Elyse Burns was halfway through law school when she chose to pursue her artistic passion as a full-time business
By Elizabeth Egan | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Elyse Burns grew up in Chicago’s suburbs and began selling hand-painted canvases on Etsy in 2015. It was mostly a hobby – she’d started painting in 2014 but had been crafting all her life – and she had every intention of becoming a lawyer after graduating from Loyola University Chicago with her bachelor’s in 2018 and master’s in 2019. She moved to Durham to attend law school at Duke University, but Elyse Breanne Design took off when she was halfway through the program, and she was making a full-time income. Today, Burns owns Mill & Meadow, a storefront in Brightleaf Square. The shop – which sells stickers, stationery, home goods and kitchenware that feature Burns’ original artwork – has been open less than a year, but already has made a good impression: It was named one of the best gift stores in Durham Magazine’s annual Best of Durham poll. We asked Burns about Mill & Meadow’s success, how she puts her law degree to use and what’s next for her brand.
What is the history of Mill & Meadow – how and when did you start it?
Elyse Burns I started Mill & Meadow in October 2022, so it’s only been seven months. We got the keys to our space in August. We had two months where we were getting ready to open it, but the idea had been in the works for a while, and actually, I signed the lease back in August 2021. I opened a retail space because I wanted to connect with customers in person and have a physical presence in the Durham community.
So, you signed the lease before graduating law school in 2022. Can you tell us more about your law background and how you use it today?
EB I decided [when I was] about halfway through law school that I was going to take my business full time after I graduated, and I finished out law school because it had always been a goal of mine and an interest of mine. I’m really fascinated by the law, and I figured it would help me with my business, which has turned out to be true. Law school doesn’t have majors or concentrations, per se, but I did focus my coursework on media law and intellectual property, specifically copyright and trademark, which has been very helpful for my business. I have been able to file my own trademarks, I’ve been able to handle my own copyright disputes. It’s really easy to be able to be very fluent in all of the contracts that I’m negotiating and signing. And also it helps me feel pretty empowered to make business decisions that are affected by laws and regulations. I’m happy to have that background, and I’m glad that I finished law school just on a personal level as well.
How many employees does Mill & Meadow have?
EB We all work at Mill & Meadow and Elyse Breanne Design. I have 12 part-time and full-time employees, total – seven of us are full time.
What’s the revenue for the business, and how has it changed over time?
EB It’s kind of similar, where it’s all under one roof with my brand, Elyse Breanne Design. We had about $20,000 in revenue in 2019. In 2020, that went up to [around] $360,000 in revenue. And then in 2021, we did $1.2 million in revenue. In 2022, we did $1.8 million in revenue.
How did Mill & Meadow get its funding to open?
EB I actually bootstrapped the business the entire way. From the beginning, I was really just selling my hand-painted canvases. Every dollar that I made from 2015 onward I pretty much reinvested straight back into the business, and that was true every year. I have wanted to try and get outside funding – I’ve been working with a couple of different banks to get a line of credit – and it hasn’t worked out. So in some ways, I’m like, ‘Well, yeah, I did this without any loans,’ but in other ways, it would have been easier to do it with funding.
What is the best business advice you have received?
EB If something’s not working, don’t hesitate, just pivot. If something is working, don’t wait, focus on it.
Tell us about your product line.
EB Our products at Mill & Meadow are mainly our Elyse Breanne Design products, but it’s a curated selection that fits our aesthetic and color scheme [at the shop]. A lot of warm colors – pink, orange, yellow, red – and that was intentional because I thought it married nicely with the brick that is original to the building and the warm-toned wood beams and columns that are in there. We wanted to create a distinct vibe and make it more curated than just shopping on our website. Everything on my website and most everything in Mill & Meadow are my original designs and my artwork, either hand-painted or digital works. We’ve also added some other brands [at Mill & Meadow] that we connect with; we have a few gardening items and plants, and we have other accessories that pair well with our items, too.
What has been your biggest business challenge so far?
EB The biggest challenge I am facing with my business is balancing all of its different arms: Mill & Meadow, selling our products wholesale to other retail stores, and our direct-to-consumer online site, which is sustained by social media advertising on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube. Combining all of our different sales channels with the fact that we carry nearly 2,000 different products, it’s a lot to juggle.
What makes your products stand out from others, and why should people purchase them?
EB All of our products are high-quality, intentionally designed, responsibly sourced and printed with my original artwork.
What are your future plans for Mill & Meadow?
EB I’d love to eventually open a second store in a different location in North Carolina, most likely. I don’t know if that’ll be possible, but I would love to do that. Mill & Meadow has been well received in Durham, so I’m really thankful for that.