Betsy Cordes

Betsy Cordes is the art maker-director-lover, creative matchmaker, cheerleader, and strategist behind February 13 Creative, a business advising agency devoted to serving a special breed of creative professionals, one they call the “art brand entrepreneur.” We are so glad to have crossed paths with her through our Creative Lady Directory and excited to share her wealth of knowledge with you today. This is a in-depth and rich interview that is worth slowing down for, enjoy!

Photo by Elizabeth Woollard

Photo by Elizabeth Woollard

Tell us about your path to becoming February 13 Creative.

It’s been a long and winding path, exploring lots of different attractions in the wider field of art—everything from art history, which I studied in college and grad school, to work for non-profits helping to place art in public spaces. I’ve been a publicity director, a graphic designer, a licensing artist, and an art director, and along the way I’ve worked in an old-school advertising department and for a handful of greeting card companies, as well as having a few different businesses of my own prior to this one.

To be honest, it took me a long time to feel like I’d found my calling. Now I can see that I needed this range of experience, combined with time, to work its magic. Ultimately, about six years ago, everything aligned. February 13 Creative is the perfect result of my lifelong interest in art, for sure, but more than that, in artists themselves. I have a lot of faith in artists’ abilities to do great things for our world, and I’m called to help them pursue their dreams with confidence, because I think we all have a lot to gain when creative spirits are empowered to do their thing!

“Discovery” by  Meenal Patel  | When Meenal reached out to me, she had a distinctive style, a strong portfolio, 10+ years of experience illustrating and designing for other brands, and a desire to develop her own art brand vision and voice. Since our sessions together, she’s been steadily applying her signature look to themes and subjects that are personally meaningful to her, such as family, her Indian-American heritage, nature, and childhood wonder—with beautiful results!

“Discovery” by Meenal Patel | When Meenal reached out to me, she had a distinctive style, a strong portfolio, 10+ years of experience illustrating and designing for other brands, and a desire to develop her own art brand vision and voice. Since our sessions together, she’s been steadily applying her signature look to themes and subjects that are personally meaningful to her, such as family, her Indian-American heritage, nature, and childhood wonder—with beautiful results!

Betsy Cordes | on time and experience to settle in | Freelance Wisdom

In the beginning, how did you attract your first good clients?

It was through my work as an art director that my business as an art brand advisor took shape. I’d hop on the phone with an artist to discuss the details of an assignment, but our conversation would stretch on long after we’d taken care of that bit of business. We’d end up talking about other projects they were working on, questions about offers they’d received and whether the terms were fair, how to get a book published, or deal with clients, or balance administrative tasks with creative time, and on and on… pretty much the full gamut of things that come up in running an art-based business.

I loved these conversations. Through them, I finally had an appreciation for how all my earlier jobs had prepared me for this one. Even better, the artists told me over and over how helpful our conversations were, how they felt informed, focused, capable, and ready to get back to business after our talks.

Many of them asked if I’d consider becoming their agent, but I wanted to be able to help artists in a holistic and individualized way with their businesses, rather than only to represent them for licensing and publishing deals, editorial assignments and so forth. For example, I knew that some of these artists wanted to publish their own book, or develop an e-course, or their own product line—things a traditional agent doesn’t typically help with. Furthermore, I saw that technology was making it easier every day for artists to represent themselves and in many cases to do so far more effectively than an agent could.

So, long story short, my business started with one client: Katie Daisy. Katie was willing to explore and experiment with me and through our work together I developed the business I have today, which has grown pretty much entirely by word of mouth, one artist at a time.

How to be a Wildflower by  Katie Daisy  | Katie was my very first client and continues to be my art brand muse. I’ve helped her behind-the-scenes on many exciting projects over the years, but a sentimental favorite is her first book, the New York Times Bestseller How to Be a Wildflower, published by Chronicle. (Photo by Maggie Jane Cech)

How to be a Wildflower by Katie Daisy | Katie was my very first client and continues to be my art brand muse. I’ve helped her behind-the-scenes on many exciting projects over the years, but a sentimental favorite is her first book, the New York Times Bestseller How to Be a Wildflower, published by Chronicle. (Photo by Maggie Jane Cech)

What advice do you give someone who is interested in working with a brand strategist like yourself? What questions can they ask themselves to help them decide whether or not they are ready?

I can be most helpful when an artist has a very well-developed and individual visual style—a signature look. In addition to that, a sense of mission is important. By mission, I mean a guiding philosophy or passion for a particular theme or subject matter that is endlessly inspiring to them. This can be broad, but it really helps if it’s defined. These assets are at the heart of an art brand, and when an artist comes to me with a strong brand identity in this sense, I can help them achieve some pretty exciting things!

That said, I’m also pretty darn good at working with artists who want to go there. In other words, I can also be effective with artists who might not yet have a signature look or a clearly defined mission, but they can spot a strong art brand; they see the difference between their own art-based business and the businesses of artists that inspire them, and they earnestly want to develop their own brand story and visual identity. I’ve worked with many artists at this stage, helping them bring their brand to life.

Is there a theme to the challenges you see arising for your clients lately?

Part of what makes art brands so inspiring to us (as the audience) is the sense of connection we come to feel with the person behind the art. We see that there’s a real, live, genuine human being creating this amazing stuff, and that it’s a reflection of her bigger life and her values. When our identification with her brand becomes very deep and strong, there’s a kind of intimacy that can be challenging for the artist. The line between her personal and public lives sometimes blurs, and it requires ongoing sensitivity to manage it all in a way that serves the interest of her audience (and therefore her business) and her own boundaries, which will shift throughout her life.

So a strong art brand requires a fair bit of willingness to be the face of your brand, to share your personal story and to engage in a meaningful way with your audience. Some of my clients start off feeling pretty confident around marketing themselves, and their following grows thanks in part to their innate skillfulness in this arena. For these artists, the challenges can come later, when life changes find them reassessing how much of themselves they really want to be sharing. For other clients, there’s a natural reluctance to share more than their art, so they may struggle to engage their audience as successfully as the more “extroverted” artist.

Either way, this seems to be an unavoidable challenge for artists who want to develop a strong and authentic brand. But it’s not insurmountable! It simply requires ongoing self-awareness, self-compassion, and a willingness to reassess and adjust strategy when needed.

Creative Watercolor   by Ana Victoria Calderón | Ana is a successful watercolor artist and a beloved teacher of watercolor technique, so it was natural that her popular classes led to a book deal. As Ana was evaluating the offer she received to develop  Creative Watercolor,  I helped her visualize the full arc of the book development process so she could be prepared for the collaboration ahead. I also explained the implications of certain publishing contract terms, suggesting changes she might want to ask for, and how to ask for them.

Creative Watercolor by Ana Victoria Calderón | Ana is a successful watercolor artist and a beloved teacher of watercolor technique, so it was natural that her popular classes led to a book deal. As Ana was evaluating the offer she received to develop Creative Watercolor, I helped her visualize the full arc of the book development process so she could be prepared for the collaboration ahead. I also explained the implications of certain publishing contract terms, suggesting changes she might want to ask for, and how to ask for them.

You work with your husband and your son! What do you love about this collaboration and what have you found to be challenging?

I do, and it’s really a dream come true. Chuck is an attorney, specializing in intellectual property law. Our son Henry is first and foremost a writer, but he’s pretty much genius at a lot of things (proud mom, much? ;)). We’ve always been a tight-knit little threesome, with lots of shared interests in the creative and entrepreneurial realms. Our skills and thinking styles complement one another very naturally, so the fact that my business has offered ways for us to work together feels like a real gift.

And yeah… it can be challenging. Henry is still finding his way in the wide world of work and he has a lot of interests. I want to give him the space to do his own thing, and at the same time I’d like nothing more than for him to work full-time for F13! For me and Chuck, the biggest challenge is turning off our business brains. We work together from home, and we’re both really intellectually engaged by our work, so it can be very hard to stop talking about it!

Photo by Elizabeth Woollard

Photo by Elizabeth Woollard

Do you have any advice for fellow creatives looking to enter into a familial collaboration whether it be with a family member, a spouse, or a close friend?

Agreements. Even if you don’t have an official written agreement between you and your collaborator (which, admittedly, might be kinda weird between you and your husband or child!), there’s something so powerful about taking the time to think through things as if you were going to memorialize it all in an official legal document. Maybe it’s because I’m the wife of a lawyer (and the daughter of a judge!), but this “agreement” business is something I drill my clients about when they tell me they’re thinking about starting something with a friend or family member. When your informal agreement is put into the legal form and language of a contract—and you imagine a third party having to interpret what the original intention of your collaboration was, with only that contract to explain it—you will discover potential problems and opportunities that you might not otherwise consider.

What has been your greatest struggle as a creative business owner so far?

There were a couple interrelated struggles. For one, it was really hard for me to trust that I would figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up! I’m 55 years old and it’s really only within the last six years or so that I’ve felt like “OK… This is where I’m meant to be.”

But to get here, I’ve had to reinvent myself a few times and the internet makes reinvention a very public process. I’m one of those introverted creatives that I alluded to in a previous answer, so the internet felt really uncomfortable for a good long while. I’m happy to say though, now that I’ve found my groove, it is so much easier and more enjoyable. It was worth the wait!

Scenes from  Julz Nally’s  Hummingbird Art Camp | Julz and I worked together for six very fertile months recently, as she dedicated herself to several big brand- and business-building projects. Hummingbird Art Camp (a summer camp for girls aged 6-9) combines Julz’s passions for art, craft and nature with her love of teaching kids. It’s such a fantastic example of what can happen when an artist dreams big and brings her whole self to her business.

Scenes from Julz Nally’s Hummingbird Art Camp | Julz and I worked together for six very fertile months recently, as she dedicated herself to several big brand- and business-building projects. Hummingbird Art Camp (a summer camp for girls aged 6-9) combines Julz’s passions for art, craft and nature with her love of teaching kids. It’s such a fantastic example of what can happen when an artist dreams big and brings her whole self to her business.

Do you have any tips for being your most productive?

This is a constant quest for me—the holy grail of ultimate productivity—but truth be told, at times I’m comically unproductive. I haven’t found any always-reliable method and I do think it’s a very individual thing that requires experimentation. We’re all such different creatures, with different things that motivate us, different ways of organizing ourselves.

Here are a couple things that work pretty well for me… I’ve been using Asana consistently now for a few years as my general project management tool and it’s the best thing I’ve found thus far. But sometimes managing my Asana becomes a huge distraction and time-suck in and of itself! When I find myself going down that rabbit hole, I whip out the sticky notes and write down each of the day’s tasks, one per sticky, then arrange them on my desk in priority order. There’s something super satisfying about finishing a task, tossing that sticky in the recycling bin and moving on to the next one. I don’t do this everyday, but when I catch myself in a rut, it’s a method that really works to keep me focused on my goals and takin’ care of business.

Any podcast or book recommendations that you'd like to share?

I believe that self-awareness—ongoing self-inquiry aided by a solid habit of mindfulness—is crucial to success as an entrepreneur. Running your own business can be, at times, a lonely and profoundly challenging endeavor. It really helps to know your values and to know what works to take care of your mental and physical health. To that end, two of my favorite podcasts are by psychologists with a spiritual bent: Tara Brach and Rick Hanson. For keeping myself “honest” (by which I mean, running my business and conducting my life in alignment with my most deeply held values), I turn again and again to Charles Eisenstein’s book The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible.

Mandala Stones by  Elspeth McLean  | Elspeth came to me about a year after her beautiful painted mandala stones went viral on social media… for the second time! In response to that demand, she’d done a great job building and managing her business all on her own, but her existing website was not reflecting the full story of her art brand. In the years since, I’ve supported Elspeth as she’s completely refreshed her brand presentation and website, negotiated her first product licensing deals, and developed the content for her first book—which she’ll publish independently this year.

Mandala Stones by Elspeth McLean | Elspeth came to me about a year after her beautiful painted mandala stones went viral on social media… for the second time! In response to that demand, she’d done a great job building and managing her business all on her own, but her existing website was not reflecting the full story of her art brand. In the years since, I’ve supported Elspeth as she’s completely refreshed her brand presentation and website, negotiated her first product licensing deals, and developed the content for her first book—which she’ll publish independently this year.

Betsy Cordes | Success as an Entrepreneur | Freelance Wisdom

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Dingding Hu

Dingding Hu is a New York based illustrator and designer. She is a life observer, color lover, and storyteller who aims to make juice out of the everyday ordinary. She specializes in illustrating scenes, characters and objects, and is passionate about illustrated product.

Dingding has made stickers for Google Allo, illustrated a map of Chinatown for MOCA NYC, as well as designed characters for TED talk. In 2016 she started to create her own product line, Hu is Hungry, a stationery and gifts collection that celebrates everyday life through food themed illustration.

Dingding Hu | Illustrator | Freelance Wisdom

Tell me about your path to becoming a freelance illustrator and designer.

I originally studied advertising back in Shanghai for college. Upon graduation, I took a giant leap into illustration and came to America to attend graduate school at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. After I finished my MFA degree I moved to New York, aiming to become a freelance illustrator. I have taken on different temporary positions while improving my portfolio towards more professional and unique, as well as reaching out to a variety of clients. Gradually my work has gotten much better than from the beginning, and I was lucky enough to have worked with some really awesome clients along the way. This year I finally started to work from my home studio full time!

In the beginning, how did you attract your first good clients?

I got my first big client because the art director saw some of my work on Behance. I got another good client because a producer saw my work at MOCCA. In addition I have put in a lot of effort sending out promotions to my dream clients repeatedly over a long period of time! Other opportunities have come from people I’ve met at a gallery or craft fair; we simply chatted and clicked.

Dingding Hu | Hu is Hungry | Freelance Wisdom

What inspired you to create Hu is Hungry your stationery and gifts line?

I love food, which is obvious. So when I first started out, I took some advice from my peers and started a tumblr that was dedicated to practising drawing food, called Hu is Hungry. Then one day I got a big number of reblogs, and gained more fans in 24 hours than my other tumblr did in 2 years. After that I made a pin based on one of my food drawings and surprisingly sold a lot when I was tabling at MOCCA, more than most of my other creations. I started to think, “maybe this is something I should consider pursuing more seriously.” After finishing a big project back in 2016, I dedicated 2 months of my time fully to Hu is Hungry, and from there, everything started to build and grow. I also realized that all my temporary positions have taught me something about making a product as well as running a brand, which makes it feel right to combine all my experience in retail to run my own business.

Now that you've gone through the process of bringing this vision to life, do you have any advice for fellow illustrators/designers thinking of opening their own shop?

First of all I feel like I still have a long way to go to make it what I have envisioned. If I have to give any advice, I think most importantly you need to identify what is your key message. You can either be a very stylish illustrator and focus on selling your signature style or a very good storyteller and sell your narratives. You have to make a decision and then create a lot of work around it, then filter the better ones over the not as good ones. A big collection of consistent items is important for a shop that seeks growth.

Dingding Hu | Hotpot Party | Freelance Wisdom

Do you have any tips for being your most productive?

The goal is to focus. Things that helps include good sleep, lots of coffee, energetic music. Sometimes surrounding myself with strangers really helps. However I cannot work with my friends or family unless it is a drawing for fun session.

What has been your greatest struggle as a freelancer so far?

Two things. Time management is among the most difficult ones for me, and maintaining confidence in what I do is also important but quite difficult. I struggle as well as practice consistently to be better at both, and I am happy with the improvement that I have made.

Dingding Hu | Room For Tea | Freelance Wisdom

How do you continue to attract your ideal clients?

I try my best to deliver good work to my current clients, at the same time I put myself out there as much as I can. I have also upgraded my promotion packages over the years and keep sending them out. Last but not least, I try to surround myself with a positive and supportive creative community.

Do you have any tips for dealing with the nitty-gritty business details?

I highly recommend hiring an accountant, I admire people who can deal with taxes themselves, but I do not trust myself with that at all. Other than that, I am a super organized person. I have a lot of lists on my phone based on different aspects of life and level of priority. I also try to maintain a well categorized studio setup, I take full advantage of shelves, a storage unit, folders and labels. I once took a part time position at a showroom, and I think that taught me everything about organizing.

Dingding Hu | Foodie Girl | Freelance Wisdom

Are there any projects on which you're ruminating that you'd like to make time for someday?

For me I think keep evolving Hu is Hungry is among my favorite things to do. I currently put all my time besides client work into it and I constantly feel I need more time.

What is one thing you wish you knew when you were starting out?

I wish I was not so afraid and shy to connect with people who were successful in my field; it turned out they were usually really kind and gave good advice!

Dingding Hu | Hotpot Fish | Freelance Wisdom
DingDing Hu | Illustrator & Designer | Freelance Wisdom

Any music, podcast, or book recommendations that you'd like to share?

My list keeps changing, currently I have been listening to the soundtrack of Crazy Rich Asians while working, and I recently finished the audio book “How to raise the perfect dog”. For podcasts I usually go to Design Matters and Freakonomics.

Anything else that you'd like to share?

We perform best when we are passionate about what we do, and when we are in charge of pursuing our own passion, whatever it is. Have a plan and take small steps!

Dingding Hu | Dumbest Job Ever | Freelance Wisdom
Dingding Hu | Designer & Illustrator | Freelance Wisdom

The 3 greatest attributes you need to be a freelance creative are:

Confidence, Persistence, Efficiency

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Emily Isabella

Emily Isabella is an Illustrator and Painter who lives and works from her studio in the Hudson Valley, just north of NYC.

As a child, Emily wandered her family’s Wisconsin prairie, pressing Queen Anne’s Lace flowers against her cheeks, pretending they were powder brushes; her work reflects this idealism.

Aside from her product ranges, she takes on project-based collaborations with like minded companies. Her projects vary from book illustration to packaging design to textile design all the while maintaining her unique illustrative style that serves as a reminder to delight in the everyday. 

Emily Isabella | Illustrator and Painter | Freelance Wisdom

Tell us about your path to becoming a freelance painter and illustrator.

I’ve always known I wanted to run my own business. My entrepreneurial spirit has always been around; I've never been very good at working for other people. I come from a family of artists and going to art school was a natural choice. I studied Fibers, which was a broad major that encompassed textile design and all things related to fabric. All the textile work I was doing was very illustrative and by the time I realized I would love to also be an illustrator, it was too late in my college career to study it. I graduated in 2008 during the recession when there were no jobs to be had. This further sealed my dream of working for myself and I started my search for clients immediately after graduation. I had to figure out the illustration part on my own but my grandfather was an illustrator and my dad is an illustrator so I think it came pretty naturally to me. I used gouache in my textile design classes and that's what I had in my toolbox when I started painting. I don't think too much about things, instead I follow my curiosity and used my strengths to help guide me. 

In the beginning, how did you attract your first good clients?

My first client was a wallpaper company called Hygge & West. I emailed them my website which at the time was a bunch of experimental college work. I owe them a lot because they saw something in me and took a chance. They had just launched their brand and I was targeting up-and-coming companies as I thought it could be wise to learn and grow together. We’ve been working together for 10 years now! The process of gaining clients was slow and steady, one project always led to another. 
Emily Isabella | Painting Studio | Freelance Wisdom
Emily Isabella | Freelance Wisdom

Your Instagram bio says "I paint all day." We'd love to hear more about that. What does a day in the painting life of Emily Isabella look like?

It’s true. Lately, If I’m not painting at my desk I’m painting on site at the studio my husband and I are building. We’ve been very hands on with the process. My main task is to paint everything. I think the biggest thing I will ever paint was the exterior of our studio. It took the two of us about a month, we painted each board one at a time, a few coats, front and back. Aside from that, I travel with my paints and actually feel most inspired away from my studio so even on trips away, I’ll be painting observations in my sketchbook. In the last 5 years I could probably count on one or two hands the amount of days I didn’t paint something.

How do you set the mood, how long do you work for, what do you do when you get stuck?

Coffee, dancey music, I like to be alone with my work. It depends on how much I have going on but on an average day I work from 8-7. Walking outside helps to clear my head. I also find that closing my eyes for 20 minutes is very effective when I need to unscramble my thoughts. 
Emily Isabella | Frenchie | Freelance Wisdom

Do you have any tips for being your most productive?

Getting away from my desk and experiencing life is necessary to keep the ideas flowing.

It is amazing how many different types of people, companies, and museums you've collaborated with. Are there other dream clients or dream products for which you'd like to paint?

I’d love to design a ballet. It would be so fun to have my hand in it all from the big picture concept down to the ribbons on the costumes.  I’d also love to work alongside a fashion designer and design prints specially for the garments,  á la Celia Birtwell and Ossie Clark. 
Emily Isabella | The Closet | Freelance Wisdom

What has been your greatest struggle as a freelance creative so far?

Taxes, the worst. 

Do you have any tips for dealing with the nitty-gritty business details? 

I think it’s important to understand how to do it yourself before you hire out.

What is one thing you wish you knew when you were starting out?

My dad is a freelance graphic designer and I was fortunate to have him as a sounding board when I first started. However, I was too stubborn to use a tax program (turbo tax, etc.) because I couldn't fathom the idea of spending money to pay my taxes. I ended up spending three tearful days trying to make sense of the tax system. It was awful. 
Emily Isabella | Desk Corner | Freelance Wisdom

Any music, podcast, or book recommendations that you'd like to share?

When it comes to pricing your work, a great book to reference is the Graphic Artist's Guild Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines. Of course, you'll have to make your own decisions about how you choose to value your work but this is a great starting place. 

How do you stay creatively inspired?

Trips to new places, museums, flea markets and time with friends never fail to inspire me.

Are there any projects on which you're ruminating that you'd like to make time for someday?

I have lots of ideas for children’s books but I haven’t had time to make them a priority. Someday!
Emily Isabella | Sleepy Paul | Freelance Wisdom

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