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Keep Going: Claudia’s Story

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When the financial crisis hit in 2007, Claudia McKinney had no way of knowing it would mark the start of her new career.

Nothing good—in her own family or across the nation—seemed to be coming from the economic slump.

“My husband’s business suffered tremendously,” McKinney states. “And it went under.”

In addition to their source of income, the McKinney’s lost their house. During this time, one of Claudia’s hobbies became a lifeline for her family.

Initially, Claudia began experimenting with Photoshop to help her daughter promote her singing career. But soon, her art began taking off.

“I was doing it constantly,” she says. “Doing it for friends; doing it for fun.”

Though it was frightening to consider how she would make rent each month, Claudia says, “Somehow, God saw me through.” Her business, Phat Puppy Art, helped her and her family make ends meet during that difficult time.

Eventually, Claudia was approached about a book cover, which opened a new avenue of possibilities.

Claudia’s artwork caught the eye of an author who was also struggling financially at the time. “She even said to me, ‘Claudia, I can’t pay you right now, but could you do three of my covers, and then when I get the money I will pay you?'” Claudia recalls. A believer in paying it forward, Claudia created the covers and didn’t hear anything for months—not until both of their businesses exploded.

“The following January . . . she sold something like 500,000 copies and she made like a million dollars in one month,” Claudia recalls. “She became the poster child of ebooks. . . . I was with her for that journey, and because of that, it catapulted me.”

The calls began flooding in. Claudia would often work for 16 hours a day to meet deadlines. “It was incredible! It was exciting! To say the least, it was a miracle!” Claudia says. “Luckily it kept our boat afloat and it let me continue to provide for my family . . . and it let me stay at home too, which is what I wanted.”

While Claudia doesn’t fit the stereotype of a starving artist, making her business a success did not come without uncertainty, long hours, and change.

“It’s a never-ending learning process,” she says. “This whole time I have been learning, growing, and reprocessing, trying new things, always trying to stay ahead of the curve, which is hard to do—it’s a challenge.”

Claudia McKinney artwork

Claudia learned mostly through trial and error, and she was unafraid to reach out for help when she needed it.

“When I first started, I didn’t know what the heck I was doing,” Claudia admits. “I had no clue. . . . Before I knew it, I was forced into really looking into what do I have to do to make this long-term.”

One of Claudia’s personal business nightmares was her accounting. “It came to a point where tax season would roll around and I would start having PTSD,” she says. “I have enough to deal with in my own business, and I knew I couldn’t take that on, too. And I didn’t want to.”

She continues, “When you have a business and you are trying to be successful . . . you have to know when to delegate.” As Claudia’s business took off, she saw the value of collaborating with other subject matter experts to fill in the gaps with her business.

One of those solutions for Claudia was Mazuma, which helped take care of her bookkeeping and taxes. “You guys have been really the saving grace of my business. I couldn’t do it without you,” she says.

Claudia McKinney artwork

As she looks back on her business, Claudia has learned through experience many other life lessons that are valuable for new business owners:

  1. Know when to step back and gain new vision. Sometimes, as the daily details and logistics come crowding in, business owners can become hyper-focused or myopic to the point of losing sight of our larger goals. Claudia sees this truth repeated often as she creates her artwork. “Sometimes, I’m so close to it that I can’t even see it anymore. And all the lines start to blur and everything starts to become a big mishmash.” When that happens, she says, it helps to take a break so we can come back to see the strengths and flaws with new perspective.
  2. Do what works best for your business, without giving in to the pressures of the majority or industry expectations. She uses social media as an example. Initially, Claudia thought she needed a large following to grow her business. “The thing is, that doesn’t always identify success,” she says. “Just be true to who you are as yourself in a business and the success will follow,” she says. “You just have to have faith in yourself. Don’t let the number of likes or an Instagram feed determine the worth of what you are doing.”
  3. Understand that success does not come without an investment of time and commitment. Claudia shares, “With any business . . . there is going to be a long time that you have to spend. There is really no way around it, but it can be rewarding at the end.” The time and work you invest now pays off in the long run. For Claudia, those payoffs come in the time and freedom she has to spend with her family. “Family, that’s the most important thing for me,” she says.
  4. Don’t be afraid to pursue your dreams and ideas. If you are questioning whether you can make your business idea into a success, Claudia advises, “You should go for it. Everybody should just give it a shot once. They should try if they have it in them to try.”

Claudia McKinney with her husband

Looking back at the unexpected turns her life and business have taken, Claudia is happy about where that journey has taken her. Because, in the end, she says, “What motivates me is doing the work I love to do.”

To see more of Claudia McKinney’s remarkable art, visit phatpuppyart.com or follow Claudia on Facebook.

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