Dane Ault is one half of Monkey Minion Press. He and his wife founded Monkey Minion Press out of the belief that fun, accessible, geeky art might not change the world, but it couldn’t hurt. With Dane’s art and graphic design, and wife Ashlie’s copywriting and crafting, they produce art prints, T-shirts, greeting cards, kids’ books, and much more.
They travel to lots of shows each year, so I am super appreciative of Dane making the time to answer these questions!
How did you get started? How did the idea for this come about? How did you start off?
I got started doing this selling zombie greeting cards and a couple of Wizard of Oz posters I’d designed at First Friday art walks in Phoenix, AZ. We made the Zombie cards because we just wanted to send something different to friends and family and our friend who ran a comic shop told us we should be selling them. That really got our guiding principle, “Let’s make the stuff we want, and hope other people will like it, too” started.
When did you make the decision to leave the world of “standard” employment? Did you ease in while still working a more traditional job?
I left my dayjob about 7 years ago. I worked full time (40-45 hours a week) as a graphic designer and did art at night until 2 or 3 every morning (getting up to commute at 6 AM) and cons on weekends, using my vacation days to travel. So, I kinda eased into it? LOL I don’t know if ‘eased’ is the right word.
What is an average workday like for you? How many hours a day do you work on average?
“Average” is a weird word. No day is average, when you work from home, in my experience. Ideally, I’d spend about 8 a day hours in the studio doing art. Most days it winds up being 6 hours of answering emails, talking to clients, mailing, taling to Ashlie about business stuff and about 5 hours drawing/designing new stuff. when I’m not at a show, I’m in the studio until 2 or 3 every night.
How often do you exhibit at shows or fairs? What was the first show you did and how did it go? (What was the aftermath in terms of how you moved forward?)
We do a show about once a month on average (sometimes we do 3 a month, some months we have no shows). The first ‘shows’ I ever did were First Friday art walks in downtown Phoenix. It was a fun hobby, but not really a viable business. I used to set up a small card table next to Ashlie who would set up a whole table full of knitted/crocheted hats and sell the hell out of them (yes, knitted hats in Phoenix). I did Phoenix Comicon in 2007 sharing a table with a friend of mine and that was the first convention I ever did.
What are the most crucial things you have done to grow your business?
Expanded our scope. When we first started out, I was strictly doing a couple of zombie greeting cards a year and maybe a print. We decided early on that if we wanted to make this a viable option for our livelihood, I’d need to make more work. At first, that meant giving up sleep and working nearly 70 hours a week, but eventually, we were able to quit our jobs and focus on MMP exclusively, because I was able to put the work first. One other thing we did that helped grow our business was to have a successful Kickstarter and then fold that money back into MMP by buying a large format printer, giving us absolute control over a large chunk of our output.
What plans do you have for expansion?
Spoilers. 😉 Currently, our plans for expansion involve getting more stores to carry our goods in more places. Everything else is nebulous and constantly shifting.
What outsiders have been most important to your business success? (e.g., fans, customers, suppliers, mentors, etc.)
Our Minions, first and foremost. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do. Other outsiders that have been massively important would be convention directors and artist alley coordinators who gave us a chance in their shows.
What has been your most effective marketing tactic or technique?
Our booth design. Ashlie has designed us a booth that makes us stand out on nearly any show floor and is modular enough so that we can utilize it in nearly any size space from 6 foot AA to 10×20 endcap.
What’s the worst business advice you’ve ever received?
“Do any show that’ll have you.” Some shows are not well-suited to our particular brands of nerdity. Recognizing that BEFORE signing up has been a huge boon to us.
What three pieces of advice would you offer creative entrepreneurs starting out today?
1 – Make what you love. If you’re just cashing in, people can tell.
2 – Find someone that’s as invested in your success as you are and run every decision by them. Whether that’s a spouse, partner, parent or friend – having someone who wants you to succeed as much as you do and who will always tell you the truth is SO important.
3 – Whatever you make, make it YOURS. when you make something, people should be able to look at it and go, ‘Oh that’s so&so’s’ whether it’s a poster, jewelry, or clay figurines, finding a way to stand out will serve you well in the future.
If you had the chance to start your career over again, what would you do differently? (If you knew then what you know now) What have been some of your failures, and what have you learned from them?
Hm. That’s a good question. One of my rules for life is to not succumb to regrets. Everything I’ve done in the past has piled up to bring me to the moment I’m in and made me the person I am. Even stuff that sucked was a learning experience. That said, if I were to be transported magically back to my college graduation day knowing what I know now, I might give up trying to break into mainstream comics/get a job at a major advertising company earlier and start focusing on my own work earlier.
We don’t have failures. We have products or ideas that didn’t work quite the way we expected. It’s like the Thomas Edison adage: “I have not failed. I have merely found 10,000 ways that didn’t work.” That kind of mindset saves us a lot of anguish. that said, one product that didn’t quite work the way I expected was a set of screen prints we had done. The art was based on a series of notebooks we designed and we didn’t change the artwork at all for the screen prints. We should have taken the text (which worked great for notebooks & sketchbooks) off and let the images stand on their own. Ah well. They’re really nice, but people get stuck on the text and how it doesn’t really work in the context of a single image.
What has been your most satisfying moment in business?
The great thing about doing what we do is that there are SO MANY. Every time someone picks up my art and takes it to their home is immensely satisfying. But, I’ll give you a really good recent example. While I was at Denver Comicon this year, I got an email from a young lady who was graduating college with a degree in aerospace engineering. She told me that she painted a portion of my poster “One Giant Leap Is Not Enough” on her graduation cap. That was pretty amazing. A few years ago, I met a young woman and her small daughter. The little girl had come up to my booth and really loved my little art collection sketchbook. Her mom told her, “this is the first booth we’ve seen – let’s come back and if you really want it, we’ll see about getting it then.” they came back a little while later and the little girl still wanted the book, but the mom couldn’t afford it. I gave the girl the book, anyway. Later that day, the mom sent me a picture of the girl with the book and blank paper spread out in front of her copying drawings from it telling me how much she loved the book and how happy she was to see the drawings and that I’d left the construction lines in the sketches so she could see how I’d made the drawings.
What is your favorite thing about living this creative life?
The freedom it allows me. Yes, I work a lot, but if one day I feel like playing Skyrim for 12 hours instead of drawing, or I decide to draw a space goat instead of a new propaganda poster, I can. It’s great.
Excluding yours, what company or business do you admire the most?
Steamcrow is constantly doing amazing things. Espionage Cosmetics is the best example of pure successful sticktoitiveness I’ve ever seen. Funko’s whole aesthetic and ethos is great. They are the epitome of “Let’s make what we want and see if anyone else wants one,” IMO.
What keeps you motivated when the going gets tough?
Our Minions. The fans who contact me and ask us to come back to their show, or ask ‘when’s the next print coming out?’, or send me photos of their MMP collections, or who contact me and tell me that something I’ve made or posted inspired them to do something new or hard or interesting. When I said earlier, without them, we’re nothing – I meant it.