Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Artistic Entrepreneur; Entrepreneurial Artist

Sixteen years ago a struggling artist and budding business woman, Sarah Grant, started Sticks, Inc. Sticks handcrafts truly distinctive furniture, accessories, and objets d'art (showin' off ma francais) at a unique studio in Des Moines, IA. Sarah was a recent visitor to our Entrepreneurial Leadership class at Drake University, and she stole the show. A vivacious former [girls] soccer mom, Sarah shared her adventurous journey from fine arts student to successful entrepreneur and independent business woman and tossed in more than a little practical real-life advice. She understands the importance of a good story, and in her excellent tale she personifies the challenges and opportunities all entrepreneurs face.

When the economy goes down, the bright and innovative rise up.
Sarah left Des Moines to ski and study art; after graduating college, and plenty of skiing and art, she earned a masters in Italo printmaking (WTH?) and an MFA in painting. She was an ARTIST. Like almost all young artists, she started out as a waitress; she moved on to ticket sales, and then adjunct teaching (I can confirm that that's a calling, not a career). She then taught, for 10 years, at a college of design. The most she ever made was $8,900 a year, and, as she was a credit hour short of fulltime , she got no benefits, but she was an ARTIST.

I don't do tchotchkes.
Pursuing her dream of sustaining herself as a painter and drawer, she told herself, "I don't do tchotchkes" (extra credit if you know what they are). Meredith Publishing, publisher of Ladies' Home Journal, approached her about building a non-country nativity set. "I don't do tchotchkes" she replied. "Well, we'll pay you $500." "I'll do tchotchkes." Neither a sculptor nor a woodcarver, Sarah was a drawer, but Meredith didn't know that. So she found an old box and used a woodburning tool to draw her design, and sold the design to Meredith. Her Mom asked her if she could make another one. From that unexpected start grew Sticks; she learned later to keep and protect her designs.

I don't do art fairs.
She had vowed to never do art fairs; but as I learned when I moved to Des Moines, one must never say never, and hit the art fair she did. Living like a carnie, Sticks consumed all her time and effort, but she was making it work. Finally tiring of life on the road, a friend at the Des Moines Art Center referred her to a big wholesale crafts trade show. Ignoring her attorney's advice to name her business "Sarah Grant Inc." on the notion that other artists wouldn't want to work for Sarah Grant, so she stuck with Sticks. She did take his advice to demand deposits and minimum orders though. Of course she was the only one out of 4,500 exhibitors to do so, and until the final 1/2 day it appeared that she may have overreached. In that last 1/2 day, however, she booked $7,500 of orders, and the new Sticks Inc. was off and running. Today, Sticks's top ten accounts come from that first batch of orders.

100% Made in the U.S.A.
Sticks has been profitable every year since then. And every product is 100% made in the U.S.A.; something more than one person told Sarah she couldn't do. Well, she learned by doing, and today, one of Sticks's key strengths is in process. Focusing on developing efficient processes, fostering creativity and preserving high quality Sarah successfully made the leap from passion to profit, while preserving her artistic roots. She also takes care of her employees, 140 strong today . Because she started out with no benefits, she is committed to putting as much money as she can into employee benefits, and strives to make Sticks a great place to work. Sticks is truly an American success story.

Challenges and Opportunities
Sarah closed with some remarks on the challenges the current economic climate presents to her and to other small businesses. She may have less money to reinvest; profits will be harder to achieve, but she emphasized that this is a fertile environment for someone seeking to start a business. Inters tingly, she also noted that while the wholesale business has declined, Sticks's gallery business has remained strong. (I suggest that the unique nature and high quality, couple with the local nature of her crafts sets her wares apart.) Many people are scared, so those who can muster the resources to start something can make a real mark. She urged the students to consider this as a real opportunity.

"The great thing about business," she said, "it always changes."

A couple days after her presentation I received an announcement that Sticks was opening a gallery shop in Kansas City for the holidays. Times may be tough, but so is Sarah, and like so many successful entrepreneurs she will make things happen, and probably break a few of her own rules in doing so.