Virginia Hart spent much of her childhood drawing and creating, but after graduating from college she got a job working at a hedge fund in New York City. While the job provided her with security and a way to pay her rent, she always felt like there was something she was missing. She started taking classes at night and on weekends at Parsons, School of Visual Arts, and online. The classes ranged from calligraphy to card design, but each one tapped into her creative self and reminded her of the artist within.
She started Virginia Lucas Hart to blog about her experiences outside of her 9-to-5 and eventually started selling some of her designs on Etsy. This fall, she left her job of seven years to become a full-time designer, illustrator, calligrapher, and independent contractor. Her path to getting to the point where she could be her own boss consisted of a lot of hard work – including taking the steps to build up her knowledge base and creating a structure that allowed for both a full-time desk job and a side business on nights and weekends. Her path is an example of listening to your inner voice and taking the time to tap into the creative endeavors that make you happy. Read on to learn more about how she did this and has worked to make her childhood dream a reality…
I think when we think about things we are passionate about we often return to things we loved when we were little. On your website you talk about the fact that when you were younger you always enjoyed being artistic and crafty. Can you talk a little bit to how you reconnected to that in your professional life?
Well, I lived on a farm and had no neighbors or friends nearby that I could hang out with so I had to entertain myself! Ha! I was always the art nerd growing up, but I didn’t have a really defined niche’ with it. But I loved to draw. If somebody needed something drawn in class they would turn to me. If they wanted something drawn on their hand (so weird, but it was a trend when gel pens came out) they would ask me. I also practiced my handwriting nonstop and created a different font for all of my class notes. It was just silly little things like that. Then it just stuck as I got older. I never really knew what I wanted to do, but I pursued a double major in college, one of them being studio art with a concentration in Printmaking. I didn’t really fit in with the art students, though. My stuff was cartoonish and illustration-like and not “deep” enough, so I thought I maybe wasn’t meant to be in the art world.
Then I moved to New York City a week after college graduation – totally clueless – without any idea as to what I wanted to do. I had a knack for color-coded organization so I interviewed to be things like Martha Stewart’s second assistant. (I made it to the last round, but didn’t get it.) After a few weeks, I was about to run out of money and I knew I had to figure out a job so I interviewed at a hedge fund and was hired as their receptionist. And after a couple months of working there, I was promoted. Long story short: it was a wonderful and stable job that I stayed in for over seven years! It really helped carve the path to where I am now.
Many might think that working at a hedge fund does not lend itself to many creative opportunities. How were you able to tap into your creative side during the time that you worked in the finance world?
Right after I landed that job and had money to pay for rent and something besides a hotdog from the street vendor for dinner, I started taking art classes in the evenings. The perk of having a stable job was to fund that education. But I was basically told in my first illustration class, “This is crap. You need to start over.” Again, I thought maybe I didn’t fit into the art realm. I couldn’t figure out what I could even do with what I considered my interests and talents to be.
I couldn’t stop trying, though. I figured I’d just keep exploring! So then I tried out greeting cards. That was interesting, but I quickly realized that the best-selling greeting cards are all about punch lines and humor and it wasn’t the right fit. But! There was actually another student in my class whose style really, really inspired me. At the time, she did a lot of calligraphy and that is what opened my eyes to the world of social stationery and the wedding industry. I’ve continued to improve my illustrations, too, which has been a big part of my business. Turns out – it’s not all crap!
Every creative niche’ has its place and that’s why it’s disappointing that there wasn’t someone in your formal education that said to you, “No, this is your unique craft and talent. Let’s think about how you can define it and market it.”
I suppose. My family encouraged it, but they didn’t walk around celebrating it if that makes sense. Which, in hindsight, I very much appreciate. I think it’s good to let people figure out their passions on their own and the path itself has taught me a lot, even the teachers that weren’t as supportive. I think my niche’ originated more from looking at my hobbies – what I liked to do for fun – instead of what people applauded me for. And there’s definitely a place for illustration and calligraphy, even in our tech-driven society. It just took me, like, 20-some years to return to that!
I give you a lot of credit, because very often people get into their 9-5 job and it just kind of runs its course and we forget to continue to tap into those things that made us happy when we were younger. I think you continued to do that by exploring and taking a few classes and seeing what rose to the top.
Yes, and just trying different techniques and seeing what worked and what didn’t, helped. Once I figured out what I enjoyed doing, it was important to listen to what people liked. I’m always surprised by what sells out first in my Etsy shop, for example. So yes, I was blessed to have a day job for seven years so I could explore these things. At some point I didn’t have enough time to juggle both, though, and I had to make a decision.
So, the entire time you were exploring these things, was it with the intention of what do I want to do, or was it more of the intention of just wanting to do something on the side?
I think I started doing it on the side because I needed a creative outlet. And I quickly realized there was something I was missing out on…a world I wanted to be in, even if I wasn’t so sure they wanted me there. Then it was wondering what I was actually good at and what direction I wanted to go. Then I started to wonder how I could turn it into a business. It definitely developed organically. It seems like for a while there I kind of forgot who I was. You are changing so much in your early twenties that it’s kind of hard to keep up. Funnily enough, I returned to my childhood daydreams – with a piece of paper and an art utensil.
I think that is so true. You can get wrapped up in doing what you think you are supposed to do. I think it’s also, like you said, the time in your life. I love to give people credit for taking the time to find out, though, because many people don’t always take the time to do that.
Yeah, and it’s hard. I think you get out of college and think, okay, now I have to find a job that makes real money. You want to be successful, so the first thing that comes along you take it because it’s a job and you need it to live. No wrong in that! But you are right that a lot of people forget to even stop to see if they are happy with their path. Life’s too short not to reevaluate whether or not your career and day-to-day life are fulfilling.
When you got to the point of wanting to turn your creative products into a business, what was that process like for you?
I reached out to various mentors and read a lot of books. I always loved Etsy so that’s where I started selling work (and where I sell my things now!) although I honestly still rely on people contacting me for different custom jobs. We’ll see – I might advertise differently in the New Year. It was scary at first, though. I’d talk to some people and they would just give me a blank stare. It was like, where are you going to sell this? …in a physical store? How are you going to get people to buy anything? I looked at other blogs and artists and Etsy sellers I liked to see what they did and I thought I’d try it. And it worked!
Honestly, the first stuff I sold was just word of mouth. It was, Oh, I heard you’re a good artist. Could you do this for us? Would you mind drawing this picture? I think my first client was a friend of a friend in California. She wanted portraits of her children. That was the first time I thought, Wow, this person is going to be hanging this in her home, and I don’t know who she is! I spent wayyy too many hours dedicated to those drawings now that I think about it. But it was exciting! And I still get a lot of my work from word of mouth and references.
Product designs happened organically, too. For example… I like making Valentine’s Cards for my girlfriends. I think it’s a silly holiday that celebrates couples too much and I wanted to make sure all of my girlfriends were uplifted, so I made “love” temporary tattoos in my handwriting. People were like, Okay, you need to sell these. How can I get more? So I did! And I literally couldn’t keep them in stock. I felt like Monica in the Friends episode with the chocolates. I’d wake up to messages from people all over the world wondering when I was going to make more and restock. It was nuts! I currently don’t sell them, but may revisit the whole tattoo world at some point.
But because of those temporary tattoos that started out as gifts for my friends, people started asking me to design their real tattoos! I mean, how honored do you feel when someone wants your handwriting and artwork permanently on their skin, you know? And because of that tattoo image I pinned on Pinterest, a woman used it for inspiration for a real tattoo and contacted me to meet up before she moved away from NYC. Long story short, she is now one of my dearest friends! We talk all the time and we’re actually collaborating on some other exciting projects. I swear, good things (and hard work) kept leading to greater things!
That’s a really good example that sometimes it is the thing that we least expect or don’t plan for that comes through for us!
Yes. It’s all about putting yourself out there and seeing what works and what doesn’t. One suggestion is to have as few products as possible at first and just test the waters a bit. Even now, I don’t want to have 50 products and wait years for things to sell out. I’d rather have small batches and then completely change it up. I’m always in the process of brainstorming a few things I would like to do next.
You just left your 9-5 job this fall, but how did you balance working 9-5 and then come home to run you side business? How did you structure that?
Oy, it was tough. I feel like every month was different. Thank goodness for my trusty planner where I’d write down all the custom jobs and projects. If someone wanted place cards for a wedding then I would know the deadline, and I’d look at my calendar and work backwards and try to figure out when I could do each stage of the job, always giving myself much more time than I actually needed because you just never know! I went to work from 8:30 a.m.- 5:30 p.m. and then if I went to the gym or had plans I’d get home about 7-8pm. I’d then typically work until at least midnight. I responded to emails and orders and blogged, but I actually did most of my bigger work on weekends. I had to be really strict with myself and my social calendar. For example, if I knew I was going out on Saturday night then I had to be very productive the rest of the time.
Do you have to teach yourself programs like Illustrator and Photoshop or did you get any of that as a studio art major?
I pretty much taught myself. There are so many online resources (Lynda.com, Skillshare, YouTube!) and I still go and watch tutorials to figure out little tricks. A lot of learning comes from just spending hours working in the programs, with good ol’ trial and error.
What other ways do you market your business besides word of mouth?
My blog and social media platforms: Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. But honestly, word of mouth has really been what has worked the best. I take my reputation very seriously and want to make sure every customer and client walks away happy with their designs and products. A lot of my customers are coming through Etsy as well. Etsy repinned my “love” tattoo, for example. I got so many hits just from that. I’m also not afraid of contacting people if I think they might be interested in my products or collaborating on something.
Sometimes when you take something you love and depend on it as your main source of income, you find yourself asking if you love it enough to deal with all of that other stuff that comes along with making it your full-time business. Have you found that to be true?
It’s an important question to ask yourself. I’ve discovered that sooo much of the day-to-day work of running a business has nothing to do with actually creating the work. There’s a big juggle of managing things like your inbox and website and bookkeeping that fill a lot of the time. And it’s easy to just work ALL the time because the work never ends. But breaks and weekends are important for both your sanity and creativity! I’ve been working hard to work less on weekends now that I no longer have an additional 9-5 job.
So what do you do to keep your creative juices flowing?
I get a lot of inspiration from walking around the city, reading, and looking at blogs and different art. I honestly love sitting alone with my calligraphy. Sometimes I think, If I were doing this for myself, what would I do? Then I usually don’t stop for, like, 6 hours and wind up with a picture and I don’t know where the heck it came from. I feel like I am constantly finding things around me that inspire me. It’s just finding that time to sit down and benefit from that inspiration that can be tricky. Also, just giving yourself an assignment can be the catalyst to help you produce. It really helps.
We get going in a million directions and it is carving out the time to make sure you do it.
Yes, there are lots of things to balance into your day – exercise, seeing friends, etc. It was especially hard with a full-time job. I’d find myself daydreaming about one of my side projects, and then when I was working on my side project I’d wonder what time that meeting at the office was the next day.
What advice would you have for someone who is where you were 3-4 years ago? Maybe they realize that they love to draw but don’t even know how to go about exploring that as a career. What would you say to them that would maybe be a good first step?
Classes are a big help because you can explore your talent and also see what other people are capable of doing. When you’re not in a creative world, it’s necessary to be able to see the possibilities. It’s also a good reality check to go into a class and realize, Okay, I’m not as good as I/others think I am. Look at that guy and his work. It’s good to be around that. You also want to be inspired. You see different styles and what other people are up to in their creative paths.
I feel like I learned so much about jobs I never knew existed in those classes, in just meeting people and asking what they do and how they do it. The connections I’ve made in those classes – both students and teachers – have been invaluable.
Did you ever think about going and getting a full-time 9-5 job within one of the creative fields you were interested in – like working for a card company?
People would say to me, “Why don’t you go work for Hallmark?” I want to be my own boss with my artwork – at least give it a shot! If you are doing something creative, but in a way that somebody else wants you to do it, then it limits your creativity. It’s scary, but I want to look back one day and say that I took a chance.
What do you love about your work – why do you create the things you create?
I think my work, in a small way, helps and inspires others. I find pleasure in knowing I’m creating a logo for their start-up brand they’re so excited about or helping them give a surprise illustration gift or designing a meaningful and inspirational tattoo or beautifying and personalizing their wedding details. My hashtag or tagline is From the Hart – my maiden name and sentiment I carry into anything I create.
What made you decide to make the leap this year to becoming a full-time designer, illustrator, calligrapher, and independent contractor?
As scary as it was (and is), it felt like it was time. Things were shifting at my day job, and I realized it was no longer fulfilling or challenging me in the ways that I needed. There were also so many signs and reminders that I needed to just bite the bullet and take a risk. In trying to grow my business, my weekends were becoming more and more an extension of the workweek. I realized that in order to enjoy our wedding and honeymoon (and get everything done!), I needed a break. I was fortunate in that I was able to take about a month off before the wedding to focus primarily on that and then return from our honeymoon with a clean slate. It’s been a big year, full of exciting change!
Are you doing anything else now besides working for your own company?
I’m also working for Love Taza, a popular lifestyle blog, and helping them with the daily operations and organization of their business. I’ve been reading their blog for years, and really look up to them personally and professionally, so it’s an exciting opportunity.
How is working for Love Taza a better fit with your business than your previous job?
It’s part-time, and I get to work from home so it’s much more convenient and flexible alongside my other projects. And it’s honestly SO fun and inspiring. I’ve been blogging as a hobby for years and genuinely enjoy everything related to blogs and social media. That plus my background as an assistant makes it a nice addition and complement to my other work. I find that I operate best when my workload has a bit of variety anyway. I’m still getting used to working from home and structuring my day, but I’ve discovered that I enjoy mixing it up! I’ll do a couple hours of calligraphy then take 30 minutes to reply to emails then work on a project for Love Taza and then relocate in the apartment to work on an illustration while I listen to a podcast. It’s such a great fit right now.
Where would you like to see Virginia Lucas Hart go from here?
Good question! I have a million dreams and ideas so right now I’m trying to determine my next steps. I will be launching a print series in my shop in 2015 as well as more custom product options. Having recently gone through a wedding, I’m quite aware of the social stationery needs in that industry, and I think I will continue to grow that part of my business. I want to continue advancing my calligraphy skill-level (you can never stop practicing and perfecting!), and I would love to eventually teach. I also see myself trying out some totally different product designs and collaborating with other artists and brands.
Notes of Reflection
- Don’t listen to the haters. Virginia always knew that she was interested in drawing and the arts, but she was faced with different people – particularly in her education – that influenced her own beliefs about her abilities to turn her creative talents into a career path. Traditional education isn’t always very good at connecting people to real world applications. Just because one person might say, “This is crap,” doesn’t mean that it is. Luckily Virginia didn’t just stop when people said this to her. She kept trying, took different angles and approaches and continued to try. Virginia’s hard work and patience can be attributed to her eventually being able to find a way to connect her creativity to a career path. Take people’s feedback, but be mindful about how much of it you want to effect your future steps. It’s okay to be selective about which pieces of advice you keep and listen to and which pieces you throw away.
- Your 9-to-5 job can be the stability you need to make your side business a reality. Not everyone is in a position to just be able to take the leap and quit his or her job – and it doesn’t always make sense to do this. Virginia always knew that she wanted to be doing something more creative and be her own boss in the process, but also knew that she needed to build up her skills and knowledge before doing this. She was strategic about it and created a schedule that allowed her to work toward her ultimate goal, while still maintaining a job that gave her a steady income. This requires structure and dedication, but is doable. It also takes a bit of stress off of your plate and allows for some time to play with your ideas before requiring that they pay your bills!
- Always be exploring. When Virginia first started to explore creative endeavors outside of her desk job, she wasn’t 100% sure she knew what she wanted to be doing – she just knew, in her gut, that there was something else she was meant to do. So, she tried a lot of different things. She didn’t put too much pressure on them, but just did them for her own fun and enjoyment. While one class might not have been a complete fit, it always led her to something else. That exploring is integral to the process. Just allow yourself to gravitate to things that you like and they will inevitably lead you to something else, and so-on-and-so-on. Trust in that process and just give yourself the time to play and explore. Even if you aren’t very good at one thing, you’ll find that something else will bubble up to the top!
*Images via Virginia Hart