The Artist as Entrepreneur
Mary Beth Flynn
Age: 45
Hometown: Kirkwood, MO
Profession/Type of Art: House portraits: watercolor paintings or black & white drawings
Education: BA, Interior Design, University of Missouri-Columbia

Mary Beth Flynn grew up in the Kirkwood area attending Kirkwood schools and John F. Kennedy High School before pursuing interior design at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Using her educational background, Flynn worked for several years doing architectural drawings.

After a divorce, Flynn knew she wanted to work in her home in order to be available to her three children. Her artistic talent first led her into creating greeting cards. She was successfully placing her cards in local stores, but she realized that the greeting cards would not be a lucrative enough venture to support her. She did not want to return to her career outside of her home, and when she was asked to draw a home for a real estate agent, her career doing house portraits began.

She expanded her business through Home Decorators Collection Catalogue, with a circulation of 5 million across the country. Customers would send orders with photographs. Flynn was with them for two years and did enough volume to have to hire help. She and the catalogue parted company when they advised her that the numbers were not working for them. Flynn returned to the St. Louis market and was able to charge the catalogue price which meant a raise for her, since she did not have to sell through the catalogue.

Currently, Flynn can do eight to ten portraits a month, and she has one contract employee. Holidays remain her busiest time.

Her work has been featured in the St. Louis Business Journal, St. Louis Homes & Lifestyles Magazine, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, as well as on the air on KSDK Show Me St. Louis.

Flynn resides in the St. Louis area. She has three sons. Sean is nineteen and attends college. Patrick, fifteen years old, is at DeSmet High School, and Michael, thirteen, attends Webster schools in the seventh grade.

The following interview with Mary Beth Flynn was conducted by Cheryl Blake, UM-St. Louis, September 2004.

Q. How did you get started in this business of house portraits?

A. It's a unique business, and it started as a side line for about ten years. It was a supplement, but I had a goal in mind. The business grew to be more over time, but it started slow.

I started out with a degree in interior design. I hadn't majored in art because I didn't think that would be practical. After school, I worked in commercial interior design for seven years. I found that very exacting and technical. I wanted to rekindle the artistic juices, but most of all, I wanted to do something that allowed me to be at home with my children. When I was divorced, my youngest was two- and-a-half years old. Being with the children was what was really important to me, but I wasn't sure how to do that.

I began making greeting cards, but that did not really make very much money. One thing lead to another and a real estate agent asked for a house drawing. I had studied and done architectural drawing, so I thought this was something I could do. With the greeting cards, I would need mass production to make a profit. But the house portraits would be low overhead.

Q. What did you do to expand the business?

A. I put an ad in the Webster-Kirkwood Times for the holidays, and I got a lot of calls. I was doing pen & ink and then someone asked for watercolor, and I started doing that.

A friend and I brainstormed about marketing and we decided to try mail order. I had to get into wholesale pricing; the catalogue would take a cut. I presented my work to Home Decorator Collections Catalogue. They put me in the catalogue. That meant cut prices but huge volume for me to make money. Over the holidays, I was filling ten to fifteen orders a week, so I had to hire help. After two years, the catalogue company said that the numbers were not working for them.

I was wondering if this was really going to go anywhere. I decided that I had not saturated the St. Louis market, and I realized that I could charge what the catalogue had charged, and it would be a raise for me. The work has evolved and improved, and I now produce a smaller volume at a higher profit margin.

Holidays remain the busiest time. I now do eight to ten portraits a month but can make more, and I have one person working for me on a contract basis.

Q. What in your background helped you in this endeavor to combine your art with business?

A. I had to be a marketer. I found out I really liked that part of the business even though I had never taken classes in marketing. I had to think about things like whether my quality fit a particular market. If I do not charge enough, I may even lose potential clients. My prices range from $150 to $800, but for a long time I charged just under $100. Now I have ads in St. Louis Homes & Lifestyles Magazine and St. Louis Seasons. I am also in the yellow pages. That advertising paid in indirect

ways. St. Louis Business Journal called me for a feature, and they had found me in the yellow pages.

Q. Do you have any suggestions for other people trying to make a business out of their art?

A. You can't give up. If you send in catalogue proposals, for instance, and you get rejected, you have to keep trying. And working in other businesses helped me. I learned how to deal with clients when I worked retail while in college. When I was employed by a furniture dealer, I learned about pricing and mark-up. I also got to know something about setting standards for production and procedures.

What I do borders between fine art and a product. I had to develop a process. Part is technical and part is fine art. My background in architectural drawing and design have helped. So I developed a process, and I can work from a photo. Employees can help with some of the layout. Because of the time and effort involved, I have begun charging the same for black and white drawing as for the watercolors, and I offer four basic sizes. I was able to standardize.

I have also had to learn to give the right jobs to the right people. When I am training a new person, I am losing money.

Along the way, part of what kept me going were little signs, the personal responses from clients, so I act like there always will be work. So far it markets itself.

Visit Ms. Flynn's webpage, Designs by Mary Beth, to learn more about her work.

copyright 2004, Center for Entrepreneurship and Economic Education, University of Missouri-St. Louis