Friday, January 18, 2008

Shawnimals Interview

One of the greatest things about owning Schmancy is watching people I have worked with become super successful. I remember talking with Shawnimals when I opened in 2004. Since then I have seen his name pop up more and more. From art shows, vinyl toys, craft fairs, exclusive toy runs and more, he has been an inspiration to many. I finally got around to hitting him up for an interview and I am so glad I did. I can't wait to see what surprises are in store for him and his company!

S- I was lucky enough to meet you and your wife this last summer during your honeymoon. Since then what has been going on in Shawnimals world?

SH- Likewise! We want to visit Seattle again some day. Let's see... since then? It's all such a blur! Where to begin? Soon after our honeymoon adventure, Jen and I got back to work for a show at the wonderful Domy Books in Houston full of paintings, drawings, and, of course, plush friends. It was a blast! Immediately after, I got on a plane out to NYC to pitch a video game idea based on Ninjatown to a potential publisher. They loved it, and we started working on the deal. Now, some 7 months later, we're working on the game for Nintendo DS which is due out in the Fall. In addition to that, we're always making new characters, plush, and other fun stuff alongside our trusted employees.

S- Shawnimals story reminds me a lot of Uglydolls story. You started small, making stuff in your home and now you have games, vinyl and are getting some of your plush manufactured. It's just amazing. What have you learned along the way? What suggestions do you have for those still making stuff in their studios or in their kitchens but aspire to be successful like you?

SH- The Uglydoll comparison is a fair one, though they've definitely taken a different direction and ran with it! We'll take it as a compliment in any case. :) We've learned so much along the way, it's ridiculous. I don't need to tell people this, but if you do what you do full-time (making stuff, being an artist, etc), be prepared to work harder and potentially be more stressed than ever before. It's completely worth it though, because you love what you do, and no longer have to go to a job you hate.

Besides that, I used to think that it's easy to start a business as an artist nowadays because of the internet (etsy, myspace, personal sites, etc), and more and more galleries and boutiques being turned on and into handmade and limited run stuff, but I didn't full understand what was involved to do that same thing on a much larger scale, and still maintain your sanity. I still think it's easier than, say, 10 years ago in some respects, but doing it right is much more complicated.

By "right", I mean making sure you have your finances and taxes in order, getting proper licenses and permits, understanding what it means to bring on employees and do payroll, and plan ahead at least a few years at least to consider how your business might grow or change. Then, perhaps most importantly, how do you find time to be creative when you're dealing with all of these day to day business issues? Be willing and prepared to pay people to help you with this stuff, because it will pay off in the long run and allow you time to be more creative.

I realized a little while back that I was playing business rather than running a business, and this playing was getting in the way of me being creative. After realizing that, and inviting the business part of my personality to sit and have a few beers with the artist side of my personality, I finally have some semblance of internal peace in the office / studio.

S- No matter what kind of artist you are, there is a lot that goes into maintaining your art as a business. You obviously want to do your art the most but you still have to do the invoicing, marketing, website updates, etc. It's a lot to handle and I have the hardest time with it all doing it mostly by myself. You have a great website, a great blog, great products and you are super popular. How do you
maintain this all? Where have you been able to delegate some of the power?

SH- Looks like I got ahead of myself with that last answer! :) Thank you for the nice words. Maintenance, especially with regard to book keeping and various web sites, will always ALWAYS be an issue. We're not at the stage to pay someone to, say, re-design our sites and update content, or come in everyday to handle our books, but it just comes down to project managing. Stuff will fall through the cracks (trust me) but if you have some kind of system in place where, say, on Mondays you do this, and Tuesdays you do this, and maybe Thursday is "business day" then at least you know what goes where and how your time will be spent on a particular day.

Delegating things can be a difficult, especially for an artist, but it's integral to being creative and sane, and when you think about it, makes a lot of sense. Take, for instance, processing our orders from the web site. Does it make more sense for me, personally, to sit there and process and pack and ship every single order that comes in, or would my time be better spent in the studio working on character designs, or replying to emails about something in production? Granted, I still pack and ship things now and again depending on the day, but most of that is handled by one of our employees.

S- It seems like you do a lot of exclusive releases with various stores and galleries. How does this work? Do you present it to the store/gallery or do they ask you to do a limited release through their space?

SH- It's a combination of both. If we know a store or gallery is particularly fond of something, say, a color or character, and we have an idea to bring something out, we may go to them first. In other cases, we've been approached by stores and companies with a specific idea or product they want to work with us on or license. Either way, it's almost always a collaborative effort that takes times. Prototypes, packaging, PR materials, etc. all take time (and money) to develop.

S- You also do canvas art. What came first? If you could only spend your time doing one or the other would you be able to choose?

SH- Studio art came first, back in 1995 or so. Actually, I take that back! Cartoony comic-type character came first, back in grade school in high school! :) Anyways, in 1995 I painted mostly abstract figurative stuff, and then over the years, cartoons came back into paintings and drawings and eventually sculptures. Those stuffed things then became Shawnimals. As for one or the other, I wouldn't choose, because it's all good. Some days it feels right to paint something, while other days it feels right to sew or draw or work on a drawing in Illustrator.

S- Do you have a favorite creation you have done? I love the mustache and the ninja and the radish and the...well I could go on and on. Do you have any personal faves?

SH- There's two: I know it's probably apparent but I really do love the Wee Ninja. It really captures my aesthetic. Here's this thing that's so simple, with no mouth or nose. Just two eyes, and chubby limbs. But thinking back to the past characters, Razor Beaked Cat Wing is my second choice. It's this fake mythical beast that has this horrifying name, but is really kind of furry and cute at the end of the day. There's so many though, it's seriously hard to choose, if I may sound shameless for a moment.

S- What was the first Shawnimal creation? Was it something that looked totally awesome and made you realize you wanted to do more or was it a struggle? My first knitted scarf is so horrible looking I can't believe I tried again.

SH- Floppy Cat Monkey. It is so crude, and kind of beat up at this point, that it's kind of charming. Like an old stuffed toy from when you were a kid, you know?

S- What have been some of your fondest memories so far doing Shawnimals?

SH- Those moments when Jen and I can step back and take it all in. You know, no stress or any craziness. Just sitting back thinking about what we've done, what we're doing and what we'll be doing in the future. Specifically? The moment when I was able to call and tell Jen the videogame deal went through.

S- You have had some vinyl toys out already and have more on the way. Was vinyl something you always wanted to get into or was that just a nice added bonus?

SH- I had thought about it, of course, but didn't have any specific desire to be honest. We met up with adFunture through Rotofugi, and that relationship developed and we had the Wee Ninja come out. It was well received, but some time passed allowing us to figure out how Shawnimals should translate from plush to vinyl, and now we're really excited about getting our Wee Sticker pork dumpling vinyl out.

Generally though, there are some really amazing vinyl toys out there, and I know we'll be doing more, but I'm also interested in other materials for sculptural toys. Maybe rubber, wood, other things that aren't used as often, not to mention handmade / hand-cast stuff.

S- What is on the horizon for Shawnimals?

SH- Now that we're having some of our plush manufactured, we're finally able to work on some in-house handmade plush projects that we've been wanting to do. These will be out every quarter or so, limited to 100 or 200 pcs, and in most cases will be fully packaged with a lot of bonus goodies.

Of course, we'll also be working on the game throughout this year prepping for the release, and then bringing out more plush, vinyls, fun merch and apparel and other unannounced goodies. If you come out to NYCC in April, stop by our booth!

Thanks for the interview! Appreciate you getting in touch.

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