Sports Illustrator, Elias Stein,
On The Rewards & Challenges of Running An Online Shop
Elias Stein is a freelance illustrator / designer currently based in Illinois. With an emphasis on sports teams and iconic athletes, Elias’s illustration work is full of personality. His client list - to name a few - includes ESPN, Chicago Bulls, Apple, Men’s Health, Grantland, and New York Magazine. Alongside his practice, Elias runs his own online store, Hometown Icon. In his own words, Hometown Icon is “a sports art gallery celebrating the cities, teams, and athletes that fans love to root for”. We spoke with Elias to discover what prompted him to set up his own online shop, and the rewards and challenges he’s experienced along the way.
Hi Elias, tell us about yourself and where illustration started for you!
I’ve always been interested in art and have been drawing since a young age. I studied graphic design in college and began my career as a graphic designer. After a while, I took an interest in illustration as another creative outlet. I started out by making personal projects and eventually was able to get a few clients. Things continued to grow, and over time, illustration has became my job.
Why, in particular, do you enjoy creating illustrations around sports?
Originally, it was because I was personally interested in sports. The best things to draw are usually the things you know. As I started sharing the work online, I
noticed the sports stuff was getting a greater response than some of my other personal projects - I think because so many people are sports fans. Now, I see it less as a personal thing and more as this shared interest I have with a bunch of friends online.
What prompted you to set up an online store selling your prints?
I really liked the idea of having a physical version of my work that would live on beyond the screen. I wasn’t sure if anyone would actually buy the prints but I was happy to be making a physical thing that people could hold in their hands or hang on the wall.
What have you found most rewarding about running your shop, and what have you found to be most challenging?
It’s very touching when people like the work enough to buy a print and hang it in their home. There’s a lot of great art out there, so when something you made connects with someone on that level, it means a lot.
There are a few challenging parts about running a shop. Making the art is always fun, but running the whole operation i.e buying supplies, printing, shipping, can be a job in and of itself. Getting the work in front of the right potential buyers can also be tricky and may require some luck.
"Not everything pays off instantly, but consistently doing good work over time usually leads to good things."
How did you decide on a price point for your prints and which selling platform to use?
A lot can go into pricing including cost of materials, time spent, etc. I try to find the overlap between what I think a print is worth and what people are able to pay. With regards to selling platforms, I previously used Squarespace for my store but am now using Shopify. That said, any of these platforms can work well - it just depends on what you’re looking for.
How much time do you allow for creating personal work and prints vs client work?
Client work takes priority for me right now. I really enjoy the collaborative process of working together on something with a client. I usually create personal work and prints in my spare time, so it varies based on how busy I am on a given week.
"I really liked the idea of having a physical version of my work that would live on beyond the screen."
Did you use any strategies other than social media to market and promote your shop when you launched?
I didn't have much of a strategy, or even a full understanding of my goals for the store, in the beginning. My approach was simply to put it out there and see what would happen, with hope that the objective would become more clear over time (which it has!).
I've occasionally partnered with people or websites to do giveaways in conjunction with promoting the store. Sometimes that works but it really depends on how engaged the other party's audience is. The best thing for me has been word of mouth. On a few occasions people with larger followings have shared my work because they saw it somewhere and liked it. It's not something I can plan but rather something that happens naturally. I try to make good work and put it out there but what happens after that is unpredictable. That's the part that requires some luck and being in the right place at the right time.
Freelance is a very independent path. Without the guidance and mentorship of colleagues or superiors, how do you maintain confidence in the work you're creating?
Even though I work alone, I've found guidance and mentorship in different ways. I've often reached out to other creatives for advice, especially in the beginning. It can be tricky when you work alone and don't have someone to give you instant feedback. I've found maintaining confidence is something that comes with time and experience. The more work I've made, the more comfortable I've felt with my abilities, and that familiarity leads to more confidence.
In the early stages what was some good advice you received, and what advice would you give to any artists/designers wanting to set up their own online shop to sell prints?
Make sure to set realistic expectations. Paper, shipping supplies, ink - the costs add up. To be honest, I wasn't expecting to make money on my store when I first launched it. I saw it more as a side hobby to my client work - just something I wanted to do for fun. I thought if I was lucky, maybe I'd eventually break even, but I knew I’d still be alright if it didn’t take off. But I’ve been fortunate in establishing a small customer base over the years and the store has become profitable - for which I’m very thankful. Selling prints online can be unpredictable so my advice to anyone is to have other income streams and things you can fall back on!
"I've occasionally partnered with people or websites to do giveaways in conjunction with promoting the store. Sometimes that works but it really depends on how engaged the other party's audience is."
Can you tell us about any exciting projects on the horizon?
I don’t know if I can say anything regarding client work, but I’ve a handful of personal projects banked on my hard drive so there will definitely be new work coming to my print store in the near future.
Finally, as our name suggests, here at Mantra we’re curious about what keeps our favourite creatives driven and pushing forward. What’s your personal mantra, Elias?
A common saying I think about sometimes is, “It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.” There’s a lot of ways to break it down, but I like to think of it in regard to patience and building for the longterm. Not everything pays off instantly, but consistently doing good work over time usually leads to good things.