By Christy Johnson, founder & CEO of United Goods
United Goods has been in business for 19-plus years now (we turn 20 in October! Cue the trumpets!). During this time as a small business owner, entrepreneur, maker, and artist, I've been asked several questions again and again. These generally come up during chats with visitors of pop-up markets and art fairs, but also in the handful of interviews I've had the honor of doing with local media.
I thought y'all might like to learn a little more about United Goods, my State Icon landmark prints, and me. So here are my responses to the common queries in the form of a Q&A.
Comment on this blog post with your questions, or shoot me a message here. If I get enough questions, I'll do a follow-up post with my replies. Thanks in advance for reading (and maybe even asking!).
1. Were you artistic and/or entrepreneurial as a kid?
Yes indeed—both! My (twin) sister Wendy and I were big into drawing when we were little. As soon as we could hold a marker, we were scratching out pretty epic pieces of artwork. They were typically done on the old school computer paper we got in bulk from my grandpa (I think he got it from his work). Each art piece usually had a story, too, which we'd dictate to my mom and she'd write our ramblings near each part of the illustration. Here's a fantastic example of an early piece, when I was 3 1/2 years old.
2. What motivated you to start your business?
I worked at Mpls.St.Paul Magazine as an editor and writer for four years, and while there I also went back to school for a degree in Graphic Design. After graduating, I stayed on as a freelance writer at Mpls.St.Paul and several of their other publications (including my favorite, Twins Magazine). So when I got my first design job out of college at the Science Museum of Minnesota, I was already comfortable with the freelance life. I continued writing outside of my day-to-day job, and I also started doing some graphic design work in my off-time, too. Mostly I created greeting cards, which I started selling at small art shows with the encouragement of my other artist friends, and I also branched into wedding and event stationery.
Later, I missed working with my hands (I've been crafty since I was really young and used to make all kinds of holiday decor, clothes, jewelry, etc.), so I dreamed up these shadowbox collages that I'd make from recycled, upcycled, and found materials, including vinyl record sleeves.
Eventually, I was asked by a friend—for whom I'd designed wedding stationery—to make some mock reception cards for an imagined couple, which would run in the magazine Mpls.St.Paul Weddings (she was an editor). I came up with the idea of a couple celebrating a "Minneapolis themed" wedding, and made little table cards that featured mini illustrations of Minneapolis landmarks. After that assignment, I realized I really liked making those little drawings, so I created a few more. I printed them as giclées on my nice, at-home printer and found some little frames at a store. Then I brought the prints, which I called State Icons, to my next art show. They were such a hit, I knew I had to keep making them. After a few years, I stopped making the collages and eventually filtered out the note cards, too. I focused on the thing that was bringing me the most joy, and that was my State Icons. A business was born.
3. What’s your most memorable experience as a small business owner?
At art shows, I've made some really great connections with people who've stopped into my booth, especially when they chat with me about their memories surrounding a particular landmark I've drawn. The one that stands out the most is when I was in Austin, Texas, for the Renegade Craft Fair, and a woman came into my booth and immediately picked up my State Icon of Big Tex. I saw her gazing at it for a few moments, and when she turned to me, she had tears running down her face. She told me she used to go to the State Fair of Texas with her grandpa, who had died a few years ago, so seeing my print brought memories flooding back to her. As she spoke with me, I found myself getting emotional, too, and eventually I shed quite a few tears with her. It was so touching. I still think of her every time I see my Big Tex piece, and hope she looks at the one she bought and remembers the good times she had with her grandpa.
4. What does a day-in-the-life of Christy look like?
I wear many hats, as most entrepreneurs say. In addition to United Goods, I also have a part-time job that takes up two to three days of my week, I still work as a freelance writer, and since early 2020 I've been a contract designer for FINNEGANS Brew Co., which means I design all of their beer-can labels, cartons, tap handles, and most in-house materials. But, if it's an all–United Goods day, then it usually entails doing a little bit of "housekeeping" to start the day, which means answering emails and Instagram DMs. Then, if I have wholesale or online shop orders that are waiting to be filled, I'll frame those State Icons, then wrap, package, and get them ready for the Post Office. If I've got all of my orders taken care of, I'll work on Instagram posts, my weekly emails (if you're not already a subscriber you should join in the fun!), drawing new State Icons, tweaking my website, and searching for retailers to potentially carry my work.
5. What's the best part about what you do?
Hearing the stories from people who love my illustrations and why they chose a particular landmark. Learning what a particular statue, building, sign, etc., means to them. These anecdotes are truly what keep me going.
6. What’s your biggest annoyance, work-wise?
Holy moly: fuzzies and black specks. Anyone who frames art will know what I'm talking about. Framing is such a time-consuming, sometimes-frustrating task. My work includes so much white space, which means every little fleck of black paint (from my frames) or tiny piece of fuzz that gets under the glass just seems like it's got a blinking arrow pointing right to it. I've spend many, many hours in my lifetime brushing, picking, plucking, and sweeping away fuzzies and black specks. Some days, my eyes even create ones that aren't there, which is another "fun" challenge….
7. What do you struggle with as a small biz?
Besides my answer to the previous question, I find creating content for social media to be challenging. When I was in art school, we had just one marketing class. There really wasn't social media yet. I think Facebook was just starting when I graduated from school. So everything I've learned, I've had to learn on my own. I read articles, get newsletters from relevant businesses, and talk to my fellow entrepreneurs for ideas, but mostly it's trial and error. I'm not good at it. But I do my best. Someday I'll hire someone to help me. But so far that's not been in my budget.
8. Was there a time when you wanted to quit?
Actually, yes. Around 2018 and 2019, I was ready to slowly let United Goods fade away. I had lost my passion for the grind of being a small business owner, and doing events every weekend in the summer and throughout the holidays took its toll on me. I'm an introvert, so participating in these shows would zap me for days afterward. I had too much on my plate and didn't have the strength to say no to things. I was burned out. Then COVID came along, and I was able to slow down and re-evaluate my life and what was important to me. It only took a few months into the pandemic when I realized I still loved United Goods and what I was doing. I started digging into online business trainings and seminars, and really enjoyed trying new things when it came to marketing and e-commerce. It was extremely satisfying when I'd learn something, try it, and see results. So I emerged from the shutdown with a revived sense of power and passion for my brand. I hope it shows. I love what I do.
9. Do you have any regrets as a small business owner?
I regret not reaching out to more retailers early in my career. I was always afraid of overloading my dad—who makes my frames—with orders. But I think we would've figured it out.
10. What do you think you are the best in the world at?
Drawing in my simple, clean, no-frills style!
11. What’s the weirdest thing you've done as a small business owner?
It's not strange, but it is dumb. One year I got waitlisted for a show in Fargo, North Dakota, and got an email at like 7 a.m. that morning, asking if I'd come do the show that night (and the next day) because an artist had dropped out. I quickly said yes, booked a hotel room, loaded up my wee Saturn Ion, and headed out the door—into the worst ice storm I've experienced in my life. The roads were treacherous, and I got detoured at least twice because semis had jack-knifed on entrance/exit ramps. The normally four-hour drive took me seven. I got there with like a half hour before the show was to start, so I was still setting up when people arrived. Everyone was soooo cool, including my fellow vendors, shoppers, and the event planners. But it was such a stressful day and night. I tried to calm myself down as the show got underway, but I was still pretty sizzed. I think I fell asleep before my head hit the pillow that night. The drive home was still really bad, since there was like three inches of ice on the highways. I white-knuckled it all the way home.
12. Does owning a biz affect your relationship with your family?
Since I work with my dad—and also with my mom, since he hires her to paint my frames by hand—my business does affect my family relationships. I try to treat the two of them like I would any other vendor, but feelings have gotten hurt. Both mine and theirs. We talk about things and try to be open, which helps a lot. But it's still challenging, for sure.
13. If you could never work again, would you and why?
I'm one of those people who likes to work. So if I, say, won the lottery and never had to work again for monetary purposes, I'd still have a little job or would volunteer. I like to be busy. I can't tell you the last time I was bored.
14. What's your dream job if money, age, time, etc., were not a factor?
I would be an athlete. I usually say a Major League Baseball player, because I love baseball and I played fastpitch in college. Since there still aren't equal opportunities for women in sports, I would choose to be an MLB player. But, if fastpitch was as world-renowned and profitable as baseball, then I'd be a pro softball player. Or a pro volleyball player. Softball and volleyball are the sports I've played since I was a very young kid. I'm obsessed with both of them, still, even though I'm an old lady now. I still played fastpitch and competitive women's indoor volleyball until COVID shut down both of my leagues. I hope to be able to start both up again next year. I miss playing.
15. Which State Icon is your favorite?
It's so, so hard to answer this question, and I do get asked this a lot! It's like a parent asking to choose a favorite kid. All of my illustrations are my babies, and I can usually even remember where I was when I was drawing each one. Even though I have more than 500 in my collection! But I have a strong connection to my print of First Avenue because it's one of the OGs in my collection (Spoonbridge & Cherry Sculpture was the first one I ever drew), and because I've had so many memorable moments seeing bands and performers there. So OK, yes, if I had to pick a favorite, that's my answer.
16. Which State Icon is your best seller?
That one is hands down the Spoonbridge & Cherry Sculpture. It's such an iconic landmark in Minneapolis, and has become somewhat of a symbol of the city, in my mind.
17. What is United Goods' goal for the next few years?
I'd love to keep growing my State Icon collection. I've drawn landmarks from 42 states—and DC—so far. It's my goal to eventually have prints to represent all 50. I'd also love to continue connecting with people who love my work, and getting my illustrations in front of an even wider audience.
Behold, the results of 19-plus years of hard work:
I present to you my full collection of State Icons.