Artist Erin Chainani was home with her 2 1/2-year-old twins and looking for a creative outlet. One day, the Miami mom decided to paint portraits of her kids’ favorite toys. "I wanted to do something that was important to them when they were little, so that when they grew up, they would have something they loved as a child," she said.
Daughter, Uma, and son, Kaveen, screamed in delight when they saw the portraits of the pink monkey and the blue elephant. Soon friends were asking about toy portraits for their own kids. Chainani started her business, First Friends Portraits, in January, 2011.
Here’s how she did it:
The Big Idea
First Friends Portraits offers custom toy portraiture. Clients supply a photo or the actual toy, and Chainani uses watercolor, guache, pen and pencil to create an original portrait of the toy. Portraits are available in three sizes and are sold framed or unframed. Prices range from $65 to $165. Personalized stationery using the custom toy portrait include notecards and address labels and range from $9.95 to $29.95. Custom portraiture of people, pets or "anything you love," ranges from $95 to $175.
Chainani was studying English literature at Harvard when she realized that art was her calling. She went on to earn a graduate degree from Yale in costume design. "I didn’t have a natural talent. I had to learn how to draw and paint," Chainani said. "I really had to work at it."
She worked 10 years in New York City as a costume designer in theater and film before moving to Miami in 2009 with her husband, Sonesh, and the twins.
Chainani started with one size portrait and no frames. "Then I realized people wanted a variety of sizes, and framing," she said. Chainani began offering different size portraits to fit standard frames, plus her own service of custom framing.
In September, after multiple requests, she began offering custom portraits of other subjects. She also added stationery to her line. The idea to print the toy portraits on note cards and such came from a Pennsylvania woman who prints children’s artwork on stationery.
"She contacted me and gave me the idea," Chainani said.
Basically, there was none. "I was so confident in the uniqueness of the idea that I just went ahead and did it," Chainani said. "It all happened organically."
Chainani did spend time researching the paper, framing and matting materials, to ensure a quality product. She also is constantly researching how to package and ship product. "That’s always changing," she said.
There were very little start-up costs, Chainani said. Initially, she spent about $300 on art supplies, $200 on framing materials and $150 for shipping materials. A friend created her initial website for free. She posted portraits on Facebook to market her work.
In September, a website redesign cost $900. Chainani said she does 10 to 15 portraits a month and was profitable after the first couple of months.
Chainani gets a lot of mileage out of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. She advertises on high-traffic mom blogs and craft blogs. Chainani also has left business cards at nursery schools and pediatrician offices.
Friends with connections to celebrities have gotten her business from well-known clients. Actress Kellie Martin of Life Goes On and ER blogged and Tweeted about First Friends, which got her some business.
A New York City boutique also displays her work and takes commissions.
Chainani is collecting vintage and antique toys to paint, so she can use the artwork to start a line of stationery. "I really think that will appeal to people’s sense of nostalgia," she said. She would like to expand her line of stationery to include items such as sketchbooks and notebooks. She wants to be in more boutiques, and eventually hire someone to handle operations so she can concentrate on the art.
"It’s a unique product, so getting people to understand what I do is my biggest challenge," Chainani said.
Balancing work and family
Chainani rises at 7 a.m. and gets the kids ready to drop them off by 9 a.m. Then she works – painting, taking orders, framing, shipping – until the kids are picked up at 2:45 p.m. "After I pick up my kids, my time is theirs," she said. "I don’t do any more work until they go to bed."
After the kids are put down about 7:30 or 8 p.m., Chainani takes care of any urgent matters, then spends time with her husband.
"Don’t be afraid to use your friends to get your name out," Chainani said. "And make sure you are doing something you love, because if you are not, you’re not going to put the time and work into it."