The Art of Business: Nicole Lewis Cashes in on Colorful Creations with Art 2 the Extreme®
Peter Lynch, the American investor, mutual fund manager, and author, has a famous phrase: “Never invest in any idea you can’t illustrate with a crayon.”
Great advice, especially for someone like Nicole Lewis, whose business is crayons. She initially started Art 2 the Extreme to supplement her teacher’s salary. Now the company sells more than 50 products, many featured by A-list celebrities on the pages of the world’s most popular magazines. What started as a simple idea for recycling crayons has grown into an ecommerce hit and will soon be expanding to wholesale and big box stores. This colorful success story shows that business is an art form, and no one illustrates it better than the teacher-turned-entrepreneur who started it all.
What is Art 2 the Extreme® and why did you start the company?
Art 2 the Extreme® is a specialty crayon company that provides unique art supplies and gifts for a variety of ages. The company is best known for its Personalized Name Original Rainbow Crayons® and customization for business logos and special events.
I first started the company in 2007 as a hobby to supplement my teaching income. I left teaching in 2014 when my first son was born, and Art 2 the Extreme® became my full-time job. The company has afforded me the lifestyle to stay at home with my children, make an income, and pursue my passion.
What life experiences led you to where you are today?
I always was obsessed with art. I was drawing, painting, and taking music lessons from a young age. My parents enrolled me in any art or craft camp I could find. If there was not one, I organized my own. As a freshman in high school, I even organized my own weeklong community art camp that had 10 students. I knew I wanted to be a teacher by the time I reached second grade. My mother encouraged me to combine my love for art and teaching with an Art Education degree from Ball State University.
As a young child, I saw my father build a company from scratch and loved seeing the passion and rewards that come from hard work. I think his drive and persistence rubbed off and inspired me to grow my own company.
In addition to learning almost every art and craft imaginable, I love to travel and seek out opportunities to learn from others, both in the business and crafting world. I try to attend at least one major conference a year to stay current on the latest trends in everything from social media to the Color of the Year.
The marketing and publicity you’ve received would be a dream for most companies. How did you earn such great coverage and how did it affect your business?
I am proud to say that I do all my own publicity! Who knows the business better than yourself? Mostly it is the result of time spent developing relationships with magazines, celebrities, and my connections in the industry.
I spend a few days a year pitching to magazines that may be interested in my unique products. Our handmade crayon was featured in more than 30 publications last year as a result. I have been in People, Food Network Magazine, Good Housekeeping, US Weekly (check out the article), Midwest Living, and Redbook, to name a few.
While print features may not deliver a ton of sales at first, they bring credibility and trust, which is INCREDIBLY important when introducing a new product or brand that consumers may not be familiar with. Many buyers love supporting small businesses but may not know a company like mine exists as an alternative to the traditional crayons and drawing supplies. This is why coverage is so important. We are 100% bootstrapped, so I have not spent money on traditional advertising. The strategy has worked so far.
Art 2 the Extreme® started as your “side hustle” and now is a full-time job. What was your vision for the company originally and how has that changed over time?
When I started, I was a teacher and looking for ways to recycle crayons while creating a fun and functional crayon. I had several students who could not hold a traditional crayon and my adaptive art supplies helped solve several problems I saw in my own classroom.
When my husband and I decided to start our family, we were looking for ways to pay for daycare and avoid driving two hours a day to work. Leaving teaching to pursue Art to the Extreme® was the obvious choice at the time. However, I never thought it was going to be as big as it is today.
About four years ago, the “business” side of my operation really started to click. Once I adjusted a few things, the sales started flowing in – so much that we could not keep up with demand. I remember Holiday 2017 like it was yesterday. It was both exciting and frustrating because I could not produce anywhere near the demand for the holidays. I sold out many products the first week of November. Luckily, customers that placed orders more than a month in advance did not mind too much that products were not arriving until a week before Christmas because of how backed up we were. I had friends, family, and neighbors working around the clock in our basement helping with everything from peeling crayons to shipping and postal drops.
The best change so far was when my husband left his job in education in October 2018 to work in the business. We understood our production struggles and did not want a repeat of the previous year. We were able to almost double our sales in 2018 and saw even stronger growth in 2019.
How are you scaling Art 2 the Extreme®? Where do you see the company in one year? How about in five years?
Scaling Art 2 the Extreme® will allow us to produce more product to keep up with demand. We are moving to a new production facility and studio in late spring 2020 and hopefully bringing on a few employees during our holiday rush. We have an additional opportunity developing that we hope to make public by the end of the year.
In one year, we plan to have our new studio running full force with the additional goal of opening to wholesale. Within five years, we are working to get a few of our top products into big box stores.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome with Art 2 the Extreme® and how are you doing it?
The biggest challenge with Art 2 the Extreme® is wrestling how to strategically expand the company while successfully maintaining a work-life balance. I wear so many hats (social media, packing, shipping, production, public relations) and look forward to bringing on some individuals to help ease the workload so I can focus on the areas that I perform best.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received as an entrepreneur? What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs?
The best advice I have received has been to invest in relationships and network, network, network. Not necessarily with the intent of pitching and “sales talk,” but to offer services to others in a way that is mutually beneficial.
Instead of spending money on advertising to raise awareness of the company, I have dedicated time to meeting new people, face to face, for the purpose of collaboration and bouncing ideas off one another. I have created partnerships and collaborations that build my brand and company as much as it does theirs. I have worked with Sephora, Marco Polo, The Crayon Collection, Microsoft, Pandora, The Oprah Winfrey Network, and several other brands.
My personal advice is don’t be afraid to ask – ask for help, ask for advice, ask for opportunities. Just go for it! A lot of my success with marketing and publicity has been from simply asking. I ask if any art supplies are needed for an event. I ask if a magazine needs ideas for stocking stuffers. I ask local schools if they need crayons that I am no longer using. I ask artist friends about collaborating on new crayon designs. Each one of these examples opens a connection and expands my reach and the awareness of my business. A simple “How can I help you,” turns into a “Here is how you can help me” in the future.
What have been the most valuable resources in your entrepreneurial journey that other founders should know about?
My close-knit community of small business friends have been so important in my entrepreneurial journey. They are like a rolodex of knowledge and fill in gaps where I am lacking experience or knowledge in an area. Being part of The Startup Ladies this year is a huge step in the right direction for me to learn about the not-so-glamorous aspects of scaling a business and points me in the right direction of services and individuals that can help my company grow.
I also recommend the book Company of One: Why Staying Small is the Next Big Thing for Business.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned transitioning from art teacher to art entrepreneur?
The work-life balance is a struggle for anyone working from home that has a family. I enjoy (almost) every moment of it and am extremely grateful that I play, teach, and grow with them each day. But there is a flawed mentality of little things like “If I just stay up for one more hour, I can get <insert word here> done.” The reality is that the one hour turns into three and then the time saved by working extra one night does not necessarily save time the next day because there is always something else.
You’ve mentioned many 2 a.m. crayon-making sessions. What mantra keeps you going?
This may sound silly, but when it is 2 a.m. and I am in the studio, I tell myself to be like Dory and “just keep swimming.” Especially during the long days and nights around Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Easter. I try to keep a “one foot in front of the other” attitude. I know that I eventually will come up for air when the holiday seasons die down. Vacations after a busy season are our family reward. For now, I take everything one day at a time and truly believe that things happen when they are meant to, but you can bump it along with a clear head and a lot of hard work!
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