January is a month of new beginnings. After the “holidaze” clears, you’re left with the clarity and focus to make and start working toward new goals! If one of your goals is to become a creative entrepreneur this year, you’ll enjoy this post. In it, we’ll hear from Jess Greenleaf, proprietress of Greenleaf & Blueberry, who makes and sells natural watercolors.
Who Is Jess?
You may have noticed mentions of Greenleaf & Blueberry scattered throughout the TPK blog and social media. I have a long history with Jess, which started in 2009 in Florence, Italy. Serendipitously, we ended up in the same study abroad program. Our friendship has been strong ever since, and we both became creative entrepreneurs by coincidence.
Sometimes you have people in your life that you feel immensely proud of. For me, Jess is one of those people! She knows everything about watercolors, from paint composition to the best materials and painting techniques. With that knowledge, she built Greenleaf & Blueberry, a company that top-quality artisanal watercolors.
G&B was Jess’s dream, and she achieved it after a few years of experimentation and work. If you find yourself working toward a goal this year, I hope that this interview will inspire you to move forward!
Explain in a nutshell what you do for work.
My name is Jess Greenleaf, and I am the Creative Director and Co-Owner of Greenleaf & Blueberry. My company makes handmade supplies and materials for the traveling artist. These include artisanal handmade watercolors, hand-carved paintbrushes, and travel watercolor palettes. We also recently released “Paintable Projects“, which are digital watercolors projects for you to download, print, and paint.
What did you do before G&B?
It was always important to me to remain as close to my interests as possible in my paid work, even if it meant working for less money or taking on a second job. Every job has the potential to build useful experience, especially if it is relevant to your goals. Essentially, I have followed my curiosity, and it has lead me to pursuing projects that have built the experience and knowledge base that lead me to G&B.
I’ve known since I was tiny that I wanted to be an artist. And yet, the field of Art is so broad, it is easy to become lost or overwhelmed. As I mentioned above, letting your curiosity be your guide will help keep you on a path that is all your own.
My curiosity lead me to a number of different types of work. For example, in high school, I was hired by a local artist as an apprentice to assist in painting and renovating an old factory into a gallery. Even when I was on my hands and knees, wearing a dust mask and using an industrial shop vac to suck out gunk from between wooden floor boards, I knew the work was taking me somewhere!
In college, I paired up with a professor I admired and respected who lead me to seeking and earning an obscure degree: a BFA in Art History. I couldn’t get enough of the history of art, but also couldn’t imagine having a schedule that wasn’t heavy in studio courses. Voilà! It turned out that I could eat my cake and have it too! A major takeaway for me was this: do not allow yourself to feel pigeonholed. Barriers are often opportunities in disguise.
I continued to apprentice for different professional artists, and then I entered the art supply industry. After concentrating so heavily on the historical, technical, and subjective sides of art, I was thirsty to learn everything there was to know about the physical and scientific side of artmaking. During this time I also started working at a gallery where I became the Director. I worked closely with many artists, not only to curate shows, but also to help them adopt archival practices for their pieces.
How long have you had Greenleaf & Blueberry, and when did you decide that it was time to start your business?
I started G&B seven years ago, though the idea had been there longer. The truth is, I’ve been making things and selling them since elementary school. One year, I made pens and sold them to my classmates. I remember feeling delighted as I looked around my fifth-grade classroom and saw that every other student was writing with one of my pens! So, my natural tendencies pointed to self-employment as the logical path rather early on.
One day I heard from a friend that an acquaintance of ours was supporting herself entirely from her creative online business. Her success showed me that my dream of independent self-employment was achievable, and illuminated a path through the woods that I hadn’t previously known existed. It inspired me to open up shop online. The realization that I am responsible for my own destiny and that there is no time like the present has been a constant motivator to keep on trucking.
What do you think has helped the most to make your business successful?
Passion. A strong and thorough knowledge base. Offering something that is an extension of myself, and therefore unique and authentic. Caring intensely about everything I create and every customer that humbles me with their patronage.
What — in your opinion — are some general tips to success for a creative entrepreneur?
Building a business is a slow and steady process, and I have found that there really are no tricks. Truly loving what you do provides a lot of energy and momentum. Stubborn perseverance will get you through the tough times. There are no roadmaps in small business – you get to freeform which is both wonderfully liberating and terribly frightening, but it allows you to rely on your greatest asset: creativity.
Holding your work to the highest quality standards will ensure both your own satisfaction and that of your customers. The presentation of your work should be executed with the same care and attention with which your work is produced. Finally, find your own stylistic voice. You are the very best (and only!) version of yourself, and as such have something that no one else on earth can offer. Embracing your own idiosyncrasies and eccentricities is a significant part of finding success.
Were your friends and family always supportive of your business? What would you say to those whose friends and family aren’t supportive?
I’m fortunate that my family has always been hugely supportive of me (although I think that they were privately worried most of the time). My friends find me lovably weird, which I accept as a compliment.
When the naysayers would tell me, “There is no money in art”, or “If you’re going to study art you should get a business degree too”, it really just revealed their own lack of imagination. Fear of the unknown gets the better of a lot of us, but it’s not a reason in and of itself not to forge ahead. If you’re at a loss, you can always say: “This is just something I have to do.”
“I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing that I wanted to do.” ~Georgia O’Keefe
What are some drawbacks of having your own business?
Being at work 24/7 everyday. As your own boss, with the success of your business riding on your shoulders alone, you’ll work yourself harder than any other boss you’ve ever had. Working endless hours and forgetting how to relax are standard rites of passage when you have your own business.
Remember, too, that monetizing your passion can be a sizable unforeseen drawback. What used to be a relaxing pastime will have new pressures and motivations associated with it. You will likely find yourself picking up new hobbies (which can be a silver lining). I have taken up the piano again after a long hiatus and also started to learn quilting!
How has your business changed from what you expected it would be?
For me, it has been more about coming to terms with expectation vs. reality. Whenever you dream about your career or the business you want to start, you imagine the fun parts. That’s actually a necessary state of ignorance, because if most people knew exactly how much work goes into starting your own business they probably wouldn’t attempt it. The truth is, and to put it eloquently, “living the dream” can really suck sometimes. The stress can be shocking. But, if you’re truly passionate about what you do, those hard times are just part of the scenery – little bumps on a country road through a beautiful, wild landscape.
There is an old adage: “If you love what you do you’ll never work a day in your life.” The flip side is: if you bank on your passion you work every single day of the week. Reality is somewhere in between and your attitude and expectations will determine the character of yours. Personally, I didn’t stay up nights starry-eyed and dreaming about spending 14 hours at a time answering emails. I could never have foreseen becoming an expert in bubble wrap origami or a tape-gun ninja. I didn’t think about the parts that nobody talks about, like the hours spent doing your best “IT guy” impersonation while you attempt to build a website, or the timeless dimension you enter when you start trying in earnest to decipher the cryptic ways of the postal service.
It helps to understand that “your dream” needs to be a fluid concept, capable of evolution. I now understand that you have to focus on so much more than just the product.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to be a creative entrepreneur?
Trust your natural curiosity and enthusiasm – it will lead you in the right direction. Learn everything there possibly is to know about your subject. Don’t mimic someone else’s products or business, and try not to covet what someone else has built – you can be positive that it didn’t happen quickly or easily.
Believe in yourself. It sounds trite, but it’s so important. Temper your hard work with patience. Allow your pursuit to become a part of your identity. Starting your own business is one part having an idea that you just can’t shut up about. The second part is hard-nose planning and practical logistics, and the third part is a leap of faith. That steadfast self-belief will give you the wings you need to survive the leap and find yourself flying.
“I am seeking, I am striving. I am in it with all my heart.” ~Vincent Van Gogh
Thanks so much to Jess for her thoughtful answers and advice! I’d like to add a few resources that may give you the push you need to start your own business in 2018. You can check out the following articles for tips and inspiration!:
- How to Make Extra Income Selling Calligraphy
- 8 Tips for Starting a Calligraphy Business
- Six Steps to Starting a Creative Blog
- 6 Product Photography Tips from a DIY Photographer
If you’re now ogling a G&B watercolor palette, don’t forget to enter the giveaway for the G&B Calligraphy Set ($125.45 value), which ends this Saturday, January 13th, at 11:59 PM MST! Have a great weekend, and thanks to you, too, for reading TPK!