Tell us about your shop and the idea behind it.
The photographs in my shop are a happy accident. In January 2009, I moved to Paris with my husband and two young sons. Despite the damp cold and relentless gray, we enjoyed exploring our new neighborhood. One day, I noticed a few objects in a similar shade of red and shot them. As I walked, I found other things I liked in that shade and photographed those as well. When I returned home and uploaded them to my blog, the response was, “more!”
I quickly became obsessed and spent weeks singling out different shades. Searching for colors is a surprisingly democratic process, as it’s just as likely to appear on something spectacular (Notre Dame) as it is on something pedestrian (a trash can). I didn’t question whether the object was famous, old, or important; I just shot it. The serendipitous nature of the process meant that I never had a plan and that was part of the fun.
About a year later, I realized I was taking the kind of photos of Paris that, as a raging Francophile, I wanted to see, but could never find. When I wasn’t in Paris, I wanted to be in Paris — on the streets, sitting at a café, peering into a cheese shop, admiring the light on the cobblestones, noticing a charming sign for a €10 bouquet of tulips. I didn’t want the dressed up, tourist version of Paris. I wanted the Converse and t-shirt Paris — the Paris you see when you step out of the shadows of the monuments.
I’m consistently drawn to the way color contrasts Paris’ neutral facades, the way layers of paint erode into a form of abstract art, and to the details that catch your eye, but wouldn’t ordinarily photograph. And that is what the Paris Color Project is about.
Tell us about your previous working situation and how you discovered Etsy.
I worked in New York as a copywriter for 10 years, mainly in the beauty and fashion industries. When I was pregnant with my second son, I spent a lot of time reading design blogs for nursery decor ideas, and many of them featured Etsy sellers. One fifteen-minute search session and I was hooked. At the time, it felt almost too good to be true. I was so excited to be able to buy original art at affordable prices. Since then, I’ve moved on from wall art and buy everything from Halloween costumes for my sons to caramel marshmallows.
What steps did you take to prepare for the transition to full-time Etsy selling?
When I first started the shop, I was still writing full-time and working with multiple clients. I realized I couldn’t continue to do both, so I handed off some work to my husband, Evan. We co-run Little Brown Pen — a multi-disciplinary creative studio — and have worked together for years, so it made sense. That
was just a short-term fix, however, because he was already busy with his own clients and creative endeavors.
So I developed a business plan, saved money, and let go of a few bread-and-butter clients. It was so scary (terrifying!) at first, but I realized that removing the guaranteed income safety net was a big motivator to grow the business. As a result of my focus, sales doubled.
What is your favorite part of the process of photography?
Discovery. I don’t heavily edit or use filters, so my photos are almost a literal record of what I see. It is crowded in Paris, and photographers are often shooed away from shops and cafes, which leaves you only a few seconds to capture something. So my process is very instinctive and spontaneous. It’s a brief moment of falling in love with an object, the light and the city around it, and then capturing it before it’s gone.
What’s been your most popular item or line to date?
The color collections. I group nine photos together to create an instant gallery. The 8x10s are popular, because nine 8x10s make a big visual impact on the wall and take up a lot of space (which everyone tells me is a plus). On the other hand, a lot of people like the postcard collections, because they are affordable, and easy to pop into 4×6 frames and hang as a mini gallery.
What do you enjoy most about not having a day job?
As a copywriter, I worked very hard to help build someone else’s business. Now I work hard to build my own. That’s a really good feeling.
What are your best marketing tips?
I spent my entire career learning how to tell a coherent and compelling story, and stick to a core identity. So it was extremely frustrating to me when I started to write copy for my shop. The more I tried to “brand” it, or think about it as a company, the less it appealed to me (and in some cases, sales suffered). I realized that I had to keep it personal — no catchy taglines, no marketing speak, just me and my work. That was a big shock, because I felt like my career experience hindered me. People buy art because they like it, but also because of the person behind it. So market your vision.
What tool or technique has been the most effective in getting buyers to your shop?
My blog, Little Brown Pen. It has, hands-down, been the best place for me to share my work and experiences, and my readers have been incredibly supportive of the Paris Color Project. Social media is still very effective (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc), but it’s changing. There’s so much white noise, and many people use social media to deliver push messaging, so people get bored and stop listening. Regardless of the venue, I think you have to do and say things that truly engage your audience. You’re better off finding 20 rabid, die-hard supporters than 1000 unfocused, disengaged followers.
What’s the hardest part about running your own business?
Wait, there’s an easy part?
Seriously, the hardest part is staying focused on the bigger picture — maintaining the CEO vision of your burgeoning little business when you’re also the Sales Director, Manufacturer, Accountant, Shipping Department and Janitor. It helps if I block out time to step back and think strategically about goals. And any plan that gives you a direction is better than drifting along with no plan at all.
What’s the most exciting thing that’s come of your designs on Etsy thus far?
In January 2010, Chronicle Books reached out to me to assess my interest in publishing a collection of the photos from the Paris Color Project. I thought about it for about three seconds before typing yes, followed by an embarrassing number of exclamation points — a form of punctuation I avoid as much as possible as a writer.
Paris in Color released in April 2012 and has exceeded my expectations. I am so happy that people like it, and it’s available all over the world including — to my shock! — the Musee d’Orsay and Shakespeare & Company in Paris. It’s been a great way to expose my work to people offline, complimenting my efforts online with Etsy and my blog.
What advice would you give to someone considering a similar path?
Running a small shop is exhilarating and rewarding. But running a business on a shoestring budget and building it one customer at a time can be overwhelming and exhausting. I think the most important thing is to be passionate about what you do. It sounds like such a cliché, but without passion, the practical aspects of running your own business can seem more like work than a “job.”
In addition, I think you need to start with an interesting point of view, something unique about the way that you see the world. If it solves a practical need at the same time, all the better. Then just put it out there and see how people respond. I’ve learned very surprising things from my customers over the years about what works and what doesn’t. Listen to your customers, don’t be afraid to change things up, but stay true to your vision.
Thanks for sharing your story, Nichole. Check out her items below.