Carolyn Edlund, founder of Artsy Shark has built an incredible website and resource that assists artists in turning their art into successful business enterprises. Visual Emporium spoke to Carolyn about her initiative and made some interesting discoveries.
CE: I am an art blogger/speaker/consultant based in Florida, in the United States. I was originally an artist with a production studio for 20 years, and then worked as a sales rep for art publishers and the giftware industry for about 7 years. Currently, I help artists build their businesses through strategy sessions that assist them in finding their markets, and ways to promote and sell their work.
VE: You were a highly successful artist and ceramicist – tell us about your creative work.
CE: In college, I majored in Ceramics, graduating back in 1980. At that point, I thought, “Now what?” I had no clue how to start a business, but was so determined to do it that I just got started, learning through trial and error. I can testify that making mistakes is an effective way to learn!
Originally I created thrown ceramic work, but ended up selling my potter’s wheel and focused on hand building. My sales took off when I designed a line of whimsical jewellery that I sold wholesale through trade shows, and using sales reps. At the height of my business, I had three or four studio assistants and was selling into hundreds of retail stores and galleries. I also did a lot of retailing at shows and fairs.
In 2001, I closed my studio due to injuries related to repetitive motion. I’d reached my goals as an artist. At that point, I had to get another job, but I wondered “Who would hire me?” since I had been self-employed for so long. Surprisingly, I got a position almost immediately as an outside sales rep for Portal Publications, which at that time was the largest art publisher in the world for the mass market channel. Later, I worked with a multi-line rep group and sold art, gift and paper lines to retailers, bookstores, museum shops and stores of all types.
It was through my business as an artist, and also what I learned by being in sales that gave me a whole new perspective about what was possible for small business people. I knew there were really smart strategies that large manufacturers use that could also translate well for those in micro-businesses, to help them grow and thrive.
VE: What inspired you to create the phenomenon that is Artsy Shark?
CE: When I started blogging in 2009, I wanted to share what I had learned from my experience, in a way that would make a difference for the reader. My key word is “useful” and everything I publish must meet that criteria. I knew that if readers could benefit from the material that I wrote, then they would want to read more, and share with others.
Although I’ve written hundreds of articles over the years, I certainly don’t know everything. So I drew upon my network to find experts to interview and who would write guest articles to appear on my blog. As a consequence, I’ve been able to publish some amazing content, and have created wonderful relationships with artists, professors, art directors, gallery owners and others which have endured over the years.
VE: Tell us a little about what you offer artists and readers on Artsy Shark?
CE: Part of the concept in developing Artsy Shark was to help artists by featuring and promoting them. To date, over 500 artists have been featured through individual articles that they write about themselves and their work. Their portfolio is presented, with a link leading the readers to the artist’s website. These articles drive lots of web traffic to featured artists, and has led to sales, commissions, gallery shows and licensing contracts.
It’s been a pleasure to feature many Australian artists, as my blog and site has become pretty popular in your country as well as elsewhere in the English-speaking world.
I also offer personalized business consulting, and work with artists from all over the world. It’s very satisfying, knowing that I am able to make a difference for so many artists who want to structure their businesses effectively, and learn how to market themselves and their work.
VE: What do you think has accounted for your current level of success?
CE: I think the main reason my blog got traction and became so popular was sheer persistence and also the consistent quality of the content. I have a high standard for the articles that are published, and seek out information and interviews that don’t appear elsewhere. The result is that my blog and my business have steadily grown. ArtsyShark.com has more than 37,000 unique visitors per month, and has been named one of the top 10 art blogs by Art Business News. It takes a lot of time and energy to stay relevant and appeal to a lot of readers, but I really enjoy the challenge. It’s also a lot of fun.
VE: How else are you working with artists?
CE: About three years ago, I was asked to become the Executive Director of The Arts Business Institute, which is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping artists and craftspeople launch and grow successful businesses. I was honored to be offered the position, which dovetails beautifully with my work at Artsy Shark.
I write the Arts Business Institute blog, do consulting for their clients, and work with art schools, guilds and organizations to schedule in-person workshops. These workshops are two-day intensive learning events. I travel extensively throughout the US speaking to groups of artists and creative entrepreneurs. It has been a fantastic experience. Getting to know the artists has been extremely rewarding, and I have made so many wonderful friends!
VE: This is an open ended question and it may take some time to answer, but what do you see as the major hurdles that artists need to come to terms with when marketing their work?
CE: I work with artists every day on this very topic. Despite the fact that people have very different visions and goals for their businesses, they have many of the same problems.
Artists want to make sales of their work. They want to understand the best avenues for selling, and be able to reach it effectively. But first, they have to have a few things – a cohesive body of work; excellent images of their portfolio; an understanding of their ideal customer; a message that connects with that customer; a website which is well-made and leads to making a sale; a pricing structure that is profitable for them, and a plan for their business.
The way I work with artists is to help them put together these basics, find different markets that would be a good match for them, and then create a plan to enter that market. Quite often, people don’t even know all their options, so they miss out. They may know nothing about art licensing, or selling online, or working with corporate art consultants. Of course, these are all very different, and it’s impossible for anyone who hasn’t been in a particular industry to understand the ins and outs.
There is a whole set of skills to marketing and selling that aren’t intuitive, but they can be learned. My job is to help artists focus on marketing their work to the right audience, and to create systems in their business that work on an ongoing basis to reach out to prospective customers, make sales, and make more sales. When an artist learns how to run their business, they are empowered. I think it’s important for creative entrepreneurs to have a clear understanding of this even if they hire assistance to get it accomplished, such as a webmaster, sales rep, etc.
VE: You talk about building networks and maintaining contact with potential buyers – did it take you a long time to build your audience for Artsy Shark? Any hurdles along the way?
CE: My audience has grown organically, which I feel is the best way to grow. Many readers come to my website through search, because there is a huge amount of content focused on a narrow niche, which is marketing for artists. They become subscribers, and sometimes featured artists, and clients as well.
I believe that networking is one of the absolute best tools, and have built my business through personal contact, referrals and “inbound marketing” where the customer seeks you out. I know that artists can do that too. You know the feeling in the pit of your stomach when you are soliciting people “cold”? What if you could set up your art business so that you attracted customers, built relationships and got fantastic referrals, repeat business and testimonials from happy collectors? Those are goals that I work on with artists that I mentor.
VE: Do you find it a bit of a balancing act combining self promotion, and working with other artists while being the driving force behind Artsy Shark and The Arts Business Institute? I imagine the workload must be unrelenting!
CE: Yes, it is a lot of work, especially “content creation” and writing. But, I’ve created systems in my own business which make things much easier. I don’t reinvent the wheel all the time.
Here’s one secret of how I work: even though I literally have to come up with eight blog posts every week for both blogs, four of them are artist features or profiles. Featured artists write their own article, telling about themselves and their work based on guidelines that I provide for them. And they sent me images for the article. It can take minutes to put these together on my end. These articles are a huge Win/Win for the artist and for me, and that’s why I have a steady stream of artists to feature and why it works.
Likewise, I publish guest blog articles from experts in different fields of art. This quality information serves the reader, promotes the author, and helps me with the content creation. A Win/Win/Win. When you put together systems that win for everybody involved, you have a workable method for doing business.
VE: I notice you always make the time to answer my questions (like this interview) and give each me your undivided attention when I contact you. You must feel very passionately about the arts and the artists that contact you. What drives you?
CE: Well, I think it’s all about relationships. And trust – that’s very big. You have to not only say what you will do in business, you must do what you say. Being responsive to readers and customers is one of the most important things. But it’s not a burden, it’s a pleasure to work with artists. I can’t imagine wanting to do anything else.
VE: Tell me a little about your trials and tribulations?
CE: Naturally things go wrong, it’s just part of life. Recently, I had a shopping cart provider which turned out to be a nightmare, and ended up with a lot of confusion. It took quite a bit of time to straighten things out, make sure customers were happy, and find a new vendor. But overall, it’s worth it. When you know going in that you will have difficulties as well as great satisfaction from your business, you can take it in stride. I know that many artists in your audience will understand this well!
VE: Finish this sentence: Rules are made to…
CE: I would say “Rules are made to adapt to your own needs.” You are the one who runs your business, and you can pretty much do what you want. I love to talk with artists who are creative about how they want to build their businesses, and who think “out of the box”.
VE: On a personal level, what direction do you think the art world is heading in today and how do you feel about it?
CE: I know it’s difficult these days for artists. Economic factors are challenging, and the way business is done is changing all the time. But, the market is now global, and that offers more opportunities than ever. It’s also easier to promote yourself and your art, considering that you have the internet at your disposal.
Artists would be well-served to consider multiple ways that they can create income for themselves. In that way, they can smooth out the bumps, take advantage of different methods at different times and have more consistent sales year round.
VE: Tell me about your alter ego. I imagine you have little time for one – but I’m sure you have a secret side to that most people don’t know!
CE: I don’t really mix business with my personal life. My blog and social media profiles are all about art, not my family or where I went on vacation. Because really, it’s all about the artist – what serves them, what is useful and helps them grow their businesses. Staying focused on that works for my audience, and it works for me.
VE: Share something odd/quirky that you’ve done in the past – it doesn’t have to be art related
CE: A few years back I went skydiving, for the thrill of the experience, but also just to prove that you can do anything you set your mind to. I’m not crazy about heights, but jumping out of a plane smashed through any fears I had on that front!
Carolyn can be reached through her website at www.ArtsyShark.com where there is a contact form, or readers can simply send her an email at Carolyn@ArtsyShark.com. Artists are also invited to subscribe to Carolyn’s highly informative and inspiring newsletter at www.artsyshark.com