Six Years of Self-Employment

Today is the sixth anniversary of the day I left my full-time job.

I was 27. I had decided to leave my job one month earlier. I was then acting Development Director — the highest position in the fundraising and marketing branch of my small non-profit. I had worked there off and on since I was 19.

My coworkers were my family. I came to work everyday greeted by people I loved and who loved me (I think…). I worked with students with stars in their eyes; learned all about their hopes and dreams. Watching them party and study, party and study. There were good points. There were bad points.

I looked around my office that fateful day, and I realized… “I’m too comfortable.” Continue Reading

How many twitters are too many twitters?

I started out with one twitter account: @jennifer_heller. I think I’ve had it for a little over two years and it’s only within the past year that I’ve started enjoying using it at all. I’ve heard others share a similar experience: it takes some time, but it’s addictive as hell once you get into it. I can attest to that, but as someone balancing many competing priorities, it’s hard to prioritize reading hundreds of tweets a day. Especially since I’ve steadily added other twitter accounts to my list.

When I launched Van Gogh My Pet in the second half of 2009, I added a second twitter account: @vangoghmypet. This one, I thought, would concentrate on my pet and art related thoughts and would attract a different variety of people than @jennifer_heller. It seems to work; @vangoghmypet is on 42 pet and art related lists and my followers have steadily grown.

This graph of Van Gogh My Pet tweets verses website visits suggest that the tweets have very little if not nothing to do with increasing visits.

When I decided to brand my design and communications work as Artsy Geek Designs, it was a natural progression to add another twitter: @artsygeekdesign. Here I would tweet about my geeky subjects–web design, coding, communications. And maybe some art. Hey, @artsygeekdesign and @vangoghmypet can overlap a little right?? A further reason for separating @artsygeekdesign from @jennifer_heller is that I fully intend to expand and work with others in this business. They should be able to tweet from the business too!

I made the decision a few weeks ago to consolidate all my blogging here at Believe me, I do not miss maintaining a blog at Van Gogh My Pet, and I can say with 100% certainty that I am not sorry I didn’t add yet another blog on at Artsy Geek Designs.

This January, Will and I are launching Lushes in Love, our new blog devoted to our endless love and appreciation for cocktails. You can check out the design–I put it up over the weekend, but we have yet to move in. I’ve already signed us up for a twitter: @lushesinlove and tweeted something like five high quality tweets. Thankfully, Will will also have to help with the @lushesinlove tweeting, but this addition marks my fourth twitter!

Who wants to follow a long-ass stream of nothing but links? Do you??

And all of a sudden I’m asking myself…to what end? Sure I like Twitter okay, but I don’t looooove it the way I love knitting, web design and painting. I love people, but most of the time I feel like Twitter is just filled with robots endlessly sending their links out hoping for clicks. Sometimes I worry that to the other twitter users, I’m just another four Twitter accounts doing the same thing. Indeed a quick googling found this post that proposes that robots do better on Twitter than humans!

Perhaps it would be best to take a cue from my decision to simplify my blogging and simplify my twitter? One twitter, four subjects… perhaps that would make me a more interesting person to follow in general?

Perhaps I should embrace the robotic future of twitter and create automated twitter robots for all four… That just isn’t my style though. I believe in sincere, honest communication. When I notice that someone I follow is being a twitter-bot, I immediately unfollow.

So what to do? Nothing? Consolidate? Automate?

Oh, the problems associated with living a life on the internet. I’d appreciate any sound advice please!!

(This post could also be titled “How many Facebook pages are too many Facebook pages?”)

Value of Experience

I spent yesterday updating Van Gogh My Pet for the holiday season.

Van Gogh My Pet was the first website I used the awesome Thesis theme for WordPress as the basis for the design.

Back then, the reason I chose Thesis was because it allowed the customizations that I make to the theme to be stored in only two files in just one directory.  This makes my design invincible to updates to the theme and WordPress. Continue Reading

a tale of pets, the internet and intrigue

Last February I held a Pets Amore Love Story Contest to promote my pet portraiture business, Van Gogh My Pet. For months following, my aunt Liz hounded me to submit the tale to This American Life. What follows is the pitch that Will and I put together, that both my father and my aunt found sub-par, and that we submitted anyway. Seriously, the two of us could spend years on just about any project…if we had it.

And..without any further ado…the pitch for This American Life:

Jennifer Heller is an artist and web designer in Oakland, California. In February she decided to use Valentine’s Day to promote one of her business projects, This is a business where Jennifer paints portraits of people’s cats and dogs, rendering them in the approximate style of Vincent Van Gogh. On the website Jennifer announced a contest: pet owners could submit their “pet love stories,” and viewers of the site would vote on which submitted story was the best. The pet owner voted best would win a free, original portrait of his or her pet.

Jennifer hoped that this contest would bring more attention to her website. She had no idea what was in store.

Quinn may look like a real dog, but she's not!

Thirteen pet owners submitted stories: pets ranged from dogs and cats to angelfish, a stuffed Yorkshire Terrier, and a horse. The voting was to last just five days–Monday through Friday, and each IP address was allowed one vote per hour.

One entry quickly pulled ahead, a horse named Weekend. The young woman who owned Weekend, Kayla, mobilized her large family to vote for her story. Her family viewed the contest with particular poignancy, because the horse she had been wanting her whole life had been a consolation after the painful passing of her father.

Kayla’s supportive family voted heavily: Kayla’s elderly grandmother slept with a laptop by the bed and set an alarm to wake hourly during the night. Family and friends as far away as Canada, Arizona, and Florida took part in the voting. Weekend’s love story on the website accrued regular comments from her supporters gushing with love and support.

Kayla and Weekend

Though he had a strong lead, Weekend was not without competition. A few of the other pet owners were putting up a good fight. Two coworkers at the office where Jennifer’s mother works had entered the contest. Among them was the mother of a girl and her Chihuahua, Libby. Jennifer recalls, “Throughout the week, I got phone calls every hour from my mom reporting what was happening at the office. The contest was a constant topic of conversation. My mom felt really sorry for the losing entries, and called me to say she voted for the underdogs, or why she thought that the Angelfish story was really the best written. I don’t think either of us got much work done; all we did was watch the voting.”

Late Wednesday, one of the other entries began to claw at Weekend’s lead, a story about a feline named Fence Cat. In contrast to most of the submissions, which told of the owners’ love for their pets, the Fence Cat story professed no such love, but told of an amorous liaison between Fence Cat and another cat. In contrast to Kayla and her emotional connection to her horse, the contestants who submitted the Fence Cat story were not even the animal’s owners: Fence Cat was a stray who lounged about on their property, and they viewed him with a sort of detached respect and bemusement. In contrast to the suburbanites voting for Weekend, Fence Cat’s hosts were residents of Oakland, recent graduates of UC Berkeley and still very much part of the student counterculture. It appeared for the first stretch of the contest that their feckless hipsterism would win them some laughs but fail in the face of Weekend’s mobilized effort. But they had a surprise up their sleeves.

As the weekend neared when the vote count was to wind down, the Fence Cat contestants whipped up their own voter mobilization scheme. They began having parties for students and recent graduates, giving them beer to sit around and vote, hour after hour, for Fence Cat . They formed a group on Facebook called “1000 Strong for Fence Cat.” Jennifer was surprised to see votes for Fence Cat mount swiftly, to the point where it appeared that Fence Cat had a chance of catching up with Weekend.

Fencecat pictured here without her fence.

As this change became apparent, Fence Cat’s hosts redoubled their efforts, bringing in even more people. Weekend’s supporters had already maximized the productiveness of their voting, and so they could do nothing to meet their rival’s challenge. Realizing that they stood to be overtaken, they became bitter about the possibility that their effort would be wasted. This demoralization was not helped by the rudeness of some of Fence Cat’s friends. A Fence Cat partisan, Ken, commented on Weekend’s love story under a pseudonym, declaring himself “an ardent Marxist,” and suggested that anyone who owned a horse was “bourgeois scum.” Kayla and her family members did not have thick skins when it came to such internet rudeness. Jennifer was left fretting, trying to placate the wronged parties and to keep the other parties on best behavior. She urged all contestants to “stay positive” and began monitoring the comments sections obsessively to prevent name-calling. She found this task to be a new headache, as some comments struck her as humorous but were taken by contestants to be hurtful. Jennifer could not believe what a Pandora’s box her Valentine’s Day contest had become! The contest had taken on a life of its own!

The contest was scheduled to end at 12:00 am Pacific Standard Time on Friday, February 12, 2010.  At 9:11 pm that fateful day, Fence Cat took the lead, surpassing Weekend’s impressive 800 and some votes.  Liz, who submitted the story of Fence Cat, mistakenly commented on Weekend’s story under the pseudonym Judy, “FENCE CAT takes the lead!!!! Love you Fence Cat 1,000 by midnight!”

Liz immediately posted again to apologize and explain that she meant to post that on Fence Cat’s story, but the damage was done. Weekend’s supporters, still glued to their computers, took it personally, and geographically, somehow interpreting the many comments to be directed against the city of Tracy, where Weekend and Kayla reside. Weekend supporter Ken Houzzier posted, hyperbolically, “As a candidate for Tracy’s city council, I fully support an investigation into said rude and shady actions. I promise that the killers will be brought to justice.”

Demoralized by Fence Cat’s recent lead, Kayla posted on Facebook that everyone should give up, and texted Jennifer to let her know. Weekend’s supporters largely threw in the towel. Some felt used and angry. The comments got worse. A saddened Jennifer began to realize that a week of pure fun had turned into a horrible PR debacle when someone named Cheryl commented on Weekend’s story, “Sorry, Kayla, that some people had to be rude and shady. I can’t wait to hear EXACTLY what went down. I’m sure there’s A LOT of people interested in this company and their true intentions.”

The finished portrait of Fence Cat

Jennifer tried to bolster the spirits of Weekends supporters and restrain the enthusiasm of the Fence Cat team. At one point the idealistic young artist even phoned the authors of the Fence Cat love story and asked above the din of their voting party if they could have their friends vote half the time for Weekend. Unsurprisingly, her plea went unanswered. Fence Cat won a robust victory, and Jennifer promptly made a Van-Gogh-style painting of the amorous cat for the ecstatic winner.

Jennifer no longer utilizes competitive contests for promotion having acutely learned a tough lesson: the passions of people who love animals are not to be toyed with.

Great pitch or greatest pitch ever?

My pet portraits make unforgettable gifts.  Portraits and gift certificates available at Van Gogh My Pet.

my first movie!

I had not edited any video since the 90s. This was such a challenge, and I must have spent about 40 hours on it. It was complicated by the fact that I have this need for perfection before I can move forward with any project, and Van Gogh My Pet was never going to be perfect until I had completed this movie.

The background music is from one of my favorite bands, The Real Tuesday Weld.


In lifecoaching yesterday we talked about my need for everything to be completed. This is a need I have been battling since I left my job last May. My head is overun with get rich quick (slow) schemes and creative projects. Yet, it took me six and a half months to get Van Gogh My Pet to a point where I was confident sending it out to friends and family, and promoting it on Facebook. I have yet to get in to Twitter–to my detriment, I’m sure.

When I look at my blog, I see the undone entries. The ones I thought of, and wrote myself a note, but was too busy or indisposed to write right then. I assume that some day I will go back and the inspiration is in the note. Sometimes I look at the note and I haven’t the foggiest idea what it meant. Then I chuckle…Lost inspiration either makes me chuckle or spiral into a listless depression.

I had spent 6 and a half–nay, eight or nine months–planning for and working on Van Gogh My Pet. I spent the last two weeks frantically putting the pieces I had so long thought about together. My friends would say–what is left to do? It looks beautiful! And to me, it looked a wreck. This frantic work has left me with a hole in my life, just as Mad Men had a few weeks earlier when I had finished season three. And I realized that if I hadn’t had to work so frantically, not only would I would have been happier and more relaxed, but I would have been building enthusiasm with fans as it happened. The day two weeks ago I finally got my movie on the internet, I wanted to e-scream, I DID IT!! I FIGURED OUT HOW TO DO THIS! DON’T YOU LOVE IT? and I stopped myself. Van Gogh My Pet wasn’t worthy of anyone’s attention. I hadn’t worked hard enough to make it so.

I am beginning to come to terms with letting these works in progress–or wrecks, as I see them–be works in progress in the public eye and letting someone or no one or the world watch as it comes together. I say to myself, I want to be an internet celebrity. I want to share my life with the world. But when it comes to the day to day, I tend to shirk from engagement with the world.

I hope that today, November 16th, 2009, is the day when I can begin to share with the world my internet persona, this blog and, Van Gogh My Pet, Tupperware Sisters, and so many dormant others–wrecks though they might be.