Mapping out success: An interview with Jen and Omar

This interview first appeared on Successilism on Jan 12, 2013

I’m always excited to hear about other people’s success stories, especially if they’re from fellow artist. I mean, I love anything that involves creativity, and being able to live your life with it and succeeding at the same time is just… awesome.

I first heard about Jen and Omar as I was reading Chris Guillebeau’s, The $100 Startup. I decided to check them out thinking, what’s so cool about their maps?! Then as I’ve visited their website, I was just blown away!

First of all, the story behind “These Are Things” is really interesting, how does it feel like to achieve this kind of unexpected success?
O: It feels great to wake up each day and be creative. More than anything, this has been an incredible opportunity for us to grow as artists. I feel like our work has progressed more in the past year than it ever has.

How would you describe yourself?
J: This is a tough question! The answer has evolved along with our careers. These days, we’re most comfortable calling ourselves illustrators. We usually just tell people that we draw pictures for a living!


What was your childhood dream?
O: I wanted to win that Toys-R-Us sweepstakes where you get five minutes to run through the toy store and grab whatever you can. It never happened for me, but that was my idea of success.
J: I’m sure my childhood dream had something to do with cats!

Growing up, what does the word “success” meant to you?
J: With art, I think the greatest “success” came when I was able to create something that looked the same as it did inside my head. At those early stages, an artist’s greatest challenge is learning how to manipulate tools and materials to get the desired effect. If I could figure out how to make something come out the way I intended, that was the best.


Was life easy for you back then?
J: Kids have it pretty easy, don’t they? We’re both lucky that we didn’t grow up wanting much. But once you get into the real world and realize that there’s a lot of competition out there, things get tougher.

Things you wish you did differently?
O: We’ve made tons of mistakes along the way, but I wouldn’t change a thing. Through all of those mistakes, we’ve learned lessons that have been critical in helping us run our business better.
J: And, as I always like to say, at least none of those mistakes have been fatal!

Was there a time you felt like you were just wasting your time pursuing something that seemed far-fetched to other people?
J: I think it’s common for anyone who is doing their own thing to experience some skepticism and resistance, especially if it’s a creative venture. For whatever reason, people don’t seem to think that artists can make any money. I’ve never felt like I was wasting my time on creative pursuits, though. I think that’s what separates a successful artist from a not-so-successful one. You have to have faith in your own work and be able to keep creating, even when things are tough.
O: We’ve always felt like we were headed down the right path with These Are Things. We rely on intuition a lot, and if something doesn’t feel right or feels like a waste of time, we just won’t do it.

Describe a typical day for Jen and Omar.
O: There is no such thing! Our schedule changes from day to day depending on what projects we have going on at the time.

How did you promote These Are Things when it was just starting out?
J: Initially, we sent an email to a design blog that we liked. That’s it! We weren’t thinking about this project as a “real” business at that point, so we didn’t spend much time on promotion. Through this experiment, we learned a powerful lesson about publicity on the internet: if you make something interesting, people will promote it for you!

What challenges have you encountered and how were you able to conquer them?
O: From expensive printing errors to over committing ourselves and burning out, there have been many challenges. We try to keep an open mind and view each challenge as a learning experience.

How do you guys go about designing your maps?
J: Our process is very collaborative. Usually, one of us will have the initial idea for a product or illustration. After we’ve sketched out our general idea on paper, we start working digitally. We’ll take turns working on each project until we decide that it is finished. The end result is always a true combination of our individual styles.

What inspires you?
O: Travel! I think getting out of your comfort zone really helps with inspiration, and travel is great for that.
J: We’re moving to New York City at the end of this month. Talk about inspiration! I can’t wait to see how being in a new environment influences our work.

People that inspires you?
O: Barack Obama, Jack Kirby, and my dad.
J: Gwen Stefani. She’s still making music and still looks like she is 19. Incredible.

How do you define success now?
O: Our definition of success has to do with how much freedom we have. Now that we’ve experienced the freedom of working for ourselves on projects that we’re really passionate about, we’ll never be able to go back. Every decision we make is centered around maintaining that freedom.

Advice for people who wants to become successful in their own endeavors?
J: Do what you love. This whole thing started out as a personal project. We didn’t realize its business potential until months later, which left us in the unbeatable position of making money doing something we love. You can’t go wrong if you’re doing something that makes you happy!

So, what’s next?
O: Many things! On the illustration side of things, we’ve had the opportunity to work with some really great clients on projects that’ll be revealed in the coming months. In the shop, we’re looking forward to spending a lot more time developing new products in 2013, starting with a stationery collection. And, who knows what kinds of opportunities we’ll find in NYC. Stay tuned!

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