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A Creative Leap that lead to a Company

A Creative Leap that lead to a CompanyI started my company, Linda McManus Images, in 2004 in quite a round-about way. I’m a photographer by trade and was the head photographer/manager of the digital studio for a shop at home network. We were responsible for photography of all the products for their website. Timing was also a factor in starting my company, as I was about to go on maternity leave. I had been thinking of something I could do from home that would satisfy a creative outlet and allow me some flexibility as a new mother to our new addition.

I came across an ad for a greeting card designer. I always had an affinity for stationery and greeting cards and often had the thought “I could do this”, so when this opportunity presented itself I jumped on it. I created some images and sent them along to be considered for the position…the results, DENIED! So now what? I had this collection of images from the job posting as well as all the photographs I compiled over the years. I began researching the business of licensing my images and was definitely intrigued. I went to my local gift store and wrote down all the greeting card companies I thought might be a good fit for my imagery.

I attended industry trade shows, like the National Stationery Show in NY, to network with companies. I showed some of my ideas and got some great feedback. I received submission guidelines for several companies and started sending samples. My first licensed image was actually a sketch I created on the computer. It was a sketch of a woman on the beach under a palm tree holding a coconut drink. I also wrote the verbiage which read, “Wishing you the three R’s on your birthday….Rest, Relaxation and RICARDO the cabana boy.” I sent this and a few others to a cartoon inspired greeting card company and it was picked up!! I knew then I was onto something and the floodgates opened! I began sketching and photographing many ideas I thought would “sell”. I am blessed with my father’s quick wit and also have been known to have some zany one-liners, so I incorporated these into the cards and poked fun at life’s daily conundrums. I sent packages of my ideas to many different companies, some cartoon themed, some photographic inspired. Success again! My next greeting card was an image of my son that I photographed. I slopped on the lipstick and kissed him multiple times on his face. I made the image black and white but kept the kisses red. I had the caption of “loved much?” in mind, but the company decided to keep it blank on the inside. This same company picked another one of my images soon after. This time it was my son holding a bouquet of dandelions.

A Creative Leap that lead to a CompanyThe cards sold at Target and Carlton Cards, which at the time I didn’t realize but in the licensing, volume is key. The bigger the store, the more cards sell, which can create a very lucrative income for the artist. The royalty world was new to me and a bit daunting. I was fortunate enough to have several mentors in the industry I had met at shows and through networking guide me through this process. A “royalty”, in its most basic explanation, is a percentage of sales a company pays you in exchange for the use of your image/property on their products.

So there I was, a few greeting cards under my belt and I could just sit back and let the checks roll on in, right?….WRONG! As I stated previously, royalty amounts vary greatly with volume of sales. My first year was pretty successful, then one of my licensors pulled out of a big chain store. Needless to say my checks were a reflection! As timing is everything, it didn’t help that the global economy took a big plunge. The gift industry took a big hit, it seemed that the public just wasn’t buying anything frivolous. Companies also were cutting back on their creative employees and that meant outside artists as well. It was at this time I decided to develop my own products in tandem with licensing. I thought going direct to the customer would give me a greater profit margin than my royalty percentages. This was a new avenue indeed and one I quickly realized was a lot more involved. I got to work and started selling my note cards, greeting cards and more. Early on I built a website to showcase my images to potential licensors, so I added a “store” to the site as well as a wholesale option for any retail stores. I offered some note card sets and various prints that were my favorites. As new images were created, I chose to sell products that would fit the image. For instance, I designed a group of images called ”Floral Foods”, which are flowers made entirely of food! This idea literally came to me one day when I was looking at a sunflower. I am still baffled as to how it all came to be?!? Immediately I could see them in kitchens everywhere as wall art, on kitchen towels, tile trivets, serving trays and more. I found a manufacturer through a fellow artist friend and had some samples made. They were a big hit and remain one of my most popular offerings.

Manufacturing your own products and licensing are two different worlds. I had a friend who made the comment that my royalty rate seemed “not worth it”. I had a better understanding when I dove into manufacturing. It’s not only the image, it’s the development, packaging, advertising, distribution, shipping and more. Whereas with licensing, you sign over your image and the rest is handled by the licensor. I am a very hands-on person and feel I have to do something to learn it. I am happy to have the knowledge of both processes.

A Creative Leap that lead to a CompanyI continued to attend shows and meet new people while checking out the latest and greatest the industry had to offer. A few years back while attending the Philadelphia Gift Show, I spotted a booth that had some great animal photography. I am a HUGE animal lover and stopped in to check it out. The owner of the company explained they were in search of some new cat images to compliment the dog art they currently offered. We exchanged information and I began to work on creating some funny cat images. I sent him a few samples of my interpretation of a humorous cat and they were picked up! I am still with that company today and the now titled “Funny Felines” images are sold as framed art via mail order catalogs, boutique gift stores and department stores throughout the country. I also work very closely with my SPCA – I don’t own a cat, the irony is I’m allergic. I often use the SPCA’s residents as my models. In addition to the “Funny Felines” framed prints, I create note cards from the images and donate 10% back from sales to the facility. It’s a win, win!

My business’s name is Linda McManus Images and not Linda McManus Photography for a reason. I recognized early on that I enjoyed more than just photographing things, I enjoy the digital work as well as sketching and sometimes mixing it all together to see what comes out. Also, I must admit that it was a calculated decision to not just offer photography. I knew I would be limiting my audience. As I developed my images I noticed I was tapping into a vast array of potential customers. I had the photography customer covered; I then developed my sketched cartoonish drawings for the humor greeting card connoisseur. “Funny Felines” for the cat and dog lovers, “Floral Foods” for the gardeners and “foodies”. I also have a line called “Illuminations” which are fairy images drawn and incorporated into photographic images. “Fontography” is a line of custom created alphabet letters in various themes created for personalized wall art for any room in the home…and I could go on. My website www.lindamcmanusimages.com is chock full, I will admit. I have thought about separating it all, but I want to stay true to my initial vision and build the brand name Linda McManus Images, incorporating a variety of imaging subcategories and product offerings. The question of “is it too much?” does arise every now and then, but for the time being it remains as is. Of course, if a huge company had interest in a certain line or imaging concept…then of course, we’ll talk!

My overhead is very minimal, as I usually shoot on location, so a

studio is not needed. I borrowed a lighting kit from a friend early on when the need arose. The one area where I was lacking was advertising. I started looking into the cost of an ad in a magazine and almost FELL OVER at the price! When I was first starting out, the price of one business card size ad was more than I made in the whole year! Serendipitously, I was watching a show and the owner of the company challenged his employee to a ZERO budget advertising campaign. I thought, “hey, I can afford that!” So I started thinking…hmmm, free…then the light bulb went off. My mom is very active with her local library; they were opening a new library with a large children’s area. I had a series of “Carousel Horses” I knew would be perfect for something children related. I thought if I donated some art and contacted the local papers, had a story written on me – VOILA, free publicity! I contacted the head of the library and she agreed so I bought 8 large frames, printed out the “Carousel Horses”, framed them at home and my brother-in-law helped me hang them. I contacted my local paper and the story was written! Now that is a ZERO budget (minus the cost of supplies of course).

Social networking is a must! I have a Face book page facebook/lindamcmanusimages, a Twitter account – lindamcmanus, LinkedIn -Linda McManus. I have my Face book page linked to my twitter account so everytime I post on FB it’s automatically feeds to Twitter and LinkedIn. I do run some contests for free prints, but I am amazed at the orders I get just from posting a new image on my FB page! I also from time to time submit for editorial content to industry magazines and blogs. Editors are often looking for fill content or have their “favorite picks” section. It doesn’t hurt to ask!

My business have evolved immensely from that first greeting card,

but I think the one thing I did right was not to give up. A rejection is only an opinion and there is always another one out there. Also, you have to like people! I am a people person, I really enjoy meeting new people and getting out there to see what’s new. I think this helps immensely in the licensing world, after all it’s “people” that make the decision on whether to use/like your image or not.

I think in this past year I have hit a transition period and can finally explore hiring some help. Thus far it has been a solo show, but getting too busy is a good sign and I am not shy about asking for help! I just hope I can pay someone for it, too!

I can only see my company growing. I would like to expand my product lines and of course continue creating new images. I have a million ideas and only 24 hours in a day, so for me it can be a frustratingly slow process. But in five years I hope to be at one of those trade show booths I approached when I was just starting out. The industry is funny, it has its busy season, then it slows down and you think “where is everyone?” This actually works in my favor as I am also balancing a family and supplemental freelance photography “gigs” to offset the business in its slower times.

If the old adage “slow and steady wins the race” is true, then I think I am in the right lane. The best advice I never got is actually more of a question. If someone was thinking of starting a business, my advice would be to ask yourself this: “If I don’t make it in X amount of time, will I quit?” If your answer is yes, then don’t get involved. I feel if you love what you do, success will come and quitting isn’t an option. I have the benefit of starting a company with very little overhead, you could say I started with a shoestring budget…or maybe a dental floss budget! But in hindsight this is how I will always run my business, as frugally as possible. I was fortunate in that I didn’t have to throw thousands of dollars at something to make it work. O.k. except for when my camera died, but that is an exception for a photographer right?!? Simply stated, if you believe in what you do, others will take notice and tell a friend, and they tell a friend and so on…

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