Welcome to Lose the Suit! In this new section on Suitless Pursuits, we feature people who've traded in their cubicle and suit to make their respective passions into their full-time gig. For our first article, we interviewed Lichia Liu, designer and illustrator of Gotamago.
Name: Lichia Liu
Former 9-5: Landscape & Urban Designer
Lost the suit to: Open her own business, Gotamago
What do you do for a living?
I am the owner, designer and illustrator of Gotamago, a stationery and gifts brand based in Toronto. I work with ink and watercolour to produce paper products filled with whimsy and humour.
What were you doing before this life?
I was a landscape and urban designer for six years, and I’ve also dabbled in teaching. I still teach now, as an artist facilitator at Story Planet, a literary non-profit. When I was a grad student at Berkeley I stumbled upon 826 Valencia, an organization that helps students with their writing skills. I was inspired, and so I decided to find something similar to it in Toronto get involved. We recently finished a 10-week workshop teaching kids how to write a story, and we are currently compiling the materials into a book.
You’ve done a lot! What’s your background?
I grew up in Taiwan until I was seven and then my family and I immigrated to Canada. During high school I dreamed of becoming a writer, but my design instincts kicked in and I ended up pursuing landscape architecture in university. After graduation, I worked in landscape and urban design and also spent a year in Japan teaching English. I then did my masters in urban design at UC Berkeley, and worked in Taiwan and Toronto as an urban designer.
That was around the time I became frustrated with the limited capacity of environmental planning and design. After a long process, you frequently end up with only a fraction of what you originally envisioned because so many steps along the way are out of your control. I love urban design, but I don’t love the bureaucracy involved. I became unhappy and finally realized that I wanted to have complete control over my work and be proud to see my name on my product, as egotistical as that sounds! It got to a point where I became wrapped up in fear that my own creativity wasn’t reaching its maximum potential anymore. So I made up my mind one day and decided: I was going to jump ship.
You had an epiphany?
I did. I was on the subway looking out of the window. The subway was in a rocking motion and I started thinking: I want to design. I want to work with children. I want to work with people. I want to draw. I want to write. How do I combine all these things together? And that’s when it hit me: I was ready to start on my own and do all these things. I knew that if I stayed at my job, I would never have the time. Before this epiphany I was in an "incubation" period for two years, toying with the idea of having my own studio. I filled my journal with thoughts, listened to a lot of podcasts, read books about entrepreneurship and did lots of research. I could no longer let my creativity be stifled; it deserved to be let out.
Was it hard, letting go of your full-time job?
Quitting your full-time job isn’t something I would recommend to every person. You’re losing security. I gave up a good salary, health care, benefits and stability. But I did it because there was no middle ground in the job I was in. I was constantly working long hours and weekends with no time left to spend on my creative pursuits. My energy was draining and I didn’t even know where it was going. It was like a blackhole.
But it’s different if you’re in a position where you can work 9-5, go home and work on your other pursuits. If that’s your case, do that. But for me, that wasn’t realistic. So I looked at my savings and really calculated. I had enough to support myself and my business for a year or two, and I didn’t (and still don’t) have a family to support, a mortgage to pay off, or debt. So it was a good move for me. Thankfully, a small stationery design business doesn’t have a lot of start-up expense, which would not be the case if you were going to, say, open a retail store.
How was the support around you?
Incredible. I’m very fortunate to have a supportive community around me. My friends weren’t surprised; they saw it coming. I’ve always had a reputation of going for what I want. I was afraid to tell my parents though! I kept it from them for a few months, as they have traditional Chinese values and I knew they weren’t going to be pleased that I gave up stability. But when I finally told them, they actually weren’t that surprised. Again, I’ve always veered off into various directions, so they expected it. My dad is an entrepreneur so he was actually proud, I think, and my mom...well, eventually accepted it. She started collecting newspaper clippings of artists who had made it. That’s when I knew.
My boss was also supportive. He told me that I can come back if it doesn’t work out. That was really nice to have as a safety net.
After word got out that I was leaving to pursue my passion, some of my older colleagues who I didn’t know very well went out of their way to talk to me. They all told me that if they were my age again, and without kids, they would do the same thing too. One even said to me, “don’t do what you don’t love. Life is too short.”
Tell me about the first few months after quitting your job and getting your business started.
It was weird! I’d be walking outside at 1pm with the sun above my head, looking at everyone on the streets and thinking, “don’t these people have to work!?” I was so used to not seeing the outside world. It was odd that I could control my own schedule. When you’re on your own, you’re your own boss; no one’s telling you what to do, and you have to motivate yourself. It took some time getting used to the feeling of always being "free" yet never being free. Also, it was hard to not feel guilty when I met up with a friend or took time just for fun. I’d look at my watch and think, I could be working right now. And ironically, when I was working, I’d think, I really should take a break. But even when I took a break, I’d be thinking about work. It was stressful! You’re always racing against time when you’re a start-up.
Also, now I could roll out of bed and work in my pajamas if I wanted to, or go straight to bed when I feel like I’m done for the day. Life and work blur together when you are starting a business.
What was landing your first client like?
It was nerve-wrecking! I walked into a store with a whole box of cards with me and said, “Hi, I’m a designer, would you like to buy my cards?” and took them out. The owner had a look and wrote me a cheque on the spot. It was so encouraging! I was quite nervous; I had practiced lines in my head. Since then, I’ve learned that in life, you have to ask for what you want.To quote Norm Brodsky: “You don’t ask, you don’t get”. You have to make yourself an advocate for your own business, because you are your best salesperson. Along with the sales I get a lot of rejection too. For every ten rejections, I’d get one yes. And that’s great!
That must hurt. Tell me about your first rejection.
It was one of the first stores I went to. I dropped off my cards and never heard back. Since then I’ve called on them twice, and still nothing. That just makes me even more determined to have my cards carried there someday.
Having your cards displayed - it’s something very public.
I love it. Again, it’s an artist ego thing. At my last outdoor arts show, a lot of people came to my tent and told me, “hey, I bought your card from this store!” or “I received your card for mother’s day! I loved it!” and some people even told me they framed my cards. That’s one of the reasons why I decided to concentrate on small paper products - people like to have art in their lives but it’s not always affordable. I like to think of my cards as miniature artwork that gets passed on. I like that it brings a smile to people’s faces. Seeing people’s reaction to my work gives me so much power and encouragement.
What’s your typical day like?
I don’t have one (yet)! I go into phases. This week I’m in an accounting and bookkeeping phase. Sometimes I’ll be in a drawing phase where I draw all day, every day. Another week I’ll do all store visits. I tend to work best if I focus on one thing at a time. So if I’m doing a booth display soon, I’ll spend the day planning it.
Where do you draw your inspirations from?
I like to observe from the world. A lot of my sketches are made on-site, and I’m part of a network called Urban Sketchers. The mandate is that you go out and you sketch your environment, observing from real life. Some of my best work is produced when I’m traveling and my senses are at their sharpest. My creativity is spurred by the life around me, like confetti on the streets, or conversations on the subway. Architecture, nature and people all inspire me.
Do you have time to do things other than designing and your freelance illustration work?
I try to stay physically active. It’s one of my priorities. When I started my business last year I started training for a marathon at the same time. They’re both things that take up lots of time and commitment, so it was good for my mentality. Finishing that marathon felt like a milestone in my journey as entrepreneur.
Do you have a mentor?
I don’t have mentors in the traditional sense, because I only know them through the Internet and have never met them! For example, in the stationery world, Emily McDowell is an amazing inspiration. I met her in person a few months ago and she was every bit as genuine as she sounds from her online presence. She doesn’t know it, but she’s my mentor. Other inspirations include the illustrator Yuko Shimizu, Debbie Millman of Design Matters, Grace Bonney of Design*Sponge, and Arounna Khounnoraj of Bookhou here in Toronto; all of them are strong women entrepreneurs. I also look to my peers in the Toronto small business owners community. I’ve made a lot of friends through participating in art shows and flea markets, and it’s nice to know that we’re all on the same boat.
What are your goals?
To keep doing what I’m doing and enjoy the ride! I’m not huge on long-term goals past the one-year mark, but eventually, I want to establish Gotamago as an international brand. I’d also like to focus more on illustration and perhaps work on a book.
What’s your advice for someone who wants to give up their 9-5 and pursue their suitless pursuit full-time?
I would write a business plan. Not a formal one, but like a spreadsheet to calculate how much you can get by with per month. Add up all your necessities like rent and food, and find that golden number. Then, figure out if you have an ability to make money right away. If not, you need to figure out your savings and your timeline. It’s very romantic to say you’re starting your own business, but once you jump you won’t have anything to fall back on. You’re on your own and it can be scary. So get your numbers, and also, find someone who’s already done what you’re trying to do and ask them a lot of questions. I’d also observe and assess your market carefully, and start listening to relevant podcasts -- they’re free and there’s so much good content! “After the Jump” and “Your dreams my nightmares” are good ones for designers and illustrators. Also, read books. Jason Fried’s Rework, Michael Gerber’s The E-Myth Revisited and Norm Brodsky’s Street Smarts are great starters.
When I was in my “incubation” period, these words from Debbie Millman really hit home for me: “Don’t censor your dreams before you actually dream.” For years, I was afraid to even admit to myself that I wanted to leave the architectural profession, but now I know I’m on the right path because I’m so much happier. Dream, and dream big, and then go and be a doer.
Want to check out more from Lichia? Check out Gotamago online at:
Twitter - https://twitter.com/shopgotamago
Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/shopgotamago
Volunteer resources mentioned by Lichia:
Story Planet (Toronto) - http://storyplanet.ca
826 Valencia (San Francisco, California) - http://826valencia.org