Megan Auman at work on her newest adventure: painting
I thought you’d love to hear the ‘success story’ of a true Renaissance woman today so may I present my friend, mentor, and a panel member at last year’s Artful Business Conference, Megan Auman. She’s a jeweler, a business coach, and now a painter! This interview is long but it’s absolutely packed full of advice a slightly embarrassing stories. You’re going to love it!
Can you take us on the journey of your creative career path so far?
I spent my entire childhood drawing and painting, taking private art lessons, and visiting museums and painting class with my mom. It was well established that I was the “art one” of the kids in our family, but at the same time, I always had a sense for business.
When I was a kid, I used to play “business.” I had one of those little bead looms, and I would make bracelets and hair clips. Then, I would take pictures of them and make notes for each one on an index card where I wrote down how long each one took me to make and what the price would be. Then I stored all that information in a little metal recipe box. (I promise you I am not making this up!) Around that same time, I started my first “real” business, selling little packets of confetti that I made myself to the other girls in my fourth grade class.
I had planned on going to college to study painting, but discovered jewelry making my senior year of high school, and decided to major in metalsmithing instead. Because I didn’t know what I would do with a BFA in metalsmithing, I decided to go on to get a Master’s degree in metals and jewelry. I knew heading into graduate school that after school I either wanted to teach or start my business, and I kept both options open throughout school. For my thesis show, I made large scale sculptural work, but I also used that work as inspiration for my first production line.
After graduate school, I had a one year stint as a visiting assistant professor at a university. I ran the Metals + Jewelry department while the head of the program was on sabbatical. This is the closest I’ve ever come to having a traditional job, but being a college professor is hardly a 9 to 5. I was required to be on campus three or four days a week to teach and advise students, and the rest of the time, my job was to make my own work. That said, running a department right out of grad school (when I was younger than many of my students) was incredibly stressful. I always say that the biggest thing I learned in that year was that I didn’t want a full time teaching job.
I used my year as a professor to launch my eponymous jewelry line. I started blogging. (Waaaay back in 2006.) And in February of 2007 I opened my Etsy shop. I remember sitting on my bed, creating my first listings, and being really excited. And then for six months, NOTHING happened. Not. A. Single. Sale. Fortunately, Etsy wasn’t my only revenue stream. In 2007 and 2008, my focus was on outdoor, retail craft shows. I did a mix of traditional art fairs and indie shows. I also did NY Gift (a wholesale trade fair) in 2008, and that helped my business take off. In 2008 (my first full year in business) I made enough to turn a profit and support myself.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve overcome so far in your business?
The biggest challenge in my business was my own personal slump of 2009. 2009 was the height of the recession in the US, and it would be really easy to blame my rough year on the economy. But the truth is, I got in my own way. I spent a lot of money launching a new product line that didn’t sell very well. (Not a failure in my mind, just a really expensive learning experience.) And that product line took focus away from my jewelry line, causing sales to slump there as well. But the biggest obstacle was my own mental state. I started having serious doubts about being a creative entrepreneur. I worried that I was wasting my time on something “frivolous” and that I should be focusing my energy on doing something good for the world.
By the end of 2009, I was incredibly frustrated with my business, and I confessed to a friend that I was thinking about going to get my MBA. “That’s crazy,” she replied. “You could teach that stuff.” I took what she said to heart, and decided that the best way to teach other creatives about business would be to start another blog, focused on business thinking for creatives. I launched Crafting an MBA (now Designing an MBA) in December of 2009 and it truly saved my business. Not just from a financial standpoint (though it is a consistent revenue stream for me) but more importantly, from a mental one. In working with other creative entrepreneurs, I was able to assess my own mental roadblocks and work through them. From the beginning, Designing an MBA has been as much about helping me grow my own business as it has about helping others. It’s also opened so many doors for me and really helped me establish myself as an expert and a brand.
What has been the biggest ‘fist-pump’/successful moment for you so far?
I feel like my business has been a series of small “fist-pump’ moments and it’s hard for me to name just one. So here are some of the highlights:
- Picking up the SFMOMA Museum Store (and a lot of other amazing accounts) at my first ever New York Gift fair.
- Watching my readership of Designing an MBA grow really quickly in the first few months.
- After five NY Gift Shows, finally designing a booth that felt like “me”.
- Speaking about Creating a Culture of Profit at the annual Society of North American goldsmiths conference and then being asked to contribute a regular business column to Metalsmith magazine.
- Having a sale with One Kings Lane and making and packing 130 orders in five days. (Two of those days I had no power thanks to a hurricane.)
- Being recognized by people “in real life” because they’ve watched my videos online or because they recognize my jewelry. (I once got recognized on an airplane, which was just crazy!)
- Hitting six-figures in annual jewelry sales in a year where I took a lot of time off.
- Seeing so many people walking around the Buyers Market of American Craft this year wearing my work.
- Seeing the successes of my students and alumni from my Designing an MBA programs. (And having one person tell me, “Marketing for Makers saved my business.”)
But one of the coolest moments may have been last year when I was away speaking at a conference. At a family gathering, my husband’s aunt asked where I was. After my husband told her, she asked, “Is her business doing well, because you always hear about that whole starving artist thing?” And my husband simply replied, “She made more money than I did last year.”
Do you ever have doubts as to your future creative direction? Are there things you yearn to achieve, but haven’t yet found the time for?
This last year has been full of doubts. My mother passed away in March of 2012 after a battle with cancer. My mother was a painter, and she encouraged me as an artist from a young age. My mother’s death left me with a desire to do a lot of soul searching and a need to start painting again. I think it’s common after that kind of loss to feel a need to re-asses everything in your life. What I wasn’t expecting was how easily painting would slide back into my life after nearly a decade away. Once I embraced painting, I started feeling a tug of war between that creative activity and jewelry, the core of my business. I found myself fantasizing about a new successful career as a painter.
What I’m working on now is adopting a both/and approach. I’m still committed to running my jewelry business (it helps that I have an employee who handles the bulk of my production) but I’m also giving myself permission to paint and see where that takes me. I’ve been trying to figure out what my creative identity is and what I want to be known for. For a while, I was really trying to own the title of “designer” and while that is still true, I’ve come to realize just how important it is for me to think of myself as an “artist,” one who explores different processes and creative paths.
I feel like every few years something shifts in my business and I need to reinvent or add a new identity or aspect. But that’s really who I am – someway who is easily excited but can also become bored quickly. I’m learning to embrace that part of my personality and figure out ways to maintain a strong and consistent brand while following my passion and creating side projects.
I’m also incredibly passionate about teaching, and I’m trying to figure out how to incorporate more teaching back into my business, without the frustrations and bureaucracy that come with teaching at a university level. I love teaching business and working with creative entrepreneurs, but I also miss teaching hands on skills, techniques, and designs. I’ve got some ideas up my sleeve for bringing that back into my business as well, but I haven’t quite worked out the timing to bring those ideas into fruition.
Are there times when your creativity and inspiration seem to disappear? How do you handle that?
I’m a big fan of the Chuck Close quote, “Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.”
That said, I find it incredibly difficult to “show up and get to work” in the winter. I am not a cold weather person. My body and brain pretty much shut down. But over the last few years, I’ve come to recognize this in myself and I’ve learned to ride my own waves of productivity. I plan my one new jewelry collection of the year for the August trade shows, so that I can focus on new designs when I’m at my creative best. (I love working in my studio on a summer night when it’s warm and it stays light late.) In the winter, I don’t put any pressure on myself to design anything new. Instead, I focus on maintaining the business and emphasize activities (such as writing and leading e-courses) the can be done from my couch with a blanket and a cup of hot chocolate. (Or, I travel somewhere warm!)
The other thing that always sparks my creativity is a trip to New York City. Even though I’ve never lived there, I always think of New York as “my city.” I live in the country of Pennsylvania, but I crave the energy of the city. Whether it’s visiting a museum, participating in a show, shopping (at my favorite bookstore in the world, Strand), or just connecting with friends, a trip to New York always seems to get me going again.
How do you balance your work with the rest of your life ~ what does a typical day in your life look like?
There is no such thing as a typical day in my life, and that’s actually how I manage to balance my work and my life. I’ve come to realize that one of the most important things to me is not being tied down to a schedule, ever. I was teaching one day a week at a college, and having to be somewhere once of week started to feel like torture. I’m a total control freak, and the most important thing I want to have control over is my own time. I do try and focus my work day between 7 AM and 4 PM because that’s when my husband is at work, but there’s nothing strict about that. Some days I sleep until 7:30 or 8, other days I’m up at 6:30. (I’m a morning person.) Depending on what I have to do, I may get right to work, or I may take it easy in the morning, go for a run, or run errands. I’ve structured my business to be really freedom driven, so I have plenty of free and flex time, and it’s rare that I work more than six hours in a given day. Lately I’ve been bouncing between the administrative tasks of my jewelry business, teaching and coaching for Designing an MBA, and painting. (A lot of painting, which right now doesn’t feel like work at all.) Over the next few months, I’ll focus on creating a new jewelry collection for the summer trade show season. I tend to work best in short, intense bursts, with time for travel and relaxation in between, and that means every day, week, and month looks different for me. (And that’s the way I prefer it!)
What has been the best marketing move you’ve ever made for your own business?
On the jewelry side of my business, the best move by far was my decision to do the New York Gift trade fair. I wouldn’t have the business I have now if I didn’t do that show. I had applied for the show in the fall of 2007, having never even seen the show, with the plan that I would walk the winter show and exhibit in the summer of 2008. But I got a call in November of 2007 saying there was a space in the January show for me if I wanted it. Without even thinking, I said yes, got off the phone and thought, “What did I just get myself into?” But it was the best decision I ever made. I didn’t know enough about the show to be scared, or overwhelmed, or to wonder if I was “ready.” I just did what I had to do to get there. I picked up some incredible accounts at that first show, and several turned out to be long term, consistent accounts for me. I’ve done NY Gift twice a year since then, and it’s really the marketing force that drives my business.
On the Designing an MBA side of my business, the best marketing move I made was to be myself. (Translation: highly opinionated.) In the early days (when the site was called Crafting an MBA) I wrote a slightly critical post called “Etsy and the culture of cheap.” The post presented a different view point of the Etsy marketplace and voiced some of my frustrations about the downward price spiral. But it was also presented my ideas in a thoughtful, intelligent, and researched manner, and people really responded to it. That post (along with a strategically timed guest post on Design*Sponge) helped grow my readership almost overnight.
What is one piece of advice you’d like to give fellow makers about running a successful creative business?
Raise your prices! I often feel like a broken record, but setting a high enough price (and sticking with it even when it was uncomfortable) is what has enabled me to build the kind of business (and life) that I have. I have an employee who does most of my production. I have freedom and flexibility. I don’t have to work 60 hours a week. (Let’s be real, I don’t usually work 40 hours a week.) I travel (I’ve been to Europe twice in the last year and a half, and I’m planning another trip for the fall) and take time off. I play in the studio and make work that I love. And all of this is because I listened to some incredible mentors when I was first starting out and raised my prices to where they needed to be. Once you raise your prices, you have to have the confidence and the brand to back them up (or you have to fake it until you do, which is what I did) but nothing in your business will really work the way you want it to if you are underpricing your work.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years time?
On the cover of a magazine.
Actually, I’m not entirely sure. I spent my 20s as someone who was completely goal-oriented and driving in a straight line. Bachelor’s degree? Check. Master’s degree? Check. College professor? Been there and it’s not for me. Six figure business. Check and check. (That’s for two years in a row.) Now that I have a business that supports my life, I’m planning on spending my 30s experimenting a little more and enjoying my life. Yes, I want to keep the momentum going in my jewelry business, keep educating other creative entrepreneurs through DMBA, and continue painting. But I also want to focus on enjoying life as much as I can and seeing where things take me. I want to travel as much as possible, and we’ve been working on remodeling a new (to us) home, and I’d love to get that to a place I’m happy with. But otherwise, I don’t have a clear path for the next five years, and I’m actually ok with that.
But I wouldn’t say no to that magazine cover.
You can find more of Megan at: