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What are you having? Meet Brian McKelvey from Pubsof

As someone who’s spent more than his fair share of time in pubs, I might be biased. But Brian McKelvey’s artistic renditions of downtown streetscapes – and in particular, their pubs – warm me like dram of whiskey in front of a crackling fire.

We wanted to find out how Brian got interested in this particular artistic niche, so we interviewed him and asked about the inspiration for the business, what he does to make it a success and what the future might hold.

image of a print by brian mckelvey from pubsofSo tell about your pubsOf. What is it that you do and who are your customers?

pubsOf, “maybe the best gift ever” was created in 2007 as pubs of your town. pubsOf is an incredible collection of unique, hand-painted street scenes from all over the country and the world. Each work of art is it’s own story, a story of that particular place and time where many have some of their fondest memories. The original image or “scene” is displayed on canvas, posters, prints and glassware. We have value add services like framing and personalization. Our customer base is all demographics, and is about 70/30 women to men. Of those customers 65-70% of the purchases made are gifts for another person.

What made you choose this path? Is it a family legacy or are you a pioneer?

I think most people go into business for themselves because it is in them natively. You believe in an idea or concept, and even though there is significant risk associated with it –to you it’s worth it. We didn’t do it to become rich, I did it more to be able to have control over my destiny and more importantly my time. We are always learning as we go – and I would have done a lot of things differently. To say the least!

They say that to be successful you have to be passionate, so share what drives you every day.

We get great satisfaction from creating something that people are willing to spend money on. There is a reaction people get when they look at our work and they are familiar with that place. Whether it is their college, hometown, favorite team or vacation destination – they are genuinely happy as they explore each painting and remember all the good times they had.  We like to say we sell memories. We get to interact with people in the towns, in the stores, at art shows, etc. and each person always shares their own story – this is what makes it fun.

Has it been smooth sailing or have you overcome adversity to get where you are?

I don’t think there is such a thing as smooth sailing when you own a business. It’s always hard, and always humbling. You always need more money than you think, and more time than you have. I self-financed the operation because I couldn’t get a bank line of credit – and sold everything: life insurance, 401K, and credit cards. At my lowest, I was living in the warehouse and had to shower at the gym or a friend’s house – at one point I had $384 to my name. You definitely find what you are made of and that you don’t need a lot of “stuff”. I am much more conscious of what I need and what I want – and less clutter makes you much more effective.

What do you do with your time off? Are you familiar with that concept?

image of poster by pubof's brian mckelvey

Those times are few and far between, and tend to be last minute. But when I need some sleep, I take a nap. When I need a break, I will go to the movies to clear my head. This goes back to my early point, this is the advantage of being your own boss. You work more and harder but you can take the time as you need it. When I am not in Chicago, I definitely am kind of on the adventurous side. Sitting on a beach, or spending a week at a posh resort isn’t appealing to me. Fishing, mountain biking, going to a country by myself and exploring are things that I like. I definitely have a pinch of crazy in me!

This is the age of the social network. How important is social media to your business and how do you make it work?

Even though we have over 14,000 Facebook followers – we need to do a better job in this. We definitely don’t follow best practices, and are not consistent. I do see it has a way to reach new customers and to keep current followers up to date on what is new. I am looking to outsource the marketing aspect of our business as promoting and “bragging” about the business is not something that comes naturally to me.

How are you involved in your community?

We have just started committing to a 1% of our time and 1% of our revenue program. Something I read about in Marc Benioffs book (who was the founder of This year we provided 12,000 pounds of food to people in Chicago and the money will be going to Alzheimers foundation and the International Anti-Poaching Foundation.

What does supporting local mean to you?

I think this is hugely important to everyone who is starting a business. I think it is good for both the physical eco-system as well as economic health.   While sites like Amazon add convenience to the buyer – they take a healthy chunk of profit away, it creates a lot of fraud from places like China and Japan, and makes it more difficult to find out who your buyers are. I wish people would go the extra step and go direct to the creator.

image of merchandise by brian mckelvey of pubsof

What does the future look like for you and your business?

We are moving our operations from Chicago to the Traverse City area of Michigan and have plans to diversify, to do things that will be more lifestyle appealing. Keeping it a secret because it’s such a fun idea 🙂

Do you have any advice for aspiring business owners just starting out?

Yes, first and foremost you have to be willing to sacrifice. If you are going from a steady job and paycheck, it will be very different. You have to decide what your risk profile is, because you could fail. You need to have a plan, but be able to pivot as needed. Don’t try to do everything at once, no matter how much money you have. Have clean credit before you start, have financing or money available – you will need 3X what you think. Pay everyone before you pay yourself. Use suppliers to help with cash flow by getting Net30/Net45 if possible – and once your cash flow is good, change that to a cash discount to more money back in your pocket. Hire and keep good/loyal people. Treat every customer well, but also know when to let one go – there are times when they aren’t worth it.