Laura Connelly is the artist behind and founder of Stellar Villa, a wall art and commission company based in Brooklyn, New York. She moved to New York from Ireland a few years ago, giving up the opportunity to attend Ireland’s top art college. Upon her arrival, she struggled with the direction of her life and was told by several people that it wasn’t possible to make a living with art. For years she pursued a “real” career, but ended up bouncing around from job to job as she always felt like something was missing in her life. She finally built up the courage to quit her day job and pursue her passion, art, full time.
This leap of faith really paid off for her. Her artwork was in demand and although she wasn’t an overnight success, she was earning enough to get by and do what she truly loved. She continued to work long hours day in and day out to master her craft and grow her business.
When COVID-19 hit, Laura was freelancing full time. She noticed so much negativity on social media so she decided to put her freelancing on hold and donate her time to run a 3-week fundraiser for local NYC nonprofits, raising nearly $12,000 by giving away custom illustrations. The fundraiser ended up catching some virality as it was shared by some big organizations, and even after the fundraiser, Laura’s inbox was flooded with requests for her artwork.
That’s when she decided to launch Stellar Villa with Patrick Connelly and Laura is now taking her art career to the next level. Stellar Villa offers wall art and we are also expanding into the home decor space. All artwork and designs are hand-drawn by Laura in her New York City studio.
StarCentral Magazine recently caught up with Laura to discuss her journey as an entrepreneur and here’s what went down:
Could you please tell our readers a brief background about yourself and how you started your business?
I have always dreamed of being an artist since I was a young girl. I was so excited when I received news that I was accepted into the top art college in Dublin, Ireland where I was living at the time. As life unfolded, certain circumstances led me to move to New York City and I was unable to pursue a higher-level art education.
After moving to NY, I had many people tell me that I would never make a living from my artwork. Over and over I would hear people use the term “starving artist,” and this was very discouraging so I actually gave up on my dream.
Soon after I started a “real job” as others suggested, working for a blog writing articles and interviewing people. Sure enough, many of the people I interviewed ended up being artists and as I talked with them, I realized many of them were told the same thing I was told and went through many of the same struggles. Eventually, this inspired me and instilled in me the courage to once again chase after my dream, but this time I promised myself I would not give up.
Fast forward several months and there I was working as a freelance artist. I wasn’t making enough to earn a living, but I was slowly getting there. The catalyst that would change my career forever was actually the COVID-19 pandemic. When the pandemic started, I felt I had to do something to give back to my community. I decided to hold a fundraiser for a local non-profit by giving away free digital illustrations while accepting donations. The fundraiser went viral and I ended up raising nearly $12,000 after illustrating over 1,200 pieces of art over the course of three weeks. The fundraiser put my artwork in the spotlight and people loved what they saw. The demand for my work never slowed down, and so that’s when I launched Stellar Villa and became a full-time artist doing what I love.
What are you currently doing to maintain/grow your business?
Social media has been the largest driver of growth for us. I have read so many guides suggesting that you must post content daily, seven days a week. I tried doing this and the sheer amount of work was just overwhelming. Instead what I found works best for us is posting only about twice a week, however when we do post we make sure it is our very best content. I’ve noticed posting quality over quantity has positively impacted our social media following and our sales.
What social media platforms do you usually use to increase your brand’s awareness?
Instagram is my go-to. Since I am an artist, it makes sense that Instagram works best as it’s a highly visual platform. Two popular subjects for my custom artwork include pet and people portraits. I find it easy to connect with my audience for these artworks through collaborations with dog accounts and influencers.
What is your experience with paid advertising, like PPC or sponsored content campaigns? Does it work?
While I don’t manage this aspect of the business myself, we do utilize PPC and paid advertising on Google and Facebook to broaden our reach and acquire new fans and customers. The key here is to make sure your campaigns are profitable. I focus on putting out unique artwork of the highest quality and pride myself on delivering exceptional customer service so I have many repeat customers. If you use paid advertising, I recommend knowing your metrics: average order value, profit margin, and customer lifetime value to name a few.
What is your main tactic when it comes to making more people aware of your brand and engaging your customers? How did your business stand out?
I focus on creating the best possible product and that includes constantly improving it. I pour my heart and soul into every piece that I create and I focus on storytelling and portraying a message in order to evoke emotion. If I can get a smile, tears, or other reactions I know I have done my job and created something of value. When you create a good product, word of mouth marketing will drive awareness for you. As for standing out, I try to be very personable with my clients. I love talking with them and have befriended many of them. I think this relationship-building helps set me apart.
What form of marketing has worked well for your business throughout the years?
As previously mentioned, social media marketing, particularly Instagram has worked well for us. In addition to posting quality content, our collaborations with businesses, people, and organizations in similar verticals have really worked well time and time again. My favorite form of marketing is word-of-mouth marketing which is free and requires no effort apart from putting out an excellent product which in turn creates raving fans.
What is the toughest decision you had to make in the last few months?
As a small, growing business, I would say taking personal time off is the toughest decision I’ve had to make. It’s important to take time away from work to relax and also to deal with the many other things life throws at you. Balancing my personal life and work life is certainly a challenge.
What money mistakes have you made along the way that others can learn from (or something you’d do differently)?
I would suggest being careful with sales/discounts. Occasionally running sales is a great way to attract new customers, but don’t overdo it. I recently ran a big sale on my custom artwork and ended up overwhelming myself with orders and had to work day and night to finish them on time. I would have been better off offering a smaller discount and taking fewer orders to arrive at the same revenue target.
What new business would you love to start?
I love what I’m doing now, so if I ever started anything new it would have to be related to art. I would possibly be interested in creating a travel blog where I could focus on photography or illustrating children’s books.
If you could go back in a time machine to the time when you were just getting started, what would you do differently?
If I could go back in time I would believe in myself more and value my work. I still remember when I got my first commission request, I couldn’t believe someone was willing to pay for my artwork. Only with time have I learned how to value my artistic skills, my time, and my creations. Even today, I’d still say I’m a work in progress in this regard.
What is the best advice you have ever been given?
The best advice I’ve ever heard goes something like this: ” Never compare your beginning to someone else’s middle. That talent is not created overnight, it’s a process full of frustration and hard work. That it’s important to fall in love with that process and remember that everyone who is where you wish to be has their process story too.” An artist by the name of Nicole Steffes, whom I admire deeply, said this. I remind myself of these few sentences every day as it helps me stay optimistic and push forward.
What advice would you give to a newbie Entrepreneur setting up their first business?
To new and aspiring entrepreneurs I would say don’t wait. Believe in yourself and take action. My one regret is that I stepped away from my dream for a period of time. Trust your instincts and follow your passion as this is a recipe for success. I’ll leave you with a quote from Thomas Edison who said “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” As long as you never give up your dreams are sure to become reality.