Our Biggest Mistake Ever

Our Biggest Mistake Ever

(c) Rick Rietveld

(c) Rick Rietveld

Rick and Natalie Rietveld were heroes to us.  We would visit their booth at trade shows where they marketed their clothing company.

Rick’s art was colorful and wild, like Drew’s but in a different style.  We envied their family owned business, one that printed Rick’s art on high-end men’s shirts, tees and board shorts.

I would call Natalie every now and again and ask art business advice.  She was a tough lady, and I admired that.  She taught me what to expect out of clients and how to get it.

In 2001 Drew left Lost, a company that he painted clothing designs for.  There was a large demand for Drew’s art, and now that it would no longer be available through Lost, we thought we’d follow the Rietveld’s influence and start our own label.

Son of the Sea, Inc. was born.  It allowed us to fill the requests for Drew’s art on a variety of products:  t-shirts, art prints and stickers.  We planned to add more items to the line, but this was a good start.

In the first two years, the financial growth of the business was magical. We were selling to over 250 of the surf shops in the U.S.  We hired sales reps and in-house employees.  We rented a large warehouse.  We took out advertising.  We sent Drew to tour surf shops around the U.S. to meet his fans at retail stores, grass-roots style.

By year three, it was wearing down on us. Running a wholesale operation was taxing on us, because we weren’t cut out for this type of business.

We found that instead of doing the things we loved, we were doing things we hated; like dealing with employees that didn’t want to work; fighting with vendors that screwed up our orders.   We lost money on surf shops that didn’t pay their bills.

And the worst result of it all – Drew wasn’t painting anymore.  His time was spent on quality control, employee control, and inventory control.

The second worst thing – we couldn’t take vacations.  You can’t leave for two weeks when you are growing a wholesale business.

We became grumpier and grumpier.  Looking back, I remember that time period as being the unhappiest years of my life.  I felt overwhelmed by all the weight on my shoulders of keeping the business growing and keep the employees happy.   I wasted hours dialing for dollars to get surf shops to pay their bills.

The business was bad on our marriage – Drew and I never fought much before, but during these years, we had vicious arguments.  We were stressed out and exhausted.

One day Drew came into the office looking somber.  “You won’t believe what I just found out.”  He said sadly.  “Rick and Natalie are getting divorced.

He sat by my desk and grabbed my hand.  “If we don’t change what we’re doing, it could happen to us.”

Four years into the Son of the Sea, Inc., we shut down our wholesale division.  We had already started licensing Drew’s art with success, so we decided to go in that direction entirely.

We fired our employees, said goodbye to our sales reps, moved out of the big warehouse and cut down our expenses.

We found peace and happiness in a small studio about a mile from our home.  The space had an office for me and a showroom and a back room where Drew could paint.  And paint.  And paint!

Since then, we’ve focused entirely upon licensing and sales of original artwork, which frees us up to be able to travel and work wherever we are.  Or not work at all.

And we went back to taking 8 weeks of vacation a year.

Do we regret our biggest mistake ever? No, we don’t.  We learned valuable lessons during that time that we would never have learned otherwise.  We understand what it takes to run a wholesale business, and we know that we will never go down that road again.  We don’t care to have employees or to be chained to our business.

We prefer freedom.  And Drew, well, all he wants to do is paint.

Spunk BrophyMaria “Spunk” Brophy  (Follow me on Twitter)

Check out my other Art, Lifestyle, Inspiration Blog here.

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  • AdaPia
    Posted at 07:07h, 30 March

    Hi Maria,
    Thank you for posting this article! I’m going through a bit of the same thing, but luckily did not dive into the giant wholesale operation and have realized this lesson before going the same route. Rather than a husband, I work with my sister, Camilla. We’ve brought on board another wonderful team member who attends conventions and runs our online store, creating a business for herself and taking that weight of our shoulders, while Camilla paints/draws and I go about the business of licensing and managing the contracts and clients. I find that it takes more time to get a licensee, and in some ways, if you manufacture certain products yourself, it helps to bring a licensee on board, but generally speaking, it is such a huge weight off the shoulders when you don’t have to manufacture huge quantities yourself. I admire what you do, how you do it and I am sure to meet you one day! Good luck with your continued path; you’re an inspiration to other business women!

  • jeff pagay
    Posted at 19:34h, 27 March

    Wow,thats an eye opener! I love Ricks work too!!!
    So sad for them,,but a blessing that you both saw the warning signs!
    Blessings for what you do!
    Spreading the Aloha!

  • Shaun "rowie" Rowe
    Posted at 07:21h, 13 March

    This is one thing that I have thought about so many times. How cool it is to say that you did everything “in-house”, and after trying it I also realize why they say Pride cometh before a fall!
    Sure you can stand up with pride and say I did it, for a personal project I think that is an amazing feeling but if you are trying to make a living out of what you do then leave that part of the pride at the door.

    Let the people who make things as they way of living to them and work out some deals here and there,
    If you are a Tee shirt artist do you think it wise to also make your shirt stock? I didn’t think so.

    Maria, this blog is a god send, thank you so much for your tips, advice and most of all inspiration to keep going.

  • Maria Brophy
    Posted at 09:24h, 26 October

    Aileen, thanks for the comment. Yes, I agree, having your art on various products is a great promotional tool.

    But the hard lesson we learned was: Don’t try to manufacture it yourself! Go through other companies instead – manufacturers that can do what they do best, so you can create art, which is what you do best!

    Good luck with your artwork. And I urge you to look into licensing, which will be a better, easier road to follow!

  • aileen
    Posted at 09:06h, 26 October

    It’s interesting because having art on product is actually a great promotional tool. And it’s cool to have folks buying your art–paying to advertise you! That’s kind of the strategy I am planning for my artwork. I have some t-shirts and greeting cards that I want to sell to get the word out about my art. But, I am afraid of success in the arena you are talking about! It’s tough to guide demand in the area that is best suited to the type of business you are looking for… Something to think about! Thank you.

  • Jason Wallis
    Posted at 07:03h, 14 October

    That’s an awesome story and lesson Maria!

  • Melissa Langer
    Posted at 12:38h, 13 October

    Hi Maria!
    It is so nice to meet you! Thank you for your sweet comment on my blog. I love Alyson and her book too!

    I would love to send you a pug bookmark. Please just email me your address and I will get it to you right away. 🙂

    pugnotes (at) aol.com

    🙂 melissa

  • Tommy Brophy
    Posted at 10:19h, 13 October

    It is a tough road sometimes. Drew is lucky to have you on his team. It is much easier to follow the crowd, than to take the other path. I think you are in a position to redefine success if you have not already. The decision to circle the wagons and refocus on the inspiration is a thing of beauty. Beyond all the numerous details and endless work that goes with being on the business end of things trusting Drew on that day was perhaps your best move yet. Believe me when I say that it will pay dividends beyond what you are even seeing now! Thanks for sharing such a personal item. Much continued success and thank you for embracing what has become an unfolding dream!

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