For many entrepreneurs, reaching 6-figures seems like the pinnacle of success. But sometimes the numbers can be misleading – is that revenue or profit? How much did that business owner really take home at the end of the day? Our latest podcast guest is here to set the record straight. Sarah Rafferty is a fine artist and the owner of Atwater Designs, a cyanotype art studio.
In this episode, Sarah shares her journey from photography teacher to full-time cyanotype artist, including a year-by-year breakdown of her revenue and profits.
Press play for the full interview or keep reading below!
“I started my art journey when I was little,” Sarah says. “I was drawing all the time, and always had art supplies.” In college, she majored in studio art before pursuing her Master’s of Fine Arts.
“I loved art education because it’s where school made sense to me. It was very natural for me to learn through art.”
Like many artists, Sarah grew up with the message that she couldn’t make a living doing what she loved – so she decided to teach photography. In the early 2010s, she noticed more and more artists leaving their day jobs to start creative businesses. And although she loved being a teacher, she also felt called to do her own thing.
Sarah was reluctant to jump straight from teaching into full-time entrepreneurship. “I was terrified to start, to put myself out there.”
Her husband was the one who convinced her to get started on the side of her teaching job. Together, they decided to invest $600 of their savings into Sarah’s new business. “That investment was everything. I started slowly and intentionally, and I kept my numbers so clear.”
In 2017, Sarah started laying the foundations of her business. She formalized her commission process and learned what she needed to charge for her work to be profitable. “I love to make things and see how they affect other people, but it costs money to make art.”
In her first year as a professional artist, Sarah took on a lot of different projects. She collected data about what worked and which mediums she enjoyed most. Eventually, she landed on the goal of becoming a cyanotype artist.
Cyanotype, a photographic printing process that produces cyan-blue prints, was only a small part of Sarah’s photography education – but she’d always loved interior design and she had a vision for cyanotype home decor. “Blue and white is classic, it will never go out of style. I could see the potential.”
Back then, the cyanotype artist community was very small and niche. Sarah started with a few simple greeting cards. She took her prints to local garden shops and interior stores, anywhere she could. “I was so driven to make it work.”
In Sarah’s first year in business, she made $3,000 and spent about the same amount on supplies. With her full-time teaching job to pay the household bills, Sarah continued investing in her business with the profits she made.
“The reality of running a business is in the numbers, yet so many people don’t talk about it,” Sarah says. “I always made my own money, and it was really important to me to support our family while I built this thing.”
It was around the same time that Sarah came across one of my posts about running a 6-figure business without social media. “When I saw that, my brain exploded.”
Sarah knew the art side of things well but was wildly curious about the business side – and how it might be possible to make that much money doing what she loved. “I knew the art, so it had to be in the numbers.”
Sarah’s business made $21,000 in its second year and again spent a majority on expenses. In 2019, she brought in $43,000 with her profit margins increasing.
In March of 2020, Sarah was teaching full-time when the pandemic hit.
Being sent home to work virtually ended up being a blessing in disguise – without her commute or being interrupted by students, Sarah had more time than ever to devote to her business.
In 2020, Sarah launched a cyanotype kit for people to create their own prints at home, which was a huge success. By then, she was tired of the bureaucracy of teaching and ready to leap into full-time entrepreneurship.
In August of that year, she quit teaching for good. “I have a picture of me hitting send on my resignation email with balloons on the back of my chair.”
Sarah set a goal to replace her annual teaching salary and pay herself $30,000. Not only did she reach that goal, but her business has continued to be profitable every year since.
While recounting her annual revenue, Sarah was clear that just because she made a certain amount of money didn’t mean that was what she took home. Product-based businesses tend to have higher expenses, something that Sarah shares about openly.
“In 2022, I brought in $109,000 and I couldn’t believe it. And I paid our family $42,000. So many people talk about hitting 6-figures, but they don’t talk about the cost of business.”
For her part, Sarah is more than happy with her profit margins. I usually recommend my students in The Blueprint Model pay themselves 30% of their total revenue – which means Sarah is actually ahead of the curve!
Sarah has learned a lot of important lessons since starting her business, but it was a meeting with her financial advisor that had the biggest impact. Before getting married, she and her husband sat down to map out where they were and where they wanted to go.
“That meeting changed my life,” Sarah says. “It allowed space for our dreams and goals.” For the first time, Sarah felt comfortable talking about money openly, and that translated into her business as well.
“My time is worth something and I’ve learned to stop justifying that. We all have so much baggage when it comes to money, but we have to learn to talk about it honestly.”
“I love a good mentor,” Sarah says. “I look to other people that are ahead of me to show the way, and it’s always been so helpful.” With five years of experience as a cyanotype artist, she’s decided it’s time to start paying it forward through her own mentorship program.
You can find out more about Sarah’s upcoming mastermind for artists and explore her work on the Atwater Designs website.
To hear the full story and more about Sarah Rafferty, press play on the player above for the full interview or click here to download the transcript.
Sarah is an artist and educator, a wife and mama to 2 fur babies. She founded Atwater Designs – a cyanotype design studio in 2017 after thinking about it for far too long while simultaneously teaching photography full time to high school girls. She left classroom teaching in 2020 to take Atwater Designs full time and has loved settling into full time artist as entrepreneur life ever since. Sarah loves to walk and be outdoors, and speaks often about the importance of natural world on our souls. Because of the nature of the cyanotype process, her art practice connects her to being outside, collecting inspiration daily, and has been the constant reminder that good things come with slow and consistent intention.
October 6, 2023