In this time, now more than ever, we need to support our creators and small businesses. One way for us to do this, is to continue to share and create opportunities for you to Meet The Maker: stories about the women creators we know and love or those you may not have heard of yet, but need to. This Meet The Maker story is about how one woman took her passion for watercoloring and turned it into a product created out of necessity and built on creating joy. I had the opportunity and the pleasure to talk with Sally King McBride to learn how she successfully turned her passion into a product and even how she is coping and what that looks like in today’s world. This is Sally’s story behind the creation of The Letter Nest.
“It’s empowering to see how small businesses can serve one another.”
It’s hard to know what you want to be when you grow up, but for Sally King McBride it has always been simple and steadfast: an artist. Any creator out there knows that the term artist can encompass an enormous variety of meanings. “I’m passionate about art in all forms, and I was determined to make it my profession from the time I was little.”. From the time she was in 3rd grade, Sally knew that art had to exist in her life in some capacity, if not her main occupation. But after college and more than 10 years in the professional world, Sally knew she ultimately wanted to take her passion for painting (watercolors more specifically) and channel it into creating a product that she could build into something much greater than just its tangible parts. But where and how do you summon the courage to make that leap into full time artistry? Well for starters, you have to be passionate about something. You have to be able to see your art through a refined and professionalized panorama; one that enables the artist to take a more pragmatic approach and objectively look beyond their medium to consider ideas outside of its purely visual elements. Sally credits her art teachers for helping her discover and harness this new paradigm: no longer is it solely about creating art for the sake of creating art, but to bring it into the professional arena, you need to have more.
“I was also fortunate that most of my teachers encouraged a professionalized view towards making art: it wasn’t purely about self-expression, but rather about what might sell well, what looked beautiful, and what would bring people joy. In the instruction of visual art, this is fairly radical.”
Sally’s story seems born out of a fairy tale, or perhaps even a rom-com written by Nora Ephron. She majored in Art History in college at Brown and was able to secure a job at the MET in New York City almost immediately upon graduating. She spent 11 years working her way through 3 departments within the museum, mingling with renowned curators and celebrities alike, all the while taking freelance watercolor commissions for friends, family and, soon enough, referrals. Sally gives credit to her time at The MET for growing and developing her professionalism, and for laying the groundwork for her future entrepreneurial aspirations.
“There was no better training ground for the professionalism, grace, and thoroughness that serve me as an entrepreneur, as well as the stark contrast of glamour and drudgery of running one’s own company...in a single afternoon at the Museum, I could go from escorting a celebrity to a meeting with the Director, to proofing an event budget in Excel. Overall, my gratitude for working at The Met can’t be overstated, and having spent my 20s in that building, it’s truly where I grew up!”
To grow emotionally, there comes that time when we realize we have squeezed all of the proverbial juice from our fruit and thus need to move onto something new and perhaps more fulfilling. Professionally, sometimes you have to do the same. After having spent 11 years at The MET, Sally took pause and reimagined her current professional situation. She realized that she wanted to veer away from the busy life centered around the museum, to one that focused more on family; one that gave her the time to pursue consulting while simultaneously creating the impetus to do more watercolor freelance work. After the birth of her second son, this gave her the gateway and the time to pursue an idea that had been brewing for some time, and in this precious moment of evolution and transition, her product - a project driven by passion and created out of necessity - came to fruition and The Letter Nest was born.
“The Letter Nest began as many small businesses do: as a solution to a problem—I needed a clever and meaningful baby gift when my friends and family started to have children. Perhaps because I didn’t know the difference between a blanket and a swaddle, I started to paint names and monogram watercolors for these newborns. I’d been taking watercolor commissions from the time I was a high school junior, anything from house portraits to beachscapes. After starting to gift these baby name paintings, I started receiving incoming requests almost exclusively for these kinds of commissions, so I let the market indicate what direction my artwork should take. Simultaneously, changes in my personal and professional life—namely, the birth of my second son, and my decision to leave The Met to pursue consulting work—allowed me just enough time to get The Letter Nest off the ground.”
So in the most organic way, Sally was able to take an idea created from the desire to give meaningful baby gifts and turn it into a viable product using her artistic talents. But then came the logistics: how do you mass produce something that is so time consuming? How do you create consistency and continuity for all of your clients with a medium that can change after each execution? This is where Sally had to rearrange her normal mode of going about her art; what was once a one-time creation, now had to have the ability to be produced quickly and seamlessly from one fulfillment to the next.
“The key aspect of launching the brand and making it scalable was the idea to pre-paint a few themed watercolor alphabets, and making those available online as print- and frame-to-order products, rather than painting every single order myself!”
Once she figured out how to mass produce her prints, Sally then needed to carry out the rest of the production needed to finalize the creation of her brand: website design, marketing videos, sales tax reporting and business planning. Now, unless you have gone to school for decades on end, chances are you probably don’t know how to do all of this on your own, so Sally had to call in some favors from the people in her life who she knew she could lean on. This is where the magic of small businesses comes into play; favors and cross-promotion are often the best and most lucrative currency.
“I’ve hired freelancers for many other parts of the business where my training is lacking: website design, marketing videos, business planning, sales tax reporting. Everyone has something to offer—with their own unique training and expertise—and it’s empowering to see how small businesses can serve one another.”
I later asked Sally, what she wanted to convey to others about turning passion projects into full-time product development. “Solopreneurship” as she dubs it, can have a tendency to be isolating so you have to be prepared to have it all ride on your shoulders, even when it can be tough to get up and get going - and this is also where having the coalition of other entrepreneurs comes into play: “Solopreneurship can be super isolating, so consider this when starting out, and assemble a team around you as you go—whether it’s a co-founder, or a flock of freelancers to help you.”. One thing she noted is that you have to be comfortable putting yourself out there unapologetically. Our social media rich world makes access to self promotion easy but you need to speak about yourself and your product authoritatively, even if it makes you a tad uncomfortable.
It’s amazing to think about our world today vs. one month ago; the days before social-distancing and quarantines, before everything was closed or cancelled. But it’s in these moments where one can really dig deep to try and figure out the direction of their brand without the distraction from mundane everyday tasks. And once this all settles, and we can resume life as we knew it, Sally sees The Letter Nest supporting advocacy for children’s literacy and education - a conclusion she came to “as a result of my own upbringing in a family with a disproportionately high number of teachers!”. So to those of us who want to bring our creations to the forefront and create a product: do it with passion, do it unapologetically and do it with intent on creating joy in someone's life because that’s what we need now more than ever; surround yourself with people who you can learn from and in turn, can learn from you; help each other, support each other and above all be fearless in your endeavor.
** Sally will be donating all profits from the readers of this blog to No Kid Hungry by using the code "CECE2020". To learn more about The Letter Nest, and all of their products, because it's much more than just the Alphabet Letters, visit www.theletternest.com. With Mother's Day around the corner, let's remember to shop small for those we love and shop to help all of the makers out there as well as those who really need it. Readers from this blog can also use the code "CECE2020" to enjoy 20% off CECE DuPRAZ Custom Tote Sets through the end of April and all the profits with this code will be donated to No Kid Hungry.**