Sometimes, following your passion means doing things you never imagined. This was exactly the case for Evan Plante, Owner of Docklands Design + Printshop. A Massachusetts native, Evan began his creative career in Richmond, V.A., where a thriving art scene introduced him to the world of printmaking. While in Richmond, Evan met his wife and business partner Susan, while she was studying music at Virginia Commonwealth University. In 2005, the duo headed to Charlotte, and after succumbing to cubicle life while working for print publications and press rooms, Evan spent his free time looking for ways to express his creativity off the clock.
Evan’s fate took at turn when he started volunteering with the NoDa Neighborhood Association. Though his intentions were to connect with and do good for his community, he became enthralled with geographic anthropology; the way people organize themselves and think of themselves together. After only finding “sad little maps” of Charlotte’s diverse neighborhoods, Evan created an artistic print of the Queen City, and the snowball effect began. By 2010, Evan could no longer ignore the buzz created by his artistry and thus, Docklands Design + Printshop was born.
In this interview, we’ll learn what it’s like being an entrepreneur when you never thought you would be, as well as some basic tips to selling products through local retailers and online storefronts.
Let’s get started!
CBR: We feel like most business owners say, “when you know, you know.” How long have you known that you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
Evan Plante (EP): This is a funny answer, but I never wanted to be an entrepreneur. Like, very much, never. I guess that’s because my experience with jobs has always been something you HAD to do, with your real life and passion existing outside of the workplace. This is where Susan comes in. She grew up with an entrepreneurial family. She owns part of her parent’s business, and owns part of Docklands, and was the one who told me to get serious and turn our hobbies into a career. I pushed back for a while, but I’ve also found out that I am surprisingly good at the business part of art and design.
CBR: What resources did you find helpful when you first got started?
EP: I’m quite bad at reading instructions, and the most daunting part of starting a new business is understanding the legalese, paperwork and finances. I was fortunate to find NC LEAP, a program by the NC Bar Association to provide start-up businesses with pro-bono lawyer consultation. Once I realized that I didn’t need to do this alone and that Charlotte, and North Carolina as a whole, are very business friendly, it got easier to feel confident. I will admit that my requirements for starting a LLC/business was not very complex compared to most. But without networking contacts like NCLEAP to give me advice, I would still be in the starting gate for sure.
CBR: Running a family business can be challenging! How do you maintain a good work-life balance with Susan?
EP: I don’t know why, but when we first started dating, I told Susan that “we’d make a good team.” It’s like I could see the future. We’ve always been teammates, building each other up and giving each other confidence. We have a dream to someday open a printmaking co-op and open-studio. It would be a big step to buy a building and open the doors to the public, but we’ve done a lot of pop-up events and public workshops together and really like the feeling of contributing to the community and city’s culture. We have also been known to play music together frequently, and we’re avid weekend hikers.
CBR: What kind of skills do each of you bring to Docklands?
EP: We’re quite different people, and our skills and aesthetic reflect that. Susan knows illustration and letterpress. She’s also much better at technical problem-solving than I am. So if we need to develop something for the internet, she has the patience to look at internet code, or print specifications. I spend a lot of time with my head in the clouds. I like nebulous and abstract ideas organized into art. I’m also the person who handles most of the communication and development of printmaking and art design. My strongest work is when I get to put ink on paper or textiles – or when I get to develop a concept or commission based on cultural references.
CBR: Your products are in stores across Charlotte. What challenges did you face when trying to get store owners to shelve your product?
EP: The biggest challenge was getting up the nerve to walk into a shop or business and be confident that we do great work. We take things slowly, and we’re interested in partnerships for the long term. We’re really fortunate to work with a lot of small business owners who treat us as equals working towards a common goal together. Our local shops truly are just as supportive and encouraging as partners would be. Making and wholesaling prints and art are the foundation that gives us room and permission to do big commissions and projects that the public might not even get to see.
CBR: You also have an Etsy store! While we know the ins and outs of online retails is pretty intense, what beginner advice would you offer to someone considering launching an Etsy store?
EP: I hate to keep suggesting it’s easy, but our Etsy shop has grown as organically as our retail shops. We were invited to take part in a Etsy Pavilion at the Southern Woman’s Show in Raleigh. The promoters selected some highly visible North Carolina Etsy shops and invited us to do a pop-up weekend. We met a lot of entrepreneurial makers, and we tried to give each other tips and pointers for our Etsy shops, but quickly realized that each of our experiences were so different. Some shop owners dedicated one day a week to boost their online presence, while others did nothing other than make stuff and list it. The internet is really the wild-west. We think of our Etsy shop like our local brick and mortar shops – it’s all part of how we build the foundation of Docklands Design. A successful and highly visible Etsy shop is a springboard to Google search results which can lead to networking and opportunities. If I were to give one bit of advice to a new Etsy/maker: don’t make business cards. Make something that is unique and interesting (maybe just a sticker) enough that someone would put it on their refrigerator. You know you’ve made it if you’re on a refrigerator.
CBR: Docklands is unmistakably geared toward the Carolinas. Are you limited to local?
EP: Not limited, but certainly interested in keeping it close to home. Our goal has always been to remain at a manageable size, not to over-extend ourselves, and to connect, celebrate and grow within our community. We get asked to design work for other cities, or other concepts that we aren’t familiar with; we almost always recommend local artists and printmakers in those areas. Accuracy and authentic interpretation is worth as much as style. Our commitment to the Carolinas has found us some great partnerships though. We were chosen to be part of Speedball Arts National Network of Printmakers (the worldwide company for printmaking inks and art products is headquartered in Statesville, N.C.). We do work with, or maintain partnerships with the Charlotte based Frame Warehouse, Carolina Made in Indian Trail, Keller Williams Realty, Crescent/Greystar Properties, the City of Charlotte, and many Carolina businesses like Hyatt House, Kimpton Hotels, Vignette Design, Gokotta, Arts Council of Rock Hill, Babalu, and Rhino Market.
CBR: Sounds like Docklands does a lot of different things. Can you list them?
EP: When people ask me what I do for a living, I say: printmaking and design… in that order. There are lots of talented artists, designers, and printers. But I love to push ink around, and I love the process of designing for pushing ink. We don’t print everything by hand, in house, though. Docklands does desktop graphic design for magazines, tabloids, advertising, posters, and web. We also produce archival photos, historic and cultural – and we’re working on a book in 2018.
Thank you for sharing your story with us, Evan! Your story reinforces the notion that there is a direct correlation between passion and success. To learn more about Docklands Design + Printshop, visit them online at docklandsdesign.com or at their Etsy store, and be sure to follow their story on Instagram @escapists.
Are you a Charlotte maker? Show us the goods on Instagram by tagging @CBRBiz in your latest (or greatest) product pics!