Crowdfunding by day, cleaning by night

The bottom of a public toilet is an unlikely place to find inspiration.
Brianai Mercedes Weidner, 25, cleans the bathrooms at the Cecil County Health Department in Elkton, MD, January 5, 2016.
Brianai Mercedes Weidner, 25, cleans the bathrooms at the Cecil County Health Department in Elkton, MD, January 5, 2016.

The bottom of a public toilet is an unlikely place to find inspiration.

But that is where Briana Mercedes Weidner finds it, week after week, as she cleans 21 toilets and four urinals at the Cecil County Health Department in Elkton, Maryland.

The 25-year-old puts in her earbuds, pulls on stretchy, blue gloves and sprays toilet seats with Lysol. It’s mindless work, she says, and so she lets her mind wander: to her next sketch, her next business venture and the Kickstarter campaign that’s given her a taste of small-time entrepreneurship.

In many ways, working as a janitor is the easier of her two pursuits. The other, starting her own illustration business, seems fraught with uncertainty.

“It’s about not putting all your eggs in one basket,” she says, about pulling in $12 an hour in a small but steady janitorial paycheck as she works to get her business off the ground. “Having multiple streams of income as an artist is really important. If you don’t get enough work one month, you still need to be able to pay your bills.”

As with millions of small-business owners, Weidner’s big obstacle is finding the money to get started. She isn’t independently wealthy. And a bank loan, should she get one, would just add to her debt.

Sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo – which allow people to give small amounts of money to projects – have helped thousands of entrepreneurs like Weidner raise a few hundred dollars, or more, for personal pursuits. Whereas bank loans and venture capital are largely the purview of high-tech start-ups and well-known restauranteurs, crowdfunding has ballooned into a $34 billion-a-year industry in part because it holds the promise that anyone can break through with the next big thing.

The Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, snapped up by Facebook for $2 billion, got its start on Kickstarter, as did the the Pebble smartwatch, which drummed up more than $20 million on the site. But mostly, crowdfunding platforms specialize in the small and novel, and Weidner’s experience is no exception.

She has sold her work since college, but money comes in fits and starts – $30 for a cat portrait or $200 for a restaurant logo.

About a year ago, Weidner cut back on her cleaning job, from five shifts a week to one, in hopes of building up her art into a full-time venture. It has been a rocky slog, but she is seeing signs of promise.

She got a small taste of success when she raised $2,539 to fund a line of stickers and pins printed with her drawings.

She got that idea, like many others, while cleaning bathrooms.

On the first of the year, Weidner sat down at her iMac to test her spark of an idea.

A few weeks earlier, she had come up with a plan to sketch animal puns, like “dust bunny” and “dragon roll.” Her first drawing was of a “cat loaf,” a term for when a cat sits with all four paws tucked underneath, making it look like a loaf of bread. Her rendition, based on her cat Oswald, had a cat head and tail poking out of a block of sandwich bread.

She uploaded it onto Kickstarter and set a goal of $250, enough to print 200 vinyl stickers and pins.

She met the goal within 18 hours. By the time her month-long campaign ended Feb. 1, she had raised more than 10 times that.

“I was blown away,” she said. “I didn’t expect this many people would get excited about stickers.”

Women and minority entrepreneurs have found particular success on crowdfunding sites, where demographics and connections are less important than in traditional fundraising networks,said Ethan Mollick, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

“There are a lot fewer biases in crowdfunding,” Mollick said. “You don’t have to rely on peoples’ conventional wisdom of what will be successful and what won’t. You are no longer bound by your location or your social networks.”

For Weidner, who grew up in Elkton and has lived there most of her life, Kickstarter has helped attract an audience beyond her nearly 1,400 Twitter followers. It has also given her the cash she needed to order a big batch of stickers – in this case, 1,600 for about $900. The hope, she says, is to create other merchandise, whether T-shirts or phone cases, that will help pad her profit.

“If you can design something once and sell it over and over again, that can be really helpful,” she says. “Even if it’s just $10 a month from selling a few stickers, that can buy you groceries for a few days.”

One of Weidner’s earliest memories is of drawing on the walls with crayon. Instead of reprimanding her, her mother encouraged her to keep going. “I realized I couldn’t stop her, so I told her, ‘This is your canvas,’ ” Joy Blasier said. “She was a very quiet, introverted child. Her world was in her head, and art became something that was very therapeutic for her.”

Weidner drew whenever she could. At school, she turned in quizzes with Pokemon doodles in the margins and carried a clipboard filled with sketches of cats. During lunch, she drew while she ate.

“Art was a coping mechanism for me, especially in middle school,” she said. “I didn’t have friends. I didn’t fit in. And my home life wasn’t too great.”

She was partial to drawing animals. Weidner says she always knew she wanted to be an artist, although she wasn’t sure what kind of work she would do. She experimented with digital art, using programs like Adobe Photoshop to create more of her sketches. Sometime during her junior year of high school, she decided to go to college. She applied to three art schools and chose the Pennsylvania College of Art and Design.

Was it the right decision? She’s not sure anymore. Weidner learned to live on her own there and self-published a childrens’ book, Bird Boy, about a winged protagonist who struggles to make friends. But now she has $35,000 in debt that she worries she will never pay off.

Other expenses keep piling up: A $100,000 mortgage and medical bills to treat her husband’s kidney disease. Her 1999 Ford Escort recently broke down, leaving her little choice but to take out a $5,000 bank loan.

“I’m trying to find creative ways to pay the bills,” Weidner said. “That’s the great thing – and the scary thing – about working for yourself: There is no cap on how much money you can make.”

Although drawing and painting are instinctive for Weidner, running a business hasn’t come easily.

After she sold her first piece, a $16 drawing of a Dungeons and Dragons character, she couldn’t sleep for days.

“I had almost-crippling anxiety about taking people’s money,” Weidner said. “I started off undervaluing myself. There is a lot of self-doubt there: Are people going to like my art? What if it’s not good enough?”

Slowly, she’s getting better at it. She has amassed a small but loyal following of clients, including authors, small-business owners and a rocket scientist who regularly commissions drawings of birds.

“She has a unique style,” said Rachel Knecht, 27, a fellow artist from Gambrills, Md., who has bought more than 20 cat sketches from Weidner. “It’s very fantasy-esque and has a stylized quality like you’d find in childrens’ books.”

Most of Weidner’s work these days comes from Twitter, where she polls her 1,400 followers for feedback on new ideas. Other projects originate at events like Anthrocon, an annual convention devoted to human-like animal characters, where she sets up booths and takes commissions.

She makes about $700 a month from her art, enough to cover credit card bills and part of her mortgage. Until now, she has been keeping all of her money, business and personal, in the same checking account. But maybe it’s time to think about separating those, she says.

She is also thinking about advancing her business in other ways, by creating a company and taking marketing and accounting classes at Cecil College.

“I’ve been learning as I go, and that’s been okay so far because it’s just me as a sole proprietor,” she said. “But if this is going to get bigger, I need to take the necessary steps to legitimize myself.”

One thing she has learned is about setting realistic expectations.

A few years ago, hoping to drum up her following, Weidner tweeted out an idea: Anybody who re-tweeted her would receive a digital illustration of his or her avatar reimagined as a fat bird.

She was expecting a dozen or so retweets. She got nearly 800.

It was great – and awful. “I got maybe 50 drawings in before I got totally burnt out,” she said, adding that she’s still working to catch up. “I’ve realized that if I overpromise, I’m going to burn out very quickly.”

Weidner says she was so burnt out for a year after college that she stayed away from art altogether. She took on odd jobs instead, including one selling prints for a Little League photographer. (“That,” she says, “was really the pits. I had to try to sell photos of peoples’ children while they were screaming at the umpire.”)

The janitor gig began six years ago, while she was still in college. Over the years, she has cleaned bathrooms in public libraries, banks and private schools. They are all basically the same, shes says: A toilet is a toilet.

“It doesn’t really bother me,” she said. “If something is really smelly, I’ll hold my breath and then go into the bathroom. But I just do what I have to do. I don’t really think about it.”

She likes the quiet and the solitude that comes with cleaning. She comes up with ideas for how to further her business. Next, she’d like to buy a wide-formatprinter so she can make archival-quality prints at home. Maybe that will be her next Kickstarter project.

“All that time when I’m cleaning, my brain is going and going,” she said. “Sometimes when I get a really good idea, I’ll sit for a minute and write it down.”

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