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CRIST: When I was freelancing in grad school, I realized I was spending a lot of time on my couch, working in my pajamas and in my apartment. I found that pretty quickly after working in the newsroom environment for so many years, I was alone. My alternative or social outlet in Athens was going out to a bar and hanging out with people, and I realized I was doing that too much in the evening right around or after dinner. I had been thinking about ways to become more involved, and people would be like, “Get a hobby, Carolyn, go do some yoga or pick up some yarn and actually practice crocheting.”
[My best friend] was leaving her job and proposed the idea to me, and something about it just caught me. When I came back to town that summer we started launching the idea.
When y’all planned what would become Pixel & Ink, what was going through your mind about how to make this a reality?
Can we find a place to put a shop like this? What would the rent be like at a place where we’d put a shop like this? Can we afford the start-up cost?
What would you say are the biggest lessons you learned about starting and running a business? Are these things you’ll consider as you launch your new business?
I don’t necessarily advise it now, but we applied for a couple of business credit cards after we filed for our LLC. We didn’t necessarily create a great business plan — we didn’t do it the best way to do profit.
I think, as much as people like to talk about how boring business plans are, how you don’t need to think too much, you just need to take action … it is still important to have a business plan in terms of planning the products and the prices; how many you need to make to be able to pay your bills, and not just pay your bills, but pay yourself a salary. We’ve always been able to pay the bills but not ourselves. And that doesn’t work. You can only go so far without seeing the fruits of your labor.
One of the things that always struck me about Pixel & Ink was how it scaled. For a couple years there, it was in small spaces, and then most recently in a three-story building that incorporated an art gallery and there were talks of adding another business partnership in the basement. Obviously your freelance writing courses and coaching are different, but how did you choose to make that scaling jump? How did you learn from that?
Be careful about scaling up when you’re ready to scale. We were at that point where we were like, “Well, should we just do printing? Should we get rid of some of the other editing-intensive, time-intensive services, or should we scale up like crazy, hire staff to boost revenue, open an art gallery and start custom framing?” That went really well, but I think we may have also let our overhead costs get to be too much. We hired three employees and we probably should have only hired one; maybe open our shop first and then open the gallery later. There’s so many variables. If you actually want to scale, scale carefully.
We saw that some of the things we had scaled weren’t sustainable, and we wanted to shore up some of the losses we were facing. One of the things that we did was change our hours so we could get more work done. We changed to appointment-only instead of retail. We were trying to focus our clientele on artists and people who were looking at custom framing versus someone who would go to Michael’s and want Michael’s pricing.
Both you and your fellow co-owner went through some pretty serious life changes while Pixel & Ink was open. How did that lead you to decide this was the direction you wanted to take, especially once you found out your landlord was selling your building?
When we found out Saucehouse did want to move into the building early, we decided not to move a fifth time.
I was thinking more about journalism again. A year ago I really started listening to podcasts, reading blogs, watching waytoo many webinars to learn how to create an online business for Pixel & Ink. It was a locally based brick-and-mortar store. We were expanding our website for print and frame orders … we were going to develop these online resources for our customers and while I was kind of creating the ideas for Pixel & Ink’s resources, in my brain I was also creating, “What would I do as Carolyn Crist as a brand? What do I know? Freelance journalism.”
myself years ago from the start. I’m not doing this as a temporary thing. I’m taking this as a brand online as a way to teach people how to make freelancing, specifically freelance journalism, work for them.
We’re seeing more and more freelance and independent workers [see Crist’s TEDxUGA talk on this topic above]. I’m kind of building my own brand on that and give free information, but also have a video course. I’m also putting in personal training and coaching kind of offerings as well if people want me to help them create one-on-one plans of, “I have this dream publication, how do I pitch this,” or if they have specific questions.
In my cosmetics and skincare company, we hear a lot that there’s never a perfect time. Just, you know, do it and stop waiting. What was your impetus to decide January 2019 was when this would begin?
I really began dreaming about doing my own thing in September-October. The gradual pivots and transformations help you to plan. November was when we really knew about Saucehouse [buying the Pixel & Ink building], so sometimes outside influences will make you realize you will need to make some kind of change. We knew we’d have to move anyway no matter who bought the place. We were already kind of thinking about it. The more we were thinking, I just started planning.
I didn’t really get it down on paper and organized and on a website and create all the email lists until the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. I think the lesson there would be to give yourself time to de-clutter. You can’t cram too much into your brain. If you have outstanding orders or clients and projects, go ahead and wrap them up, take a little bit of a break for yourself and start getting your next thing going.
It also helps that I need the money. Money’s a good motivator.
Earlier you mentioned that one of the reasons you jumped in on Pixel & Ink was to be inspired to maybe not wear your pajamas as work attire as often. Since you’re migrating back into a work-from-home environment pretty exclusively with this, plus your continued freelance writing, how will you avoid the pitfall of that pj comfort zone?
I feel like mental health-wise I’m in a better headspace. I’m going to focus on my physical health. When I am done with freelance by like 3, 4 or 5, I’ll go [to my gym] to get out. My brain just wants me to leave the house. It’s still the same reset.
And things like these where I have dinners and lunch and coffee meetings outside of the house. Now I can go and do something else the rest of the afternoon, but I feel like I went out. I’m sure as I get more into the year and there are several days in a row when I’m really stuck at home it’ll be tough, but I think … I’ve arrived back at the conclusion that I like working at home, so I’ll find strategies that make it OK.
Clearly you have the writing chops and a couple of degrees to prove you’re pretty good at what you do. But how do you come out and call yourself an expert on these topics, able to teach others?
It is a lot of mindset stuff. I have done it full-time and maybe I haven’t made a million dollars … but I have been able to live on it and work on another business while doing it. One of the key factors is, have people asked me my advice about it? Which is true. I’m not a 30-year journalist, but I can mentor others who are starting out.
Another aspect of it too, I’m so obsessed with this personally, in terms of buying transformational courses from other people. I realized there are some offerings with freelance journalism but they’re not quite what I want to offer. I was looking for it, so I might as well create it and see if others will buy it.