Depressed at her day job in the insurance industry, Shelly Kim searched for inspiration to raise her spirits. Uplifting phrases and quotes online helped her feel better, so she started writing them down — and eventually teaching herself calligraphy to make them pretty and post around her desk.
Today Shelly is happily paving her own career path as a professional brush lettering artist with a robust product line and frequent workshops across the United States. We sat down with the Southern California native while on a Texas workshop tour (she took over our studio for two days!) to learn about her rocky road to entrepreneurship and how she’s building a successful business for herself in a crowded creative space.
See some highlights from our conversation below.
Tell us about your story.
I first started calligraphy in 2015. I used to work at an insurance company. I thought it was my dream and where I was going to retire. When I actually got there, I didn’t realize how different corporate life was. The environment was very stressful… I’d be so drained after work and just talk about it for hours because my work consumed my life. I realized this was unhealthy so I tried to find something inspiring. I found positive affirmations and quotes online and I would jot them down on notes to have in my cubicle. That’s how I found out about calligraphy. I knew I wanted to get into it and I wanted to create my own pieces that made me feel good. In the beginning it was a struggle but I figured it out and it changed my life.
How did you self-teach yourself calligraphy?
I started googling techniques on calligraphy and I noticed there were down strokes and up strokes. After I figured that out, it all just clicked. I was so determined to find my own style. Calligraphy was a long journey but it was something that I needed at the time. It was a stress reliever and I learned to have patience with myself and my art. A few YouTube tutorials did help but honesty after it clicked, I was constantly practicing and work really hard to understand it.
It’s now your full time job. How did that happen?
It was a shift in my own mindset that I had to understand and just go with. Starting your own business is not always supported by others. But that’s okay, I just followed my gut. After I figured out my own style and technique, a few people reached out on Instagram and wanted to buy my work. That’s when I thought, okay, maybe I need to shift my focus and create more to sell. I tried Etsy but it was really difficult to sell on there. That’s when I created my workshops. I wanted to share what I’ve learned and create a support group for students. I wanted to be a mentor to these people and not just teach them how to calligraphy.
Is that the same business model you carry today? Selling product and workshops?
Kinda. Back in 2016 I was asked to publish my own books. They are these cute tins that have flash cards that better help people to understand calligraphy. That was great revenue to have when I started. My publisher took care of everything and I didn’t have to put any money up front. I realize that was might be a different angle that what was expected but it was what worked for me. I continue selling those along with my other business revenues.
What are your struggles right now?
I sign up for so many projects. Each one comes with its own struggles. Since my fiancé, Richard, has come on board to work with me, we have to work together to find more ways for the business to work and continue growing our revenue. Recently we’ve started selling digital downloads on Etsy and it has been really great.
What are the highlights right now?
This past summer it has been such an amazing experience. Now I have my fiancé helping me. Recently another craft company, Ranger Ink, reached out to me to create stamps with them. I’ve been a fan for such a long time it was such an amazing project and opportunity. Seeing my actual lettering on a product and in stores has been so amazing.
What do you say to people who feel like the market is saturated and they are nervous to jump in?
If you are loving what you create and find it to be a form of therapy, or find it inspiring, just go all in. Take the time to invest in you and throw yourself out there. Don’t worry about the competition.
Coffee or tea?
Coffee! Caramel Macchiato from Starbucks with soy milk.
Last meal on earth?
Pizza from New York City.
Do you have a favorite letter to draw?
I love the letter “m”. M’s and p’s are so pretty.
12 a.m. or 1 a.m.
Wake up time?
6 a.m. or 7 a.m. if I have a workshop… Later if not!
I have a girl crush on Ariana Grande!
Dream dinner guest?
Ariana Grande or Selena Gomez.
All over Europe!
Don’t miss Shelly’s entire podcast. It’s so good! Check it out along with other Fridays with Flea Style episodes on iTunes here.