Categorized | Shoestring Startup

Art Empire on a Shoestring

Okay, perhaps not an empire (yet) but a thriving art-based business in this economy? With very little capital invested? Why yes, it is indeed possible. mkc photography by Michelle Ciarlo-Hayes began, unofficially, in 2006 when all the pieces in my first fine art show sold out during the opening reception. I was shocked, but most importantly, encouraged: I was pregnant with my second child, and I saw a way for me to continue my passion while still raising my children full-time.

Art Empire on a Shoestring


I began by applying for (and being accepted into) more exhibits throughout Philadelphia and beyond. The more positive responses I had to my work, the more I considered selling prints of my artwork online. I began slowly, opening an Etsy shop in 2008 and soon realized that I would need a proper venue and my own domain name in order to move ahead. Etsy was a nice stepping stone, as one can run a shop for mere pennies a day, but it was in no way a permanent solution.

In 2009, I purchased the domain “” and built my first site myself: it wasn’t elaborate, but it did allow me to retail my prints and provide information about myself as an artist. Hosting for the site was only about $12 per month, so between Etsy and, I was able to run my business for less than $200 per year. Since I only needed to sell around 10 prints per year to break even, I was immediately in the black.

Next came the eye-opening world of social media: I had resisted joining Facebook with every fiber of my being, but I realized having a company page would be necessary to raise the public profile for my company ( It worked. Soon after, I joined Twitter (@mkcphotography) and started a blog using Blogger (another free tool) where I could share the “stories behind the pictures” every week. I also set up a profile on LinkedIn (, and between these four free online platforms, I began to push my company forward.

The only thing that ever threatened to derail my company was the well-meaning yet thoroughly discouraging chorus of comments that came from friends and family members. “Aren’t you tired?” and “How can you do all of this with a new baby?” were a constant part of my daily conversations. The one thing I did right? I ignored them all. Of course I was tired, of course it was incredibly hard, but I never stopped and listened to any of it.

The biggest transition for me at this stage, was adjusting to the time in front of the computer required to launch and sustain my business. My learning curve with HTML coding was rapid (although I have to admit, I did NOT love doing it), and mastering the world of social media etiquette was practically a full-time job in itself.

Art Empire on a ShoestringOnce I had brought in enough income via my first website, I knew I desperately needed to build a platform customized to my needs, one that would represent my company and my artwork perfectly. This was certainly not free, but I would still be in the black (by the skin of my proverbial teeth!) once the site was completed and launched in April 2010. I was grateful to hand off this incredibly important project to my expert designer and I was thrilled with the results. My ROI increased dramatically, almost immediately after the launch, because my work was finally showcased in the best possible way. I also harnessed the traffic from my weekly blog by moving my blog to my website: my Google ranking shot up as a result.

I am not currently running any marketing or advertising campaigns: I’ve done a few small campaigns in the past and did not see results than justified the expense, so I’m still searching for the right venue. The best results, for me, have come from the events I did with both Babysteals and Zulily: offering my artwork through their websites really brought my business to the next level and I saw a surge of traffic and new customers who came to me as a result of finding my work on their sites.

Each year I’ve reached my annual goal by the time New Year’s Eve arrives…I certainly plan on making that happen again for 2011. I always take the first week of the year to set my goals for the coming twelve months, and I base my projections on a 15% increase above the previous year. Some months are feast, some are slow (but I wouldn’t call them “famine”) and it all evens out in the end.

I still want to run my company in several years: I love the art that I create and the challenges it brings to me. I’ve already had a very nice level of success licensing my artwork to several companies, with those products (calendars, greeting cards) due out on the market next year. I would love to work with an agent in the future who can handle all the contracts for me…I’d be more than happy to outsource that part of my job!

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