I am really excited to have an interview with Kathy Weller from WellerWishes.
I must have contacted Kathy a year or two ago and asked if she would consider doing an interview about licensing her cute design and illustrations. As it was still early days for Kathy licensing her work she told me she would be happy to do an interview when she had a bit more experience behind her.
So for any designer or illustrator looking to license their work, read on to get some great advice on how to go about it.
1. Please could you tell me a little bit about yourself, your background and what you do now?
My name is Kathy Weller. My studio is called WellerWishes. I am an illustrator, designer, greeting card writer and artist, and product thinker-upper. I specialize in creating characters, making them the stars of my busy, “big scene” illustrations, and also writing humor for them.
I work with manufacturers, and I create art and product ideas for their products. I also maintain my own online portal site / shop / blog called WellerWishes World of Cute Art. (www.wellerwishesworld.com). My biggest dream, goal and wish is to spread my Cute Art all over the world! (I’m getting there!)
2. Please could you tell me when and why you decided you wanted to license your work?
Well, I have had a unusual awareness of product art from a very early age. It was on my toys, stuffed animals, Hello Kitty mini-stationery, sheets and pillow cases. Lots of art and lots of character. I just remember being very aware of it and being a little obsessed with it. But also, I drew all the time as a kid. Drawing was just my world. I even made up my first cute character at age three or four, complete with a style sheet on how to draw him. I know, very odd! So all of that is sort of an early clue that points directly to my life now.
As a grown-up, I’ve worked in a number of creative fields: sales + marketing design and illustration, freelance children’s illustration, custom pet portraiture, and earlier on, my first foray into self-employment was a tiny greeting card company. But I was always fascinated by product art, character art & humor, and the greeting card industry. (And, I continued to dream about doing cards on a larger scale, long after I closed shop on my indie card company.)
There is much more information and guidance available on how to break into various niche illustration fields these days. But, with art licensing, it was basically shrouded in skeleton-key mystery until the mid-2000’s (when the web hit a new phase of mainstream saturation). In fact I only discovered that the terminology for this industry was “Art Licensing” in late 2005! But when I did, I instinctively knew that I had to find out how to start working in it.
So I made plans to attend the 2006 Surtex/National Stationery Show and Licensing International. At both shows, I walked the show floors, and I took tons of seminars. During this time, I was working full-time as a graphic designer and illustrator, had a busy custom pet portrait business, and was also in the process of finally breaking into children’s publishing illustration. So, I had a lot going on. For the next few years, I juggled these various activities while my licensing goals were still alive, but on the back-burner.
Then in 2009, my mother had a devastating stroke. This horrific event led me to reprioritize everything, pretty immediately. It turned out to be the wake-up call I needed to refocus my creative energies, put my foot down and stop spreading myself so thin doing a million different things. I needed to be honest, get real, and focus on what I really wanted to do, be brave, get in the mud and pursue it! Life is short and nothing is guaranteed. If you’re lucky enough to have solid dreams and goals you want to build, there is no time to waste. My mom’s stroke snapped me awake to this fact, loud and clear. So, I made a decision to wrap up other activities by the end of 2009 so 2010 could be all about art licensing. I spent 2009 mostly with my mother in the hospital and rehab, doing the occasional craft show with my sister (which was a really necessary, and fun, distraction at the time), and wrapping up my pet portraiture business. The last thing I did was resign from working with my children’s illustration agent in early 2010. Since that time, I’ve been focused on my art licensing/character art/greeting card/social expressions goals.
3. How did you first start trying to license you work – what was the process?
Well, I had gained a lot of insight into the process by attending those shows in 2006, so I put a lot of the advice I’d learned to use. I also hired an art licensing consultant in 2008 to gain more one-on-one insights and more individualized feedback. I then started creating work that I thought would be appropriate for the areas in licensing that I thought were right for my style, and I started approaching manufacturers as well as agents.
4. What did you do right and wrong in your early licensing endeavors?
A ton! I am a work in progress, as is everyone. No mistakes? You’re a robot. You just have to find your way on an individual level. There is no one-size-fits-all Playbook. There is a ton of information out there these days, though— lots of e-books, and the ones I’ve read have been mostly very helpful, and some I’d heartily recommend. But ultimately, there’s only so much learning that happens from reading other’s experiences and how-to’s. There comes a time when you have to live your own.. You get to where you just have to do it. I will admit that I got stuck in the “learning cog” for a little while. It’s safer and more comfortable to learn and read and study and dream then it is to daringly jump in with both feet and just do it. I was nervous and scared! But, finally, I sucked it up and jumped in. And once I did, it felt really amazing. I was immensely proud of myself, and it was so empowering!
5. How do you present work to a potential company you wanted to license to? (how many pieces, how many styles, by email? etc)
If it’s a company I want to work with, I will usually email them first, provided I have the right person and email address. If I don’t, I need to make an initial phone call to obtain that information.
I do like to do a first intro through email as opposed to over the phone though, because people are so busy. Email is far less intrusive and way more flexible for people to digest. The flip-side is, you can get lost in the email shuffle. You just have to use your best judgement on how and when to follow up with them. If I get a positive response from my email, a phone call usually follows in short order!
There is no denying that cold calls can be extremely effective though. I am just careful about the who, what, when, where, and why. If I make a call as first contact, I just make sure I am as prepared as I can possibly be. 🙂
What you send out as samples is really wholly dependent on the specific client and their needs. They will usually share what they need with you, if you ask. Sometimes they’ll be more specific, sometimes more vague. Then, I will see what I have that fits. Depending on their deadline for samples, I will then decide what else I can do to accommodate them further. This is usually gets to be a smoother process the longer I work with a client. Once you know your people well and have your system down, it’s easier to anticipate things before they come up, and to accommodate them when they do!
I love to meet people in person. I know that is not always possible, but usually manufacturers will attend at least one show a year. Trade shows are great for meeting up with people who you’d like to work with, or, who you already are working with, or people you’ve been emailing with and submitting work to. Nothing beats face-to-face meeting! So keep the relationship alive, whether or not you’re actually working with them yet. If there’s good potential and you really like each other, invite them to your booth to peruse your latest and greatest designs, and to see what new product lines they have going that you might be able to help them with!
6. Do you use, or have you used an licensing agent and why? What are the pros and cons of this?
I currently have a licensing agent in Japan. In all other territories, I represent myself. In licensing, I’ve worked non-exclusively with a couple of art licensing agents sporadically over the past couple of years, and before that, I had an agent for my children’s illustration work from 2007-2010.
I think having an agent can be extremely great! But it has to be the right place, time, overall fit. The agent/artist relationship is a serious one. Licensing agents generally earn 50% so you truly are partners. You want to be sure it will be a mutually beneficial and rewarding relationship!
Before you sign with an agent, get to know their business. Understand the markets they serve. Learn which companies they tend to work with, the markets they serve, and the aesthetic + thematic genres they specialize in. Does their work favor specific demographics?
Now, turn the tables. Would THEY be a good fit with YOUR brand, as your brand stands today? Where would you hope to go together as partners in your brand?
Talk to other artists in their roster. (If they have a problem with this, run, don’t walk, in the other direction.) Would your work + style be a compliment to their overall group? Would your work offer variety and a spark of fresh, new ideas, while still fitting comfortably into the genres they serve? Or, is your work, just a little too similar to another of their current artists? An agent might cultivate a roster that offers a lot of variety within a pretty specific art genre so keep that on your radar when looking at potential agents, but don’t get too bogged down in the details.
Ultimately, there are a million reasons why you may or may not a great fit for a particular agent. They are the only ones who can tell you that. But I will leave you with this: if you hear or read a “No”, please pay attention to the entire paragraph, not just that one word. A “No” today may not mean “No” forever. Sometimes it does, but sometimes it doesn’t. Are they telling you something else, too? What else are you picking up from the rest of the message?
Turn over every rock you feel you need to. It’s integral to do a lot of back-and-forth and get to know each other before partnering with an agent. And… go with your gut.
7. Can you remember the first designs you licensed, what were they, and how did it feel?
I don’t think it was officially my first, but still, receiving the first pieces of my Jive Cats fabric collection with Northcott Fabrics was nothing less than thrilling. I’d always wanted to do fabric, and here it was, complete with my very own kitty cat characters, that I created. It was magic!
8. What is your favourite bit of work you have licensed?
The Jive Cats puzzle I did for Andrews + Blaine sticks out in my head as true symbiosis of art, product and function. It’s a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle, and the puzzle art is mind-boggling, eye-crossing puzzle perfection. It’s a super-challenging puzzle— easily the hardest jigsaw puzzle I have ever done—and I did the art!. But, I love how it turned out, down to the packaging: a sturdy, well-made slide-out box with a satin ribbon pulley! Too cute! (http://www.thejivecats.com/ )
All work featured above is copyright © Kathy Weller
Find out more about Kathy and her work at WellerWishes, on her blog at www.wellerwishesworld.com, on Twitter @wellerwishes and Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/WellerWishes-Illustration-Design-Kathy-Weller