Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Passion. Perseverance. Possibilities. is a new series from Vistaprint following the pursuits of ambitious small business owners.
“Being a small business owner, you definitely have to push yourself. It’s nerve-wracking and you can burn out, but I think more than anything…it’s always exciting.”
Leaving a full-time job to pursue a passion project is a risk for anyone…but Elizabeth Jean Younce, an artist based in Los Angeles, says it’s the best decision she ever made.
Elizabeth Jean launched Mustard Beetle Handmade in 2015, shortly before beginning a Master’s program in printmaking. After earning an MFA, she moved to Los Angeles with her husband and landed a Lithography printer position at one of the country’s most iconic printing studios.
Balancing a corporate job with her creative pursuits proved challenging. Instead of printing her own creations, she was spending upwards of 40 hours a week printing work for other artists.
“I was coming home unhappy every day…then working on the small business stuff until midnight, getting five hours of sleep, and then taking the bus an hour to work.”
Making the leap
Tired of feeling unfulfilled, she made the decision to quit her corporate job. Since then, Elizabeth Jean has been able to release new products, secure more wholesale accounts, perform workshops, and expand custom printing services.
Now, she gets to illustrate the designs herself and print her own artwork…instead of executing someone else’s vision.
“Of course, I was scared when I initially decided to quit my full-time job and dive into my small business. I knew that although it was really scary, I was making this leap in my life. A lot of exciting things have happened since then. I’ve never looked back.“
A personal touch.
Keeping the business small is one of Elizabeth Jean’s aims. She and her husband produce all of Mustard Beetle’s merchandise in their cozy home studio.
Elizabeth Jean is inspired by nature, and the designs for her brand are focused on flora and fauna. Her highly-detailed illustrations and understated color palette make everything from hand-dyed tote bags to one-of-a-kind patches feel distinctively “Mustard Beetle.”
“The brand is called Mustard Beetle Handmade because I actually make all these things myself. It’s not farmed out to some big corporation or some big warehouse. I think that’s a big philosophy for us that these are handcrafted, small-batch products.”
These days, Mustard Beetle is generally a well-oiled machine. They sell products via Etsy, and Elizabeth Jean and her husband go back and forth between printing custom orders, designing new products, and packaging orders.
They also attend a number of major craft fairs each year and time their new product release schedule around fair season. Since they’ve been participating in craft fairs since 2015, the couple has developed a standard set-up system. They almost always bring a tent, handmade wooden displays, and essential marketing materials like business cards and postcards.
“The events we participate in are always exhilarating! Since you’re meeting and marketing yourself towards so many people, it’s inevitable that other projects come about. You simply never know who you’ll meet or what will come about from just showing up and representing your work.”
Since Elizabeth Jean does all of Mustard Beetle’s printing in-house, she’s able to offer a wide range of custom products and services. “In-person events help us promote all of these with ease. As a result, after a seasonal fair we typically end up with new clients.”
In addition to Mustard Beetle, Elizabeth Jean also operates a self-titled fine art practice. She has exhibited her artistic work at galleries all over the world.
“I believe you can be a business owner and a fine artist simultaneously. It’s just a bit of a juggle. My small business practice and my fine art inform each other in a lot of ways. I think I get a lot of ideas from one when I’m doing the other.”
She says that she pours all of her blood, sweat, and tears into her fine art…and switches gears to something a little more lighthearted when it’s time to screenprint and dye bandanas for Mustard Beetle. Because Elizabeth Jean works on so many things at once, she finds it relatively easy to stay inspired and not burn out.
In the future, Elizabeth Jean and her husband hope to break into the apparel space, get their product line into more brick-and-mortar stores, and secure more wholesale accounts.
Currently, Mustard Beetle merchandise is available in a few stores in the U.S. Since it’s still a two-person operation, Elizabeth Jean targets smaller businesses to ensure they can meet demand. But as Mustard Beetle continues to expand, she realizes she’ll have to adapt her production methods in the future.
“We’ve already begun to learn our limits a little bit. We used to buy blank cotton, cut it down into sections, botanically dye it, trim to size, hand-screenprint, and sew the edges of every single bandana. We quickly learned that unless we had an employee, this would just be impractical.”
Now, Elizabeth Jean and her husband continue to hand-dye and screenprint the bandanas themselves, but have them sewn in a fair-wage facility.
“Creating handmade, small batch, sustainable products is always at the root of Mustard Beetle and we never want to get away from that.”
Now or never
There’s no perfect time to start a business – Elizabeth Jean started Mustard Beetle in her mom’s dining room before moving across the country. She traded a regular paycheck for unpredictability. And she doesn’t regret a thing.
“There’s definitely some slow months. It definitely ebbs and flows but there’s always ways to make it work. My advice for someone who wants to start a small business, or just dive into their artistic career, would be to just go for it. You’re never going to have enough money in savings. You’re never going to have enough of a support system behind you. You’re never going to have enough product ready to do your first craft fair or start your online store or whatever it is. You just have to start from where you are.“