Friday Finds - Brooke Witt Art & Design

Morning! Today I have an interview with a fabulous young designer Brooke Witt who is based in the U.S.A. We met virtually during the Make Art That Sells course last year. Brooke is the designer behind the Near and Dear Designs on Etsy. She runs a full-time design and illustration studio as Brooke Witt Art & Design.

© Brooke Witt

When did you start your business and why?

Hi Gabs! Thank you so much for asking! If I had to give my business an anniversary date, I’d say it would be August 5th, 2011 when I said my final goodbye to my day job. However, the story that leads to that day is interesting. 
Fresh out high school, I enrolled in my local college’s fine arts program. The program was basic and provided me with an introduction to visual arts. I worked hard and had plans of transferring to an art institute when I discovered I was pregnant. In 2001, I gave birth to the love of my life, Olivia. She’s much of the inspiration and motivation behind everything I do. I chose single-motherhood and decided to keep pursuing a creative career. Definitely, the road less travelled. I’m sure some people had their doubts - hell, I had my doubts - but the heart wants what the heart wants.
So, I worked a full-time job while I juggled graphic design courses and a toddler. With a lot of persistence, practice and patience, I was able to build a career as a graphic designer. I’ve worked in areas of marketing design, small business branding and graphic illustration. I’ve designed product catalogs, magazine layouts and large-scale graphics. Along the way, I’d loved and overcome loss, changed cities, changed jobs and changed my mind…. several times! I once painted and sold a series of children's folk art prints to several national children's hospitals, daycare centers and private collectors as a self-representing artist on eBay back in 2003. That was pre-Etsy! A few years later, the loss of a dear friend lead me to illustrating song lyrics. In 2007, I officially opened my first Etsy shop. It was slow going online, so I showed my newest body of work at art/craft fairs, small music venues and coffee shops around town. This lead to several wholesale accounts and custom orders. Over a few years, the series grew to 100+ illustrations representing song lyrics from all genres collected by music lovers worldwide, including many famous musicians! 

I've since fallen in love and married a blacksmith, said goodbye to in-house design and opened a full-time successful Etsy business. In late 2010, I started The Near & Dear Collection. The idea for the series started with my own need to give unique and meaningful gifts. As I created each new gift for someone in my life, I quickly saw the possibility to tell other people's stories through familiar imagery and strong iconic design. By thinking personally, yet seeing an opportunity in the consumer marketplace, I was able to develop a series of personalized art prints and custom illustrations that tell a story completely unique to it's owner.

Over the past 3 years, I’ve been designing and producing personalized gifts and custom illustrations on Etsy for folks all over the world . The Near & Dear Collection has been wildly successful with 13,000+ sales in under 3 years and growing! Each and every order is designed, printed, packaged and shipped from my home studio in Cleveland, Ohio. 

Did things take off immediately or has it been a slow burn? 

I love this question because, truth is, I have the answer everyone wants to hear. As I was opening my current shop and setting up the initial listings, one sold right out from under me! Sure to be a good sign, right? The collection quickly grew from my own ideas as well as customer requests and within 2 months I was taking so many orders it was hard to balance my day job. It became apparent that I had a decision to make - risk cutting back on the amount of orders I could take OR put in notice at my job and figure it out! Like any sane person living paycheck-to-paycheck would do, I put in my notice.

Do you do your business part time or full time? 

Is “all the time” an option? Yes, my husband and I now run Brooke Witt Art & Design, LLC full-time. We’re now in our 3rd year and we continue to sell strong! However, I’m a big believer in diversifying your income, so the Near & Dear series on Etsy is just one series out of an entire portfolio of work we offer here. I also work in art licensing and surface design as well as freelancing design and illustration for a variety of clients. Aside from working with me, my husband is a blacksmith who runs his own studio, The Designer Wrought Iron Company - to which I have a hand in as well. We're quite busy.

Do you intend to grow your business into something much bigger or are you happy with it as it is and why? 

Oh, I’m no where near done yet! So many ideas, so little time! In early 2012, I started exploring art licensing and surface design and I have long-term plans for continual growth of that part of my business. I would love to partner with another designer gal and startup a co-studio for surface design. I love my husband but I could use some creative girl time in my life!
I also started developing a line of personalized graphic t-shirts inspired by old vintage logos which is still in its early stages yet seems to be getting great customer feedback! I've also been brainstorming on ways I can help other makers & crafters make the most of their own businesses through one-on-one mentoring. I've learned a lot over the years and I have a lot to share that could really help another artist just starting out. I just need to find my first guinea pig.

If this is your full time job do you mind saying what your approximate turnover is annually (before costs and expenses)? OR you could say less than 15k/20k/25k/30k/35k/40k and so on.
Hmmm… while I would like to be the one to address the elephant in the room, I’ve decided to pass. However, I can share with you that I’ve taken 13,000+ orders, created approximately 20,000 unique designs (many customers order more than one at a time) and both my husband and I left our full-time jobs to support this business within the first 6 months of opening the Etsy shop. 2 years later, we purchased a home as a direct result of our combined efforts. It really has been a dream come true!

Where do you sell your work? 

Etsy is our primary income with the Near & Dear collection. I have partnered with a few boutiques and online specialty shops who carry my work under private label. I show at select events and have a Society 6 shop with my print and pattern designs

Which of the selling methods that you use works best for you? Why do you think this is? 

Oh, Etsy by far! I've really taken the time to do my market research, learn about Etsy's search results through keywords and tagging, SEO, utilizing my shop stats and thinking like a shopper! I’ve found that by taking the time to properly and thoughtfully implement SEO throughout my listings, Etsy shoppers do the rest! I do a bit of strategic publicity and a reach out to the world via social media, newsletters and blog posts. However, I’m confident that the best marketing is word of mouth. We strive to provide a high quality product and excellent customer service. And we always toss in extra business cards! 
Have you had publicity in national magazines? If so how did you approach them?

Three months into running my Etsy shop full-time, I received an email from Us Weekly magazine that they featured one of my designs in their Valentine Gift Guide and the issue was due to hit stores a week before the holiday. To be honest, I didn’t think too much of it. In fact, I wasn’t even sure it was real! Oh, but it was… The magazine hit store shelves and it must have been just the right product at just the right time because we sold 800 personalized prints that week - yes, you read that right, 1 week - as a result of that feature! It was seriously the most beautiful and stressful time ever! My husband and I (I guess he was my boyfriend then) worked day and night for over a month to fill those orders. 

Since then, my prints have also been featured several times in Good Housekeeping Magazine, Cleveland Magazine Best of 2012 and many popular websites and blogs such as MSN living, Huffington Post, Apartment Therapy and Style Me Pretty. 
Who do you think your typical customer is? 

My customer base is a pretty wide market as I make personalized designs that can really be applied to anyone for any occasion about any relation. I sell to mostly women who shop on Etsy and pride themselves on being thoughtful gift givers. My customers are always coming up with ways to even further customize the design ideas in my shop. Their ideas are brilliant!! 

Which aspect of your work do you enjoy the most? 

Truth be told, I love just about everything! Creating personalized and meaningful gifts is really fulfilling. I hear tons of great stories about love and special connections. I get pictures of people surprised or crying because the gift was so special. I love when a customer has a unique idea because a stock design in my shop sparked something about an inside joke or a story that they can document. I love the marketing and branding, I love printing and packaging a final product. I love the "cha-ching" the Etsy app makes when you've had a sale. In fact, our family has a tradition. We say "thank you!" out loud each and every time no matter where we are or what we’re doing. It helps to spread the good vibes! And of course, I love designing each and every piece myself. 

Is there anything you would have done differently if you were starting your business today? 

Probably not. I’m a “leap and trust” kind of girl. I have to learn as I go and hope for the best. There’s a million ways I could’ve prepared but it all happened rather organically. As I grew, my work grew. I was in business before I even knew I had a business! 

Are you someone who sets goals regularly or more instinctive? 

I'm definitely more instinctual when it comes to developing new designs or products. When I have an idea, I run with it. I don't wait till it’s perfect because there’s no such thing. I just do and figure it out along the way. I’m also pretty instinctual when it comes to my social media/blog plan. If you follow me, and pay any bit of attention, you’ll see clear patterns between my introverted and extroverted self online. I don’t follow a set plan. I just be myself!
I do keep very clear monthly sales goals as the cash needs flow, so I have a few backup plans to drive traffic during the slow months. I like to have fun and offer flash sales or a contest/giveaway here and there. It’s fun to do those things with my customers when we’re slow because when we get busy…. we get busy! 

Do you employ people part time to help with any aspect of your business? For example, bookkeeper, accountant, packers? If you do how did you find people who were the right fit for you? 

I do! My husband does customer service and sales, shipping/receiving and inventory management. We have an accountant who was recommended to me by a friend. Late last year, I decided it was time to hire an assistant for all those admin tasks that take me away from designing orders and creating new designs. After trying out a VA (virtual assistant), I realized that it takes a lot of time to train someone and I needed more of a quick fix. So, I offered a part-time position to my mom who has plenty of project management experience. I'm very happy we decided to keep it in the family, but I'm not finished looking for outside help. Ideally, I'd like to bring someone on board who can assist with online marketing and quick design tasks - Photoshop and Illustrator experience necessary. I'm still searching to fill that role. It’s hard to let control go of every little thing, so finding someone who is passionate about this industry, and who I can trust with my intellectual property, is a challenge.

Could you describe where you work? Are you alone most of the day or with others? Do you feel that they way it is now is the best fit for you? Do you see that changing? 

I work at home with my husband. Last year, we purchased our first home with a completely finished basement, that is now a full print/production studio, and a barn out back for the blacksmith shop. Previously, our studio was stuffed in the living room of our teeny tiny apartment! Something had to give… So, fingers crossed nothing changes! It’s the best life ever!

Do you have a mentor or people who you are able to discuss your business with? If not how do you find you best make decisions about your business? 

I don’t really. I’m a part of some amazing community groups on facebook that really help with some quick business questions or allow me to commiserate when the moon is full and customers are batty - but it’s been really difficult finding a confidant other than my husband. I worked with a coach twice on some target marketing and branding exercises but I best make my decisions after I’ve done a bit of soul searching. Mostly it’s about following my gut. 

What is a typical day for you in your business as it is now? What would be a dream day for you – business or otherwise? 

As of now, I spend a lot of time filling orders. I design each order myself, so throughout any given day I’ll work on approximately 15-25 different designs with around 100+ new orders a week. Creating first draft proofs, making suggested revisions, printing, packaging and shipping all happen here in our home studio 5-6 days a week. It’s rare we take multiple days off in a row. Some days I have time to bum around on facebook, interact and say hi to my people, other times I go days without a moment to check in. I’ll schedule blog posts and social media marketing as much in advance as I can during some down time. When not working our Etsy shop, I’m working on new collections for my surface design portfolio, taking online art classes, studying all I can about every aspect of creative entrepreneurship and brainstorming new designs and products. It’s an obsession really.
Besides working, we have our typical family routine of getting ready in the morning, breakfast, then out the door and off to school for Olivia. Daily runs to the post office, running household errands, picking Olivia up from school, dinner and homework. My husband has his own body of work he creates in the blacksmith shop, so evenings and weekends are critical to him.

Anything else you want to add… tips or plans or ambitions or even special offers to my blog readers? 

One of my favorites quotes by Joseph Campbell comes to mind: “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” I think the most import thing is to remember to trust the process. Have ideas! Make art! Design! Indulge yourself! Love what you do and put it out there to the Universe. Doors will open that you never expected and don’t be afraid to walk through them.
Is that too corny? 

Thank you for the opportunity to tell my story! Friday Finds is such a wonderful way to get acquainted! I'd like to offer your readers a 10% off coupon to my Etsy shop with code FRIDAYFINDS14 until June 1st, 2014. 

And if anyone is interested in a paying internship, starting a co-studio for surface design or if you'd like to work with me for one-on-one mentoring, please don't hesitate to reach out and let me know why we’d be a good fit! 

Finally please tell us where we can buy your work! Links please!


  1. Thank you both for this very complete and interesting interview!


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