken the time to really map that out in a full way well, well ahead of the actual launch date, so yeah. So like I’m saying, basically putting all of this little tiny tasks into a part of my calendar, and then it’s almost just figuring out what that last day is, and then backing up from there, right? So that could mean that, you know, in the next couple of weeks, I’m going to be working on the designs that I’m going to be releasing in August, so you know, I understand that basically, I have to start now to work towards that goal of having the products finished and done by August 15th or so. There’s so many different, and like I can open up my calendar and list off all the things, but yeah, it’s a lot. It’s a lot. And I think that people tend to forget how many different tasks there are in just … even in just releasing one new product. I think it can be … it can be really overwhelming. That’s why the calendar is so helpful for me. I know some people maybe have that skill, or maybe that’s their strong suit is kind of holding all of those different tasks in their mind and being able to kind of juggle them around, but I know to … to combat overwhelm, particularly for me, I found that I need to have that schedule written down so that I can kind of let it go from my brain. I think that when I’ve had the 20 million tasks sort of cycling through my head is when I start to feel that anxiety or feel that pressure of how am I going to get this all done, but once I’ve programmed it into Google Calendar, it’s like, oh, I don’t have to think about that right now. That’s for two weeks from now. I can think about that in two weeks.
Tara: Thank you so much for sharing that. So as we start to wrap up here, I’d love to ask you one of the questions that I ask just about all of our guests. How do you balance the roles of creative in your business and executive for your business?
Erin: Oh, sure. Yeah, and that’s … that’s tough. I think that it’s … oh, it’s a challenge, and it’s something that I’m still kind of trying to figure out what that … what balance looks like for me, because I think, to be completely honest, it’s very easy for me to slip into that executive role. I kind of love the managerial aspects of my business. I love thinking big picture and trying to map out how to get there. The thing that can fall apart for me is the creative side, because I think that that is … sometimes feels a little bit more fragile, or more … it’s easier for me to lose sight of that and to get busy, busy, busy with, you know, shipping orders and figuring out marketing and figuring out, you know, long-term planning stuff, and then forgetting to make time to nurture that creative side and to leave space in my day to do those sort of arts enrichment activities and to do those self-care routines around my creative self, because I think that we … all creative people have had that experience of coming up against a creative block and just feeling that … that so, so frustrating feeling of not being able to create the work that they know that they can create, that they have the ability to create, but to just feel so, so stuck, and so I … I try to do as much as I can to kind of have a self-care routine for my creative side, make sure that I’m getting time to go to see museum exhibits and gallery exhibits, seeing other people’s work, making time for exercise, getting outside, making sure that I’m able to get some fresh air, talk with other creative entrepreneurs, see what they’re up to, all of those activities kind of help to keep me feeling rested and recharged after, you know, even during a busy period or a busy season of my business, and help me to be able to create that … that design work without … without as much effort. I think that there … there’s two ways to kind of create those … those same patterns, right?
I can create them at the very last second under a deadline, feeling like right up against the day that I need to release these products, or I can kind of be building in time for sketching, building in time for creating new work throughout the year, and kind of never letting that bucket kind of get down to that … that creative inspiration bucket get down to the last couple of drops, right? If I keep kind of filling it in with … with trips to the museum, trips to a garden to sketch flowers or wildlife, you know, if I have that in my schedule on a regular basis, I never feel frantic when I’m … when I’m working on creative projects. So that’s … that for me has worked pretty well, and I think that as I’ve had … as I’ve had the ability to start to step back from … you know, in my first couple of years, I know I worked too much. I probably still work too much, and I … I think that I do that because I love my work and because I’m excited about what I’m doing, but also, because I have trouble kind of putting things down and saying that’s enough for today, we’re going to pick this up again tomorrow. I think that a lot of creative people are … are almost burdened by their enthusiasm for their work, because we … we tend to forget, oh, like rest is actually really important for me to be able to kind of build on what I did for the previous day. If we’re not well-rested, if we’re not able to let our brains kind of power down for the night and really take those self-care routines seriously, we’re not bringing our best selves to the table, and for me, I know that what suffers first isn’t the executive side, it’s the creative side. And that’s so precious to me that I’m … I take my self-care stuff really seriously now.
Tara: That’s awesome. So what’s next for you?
Erin: Oh, what’s next? Okay, so more licensing. That is something, you know, the one-third of the revenue I’m trying to aim for is licensing, right? It’s a pillar that’s already in the business, and I just want to keep growing it, because I think it’s a really fun way to see my work kind of take on new life in ways that I’m not able to physically create those types of products or really give it that full potential. So I’m excited to work with more partners on licensing and maybe see the work grow in that way. I’m really kind of hoping to do a little bit more traveling and get a little bit more inspiration from traveling. I think that that’s something that I haven’t been able to do as much in the last few years, and it’s going to be something that I’m really putting as a priority in 2016 and 2017, and yeah, I think that’s, you know, those two are the big ones for me right now. I think that Cotton & Flax as a product-based business is really, has met a lot of the goals that I had for it when I … when I set out to … to found the business, and I’m … I’m just excited to kind of see what happens next. I think that the licensing is a big part of it, and there’s always kind of new partners that I either stumble upon or stumble upon me, and those partnerships are always so, so fun, and so exciting for me, so it’s … it’s a little bit of a mystery right now, but I think it’s going to be a fun year.
Tara: All right, Erin Dollar, thank you so much for joining me.
Erin: Thanks so much. It was a great, great talk.
Tara: Discover Erin’s hand-printed home goods at cottonandflax.com. You can also find her classes on print-making and social media at CreativeLive.com/Craft.
Next week, I talk with brand and sales strategist Monaica Liddell. Monaica and I talk about her process for creating stories and brands that sell, how she connects with clients who don’t have time for your content marketing, and how she divides her time between her client services and business development.
That’s a wrap for this week’s episode of Profit. Power. Pursuit. A CreativeLive podcast. Download more episodes of this podcast and subscribe on iTunes. If you appreciate this kind of in-depth content, please leave us a review or share this podcast with a friend. It means the world to us.
Our theme song was written by Daniel Peterson, who also edited this episode. Our audio engineer was Kellen Shimizu. This episode was produced by Michael Karsh. We add a new episode of Profit. Power. Pursuit. every week. Subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you love to listen to podcasts so you never miss an episode.