Interview with Jen Hewett: Surface Pattern Designer

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Kath Dolan explores the nuts & bolts of creative business with makers, designers & craftspeople.

 

TOTAL PRO

Jen Hewett doesn’t do things by halves. The San Francisco-based surface pattern designer, author and teacher has had multiple professional incarnations over the past two decades. English Literature graduate selling her own line of stationery. Employee in not-for-profits. Full-time HR manager in an e-learning start-up. HR consultant launching her current business on weekends via an Etsy store selling prints on paper. Craft marketeer mastering fabric design and sewing. Blockprinting teacher. Author of how-to printmaking books and an interview collection currently underway with US and Canadian women of colour working in fibre arts and crafts. Licensee of beautifully layered, botanical- and geometric-inspired fabrics.

It’s been a twisty, turn-y journey, full of ups and downs, serendipitous timing and unexpected opportunities. And it’s forged a delightfully honest, resilient, disciplined, adaptable businesswoman.

STARTING OUT

Jen was never destined for art school. A creative, anxious child, she grew up drawing, making and turning wood scraps, glue and nails into slightly dangerous DIY projects with her brother. But she was also the daughter of hardworking parents who weren’t juggling multiple jobs to send their kids to very nice Catholic schools only to watch them become artists. Jen pushed back on plenty in her teens but she never seriously countenanced art school, opting instead for a degree in English Literature and French. Looking back, contemplating the public critiquing of students’ work integral to art school, it was the right move.

I don’t think I would have been able to handle art school because I was not the kind of kid who could have really stomached that criticism.

“I think you have to be really grounded in order to be able to handle it, and I don’t know how many 18-year-olds are that grounded, to be honest.” Her strict Catholic schooling chafed in some ways, but she’s grateful for the discipline, focus, critical thinking and “Catholic school writing stamina” it gave her. “We had to crank out so much writing in school … that when it came time for me to write a book I could just sit and write that book,” she says.

College gave her an understanding of narrative that’s helped her tell her story and marketing her work. An academic scholarship allowed her to graduate in 1996 free from the student loans that dictated the early career moves of most of her peers. “I worked in non-profits,” Jen recalls. “I worked in education. There was a lot of discipline … all the jobs after college forced on me. I had a lot of regular jobs, nine-to-five, showing up, sitting at my desk, deadlines. I think those things served me really well – as an artist and also as I was trying to transition from that work into being a full-time working artist. I was able to take on these consulting positions that paid me well but also left me a flexible schedule.”

TRIAL AND ERROR

In the late 1990s Jen toyed with the idea of studying graphic design, but anxiety held her back. “I figured out I didn’t want clients because I wouldn’t be able to handle the client feedback and criticism,” she says. “Instead … I decided just wanted to make products and have customers who would either buy them or not buy them.”

By 2000 so many of her friends in San Francisco were quitting their day jobs to go work for start ups. “It was something that was in the air at that time, and I’ve been really lucky because timing has been key for me in so many ways, even when I became an artist the second time around. So it just didn’t seem like a huge leap. Amazingly my parents didn’t freak out about this, because I think they sensed I had a plan and I kind of knew what I was doing. I didn’t, but it was okay. I knew enough.”

Jen’s first foray into business combined her love of fashion, illustration and stationery. From 2000-2004, just before digital technology revolutionised creative business, she launched a small collection of cards with detailed fashion illustrations using a watercolour technique she concedes she’d struggle to reproduce now.

Sales grew steadily and customers were plentiful, but it was all incredibly labour-intensive. Cash flow proved elusive.

“I didn’t know how to plan my inventory,” Jen says. “I didn’t know how to order. That was the biggest thing. I didn’t figure that out until probably my third year. This was mostly pre-internet so I only had wholesale customers and would have to do something new every four months or so. I’d have to have all these new collections, I’d have to go to trade shows, I wouldn’t know what would sell and what wouldn’t sell, and I just was often spending my money on the wrong things.

“Technically I was profitable but I never had any cash, and I had to rely really heavily on my credit cards to see me through. I just took on more debt than I felt comfortable with and I also never got big enough where I could afford help. So I was doing all of this stuff and I was always broke, and I was just about to turn 30. I felt like I had a good run of it but I was no longer excited by it. I took a class to do some business planning and in the process … realised that my heart just wasn’t in it any more. If I’d done it at the end of the first year it would have helped me a lot more then.”

It’s hard to overstate how much retail has transformed in the years since. “Things have completely changed because you can now sell direct to your customer, and I’m producing almost everything. I can do things in smaller quantities if I order them from other people. The internet has changed everything. My first website cost me $US5600 and there was no e-commerce capability. If I needed my designer to change anything it was going to be $US2000-$3000 every time. Now people can do a WordPress site for pretty much no money, except for the hosting, using a template, and you can get a Shopify to link to it. ”

NAILING BUSINESS SKILLS

Jen pulled the pin and went to work for an interactive and e-learning company in San Francisco. Over four industrious years she managed HR and operations, paid off her debt, began saving, and got the creative juices flowing again. “I always knew that I was probably going to work for myself again at some point,” she says. “I just knew that this was what I had to do at the time.”

The belated business planning course, years of HR and operations experience, and several more years HR consulting (which kicked off after she was laid off during the global financial crisis) gave her an incredibly solid grounding for her next creative business. Helping companies staff up for a bump in sales, for example, she saw just how interdependent everything is in business. “Sales would drive staffing would drive operations,” she recalls. “I had a good understanding of that by the time I started this next round of business.”

“The other thing I finally had a good grasp on was how to do financial planning. I still do this … at the end of every year for the following year.

I predict how much money I’ll bring in each month based on what I have going on each month, and then I can see where the holes are and how I need to fill them.

“That was really key because then I have a better sense of what my cash flow is going to be on an annual basis, which I didn’t have before. A lot of this … is just rote for me now, I don’t really think about it a lot, but … that was the really key thing, understanding the finance.”

TACKLING ANXIETY

Working for smart people who weren’t embarrassed to make mistakes or ask questions was an eye opener for an anxious perfectionist. “I was always fine with imperfection in my (creative) work, but I wasn’t fine with imperfection in my business practises,” Jen says.

I would get myself into these jams, or wouldn’t know how to do something, but rather than ask for help because I didn’t want to admit I needed to ask for help. I would just make the mistake. And that was costly.

“I think that’s one of the big reasons that business ran itself into the ground. In reality what forced me to get over my perfectionism was having that business fail, and having to go and get a regular full-time job, and it was a job that I loved, but I was working with all these really smart, talented, creative, interesting people who would speak up in meetings or make a mistake or receive criticism, and they were just fine. I was terrified of receiving the same. So I just didn’t say anything and I was often paralysed. I got this sense that, ‘Oh, there’s something very real that’s wrong with me and how I’m reacting to this’, and I went and got therapy.

“I’m a huge fan of therapy. It took four years or so to unravel that but it happened. And it was within probably three to six months that I actually felt like I was on the right track. I felt markedly better pretty quickly. And I know I wouldn’t have had that second career as an artist without that level of confidence.”

FINDING PRINTMAKING

In January 2008, debt-free and feeling good, Jen took a screenprinting class on a whim and was immediately hooked.

I could be the designer but I could also be the means of production instead of having to rely on a printer to do everything for me and outlay that cash.

“Etsy had rolled around by that point. There were wasn’t really social media yet but Etsy was a very effective way to get the word out about whatever you were working on and to sell items.”

She started an Etsy store and sold her first prints while holidaying in Italy, which inspired her to produce even more. Sales boomed. Which was serendipitous, because a few months later the US economy crashed and Jen was laid off from her HR job and couldn’t find work for 18 months or so. Enter craft fairs, where she took her prints on paper. (Paper was cheaper than fabric and she wasn’t much of sewer back then).

“People would love my prints but they would tell me, ‘I don’t know what to do with a print. I have to go get a frame for it, I have to figure out a place to put it, it’s a lot of work’.” Jen saw friends selling tea towels and bags, figured out how to screenprint on fabric and worked on her sewing skills. “That’s when everything started to take off,” she says. “And it took off really quickly. This was when Tumblr was big. One person on Tumblr posted a photo and it kind of went viral, and a blogger would find it and … post about it, and all of a sudden I would have 20 orders. Which took me three days to print and sew for $US560,” she adds with a laugh, “but at that point I had no debt, a little bit of savings, my unemployment coming in, and it was fine. I was able to make it work.”

Eventually she built up the aforementioned HR consulting work and maintained it nearly full-time for for several years while establishing a robust printmaking business from Friday to Sunday. Hard work, definitely, but essential for a wiser businesswoman determined to lay the groundwork for sustained success in creative business second time around.

TAKING FINANCIAL RESPONSIBILITY

Understanding her financial situation became paramount. “Because I had the experience of things falling apart, either because I didn’t understand it or didn’t want to look at what it was telling me, it was much easier this time around to say, ‘This is important and I have to do it’. I’m on my own. It’s just my income. I don’t have independent wealth. So I don’t have the kind of safety net that other people often have. And that’s not to dismiss anyone’s experience. But it’s very different when there’s someone else, say, paying your health insurance, which is very expensive for me as an American, or another income that can cover at least the basic expenses.

At the point I was laid off and started taking my business seriously I was already in my mid-to-late 30s, and I felt like I couldn’t make the mistakes I’d made in my 20s because I had to look towards my future. I still feel that way.

KEEPING THE CASH FLOWING

Jen’s careful financial planning, operational nous and discipline were a godsend second time around. She maintained her consulting work for years while she built sales with help from Instagram and newsletters and developed important income streams from teaching and book publishing.

Jen’s warmth, empathy and technical precision make her an exceptional teacher. It’s little wonder that when she developed blockprinting workshops – online and in-person – they routinely sold out within days. She now teaches blockprinting workshops in Jaipur each October with Canadian artisan tourism outfit Ace Camps. That’s how we met and did this interview.

Jen loves India and this style of immersive teaching and travel. But she’s cutting back on her US-based teaching commitments to get her weekends back. For now she’s keeping the cash flowing with more licensing and publishing projects. No doubt things will keep changing into the future.

A well-run creative business is always evolving.

Jen’s open about the regular juggle of activities and marketing communications required to plug imminent holes in cash flow when expenses roll in, plans change or holidays beckon. Like her peers she’ll respond with a new class, limited edition print run or early newsletter to bring in the cash required. She’s more honest than most in discussing it publically. “Everyone does it. That was the dance I saw my parents doing the entire time I was growing up,” Jen says. “It’s nothing new to me. Because I was exposed to that from a very young age I just understood how to do it.”

WHAT I’VE LEARNED ABOUT…

INSTAGRAM
The English Literature major embraced the storytelling potential of Instagram from the get-go. Many of the opportunities she’s now offered (like the Ace Camps collaboration) stem from the engaged 50,000-plus following she’s attracted. Back in 2014 things took off after she began a 52-week passion project: simple block prints she whipped up quickly after a day of consulting. Jen’s as disciplined with social media as she is with everything else. She posts daily at a time she knows her audience is online to maximise engagement. She focuses firmly on her work, not her personal life. And she never gives away the technical advice that people who enrol in her workshops and buy her books pay to learn.

FINANCIAL PLANNING TOOLS
Jen’s not into fancy apps. An excel spreadsheet still does the trick. The point is staying right on top of the numbers to avoid any nasty surprises. “I put all the numbers in and update them every day,” she says. (Not expenses, just updated sales projections and actuals.) “It’s nice to see all the money coming in.”

NEWSLETTERS
“The email newsletter for me is the biggest single driver of sales,” Jen says. “Again that’s where it’s really important to have a narrative about your work. I try to write something thoughtful every single newsletter. If people opt into that, and I have a lot of good conversations with people who respond to my newsletter, those are your cheerleaders. Those are the people who take the time to read, kind of get to know you, they’ve got extra stuff and are invested in your work. That’s invaluable to me. My newsletter’s not huge – I think I probably have 3500 people on it. I have friends who have 70,000, but I try not to make it too big. I call them every few months and let them self-select out because it costs me money to have a big newsletter. But I think that’s probably the most useful technology.”

LICENSING
Jen put her hand up and asked lots of questions when she began licensing her designs on a larger scale. She turned to friends with experience, read useful resources and engaged an attorney experienced in intellectual property law and a business coach for artists. “Super helpful,” she says. “Also, because I’d done HR for so long and worked for these companies as a consultant and done a lot of contract negotiation … I actually know how to do a lot of the legwork upfront. What questions to ask and how to push back and how to slow things down. I think that’s the advantage of being in my 40s and having had as varied a career as I’ve had.”

STRATEGY & GROWTH
Jen did Christina Empedocles’ Money Bootcamp for Artists a couple of years back and recognised a fellow creative with operational nous. “It was just such a helpful class for me. I love good curriculum. I worked in education and e-learning and I love things that are brought together in a really thoughtful, coherent way. It was a fantastic online class. It was not cheap but it was completely worth it.”

She also spent a day mind mapping when she was planning her move into larger scale licensing. “I thought about where I wanted to be at the end of this, what kind of work I wanted to do, what kind of legacy I wanted to have, what kind of customers I wanted to have if I was working with a company that was going to be selling into stores, who my customers were, what I felt comfortable doing. It was stuff that I knew in my head but I’d never really codified. It was immensely helpful. So when I went to talk to the CEOs of these companies … I could actually say, ‘This is what I want, and this is what I know about my market … and this is how I want to grow.’ It was this really useful exercise that cost me nothing other than a day off from other work.”

SACRIFICE & SUCCESS
Jen’s philosophical about the material sacrifices required to run a successful creative business long term. Friends in the corporate world are often attracted to the idea but can’t imagine life without owning their home or a nice car or taking expensive holidays regularly. “It can be hard to give up the trappings of what looks like success from the outside,” she says. “They want to do what I do with none of the risk and none of the hardship involved. For those of us in the middle of it it’s just that we love what we do so much that we’re willing to do without those other things.”

 

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