[Case Study] How Sarah Adapted Marketing Best Practices for Her Unique Creative Business

By Sarah Pike, FreeFall Laser, did One-on-One Coaching

My business is a mix of solitary moments and time spent with artists, book binders, conservators, makers and visual artists. Every custom laser cutting project I work on is unique, and each creator I help is different, too.

While this variety is enjoyable at times, about three years ago I realized I needed to take more control of my business, with its peaks and valleys where projects were completed and newer ones were slower to come in. I wanted to grow my business, improve and expand my marketing efforts and become more effective at networking.

Finding a business coach seemed like the right step for me, and I still remember the day I googled “marketing coach in New York.” Ilise Benun’s name came up, and I discovered she had a podcast. I learned about her book, The Creative Professional’s Guide to Money, and bought it because I was interested in making more money, getting better with pricing and communicating my value in a more compelling way.

I realized I needed to take more control of my company — grow my business, improve and expand my marketing and become more effective at networking.

The podcast and book were my introduction to Ilise and her way of working, and I could tell we shared similar business philosophies. I was inspired by her advice and started up a newsletter, but I knew I needed to improve its messaging, developing a tone that was clear and concise and could grab people’s attention.

Soon I begin working with Ilise one-on-one. Initially, we focused on business gaps, including refining and tweaking my website messaging to better speak to my ideal client. I also wanted someone to be accountable to so I could be consistent with my marketing.

For my newsletter, Ilise helped me see that instead of filling it with business announcements, I could share my process, making it could be more meaningful and educational and delivering information my prospects and clients would want to read.

Ilise helped me develop a clear and straight-forward way of communicating that wasn’t so time-consuming and painful.

One of the early newsletter tasks was gathering names for my list. I built it slowly over time by adding people I already worked with and the new people I was introducing myself to through networking and cold-calling. For example, I collect business cards at vendor fairs and conferences and add those people to my list as part of my follow-up. I also get names and leads when prospects find me through my website. Though my mailing list isn’t large by some standards, I’ve built a list that’s invaluable to me.

Since I’d already been using Mailchimp to promote my personal studio practice as a printmaker, I was comfortable with the tool. The writing was the hard part. I agonized over what to say and it took me many hours to write a single email. Ilise helped me develop a clear and straight-forward way of communicating that wasn’t so time-consuming and painful.

Today, I’m actually excited about tackling my email newsletter each month because it’s no longer such a burden. It’s also more enjoyable because I’m taking on new and exciting projects. This new work gives me the chance to explain certain techniques to my newsletter audience, as well as showcase artists, makers and creatives who I work with and believe in.

One of my new target audiences is academia, college faculty members focused on teaching design and art. It’s a focus area I didn’t imagine I’d be serving a few years ago. It came about because faculty started contacting me when they had questions about laser cutting. (Ilise’s “generosity is a marketing tool” approach comes into play here.) By being open to answering the teachers’ emails, I realized there was a real educational gap I could fill. My Laser Cutting Boot Camp — a four-day intensive laser cutting training for faculty — is the result.

No surprise, educators make up a big part of my email list. It’s been rewarding to hear that some of the teachers share my newsletter with their students or include the content on their class website. My goal of sending meaningful and educational information fills a knowledge gap for them. They can learn about processes I use which, in turn, they share with tomorrow’s creators. This means a lot to me.

I’ve seen other benefits from being consistent with email marketing. Emails can prompt someone to get started on a project they’ve been thinking about. They also give me name recognition in the creative communities I’m part of. Now when I go to conferences, more people already know who I am, saying they receive my newsletter or follow me on Instagram.

With Ilise’s coaching, I also grew to become a master of repurposing content. I find that I can get double — sometimes triple — duty out of my blog and newsletter content. What starts as a newsletter article becomes a case study or handout for conferences I attend. Getting more mileage from my marketing is actually motivating.

Today, I’m more excited about tackling my email newsletter each month because it’s no longer such a burden.

No matter how many emails I send out or how much content repurposing I do, I’m still reminded that marketing takes time. When I make the first contact (a studio visit, a conference connection or send a warm email), it usually takes 1–2 years for them to become a client.

I focus on the quality of the conversation and engagement and not whether they immediately become a client. This requires much faith in the process, as well as being comfortable with delayed gratification.

I’ve made other improvements over these past three years of working with Ilise. By nature, I’m a quiet introvert who often gets exhausted working with people. But today I find these interactions easier to manage. Now I can attend a vendor fair, engage with people in a sincere, relaxed way and although I feel tired at the end, I am no longer totally worn out. I credit Ilise for helping me with this and also realize my growth comes from newfound confidence in handling a variety of situations.

Ilise’s way of doing things and my outlook mesh so well, especially when it comes to how generosity begets generosity. Last November, when I planned to attend a furniture conservation conference in Amsterdam, I contacted some of the U.S. attendees in advance to see if they were interested in celebrating Thanksgiving with me. I would have never done anything like this before. But the time it took helping everyone connect turned out to be worthwhile, as we all enjoyed our holiday away from home.

Another thing I do when I travel to conferences is to find local artists and ask if I can visit their studios. What I’ve learned through these experiences is that studio visits have the highest success rate of turning into prospects into clients and they usually become clients more quickly. Plus, these artist-to-artist connections keep me excited about the work I do and happy with my growing network.

With all my travels (about four to five conferences each year), following up with people regularly demands my attention. I haven’t automated things fully yet and still feel like I’m reinventing the wheel. But Ilise encourages me to streamline my prep work (what to always take with me), what questions I’ll ask people I meet, what makes the most sense to follow up with — and then doing the actual follow-up. (It can take up a lot of my time!)

Working consistently with Ilise has been a big part of my journey and the contentment I feel running my own business. And for that I’m deeply grateful.

I hope my story helps you overcome any barriers you face with marketing and networking.

Here’s what I learned from having a business coach:

  • Marketing is integral to your business and needs regular focus. In the past, most everything connected to marketing felt painful and I tended to avoid it. Today, I just embrace the work and don’t try to wish it away. I see marketing’s value and want to keep progressing.
  • Introverts can become great marketers! It takes time and practice to become more comfortable selling yourself, but you can get there. I continue to strengthen my marketing muscle and no longer feel so vulnerable when I reach out to people. This confidence helps me build stronger, more genuine connections with clients and prospects.
  • Email marketing will build your reputation and brand. If your business is new or if you believe your network’s too small, regular outreach can improve your status. If you want to become the go-to person for fill-in-the-blank (for me, it’s fine art laser cutting), email marketing will play a role in cementing that reputation.
  • Individual marketing efforts will add up to make a difference. When I share what I do today with other business owners, my marketing efforts sometimes come across as too time-consuming to them. But I do a lot of small things that add up over time and reap the combined rewards. I know that marketing is an energy force in my business, and I couldn’t have said that three years ago!

I’ve gone through a huge transformation working with Ilise. If I had tried doing it all on my own, I wouldn’t have gone as far as quickly — and likely would have put my marketing efforts to the side instead of being consistent.

My greatest wish when I left academia to start my own business was that the life lessons in the next chapter of my life would be motivated by joy instead of pain. Building my business has stretched me in ways I never could have imagined. It’s had its challenges, but I know that comes with the territory.

Working consistently with Ilise has been a big part of my journey and the contentment I feel running my own business. And for that I’m deeply grateful.

If this sounds like the kind of guidance you need too, reach out to Ilise at marketing-mentor.com or, if you haven't already, take advantage of the free mentoring session she offers.

Sarah Pike is an artist and owner of FreeFall Laser in the culturally rich Berkshires region of western Massachusetts. Her fine-art laser cutting studio offers premium, custom laser-cutting to artists and artisans, as well as bootcamps for book artists, printmakers and other creative professionals.