Transforming a hobby into a small business takes preparation, passion and faith. On this episode of “The Heartbeat of Main Street,” Karen Anderson shares the story of her company, Tiny Doors ATL, and its evolution from a personal art project into a successful business and local phenomenon. Karen takes listeners behind the scenes of her journey, offering advice to anyone looking to turn their passion into a business.
“The Heartbeat of Main Street” delivers timely insights tailored to the needs of small business owners and entrepreneurs. Featuring a rotating line-up of small business experts and industry leaders – and covering a range of topics – each episode explores the trends that have an impact on revenue creation for small business owners.
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Gregg Stebben: Welcome to “The Heartbeat of Main Street” with ForbesBooks and Bank of America. I am here with Karen Anderson, she's the principal artist and director of the company, Tiny DoorsATL. The website is tinydoorsatl.com, on Facebook and Instagram @TinyDoorsATL. Karen, I'm gonna let you explain what you do, I'm just gonna explain that the ATL part stands for Atlanta. You're on your own for explaining the Tiny Doors part. Welcome and tell us about your business, Tiny DoorsATL.
Karen Anderson: Hi, thanks for having me. I'm really excited to be here. Tiny DoorsATL is a fun little thing to try to explain to people and I think a lot of small business owners have this issue of the elevator speech, how exactly you explain what your ... what your thing is.
Gregg Stebben: Is it a tiny elevator door from Tiny Doors, for the tiny elevator pitch?
Karen Anderson: Yes, that's a perfect idea — I have made tiny elevator doors for a Marriott, actually, so that's a good little segue way. I went to art school, art school is not business school…it is just making art. They don't really teach you about the business of making art, and so it became something, I started making these tiny doors and then they started to get more and more demand for them. I found that I wanted my business model to be just making a few of what I was doing a year and making them matter.
Instead of taking that large-scale production I went with smaller scale and with a more impactful way about it. What I do is I make literally seven-inch doors, they're one inch to one foot, so it would be a seven-foot door to seven-inch door. It reflects and respects the neighborhood that's around it so it's gonna look like it belongs where it is, whether it's at the business or in a neighborhood, I try to make something that is interactive and feels like it belongs to the neighborhood. Does that make sense?
Gregg Stebben: And so we are literally talking about tiny doors, I just want to be clear about, and not just tiny doors, by the way. For instance, I'm looking at one, I think it's at either a pet food store or a doggy day care center. It's a tiny door with a tiny dog door in the tiny door and a tiny dog behind going through the tiny dog door. We actually find out there's this little secret or an Easter egg. It's actually a cat behind, not a dog behind.
What I love about what you just said is that you have a completely different — maybe you have to go to art school to come up with this — but you have a completely different take on supply and demand because, as you said, many businesses think you have to get bigger and do more and more to grow. What you actually did was decide to get smaller and to address supply and demand in a completely different way.
Karen Anderson: Yeah, and you know what's funny, is that I thought that didn't qualify me as a small business. I have an LLC, I am a small business, and I still didn't think of myself that way because I wasn't doing the more demand.
Gregg Stebben: There was no tiny door factory — you are the tiny door factory and there's only one of you.
Karen Anderson: Right. I'm an artist and this is my art that you're looking at. I do have some employees who work for me, I do have all the other things that a business would have, I just don't have a factory that makes a thousand tiny doors a year.
Gregg Stebben: Yes. So I guess I have to ask. I'm talking with Karen Anderson, she's the principal artist and director of Tiny DoorsATL. You can see the tiny doors at tinydoorsatl.com, the ATL part stands for Atlanta. She's on Facebook and Instagram @TinyDoorsATL. It is such a joy to go and look at the photos, it is so much fun, almost as much fun as I'm sure being there. There's a map of where you can tour the tiny doors in Atlanta, but I am hoping you will give us a little insight into the business model of your business. You've alluded to it, but I think, for some of us, it's a bit of a mystery how you could make a living, create a successful business, creating tiny doors and deliberately only creating a few.
Karen Anderson: Yeah, you know, it's certainly never been done before, and I followed the business model of a lot of other artists, say muralists, who can't make a thousand murals a year, but they can make 10 or 12 great murals a year. So, they look for 10 or 12 companies who are interested in commissioning. That's what has ended up happening with me, is that I get commissioned to do these doors, and then there's a lot of business that goes on around that.
I have a lot of merchandise that people buy, things like that, that aren't doors, and it also has led to public speaking, which is another part of the Tiny DoorsATL business. I do conferences and I do schools — it's been really fun to go talk to students who have seen the doors and are interested. There have been a few facets that this business has turned into rather than just being a door production factory. It's become meeting demands as they come up and really sticking with having the doors themselves be my resume rather than be a product you could buy off the shelf.
Gregg Stebben: You've said so many really great things here. One is, I actually want to direct our listeners back to “The Heartbeat of Main Street Podcast” because we did another interview that was really focused on what you just described, which is creating multiple profit centers. Again, it sounds like you've done a brilliant job of that, merchandising things around the doors, merchandising yourself as a speaker. There's probably all kinds of ways you can continue to grow the business without actually making more tiny doors.
Karen Anderson: Absolutely.
Gregg Stebben: So, in the evolution of this is a business, given that you went to art school, at what point did you realize, "Oh — oh, I have a real business here." Was there any conflict inside you about that? Did you ever think, "Well, wait a minute, I'm an artist."
Karen Anderson: Yes, I think all artists get that sort of starving artist thing thrown at them so many times that they might start to feel guilty about making money and a lot of people at the beginning of this process, the beginning of Tiny DoorsATL, becoming more known, started to ask me to become a non-profit. They were like, "Okay, here's the time. Become a non-profit, we'll help you file the paperwork," and I looked at what it meant to be a non-profit, and I thought about whether I wanted that or not, whether I could stomach being for profit as an artist.
It was something that I really struggled with but the thing about profit is it's what you do with it. With my profit, I choose to pay my employees as much as I can, I choose to reinvest into the business. I’m not doing anything nefarious. I’m taking care of the street art that I've made in Atlanta, with the money that I make from private commission, so I literally take care of street art with my profit. But if I were a non-profit, I would have had to go about it so differently and I decided that wasn't for me.
Gregg Stebben: That's a really wonderful way that you describe that, and it actually leads into one of the questions I wanted to ask you which is, with your art and with this business philosophy you just shared with us that includes things like taking care of your employees in the best possible way, have you found that turning your passion into a business has given you the power to reach a wider audience? Did you envision that, is that something you embrace, is it something that you want to do more? Talk more about the power that having this successful business gives you.
Karen Anderson: Yeah, I’m gonna use the M word. I'm a Millennial, and I think that's important to note because I came of age at a time when the economy had tanked. I graduated from high school in 2001, and so I was heading off to college right at the beginning of a recession. It really empowered me. I felt like I could follow my passion because there was no safety, there was no route where you could go and you were guaranteed, at least for me, at least for someone who didn't want to study math.
Gregg Stebben: Or business.
Karen Anderson: It wasn't a safe route for me to get through, and so I felt like, "Well, you know what? The only way I'm gonna do it is if it's something that I love. Then starting Tiny Doors, I had other things that I was trying. Tiny Doors wasn't ... I didn't start this thinking, "This will be my career, this will be my business." I just had been listening to people paying attention to it, people wanting to participate, wanting to buy more art from me. It has made me feel empowered to keep building and keep growing.
It's also, I think, just really good to listen to what's going on around you and respond to that, and that's a lot of what I've done with this.
Gregg Stebben: I want to ask one last question, Karen. Talking with Karen Anderson, she's the Principal Artist and Director of Tiny DoorsATL, tinydoorsatl.com, on Facebook and Instagram @TinyDoorsATL. Go to the website, go to the Facebook page, go to the Instagram page. Look at the tiny doors. They're tiny doors, but way more than tiny doors. As you can hear in Karen's voice, they're really, it sounds like transforming neighborhoods and communities and even businesses that embrace this because of everything that's included in this whole, I'm gonna call it a tiny door movement.
Karen Anderson: I think that what people respond to is honesty. Like, I have a t-shirt that I bought from a company, that I love the honesty of the people who put that company together with the materials that they use. There's that story of why it was important to you, why this was created. This project is so honest to who I am. I've always made miniatures, I've always loved it. I'm a little bit shocked that people are as nerdy as I am and they love it right along with me. But I embrace that and I move forward with it as much as I can.
I think a lot of that, a lot of the success of this business has been the response to how real it is.
Gregg Stebben: That's a perfect place for me to ask this last question which is, what advice would you offer others who see what you're doing and your success and hope to turn their own passion into a business? What advice can you give them to get started and give them the courage to go for it?
Karen Anderson: I'm kind of, I'm pretty deliberate. For somebody who has pink hair and makes tiny doors, I'm actually pretty reserved when it comes to making choices like that. I chose not to take a job teaching art, I chose to nanny when I first moved to Atlanta because I wanted to pursue making art. So, I chose not to take the status position. I chose to take a job where I could pursue my passion as a hobby, and see if I liked it. I ended up two years into that job writing my TedX talk while the kid was taking a nap because I just was afraid to make that leap, because I liked my job and I liked having it all, but I was like, "This isn't gonna move forward until I really give it everything I have."
I slowly and deliberately made that leap into Tiny Doors, and I'm really glad that I did. There have been a lot of leaps along the way — I know every small business owner will say that. It's not as though you made one big decision, it's like a lot of little decisions that ended up as a business.
Gregg Stebben: Could we summarize what you just said as saying you had faith in yourself?
Karen Anderson: I did. I did have faith in myself and I think that when you're doing what you absolutely love, there's that faith that's in there because you know that it's something that you're never gonna give up on. There was one day when my business took a big leap forward. I was posted on Instagram's Instagram, which has hundreds of millions of followers, and then I was on the Travel Channel all in 24 hours. And I was freaking out, honestly, I didn't know what to do with all that attention at once and so I called a friend, who has been a rock star for about 30 years and I asked her what she does.
She said, "Here's how I think of it. You’ve got to find the one thing that you love about what you're doing and do more of that. Do as much as you can. Take one thing, just pick one thing that you don't like, and don't do that thing anymore, hire someone to do it. Find a way that you don't have to do that one thing," and she said, "Everything else is just your job. Even if it's your dream job, it's just your job, just do it." It really changed how I felt about this project. It really helped me get some perspective. Do more of the thing I love, it seemed so simple.
She was like apologizing to me, going "I know that's so simple," and it was brilliant and I hope it helps someone else.
Gregg Stebben: And we get to know who the rock star is, so we can give credit where credit is due?
Karen Anderson: Sure. Sure, it was Emily Saliers of Indigo Girls.
Gregg Stebben: That's awesome. If you were as charmed as I am by Karen and her story, go to the website tinydoorsatl.com, Facebook and Instagram @TinyDoorsATL. If you want to hear more great small business stories and tips just like those we just heard from Karen, check out Bank of America's online Small Business Community at bankofamerica.com/sbc. Karen, thanks again for joining us.
Karen Anderson: Thank you, it's been a pleasure.