Bonnie Christine always knew she wanted to start a business one day; her mom owned a quilt shop and her dad started multiple businesses.
I knew I wanted to do something on my own. I just didn't know what my business was going to look like.
Unsure what to do, she went to college and majored in business.
But when she graduated, she still didn’t know what to do, so she worked at her mom’s quilt shop, meeting with fabric reps, reviewing new fabric collections, and deciding what the shop would buy.
One day, while parsing through beautiful fabric samples, it dawned on her: a person creates these designs, as their job.
It happened in an instant, a knowing: Bonnie wanted that to be her job.
She wanted to design fabric.
There was only one, tiny, little, itty bitty problem.
Bonnie had no idea how to design fabric.
“Six months went by and I had done nothing.”
She considered herself creative, but not an artist: “I was crafty growing up. I loved to draw, but I wouldn't have considered myself an artist at the time.”
So she tucked her fabric design dream away.
It was too big.
And she didn’t even know where to begin.
So instead, relying on her crafty side, she began to make and sell aprons, tea towels, and pillows on Etsy, and started a blog about the handmade creative industry, highlighting other makers.
It was about showcasing other incredible artists and designers, and I just tried to be brave. It helped me be seen as a real voice in the community at the time, and helped get wind under my wings. It gave me something to leap from.
But Bonnie was still afraid to leap, afraid to try to become a fabric designer herself.
“Oh, wow I want to do that” would quickly turn into “How on earth would I do that?”
She wanted it so bad, but she was just too overwhelmed. The impossibility of it paralyzed her.
I had months of inaction. Literally six months went by and I had done nothing.
That's when I decided to just start doing one thing a day.
Bonnie got tired of her own inaction.
Her desire outgrew her overwhelm.
She also realized it wouldn’t be that overwhelming if she was willing to be patient.
She only had to do one small thing a day to move her dream forward.
The first thing?
Googling ‘How to become a fabric designer.’
And she was off.
Each step taught her something that led to her next step. And the next, and the next.
That’s how she figured out she’d need to learn Adobe Illustrator.
She decided to go back to school – design school – and started filling out an application.
But then she stopped.
Forget that. I'm just going to try this on my own.
So, that's what I did.
“I didn’t miss a single day.”
Bonnie wanted to create her own school.
And she did, using online courses: “I just poured myself into it.”
It took her a full year to create her first repeating pattern.
But she kept going. And she kept doing one small thing a day to move her dream forward: “I became obsessed with it; I didn't miss a single day.”
It was a tough first year, but she rarely got discouraged: “I could literally see myself being able to create better art.”
Her blog and Etsy shop grew too, making enough money for her to quit her job at the quilt shop and start working from home, giving her even more time to devote to learning.
But no one else quite understood what she was doing, or took her very seriously.
They were like ‘Okay, Bonnie, while you do that, I'm going to go to my real job then you just stay home and do your thing.’
But slowly, after I started taking myself more seriously, the people around me started taking me more seriously.
If you work from home, it looks like you're just doing a bunch of nothing. So you have to really take yourself seriously, set a schedule, and let that schedule be known for other people to take you seriously as well.
Now she was making a living making aprons and going to her own “school” to learn fabric design.
But one day, she calculated the maximum amount of money she could make if she made as many aprons as she could in a day, and sold out every single time.
The most she could ever hope to make was $40,000 a year.
And the idea of a life dedicated to apron-making exhausted her to even think about.
Her real dream was to design the fabric other makers might use for aprons. She was starting to get tired of doing the making herself, and her drive to move forward in fabric design grew even stronger.
That’s when she started to research more about art licensing – “you do the work once and create income from it over and over and over again.” She loved that idea, and shifted her attention to learning more about “income that didn't have a cap to it.”
“It takes sacrifice.”
Bonnie started her blog in 2009, and in those first two years she made a grand total of $15,000.
It was enough to quit the quilting shop, but she and her husband still struggled to make ends meet (he was a cycling coach at the time, making $29,000 a year), especially with Bonnie dedicating so much time to learning.
They sold one of their cars. They lived in a 500 square foot apartment (a converted barn Bonnie remembers fondly, with ivy growing all over it).
We struggled financially. We made major sacrifices. We saved as much money as we could to allow me to not have to make income for a little bit.
I also did some horrible side jobs. I worked as a spa receptionist and I worked as a personal assistant just to try to scrape by.
I think that's an important part of the story because it's not like you come out of the gates just making a bunch of money; it takes sacrifice.
I ask Bonnie if she ever thought about giving up, or going back to get a full-time job, especially when things got tough financially.
I did not ever think about giving up.
I made enough progress for me to see it actually happening, and that definitely kept me going.
She sent her designs out to potential buyers.
No one was buying, but they did look.
And they gave her notes. She relished becoming a part of the inner workings of an industry she once knew nothing about. (She was thrilled to have gotten to the place where she even had designs to show at all.)
But that’s not to say sharing her art was easy; it was absolutely terrifying.
Being brave enough to say, ‘Hey, this is my artwork. I created it. What do you think about it?’ That's super nerve wracking.
At the time, it involved a bunch of cold calls to companies and I would be so nervous dialing the phone number my hands would be shaking, having to say, ‘May I speak to your art director?’
Confidence was probably the biggest obstacle for me at the beginning.
It’s impossible for me to imagine an unconfident Bonnie.
Even when she was terrified, she still called.
She was inspired by a popular idea she heard her pastor quote once: “he said most things in life that are really scary can be overcome by 10 seconds of courage.”
I would literally tell myself that as I was dialing the phone number. ‘Just 10 seconds of courage.’
As soon as they answered the phone, I said, ‘My name's Bonnie, I'm an artist. I'm wondering if you license artwork?’
And they’d say, ‘Sure, let me forward you to the art director.’
And then it was fine.
It’s just 10 seconds of insane nervousness that you have to get through in order to break through.
“Rejection is inevitable and boy does it hurt.”
I ask Bonnie how she even knew who to call or what to say in those early days.
That was probably one of the things that was so overwhelming it kept me from doing anything at all.
You just start figuring it out by asking the next most obvious question. Most companies have a phone number on their contact page.
You just call and say what your intention is, and they have an answer for you. Maybe they have a different phone number, maybe they have a different email address, maybe they don't work with artists, or maybe they have submission guidelines.
You just have to be a fact-finder and start asking questions.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the rejections didn’t come. “Rejection is inevitable,” Bonnie says on her website, “and boy does it hurt.”
Like when art directors would tell her, “We've seen this before.”
That hurts, especially for an artist to hear they don't look special. That’s almost insinuating you're copying other people; it’s a punch to the gut, because your integrity is being questioned. That was probably the biggest sting, but it was okay.
I ask her how she managed to feel okay, especially when so many artists stop before they start for fear there isn’t room, that they’re nothing special. But then to hear that said out loud? How did she not let that stop her? How did she not internalize that feedback?
Well, I would say I did internalize it, but I quickly checked my facts – what I knew to be true.
- She had made tremendous progress.
- She was growing as an artist.
- She could figure this out.
- She could get better.
The process of creating art meant more to her than the business of creating art.
I knew my work was bigger than any feedback I could get. And so I think that's how I took it, internalized it, and then put it on the shelf.
“I'll never forget the way she described my work back to me.”
Bonnie kept making art, and through that process, found her own voice, her signature style – “when you create artwork that's so you, your name doesn't even have to be on it.”
Some people, I feel like, are born with a style. I was not. I remember being terrified – what the heck is my signature style?
There's so many different options. What do I want it to be?
But rather than let fear stop me, I decided to put my head down and just make artwork.
It takes a lot of creation for a style to bubble up to the top.
After that first repeating pattern, Bonnie continued to make pattern after pattern. Eight months later she had created about one hundred patterns, and it was through creating that body of work she discovered her style.
I could look back and see this consistency in some of it. The consistency I liked the most is what I kept.
My style has grown and evolved over the years, but it became what I kept and decided was mine.
Her mom made a quilt out of all of her designs and Bonnie took that quilt and her portfolio book to the International Quilt Market in 2012, a huge annual wholesale trade show.
Bonnie set up about 15 meetings over those three days.
She got a few maybe’s, but mostly no’s.
But everyone is really kind. I think people are afraid of art directors, but they're so kind and really lovely. They love looking at artwork; it's their job, you know?
She was a little nervous before her appointment with Art Gallery Fabrics, though. They were the biggest company she was pitching, her number one choice, so she saved it for later in the show.
I sat down with the art director of Art Gallery Fabrics, and handed her my book.
As soon as she started looking at my book, she started describing my artwork back to me in the same way I would have described it myself – but I hadn't described it yet.
She was using all these keywords – sophisticated, vintage, ethereal.
I'll never forget the way she described my work back to me. I was like, ‘She gets it. She gets me. She gets what I'm doing.’
She closed my book and said, ‘I'd like you to cancel all the rest of your appointments during Quilt Market.’
And she offered me a contract on the table.
Then, right there in that giant convention center, Bonnie cried.
“I never set out to be a teacher.”
Eighteen months after deciding she would do one small thing a day toward her dream, Bonnie had her first contract as a fabric designer.
She doubled her income that year.
The next year, her business took an unexpected turn when, because of her now substantial blog following, CreativeLive asked her to come to San Francisco and teach a course on whatever she wanted.
“This was a huge opportunity; I couldn't turn it down.”
I never set out to be a teacher. I didn’t like speaking in front of crowds, but this was a huge opportunity; I couldn't turn it down.
The only thing I knew at that point like the back of my hand was Adobe Illustrator.
So I worked with a content producer for six months to formulate the course and learn how to be an engaging educator.
They flew her to San Francisco and she taught a live Illustrator class to thousands of people.
It wasn’t until a few months later that Bonnie realized this course would take her life in a direction she never saw coming.
Women from all over the world who’d taken her course emailed her about how she’d impacted their lives. And they weren’t just talking about learning Illustrator.
For whatever reason, whatever I said empowered them to follow their dreams and to know big goals are okay – achievable – and that they are worthy of chasing after them.
What really surprised her was how many women were reaching back out to say her course inspired them to quit day jobs they didn’t like and start doing work they loved.
Some were already working from home because of what they learned and implemented from her Illustrator course. Some even made enough money for their husband’s to quit their jobs too and stay home with the kids (something Bonnie’s husband does today).
In addition to licensing her fabric for products around the world, Bonnie began to teach artists and makers around the world – passing on everything she learned about the surface pattern design industry, and big impossible dreams.
She had no idea then teaching would also become another stream of “income that didn't have a cap to it.”
“My audience was dead.”
In 2017, Bonnie decided to create her own full course on surface pattern design – “up to that point, I had only taught on other people's platforms.”
Creating her own course on her own platform felt daunting.
She quieted the fear with research.
That’s when she learned about email, “and open rates and nurture sequences and having an engaged audience.” She did have an email list all those years from her blog. But she didn’t email much.
My audience was dead.
In the fall of 2017 she had 3,500 email subscribers.
She quieted the fear with research.
And my open rate was 6%.
I knew I wanted to launch this course I had in my heart in February.
Over the next five months, I poured myself into my email list, created an opt-in for the first time, built a nurture sequence, and used it as a re-engagement series on my existing list.
Over the course of those five months, I doubled my email list.
By the time her course was ready, she had 8,012 people on her list, and her open rate was 66%.
How did she do it, aside from fully focusing on email for five months?
Just treating my email list like the people they were. Treating them like insiders of my business, that they were cream of the crop, top VIP – and serving them without selling to them.
They were excited to learn about what was coming next.
When she launched her first course to her list (priced at $997), her secret dream was to have 100 people sign up. (“I was really scared to say that out loud.”)
The amount of people who bought her course during that first launch – 342.
The conversion rate from my list was 4.3%.
If you are doing a good job serving your email list and attracting the right people, then it becomes predictable.
In my mind if I doubled my email list, I would double the number of enrollments in my course.
And that has happened for the last two years.
In 2019, I had doubled my list to 18,000 and had 640 students that year. So that's a 3.5% conversion rate.
Your email list builds in this incredible predictability to your business.
By February 2020, Bonnie’s list had grown to 32,000 people.
So in her last launch, 1,490 new students signed up. She made $1.5 million dollars (that’s 37 years’ worth of making aprons…every day).
“You just don't get good if you don't create art.”
Bonnie is sharp and focused when it comes to the numbers of her business, but she measures success a little differently.
There are three freedoms I identified really early on in my career that I wanted. And as long as I have these three freedoms, I feel successful.
- “Time freedom. So I can decide when I want to work, what days of the week I want to work and what hours of the day.”
- “Location freedom. So I can work from anywhere in the world I want to.”
- “Financial freedom. So I don't have to worry about finances.”
But the greatest sense of success has been becoming the fabric designer she always dreamed of, despite having no idea what to do or how to start. (After this interview I become a true fan of her designs, even planning my new office around one of her wallpaper patterns for Wallternatives, ‘Pruning Roses.’)
She’s also proud she’s continued to make art and improve her craft along the way – “You just don't get good if you don't create art.”
And once she had kids she became even more focused on time management in hopes to give her space to consistently create.
Before kids, I could just spend my day doing whatever I wanted. But as soon as I had kids, I became a total nerd about workflow and time management.
That journey, coupled with her “one thing a day” experience also inspired her to design the Flourish Planner. (She mailed me one weeks after our interview and even the box it came in is beautifully designed with a cream and black foliage pattern. The planner itself is undated – perfect when I open it in 2020, a reminder that the future is still unwritten; the title page opens with a Vincent Van Gogh quote: “Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.”)
The planner’s name is inspired by the popular membership community of artists she runs called Flourish, where she tends to a lot of common artistic struggles.
The membership includes custom printable cards she designed called “Weeds and Seeds”: on one side are some common creator struggles, and the other side gives them something to do when they’re facing that struggle.
Some of my personal favorites are “The Orchard of Overwhelm” (feeling burnt out), “Grass is Greener” (imposter syndrome), “Perfect Poppy” (perfectionism), and “The Tech Thorn” (being overwhelmed by technology).
It lets them know, ‘Oh, I'm not alone. If it made it onto these cards, a lot of people must be struggling with the same thing.’
And it gives it something you can call by name and what you can do to overcome it.
That has been really important to building community around common language and common struggles and common ways to work through a struggle.
A lot of the struggles stem from self-doubt – when they feel like they’re not enough – that there’s no room for their voice, their style, or their dream – like their art really doesn’t matter at all.
Bonnie often responds with five words an established blogger emailed her once in the early days: “There is room for you.”