I have always fantasized about starting a business and opening a shop of my own. Last year I realized my dream and it has been all it’s cracked up to be. If you have always wanted to open your own shop, I would definitely encourage you to try it, and I can share with you some of the things I’ve learned over the past year.

Develop and Prototype Your Concept – If you have an idea, prototype it, get feedback, and then write a business plan. Four years ago, we were planning an extended family holiday to a vacation home in Mexico. My sister offered to teach a yoga class each morning, so inspired by her lead, I proposed to do an art project every afternoon. I packed thirty pounds of paper, glue, markers and scissors and set off for Mexico. I was shocked at how well my projects were received each day, with some days family members working for over two hours on each piece. At the end of the week, my sister said, “You should open an art studio.”

Start Small – Before you sign that lease, pay your first month’s rent and security deposit, purchase insurance, set up an LLC, and stock your store, try starting your business, if at all possible, from home. My grand idea was to open up a teaching art studio. I got cold feet when I figured it could cost me tens of thousands of dollars to get started and I didn’t know if there would be a demand. So, I put my shop idea on the back burner and started Doodle Art & Design as a mobile art business.

Turn Your Volunteer Work Into A Business! If you are volunteering your time somewhere, there is a chance you love what you are doing, and that has potential to be a business. I was the Art Appreciation co-chair at my kids’ elementary school for seven years and felt somewhat comfortable asking the principal if I could try out a lunchtime art program at the school. He agreed, and I launched my business with no money down! I charged my initial supplies on a credit card, and got kids signed up. I was able to pay my start up costs with the cash coming in from my clients. This kept me debt free.

I began making art kits out of my more popular projects but didn’t have a way to sell them so I thought that opening an art studio would give me a venue to sell my kits and teach classes to a wider audience. Having banked all of my profits, I began looking for a space.

Don’t Be Afraid – In the beginning I worried about silly things like what if no one signed up for my classes or visited my studio. Would people in town point and talk about what a loser I was? While I haven’t yet had to close my doors, I’m not wildly successful either but I keep plugging away. I have no idea what people are saying about me, and I’m too busy to worry about it.

Get Cheap Rent. I ended up renting a 120 square-foot space. With fresh white paint, and good interior design, I was able to turn it into a cute studio, which can accommodate six children. My low rent has been the single most important reason that I have been able to stay in business during this startup time. Why? Because I am not working and developing my business just to pay my rent. It is so low that I can easily pay it, and I have the freedom to try new things in my shop.

Partner Or Go It Alone? Depending on your personality and the type of business you are opening will dictate whether or not you should take on a partner. When I first started my business I did it with a friend, which made it easier and harder. It’s great to have a buddy to work with but then you can’t do whatever you want. Figure out if you’re a team player, before you partner up!

Try Different Products/Services. It turns out that my main reason for opening a brick and mortar store, to sell my signature art kits, has not worked out so far. I’ve discovered that I don’t like being in my store unless I am teaching a class or working on a project. Operating a retail space that relies on foot traffic was more appealing to me in theory than in practice. So instead of trying to sell kits, I focus on my classes, and I am putting together a book of my best projects.

Be flexible. Listen to your customers. Your business may change into something different than what you originally thought. You may discover an aspect of your business that you really like that you may be able to focus on. I learned that parents are interested in making some of the things that the kids create. So I realized that I don’t have to think up an adult curriculum, I just need to adapt the kids’ projects for my adult customers.

It’s your space, so experiment! I opened my studio to teach classes and sell kits. I am now experimenting with having art shows and I am toying with the idea of having performance art events and installations. This will be fun and will allow me to showcase my own work and others, and perhaps bring in more income. But I couldn’t do any of this without cheap rent!

So now that you’ve chosen to open a business, you’ve got a lot of “back office” things to do. I love managing my business, which is a good thing because it is time consuming. There are so many tools available to small business owners that it is much easier to grow your business than even a decade ago using the web and social media.

Rule Number One: Build Your Email List! Use Mailchimp, Constant Contact, etc. – Subscribe to a mailing site. These allow you to send out mass emails, track your subscribers and collect email addresses, which is still the best way to build your business.

Build A Website – Anyone who has a business should build a website and load it up with photos! You can have someone help you or do it yourself on Squarespace. One of my son’s friends built me a website in exchange for a piece of art. Thankfully, I had been taking photos of my various projects. This made my business appear more established than it was. People can sign up for classes and order kits through my site.

Be Active On Social Media. Set up a business Facebook account where you can post photos, articles and event information. Create a story with Instagram using different photos than on your Facebook. Use Twitter. Pinterest is great if you are selling a product. Set up a Yelp business account, which can garner you reviews and help you get more traffic.

Newsletter and/or Podcast – Share information and build up your credibility by penning a newsletter, which can be done with Mailchimp,or creating a podcast that can widen your audience beyond your geography.

Customer Service – The key to any business is customer service. People want to feel that they are getting a good value. I never cancel a class for low enrollment and over time, my classes usually grow. In the rare case a class hasn’t gotten an increase in enrollment, I rework my schedule to get higher attendance. If customers ask for their money back for some reason, give it to them, if you can. Be accommodating and friendly.

Complementary Businesses – If you have the time and energy to develop a business that complements what you are already doing, try it. I have had people ask me for my Doodle Art mugs. I don’t want to incur the expense of having to stock mugs and T-Shirts so I am contracting with a print-on-demand company.

Don’t Take a Paycheck for as long as you can. I am nearly four years into my business and I have not taken a paycheck. I put the money back into my business to buy tools and supplies that I need. Because I keep a cash reserve I was able to take off six weeks when I had to have unexpected surgery.

Stay on top of your finances. Keep track of your expenses and income on a monthly basis. That way, you’ll know sooner rather than later whether your business is viable, whether you are spending too much, and where to tweak things to become more profitable. You’ll also be ready at tax time!

If you still feel you need help getting started, take my So You Want To Open A Shop workshop for adults this fall. I am currently prototyping this idea with kids in my Micro Mini Biz Entrepreneur Camp! Each camper will design and build her shop from the ground up, create a product line, and participate in a mini sidewalk sale! Come check it out on Thursday, August 17th from 1:00 to 2:00 at Doodle Art & Design, 4365 Lawn Avenue, Western Springs!

Kathleen Thometz is an artist, writer, and founder of Doodle Art & Design, a teaching studio, art gallery, and retailer of its signature art kits in Western Springs. She lives with her husband, kids and doodle dogs. You can contact her at kathleen.thometz@doodleartanddesign.net.

Kathleen Thometz

I am an artist, writer, and art instructor with four children, one husband, and two doodle-dogs. I have contributed articles to the mid.com and Chicago Parent Magazine and wrote the Artist's Eye column...