This is an interview done with Emily Kelley, the creator of E Kelley Design, read her story below! If you, or anyone you know, would like to be highlighted in The Zillennial Zine, shoot us an email at email@example.com or DM us on Instagram!
Q: Tell us your story! Who is behind E Kelley Design?
A: My name is Emily Kelley! Hence the business name “E. Kelley Design” … I know I know, super creative!
I started my little business with the hope of combining my 2 favorite things: art and music. I’ve been drawing and creating for as long as I can remember, and likewise have always had such a special connection to music. It took a lot of work for me to get to the place where I can confidently call myself a business owner/full-time artist, so I’ll start at the beginning! I went to college with absolutely no idea of what was going on or what I wanted to pursue. I looked into some of the Communications classes and extracurriculars that my college offered and realized that I kind of loved the idea of potentially working for a radio station someday, so I started down that route. I also joined every club possible … I had a campus radio show every week, worked on segments for the TV studio, and even wrote for the campus newspaper (I later went on to be hired as their Photographer/ Photo Editor for 3 years!) I ended up studying Public Relations, with a minor in Graphic Design. This might sound a little crazy, but I genuinely didn’t know what it looked like or meant to choose a creative career, so going to college and figuring that out was huge for me. The closer that I got to graduation, the more I realized that I loved graphic designing and didn’t want to stop. The August after graduation I accepted a full-time job at a small non-profit as their Marketing & Communications Coordinator where for 3 years I learned so much about what it looked like for me to be a professional. But then, COVID happened. Just like the rest of the world, I had no idea what was happening, and my job started to feel less and less secure. In April 2020 the nonprofit shut down, suspending all operations and laying off all staff. It was so sudden and it left me feeling pretty lost for a long time. The one thing I knew in all of this was that whatever was next for me (professionally) had to be something creative.
One day I dusted off my iPad that I had gotten a few years back and I started drawing. Every single day I challenged myself to draw something new. I knew that if I wanted a career in social media or design, I needed the portfolio to show for it. A few of my friends encouraged me to take some of the things that I was drawing and sell them. Honestly, at that point, my unemployment compensation was running out, and I didn’t have any promising job leads… I had to make money somehow, so I gave it a try! I had always thought about starting an Etsy shop but never had the time to dedicate to figuring it out. So, what better time than during a pandemic? I bought a photo printer off of a friend, ordered a bunch of supplies off Amazon, and got started. I opened my Etsy on August 6, 2020, with around 15 products and have since grown to 200+ products and no sign of slowing down. In January 2021, I officially filed an LLC and became a full-time business owner!
Q: Tell me about the Taylor Swift challenge and how it has impacted your business.
A: Around the time that I was getting ready to open my Etsy, Taylor Swift dropped an album (folklore) out of nowhere. At this point, I had been drawing something every day for 2 months and was slowly running out of inspiration. I am a huge fan of Taylor, so this album really felt like the perfect burst of creative energy that I needed to keep going. I ended up creating a little drawing to represent each song off of folklore, made it into a poster, and added it to Etsy. Honestly, my hope was that it would show up in the “Taylor Swift” search results on Etsy and therefore drive more traffic/sales to my shop. One night before falling asleep, I posted a video on TikTok to show off the poster, not thinking anything of it. I woke up the next morning to 60 new orders and thousands of likes on that one video. I was absolutely NOT prepared! (in the best way of course!) + I was getting DM’s and comments asking me to make more for her other albums… and I absolutely loved the idea.
Now that I’d had a taste of “going viral” on TikTok, I wanted to do it again. If I was going to create a poster for each Taylor Swift album, why not share that process on TikTok? I started the series on September 6, 2020, by posting a process video of me drawing “betty,” one of the song songs on folklore. It blew up. I was gaining followers very quickly and getting hundreds of comments asking for specific songs. That’s when I decided that I couldn’t just draw something small for every song. I was going to have to put all of my energy into each piece. These are songs that mean a lot to people, and I’m obsessed with the idea of being able to hang your favorite songs on your wall. Even though I initially gained a following by illustrating Taylor Swift’s discography, people have been super supportive of everything I do and are just as excited about me expanding my brand as I am. I love Taylor Swift and I plan on creating things for the Swiftie community for a long time, but I am eager to take all of the things I’ve learned from this project and apply them to bigger projects in the future!
Q: What is it like to own a small business? Is it challenging at times? Is it rewarding?
A: I would absolutely be lying if I said it wasn’t challenging. There is so much that goes into it that I didn’t necessarily realize when I started. When you own a business, you really do wear a ton of different hats—from accounting, social media management, marketing, operations, packing orders, restocking inventory, to creating new content, and paying taxes. I want to create new things all of the time and constantly put out new products, but a lot of my time is taken up by all of those behind-the-scenes things that no one gets to see. When you don’t have any firsthand experience in that, it can all be very overwhelming and challenging. I am also someone that thrives on having a routine. When you own a small business, you have to create that for yourself. It’s so easy to want to take a day or a week off, and even though we all need a break once in a while, you have to be self-motivated enough to be able to get back into it. No one is there to hold you accountable or make sure you’re actually working!
On the flip side, it absolutely is rewarding. It’s been refreshing getting to create my own schedule and work the hours that I feel most creative. Even a year later, I can’t get over how kind and supportive people are. The messages I get on a daily basis thanking me for creating something so meaningful always remind me why I’m doing this. There are a couple dozen people out there with tattoos of the things I’ve drawn, and thousands of people with my work hanging on their wall. It’s so surreal and genuinely leaves me speechless every time I think about it. I am forever grateful for everyone that has supported me.
Q: Do you have any advice for someone who is starting their own small business?
A: As cliche as this is going to sound, you just have to do it. Make a list of things you need to start, and start. Just be open to learning because you are going to be doing a lot of it. But you don’t need to have it all figured out before you launch. If you want it enough and put in the work, it’ll get easier as you go. Just like any new thing that you do for the first time, there are a lot of learning curves. Do what you love, but find a way to be original with it. I’ve found that people are more excited to buy something or support a business when it’s something different and exciting that they’ve never seen before.
Seek out a community of other small business owners that do something similar! I have a small group of like-minded people that I can go to for advice or to run ideas off of and it can be really fruitful even during the worst creative blocks.
Q: What are 3 of your favorite items in your shop right now?
A: My illustration for Taylor Swift’s song “All Too Well.”
These 3 street sign stickers inspired by different lyrics from Taylor Swift songs.
This skeleton cowboy sticker because I love spooky season!!!!
Q: Anything else you would like to add or want our readers to know?
A: I always try to make myself as available as possible to other artists or business owners that may need a 2nd opinion, have questions about where to get supplies, or need a little extra push to get started on something new. My DM’s on everything are always open! (@ekelleydesign). Thank you for shopping small and for supporting your friends in their creative endeavors!
Go Check Out E. Kelley Design!
The TS Project: https://www.ekelleydesign.com/the-ts-project