This is part of a series on West Chester entrepreneurs. Know someone that’s taking an innovative approach to the mantra, “Follow your dream?” I’d love to share their story. Thank you to Benchmark Federal Credit Union for making this expanded content possible.
You’ll likely spot the line long before you see cause of the excitement. But snake along that line and you will eventually come face to face with the fabulously popular local face painter Stefanie Birl of Birl Girl designs. She’ll be on the other side of a folding table piled with an assortment of rainbow-colored paints and lines of brushes and directly across from an eager child describing his or her deepest desires.
“I want to be a unicorn.” “A superhero” “A dinosaur!” “A fairy” “A rainbow Ram!” They shout or whisper, excited or anxious, depending on the child in the chair. (That last request was from my own little Birl Girl connoisseur.) (Undeterred even at “rainbow ram”) Stefanie gazes at her canvas, moves away stray hairs, and gets to work.
A few minutes later the kids are transformed and all smiles.
One part luck. One part talent.
Stefanie is a West Chester-based artist and entrepreneur, who has come to be known for her ability to elevate the art of temporary design. When I was a kid, face painting consisted of a rainbow, or some balloons painted on your cheek by someone’s mom or older sister. Not anymore, or at least not here. (We were at a fall festival recently and my eldest went to the face painter hoping to get a devil painted on his face to intimidate his soccer opponents. He left and returned with a small ghost on his left cheek. “It wasn’t Stefanie,” my husband said by way of explanation.)
Although Stefanie’s own start wasn’t far off, she began serendipitously 15 years ago as a mom volunteer doing cheek art at the Chester County Hospital Fair. It just turned out she was a whole lot better at it than most moms. After two years of volunteering, Stefanie who holds a Bachelor of Arts in Art from West Chester University had found her calling.
“I’m so lucky. I fell into it,” she said.
From there it was all “practice, practice, practice.” YouTube tutorials, family members, neighborhood kids – and a lot of events, networking, and research. “I would see an event that didn’t have a face painter and I would reach out and see if they would be interested in one for next year,” she said. Sometimes they said, yes. A lot of times they said, no, but over time through diligence and skill, her business grew. “Now they reach out to me,” she said of her packed schedule. One recent weekend saw her scheduled for ten different events.
Find what you love. Think on your feet.
And that had been how the business was going until COVID turned face painting into a health hazard but instead of quitting, Stefanie improvised. She looked at what was still happening and how she could improve it. One opportunity that stood out were the typically sterile drive-by birthday parties. Until one day someone said, “Can you do chalk art?” And a new tradition was born. Heavily embellished custom chalk art messages that could be viewed from the car were soon scrawled along sidewalks and driveways across West Chester and beyond.
“During the spring/summer of 2020, I must have done 100s of them,” said Stefanie.
From chalk art displays, there were seasonal retail windows, and now her biggest endeavor, both metaphorically and physically, to date, West Chester’s first selfie wall. A collaboration with Safe Harbor and sponsored by Benchmark Federal Credit Union the wall features three pairs of wings painted on the side of the Safe Harbor building. The wings symbolize Safe Harbor’s mission to provide emergency housing, food, and access to services for neighbors in need.
“Stefanie has been our go-to artist for offering face painting at our tent for many community events throughout the last ten years and she’s always been a pleasure to work with; as well as very talented, so when I was approached by Safe Harbor regarding the selfie wall, it was never a choice. We were thrilled that our vision would become a reality thanks to her beautiful artwork,” said Rebecca Worthington, Vice President of Marketing at Benchmark Federal Credit Union.
But none of it will last. The lions and unicorns and Spidermen will need to go to bed and return to their alter-egos before they do (warm soapy water should do the trick). The chalk messages will disappear with the next rain. The retail windows will change with the seasons, pumpkins for holly, holly for hearts, hearts for flowers. Even the selfie wall, one of her most permanent installations to date, is built on fleeting moments of joy but none of it seems to bother Stefanie.
“I love that my job is to make people smile,” she said. ”Every five minutes I am making someone else smile.”
Her face painting services are booked way in advance (she is currently booking into January) but the selfie wall is now open* and you can catch her at a many a festival for the next several weeks at least. Follow her on Facebook for the latest details.
*Bonus! Benchmark FCU is donating $0.25 to Safe Harbor for each selfie taken at the wall and shared on social. To make sure your photo does more tag Benchmark Credit Union and use the #ForLifesBenchmarks
Stefanie’s tips for business success:
Understand your financial comfort zone. Stefanie is paid directly for all her events. Face painters can make a lot of money selling directly to customers at popular events but for every gorgeous Sunday, there is a weekend of rain. “I am not a risk-taker,” said Stefanie.
Build a network. “You must be somewhat of a go-getter. In the beginning, it was all hustle. You can’t be afraid of people saying no,” Stefanie said. “Now people reach out with repeat commitments.”
Make friends with your competitors. Instead of going head-to-head for all the area’s events, Stefanie has developed a collaborative agreement with other face painters. During the height of the season, most artists find themselves facing multiple events a weekend but instead of turning down an event, the business with the connection keeps its name on the event and subcontracts the work to a partner artist with a gap in her schedule. “If we get the lead, we keep the lead,” said Stefanie.
Be careful what you say no to. Stefanie has improvised her business significantly since COVID from chalk art designs to window displays both retail and private. She also does pet and house portraits – almost always because when someone said. “Do you do?” She almost always responds with a no, but I could.
Know your passion. Know your market. Sometimes success means improvising. In addition to face painting, chalk art, and seasonal window designs, Stefanie now offers glitter tattoos. They are quicker and easier to apply than face painting, but they still bring joy until the end of the day.
The only federal credit union to exclusively serve Chester County, Benchmark FCU provides commercial lending products for local businesses. Clients can count on personalized service, local decision-making, and quick loan turnaround time. Benchmark FCU not only understands your business, but also has the ability to provide a wide range of financial solutions, including term loans and commercial real estate secured lines of credit. We’re ready to be your trusted business banking partner. To learn more about our business banking solutions, visit www.benchmarkfcu.org.
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