Reflections On My First Year in Business - Notes from a San Francisco Poster Artist

Posted by Michelle Chandra on

In December of 2016, I founded Dirt Alley Design just off a dirt alley in San Francisco. After half a year of researching, designing and creating, what had started out as an idea sparked by the 2014 Eyeo Festival became a "real" small business complete with business cards, a website, and my San Francisco poster line (I transform city street grids into solvable mazes and screen print the maze designs by hand!)

Dirt Alley Design outer sunset san francisco

Needless to say, when I launched Dirt Alley Design, I didn't know much about launching a map art business, or selling San Francisco wall art. To celebrate National Craft Month, I want to share with you what I learned in the first year of running a map art business. 

If you are a maker with an idea, a 9-to-5er looking to quit and launch your own business, or if you are just interested in learning more about how I create my map posters and run my business, you are in the right place.

rainbow san francisco maze map art print by dirt alley design

In my first year in business, I got a lot done including:

The above may not seem like much, but is really the result of over 950 hours of woman-work, all accomplished while working a full-time job! Whew, I am getting tired just thinking about it. Did I mention Dirt Alley Design is a one-woman operation? It's all just me running the show.

blue and gold seattle art print poster map maze

I am still learning, struggling, growing and dreaming of being a successful art-preneur. The days when I am selling map prints at a fair, and getting to share my creative skills and ideas with others, are a dream come true. I love chatting with people who value supporting local businesses and artists, and it makes my day when even just one person is inspired by my maze art!

Michelle Chandra at the Bay Area Maker Faire

Then there are long stretches of days that blur into weeks where I am trying to figure out how to drive traffic to the Dirt Alley Design shop, or figure out the social media world, and it can be overwhelming. As an introvert, some things don't come naturally to me but I hustle on because I can't imagine being anything else other than my own boss!

Keys to the Art Hustle 

If you are thinking about taking a leap of faith, and starting your own art business, here are some key things I found helpful my first year of business (listed in no particular order).

SF Etsy Emporium

Early on, I joined the SF Etsy community group. Through the many forum postings by community members, I learned about upcoming fair opportunities, general business advice, and opportunities to put my map prints in front of a welcoming audience of Etsy fans. If you are in the SF Bay Area, I highly recommend joining the group, you just need a live Etsy shop (even if it's empty!)

Dirt Alley Design maze maps

When I launched Dirt Alley Design, I drafted a press release and made sure to send it to as many local blogs as possible. These included niche blogs that I felt might be interested in my map posters such as art blogs, local SF blogs, map blogs, etc. If a blog wrote about my business, the press, traffic, and sales were all free! So get on it, and write your first press release. 


Michelle Chandra, founder, Dirt Alley Design 

In the beginning of launching, while I was seeing some online traffic due to a few press mentions, I had next to no feedback on my map posters. Luckily, I had the foresight to sign up for a few Spring fairs. I also took a business class through a local non profit (CENTRO) where I learned how to create a customer survey. At each fair I attended, I learned so much talking to folks about my business, and seeing what map prints sold. The overwhelmingly positive reactions also boosted my confidence and motivation! If you are interested in selling at craft fairs, try to find a fellow maker to split a booth to reduce the cost, bring lots of business cards, and try a lot of different fairs because it's hard to predict where you will do well!

Be nimble and quick rainbow gradient screen printing

At launch, I initially outsourced production of my large San Francisco posters. Unfortunately, it turned out I really didn't know at launch what San Francisco prints would sell well. Luckily, I made a small initial purchase when I outsourced. I highly recommend trying to create your product yourself in the beginning as cheaply and simply as possible to allow yourself the ability to quickly adjust your product line based on early feedback. 

There is a lot of fancy screen printing equipment you can purchase for thousands of dollars, or you can hack it together yourself cheaply. With help from my Dad, we built a vacuum screen printing press for less than $500 with wood and other parts we purchased locally following directions from a local screenprinting blog. We even created a print drying rack from an Ikea crib for less than a $100, and found a vintage flat file from a local business selling used office equipment for around $250.

Dirt Alley Design ikea drying rack

Halfway through 2017, I took an online marketing course where I was paired with a mentor for weekly sessions of marketing coaching. One of the best things my coach told me was to be focused and pick one goal. There is an overwhelming number of marketing options at hand, but if you focus in on one goal (whether that is sales, traffic, or outreach), then the options you need to implement to make that goal happen suddenly become much easier to figure out. This advice can be applied to all aspects of running a business!


Regina Akhmadullina

I remember sitting at my booth at the beginning of the Bay Area Maker Faire in May quietly freaking out that I had chosen the wrong event for my map poster product line. What a potentially expensive and time consuming mistake! I texted my friend and business coach Regina Akhmadullina with my worries. She instantly calmed me down, and I ended up doing just fine and selling way more map prints than I predicted. If you feel like you are losing your way at any point, make sure to reach out to a friend or mentor for some outside perspective!


SF Etsy Emporium

Not sure where to start? Not sure what to work on next? Just do something, anything. Write a blog post, throw up a photo on Instagram, sketch out your next product idea. Most importantly though, just do something. Don't worry if it's the right thing, the best thing, the most perfect thing. Just do something, put it out in the world, and move on to the next thing. Over time, you will see what works, and what doesn't, but really, just do something.

What's Next for Dirt Alley Design?

I enjoyed running my own map art business so much, I ended up saving up my money and quitting my full-time job at the end of 2017 to give myself the time and space in 2018 to focus on my business. I don't know where this second year will take Dirt Alley Design, but I have many ideas ahead including improving the SEO of our site, growing our social media following, blogging, and of course, creating new art!

Check back in 2019 to find out what worked for me in year two! 

Do you run your own business? Have anything to add about what worked for you starting out? Leave a comment and share your advice!

About Dirt Alley Design

Michelle Chandra, founder, Dirt Alley DesignDirt Alley Design was founded just off a dirt alley in San Francisco in December of 2016 by artist Michelle Chandra. Inspired by the beauty of street grids, Michelle invented maze maps in which she transforms street grids into mazes. 

My maze art isn't just decorative art for your home, it's a real puzzle maze you can solve (if you dare!) I think my maze maps are pretty cool, but don't take just my word for it! My maze maps have been featured in LaughingSquidThe Creator's Project, Untapped Cities and UpOutSF.

artist process small business tips

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