In the past year, Sally King McBride’s work has been featured in Vogue, Glamour, AD, and House Beautiful. She’s a recipient of the 2021 Tory Burch Foundation Fellowship, a year-long program of mentorship and education for women entrepreneurs. After a decade of working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sally found a way to translate her artistic expertise into a scalable business: The Letter Nest, a line of elevated, educational alphabet art.
Sally King McBride [00:00:01] At the same time, I had been wanting to develop the Letter Nest which is a collection of watercolor Alphabet and name prints for children with ten unique themes where each letter ties to the object it represents.
Sam Jayanti [00:00:17] Welcome to Ideamix Radio. I’m Sam Jayanti and every week I chat with entrepreneurs, solopreneurs, career changers, experts and enthusiasts for insider tips that you can apply to turn your idea into a business. So sit back and enjoy today’s show.
Sam Jayanti [00:00:39] How do you combine a formal training in art with a whimsical spirit? Sally King McBride is an artist and the founder of the Letter Nest, a line of watercolor alphabets and name prints for Children. She sells direct to consumer with maisonette and at a number of US boutiques. Her work has been recognized by the likes of Ava Chan, Joe Karman and many other designers and influencers. She lives in New York City with her husband and two young sons. Sally, it’s a pleasure to have you and Ideamix Radio today.
Sally King McBride [00:01:11] Thank you so much for having me, Sam.
Sam Jayanti [00:01:14] Sally, as you started the Letter Nest you wanted to retain the stability of a consistent part-time job and income. Tell us about that balance in your thought process as you got started.
Sally King McBride [00:01:27] Absolutely so I had been working at the Metropolitan Museum for just over 10 years, I was seeking a new opportunity anyway when I was pursued by two family friends to help on a part-time basis with their startup called Culture Tech. This is an online database to facilitate image rights management for museums and the art world. At the same time, I had been wanting to develop the Letter Nest. Which is a collection of watercolor, alphabet and name prints for children with ten unique themes where each letter ties to the object it represents. So a four alligator, B for balloon, C for cherry blossom, making these works both fun and educational. Starting this company kind of allowed me to put a frame around a business that I had developing for a long time, I had always done kind of house portraits, landscapes, wedding crafts from the time I was 16. But I really I wanted to put a frame around this and to create a kind of scalable and sustainable business. So with the Letter Nest asked where each work is printed and frame to order rather than painted individually to order, it really allowed me to do that and to find and to define myself with a niche product in a fairly crowded marketplace.
Sam Jayanti [00:02:48] So you first started thinking about the Letter Nest in twenty twelve when you were at the Met in a pretty amazing job. Tell us what got you thinking about leaving that role to start this business.
Sally King McBride [00:03:03] It was somewhat practical. I was about to have my second son, I had been at the Met for just over a decade and I had always had it in mind to do something entrepreneurial and hopefully to one day work for myself. The Met was the most amazing launching pad for that. I got my master’s in art history at Columbia under the museum’s sponsorship and I really saw through I fulfilled that kind of art history bug that I had and that I continue with my work in the Letter Nest. This work draws on, you know, a decade or more of kind of deep academic experience for which I’m really grateful.
Sam Jayanti [00:03:44] Sally, you’ve said two really important things that I want to highlight. Number one, that this started as a side gig for you because it was super important to retain your sense of stability and continuity with your career. And to that, you sensed a trend with respect to the educational and decorative quality of your paintings and followed it. So tell us more about that intuition to really go deep with the alphabet paintings that you’d seem to be popular by then?
Sally King McBride [00:04:15] Definitely. I think it really helped that I was the customer when I Googled, you know, elevated high end alphabet or alphabet art, just full stop. You know what what one finds is either a little bit cartoony or maybe just a little too mainstream. I wanted something super unique, really fun, catchy, esthetically appealing. And so I really answered that by developing the product myself, drawing on my experience, creating name paintings as baby gifts for friends and family and taking that to the next level by creating these repeatable themed alphabets very much at the encouragement of my clients.
Sam Jayanti [00:05:03] Amazing. What’s been your most effective method of selling and growing your business over time?
Sally King McBride [00:05:12] I would say it is about pitching and this is a familiar position for me, since at the museum I was doing mostly fundraising and events in the modern and contemporary area. So I was either, you know, drafting appeal letters to donors to support an upcoming exhibition or following up with that same donor or her assistant by email to see if she’d be coming to that Thursday night event. I know how to do that. And I kind of translated it to this business of really sharing, promoting and reaching out both to influencers and to prospective partners. This is very much self-generated. And I was thankful to have the kind of podcast space available available to me as an early education. Creatives like Savannah Hayes and Joy Cho talk a lot about this, about pitching themselves to everyone from Anthropology to Target and Sam, in fact, I think I reached out to you only three months after my business launch asking if I could be on your podcast so
Sam Jayanti [00:06:21] I’m so glad that you reached out!
Sally King McBride [00:06:23] Proof that it can work.
Sam Jayanti [00:06:26] Absolutely, I think. Selling and growing any business, especially in its early stages, is so is so effort and personality-driven. I mean, you have to do it yourself and and I think approach each new person or each new platform as sort of a new and distinct relationship and really seek to build a relationship.
Sally King McBride [00:06:48] Definitely. And I think it’s not always such a comfortable position for artists, often kind of introverted, doing the work and isolation by necessity. It’s a really different feeling. But I just I try to let the work speak for itself. I try to be friendly and I try to draw on all that experience at the Met of just kind of saying, OK, here we go as I hit send.
Sam Jayanti [00:07:15] In terms of finding influencers, as you said, or even retailers have, has social media been a huge help for you in terms of both finding but also reaching out to you people to contact about your work as well as to collaborate with?
Sally King McBride [00:07:37] It really has. And I draw on two main sources of advice here. First is within the Instagram app to see how many followers and follows I have in common with that perspective account. And second of all, I have to give credit to my sister in law, Sara Hurley King, who does corporate PR. She DM’s me with new partner ideas almost every other week, and she’s a working mom as well. So I’m super grateful to her too.
Sam Jayanti [00:08:05] Amazing, it’s it’s always such a good combination to have somebody who’s sort of batting on your side, who is thinking about your business in the background. Right?
Sally King McBride [00:08:14] It’s essential.
Sam Jayanti [00:08:16] As a business woman who still fundamentally an artist, who are the people you look to and rely on for practical support and advice in your work life. One of the things that we hear so consistently and ideamix radio is being an entrepreneur is lonely. And when you’re an artist, you’re used to a certain level of loneliness because you’re sort of creating on your own. But we all need people around us as brainstorming partners, as a shoulder to lean on, as a voice to hear us. Who are those people for you?
Sally King McBride [00:08:53] It definitely is my immediate family. And they kind of provide all facets of your question. My husband, for kind of financial and strategy savvy. My dad can be relied on for constant Instagram comments and replies, my mom for kind of the quick yes or no answers. She’s ahead of school and therefore CEO in her own right, my brother, for kind of constant encouragement. And as I said, my sister in law for that PR know how and kind of directional advice in that category. I would also add to that it is lonely, and yet Instagram allows one to kind of be in community with other entrepreneurs. It’s it’s my partner. Sure. It’s it’s the women that I collaborate with to co-market or otherwise. But it’s also the email, the email, the marketing campaigns I subscribe to. I love brands like Love Shack, Fancy or Laline or Maisonette. I think they all do a terrific job putting content out there and it does breed some sense of connectivity. However, surface level, it might seem.
Sam Jayanti [00:10:06] It’s so important, I mean, particularly during this time of the pandemic. Where connectivity is such an acute problem that everyone’s aware of in a sense, because we have really had to limit our in-person interactions in that regard, social media has been a blessing.
Sally King McBride [00:10:27] It really has.
Sam Jayanti [00:10:29] Who do you who are the who are the people that you feel you’ve built connectivity with for a regular or somewhat regular dialog who are also in your space? Artists like yourself, women running, businesses like yours, other female founders. Who do you feel you’re in conversation with on a regular basis, or who would you like to be in conversation with on those sorts of topics?
Sally King McBride [00:10:58] I would say that it’s the entrepreneurs who are in my space, but not doing exactly what I am. So I find an affinity with it’s a lot of entrepreneurs in the jewelry space, the home space and children’s apparel has been a really natural collaboration for me. So I would call out two names in particular come to mind, Ashley McCormick of Asha Jewelry, with whom I’ve collaborated on some illustrations for her Zodiac line, and then Alex Goldin, the founder of the children’s apparel line Paper Cape, with whom I’m doing another Zodiac themed pajama line for spring of twenty twenty one. And I find commonality in the way they kind of put their brand out to the world. It’s elegant, yet accessible, and there’s a certain warmth to it, which is really something I’m trying to go for with the Letter Nest.
Sam Jayanti [00:11:56] I you introduced me to Ashley, and we had her on Ideamix Radio, and she has just built and run her business in such a thoughtful way that thank you for that for that introduction. And she’s fantastic. And I agree with you that there are several role models when you look around of female founders who built their businesses in an incredibly authentic way, who’ve stood the test of time, who’ve built them organically and incrementally and have been super successful in that approach. Yes. What keeps you up at night right now other than your children?
Sally King McBride [00:12:37] My children. Climate change weighs heavily on my mind and kind of taken together. It’s it’s really just a question of whether the individual can have a meaningful impact. And so it’s on that macro level, but it’s also the heightened demands on the micro- level. Given family, given them the pandemic, given unpredictable schooling. I really do feel for my peers and for everyone going through this. It’s not been an easy time. And it ends up calling into question other other pursuits, one’s professional life included. So I am really trying to kind of take it day by day, stick to the basics. And I’ve called to mind the advice of a friend a lot lately who he talked about how believing in oneself is not just a matter of faith, it’s a matter of evidence. What are people responding to? What do you excel at? Can you be loyal to that and show up for it every day? So it’s easy for me to show up or the Letter Nest. I’m very passionate about it and I hope for everyone that they can kind of find that same enthusiasm for what they do.
Sam Jayanti [00:13:53] It’s such a great point. I think this is an unprecedented time for everyone, but the people who seem to be dealing with it with equanimity are those that. Are very aware of all of these issues in the background, I think are determined to play their very own role and play their part in influencing some of those outcomes, but are equally extremely aware of the need to put one foot in front of the other and take each day as it comes, but to keep trying to move forward. And of course, there are some days when that works and there are other days when it completely doesn’t work. But it’s all we can do at the moment.
Sally King McBride [00:14:37] Right.
Sam Jayanti [00:14:37] If you could fast forward to three years from now, where do you see yourself with your business?
Sally King McBride [00:14:45] Well.
Sam Jayanti [00:14:45] And where do you see yourself?
Sally King McBride [00:14:47] I see everyone, I hope, in a post covid world. For my business, I’ve been lucky that up until now I’ve been partnering with a lot of great companies in slightly different categories. So, as I said, children’s apparel, also a stationer, Dog Woodhill that I’m doing a line with. But I would love to see down the line whether I can create more product in-house and kind of see where that takes me. I’m really excited to kind of follow that path. The alphabet is such an amazing template and here I’ve created a 10 themed alphabet’s. I think there’s just there’s a ton of possibility for where that could lead.
Sam Jayanti [00:15:33] That’s such a great idea. I’m excited just thinking about it. I think you should do a product line which has your artwork that spans multiple different product categories. It’d be Amazing.
Sally King McBride [00:15:45] It’d be great.
Sam Jayanti [00:15:47] Last question, Sally, as an artist, you’re effectively your own business, and this isn’t something that’s really taught or particularly emphasized in art school. What do you do to learn the tools and skills you needed to be you needed to learn to be your own business? I think that could be really instructive for other artists, irrespective the type of work that they’re putting out in the world because it’s a very similar set of problems.
Sally King McBride [00:16:19] Absolutely. First of all, I would call on art schools to provide more business classes as well as marketing and branding. I, I assume they do that. I was in college about 15 years ago. Secondly, many artists work day jobs and I think those can be fulfilling. They kind of take you out of that creative, you know, that kind of manic state. But they can also inform they can give you very practical lessons for how to form your business. I would also say that defining one’s product is absolutely essential. Are you an abstract painter then? Fine, but what sets you apart? For me, it was yes, I’m a watercolor painter, but let’s do something more specific with that and kind of define myself in this supersaturated market.
Sam Jayanti [00:17:15] You’ve said something very interesting in there, I think when you are a creative person, there almost two distinct types of time that you need or two distinct endeavors that you engage in. One is the sort of more Open-Ended creative endeavor of I need some time and space and an inspiration to think about new ideas. The other is the doing and the execution and the day to day all the things that just need to get done. How how do you manage your time between those two things?
Sally King McBride [00:17:49] I make sure that the morning is spent and is set aside for the creative work. That is, when I’m most alert awake, I’m going to make the best artistic decisions, the kind of personal admin and business admin needs to happen later in the day. And admittedly, sometimes that’s over the evening hour when my kids are home. But it’s much easier to kind of answer that email or do that quick Instagram post with the distractions around the creative time is what is deeply protected.
Sam Jayanti [00:18:23] Thank you for that. Here’s something else you should know. The global home decor market was valued at over six hundred billion dollars. In twenty nineteen. It’s projected to hit eight hundred and forty billion dollars approximately, hopefully giving artists like Sally the chance, the chance to reach larger and more varied consumers. There’s certainly a consumer appetite for custom, bespoke, distinct, unique work, thanks to the PR Newswire and Photo District News for the data used in today’s episode. Sadly, we love your story because you illustrate how a passion for something as abstract and multifarious as art translates into both creative avenues but also a real business. Thanks so much for joining us on the show today.
Sally King McBride [00:19:11] Thank you so much for having me, Sam.
Sam Jayanti [00:19:15] Thanks for listening today, you can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and while you’re there, please do review the show. We love hearing from you. So e-mail us at info at the Ideamix radio. Com or Instagram DM us. Our episode this week was produced by the incomparable Martin Milevsky with music by the awesome Nashville-based singer-songwriter Doug Allen. You can learn more about Doug at DougAllenMusicDot.com
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