Figuring out how to start a creative business can be overwhelming and scary. Learning the business of being creative should not dwindle your passion for what you do! Kat Chan, the owner of Kat's Clever Creations, is a balloon artist who made the leap from corporate desk job to self-employed creative. Kat is sharing her story and some helpful tips for starting a creative business!
What is your elevator pitch about what you do?
“Hi, what’s your name and what do you do for a living?”
Hi, my name is Kat, and I’m a full time balloon twister. I’ve been twisting balloons for almost 20 years, but I don’t twist the usual swords and stick figure dogs you usually see at the farmer’s markets or fairs. I love twisting unique items like princesses, superheroes, and motorcycles. I’ve done sculptures for the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City. Corporations like Yahoo, Facebook, and Gilead have hired me to twist multiple times. Google alone has hired me over 20 times. I’ve twisted for Sergey Brin, Marissa Mayer, John Madden, and Draymond Green for their kid’s parties. While I know I can talk about ballooning for days, check out these pics instead – I think they’ll speak for themselves. Hey, if you have Insta, you can also follow me at Kats Clever Creations and see what I’ll be making next!
How did you get started with balloon art?
I was totally and utterly tricked into it! Back in my corporate office days, I met my boyfriend (now husband) at a nightclub. I knew his brother, so it wasn’t nearly as exciting as it seems. He offered to show me a magic trick, and I said yes! He asked me to sign a card with my name and phone number, which I naïvely did. I was amazed by the card trick and we started talking. I asked the usual questions, like “where you from,” “what did you major in,” and “what do you do for a living?”
When I asked him what he did for a living, he confidently told me he was a magician. I asked him again, and he repeated himself. Later on, he invited me to one of his magic shows. He asked me if I was interested in learning magic as we started getting to know each other. I discovered I was a terrible magician. Magic takes a level of deception (AKA lying) that I just wasn’t able to muster. I did end up helping him with his shows as a magician’s assistant.
As we got to know each other more, somehow the conversation regarding balloon twisting came up. I told him I used to have a Klutz Balloon Twisting book when I was a child. He told me that he knew how to twist balloons and asked me if I wanted to learn a few balloons other than the stick figure dog. Later that week, he got me a pump and a bag of balloons and showed me a couple of simple balloons. I was amazed and really eager to learn, even though they were simple creations!
After he taught me everything he knew, (which pretty much consisted of a flower, several variations of a sword, and a cool 5 balloon motorcycle), I started checking out books, poring through the internet, and eventually attending conventions to learn more. It fascinated me that a single balloon could be turned into something unique with just a few twists!
I eventually got so good that I started twisting characters from cartoons and random objects from photos I saw. Ultimately, I ended up forcing my husband into balloon retirement. I started twisting balloons as an add-on to his children's shows. I received requests to do balloon twisting on my own as I got better. It was tough working seven days a week to cater to my desk job and to do balloon events, but I enjoyed twisting so much that the lack of sleep didn’t seem too bad.
I started balloon twisting in 2003. By 2006, I quit my job and started twisting full time, and here I am now. My husband and I taught our kids almost everything we know, and our kids now perform magic, juggle, and twist balloons.
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How did you make the decision to go into a creative business full-time?
When I started, I worked insane hours to balance my desk job and my balloon twisting events. It was definitely a grind. I woke up at 5am to catch a train to San Francisco for my desk job that started at 6:30am and ended at 3:00pm. Some afternoons, I went directly from work to twist balloons for preschools and private family events. My weekends were jam packed with balloon twisting events and magic shows.
I was really hesitant to let go of my desk job until I started looking more carefully at the numbers. Then, I realized that I was making just as much doing balloon twisting as I was at my desk job. I asked my husband (then fiancé) whether it would be wise for both of us to be self-employed. It was intimidating to lost the full benefits and steady paycheck from my corporate job. After weighing the pros and cons, I ultimately decided to just go for it. I figured if the balloon and magic thing didn't work out, I could always go back to the corporate world. I just knew if I didn’t take the chance now, I probably would never end up doing it.
Did you have support from others in your life? How did that affect your path/choices?
Yes and no. I had equal supporters and doubters. Some of my friends told me to go for it because I had the talent. Other friends told me I was crazy and that I couldn't make it in the Bay Area twisting balloons. I took my friends opinions with a grain of salt.
It wasn’t as easy to do with my parents, who were vocal about how I was “throwing away” a perfectly good, stable job. They were very skeptical about whether or not I could live comfortably doing a job like balloon twisting. Like most Asian parents, they wanted me to have a traditional job, doing something they could understand and advise me on if I needed it. My parents didn't understand tech, but they understood that it was stable, offered health benefits, was stable, had potential for growth, and most importantly, was STABLE.
My parents thought I was insane when I told them I was considering going into children's entertainment. I respect their opinions, and it was tough to hear that. I kept recalculating my earnings over the past three years twisting balloons and as a magicians assistant. Paying for my own heath insurance, renting an apartment, and more all factored into my decision. Even in all of this uncertainty, I was fortunate to have a great amount of support.
My husband has been my biggest cheerleader the entire transition from corporate worker to professional entertainer. During the three years we were dating, he helped me by marketing my balloon twisting through his magic career. We could sell packages including both high-level magic and balloon twisting at a much higher rate than our individual services.. We had skills that complemented each other well. He was a master salesperson and helped me book more events since I was a pushover in negotiations.
I helped him upgrade his website and marketing strategies because I am much more creative and tech savvy. I gave him artistic and technical feedback on his performances, which ultimately led him out of the children's market and toward corporate magic. Knowing we were on the same path in our personal lives and careers made it easier for both of us to achieve what we have today.
A lot of entrepreneurial women in the creative space get bogged down by the business side of things at first. How did you navigate the business of balloon twisting without feeling creatively stifled?
I feel that I had an upper hand in this area when I initially started the balloon twisting business.
My husband started doing entertainment full-time by 1997. When I started working with him in 2003, he already had a lot of the business set up. He had a website, advertising, and a decently sized clientele. While he didn’t know the corporate market yet, he had a number of families who would hire him every year. In exchange for helping me book gigs, I offered him my expertise in photo editing, copy editing, and website optimization.
If you can find a partner to help start your business, or at least someone to help fill in those blanks that you lack, it can help jump start your business! Partnership can help move your business faster than muscling through it yourself. I know that not everyone has this opportunity, but if you do, take advantage of it!
The “outsourcing when possible” mentality is something that my husband and I still do in business today. I can safely say that website creation and optimization, video creating, and photo editing have come a long way since 2003! While I could try to do everything myself, it makes more sense to pay someone with more expertise to manage my website. That allows me to spend more time being creative and booking shows.
We still utilize bartering and outsourcing to bolster areas in our business where we are lacking. It does cost a little up front, but it will help you stay creative and focused on moving forward. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or advice from every person you know! Make sure you don't cling so hard to your business that you don’t outsource the parts where you could use help.
What advice do you have for women who want to pursue a creative business but feel hesitant and/or lack support?
The best piece of advice I can offer to someone who is hesitant or lacking support is to surround yourself with people in your field who are absolutely crushing it. Get to know them, ask how they got started, and learn how they built their business.
If there are conventions for the field you’re in, GO to one. I’ve been to magic conventions, balloon twisting conventions, face painting conventions, juggling conventions, clowning conventions, and family entertainment conventions. Although I don’t utilize all of the random skills learned at these conventions, I learned a LOT about what people are doing to make their businesses successful. I networked with truly amazing people who inspired me! Almost all of the conventions I’ve attended included courses about business and marketing. Just talking to some of the long-time business owners can give you an idea of what to expect along the way.
I've been in the ballooning business for almost 20 years now and I still learn new things at conventions. I always learn new things creatively and on the business side of things. Although I barely get any sleep between all the sessions, jamming with other balloonists, and entering every competition at the convention, I go home feeling refreshed.
Meeting other people who have successfully pursued their creative business is encouraging! It gives you the boost you need to take that leap of faith and embark on a creative career of your own.
Is there a book, course, or other “tangible” thing that has impacted you in your creative business journey?
While it’s a tangible thing, the most inspiring thing that has impacted me on my ballooning journey is something I can’t keep to myself or even touch in this current COVID era: it’s the high fives, hugs, and absolute sheer joy that I see from kids and adults when I make something unique and special out of balloons that they request.
I love to see people's faces light up when I make their favorite cartoon character, pet, or caricature of themselves. It brings so much joy to them and me!
Every time I hand out a balloon, I receive a gift, too. When I share my love for ballooning and people express how happy they are to receive a customized balloon, it's incredible. The amount of satisfaction I get from my job is something that continually pushes me forward, and the unlimited creative possibilities in balloon twisting will keep me motivated for years to come.