Interview at Printed Mint with Liza Cowan about designing products and managing an online retail business.
October 04, 2018
I am honored to be included in the GirlBoss series at Printed Mint, the drop ship company that manufactures the cups and pillows I sell in my online shop. They make other products besides cups and pillowcases...so if you are planning to make a product with your design, do check them out. And bonus...you can have just one thing made. One cup...one shirt...one blanket...one phone cover....one tote bag, etc. They have quite a variety of products. Print with your design. Sent right to you or to the friend or customer of your choice.
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interview at printed mint blog here
What year did your start your business and what inspired you to become an entrepreneur?
I’m almost seventy years old, and I’ve been in the business of creating and selling for most of my life. Each business is, in some ways, an extension of all the others. My first business was making and selling feminist buttons. That was in the 1970’s, and was quite successful for a pre-internet era. I’ve owned or managed three retail art venues, edited
and published two magazines, worked as an artist and photographer, selling in galleries and shops. I had a business selling ad specialties, most of which I designed for clients. I worked as a sales rep at an ad agency. I even ran the Woodstock NY Chamber of Commerce for four years in the 1980’s. My inspiration has always been threefold: I have a lot to say, I love making and designing, and I think it’s fun to promote and sell my work. I enjoy doing this for myself, and I find it satisfying to help other people reach their audiences.
Tell us about your brand (business name, products you sell + services you provide, and the
market you serve.)
I named my business Small Equals in 2009, when I opened a tiny, 90 sq. foot, retail shop. I spent days looking for a domain name that had not been taken, but made sense for my business. Small Equals made sense to me, but possibly was not the most obvious name for a business, so last year, when I incorporated, I did so under my own name, Liza Cowan Design, remembering Walt Disney’s advice — name your business after yourself.
After years of paying rent for brick and mortar shops, and years of collecting inventory,
I realised that the best way for me to maintain any sanity, and to keep control of expenses and clutter, was to work from home, and work with drop ship providers.
I design and sell my own artwork as framed prints, buttons, and home goods. The great thing about my line is that it’s so eclectic. The downside is that it’s really hard for me to brand myself. I just cannot. I’ve given up trying. I realize that this is a no-no in contemporary marketing, but I surrender to the idea that I am a maverick. Unbrandable.
How did you come to learn what you do? (self-taught, education, classes, books, mentors etc.)
I had some stellar art teachers in my middle and high school years in New York City in the 1950’s and 60’s. They were all working artists who exhibited in well known galleries in NYC, and they loved teaching. I was so lucky, and they really provided the foundation for all I know about art. I went to art school for a year in the 1960’s but I hated
it. After that, I decided that I would mostly teach myself the skills I needed, or learn them on the job or in small classes.
I learned how to design magazines by working informally with someone who was in the trade, and by years and years of magazine reading. I learned graphic design by scrutinising and enjoying print advertising and print media. I studied photography by taking some excellent classes, but mainly by looking at photographers whose work I loved, trying to figure out what made them work. My photography skills are crude, but my eye is good. I’ve taken classes in silversmithing, silk screen printing, and I even took a course for women in business. All my digital design skills are self taught. It’s taken years
and years of practice, which is fine, because I love doing it.
These days, Youtube videos usually provide the answers I’m looking for if I have a technical problem. Goddess bless the internet.
In my opinion, the most important skill for product design is having a good eye: knowing
what works in terms of color, line, composition and typography, I’ve spent years looking at art in museums, galleries, books, and online, and a fair amount of time reading books on design, art criticism, and history of design. If you don’t develop a good eye, your work will not stand the test of time.
What has been the most rewarding phase of your career?
I’ve loved most of my work, so it’s hard to say which has been the most rewarding. The most exciting and kind of odd experience, though, has been the explosion of the phrase “the future is female.” I was the first person to put this phrase on a button – in 1974 – and I took the 1974 photograph that inspired the reboot of the t-shirt, which became a worldwide sensation, and then a phenomenon with a life of its own. I’ve been interviewed and quoted about it in hundreds of online and print newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Elle, Marie Claire…and
on and on. It’s been really odd for me to see this happen. But…it’s what inspired me to go back into business creating and selling my products. I had to seize the moment.
What is the most challenging part about being an entrepreneur?
Selling. I used to do craft fairs but now that I’m older these are too much physical labor,
and they reach only local audiences. Selling online helps me reach an international market, but the competition is fierce. I used to send promotional emails, but I stopped doing this. I suppose I should start doing it again, but I probably won’t.
What do you do for inspiration? Do you ever hit creative roadblocks and how to overcome them?
I look everywhere for inspiration. I follow many wonderful artists and entrepreneurs on Instagram, I look at books, I look at artists and museums online, and in person when I can. I look in shops. I read blogs. My garden provides inspiration, and my collection of vintage ephemera is a constant source for me.
I don’t worry about creative roadblocks. They happen, and I always trust that something new will emerge. Worrying makes things worse.
What’s the secret to your success (personally/professionally/spiritually)?
I follow my heart and my passions, both visual and intellectual. I trust the universe to
provide the inspiration and tools that I need in the fullness of time.
What advice to you have for other entrepreneurs just starting out?
Make things you love and that inspire you. Don’t follow trends – once something is trending, it’s on its way out. Avoid clichés. Listen to advice, but follow your own instincts. Make a budget and stick to it. Use social media to promote your products. Find a good online selling platform (I use Etsy.) Get your own domain name.
Do you have any tips or tricks you learned along the way that you’d like to share?
The obvious ones, I guess. Make good products. Take good photos of your work. Always respond to comments on social media, connect with your audience. If you have employees, feature them in your posts and of course, treat them well and pay them fairly.
What do you think the #girlboss / creative female community needs right now?
We need to promote each other.
One thing that always surprises me is that most online sellers don’t give any credit to the
businesses that manufacture their products. Unless you are handcrafting, someone is doing the labor that makes your business possible. I work with two women-run dropship companies (Printed Mint and Framebridge) and one button and sticker manufacturer (PureButtons). I don’t think they are women-owned but they are great and I always tag them in my Instagram and Facebook posts. I couldn’t do my business without them, and they deserve credit.
I try to promote the work of other women artists and makers when I can. I’d love to have
some face to face networking opportunities with other women in my business, but haven’t found any yet. Support women. Buy from each other when you can.
What are you working on now and what’s in store for your business in 2019?
My newest product is pillow cases from Printed Mint, and I love them. I like making things for home use, so the pillow cases and mugs are a perfect fit for me.
I’m going to buy an iPad Pro with part of this year’s profits, and I’m excited about that. I think that using the Procreate app will open up new design avenues for me.