Around these parts, we like to learn about and from people who are running their own businesses – business we love and admire, and the ladies who are running shit behind the scenes. In this edition of mind your business, we talk to Agnes Barton-Sabo a.k.a Betty Turbo, an artist and entrepreneur who makes some of the funniest, coolest cards and illustrations ever- my favourites are her throwback wrestling cards, of course. We take a peek into Agnes’ brain in an attempt to find out where she gets her great ideas, and what she loves best about being her own boss.
milieu: Tell us about your background, professionally and academically, and why you decided to go into business for yourself.
Agnes: I am the collaborative product of two artists, so art has always been in my blood and in my environment! Drawing, painting, printmaking, ceramics, sculpture, sewing, and general creative goofiness all featured regularly in my home growing up. As my father was an art professor I also had free access to all kinds of university art classses. I majored in photography in college but was already leaning a lot more towards illustration by the time I graduated. I worked at Hatch Show Print (America’s oldest continuously operating letterpress shop) for a few years, producing custom show posters and wedding invitations, during which time I opened my Etsy shop to sell cards and art prints I was making in my spare time. I toyed with different types of products in my shop throughout a couple years working as a cake decorator as well. I’d always hoped/planned to make art my full-time focus, and the opportunity to actually do so came about during a weird transition phase in my life. Following relocation and general life upheaval, I threw all my energy into artmaking just to maintain my own sanity, while somewhat halfheartedly looking for a new “day job.” Art business quickly picked up steam and day jobs were nowhere to be found! Four years later I feel outrageously lucky to still be crafting my own art life and have no plans to let up on this hustle.
m: When you decided to start your own company, what steps did you take?
A: When I was still slowly growing my shop in hopes of taking the plunge, I tried some small business development seminars and found them terribly outdated and extremely sexist. The biggest help to figuring things out has been connecting with other artists and creative businessfolk and gathering the bits that make sense for what I’m doing. I love keeping tabs on the creative endeavors of former classmates and coworkers and trading notes on what we’ve learned. I’ve also found social media really valuable for seeking out just the kind of specialized advice & pep talks that work for me. For example, I am a fan of business strategist Tara Gentile , master wordmistress Alexandra Franzen, and Freelancer’s Union.
m: How would you describe your artistic style, and where do you get your inspiration?
A: My style is bright, fun and enthusiastic! Punchy colors, a sense of humor, and sincerity + lots of exclamation points carry through regardless of the subject matter. And speaking of subject matter, where don’t I find inspiration? Whether functioning on goofy, superficial levels, or delving into meatier topics, I am inspired all day long and in no danger of being remotely bored or uninspired in this lifetime. When I need a boost there’s always outer space, ice cream, and the wonderful humans I know to think about.
m: Cool, quirky, and handmade cards are pretty hot right now – how do you differentiate yourself?
A: I consider the wide spectrum of offerings available a permission slip to be as weird as I please and trust that the ideas I chuckle about alone in my studio will find their own perfect specific audience. I focus on trying to grow and evolve as an artist, and producing well-crafted items that really resonate with the feelings and experiences I want to create in the world. Through sharing my process and my everyday life, selectively but honestly, I feel like I am able to create meaningful relationships with fans of my work that go beyond basic buyer vs. seller transactions.
m: How did you get the word out about your business once you were up and running? How have you been able to grow your business?
A: Etsy functioned much differently in its earlier days, and a lot of the initial growth and interest in my shop developed within that community itself. Beyond that little bubble, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and my blog have been very helpful. I connect in real life with potential customers through craft shows, conventions, gallery shows, and wholesaling my products to shops worldwide.
m: What is the most rewarding part of running your own business?
A: I LOVE being my own boss and having the opportunity to change and refine my “workday” (week/month/year!) as I go. I feel so grateful to experience this radness!
m: What is the most challenging part?
A: On the days it’s not going well, it can feel crushing to be “working” on something so personal and intertwined with the rest of my life. It takes deliberate effort to separate myself from a business problem/failure and not take it too personally. It feels overwhelming and gnarly sometimes.
m: Do you have any advice for women who are looking to start a similar business?
A: Think about what you REALLY want your workday to consist of, what you’d like your environment to look like, priorities you have in your personal life, and so on, and how that might all function together. Don’t assume you necessarily have to make certain sacrifices or change your personality or life to fit into a pre-existing mold. I feel like business is changing so much that there a are a lot of opportunities to create things in a fashion that really suits you, but it might be an unpaved road, so you have to clarify those priorities for your self and work hard on crafting that lifestyle. Don’t count too much on other people’s success stories for creating your own!
m: Any plans for expansion? Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years?
A: Right now I still produce most things myself in my studio, and I’d like to shift more to printing paper goods in bulk and licensing images elsewhere, so I can focus more on making new things! I’d love to work on more large-scale projects, like murals, art installations, and book ideas. I predict I’ll still be up to a variety of art shenanigans in 5-10 years, but with more teaching and more traveling involved!