Painting a Brighter Future
Necessity precipitates innovation. Many small business owners will admit that they started their business with their backs against the wall. Some of these businesses start with everything resting on the shoulders of the visionary founder. But with hard-work and determination, many reach a turning point that kept the business moving forward. For Maxine Gardner, owner of Artful Vision, this is exactly her story.
Maxine Gardner is an artist who originally sold her work directly to customers. She would create her art, then travel to art fairs and set up her booth to exhibit her newest creations. Showing at art fairs was a great way to meet customers and build relationships; and, while it was very rewarding, this activity was very labor intensive. Every trip, Gardner would load up her van with artwork, drive to the fair, setup and tear down the equipment, and load everything back up again before traveling back home. That all changed when Gardner suffered a back injury. “I found it difficult to maintain my life on the road but, I still wanted a way to exhibit my work – the world-wide web was a likely choice,” recalled Gardner.
While the internet provided Gardner with a new opportunity, the many different art distribution channels available online did not offer the kind of customer experience that Gardner wanted. “It's true that the Internet has brought lots of opportunities for artists to reach out to customers, but a web site with a beautiful design doesn’t always translate into a warm, fuzzy shopping experience,” explained Gardner. “So, the question that rolled around in my mind was ‘How can I foster a meaningful, artist-to-customer connection on the Internet?’”
One day, while buying another tchotchke made overseas to support a local non-profit organization, Gardner had an idea…what if through collaboration between artists and non-profits, customers could buy gift items that were made in the U.S.? With this idea in mind, Gardner decided to approach the MI-SBTDC Southeast Michigan (Region 9) office about how to start a small business. Tammy Thomson, a small business consultant, began working with Gardner on conducting market research and reviewing her business plan. They looked closely at identifying target markets and establishing a strategy for building the business.
Gardner worked with developers to create a website that operates as an online art fair while recruiting artists and signing up non-profit organizations. In addition, Gardner decided to join the FastTrac NewVenture program, a ten-week program designed to help entrepreneurs explore their dreams of starting a business. Artful Vision launched on August 1st and now showcases the work of more than 70 American artists and caters to a growing list of non-profit organizations.
Artful Vision offers great value through a variety of gifts that include jewelry, photography, paintings and prints, greeting cards, pottery, clothing, music, and books. The artists donate 20% of every purchase to a partnering non-profit organization of the customer's choice, making it a win-win situation for everyone. “Non-profits are struggling right now to make ends meet, and that comes as no big surprise in this economy,” Gardner emphasizes. “With the holidays coming up, every gift purchased can make a difference to a worthy cause; that’s something everyone can feel good about.”
Shortly after launching, Gardner's creative solution to non-profit fundraising was recognized with an invitation to participate as a vendor in the 31st News and Documentary Emmy Awards gift bag. Artful Vision promotional materials were included with Gardner's own photographic note cards as a gift box for the 700 attendees.
Having spent the past couple of years working towards starting her business, Gardner did provide some valuable insight about the struggles of running a small business. “While a driving passion to make a difference is the reason I started my business, doubt and fear are what challenged me. By concentrating on my strengths and finding others who are strong where I am not prepares me to handle larger more complex challenges,” said Gardner. “Small business owners should be willing to make adjustments quickly, attend educational and networking events, barter, and seek assistance from business and law school programs that offer free services for entrepreneurs.”
She also points to the MI-SBTDC as a valuable resource. She relishes the ongoing coaching and unbiased feedback from Thomson. “Tammy is great. She always has a smile on her face, a willingness to listen, supports my dream, and celebrates my wins.”
Like the idea? Want to participate? Visit Artful Vision.