NOBLESVILLE, Ind. — Thirteen years ago, Nicole Lewis was working as an art teacher in the Indianapolis area, splitting her time between two elementary schools that were overcrowded and underfunded.
Lewis had a cart she took from classroom to classroom and was doing her best but sometimes felt discouraged as she tried to teach students to create art the way she enjoyed so much as a child.
One day, she showed her students how to make molds to create their own crayons.
“The crayons looked terrible to me, but the kids loved them,” she said.
That became the basis for Lewis’ startup,
which opened in 2007 on Etsy as its first shop to sell handmade crayons.
Copycats later sprung up on Etsy, but Lewis said her shop outsells them all, reinforcing its first-to-market position with the trademark “The Original Rainbow Crayon.” Since its launch, Art2theextreme has made more than 32,000 sales, and nearly 10,000 Etsy customers have named Art2theextreme one of their favorite stores on the platform.
Lewis said the business racked up $210,000 in sales in 2019 and is on track to hit $260,000 this year.
She and her husband Eric slice crayons by hand or with a machine engineered by Lewis’ brother in-law Jason. After the crayons’ wrappings are peeled by hand and the crayons are sorted into lights and darks, they’re broken and set in molds or melting pods. The molds are put in a crayon oven, and some crayons are hand-carved once cooled to add a finishing touch.
Lewis makes crayons in swirls of colors, sizes and themes. Individual alphabet crayons are packaged to spell out a child’s name. Unicorn horns can become stocking-stuffers or party favors. Others look like mini-doughnuts or ice pops.
Art2theextreme also makes ElemenTiles, featuring elements from the periodic table for tot-sized Marie Curie-wannabes.
Altogether, Lewis makes more than 680 shapes.
Online retailers have gotten a boost this year from the pandemic’s stay-at-home orders and social distancing. But Art2theextreme’s unusual products might give it an edge, said Kyle J. Anderson, who teaches business economics at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business at IUPUI.
“On a platform like Etsy, I think there are a few things that are really important — one is finding a successful niche,” he said. “It needs to be something a little unique and not selling things other people would make.”
Becoming a successful business owner wasn’t instant or easy. Lewis was laid off from the school where she first made crayons with her students. After being called back to teach, she moved from school to school in the district until she and her husband had their first child. School officials wanted her to come back after her pregnancy leave, but instead she started making crayons, at first as a hobby.
Lewis grew up around Castleton, Indiana, before attending Ball State University, where she got a degree in art education.
The daughter of a small-business owner and a nurse, she settled on a career path at a young age.
“I wanted to do something with arts. I watched my dad grow his own independent business,” she said of Robert Hanley’s Home Video Studio, a video production services company.
Her mother Denise Hanley brainstormed with her about how to launch a small-business career.
“Hey, have you heard of this Etsy platform?” Hanley asked.
It allows entrepreneurs to launch businesses without the sometimes-steep upfront costs faced by brick-and-mortar startups.
“One of the greatest things about Etsy is that it only takes 20 cents and an idea to open a shop,” said Dayna Isom Johnson, an Etsy trend expert.
That pays for the initial listing. Etsy takes a percentage of each sale, and sellers can pay Etsy for advertising or use its payment system.
Lewis has seen competitors come and go.
“You really have to understand e-commerce and customer service,” she said. “My customers come to my Etsy shop, and they see professional photos, bright photos.”
In September, Etsy named Art2theextreme one of 10 finalists in the “kids” category for the 2020 Etsy Design Awards, one of 100 finalists in 10 categories. Etsy plans to announce the winners (each will get $5,000) and a grand-prize winner ($15,000) by the end of the month.
Lewis wants to take some of the load off herself and her husband by hiring more staff.
She’s running out of space operating out of her garage in Noblesville and is contemplating opening a studio outside her home or lining up additional warehouse space.
Even with the demands of expansion, Lewis said, “I’m just happy that I’m able to make something that makes people happy.”