Killer Entrepreneurs

On 11 September 2013 by Alisa Damaso
Photo by Nicolas Vallejos Photography & Design

“The IDEA,” Photo by Nicolas Vallejos Photography & Design

Starting your own business
is tough. You’ve got to create a compelling business plan, get the right people together, prepare legal paperwork, plus a there’s buttload more to consider. It takes tons of hard work and dedication, but the rewards that come from building your own enterprise are immeasurable. These creative business owners share tips, advice, and what they did to reach success. Get ready to be inspired!

Karima Cammell

Owner of Castle in the Air
Berkeley, CA

Many new grads will find that any artistic career is going to mean far more hours running the business and fewer being artistically creative. You don’t necessarily have to tie them together, but if you want to be an artist, be an artist. Deliver the gift.

In 2001, author Karima Cammell opened Castle in the Air, a whimsical Xanadu for dreamers, tinkers and makers. Located in Berkeley, CA, Castle in the Air is a celebrated shop, studio, classroom, and gallery that awakens and dances with your imagination.

Killer Creatives: How did Castle in the Air come to be, and what resources enabled you to make it happen?

Karima Cammell: In my mid-twenties I was working as a freelance designer and illustrator with my husband Duncan at the height of the dot-com boom. We were doing well, but I was growing frustrated that I was working too much for other people, artistically speaking, and not enough for myself. I’ve always dreamed big, and my vision then was to put together a renaissance life, one where I’d be surrounded by beautiful, inspiring things and have lots of time to paint and create. The artist-studio market at the time was pretty dismal—all the best spots were being rented to startups for top dollar, and all I found were pricey shared studios that frankly weren’t that exciting.

After I broadened the search—and my vision—a bit, I found a gorgeous retail space in a less expensive commercial neighborhood. The fact that it had a storefront added the possibility of an audience for my work. My new thought was that I could create art during the week and have the shop open on weekends for customers.

Duncan and I sunk everything we had into transforming the space into a wonder shop. I turned out a ton of my own work too—greeting cards, paper dolls, and other ephemera. Everything we earned went straight back into the business. We were young and we were determined to make it work.

KC: What were your biggest challenges starting out?

Karima: As it turns out, painting, making products, and running a retail business may be more than one person can handle. I was making my art, but the shop wasn’t getting enough sales to support the additional staff I needed in order to make it all work. The challenge was to figure out how to grow the business and still have time for my art. It’s a perennial problem, honestly. I still work on it. We moved the shop to a busier location in Berkeley’s Fourth Street neighborhood and dug in our heels. Duncan and I had our first baby within a year of the move, so life was very big and dynamic. The business grew and new challenges emerged—finding and keeping a great staff, drumming up big custom jobs, and promoting the store and the classes we’d begun to offer. Running a business is not the same as making art. As it grows, new requirements come up that demand attention. I continue to juggle my schedule to fit in some studio time, but I’m lucky that I like the business aspect. I honestly enjoy it, and it’s made all the difference.

KC: What was life like for you after college? What would you say to art students today?

Karima: My first jobs out of college were all variations on commercial illustration and design. I colored plans for a landscape architecture firm, and later I designed clothing and catalogs for various companies. Eventually I started freelancing full time. I learned right off the bat that I’m not cut out for having a creative job in service to someone else, and this was true even as a freelancer. I’m a perfectionist and don’t want to let anyone down, including myself. I feel like I have a creative gift to deliver, and in the end the only way to do that is to get into the studio and make my art, whether or not it’s something I can sell.

Many new grads want a dream life as a freelancer or even on a staff somewhere. They’ll find that any artistic life that’s part of a career is going to mean far more hours running the business and fewer being artistically creative. Having a job in a creative capacity may or may not be right for you. You don’t necessarily have to tie them together, but if you want to be an artist, be an artist. Deliver the gift.

KC: How has Castle in the Air grown since you opened the shop? Where do you see the shop in another 10 years?

Karima: Castle in the Air has grown dramatically over the 12 years we’ve been in business. Between the staff, the teachers, and the professional artists who sell to us or buy their supplies here, we’re helping support dozens of people. The shop’s expanded its in-house products to include hundreds of original cards, the world’s biggest collection of vintage French paper model reprints, and a growing list of beautiful books. I have a fantasy that one day all of our greatest products and bestsellers will be made in-house. We try new ways to get the word out and engage with more people, exhibiting at craft shows and expanding our online presence. And some projects are purely for fun, like our Blue Castle Badge program, which rewards people who mail us a letter embellished with their own art or a letter that tells us of a good deed they did. As for my vision for it all 10 years from now, I’ve found that my life is a lot happier if I don’t think ahead. I hope we continue to grow and have fun.

KC: What’s your favorite part about what you do?

Karima: It’s got to be the people. Growing a strong community around each person’s art and life wasn’t what I set out to do when I opened Castle in the Air, but that started to happen right away. I think this happens naturally when people find ways to weave their creative lives and their careers together. Coming to work every day is like getting to hang out with my family and best friends.

Nate Kutsko

Owner of Kutsko Kitchen
Nashville, TN

The biggest challenge facing an entrepreneur is picking the right business model… Those models are generally outside the comfort zone of Creatives, but are absolutely necessary to survive.

As an inventor, Nate Kutsko creates tools to help make life easier. Solving problems and giving people a hand in getting stuff done efficiently is what entrepreneurship is all about. Almost a year after designing his first product, a wooden cutting board with a trapezoid channel, Nate started Kutsko Kitchen. After much positive feedback, he soon adapted his design concept to create an entire collection of cutting boards and serving boards.

Killer Creatives: How has your business grown since its inception?

Nate Kutsko: A product-based business like mine is very cyclical. I had a great Christmas shopping season in 2012, and I knew 2013 would be a very similar revenue cycle. So I have to measure growth over several Christmas seasons to see a pattern. Cutting boards aren’t something you think about buying for yourself very often. Since my designs are a departure from traditional products, I have to educate potential customers. My main goal for the 11 months leading to Christmas each year is to build an audience using my blog, press releases, select media advertising, and the major social networks.

KC: What’s one thing you wish you’d known when you started?

NK: How much the phrase “dishwasher safe” is ingrained in people’s minds. Wooden cutting boards aren’t dishwasher safe, and there’s major objection to using them despite all the advantages wood has over plastic as a cutting surface. It’s been a challenge convincing people that hand washing is a safe method for cleaning kitchenware.

KC: What has worked really well, and what would you have done differently?

NK: What I think has worked well is my timing. There is a movement towards returning to simple living in the kitchen — eating philosophies like farm-to-fork, Paleo, and local are gaining traction in the mainstream. As a result, I think people are taking control of their eating again, especially at home, and the rise of Internet and app recipe resources has made cooking at home more accessible.

The one thing I plan on doing to improve my business is creating better pictures and videos to explain my products’ uses. My website is the “salesperson” for my business. I realize that my revenue is back-loaded at Christmas (like most retailers), so I have time to make adjustments. I want Kutsko Kitchen to be an inspirational source for people who want to live better lives. You won’t see my products on the shelves of a major shopping chain. That’s not me. I want to stay connected to my customers. I want Kutsko Kitchen to support the food movement that is already happening.

KC: What do you think are the biggest challenges of being an entrepreneur today?

NK: The biggest challenge facing an entrepreneur is picking the right business model. How do you plan on marketing and selling your product? Face-to-face retail in a store or booth? Online retail? Wholesale? Licensing it to a manufacturer? Each has their advantages and disadvantages. Also, those models are generally outside the comfort zone of Creatives, but are absolutely necessary to survive. One workaround is to find a business partner who can do the marketing and selling. I work alone right now, but I would definitely entertain the idea of a partner who could see my vision and translate it better into words, pictures and videos.

KC: Do you have any advice for a budding entrepreneur?

NK: My advice for a budding entrepreneur is to look beyond your need to create before starting a business. I love the challenge of solving problems, but it can be financially draining to start a business based on a product that I might be the only one who sees the need for it. Find out what problems other people have first. Then find out if they would want to buy a solution and for how much. After that, decide if you can deliver that solution and still make money.

Products are generally hard to launch without significant capital. I launched Kutsko Kitchen as lean as possible by using wood instead of plastic for my products. The manufacturer I use to mill the channels did not require a large minimum order.

Starting a service that will save people time or effort during their busy lives can be less time-consuming and expensive to launch. The advantage of starting a service is the revenue will be a lot higher per transaction than selling one unit of a product. You will need fewer customers to make a living. Find a creative niche that people pay you for your skills, not your products.

Nate is offering Killer Creatives readers a special end-of-summer deal on his most popular product, the Large Rhombus Cutting Board

Leanna Lin

Owner of Leanna Lin’s Wonderland
Los Angeles, CA

Go with your gut. If you have to think too hard about it, then it’s not right for you.

Leanna Lin’s Wonderland opened in 2010, offering a world of enchantment for all ages. Leanna sells pieces from her jewelry line, 50 different collections of handmade gifts and accessories crafted by local artisans and brands, and talented artists are featured in revolving art shows at the shop. Visitors can even participate in workshops at the store. Leanna shares how she started her business from scratch.

Killer Creatives: What inspired you to start your business? Did you have any previous experience or training in entrepreneurship?

Leanna Lin: I’ve always wanted my own business, whether it was my own dress line, boutique or jewelry line. I studied fashion design at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) in New York, and I was in the industry for more than 15 years when I decided to try my own thing. I didn’t want to do clothing anymore, but I’ve always had a passion for art, jewelry and accessories. Leanna Lin Jewelry was set up in 2005 and [the store] seemed like the natural expansion of my brand.

KC: How did you finance your business?

LL: I opened the business with very little money — basically the bare minimum from my savings. I kept everything that was in the space before and just painted the walls, fixed up the bathroom, put up chandeliers, and moved in with very little inventory. I also had a lot of creative, business, and manual help from friends and family. I slowly added stuff as I needed and could afford to.

KC: What were the biggest challenges you faced when you first started, and how did you get through them?

LL: Balancing my life, and I’m still working on it!

KC: How does Wonderland stand out from other handmade shops?

LL: We have a cute and whimsical look.

KC: What would say are the five key elements for starting and running a successful business?


  1. Creating a brand
  2. Writing a detailed business plan
  3. Knowing who your customer is
  4. Location
  5. Always be open to change; it’ll help you grow

KC: Do you have any advice for budding entrepreneurs?

LL: Go with your gut. If you have to think too hard about it, then it’s not right for you.


Independent Art Curator, Dealer, Lecturer
New York, NY

It makes sense to consider how much money you can potentially make, but like any artist, to love art and choose it as one’s profession means taking a big risk.

Siddhartha Shah organizes exhibitions featuring contemporary Hindu and Buddhist Tantric art. He gives lectures on the function of art in spiritual practice, how visual art is used in Hinduism and Buddhism, and the importance of the sacred in contemporary art. He tells us about running an independent business, how he got his start in art dealing and what you need to succeed in the industry.

Killer Creatives: How did you get into art dealing? What kind of training is needed for your line of work, and what’s involved in it?

Siddhartha Shah: I took my first art history class in high school. I loved it so much that art history became my major when I attended Johns Hopkins University. When I completed my studies, I moved to San Francisco and got hired as an art consultant at a major commercial gallery by Union Square. We sold original paintings as well as original prints by Picasso, Warhol, Chagall… This is where I got my training in selling art.

What became clear after a very short time is that a person selling art doesn’t really need to know a whole lot about art. There were former car salesmen working there, a guy who used to smuggle drugs and jewelry into the U.S., and a woman who had sold shoes before. In fact, knowing about art can be hurtful when a salesperson doesn’t have the training to sell. It’s easy to go on and on with useless facts that a buyer might not care about — in many cases, the buyer is just looking for something that will impress their posh friends. So this is where I learned the essentials of selling art: guiding an individual through the process of acquiring art (which can be intimidating), asking the right questions, directing attention towards particular works, and closing a deal.

KC: When did you go independent? How long did it take before you were able to support yourself independently?

SS: In 2004 I began managing a gallery of Asian art in Marin County, CA. I was selling spiritual art, something I am very passionate about. Unfortunately, my boss at the time was an extremely unfriendly person who treated me like shit — constantly putting me down, criticizing my every move and actually telling me that I would never amount to anything. In 2005 I co-curated an exhibition at this gallery with a well known artist, scholar and collector, who brought with him a collection of the very finest contemporary Hindu and Buddhist Tantric paintings of the Kathmandu Valley — paintings I had never seen before. The exhibition was a resounding success and I approached him about working exclusively as a rep for his U.S. work (he’s based in the U.K.). He agreed.

I left my job and paid him upfront for seven paintings, which I thought I could sell in about a year, but within two months of being an independent dealer I had sold all of the paintings. I would say I struggled for one to two months in the beginning, but since then I have been able to sustain myself through this work and the business has continued to grow.

KC: Do you have regular employees or do you hire other freelancers to help you? How do you get the word out about your business?

SS: I have no employees and I simply rely on the kindness of friends and strangers when I need help with events. I don’t advertise and I don’t use my website — it is all word-of-mouth. I also give lectures all across the U.S. and Asia, and host cocktail parties and art salons at my home or at galleries, universities, yoga studios, meditation centers or clients’ homes — that’s how I meet clients.

I keep my business simple, small and exclusive because I want to be a part of every transaction; to meet with every client individually and tell them everything they want to know about the art. I am a collector and only sell art that I myself collect, which means I am personally invested in seeing the value of my collection increase over time. So my clients know that what I do for myself I’m also doing for them.

KC: What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of working independently?

SS: The advantages are really having as much free time as I like and want. The ability to travel whenever I feel like it and the chance to visit friends all over the world…I don’t have to sit and be bored in an office somewhere. I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do, really. I’m an independent dealer which means I don’t have a gallery — it’s just me and the art — and it’s very liberating.

The disadvantages are really just never knowing when I’m going to make money next, how much to save/set aside, and buying my own health insurance (it sucks; costs me a lot each month and it hardly covers anything).

KC: What’s one important thing you’ve learned as an independent art dealer?

SS: I’ve learned that art has the power to transform people’s lives, particularly sacred art. The experience of living with original art is something unlike any other. The other thing is that a lot of people want to buy art as an investment. You should buy what you love and what you can afford. It doesn’t matter what the “experts” say about value; auctions only make up less than 50% of all art sales globally, so how can anyone truly assess what a particular artist’s work is worth?

KC: What advice would you give to someone who’s just starting out in your industry?

SS: In terms of selling, it’s not enough to love art. A person needs to know how to sell, how to work with people, how to ask the right questions. It’s also important that a dealer not be too concerned with how much money he/she can potentially make. I mean, it makes sense to consider such things, but like any artist, to love art and choose it as one’s profession means taking a big risk. It comes down to quality of life — is money going to give you that? Or is surrounding yourself with beauty and doing what you love going to give you that?

Experience is also essential — working in a gallery, exposure to different styles, getting training from a mentor in the business. And one must be creative. You can’t market art in the same way you can designer clothing or handbags. One must be prepared to create a market and educate people on why art (or the particular work you are selling) is important and how it can enrich the lives of others.

Paula Fletcher, art by Lisa Gilley

Founder of Dumb Clothing
San Francisco, CA

I work best with deadlines — working for yourself can become easily overwhelming without them.

Sometimes destiny just happens. Paula Fletcher had always made clothing, so when she was out on her own, she decided to use her passion to make a living. Now, Paula runs her own business selling one-of-a-kind, custom and quirky threads at her store, online and at trunk shows — and she has never had a “real” job. It’s taken her some time to find a good groove, but it all comes down to balancing work and play.

Killer Creatives: How did your business come together, and what’s the inspiration behind the uniqueness of Dumb Clothing?

Paula Fletcher: I started out making hats. I’d sell them at the University markets, to friends, and to stores. My business just happened; I needed money and this was my solution. I never planned to be a designer. I am not really sure what I wanted to be. I knew it would be working for myself, and I always have.

Learning to listen to your intuition and channel creativity are great things. Part of the uniqueness is how I piece fabrics together: when I design, it has to “feel” right first, “look” right second. I let the fabric speak to me. It’s like therapy. I tend to get tired of looking at the same thing, so it became really important to me to keep things one-of-a-kind. I am also a big fan of immediate gratification, so the pieces come together quickly.

KC: How many of your skills are self-taught, and how many come from formal training?

PF: Pretty much all my skills are self-taught. I already knew or could figure out how to make most things. I wouldn’t make patterns, I would draw directly onto the fabric. At 20, I studied pattern making because I thought it would help to be able to actually use people’s measurements and make patterns. The rest was trial and error.

KC: Do you have any tips for time management and how to balance work and life when you’re running a business independently?

PF: I work best with deadlines — working for yourself can become easily overwhelming without them. I find ways to hold myself accountable so things get managed, usually by booking trunk shows, travel dates, deadlines for store accounts and custom orders. I work best in situations where people are counting on me to complete tasks. Without a deadline, I leave everything until the last possible moment. It creates a whole lot more unnecessary stress.

I couldn’t work without my calendar and reminders. Everything goes onto it and out of my head. There isn’t a whole lot of peace in there when you are juggling to-do’s and deadlines.

KC: What are some important things you’ve learned along your entrepreneurial journey?

PF: Just because there are plenty of hours on the calendar doesn’t mean you should schedule something into all of them. This is coming from someone who has often had to recover from burnout. I had a real feast-or-famine mentality: Do it now or lose the opportunity. For years, a lot of my income was from Burning Man sales. This meant that for about 12 weeks of the year, I was running myself into the ground, sewing and selling…so much that I wouldn’t get back to work for 3-4 months. Nowadays, I say no. I turn away work, custom orders, shows. It’s not that I don’t need the work, it’s that I need my health and energy levels to be good. It has to be my first priority.

Another thing I’ve had to learn is balance. When I am excited about something, I want to do it until I can’t do it anymore. I push my limits often. There’s a balancing act [between] the things I want to do and the amount of hours there are in a day to accomplish them, so I try to plan it so there are short bursts of crazy “making” activity, followed by time to relax.

The thing that made the most difference for me was doing personal development work… [because] the one consistent thing of running your business is YOU. All your quirks, beliefs, talents and insecurities follow you around. Having a deeper understanding of what made me tick and why I fell into the same sabotaging patterns was invaluable — I was able to identify what I really valued and made that a priority.


  • Reality Check: 5 Entrepreneurial Myths Busted by Larry Kim —  Too often people go into starting a business with certain expectations. In this Inc. blog post, WordStream founder Larry King shares five myths about building a company, and he challenges entrepreneurs to think hard about what motivates them to do so.

  • What’s An Entrepreneur? The Best Answer Ever by Eric Schurenberg — Although entrepreneurs come from all walks of life, most start out with limited resources. The trick is the ability to see opportunity where others don’t.

  • 10 Social Media Books Every Small Business Owner Should Read by Ivana Taylor — This list of books is a great start for entrepreneurs who want to learn how to market their business, network with others, and interact with their target audience through social media.

  • Running a Gallery: An HBR Small Business Interview by Sarah Green — Harvard Business Review interviews artist and art gallery director Ivan Barnett, who talks about being a small business owner, adjusting to the economic climate, managing creatives, and more.

  • Inc.’s Rules for Success — CEOs and founders of the most successful businesses in the world share the most important things they’ve learned on their entrepreneurial journeys. With insights from Huffington Post co-founder Arianna Huffington, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams and more, you’ll learn what makes them so awesome at what they do.

Alisa Damaso

Alisa Damaso is an illustrator, graphic designer, and writer based
in the San Francisco Bay Area. She enjoys the magic of the outdoors,
watching campy horror movies, and singing songs about food getting
stuck in her teeth. Her hand is married to a pencil and she never leaves
the house without a sketchbook.

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2 Responses to “Killer Entrepreneurs”

  • Thank you for sharing this interview. Learning from another entrepreneurs experience is probably a great value for anyone who may want to start a business.

    • Glad you liked it, Eddie! Getting advice from experienced folks is always helpful. Usually people are thrilled to share what they’ve learned with others. Thanks for reading!

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