Elyse Burns has turned her art into a livelihood
Running a business

Elyse Burns has turned her art into a livelihood

Name: Elyse Burns

Location: Durham, NC

Business: Mill & Meadow

A person holding a case full of different colored hand drawn books.

Tell us about how you started your business.

I started my business as an Etsy shop when I was 18. I was selling my original paintings — I started out just selling my hand-painted canvases. A few days after I started my Etsy shop, I sold two of them in my first order. And that was such a good feeling. I was like, wow, somebody out there really likes my art and really wanted two pieces of it. That was just really an unparalleled feeling.

It eventually started growing when I introduced stickers and greeting cards and notebooks when I was in college. But my business really blew up during the pandemic when I got on TikTok and started selling wholesale to other local shops and boutiques. And during that time I was also going to law school, which is what brought me to Durham (because I'm originally from Chicago). I just kept growing my business through social media and wholesaling and then I started expanding my product lines to stationary accessories and home goods. I hired my first employee, I got an office space in 2021, and then in 2022 I moved into a bigger office space four times the size. Then I graduated from law school and opened the store. 

When did you decide to do this full-time?

I decided I was going to take my business full-time after I finished law school. Right around the start of my second year, I realized I was making more income than I would've been if I had gone into law. But I also was enjoying this more. And the options that I had for becoming a lawyer just seemed slightly worse. I think I would've enjoyed becoming a lawyer, but it felt like a weight off my shoulders every time I thought about it. Every time I thought: “Okay, I'm gonna be done with law school and I'm gonna paint all day.” Which isn't necessarily what happened..But it just filled me with so much joy and relief that I knew it was the right decision.

What advice would you give your past self about starting a business?

The biggest piece of advice I think I would give to myself—or anyone starting a business—is that it doesn't have to be giant right away. I didn’t start my Etsy shop thinking it was a business. It was completely on the side.  I needed to feel out what I wanted for my life and what I wanted to do. It doesn't need to be your full-time job and you're not a failure if it's not. You can really ease your way into it. It took me six or seven years  to take my business full-time and that's okay. I'm really happy that that's how I did it.

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It doesn’t need to be your full time job and you’re not a failure if it’s not.

How do you manage work/life balance?

When you’re an artist, you definitely need creative space and time to mull over what kind of art you want to create. And also just time to recharge your creative battery. I never stop working, but I also have so many different things I'm doing that it's not like: “Okay, it's my eighth hour today of painting canvas or creating a design on my iPad.” There’s an hour in the morning where I answer emails. There's an hour where I manage finances. There's an hour where I go to make content. And then there's an hour where I create art. I think having a little bit of everything sprinkled throughout my day is a really good way for me to stay motivated and keep things fresh and interesting.

What do you think makes Gen Z entrepreneurs unique?

We kind of feel like we're almost impervious. Like if everything goes wrong, well we can always fall back on, you know, making a TikTok about how everything went wrong. Or if everything comes crashing down…well, you know, we already saw that happen for people in traditional career paths who were graduating college in 2010 and 2012 and couldn't find jobs there either. So I feel like just having seen so much growing up, I'm not afraid of the risk because if I were doing something else that's more traditional and more safe, that might be just as big of a risk anyway.

How do you incorporate your values into your business?

Figuring out what values that I live by and run my business by has been something I've really had to think about in the past few years. I think a huge turning point for me was hiring full-time employees because having the responsibility of someone else's livelihood  has been really eye-opening. So I would say one of my main values as a business owner is that I want all of my employees to be treated right. I want everyone to be paid fairly. I don't want anyone to be overworked. 

I also care really deeply about sustainability and it's pretty hard, when you have a product-based business, to set aside the cost of sustainable packaging and sustainable shipping and just do it. But that's something that I have definitely prioritized.

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When I was little, I didn’t play house. When I played pretend or played with dolls, they owned a business…Looking back, I think this is what I was looking for the whole time.

Did you always want to be a business owner when you were growing up? 

When I was little, I didn't play house. When I played pretend or when I played with dolls or whatever, they owned a business. I was pretending to own a bakery or a shop. Maybe that should have been a tip off to me that law wasn't the career path that I was meant to do. Looking back, I think this is what I was looking for the whole time.

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