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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