Emily Blistein is the curator behind Clementine, a nationally recognized boutique that celebrates beautifully crafted gifts and handmade wares. While owning and running Clementine, Emily consults with makers to grow their wholesale lines and is a contributing editor for Oh So Beautiful Paper. She also offers styling and creative direction services with You're So Golden. Oh, and did we mention, before all this, Emily was a lawyer!
Read on to find out how Emily so seamlessly weaves these creative entrepreneurship and freelancing opportunities together.
Tell us about your path to becoming a freelance creative of this magnitude.
Each new branch evolved really organically and often some dropped off as others emerged. I loved owning a retail store and interacting with customers, but very early on I realized that my true passion was helping smaller designers gather the resources and craft the image that would propel them into the kind of business that fit their life and talent. I was so lucky that Nole took a chance with my column on OSBP and I was pretty surprised with how incredible the response was. Once I realized that there was hunger in the product design community to hear more from the retailer perspective, I went with it. My relationship with Etsy developed because I took the time to respond to some early inquiries about how to build a good wholesale platform and as they talked to some of their top sellers, I was referenced as being helpful, so opportunities to partner kept emerging. I love being able to speak honestly and give real actionable tips to small creative businesses.
The unifying thread, from my days in policy and advocacy through my current consulting work is that I am deeply curious in helping other people tell their stories, and I feel most satisfied when I can help others gather the resources that they need to thrive. In my former life I was an attorney for survivors of domestic violence and a policy director for women’s health. I believe deeply that all women deserve the skills and resources to live free, independent lives. Helping women excel in their businesses is my current venture, but I’m always open to the next branch on this path!
In the beginning of Clementine how did you attract your first good clients?
Well, having a retail storefront means that my customers came right to me, but consulting clients emerged because I just honestly cared about my vendor relationships. I wanted to help them look and feel as professional as possible and I love to chat, so I was having a lot of conversations! I finally found that I was spending so much time giving advice. I loved it, but in order for it to be sustainable, I had to structure and charge for it. I always want it to be affordable – because I know how tight money can be for small business owners! – but I also really believe that women should be paid for their work, so I was honest with them and a wonderful side venture emerged from it.
You balance so many different ventures, not to mention being a mom of young boys! Do you have any tips for being your most productive?
First, let’s get real: I don’t know what it looks like from the outside – but it’s much more of an awkward dance than a balance. I discovered that I was pregnant a month after opening Clementine, so I really don’t know what it’s like not to be a mom, wife, and small business owner at the same time. They are all incredibly amazing, and also incredibly stressful.
My biggest piece of advice for being productive is to really respect your personality type. I’m motivated by creative sparks and ideas, I’m also motivated by deadlines, and I’m flexible and easily flip from task to task. I am a real extrovert and I get a ton of energy by interacting with friends and fellow small business owners, but I’m easily distracted by them too. So my productivity can be sporadic – I have learned to dig in and tune the rest of the world out when inspiration strikes (this leads to a lot of late nights, but that’s when I dial in). If you’re more of a list making planner, I can’t help you (maybe you can help me!), but I can tell you to honor that tendency and set up an office and life that support you in it.
"My biggest piece of advice for being productive is to really respect your personality type."
What has been your greatest struggle as a freelance creative so far?
The hustle. Look, I appreciate all of the well designed pro Biz Lady/Hustle/”quit your day job” talk and merchandise out there, but the truth is: most of our work is done alone and it’s hard to feel like you can take a day off. When Clementine closed at the end of January I was burnt out (that’s a big understatement). I needed to take some time to recalibrate. I didn’t have the energy to hustle for clients, so I hibernated for a few weeks (but when you hibernate, there’s no money coming in). When I emerged, I was really ready to work with clients again, but I needed the downtime.
What is your favorite thing about freelance?
At the heart of everything, I really get a buzz from helping to propel other creative businesses forward. There is an incredible feeling of satisfaction when a client is gleeful about what they’re going to do next after our consulting calls. Freelancing allows me to do this in the best way possible. I get to be incredibly nimble and design work that matches my best skillsets. I get to personalize my advice (a hearty blend of cheerleading, coaching, honest truth telling, and resource delivering) to meet each client where they are. There is an intense joy in being helpful and feeling like I’ve crafted a little niche within this community that is valued. I have learned again and again to trust my gut about what was needed in our creative community, and as long as clients meet me there, I’ll keep going!
Also, I get to pick my kid up early from school, after years of being tied to the shop every day, that feels wonderful!
You recently closed the brick and mortar of Clementine and it will now live online. Can you tell us more about that decision?
Last summer I realized I couldn’t keep going at the clip (and in all of the directions that I had been going in). I was lucky to have a pretty great retail experience. I loved my vendors, adored my shop and customers. I was energized and received wonderful feedback that kept me going strong for over five years. But retail is incredibly hard: It’s difficult to make money, it’s easy to get in debt, you think about your shop all of the time, and you can’t truly take a vacation. The foot traffic in my town began to decrease which made this place I loved begin to change into a burden for me and my family. Meanwhile I was doing more consulting and freelance work, and I really didn’t have the energy to do everything well. Once I entertained closing the retail shop, I knew it was the best decision for me. Keeping the online shop allows me to keep a toe in the retail world, so that I can continue consulting with direct knowledge, but it gives me my time back.
You're So Golden is a side venture of yours. Can you tell us more about this collaboration? What are your current dreams for this offering?
From my vantage point as a retailer, I know how important good photography and a cohesive product line is. A lot of the creative consulting that I do for brands in the early days is to help them tell a compelling story, and it became obvious that many of them needed images to match their narrative – often this isn’t as simple as product-on-white photographs. For creative brands, I think it’s important to show inside the studio and create a full world for products to inhabit. My visual arts background allowed me to begin offering styling and creative direction services and then I found a photographer turned friend, Jessica Sipe, who was always able to tell my business’s story so well with her photography. We began partnering to offer creative brands a fully packaged service where they work with me to develop creative direction for their line and then I style the shoot alongside Jessica. It’s a side gig for both of us, so we’ve been lucky to get to work with a small portfolio of brands who can really launch their lines with these images.
I think it's safe to say you are a serial entrepreneur. What is one piece of advice you'd give other women with those same entrepreneurial tendencies?
Spend some time really investing in books, courses and coaching early on to create a vision of your venture. Once you’re in it, I find that it’s really hard to stop and make big picture decisions so do that work early on when you have time. Also, find your own cheerleaders and some trusted critics – you’ll need both to keep going and to know when to turn off or hop off.
How do you stay creatively inspired?
When creativity is your business, it can be really hard to actually be creative. I found the store so energizing for so many years, I halted almost all of my personal creative endeavors. Then I really missed them. I used to paint and sew and draw and write and I halted all of those things with my business. I’ve taken it slowly – I buy poetry books and try to read them on vacation, I just started taking a drop-in figure drawing class and I’m making plans to do more now that I am regaining some of my time back.
Do you have any tips for dealing with the nitty-gritty business details?
Yes! If you are bad at it (or if it weighs on you), pay someone else to do it. And if you can, hire a mentor or coach to help you hash through the big picture of your business so that you can stay on track and accountable.
Since you are your own boss, do you have any advice for maintaining a work-life balance?
1. Find good friends and be a good friend. Ask for support and offer it.
2. Indulge in things that restore your energy.
3. Figure out how to have tough conversations with your partner. I’m better at some of those things than others.
The 3 greatest attributes you need to be a freelance creative are:
Creative vision, curiosity and the willingness to learn on the job or make up a job that doesn’t exist!