Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
I am Jane, an artist and an author. I am mom to two boys, Finnegan (3.5) and Remington (1.5), who are the inspiration behind the cute hedgehog characters in my books and a lot of my art. I (until very recently, used to) live in Dallas with one husband, two boys, three dogs, and five chickens.
Now, my hubby and I are traveling the world while writing and illustrating books that we want our kids to read. We just finished writing our third book while living on the beaches of Mexico and the mountains of Colombia.
“Finn + Remy Present: Einstein’s Trampoline,” is the first book in our new series introducing fundamental concepts of physics to children ages 4-10.
This imaginative series starts with an easy to understand exploration into general relativity that begins on a backyard trampoline. Join Finn and Remy as their simple ball game takes a frustrating turn and papa's explanation does not quite make sense. To answer their question, the trio (plus chicken in a clever disguise) launches into space as astronauts to discover the effects of mass on gravitational forces.
Lit against a backdrop of stars and planets in our solar system, this beautifully illustrated book will take you on a cosmic adventure full of imagination. For ages 4-10. It is available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon starting at just $4.99.
I also make inspirational art prints and cute T’s for adults and kids alike.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I am a lawyer and engineer with an artsy streak. I took evening art lessons through engineering undergrad and held an art show in the faculty lounge at my law school.
After graduating during the height of the downturn in 2009, I moved home to live with my parents while working my way into the perfect legal job at the best intellectual property law firm in the country. I forgot all about art until shortly before my babies were born. I painted to decorate their nurseries. And from that, the business was born alongside our second son (we literally launched the website from my hospital room in the maternity ward).
Then life was back to normal. Two working spouses, kids in daycare, and little time to ourselves. Like many new parents, we were not sleeping enough, and feeling pent up and frustrated. We needed a change, a refresh. We used to travel so much before careers and kids, and now do we really have to wait 18 years to do it again? So we decided to press pause on the American Dream and, with lots of planning, are trying out a different way of life for a year. A life where we pick up our heads and give ourselves permission to be endlessly fascinated by the world around us. In August of 2018, we rented out our house, packed everything into a 10x20 storage unit, and left the country to travel the world with four backpacks and a pack n’ play. During this time, we finished and just published our latest and greatest book: Einstein’s Trampoline. (Bilingual edition coming soon because we are learning Spanish!).
Now we feel so alive. What do I mean? Well, do you ever look at the calendar, see a week has passed or a month, and have little recollection of where the time went? This feels the opposite of that. It’s having days worth remembering and making room to learn something new along the way.
Where am I going with this? We try to capture that feeling of aliveness in our books and inspirational art. We want to spark the innate curiosity of the minds of children and instill in them a wonder of our world, imagination for boundless creativity, and a deep-rooted appreciation for storytelling.
We want them to not take the day to day of life too seriously. Be able to look up at the blue and feel infinitesimally small. And yet, understand that what we do in this life still matters. Our time is finite. Don’t slog through it like a job. Live intentionally.
And through these stories, we can share our experiences, knowledge, and inspiration with the future.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
My first commercial product was a watercolor greeting card design that I created of a hedgehog holding a pinecone. I was practicing dip ink calligraphy at the time and made it into a “thank you” card.
My friends loved this piece and from it, I started making more hedgehog based doodles. I also branched out into other underappreciated animals such as mice, badgers, raccoons, and anteaters, but hedgehogs remain my character animal.
For the first set of card designs, I photographed my art in the driveway (while 8 months pregnant) and taught myself digital editing.
I ran three sets of test prints with an online stationery company and tweaked the color to most accurately capture the subtleties of watercolor. Often working with the baby strapped to my waist.
Once I was satisfied with the product, I launched a presale, selling cards at $3.50 each and sold about $800 that weekend. The test runs printing cost was about $75.
A few weeks after the greeting cards launched, I branched out into art prints because it was an available print option with our local FedEx that I noticed while shipping out a batch of orders. So the first sets of prints were printed through the FedEx office down the street just to see if anyone would buy them. After we sold out, I started ordering prints online through the stationary company, but the per print price was too high because, unlike the cards, we did not want to buy 100x of each print. After much research and manual assistance from an entrepreneurial friend, I bought a Epson photo printer and began making my own prints. That way, I could better control the quality and quantity of each design.
Once I started publishing books, the process became a lot more difficult. I first published “The Christmas Story” with CreateSpace (now Kindle Direct Publisher, KPD) and formatted my book in Powerpoint. I would paint the illustrations in watercolor, stick the images on a storyboard, take photos of each piece in my driveway, adjust the colors digitally, and paste it into Powerpoint.
It was a clumsy and slow process that made editing very difficult. But it worked! Even when my computer died and I lost my original file forever, this book is still available for purchase on Amazon.
For our second book, “Explore Dallas,” my illustrations were more polished and I wanted to try making a hardback cover. KDP did not offer hardback options so I went with IngramSpark (IS). The quality was outstanding but they charged a whopping $12 after shipping to print and ship this book. I thought I could do better by buying from a Chinese manufacturer. So I did a test run and then placed an order for 100 books. The quality was similar, but the book height was 1” shorter than US publishing and it did not save me much more. It was $8 instead of $12, but now I had to package and ship the product. The extra $4 in profit per book was not worth my time to store, process, and ship. So in the end, I went back to IngramSpark for their POD services. However, the distinction between IS and KDP is that, while IS integrates with Amazon for POD, it is a third party seller and does not show up as “ships from and fulfilled by Amazon” with that giant yellow friendly button.
So for the third book, we went back to Kindle Direct Publishing for their seamless integration with Amazon. We went back to paperback books because the hardback was not worth the extra cost and lack of yellow button. And we changed our format from first, a square, then landscape, to a bookstore-friendly 9x6.
Now my paperback books are sold for $9.99 and my profit is $2.06 per book. And besides marketing, it’s all passive.
Describe the process of launching the business.
The business began organically as a hobby. I’ve been painting and drawing for longer than I can remember and have sold a handful of paintings over the years.
But the problem as a fine artist is being able to scale. There are only so many hours in the day and breaking down the per hour rate for an unknown artist is very discouraging. There’s a reason why I am a lawyer and not a full-time artist. So I had never seriously considered art as a commercial endeavor.
All that changed once I realized that one of my original works can be reproduced indefinitely as prints. And that a digital image is versatile. It can be reproduced on cards, canvas, T-shirts, mugs, cloth, the sky is the limit. And once created, it can be useful forever. There is a significant amount of satisfaction in this realization.
Probably the best part of this business is that I am the artist and I am simply commercializing works I would be producing for fun anyway. The startup costs were minimal as far as ordering cards online. Every holiday season, I normally order $200 worth of cards to send to family and friends. Now, I design and order my own. The initial printing runs, equipment costs (printer and paper, etc.), website subscription, domain purchase, and business liability insurance were about $1,200.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
My initial launch was through my personal and my public “artist” Facebook pages and the sales were primarily to family and friends.
But there’s only so much support one can get from their initial circle so the trick is to expand. Our biggest sales have been from doing local events - at the farmers market, festivals, holiday bazaars, live painting events at Kendra Scott and West Elm. Those are also the best venues to sell our primary product at the time - greeting cards - to a big pool of new people.
Through it, we gained a base of Facebook and Instagram followers. We also received live feedback and suggestions on how we can improve and what new products people would like to see. Using client feedback, we created our first children’s picture book: The Christmas Story.
We finished the book and received our order of 50 copies on December 1. We sold them for $20 each and by the week before Christmas, we were sold out.
Once we decided to travel the world, we had to cease our live events and transition to an online marketplace. This is a much harder medium for my low cost art-based products. As a result, we removed greeting cards from our product list and are channeling our focus on to books.
Because, like art, a book once made is never unmade. We put in the effort to create it once and the book will generate royalties for as long as it is under copyright (currently my lifetime + 75 years). I will be putting my heart and soul into creating each beautiful book once, and otherwise minimize the less interesting duties as far as managing orders and distribution.
So the print on demand platform allows me to travel and stay in the creative process as much as possible. Currently, my books are printed on demand and sold through Amazon.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
As of this point, our business is profitable but not by much. While we were doing live events, our revenue averaged $2k/month but it has dropped off significantly since we started traveling. In total, we have generated about $17-18k in revenue with about $12k in expenses.
The expenses include filing for Trademarks, copyright registration, Shopify hosting, transaction fees, packaging (for the festivals), product printing cost, and book printing cost (which is as much as 75% of the sale price for POD).
One area we have not spent much money on yet is advertising. This is a problem that is becoming more apparent now that we have transitioned out of in-person sales. We are starting to address it now by running a set of video Facebook ads to identify our target audience. There are a set of five videos showing a timelapse of my drawing process in creating my latest book, Einstein’s Trampoline. And our spend rate per 10-second view is $0.03-0.04. We will then create more targeted ads and provide free offer incentives to this discrete set of people who have already shown their interest in my work.
So in sum, we are not what others would call an overnight success. But I think we represent the norm for entrepreneurs, particularly artisans. The business started as a side hustle and will remain one until we put more work into building up the brand, writing more books, and creating a following. But my dream is a long one. In 10 years (my friends say 5), Finn + Remy will be a household name like Dr. Seuss or Berenstein Bears. As the children audience grow up, they will remember the books from their childhood, and so on. That is the beauty of being a creator of something that lasts.
In the meantime, I’ll be hanging out in Thailand, painting away and eating mango sticky rice by the tuktuk load.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
When a business is based on a hobby, at some point, that hobby becomes a job.
It is difficult for creators to grasp this and the hard part is keeping the creating fun. I’ve never relied upon my art to put bread on the table, and with our other investments, I don’t think I’ll need to. But I believe it will one day within the next 10 years. It is one of my investments, a long term financial investment as well as an emotional and intellectual investment in myself.
Money is important.
Being in a solid financial situation at home before starting a business is important to peace of mind. I hear stories of entrepreneurs who risk it all and get on by the skin of their teeth to develop a million dollar business. That is amazing, inspirational, but not the norm. For every one of those, there are many others who fail because they are not starting with a foundation of solid personal finance.
But money is not everything.
This is a harder lesson to learn and I’m still learning it. The YouTube ads about how to make six figures in six months by drop shopping silicon rings on Amazon, for example, is envy-inducing. Just figure out what people want to buy and give it to them. Simple, right? Maybe, but it’s not where my passion lies. I am in the business of creating something beautiful that did not exist before. And, I hope, adding value to this world. I want it to sell and bring in money, and I’ll take the steps to get there. But in the meantime, the process gives me a level of fulfillment along the way.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
My ecommerce shop is hosted by Shopify. I also use the apps Privy for email popups, the free shipping bar by Hextom, and Gooten print on demand.
I have also used Printful and Printify for print on demand, but I find Gooten to be a better quality for the price.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
The 4 Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss. The initial attraction was the title but the substance is even better. From it, I learned automation and outsourcing. Do the things you like to do and outsource the rest. That’s why we transitioned from storing inventory and shipping products ourselves to print on demand. Our profit is thinner but I gladly pay it to avoid the demand on my time, space, and energy.
The bigger takeaway is breaking outside of the system. Tim inspired my husband and I to press pause on the American Dream and leave the country for a year with our two small boys (we waited until the baby turned 1). Now we are traveling the world and encountering business opportunities we never would have fathomed had we stayed put and kept chugging. Tim’s book showed me this was possible, and then we executed.
The third takeaway that enabled item 2 is putting together multiple streams of income. We were already investing in rental real estate by this time so the wheels were in motion.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Don’t try to be an overnight success. There’s a quote that says overnight successes are made over 20 years. Give yourself time to do it right. And to stay with it over time, pick something you are passionate about.
That way, you can enjoy the process. With businesses, it’s not about the end result because a business done right has no big finale.
Do what you love, or why be an entrepreneur? There are plenty of jobs working for other people that pay great.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Social media/general marketing guru. It’s another item I prefer to outsource. Ideally, I want someone to take over the @finnandremy Instagram and @finnremy Facebook page, and lead the marketing effort. We are already running FB ads, but I need advice on whether Instagram ads, Google Adwords, and others are worth the investment.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Want to start your own business?
Hey! 👋I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
We interview successful business owners and share the stories behind their business. By sharing these stories, we want to help others get started.
If you liked this story, join our mailing list for new interviews every Tuesday.
Interested in sharing your own story? Shoot me an email!