Kathryn Murray‘s Chapter Be story does not include a drastic change in her occupation, but it is an amazing example of how you can make a business out of doing something that you love. Kathryn went to art school, but it wasn’t until years later that she would learn calligraphy and then another few years before it would turn into her full-time job. For a long time she balanced doing her calligraphy work “on the side,” while she worked her 9-to-5 job, but it got to the point where she no longer wanted to have to balance the two. So, she made the leap.
She made the leap, but also did it rather strategically – coming up with a money plan before leaving her desk job and setting goals that she wanted to be sure she reached in order to keep her and her family afloat. Through the process she created structures that help her adjust to working from home, including forming a women’s business group that meets monthly. The importance for her lies in making real connections with people and having a job that allows her to use her hands. Read on to learn more about how she does this…
Have you always been interested in art and design and what took you to New York, and then brought you back to L.A?
I was born in California and lived here my whole childhood. I went to college in Santa Cruz in Northern California, and when I started college I knew I wanted to study art and knew that would be my direction. The whole reason I wanted to go to college was because my school was so small and we didn’t have a big art program. I thought that if I went to college I would get to do everything – sculpture, woodworking, etc.
I don’t know why I had this naive idea, but I got to school in Santa Cruz and I took a drawing class, and I took a sculpture class and then they were like, yeah, that’s kind of it. I thought that was kind of crummy! They had these portfolio events you could go to where art schools come together. You show your portfolio and then you have around 20 different schools you could then mock-apply to that day. I went and got accepted to Pratt Institute on the spot. I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me to go to art school but for some reason it just didn’t.
Well, when you are 17-18 you aren’t always thinking that way particularly.
Yeah, but I don’t know if anyone had ever actually presented art as a career. It was more art as a hobby, not a profession. I went to a really small high school and there was nobody there that was really career minded in a creative field. Anyway, I dropped out of Santa Cruz and went back to L.A. I then applied only to Parsons and Pratt, because I knew I wanted to go to New York. I thought I wanted to study costume or fashion design. I got accepted to both and decided to go to Parsons. I didn’t wind up studying fashion because the fashion department was really mean, angry actually. The very first class I took in fashion the teacher said, “Fashion is not about clothing. It’s about money.” I was like, oh, no!
So, I studied illustration. I thought that I would be an illustrator but this was right at the point in time when the Internet came into being. When I started college there was very little Internet, but by the time I finished college it was full-on Internet! I was super resistant to digital design. I took classes, but I just always thought I would never do that – that I would always do everything by hand. I didn’t want to be a digital designer. Right at that time, too, because of the Internet people and magazines just stopped hiring illustrators. It was more and more photography. Of course there is still illustration but not the way it was even in the early 90’s or late 80’s. I ended up moving home and didn’t become an illustrator. In fact, I don’t think anyone who was in my department with me became an illustrator.
Did Parsons help you at all in thinking about careers around illustration? Did they guide you at all in thinking about what you could do post Parsons?
Looking back on that now, it was more about the whole package of being in school and having the commitment to the workload, plus I worked an outside job all through college. All of the things combined completed a really important 4 years of my life. I’m super glad that I could do that and grateful that I was able to go to a school like Parsons. I had a lot of valuable learning there but not really career learning. I think maybe at the time, maybe because of the Internet, people were unsure of where to guide you. It was all changing really fast.
My husband is a web designer and he studied drama, of all things! When he graduated college he ended up going back to community college to study graphic design. The crazy thing is that the drama actually helps him all of the time. He is now an incredible presenter, and he has so much poise. He stands in front of people and in front of clients with so much ease. So, you never know how it will all fit together.
That reminds me of the Steve Jobs quote, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” Everything does have its purpose and reason for being there.
Yes – that’s true! I came home and I blundered around for a little while. I started working at Paper Source. It is now a chain but it was a very small when I worked there 10 years ago. I ended up becoming the manager and then the invitation designer of the Beverly Hills store. I took a calligraphy class and then through that class people started asking me to do calligraphy for them. I am fortunate enough to be married to a web designer, so he started taking pictures of my work and helped me build a website. I worked full time and did calligraphy part time for 8 years.
Part of that time I was at Paper Source and then I actually worked for Osborne & Little which is a British textile company. It is a gigantic place in L.A. that is all interior design shops with fabric and furniture – pretty much anything you might need. I worked there for several years just as a sales person. After college I realized that I wasn’t so much interested in fashion, as I was in fabric. I really liked working for the textile company. They have beautiful products that are all from British designers. I met a lot of really great people working there, too.
I would think that the beauty of textiles could inspire your craft as well. I saw on your site that you mix your own colors. Is that something you taught yourself or did you learn that in your formal education?
I’m interested in flat color and flat pattern – they appeal to me the most. I’m not really texture or shading oriented. We definitely had color theory and color mixing classes in school. So, I’m sure I was definitely informed by school but then some of it is just me fooling around. It is a weird skill that I have, but I can see the color and I can see the parts, which then allows me to mix it to be that. If someone wants to do a certain color they can give me a Pantone number, and I can go from there.
That’s an impressive skill! So, how did you transition from working full time for those 8 years to working as your own boss? What was that process like for you and what were the catalysts to make that break and work for yourself?
I was going along for a long time just thinking that calligraphy was a nice supplement. I didn’t want to work in an office indefinitely, but I wasn’t quite sure how to make calligraphy a full-time job. As I moved along I would get in situations where I was so busy that I would be staying up late and then getting up early, trying to get jobs done for people. I ended up being really, really frustrated at my day job because I felt like I was stuck in a chair; I had other things to do and I couldn’t do them. While I liked the textile company that I worked for, it was actually very slow. Not a lot of customers came in and there was not a lot of work. So, in an 8-hour day I would be done with my work in 2 hours and had 6 hours to burn.
In a way it was good because I could do all kinds of research and could read as much as I wanted. It was still frustrating, though, because I would get home at the end of the day and I’d be tired but I didn’t do anything! I just sat still for 6 hours of the day – why am I so tired! I think that I was just ready to leave that position. It was a very small office – only three people worked there. There were 2 sales people and a sample person. My boss was super unhappy to be there. She kind of resented everything and then that filtered down onto me. I needed a change.
My husband and I knew that we needed a plan, so we lived off of his income and saved my income for 6 months. It was a test to see if I made zero dollars could we still live off of his salary. We also saved to give me a little bit of money to start off the business. I put in my notice at the end of the 6 months. Then that was it. I just was trying to figure out what to do next! Since then I have been getting work pretty steadily. I do a little bit of advertising, and I do some marketing to individuals but I mostly go and find wedding planners and see if they need calligraphy.
It’s a strange job because I don’t really get return clients. Once you get married, you probably won’t need to use calligraphy again. People always say that they will refer me to their friends, but that really doesn’t happen because if your girlfriend gets something done by me then you don’t want exactly the same design. So most of my work comes from the magic of the Internet. But 99.9% of what I do is for weddings.
Do you have a high and low season then since there kind of tends to be more weddings in the summer than in the winter?
Yes, but really there are pretty much weddings year around in California. December and January are usually pretty slow, but sometimes other jobs come up. In January 2013 I had plans to redo my studio then I got a huge job for the Grammys. So, redoing the studio had to wait a little bit longer!
It’s kind of a weird job, though, because I am home alone which is a little bit of a shift from what I was used to. I am an only child so I’m pretty good about being by myself. I think that I’m social, and I am okay going out but I think that I do like working solitary. I think for the most part it’s a little bit hard to focus. I’ve been doing this at home alone by myself for over 3 years now and it’s hard to schedule my day, in that I wish I could be more structured. Somehow I just can’t seem to do that in a way that is good for me.
I understand – I’ve been working from home for almost 3 years myself and it’s something that I really struggle with, too. I have wondered if there is just a different type of person who is better at this or if it just takes a while to find your groove. Can you talk a little bit about your process as far as working from home? Also, how do you make sure you carve out time for being creative as well as doing the business end of your work?
I try to do this, and I don’t always do it, but at the beginning of the week I try to make a detailed list of what needs to get done during the week. I find it a little bit challenging to get through the list. So, I try to prioritize. For example, this weekend I have 200 envelopes to do for a wedding, so I have to figure out how long I have to do them. I can do them in probably 2.5 days but that will be hard on the hand, so I like to give myself more time than that. So, I make a pretty good list of what I have to do for the week and include stuff like making a dental appointment or making sure I have emailed people back. I want to make sure I do it so I put it on my list. If not, things can just slip away. Those little tasks are hard to remember.
How do I have time to be creative? Right now I’m in a little bit of a lull. I have envelopes coming in this weekend and I have some wedding invitations that I’m doing for people. Mostly, I am waiting to hear from people, so I’m at an in-between stage. When that happens, that is the time where I need to keep working. What I’m trying to do right now is have a line of wedding invitations. Ideally, I would like my wedding invitations to be on my website and available so people can just say, “Hey, I want that one.” It is almost like a template for me that I can just plug in their information. Right now when people want to do a wedding invitation I’m starting from scratch and designing the whole thing. It is more labor intensive. This way the invitations would just be there so that I don’t have to do every single thing by hand. Right now it is set up so that only I can do everything. I can’t have anybody come in and help, because they can’t calligraphy it.
Yeah, and it would streamline the process and probably allow you to have more clients that way.
I hope so. That’s the idea that it would generate a little bit more income. I’m doing okay with income, but obviously we would all like to make a little bit more money. My goal when I quit my job was to make $1,000 per month at a minimum. I have made that or more every single month. I feel really good about that, but there are definitely days when I don’t have any jobs lined up and worry about what I’m going to do. It is stressful and it becomes crazy. For example, I will see someone online who does calligraphy state that they just got 1,000 envelopes to do, and I will think, “Oh, they have work and I’m not working! Why are they better than me?” So, I get that self-doubt when I’m worried.
There is that line of marketing yourself to try and find new work, but also trusting that it will come to you as well. You put the word out there, you trust that people know your work, but then you also can’t just sit there and think it’s going to fall in your lap. That is a challenge finding the balance between pushing and trusting.
That is a challenge. When I don’t have any jobs lined up in the immediate future, I know I have to try and get other things on my to-do list done. So, right now I’m working on the template invitations. I’ve been trying to do these darned invitations all year, and I don’t know why it has been so difficult. I have been attempting to design these invitations for a while and for some reason it has been a creative struggle.
I know that you created a “Women’s Group” of accountability partners. Tell me a little about the group and why you wanted to start it. What’s the purpose of it for you and the other women who are involved?
I was reading a lot of blogs and there are almost like cliques of blog people. They are all on each other’s blogs, and they are having coffee all of the time. It looks like they just dress cute every day and take pictures of themselves! I was thinking about that and wondering what they are doing? I don’t want to be one of them, but they look like they are having fun; and I want to be having fun, too! It’s the kind of weird blog world where they are kind of minor celebrities – blog celebrities, which is kind of weird but it is what it is!
So in reacting to that I asked myself what kind of community I wanted to be a part of and have fun with? There is a group called Smarty that is like a women’s small business community. Everybody told me I should join that. It’s several hundred dollars to join, though, and I don’t know anybody in it so it sounded a little bit intimidating. The women in my group – it’s just four women – are interior designers and graphic designers. I knew all of them, but they didn’t all know each other. I just reached out and asked if they would like to meet, have breakfast and talk about some of our business challenges. We all work from home, and we all run individual little companies. We are all dealing with the same thing where we have blogs, and we are trying to market ourselves and also not go crazy while working at home alone!
At the same time I can see how people could end up going to lunch everyday with somebody, but then you burn through money and you burn through time. It gets you out of the house, and you go do something but you aren’t accomplishing anything in terms of your business. I just saw that community of bloggers online and wanted to have my own community of people. It doesn’t really have a structure, but we meet once a month and talk about things like setting goals for ourselves for that month. Then we meet back up in a month and repeat back how we did during the month as well as talk about what is next for us for the next month. I think we should open it up to more people because more voices are important. I don’t want to end up just talking about the same things because after a while you are just girlfriends talking about other things. That is fine but not my intention for the group.
I think that makes sense. That way if not everyone can make it on a date then you still have a population of people showing up – it can be something that people can come in and out of based on need as well.
What is interesting to me, too, is that my husband and I don’t have children. One of the women is a little bit older and has 2 children and one of them has a baby and the other one has one on the way. It is very interesting to see the different stages of family and how that works in terms of running a business. Can you still have a business if you have a baby? It is just the challenges that are specific to women. The woman with two children is 46. She has been doing it a little bit longer and has a little bit more experience in a lot of ways but then in another way she still isn’t sure what to do. So it is reassuring to know that there are other people that are smart, wonderfully talented people but are still trying to navigate how to do this. There is no magic formula.
I was reading a blog yesterday called Making It Lovely. It’s a woman in Chicago who had a stationery company and then blogged about it. At this point she makes enough money from blogging that she has had to close her stationery company. That kind of idea is not really what I aspire to do at all. The idea of doing a blog every day does not appeal to me. It is mostly because I don’t think I am a writer. I don’t think I’m a good writer. It is so interesting that she was able to take a sideline of the blog and that has become her full time job. Then she is invited to do speaking gigs and all of these other things.
It’s the “if you build it they will come” analogy. By just starting and following something that you love, what does that have the potential to turn into? I feel like, to your point, there are so many different stories on the Internet about people who maybe had one intention, but it turned into something that they never even expected.
I think that’s hopeful, too, like you said, “if you build it they will come.” It’s like the work begets work thing. Working starts the next thing. I think that is part of why I wanted to start my little ladies group. I just didn’t know what would come out of it. I thought we were all smart women who had interesting stories, and I think it has been super helpful. The second meeting we had, I was working on some wedding invitations and one of the girls said something to me about how to do it. She’s an interior designer, but it made so much sense that I was like, “Oh!” I would have never thought about it in those terms, but because she was outside of it she was able to look back and say, “No, you could just do this.”
That is the thing I do miss about working in an office – the collaboration. You get so into a project that it’s hard to see outside of it. Having another perspective can totally give you that next little push you need to continue along with the work. I personally believe humans need and crave human interaction and that is something that office environments give us but then they also give us a lot of negative things, too! How can we create the good structures about office environments when we are no longer in them?
So much of the office environment is not healthy. My husband works for a company and he left yesterday morning at 7:00 a.m. and he got home last night at 10:30 p.m. The week before, I’m not kidding, he worked 24 hours straight. I was like, ‘Dude, if I were you I would be like, screw this, I’m going home!” I asked him if there wasn’t somebody he could talk to or ask and he was like, “Nope”. So, he felt trapped in that cycle. There are so many ways that I am glad I am home and working from home and that I can be here. There are days when it’s hard to not go, “Hey, I’ve got to do laundry! Hey, I’ve got to go get groceries.” I have to not let myself get distracted by those things. There is some happy medium between doing what he is doing and then not getting anything done at home. There has to be some leverage.
I think it is finding whatever works for you. I have tried to go to coffee shops, yet even there people surround you but you are still just working by yourself. That is why your idea of creating a group that purposely comes together to talk about business issues is so smart, because it creates that space and that connection and in a sense gives you partners. Also, there isn’t a competition, because you are not all doing the exact same thing. It is more so just helping each other because you are invested in the group versus being worried about giving away an idea or have somebody steal a client.
I was thinking about that when forming the group – would I have to be super guarded about what I’m doing? I think it is fortunate that with this group of people is not like that. It could very well have been. I think it takes a certain kind of person who is going to come in and do that. I do think that whenever I have helped people, though, like if I have given a piece of information, shared a story, or shared how I got to a certain point it has always been a positive experience.
I have a friend of mine who started her own stationery company last year. She needed help with knowing how to get it started, and I could have easily been like, “Oh, I can’t tell her all my secrets or she will steal all of my business.” To me there is no down side to sharing that information, because it helps her and in a way it helps me. It lets me talk about it in a way that reinforces my own learning, and if somebody is going to steal my idea or whatever they are going to do it anyway. I feel as though helping other people helps me from a global sense. They are not literally bringing me more business or literally bringing me income, but they are building a community of people that I could reach out to or maybe could be a teacher.
I think it’s the idea that if you always approach things with good intention and with an open heart then good things come back to you tenfold. So, instead of holding things in and being negative, which I think has an adverse effect, be open and willing to share. I think that comes back to you in other positive ways.
Brene Brown’s TED talk about shame is really good, and we have been talking about it a lot lately in our women’s business group. I had skin cancer two years ago. It has been removed, and it is fine. Yet, it has me thinking that I’m 35 years old and why did I have this so early. Most of the time you don’t get that until you are in your 60s. Otherwise I’m in perfectly good health.
In the time since then I have given it a lot of thought, and I actually work with an acupuncturist on a regular basis. One of the things he is saying to me is that you have a choice between fear and love. You can reduce almost anything to those two choices. So, you can be afraid that the cancer will come back or be afraid that someone will steal your idea and be afraid, be afraid, be afraid and it all makes your life more toxic by being in that fear all of the time. It’s difficult to not be afraid of things. It’s difficult to just be brave when you are feeling vulnerable. It’s difficult but like you are saying, it’s about the intention of what you are doing. If you are choosing to share your information or choosing love rather than being afraid then it is ultimately healthier and more beneficial. Maybe not in the monetary way but in a life way.
I think that is so well said, and I really love that point. We live in a society where success is very much attached to monetary things and what you have and how far up the ladder you have climbed. To your point, success is more than just making money. It is also in how you live your life. It’s in choosing to live your life by doing things out of love and not out of fear, which is a point of success as well because that’s not always easy. I think that as humans we battle with that day in and day out. If you are able to consistently choose love over fear then I think that is a huge success.
My acupuncturist helped bring things in to me that I wouldn’t even think of. My right hand is my dominant hand. My right hand and right shoulder hurt because I use them all of the time. I told him that my whole right side was tingling. He said, “Remember that whole conversation about fear?” I was like, “Yeah?” He said, “You need to love that part of your body.” I said, “Yeah but I’m afraid that I’ll hurt my hand and not have a job anymore.” He said, “Exactly, you are afraid something is going to happen so you are choosing fear rather than loving that side of your body, too.” I was always doing things like not lifting heavy things because what if it hurt my hand and I need my hands so much. I was like, what if, what if, what if! He showed me how that concept of fear was showing up in so many different places.
It’s not even something that we are even necessarily conscious of so you have to take a step backwards and see all of the ways we do that. I’m a little biased, but I don’t think our society focuses on that in the same way we focus on what you do for a living. I mean that’s one of the first questions people usually ask – “What do you do?” It’s not about what you do to make your life better outside of your job. I think that is just as equally important in living a good quality life.
So, if there is someone that was in your position 3 years ago and has been working in an office job but they are a creative soul and know that they want to be following something different, what advice would you give them? What do you know now that you wish you had known then?
I wish I had paid off all of our credit cards. We have a house with a mortgage and some lingering debt that is slowly going away, but if I could I would go back and pay those off before I left my job just to have a little bit more cushion and a little bit more freedom. I would say that I actually think I am trying to make real physical connections with people, not just Internet connections. I want to have actual conversations, even on the phone, but I find that really valuable. It’s hard to just be in our little bubble. I would save some money and go out and meet real people.
Notes of Reflection:
- When the topic of leaving a job to do something on your own comes up, many people use the excuse that they couldn’t because of their bills and expenses. Bills and expenses are no joke. They are real and a reality that we all must face. But…Kathryn proves that if you are strategic about it, you can find ways to make the move. For her it was saving her 9-to-5 income for six months while they lived off her husband’s income. Not everyone has a spouse that they can depend on like that, so it might mean setting aside an amount of money each month for your business fund. It is a matter of creating a realistic budget, making some changes and sacrifices, and just sticking to it. It will entail some compromises, but the idea is that the end goal is worth it to you.
- Everything in life can be whittled down to two things – fear and love. There is so much truth in that. How much do we avoid doing things in life because of our fears? If you take the time to identify how an ill feeling most likely stems from fear, it becomes easier to learn ways to try and eliminate that fear. Fears hold us back from more then just taking a leap to being our own boss, they hold us back from realizing what we really want and need in life.
- If you work from home and struggle to find structure in your day (like many do – including myself!), take some time to build out systems for yourself. Any good organization, company or corporation has developed systems to be a smooth running operation – working by yourself at home should be no different. There are amazing online tools available for those who prefer using technology, and for those who still prefer writing things by hand there are many ways to ensure that you stay-on-task for the day, week, month, etc. It is worth taking the time to develop these systems, as they will make your work that much more efficient in the long run.
- A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
- Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen
- Color by Victoria Finlay
- Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold
- Matisse- His Art and His Textiles by Hilary Spurling and Ann Dumas
- Encyclopedia of the Exquisite by Jessica Kerwin Jenkins
- Andy Warhol Drawings, 1942-1987 by Mark Francis and Dieter Koepplin
*Images via Kathryn Murray