Go Big or Go Home
In December of 2016, I founded Dirt Alley Design just off a dirt alley in San Francisco. I started out with a maze map of SF and Brooklyn, and no idea if anyone would find my print art worthwhile! Fast forward a year later, and I decided it was time to quit my full-time job as a remote Support Engineer at a web mapping company to work on my business full-time.
Those first few months of 2018, I wasn't sure on a big picture direction for the year. So I started reaching out to different companies for feedback, and finally committed to releasing a "complete" maze map collection featuring 13+ cities (that would need to be designed within 6-8 months, yikes!)
Although my SF maze map had been a popular print in 2017, I was still nervous to invest the time and money to create a ton of new city mazes. Once I had committed to the plan though, interesting things began to happen!
While designing the new cities, I still maintained my current business activities attending fairs and popups. At each event, I talked up my upcoming collection launch. The minute I began to talk about the collection launch, my customers took me much more seriously. It was also a good pitch for joining my email list!
While designing 9-10 new cities took me most of the year, I rolled everything out right before the holidays in October. With all the new cities, the complete print line is so much more impressive and interesting! This has translated everywhere - from a more varied booth at events, to a more full and complete website and more buying options for customers. By the end of the year, I realized my 2018 strategy had really been "go big, or go home"!
At events, I have talked to people from all over the country (and world!) requesting a maze map of their city (I hear you, and I plan to design more mazes in 2019!)
Gallery Shows - Classic Cars West, and Berkeley Ironworks
Part of my "Go Big, or Go Home" strategy involved trying new things including featuring my work in two shows: a group show with the Oakland Print Fair at Classic Cars West Gallery, and a solo show of my work to the climbing community at Berkeley Ironworks gym.
While my focus has been as a commercial print artist, I also know there is value in exposure from a more traditional gallery show!
I got a ton of inspiring feedback from the Berkeley Ironworks show, including folks telling me they would try and solve the mazes with others while working out at the gym, and found the prints a fun change on the walls! It's nice to know that having so many new cities only increases the maze fun, and I am excited to see if other local businesses would be interested in hanging the work as a temporary show.
Being a "solo-preneur" means spending a lot of time alone. To stay connected to the business community, I have been listening to a ton of podcasts not only as a source of advice, but also inspiration! A favorite podcast of mine now in my weekly rotation is the How I Built This podcast with Guy Raz. Here's a funny segment where Daymond John describes the early days of his now uber successful hip hop clothing brand, FUBU:
Guy Raz: "Were you ever in a situation where you were selling stuff on a street corner and I don't know a city official came up and asked for a permit?"
Daymond John: "Yeah, I mean that had happened once or twice. But the best permit ever when you are selling stuff on the streets is being able to run faster than them. That was a great permit."
Listen to the full episode here! A few more of my favorite episodes from How I Built This include Jeni Britton Bauer of Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams, and Blake Mycoskie of TOMS.
Where to Find Out All the Things You Don't Know (That You Don't Know)
There's a ton of things out there you won't know when starting a business (it's just how it works!) But there's a ton of people online sharing advice and wisdom. Here's a few gems I picked up in 2019, and the corresponding shows!
A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: good product (and process!) photography is key above everything else! Related podcast: Create and Thrive, Episode 166, Pricing and Branding with Megan Auman
Pitch Product Benefits, Not Features: most handmade businesses are probably guilty of this starting out, focusing too much on the features and less on the emotional reasons to purchase. Related podcast: Create and Thrive, Episode 155, Magnetic Marketing with Shannon Bush
Free Shipping, or Not? How to Avoid Negative Customer Reviews? Answers and debates to these questions can be found by listening to the Merriweather Council podcast.
What's In Store for 2019?
"Go Big, or Go Home" has been a great strategy for me in 2018 and I am planning on continuing to try new things this year to not only push myself out of my own comfort zone, but also take Dirt Alley Design farther than before. However, I started off the year by taking a break from business activities in January to rest and recoup! I was exhausted by the end of December, and I plan on scaling back my holiday events in 2019 and focusing on online sales in order to stay sane.
Through talks with other fellow business owners, I am constantly reminded that it takes generally 3-5 years to really see success with a small business. It takes time to get the word out, to grow and scale! So wherever you are with a small business, settle in because the race to the finish is a marathon, not a 5K!
Dirt Alley Design was founded just off a dirt alley in San Francisco in December of 2016 by artist Michelle Chandra. Inspired by the beauty of street grids, Michelle invented maze maps in which she transforms street grids into mazes.
My maze art isn't just decorative art for your home, it's a real puzzle maze you can solve (if you dare!) I think my maze maps are pretty cool, but don't take just my word for it! My maze maps have been featured in LaughingSquid, The Creator's Project, Untapped Cities and UpOutSF.