Art Comes Off the Wall and Becomes a Profitable Business


Interview with Brandy Smith, co-owner with Kellie Denso, of Zen Threads

  1. When you studied art in College, what was your career plan?
    My goal in attending college was simply to get a degree. I chose a major by process of elimination, discarding all of the majors that didn’t appeal to me and deciding on art, which I always loved. My parents were not encouraging of art as a career. Halfway through my sophomore year, I thought about taking the more practical graphic design classes but I was determined to study two-dimensional drawing and painting. I never considered that I could make a living selling my art work. I thought about teaching but figured I would get an art degree and figure out a job later. I considered philosophy as a major and took some classes but returned to art, my true passion. I graduated from CSU Sacramento in 1999 with a Bachelor of Arts in Art Studio.

  3. How successful had you been selling your art work prior to your business?
  4. I came out of college, like most graduates, without a career plan using my degree. During college, I worked at a coffee shop where I was able to display some of my art work. My first sale was to one of the customers who bought two pieces for about $300. I studied graphic design on my own, read a book on Photoshop, did some tutorials and built a website for displaying and selling my art. I also had a show at a gallery in downtown Sacramento but I had minimal success.

  5. Where did the idea come for starting Zen Threads? Had you ever thought of starting a business prior to this?
  6. A friend and I had played with the idea of opening a retail store but I thought it was a pipe dream. My friend, who was more serious about the idea, found an available storefront in a cool location in downtown Sacramento with reasonable rent and the idea became a reality. We each invested $4,000 of our personal funds and Gurlie Door opened in 2004. We sold organic clothing, t-shirts and items we both liked.

    I had always loved and worn vintage t-shirts and spent hours shopping thrift stores looking for unique t-shirts. At the same time I was co-owner of Gurlie Door, I came up with the idea of printing my art work on t-shirts as a creative outlet and for my own personal use. I watched YouTube videos to teach myself how to screen print. Then, I purchased a screen printing machine for $50 and an art store screen printing kit for $100. It was definitely a trial and error process, with more errors than successes and I wasn’t pleased with my efforts.

    On a lark, I put a few of the t-shirts I had made in the store—none of them sold. Despite our best effort, and working long hours, the store wasn’t profitable and we realized we had to close the store. After the store closed in 2005, I worked at a bed and breakfast establishment.

    I was still interested in making my own t-shirts so I upgraded my screen print equipment. I bought a single press board with a lever—no electricity needed. It was like printing a photograph–you burned an image on a screen and then rinsed it out. This was very primitive methodology and I quickly realized I needed better equipment. I was already selling personal items on Ebay to supplement my income, as my screen printing skills and equipment improved, I decided to try to sell my t-shirts on Ebay, as well. My first designs were an owl and an octopus.

  7. And how did you go from making your own t-shirts to starting a business?
  8. In 2009, I decided if I sold 10 shirts a week, I was going to take this “hobby” more seriously and when I hit that goal, I bought better equipment, created more designs and sales on Ebay snowballed and Zen Threads began out of our garage.
    A friend told me about a website that focused on hand crafted items, Etsy, and I placed my
    t-shirts on that site, as well. I continued using Ebay but sales were higher on Etsy. Craftcount provides a list of 100 top sellers in categories. Zen Threads started at the bottom and we were able to track our ascent–we kept going higher and higher, which was very encouraging and made us realize that this could be a profitable business. As of January 2013, Zen Threads is #1 clothing seller and #6 seller in the handmade category on the Etsy website.

  9. How did you decide on the business name of Zen Threads?
  10. I had been working as a massage therapist before I became a t-shirt designer so I incorporated elements of both passions into Zen Threads.

  11. How did you finance your business at the beginning? How are you financing it now?
  12. We were and are still self-financed. At first, all of the profits went into new and better equipment and all of our business expenses. We still pay for all our business expenses from our profits, including our salaries and our employee’s salaries.

  13. I am aware that you are also selling your product in retail stores. How did you go about placing your products in the first store? How many stores sell your products currently?
  14. Retailers use Etsy to search for hand-made, original items to sell in their stores. Retailers contacted us, we didn’t contact them. We have a complete list of the retail stores that stock our products on our website. Currently, we are in 25 retail stores, in California, Oregon, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Alaska, and in Canada, a pretty diverse list of locales, warm and cold climates.

  15. So, your sales focus was on Ebay and Etsy, at what point was the decision made to offer your products on your own website? Who created and maintains your website?
    We launched the Zen Threads website at the same time as we started offering our products on Etsy. However, we found that it was very difficult to drive business to the Zen Threads’ website without a strong presence on the internet. Sales percentages for 2012 were approximately: 75% from Etsy, 10-15% from Ebay and 10-15% from Zen Threads, with a small percentage from the retail shops.

    For an online business to be profitable, you have to drive visitors to your site. I used Goggle to research as many free online advertising tips as I could find. I read dozens of blogs on starting an online business and that was very helpful. Our website can’t compete with the volume of Ebay and Etsy users but every business should have their own website.

    I use for Ebay and; both sites allow us to just plug in the information and listings and images.

  17. How did you market and advertise?
  18. We haven’t spent much money on advertising and marketing. We include a discount coupon with every order mailed to promote return business.

    Our target market is 28 to 40 year olds. Our original designs are printed on American Apparel t-shirts and our target market is familiar with that very popular brand and the quality of their products. Our environmentally concerned customers also appreciate the green printing process we use which, as our website states, is free from harmful environmental chemicals or solvents. Not only is it safer for the planet and our shop, but water-based inks look and feel like they’re part of the garment.

    We have invested our small marketing budget with search engine optimization (SLO) companies to provide the Zen Threads website with more visibility. We have used free social media, as well. Our Facebook page has 1,000 followers and we use Twitter for getting out our new designs and soliciting feedback. Esty makes marketing products on their site easy—when you list an item for sale on Esty, you can tweet from their site.

  19. How did Zen Threads’ pillows end up in the Skype Building, in a decorating magazine, and being showcased on Channel 4’s national morning show by HGTV’s Vern Yip?
  20. All from people who found us on Etsy and ordered our pillows:

    The interior designer for the Skype Building in Palo Alto, California, ordered a variety of our pillows, two of which are pictured on the apple green sofa in one of their lobbies:
    Our white pillow with red rooster was featured in the 10th issue of Standard Magazine, on page 17:
    And, our navy blue pillow with white whales was purchased by Vern Yip’s assistant and featured on a Kathy Lee and Hoda segment of Channel 4, The Today Show:

  21. How does it feel to see someone walking down the street with your art on their shirt?
  22. I haven’t seen anyone walking down the street wearing one of our t-shirts but I did see an actor on Showtime’s The Real L Word, wearing our bike rider with handlebar mustache shirt.
    Some other sightings of our t-shirts:

  23. When you started Zen Threads it was just you, and then your partner, Kellie Denso, came on board. When did you decide it was time to hire an employee?
  24. Two years ago, after the first Christmas rush, we knew we couldn’t do it alone any longer. We began with college interns but the need for consistency spurred us to hire a full-time employee.

  25. The upsides of owning your own business are pretty evident, but share some of the downsides.
  26. While the upsides far outweigh the downsides, as with everything in life, you have the ying and the yang. Now that we have moved the business out of our home, there is more balance in our lives, but when your business is home-based it is very difficult to detach from work, especially when you are passionate about what you are doing and care about your customers.

    Our new location (which, as you can see, is animal friendly):
    Keeping up with the volume of customer emails in an online business is essential. About 25% of the emails are customer questions, which are critical to sales, or their feedback, which helps us improve our products and our customer service. The fact that a customer would take the time to explain their problem or offer a suggestion is appreciated. Customer service is very important to me. I take it personally when someone has an issue with one of our products. Unfortunately, the problems are usually t-shirt sizing issues, which I can’t solve because Zen Threads doesn’t manufacture the t-shirts.

    Typical for retailers, 30% of our yearly income is derived from Cyper Monday, the start of Thanksgiving week, through December. We have two great employees and because of the insane hours we work during that period, followed by the returns and exchanges in January, we took them to New York City, before the craziness started, as a way of validating their hard work and loyalty. Treating employees as valuable team members pays off. Prior to hiring full-time employees, we had absolutely no down time, even on vacation, the business went with us. Now, we can disconnect from work and take a proper vacation confident that our employees are capable of running the business without us.

  27. What work task do you enjoy the most?
  28. All of my designs are done electronically using Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, which I taught myself to use. My favorite part of the business is creating our new designs, and when they sell it is great. But when my designs aren’t successful, like the polar bear I thought would do so well but didn’t, my business and artistic ego can get a little bruised. We now have more than 70 designs that do sell well so I bounce back pretty quickly when a design doesn’t work out. It also enjoyable to fill the custom orders that we offer on the Zen Threads website.

  29. The audience for this blog is entrepreneurial college and high school students who have an idea for a business they are going to pursue — what advice would you, as a successful business owner, like to share with them?
    • If you are going to start an online business – use all of the free resources that are available and which have a huge search visibility–Twitter, Facebook. Search out and try the free search engine optimization (SEO) websites that will get your website out there.
    • Networking is invaluable. Interestingly, sellers on Etsy support one another. If one of the sellers comes up with a good idea they will share it on our online community site and see if anyone can improve on their idea; if a seller finds cheaper shipping, they will post the information. Etsy sellers try to make the site better for everyone.
    • If you will be selling online, your product photographs = sales. Invest in a good camera. When photographs are all customers can see—they can’t pick up or touch or try on your product—your photographs have to be good because that is what sells your product.
    Don't forget to like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter

By Melody Vaught

Melody Vaught, an adjunct counselor and counseling instructor at Santa Ana College, Santiago Canyon College, and a former instructor for the Youth Entrepreneurship Program. She holds a Masters Degree in Educational Counseling and is a speaker on college and career topics. If you would like to read more articles by melody please visit the sites below: The Three P’s of Soft Skills How To Network Like a Working Girl The Work Email Addict

Comments (1)

  1. I became aware of Zen Threads when they were introduced on the TODAY Show about a year ago. I was extremely impressed at that time and now I am even more inspired after reading about the evolution of this amazing company. Your story is a wonderful echo of what it takes to be successful. Persistence, planning and hard work clearly have blossomed for Zen Threads. It truly seems like a dream that has become a profitable and rewarding, environmentally sound business. This is a wonderful success story!
    Suzi in Sacramento


Leave a reply

Join the discussion, leave a reply!

HTML: You may use these HTML tags and attributes:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>