A black-and-white cat named Little One sips cafe au lait at New Orleans' famous Cafe Du Monde, parties at Mardi Gras and plays a mean jazz piano. Sure, Chamain DiPascal O'Mahony's 2-year-old feline may live these adventures only in her owner's imagination, but O'Mahony has made New Orleanians feel that wherever they are, Little One could appear, too. O'Mahony, 38, has turned her whimsical musings about her cat-"minou" in Creole-into humorous notecards and prints that sell faster than jambalaya in New Orleans and beyond.
How did this director of information research for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce turn her cat-inspired paintings into a thriving part-time business? Here's how it all unfolded:
June 1991: O'Mahony takes her first and only watercolor class and begins painting and drawing in her free time.
December 1999: O'Mahony tries acrylics for the first time and creates caricatures of her relatives as Christmas gifts. Her 9-year-old nephew requests that he be pictured with Little One. "I had her waving a banner, and she just came to life," says O'Mahony. She begins painting Little One in a variety of local scenes.
January 2000: O'Mahony learns that the city's new theme park, Jazzland, needs works for its gallery. In a rush of inspiration, she makes the decision to start a business selling her pictures on posters and notecards. Even before approaching Jazzland's owners, O'Mahony invests $5,000 of her own money to print a batch of notecards and 1,000 limited editions of her four paintings. She explains, "I wanted to get things going and worry about distribution later."
April 2000: O'Mahony lands her first client: Jazzland agrees to sell 100 of The Creole Cat prints and cards on consignment. O'Mahony purchases accounting software for $100, and her husband, Sean, develops a Web site that will accept credit card sales.
May 2000: While acting as her own marketing director, O'Mahony sends letters to local media and gallery owners.
June 2000: Gallery owners call O'Mahony, but she declines some of the offers. "I just don't want to flood the market," she says. "It's so easy, when you're starting out, to fall into the trap of saying OK to everyone who wants your work. But if you take control, it really makes a difference in negotiating."
July 2000: The business gains momentum. O'Mahony appears on a local TV program in June and is featured in the local newspaper. In preparation for the increased sales brought on by the media attention, O'Mahony spends $2,000 to print 1,000 new lithographs. By this time, she's recouped her initial investment.
When the newspaper article appears on July 26, the artist has to return home early from vacation to handle the flood of orders made through her Web site. She's on such an adrenaline rush that she often wakes up at 5 a.m., her mind overflowing with ideas. But she also has a secret fear that the public will discover she's not a trained artist. "I've seen people who are much better artists than I am," she says. "But if you don't treat what you're doing as a business, you won't make it."
August 2000: O'Mahony spends $5,500 to print three new scenes featuring The Creole Cat on both cards and prints. She also meets with a major New Orleans gallery, Vintage 429, that agrees to feature her originals.
O'Mahony's prints are currently positioned in 11 New Orleans galleries, and a strong marketing program has increased sales on her Web site. The search is on for other outlets nationwide. With $80,000 expected in its first year, it's safe to say O'Mahony's business is solidly underway. She's already begun work on new paintings that depict the cat at well-known sites in other cities, including New York and Paris.
"Hey, this is America," O'Mahony says. "You can't be afraid to try something new."
Pamela Rohland writes about the joys and tribulations of entrepreneurship for a variety of regional and national business publications.