Today’s guest is the talented and absolutely hilarious Sarah Baumann. Sarah is an illustrator based in Austin, Texas. As a college junior, she started an Etsy shop in her dorm room as an experiment and found she loved the hustle of small business. She grew her shop until graduation where she took it full time and never looked back. She now has about 50 active wholesalers and sells her products on Etsy, her own website, and Amazon. She loves her Giant Greyhound, Moose, lots and lots of color, and creating products that celebrate hometowns. I met Sarah at a conference a few years back and we really only had one or two interactions and I’ve never forgotten her since. There’s two things that make me not forget Sarah- one of them is she is freaking hilarious- I think we just sat next to each other at a conference for like two seconds but she really left an impression. And the other thing is she had such a cool niche in what she did. She makes these really cool illustrated maps out of people’s hometowns and I will just never get over it. From Etsy to Amazon: Scaling Your Business with Sarah Baumann of Signet Sealed. Enjoy our chat!
On her business journey to where she is now:
I started my business in January 2015, which is crazy. Now that feels like a million years and also six months ago at the same time. I studied abroad in college my junior year in South America and all of the people I was traveling with in the program were doing travel journals and blogs and stuff like that and I did not have the mental focus to sit down and write a blog post about what we’ve seen. But I was like, “I should remember this somehow,” so I started doing these visual doodle journal-type things and they looked a lot like what the city prints look like now. They had the city name in the middle, then buildings and all kinds of stuff around it and people thought it was really cool and told me to go home and do something with it. So when I came home in December, I started an Etsy shop in January and that was halfway through my junior year. I ran everything part time, whenever school work was done, and then I took it full time in 2016 when I graduated and things have just grown from there. I started hiring employees that Fall to help with packaging and shipping and about a year ago, moved to a fulfillment center. So now they handle all of my shipping and fulfillment because it kind of outgrew what my team could do well. It’s changed a whole lot in the last five years but it’s been a really exciting thing and Instagram is such a big part of what I do everyday now. I’ve started doing a lot of stuff with illustrating The Bachelor, which I feel like your audience’s Venn diagram overlaps a bit here, but that’s been a crazy thing that’s grown my following and also just fun!
On finding her style and niche and setting herself apart:
I lived in Memphis for awhile and there’s a really great bakeshop there called Muddy’s Bakeshop, and the owner is named Kat Gordon and she’s fabulous. And I heard her speak a few times in Memphis and one of the times she was talking about bringing more value to the people around you. So she has a physical location so she was like, “With the same product, how can we bring more value to our neighbors and our customers and to our employees? How can we pack more in so they’re getting more for what they pay for and building that out a little bit?” So that’s kind of how The Bachelor started- I was just watching it and posting some things mindlessly, and then was like, “You know this is my audience and this is something they’re really excited about and care about and this is how I can bring more value to their experience of following me on Instagram.” It was naturally something that so many of them were interested in already and I thought, “Ok cool I can meet them where they are with this show and we have this common language of ‘Night One’ and ‘Night Two’ and we can build from there.” So that’s how that one started and now it’s such a huge way to find people who are my customer. That’s kind of all the same person, so that’s been a really exciting way to grow that following. And then I did a few recaps of sports events which was a different vein, that’s not where they are already, I’m not meeting them in their comfort zone, but it was cool. I recapped The Master’s and March Madness and that was really cool because it was the opposite like, “Ok none of my followers were watching this but the conversations were happening all around them and now they can figure out how to be a part of it.” That’s kind of how it started, it was just a- my followers already love this, let’s just really build on it.
On using her platform to highlight or speaking to world-events:
So this week I feel like I’ve been much quieter overall, with the whole muting and amplifying black voices that I totally buy into. I did a couple posts that illustrated ideas for Father’s Day gifts from black-owned businesses, like books to read, and I’ve been trying to repost other people and broadening those voices as much as I can. But I kind of feel like the bigger work is being done off of Instagram. I have a friend who’s crashing here right now and every night we’ve been watching like The 13th, and we watched Selma last night. And I just finished reading White Fragility and I’m reading The New Jim Crow right now and it’s just earth-shaking to realize all these things and to learn about racism, and that we get to learn about racism without experiencing it, which is such a privilege. So I feel like my heavier work is the stuff I’m not posting and then coming back to Instagram after that and being like, “Ok, this is where I’m at, this is what I did, you guys should watch this, this changed me.” It’s definitely been a tentative week with Instagram. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt like silence is tonedeaf in a way that I do this week. Like I feel like the people who have said nothing, that is worse and I feel like there are natural disasters and crazy things that happened all the time but I feel like this is the first one that’s shaking everyone to be like, “You HAVE to pay attention, this is a problem for everyone,” which is really powerful and cool and I’m glad that’s where we’re at right now.
On choosing what products to make and serving her customers:
I started out basically with the design and then I was like, “What do you all want?,” on Instagram and people were like “Art prints! Mugs!,” and people ask for t-shirts all the time and I don’t mess with t-shirts because you have to have like seven sizes and 150 designs. So I think a balance of what people are asking for and what you want and what you can produce in the price range they want and also what makes sense for you. Like, people want shirts? Shirts don’t make sense for me. People want dish towels? Dish towels kind of make sense for me. People want wrapping paper and I’m like, “I would have to sell it for $35 a roll, you don’t actually want that.” It’s just been a process of pivoting and listening over time. And back to Covid- one of the big things I’ve done is these coloring sheets and coloring pages that are digital downloads online. Truly that was just me being like, “Ok what do my people need? I don’t know if they need art prints right now, but everyone’s bored at home, kind of frustrated, kind of scared, watching Netflix. What’s going to serve them well?,” and then those have kind of blown up, they’ve really become a revenue stream for me that I hope continues. They were pretty serious for me in sales which was really exciting and kind of a surprise. I just think you should ask what people want and then make them that thing.
On the process to working with Wholesalers:
Wholesale started out as a really organic thing for me. As my Instagram has grown, people have organically found my products and said, “Can you make one for my city? Can you make one for my state? Can you make one for my area?” That just grew from people reaching out to me. And that just speaks to a unique and a very local product and I think stores are always on the lookout for something that’s very local. For me it was more scalable because I have everything set up to make a whole bunch of different cities, and then produce them quickly and get them out the door, versus like if you find someone in your town that’s making art, that’s incredible because they’re in your city, but they don’t always have the systems set up for multiple product offerings and shipping and all that. So I think that appealed to a lot of people. And then last summer I went to my first wholesale market in Atlanta which was a huge learning curve but really incredible and I met some awesome stores and honestly just got a little overwhelmed with the city requests. A bunch of stores wanting a bunch of art. So that market happens usually twice a year- January and then in the Summer. I’m still working through that list because it does take awhile to get things fully-designed and printed and ready to go. But that can be a great way to grow wholesale. It’s definitely a bigger investment to go to a market like that but it can be such a great gateway to meet so many different buyers.
As for the city prints, I try to talk to a local before I start with any city and I like to start with between 12-15 requests so that’ll be buildings, or food, or phrases, or bodies of water, but I want it to feel local. Like if you’re from somewhere you know what the touristy stuff is and you know where you went to get ice cream in high school and they’re very different places. So that’s how the process starts and then if I’m working with a store we go back and forth with the draft and make sure they’re happy with it and then we go into production. So every city print that’s sold by a wholesaler is also sold in my shop and I own the artwork and the reproduction rights and all that. So even if we collaborate on the artwork, I still own the rights and they just buy the products wholesale from me. I’m also on Amazon, and I feel like I’m at the tip of the iceberg of the whole thing. I started a few months ago. There’s “fulfillment by Amazon” which allows things to be sold Prime and then there’s “seller-fulfilled Amazon.” So I have a ton of my products that are on seller-fulfilled Amazon which means my shipping team is fulfilling all those orders as they come in. And then I’m experimenting with a couple products that are on Prime, so the jury’s still out, but I’m trying to see if there’s a massive difference between the same product sold on Prime and sold on not-Prime. Because as an Amazon shopper, I feel like I always prefer a Prime product, so that’s the current question. But I’m starting to get into it and I just feel like 42% of online sales are on Amazon and so for me it didn’t really make sense to miss out on that share of the market. I don’t want to shut myself down from literally half of online sales and I feel like it’s becoming more of a spot where you can find unique gifts and it’s not just toilet paper and books and everything. So that’s been an interesting, fun new journey, but it’s starting to work, it’s starting to pay off.
On finding your customer and sticking to your style:
Really get in touch with your customer base and what they want and what they need and who your customer is. I literally have this super-hyper-creepy mental visualization of this girl and she’s my customer. She’s from a small-town, but she moved to a big city, and she’s a nurse and has one cat, and she loves Anthro, but mostly shops at Target, and also Amazon, but Anthro to splurge. I have all of these things in my mind of who that person is and I’m super super creepy honed-in on what she wants to shop and what she wants to do and what she’s doing in quarantine and that kind of stuff. So then I feel like it makes it so easy when I’m creating products, and I always want to create products in my style, because like photographers, if you take every single job, including the jobs you don’t want, you’re going to keep building a portfolio and getting requests for the jobs you don’t want. So do the style of art you want to do and then really really hone in on what your ideal customer is wanting and needing. That can be so helpful in creating new products and figuring out price points and figuring out stores and sales-chains and everything else can come really naturally when you know what that person is after.
On growing or maintaining your engagement through a pandemic:
I think creating products that are maybe a little bit lower of a price point right now can be really helpful. That was another thing with the coloring pages- I wanted to create a product for right now, but also pricing for right now. Some of those are literally like $1, or $3. I think the most expensive one is $10 for 20-pages. Just be sensitive to where people are at right now and not trying to stretch anyone financially. And I think people feel that, that you’re not just running a bunch of ads and trying to tap a limited resource and I think that means something to people. I always want to make my content on Instagram silly and goofy and crazy and fun and this hasn’t really been my M.O. in the last couple weeks with George Floyd and all these protests, but I think before that I just wanted to keep being a light and making people laugh. I literally made a felt Kangaroo costume for my Roomba and I call him Kangaroomba and I made a TikTok of him and it was the most fun. But it was one of those things that was so dumb but it was making people laugh and whatever, I’m not selling anything people just kind of need to laugh right now so that’s been where I’ve situated myself. Creating products for the moment and bringing a little bit of light and laughter into people’s lives because we just need it. It’s just a tough year.
Advice for Business Owners
On how she grew her following creating her Instagram community:
I started it as my personal Instagram and I think I had 400 followers. I tried to start a second Instagram and someone was like, “If you already have 400 people paying attention, why don’t you grow that instead of starting this new one?” And I was like, “wow that makes so much sense.” I think Instagram has always played a big part in just letting people know what I’m up to and what I’m doing. When I started this in college people only knew about what was happening because I was posting it on Instagram which felt so awkward and so weird in the beginning, but eventually people were like, “Oh yea that’s just her job, that’s just what she does.” I think those more viral things like The Bachelor, or I also did a recap of Impeachment and I tried to present it from a very non-partisan place of not my opinion, not what I think should happen, but just truly, “What is impeachment and how does it work and how does the process go and where are we at in the process? What comes next?,” and I really love doing those and those are really successful on Instagram as well for engagement for more educational pieces. Something like those that’s like, “This is political, but I’m not being political about it” can be really cool. I also did all the Democratic candidates when there were like 85,000 of them, and those things do well too because I think people want that information but I’m not trying to be super polarizing, just like, “Ok this is what’s happening as well as I can possibly understand it and I’m not a professional, I’m not a political scientist, this is just where we’re at.”
On Instagram influencers:
When I first started out I was dead-set on working with huge influencers and getting these big influencers to post my city print and I’d ship them all this stuff and it just never really worked. And I think when I calmed down on that and focused more on people that might not be considered an influencer, but have a thousand followers- they’re just a person, they’re not selling anything- that pays off so much better. Or when people are served really well by your products and your Instagram, they’ll talk about it on Instagram and htat works so much better. If someone follows you for awhile and they build trust with you, they feel like they know you, and then they order something from you, it ships on time, it comes with a note, they feel appreciated for shopping small- that is worth so much more than if you follow someone that has 3 million followers and they’re like, “I got a print,” you know? There’s just like so much more building that goes into that but I also feel like so much more trust comes out on the other side of that.