My name is Betsy van Die and I am a lifelong exhibiting fine artist with a BFA in Sculpture from the Rhode Island School of Design. Although it’s difficult to make a living as a fine artist, my creativity has served me well as a communications professional and writer for more than 25 years. I consider myself a Renaissance woman because I have extensive knowledge and expertise in many areas. For example, my knowledge and skills in photography go back to childhood when my dad taught me to develop and enlarge photos in our basement darkroom. I worked at a commercial photo studio starting my senior year in high school and summers during college. The first year after college, I was the only female at an industrial design model shop. I also worked at a top jeweler in Chicago setting up jobs with goldsmiths, sorting colored stones, designing pieces, and selling jewelry. Side jobs over the years have included antique restoration, photo retouching, photographing other artists’ work, resume writing, and most recently – creating miniature paintings.
While I make a living writing for an eclectic array of national and international clients, Consumer Grouch is my passion project. It would be great if it generated revenue, but the rewards of writing this blog go far beyond the bottom line. To demonstrate this value, here are a few of the meaningful things that occurred as a direct result of writing this blog.
I have been fascinated with the Triangle Fire tragedy in NYC since I was 8-years-old. Before my September 2013 NYC trip, I did as much research as possible. My goal was to write an article about the 146 souls who lost their lives on March 25, 1911, including where they lived at the time. This became a wild goose chase of sorts because many of the documented addresses no longer existed. I got poison ivy looking for their graves at Mount Zion Cemetery in Queens. I used photos I found online and some I personally shot on this trip to create a December 2013 blog that took far more time than any other I created before or since. I promoted this successfully through a Facebook group I joined devoted to this topic. The top expert/historian on this topic called me a few days after I posted the blog. I also heard from Serphine R. Maltese, a former NY State Senator from Queens, who has worked tirelessly to keep the memory alive of his grandmother and her teenage daughters who perished in the fire.
When I was growing up, my dad frequently mentioned the important role Howard Clothes played in his family’s life. The grandfather I never met worked there, as did my uncle, aunt, and my aunt’s husband. The company operated a massive factory in Brooklyn, just on the other side of the Manhattan Bridge. At one point, they had 150 stores, yet this business was lost to history. My maternal grandmother’s first cousin Minnie was married to Samuel Kappel, one of the founders of the business and a self-made man who was quite wealthy. After I posted the first story, all of the living relatives contacted me, we connected on Facebook, and I found out the only living child of Sam and Minnie (my dad’s third cousin) had written a book mentioning my grandfather. I filled in more details about the business from her book and talked to her on the phone before she passed away, inspiring an epilogue and final article.
I grew up in Lincolnwood, Illinois, a near north suburb of Chicago. When I wrote the first blog in December 2016, the response was overwhelming. It evoked 354 comments and the single highest number of views in a day at 1,478. I leveraged Facebook to promote the blog and joined a group that was created in 2018 to further promote these articles. It was cool to reconnect with many people I grew up with and hadn’t heard from in decades, albeit fleetingly. As a result of the positive response and suggestions, I wrote a second article and a related blog on Skokie, the village next to Lincolnwood. The Mayor of Lincolnwood contacted me and wanted to feature excerpts of the first blog in their print and online newsletter. Ironically, shortly after publishing the first in what was supposed to be a series, he lost the election – to a classmate of mine who didn’t share the same fondness for nostalgia! To this day, people link to these blogs on social media, resulting in great metrics.
These are a few of the other blogs that led to stellar metrics and surprises:
What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?
Just before I lost my high-level position as director of communications for a national medical association in mid-June 2011, I read Just Kids by Patti Smith. In the darkest days after losing my job, I found inspiration and salvation in her words. In essence, I went through a rebirth of sorts spurred on by losing my financially lucrative job. I had achieved incredible benchmarks in media relations, attaining a career-high 5.5 billion media impressions in 2010, but I was also stressed by working in a difficult environment.
Find a passion, master it, devote adequate time to the endeavor, and most importantly, learn how to market your product/service.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, losing this job was a blessing in disguise. Having more time on my hands enabled me to get back to my fine art, exhibit my work, sell more antiques on eBay (I had been doing so since 1997), and finally devote time to Consumer Grouch. Around the same time, I launched my professional consulting website Write Perspectives.
Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?
After a couple of fitful starts followed by long, procrastinating months of no activity, Consumer Grouch was officially launched on September 3, 2011. As the title implies, the original intent of this blog was to comment on the world of consumerism. It started as a blog about things my husband and I liked, disliked, or had utter disdain for (e.g. products, advertising, shopping, dining) and general interactions and observations about the world. The blog quickly morphed into a platform for writing in-depth human interest and historical pieces to highlight research and photography, two of my top passions. Early on, I also felt compelled to write about important topics that I covered in my professional life, such as head injury and stroke prevention. The latter actually morphed into one of my first freelances, paid consulting positions. Moreover, this somewhat humorous blog landed me a job with the agency I have been freelancing at since 2014. While my husband is in charge of the technical side of managing WordPress, he leaves the writing to me.
Although I had a highly successful track record in PR and media relations, social media wasn’t a component of any of my full-time positions. One of the things I had to do was delve headfirst into platforms such as Facebook and Twitter and learn how to leverage them to promote my blog. I achieved some success by simply posting links to Consumer Grouch blogs to Facebook, joining groups with similar content, and engaging with readers.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today, the overarching theme of Consumer Grouch mirrors the message of my fine art and photography. My blog, photos, and mixed media pieces are about fleeting memories, the ephemeral nature of life, and memorializing a visually-rich past that no longer exists. As such, I frequently incorporate my own photos in my blogs, especially vintage images I shot in NYC and Providence, Rhode Island during college.
A single photo can spark an idea for an entire blog. For example, I was hunting around on the Library of Congress site for vintage magic images to use in my collages and stumbled upon wonderful posters for a magician named Howard Thurston. I had never heard of him, did some research, and read the quintessential biography on his life. This led to writing a blog on his remarkably colorful life. Another example is when I found a terrific photograph by the street photographer Vivian Maier picturing one of the world’s tallest men with connections to my hometown. So this blog wasn’t about Maier, but Donald Koehler and the coffee house in the photograph. One thing always seems to lead to another.
Although this blog doesn’t generate revenue per se, I continue to leverage it regularly as a portfolio of sorts to secure paid writing gigs. I have received a handful of small donations via the PayPal link on the home page. And last, while these two instances hardly made me rich, they’re worth mentioning.
A Nostalgic Trip Down Canal Street, NYC: I sold a print of my vintage November 1977 photo of Pearl Paint to the nephew of the owners after he read this blog.
Matchbooks Spark The Unearthing of Long Forgotten Histories: This blog inspired a local matchbook collector to donate her entire collection to me. As a result, I wrote a follow-up blog highlighting a few of the matchbooks she gave me. I used others in mixed-media collages, kept a few unusual ones, and sold the rest to an avid collector via eBay.
Writing this blog inspired me to scan hundreds of vintage negatives and slides to use in various articles. This blog serves as a great platform for taking a visual trip down memory lane that resonates with my readers. But it isn’t especially effective for monetizing my vintage images. As such, I launched an Instagram page in late August 2020 devoted exclusively to NYC photos.
Increasing blog readership isn’t a primary goal at this point while growing my Instagram following most certainly is. My number one goal at this point is to devise an effective marketing strategy that leverages both Consumer Grouch and Instagram to sell these images. A secondary goal is to utilize the blog to promote the exquisite miniatures my husband creates and my paintings that complement his pieces.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I’m fully aware that writing an eclectic blog that reflects my many interests is the reason why it isn’t monetized. Individuals who write targeted blogs that focus on one area (e.g. fashion) often earn revenue through advertising. In essence, being a Renaissance woman has worked against me because the articles aren’t focused on one area. Nevertheless, I don’t think I would change a thing, other than the name of the blog because it’s a bit misleading.
The biggest challenge has been the platform itself – WordPress has caused all sorts of technical headaches. Although my husband is a computer programmer by profession, he has struggled at times to work around the many glitches. We ran into issues because we were using an old version that became obsolete, so various features stopped working. When we upgraded, the new version cost quite a bit more money and had some bugs. They changed the primary editing tool to a block editor which is absolutely terrible. Luckily, the classic editor is still available. The biggest issue related to the upgrade is that the page layout changed. This made all the older posts look less visually appealing, but it would have been an exhaustive process to go back and fix all of them. And a recent problem is that the photos don’t display in the edit mode on older blogs, which makes it somewhat difficult to add or change the content. And last, about six months ago, my husband had to completely restore the entire content due to a buggy plug-in that somebody didn’t test properly.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
As already mentioned, Consumer Grouch is a WordPress site and this comes with positives and negatives. Early on, my husband submitted Consumer Grouch to Blogarama with a reciprocal link on the home page, thereby helping to boost views.
While most people use Adobe Photoshop to edit photos, I have been using Corel Photo-Paint for years. It’s a much easier and intuitive software, albeit not as sophisticated as Photoshop. Since this blog is visually rich and dependent on historical photos, I utilize several sources for copyright-free material, most notably the Library of Congress.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
In addition to Just Kids, recent reads include M Train and Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith, Foxy by Pam Grier, Inside the Dream Palace by Sherill Tippins, and The Last Greatest Magician in the World by Jim Steinmeyer.
I read select posts on LinkedIn, including from my alma mater RISD and belong to several Facebook groups. I enjoy engaging with other creative people on Instagram. I subscribe to or follow these blogs: Ephemeral New York, Forgotten New York, and Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, among others. I am a digital subscriber of The New York Times and as such, take advantage of access to all issues published between 1851 to 2002 via TheTimesMachine. I also regularly listen to the podcasts WTF with Marc Maron and Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
While having eclectic interests and skills enriches one’s life, it can be counterproductive to making money. I have dabbled in many areas because I have so many interests, but many of these endeavors weren’t successful because my efforts weren’t focused.
Find a passion, master it, devote adequate time to the endeavor, and most importantly, learn how to market your product/service. Thousands of talented people (e.g. fine artists and musicians) never find success when the work of less talented individuals goes viral. So even more crucial than a great product or service is the ability to network and leverage available free social media tools (and select paid advertising) to achieve your goals.
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