Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello! I’m Sarah Miller, aka the “sarah” in my small business, sarahpaintspets. I make a living painting custom watercolor pet portraits for the biggest of animal lovers across the United States and Canada.
My paintings are based off customers’ favorite reference pictures of their dog or cat. The goal is always to capture the pet’s unique disposition and soul in their portrait, so I ask for my customers to give me some fun facts about their pet (favorite toys, activities, quirks). I’m basically the person you can show pictures of your pet to all day and won’t get sick of it!
The heart behind my business is all in the logo. That adorable golden-collie mix is Toby. He was my childhood pup with a high-pitched woof and big brown eyes that loved on your soul with every look. We lost Toby in the summer of 2017 after several months of declining health.
I know how it feels to have fully loved and mourned a sweet, good pet. I take a moment every week to remember that feeling so that I can empathize and connect with my customers. Making Toby's portrait my logo is my promise to paint every pet as if they were my own.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
No one believes me when I say this, but I had never taken an art class before starting a career as an artist. I’ve always been a doodler in class, but nothing much beyond that.
Understanding the WHY of what you’re doing is the most important thing. Your purpose will guide you forward because without having to question yourself, you are free from fear and doubt holding you back.
It all started my junior year of college when I decided to paint my boyfriend’s cat for our one-year anniversary in November 2016. The deciding factors were that Charlie is obsessed with his cat Merlin and I was too broke to buy him anything nice.
He loved it, so I posted on my college’s Facebook page offering to paint other people’s pets as Christmas presents for only $10 each! I worked my butt off and did over 100 paintings before Christmas that year.
The orders have not stopped coming since. And painting every day has helped me improve and increase my prices to an average of $150 per painting.
Here is my very first pet portrait: Merlin the orange tabby!
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
It’s about as simple as it gets! I didn’t have to spend much on supplies to get started. Paint colors, brushes, paper, and packaging supplies are all it takes to bring a pet portrait from start to finish.
In order to make a larger profit and charge more for my portraits, I had to improve my painting skills. Painting 6 days a week for a year is what took me from novice to professional. It was not an overnight success by any means. Every 3-4 months I could increase my prices from $10 to $25 to $50 to $130 to $155. I now have a streamlined process down that takes every portrait from email to sketch to painting at the value I know I am worth.
My packaging gets the job done for now, but I want to turn it into a selling point. I cut out stiff pieces of cardboard myself to tie the painting to so that it doesn’t bend in the mail. If we’re being totally honest, I ask my dad to cut the cardboard in batches whenever I am home. I think adding cohesive colors and an unexpected gift in the final package will be a helpful final touchpoint to encourage returning customers.
I designed my website myself through Wix and pay a semi-annual fee of $120 to host an e-commerce site. I choose Wix because I got a discount upon signing up and their templates were aesthetically pleasing and easy to edit.
Describe the process of launching the business.
The demand for pet portraits was rising and I needed a better way to get paid other than Venmo or cash in person.
I sold through Etsy for a couple months while I was designing my website. I don’t like the Etsy platform because customers price-shop you and aren’t actual fans of you as a seller or your work. I wanted to attract customers who support me and getting lost in the abyss of artwork in Etsy is not an ideal place for that.
I chose Wix to build my website through because it was easy to navigate and customize through their templates. I saved money by designing the site 100% by myself. I was already gaining traction on Instagram, so it was as simple as putting the link to my website in my account bio to drive traffic for orders.
A lot of what I did right from the start was putting a focus on me in my social media and website. I always have a picture of myself in the last 6 posts on my Instagram. There is a whole page on my website dedicated to my story and a little about myself. Millennials have a hard time trusting businesses and advertising, so putting a face and genuine sincerity to my brand has gained faith with my audience.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
This is my favorite question! This has always been a priority for me since word-of-mouth referrals is my biggest source of income.
Like every brand, I put a lot of effort into my Instagram. As a young person on Instagram, I have personally experienced how it feels to being sold something with every single scroll. I aim to create content that is pleasant to read/view and not an aggressive sell.
Instead of pressuring my followers to order Valentine’s Day pet portraits, I am sharing the story of Pork Chop the pitbull rescue who recently got adopted. Instead of bragging about the joys of working from home, I am being vulnerable and honest about what it’s like to run a business with little experience. My audience will stick around and order when they are ready (sometimes after a year of following me) because they enjoy consuming my content.
I have carried this over in my email marketing. My monthly newsletter consists of the Pet of the Month, store announcements, a pet tips + tricks section, and some random things I am recommending. I currently have 1,454 subscribers and to be totally honest, I know I am under-utilizing this avenue for promotions.
Bringing customers back comes from delighting my clients through personalized experiences. The whole process is very personal from the start. Customers often pour their hearts out to me about their pets, especially when they have passed away. I often will shed a tear reading their emails because I can feel the pain they are feeling so intensely. I use email drafts saved in a word doc for portraits as gifts, portraits for yourself, and portraits for deceased pets. I tailor each message with how I personally relate to what they’re going through to build a connection.
This highly personalized experience has been a staple in my brand since the beginning. It started effortlessly because I genuinely enjoy talking to all the sweet animal lovers who appreciated my hard work. After I realized that it was a competitive advantage, I took it a step further with a surprise extra gift included with each portrait.
I place a customized card in the envelope with each portrait, so when they open the package they are surprised by the sentimental extra touch. The card will have a painting of their pet’s face and a note that could say “happy birthday!” or “rest easy, Bella” or “thank you for your order!” I believe this encourages returning customers and sharing their experience with fellow pet lovers.
For example, one of my customers told me she found her cat, Stinky, in a dumpster behind the restaurant she works at. So I painted her cat in a trash can on her extra card and she absolutely loved it. This extra touch brought her back to order portraits for her friends during Christmas because she was so delighted by the experience.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
I was hoping to do better sales in 2018. Before graduating college in May 2018, I was weighing the option of a corporate job offer with taking my business full time. When crunching the numbers, my business had potential to make more money than the job so I went for it. An annual income of $60,000 would only have been possible with a full and constant stream of orders. I did not anticipate having low demand, so I fell way short of this goal.
Find your community. Chances are your friends and family have “normal jobs” and aren’t going to understand what you’re going through. It is incredibly motivated to be part of a community with similar dreams.
My expenses are broken up into postage, advertising, and supplies. I spend an average of $453.30 per month on maintaining my business. With a monthly average income of $2,586.83, this always sets me up to be profitable. I have created a budget for 2019 that will allow me to save some money on supplies and invest more in my advertising section.
On a typical day, I am downstairs in my studio (aka kitchen table) by 9:30am. I spend half an hour responding to emails so that my inbox is cleared. I try to get 3 paintings done a day, but sometimes it will only be 1 or 2 if I have a lot of non-painting related duties. I listen to podcasts while I paint to keep me entertained, but around 3pm I get very antsy. Working from home means very little human interaction, and as an extrovert this is tough on me. I like to get out of the house between 3-4 to go to the gym or run errands. After dinner I will do another couple hours of work before going to bed.
My short term goals are to clean up my routine and increase productivity. Being my own boss means I call the shots and what I do with every single day. As an indecisive person, I struggle with prioritizing my to-do list and getting it done before 11pm. As I type this, it is 9:43pm and I had originally thought I would be writing this at 3pm.
With a mindset change, increased productivity, and hard work my long term goal is to double my income from 2018 in this new year. An even longer term goal of mine is to make this business sustainable and enjoyable to still be doing in 5 years.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Square takes a cut from each of my sales, which I don’t love, but I will put up with. I ship through the USPS, which I am happy with 80% of the time. Sometimes packages will take two weeks instead of two days to arrive, with absolutely no explanation. This is difficult when customers complain, but they always show up sooner or later.
As far as analytics, I use Google Analytics and Instagram Analytics. In November 2018, I had 852 sessions on my website and the average time spent was 2 minutes and 20 seconds. Social media drove the most traffic with 47%.
This is largely from Instagram, where I also often look at analytics. I use Instagram Business Analytics to know which time of day to post, what age group my audience is, and where they are located. My audience is mainly women in Georgia between the ages 18-25.
I use Wix Shoutouts for my email marketing. The plan allows me to send 20 email campaigns and a total of 50,000 emails for $12.90 a month. I can design an email campaign in under an hour and send it out to the contacts I obtain through my website. I like how streamlined the process is.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I listen to a ridiculous amount of podcasts and audiobooks. Painting in silence or to music is utterly boring to me, so I fill every minute of it with someone speaking to me on my computer. Most of the podcasts I listen to are for pure entertainment, but I do love a few business ones that have impacted my mindset and work ethic.
The Goal Digger Podcast has been the most influential in my business. I am easily overwhelmed by the serial entrepreneurs who have a very aggressive approach to businesses. I was in my last semester of undergrad at Georgia College & State University when I discovered this new podcast. Jenna Kutcher caters to “creative entrepreneurs,” which is a category that includes photographers, artists, bloggers, and makers. This group is almost entirely women and it helped me both in business, but also in life and given me a community of like-minded women.
Side Hustle School was the very first resource I consumed outside of my classes in the business school at my college. They give a quick and entertaining recap of how a person turned a random side hustle into a sustainable source of extra income. I even reached out to them and was featured on episode 233!
The Skinny Confidential is another favorite of mine. Lauryn and Michael Bosstick talk to beauty-related entrepreneurs and influencers. They are hilarious and motivating in an easily digestible way.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Find your community. Chances are your friends and family have “normal jobs” and aren’t going to understand what you’re going through. It is incredibly motivated to be part of a community with similar dreams. I found mine in the Facebook group of my favorite podcast, The Goal Diggers Insiders. It’s a space for female entrepreneurs to ask for help or advice in the industry.
This may be cliché too, but I’ve recently come to understand it better. Understanding the WHY of what you’re doing is the most important thing. Your purpose will guide you forward because without having to question yourself, you are free from fear and doubt holding you back.
I knew my purpose was to serve animal lovers like myself who want something to celebrate the big place their pet has in their heart. I knew, and more importantly felt, this before taking it full-time.
After a couple months, the pressure hit me and I lost my purpose. Every day was a struggle, and I put all my self-worth into the money that wasn’t coming in. I was falling victim to a scarcity mindset, instead of an abundance mindset.
It damaged my business’s success as well as my mental health. I did some reflecting after the new year and realized I need to get back to my purpose and work with the law of abundance.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
I am not looking to hire any time in the near future. I have often wished for an assistant to handle either my emails and social media or assist in paintings, but I cannot afford to for the time being.
Where can we go to learn more?
- Instagram: @sarahpaintspets
- Facebook: sarahpaintspets
- Etsy shop: www.etsy.com/shop/sarahpaintspets
sarahpaintspets has provided an update on their business!
About 2 years ago, we followed up with sarahpaintspets to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
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