As far as degrees go, I probably have one of the most useless degrees when it comes to preparation for the business world.
I have a degree in Musical Theatre.
My class schedule sort of looked like Fame. I went from tap to private voice lessons to costume design to acting. My backpack was filled with ballet shoes, leg warmers, scripts and a music binder.
When I decided on that degree, it was not because I wanted to prepare myself for starting a business. It was because I loved theatre and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
When I started my business, it wasn’t because I thought I had the right credentials, background or degree or even a solid plan. It was because I felt compelled to. I needed to. (Try explaining all of this to a guy in a suit when you need to get liability insurance!)
So I didn’t have very much going for me, it would seem, but I had hope and people who believed in me.
That doesn’t look very impressive on a list of assets.
But it was enough.
I was now a business owner.
Since this was a decorative painting and mural business, I started painting. I painted everything I could paint. Furniture, odds and ends from thrift stores and I went crazy in my house. Some days, I would paint a mural and then paint over it by the end of the day.
You can see the flourishes I painted on the wall in my dining room in the photo below…
People are never going to hire me or even hear about me, if I’m only painting my house. I had to gain some experience with clients for my portfolio and references, so I put the word out in our church and a family hired to me to paint a historic, folk art-style mural in their 1700’s home (that was also a Civil War hospital!)
Here’s what it looked like before…
I loved that mural. Still do, really. The house above the fireplace is how their house looked in the 1800’s and the covered bridge was a favorite family spot. The other buildings are famous barns in Gettysburg…the McPherson and Codori barns.
Let me tell you what. I knew how to dress to impress a client.
Now, I had to go beyond friends and family. I actually met with a rep from the phone book about placing an ad (that was out of my budget). I put lettering on my van (that is still there!) I printed up 500 post cards with the intention of handing them out…door to door, if necessary. It was slow going and seemed too hard to get things off the ground.
Again, my mom stepped in. She gave me some money to purchase about 120 raw wooden ornaments, so I could paint and sell them at a craft fair.
I spent hours, hunched over my kitchen counter, ornaments in various stages of doneness spread out on brown paper, brush in hand, babies at my ankles.
Each one was unique, entirely painted by hand, sealed with a satin polyurethane and finished off with a coordinating ribbon.
I stayed up most nights until two or three AM working on them. I painted ornaments when dinner was on the stove. Every five minutes I could steal away went to those ornaments.
I signed up for a local Christmas craft show in an elementary school, hoping to sell some ornaments and meet some potential clients for murals and decorative painting.
I set up my table with a pretty linen tablecloth, mini tree with lights and a spread of my ornaments that I was selling for $4.00 each. Don’t even say it. I know my average hourly rate was probably about $1.50.
I was excited the day of the fair, though. I was hoping and praying I would sell them all and it would be a huge victory. I could then sign up for more craft fairs and paint more ornaments and I would have a clear direction.
I quickly realized that “craft fair” didn’t mean that the vendors actually crafted something. I was wedged between two vendors pushing their mass-produced “crafts” that recently arrived from China. I did sell some ornaments, but only enough to just break even. The entire experience was a disappointment and felt like a huge failure. I put the ornaments out of sight and licked my wounds.
Enter mom. Again.
She came to visit for Christmas and insisted that we take the ornaments around to local shops to see if anyone would sell them on consignment. Or even just buy them outright.
We packed the boys in the car and I wore my best jeans and hoodie. I was ready.
We went from store to store I would slink in, pull a few ornaments out of a brown paper bag, accept rejection and then move on to the next store. The truth is, I wasn’t in love with these ornaments and I didn’t feel like they were a good representation of my style. I was really just doing it, so my mom would leave me alone about it.
We then came to the last store on the main drag of downtown Gettysburg. It was called “Accessories” and there were mostly purses and jewelry in the window. “I don’t know if it’s even worth going in there, mom.” She pulled the you’ll never know if you don’t try argument, so I sighed and went in.
I went through the motions. Introduced myself to the shop owner and showed her my ornaments.
“Oh, I think they are cute. It’s a little close to Christmas, but let’s put them out and see what happens.”
I was stunned.
“I have more in the car.” I ran out to get them, shaking. My mom was in the car, keeping my two boys entertained. I think the two year old ate six lollipops that afternoon.
I sat on the floor in the shop and priced the ornaments with tags the owner provided. I was so overwhelmed, I forgot her name twice. I babbled about how I could do painted furniture and a mural in the “baby room” in the back of the store. She nodded and expressed an openness to all of my ideas. I signed a consignment agreement with her at a 70/30 split and left my ornaments to see if anyone would buy them.
The ornaments weren’t a runaway seller and I did end up taking most of them home with me after Christmas, but it gave me just the leg-up I needed. Those ornaments weren’t much in and of themselves, but they gave me something to work on and something to sell.
I said in the beginning that my degree was pretty useless, but in hindsight, it only seems that way.
You see, one of the classes I had to take between Modern Dance and Set Building was a little nugget called Audition Techniques. In that class, I learned how to manage and market myself as a product. It was a class intended to prepare me to work successfully in the entertainment industry, but at the heart of it, it was a class on how to run a business.
It was time to realize that I had a lot more going for me than I acknowledged.
It was time to dig deep and find that girl who would walk into auditions confidently and belt out a song.
It was time to find my style and put a plan together to sell it.
It was time for me to start acting like an entrepreneur.
Little did I know, that cold December day when I spread those silly wooden ornaments out on the floor of that woman’s store, that I had walked into the perfect place at the perfect time.
And I was on the edge of discovering the thing that would be the hallmark of my business –