'I drew a sketch on a napkin and that ended up being our business'
Fab Cow Design sells thousands of prints a year – but it took a while for the founder to get into his groove.
I WENT TO art college back in the 1980s and worked in the field for a few years but never found a way to make it work for me.
Subsequently, I veered off towards language teaching. I have always had a curious mind and studied some diverse subjects such as relationship counselling and traditional Chinese medicine, both of which inform my work as an artist.
I ended up back in the art business in early 2013 when my partner, Bernie Cryan, and I started Fab Cow. It came out of a mutual desire to take a bit more control of our own lives. The idea to set up a business was fundamentally Bernie’s idea, and we had no idea it would become so big. Let’s call it a happy accident.
Initially when we started throwing ideas around about setting up a business, art never crossed my mind. After a couple of brainstorming sessions, we still hadn’t settled on an idea, and one evening I drew a sketch on a napkin and shoved it across the table to Bernie.
She looked at me and said, “that’s our business”, and I initially thought she meant napkins – I’m a bit slow on the uptake sometimes. Funnily enough that sketch evolved into becoming our best-selling print, ‘Vast Ocean’.
After that eureka moment we found ourselves, three days later, with a handful of framed prints, a homemade sign and a pile of nerves at a local market in Malahide, Co Dublin.
Fast forward three years and now we supply about 100 retailers in Ireland, the US and UK and sell thousands of pieces every year. We’re both working full-time at the business now and we have a couple of part-time people with us as well.
Not all plain sailing
I’d love to say that from the beginning people were queuing and fighting over the prints, but it wasn’t quite a fairy tale start. We did sell and we did receive lots of encouragement, but the truth was I was trying to second guess what people would like rather than producing work that I liked. I hadn’t even considered the napkin sketch for one of our prints.
Shortly after that experience, I locked himself away for a few days and reappeared with a number of drawings that reflected my own experience of life in a voice that was truly my own. That’s when we knew Fab Cow by Francis Leavey was born.
I’m the creative in the business. I do all the drawing and painting, so the products and the work comes from me. Bernie focuses more on the administration side and between us we seem to have a natural instinct for marketing via social media.
The biggest mistake I made was at the start of the business when I tried to second guess the market. I tried to judge what people wanted, which in retrospect was a ridiculous idea. How could I know what other people want? I look back at that early work and I think it’s awful.
Like any business, I believe one has to be true to themselves first and foremost. It was only after I started producing work that truly meant something to me that the business started to thrive. In fact, the best-selling print that we have is the one I did on the napkin. I didn’t think about that or consider what the market wanted, I just felt it and drew it.
Fundamentally, what Fab Cow sells is emotion. It just happens to be in the form of art, as that’s what I do. Our customers buy emotion. At the end of the day that’s what resonates – how we feel.
Even though I had found the best approach to producing the artwork for the company, it took until early 2015 for the company to hit its tipping point and we needed to act like a business.
We had taken on so many retailers, direct sales were going very well, and we knew at this stage we couldn’t cope as just the two of us because we had a real business on our hands.
At that point we were sensible enough to realise that we needed to outsource things, even if they were things we could do ourselves.
Bernie had a background in finance, but it was time to get a good accountant to manage the financials so we could free ourselves up to work on the business and not in the business.
For me, that makes more time to focus on the artwork, which at the end of the day is the whole business.
Producing new art always forms part of my day. I would apportion a part of my day to being creative and working on ideas. It’s just like any creative pursuit, and my model is simply do the work and let the quality look after itself.
I produce at least a piece a day but only a dozen or two dozen of those will be introduced to the market in any given year. It’s a very small percentage. For every print people can see on our website, there are 100 ideas that I have binned.
In the creative world you just have to keep on trying to produce, produce, produce. Some things just work and you say to yourself, yes, I’m proud of that.
I’m a fairly good judge of my own work, and 99 times out of 100 I am not happy with what I’ve done. Bernie is great at keeping it all on track as well. If I go too left field she is good at reining it all back in.
Stick to your niche
As I said, second-guessing the market was a bad idea. Our job as entrepreneurs is to produce good work and the market will decide whether or not it wants it. As an artist that’s all I focus on.
We’re great believers in asking questions when we don’t understand a particular aspect of the market. When we started out there were a lot of gaps in our knowledge and our Local Enterprise Office in Fingal has been incredibly supportive and they have a mentor programme that we continue to use.
We had so much to learn about exporting, dealing in retail, intellectual property rights, and we needed people who know the subject inside out. That’s the core of my advice to people – surround yourself with people who are cleverer than you.
It’s also important to stay focused on your core business. For the year that’s in it, I was approached to produce work to commemorate the Rising. It would have been lucrative, but that’s not what Fab Cow is about.
At the very least it would have been a huge distraction from our goal, and at worst it would have confused our customers to no end. It’s important to know what you do, who it is you serve and focus on that.
And don’t be afraid to make mistakes. We’ve made more than our fair share but we’ve learnt from them and they have helped us redefine our objectives and focus our business.
Francis Leavey is the co-owner of Fab Cow Design. This article was written in conversation with Killian Woods as part of a series on business mistakes and what can be learned from them.