I used to work with Elina when we were both at a media agency called Mindshare, desperately trying to find our way through the strategic fun of planning communications for all of the Nestle brands, and trying to find some semblance of creativity in our day to day. I knew that she'd moved on to other agencies since then, but my interest was piqued when I saw her launch a business called 'artsnug', and then found out she'd ditched the day job to run the business full-time. I caught up with her to find out more about the challenges of changing industry altogether and trying to transform established industry norms.
Tell us about your new venture, artsnug, and what you've been doing until now?
My working background had been marketing for as far as I can remember and I liked to think as myself as a specialist – a strategist. I didn’t have an entrepreneur's bone in my body. Then a couple of years ago, I started a more creative role, and I felt that I had ideas that were more business solutions than media ideas in response to briefs. It changed the way I worked, and made me realise that rather than coming up with ideas for other people, I wanted to do something for myself.
Then a year ago a start up weekend focused on art took place, bringing together techies, designers and marketers. I decided to take part and see what I could do. You have to come up with a problem and the solution to solve it, with a full business plan, a mocked up site, work out how you're going to make money etc, all as a team.
The problem I saw was that there are more artists than there are galleries to show their work. And the gallery spaces are quite elitist environments. You have to be in the inner circle of gallery people to sell anything. I wanted to make it more democratic. Coffee shops are cropping up everywhere, and they have empty wall space, so why can’t we take that, and use it as gallery space? That’s how the idea was born – I pitched it and had a team of 9 work on it. We developed the business model and won the whole thing. We tried to work together afterwards for a month – but I realised that if I wanted to do something with it, I had to do something myself. Some of the team continued with ‘Wall-to’, did a couple of exhibitions, but nothing really came of it.
That’s how I started artsnug. The first exhibition was actually amazing. It was in a tiny coffee shop in Haggerston, and we had an illustrator called Warren Mortimer, and we did so well in the first month, that I thought ‘this is going to be amazing! If every month we could bring in a £1,000 from one exhibition it’s not a bad idea’ – but it was Christmas, and a one-off.
I developed my site as a way to sell the actual art – as I couldn’t sell it direct in the coffee shop, and that’s taken on a life of its own. I’ve now left work to do this full-time. In January I’ll see what freelance I want or need to do, but I want to see how far this can go in the meantime.
How long did it take you to feel like you’d made progress in your new venture?
There have been several levels. The first level came very quickly. My company was registered mid November, and in December the proceeds started coming in, so that was very quick. The real progress started when it wasn’t sporadic sales, but more of a natural growth. The next step is how do you scale it and make a proper business model of it – that’s what success looks like in my head moving forward.
How often did you feel like ‘it’ wasn’t going to work?
Quite often – especially if you’re working alone on a business idea. Sometimes I question ‘why am I doing it, does anyone need it, am I wasting my time’? Then I remember that I don’t want to go back to a full-time job and that I just have to keep trying new angles. If you don’t try new things you’re on a losing journey.
What do you find difficult about your job / managing multiple jobs?
It was difficult when I was still working full-time and trying to do this at the same time. It’s really distracting when something is happening with your business and you need to keep your mind on your day job. Then all you’ve got left is after work to do it and you have a constant sense of feeling like you’re compromising on all elements of your life – your husband, other things you're interested in. For someone like me where I’m a perfectionist in what I do, it was hard.
What do you do to spur yourself on when you get the fear?
Chris, my husband, kicks my ass when I need him to. If I didn’t have him, I probably wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. He knows when I need my ass kicked, when I need reassuring, or to be told that I’m going the right way. He has a real business mind, and he can see when there is something in the idea.
What or who do you find intimidating?
Doing this requires you to put yourself into spaces where you don’t feel comfortable. I’m not a natural sales person for example, but doing something like this, you need to challenge yourself. It can be intimidating – but once you’ve overcome it you realise it wasn’t that bad, but the first steps can be tricky.
What makes you feel good?
I have no artistic ability myself – but I love meeting new people who do. For example I have one artist who draws with tea, ink and brandy! It’s rewarding meeting talented and interesting people. The stories of the artists is a real opportunity, but I’m not very good at writing, so I need to overcome that, and push myself and get better at writing press releases, blog entries etc. New people, new opportunities – if you open up your brain, they pop up everywhere.
What’s the best compliment you’ve been given?
Quite a lot of people have said to me that they think the website is amazing, and I designed it myself – with my lack of design skills! When you get a compliment on something you didn’t have a clue about, it’s really powerful. Every exhibition we’ve had people have come up and given us compliments, and artists have been saying that we are opening up new channels for them. People acknowledging you for things that you didn’t know you could do, but also thanking you for making a difference to their lives is amazing.
What drives you, your legacy, or enjoying the moment?
Probably a combination of things. Partially I think it’s that I want to be able to do something for the rest of my life that is my own – I’ve started it, controlled the vision of it and been able to create my own space. Ideas that make money is an important element for me – but more that it shows that your ideas count, it’s a validation.
How do you define success now?
Flexibility. Freedom to work on the terms that I want to. When I have children I’d want to have the flexibility that for 3 months I could go to Latvia, be in the countryside, and my work allows me to do that. Success is in terms of being able to make money, I have goals I’m working towards in my head – but it’s not about a billion dollar company, or something that I want to sell. That’s not why I started it – they’re quite selfish success factors I’m trying to reach.
Where would you like the business to get to?
I’ve always been interested in art and love art in the home – but I realised that it was always more about art in the interior – not about art with a big ‘A’. The latest position I’ve got to is ‘Artcessories for your home / life’. You can buy art for your home, but also that you can make your own, so we're also offering workshops with the artists. Essentially, I want it to be a marketplace that brings independent artists and people together.
How do you start your day?
I haven’t been super organised so far and I’m realising I need to have a clearer pattern. I’ve now made a more rigid plan with clear blocks of time for my morning, afternoon and evening. Today is my first day of testing my Friday as being my day for meeting people, and then going home and doing admin – a good day to do it on a Friday afternoon when your brain is a bit dead! I have my routine of going to the Gym in the morning so that your mind works better. The first 3 days of the week are then to focus on tactical stuff, running the business and business development, one day of thinking of the strategic elements for the next year, and then one day for meeting people etc. We’ll see how it goes!
Any useful tools / tips? Essential apps on your iphone you can’t live without?
One thing in my business I realised I had to get much better at was social media – so Twitter is now an important part of each day – looking for things that are trending, spotting the right art work that matches it. Also, I now keep my business emails separate – keeping them prominent so I can prioritise them. I don’t have any planning tools / calendars specifically.
How do you come up with new ideas?
I have a little black book to write down business problems and ideas to solve them. Sometimes there are too many of them - I was considering starting a blog with a business idea a day on it – people could just take them for free!
What idea do you wish you’d come up with?
I think Appear Here is a great idea. I think it’s a really clever problem to address – all of these different retailers who have empty space, and people who need to book them.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a stock-broker, and then I changed to wanting to do marketing.
What would you tell your kids about working out what they want to do in life?
It’s very cliché, but I would tell them to try something that gives them enjoyment and a real kick. Not to do things that they just consider as a job. A wise thing that Chris told me when I said “I’m 32 and I’ve been doing marketing as long as I remember” He said – Ok – you’ve been doing this for 12 years. But you have to think about what you want to do for the next 30 years.
Single best piece of advice you’ve been given along your journey?
Doing the start up weekend one of the mentors – there were a lot of art industry people – said ‘Niche is good. Be niche, find your focus’. I’ve kept to that and tried not to do too many things.
Check out Elina's fantastic art business at www.artsnug.com and look out for her next exhibitions and events.