Before Emily Strauss could talk, she scribbled on her highchair to express herself, but in the years since she’s used her talents to promote artistic development from Hoboken to Aruba, across the United States and even internationally. ABC’s Shark Tank even featured Strauss’ company, Mural Painter Inc, on Season 11 of the hit show in 2020. But Strauss’ career proves that being a successful trailblazer doesn’t mean following the rules one-hundred-percent of the time. “I actually got kicked out of every art school extracurricular my parents put me in,” she said of her upbringing in Bayside, Queens. “If they wanted to do circles, I did squares.”
Her family allowed her to do her first murals at age fifteen on cabinets and kitchen tables in their home, where her mom’s personal training clients would walk through. “I became a door-to-door word of mouth business for people’s Long Island homes,” she explained. “But then I went to FIT, and the industry just got more popular, and being a student full-time, it was difficult to handle.” So, she used the skill that now is one of the central tents of Mural Painter Inc: She tapped into her community. “I asked some of my classmates if they wanted to be my assistant on weekends for a little bit of the commission, and that was how I started to get myself into more of the administrative side of things.”
For many artists, evolution into the corporate world is a daunting prospect. The specter of “selling out” combined with the simultaneous desire for acceptance and security makes it a nausea-inducing experience to jump from the arts to business. But Strauss’ story and eventual success makes a strong case for the idea that there is no such thing as selling out, only buying in. Strauss began Mural Painter Inc as Mural Painter NYC in 2017 with five of her college friends, while making cash on the side as a union painter wearing hard hats and hoods. But Mural Painter NYC kept expanding, and eventually Strauss had to make the decision to leave her side hustle and plunge headfirst into her own business.
Strauss began Mural Painter Inc as Mural Painter NYC in 2017 with five of her college friends, while making cash on the side as a union painter wearing hard hats and hoods. But Mural Painter NYC kept expanding, and eventually Strauss had to make the decision to leave her side hustle and plunge headfirst into her own business.
The nitty-gritty of owning a business often also proves to be a hurdle. For one, insurance. “The insurance requirements were impossible,” Strauss remembered. “Nobody wanted to take on our liability, because we were a bunch of eighteen-year-olds scaling buildings.” She ended up often meeting reps behind the scenes at coffeeshops to personally make her case for the company. Putting legal protections into place was another major life lesson—one major tech company client never paid their bill. “Don’t spend money until you have it, anything could happen, lawyer up, contract up, all that…” She recalled. “Oh, and we definitely didn’t budget for tax the right way.” Strauss, who never went to business school, learned by doing and grew her company up through its darkest moments by keeping her faith in the spirit of community.
And though there have been disappointments, both the clients and the artists on her staff have made it worthwhile. “One client I’ll never forget was this family in Marlboro who let me stay with them because the commute was too much,” Strauss said. “There was just this pivot for me: This could be a business where I get to know how people live in their own community. I never lost sight of that.” From Strauss working as a seventeen year old crashing in a family’s bunk bed in Marlboro, Mural Painter Inc grew into a serious business whose staff got to stay at five-star hotels in Aruba. But even at their Hoboken headquarters, Strauss is a friendly, humble, and at home presence. Her dog, Leila, who she calls her “soul mate,” accompanies her to the office and is beloved by her employees. She balances the enormous, worldwide nature of the business with an active, heartfelt presence at her home base. “We could service the entire US with New York being our East Coast branch, we can get to places like Virginia or Jersey from here,” Strauss remarked. “And Los Angeles is our west coast branch, and so we’re trying to think where we could service out of LA—Vegas, maybe?”
Mural Painter Inc’s biggest clients right now include Netflix, Amazon, Microsoft, Lyft, Etsy, and Facebook. Plus they’re opening a Florida branch, Strauss has had an adept eye for the digital sphere since the company’s inception.
Even if they haven’t recruited anyone in Sin City yet, Mural Painter Inc’s biggest clients right now include Netflix, Amazon, Microsoft, Lyft, Etsy, and Facebook. Plus they’re opening a Florida branch, Strauss has had an adept eye for the digital sphere since the company’s inception. “At first, with the name ‘Mural Painter Inc,’ I was like, ‘I hate this name,’ and a web developer who was helping me was said ‘It’s a literal keyword! That’s great!’” And he was right, because a quick search for “mural painter” brings up Strauss’ company, right down to their headquarters’ address. Because of Strauss’ combination of visual sensibilities from her fine arts education and adept advertising and marketing skills, Mural Painter Inc flourished online and many of their biggest clients have come out of their digital presence.
One of Strauss’ most memorable opportunities was her appearance on Shark Tank, but when she got the call from the ABC show, she was on a road trip to Montréal and had to pull over on the side of the highway. “I kept missing the call and the call kept dropping, it was this nightmare of thinking I was going to lose my chance of this because it was the worst possible timing,” she explained.
One of Strauss’ most memorable opportunities was her appearance on Shark Tank, but when she got the call from the ABC show, she was on a road trip to Montréal and had to pull over on the side of the highway. “I kept missing the call and the call kept dropping, it was this nightmare of thinking I was going to lose my chance of this because it was the worst possible timing,” she explained. Given that there were 50,000 submissions per season, she hadn’t even thought she had a chance. “It turned out he was just a scouter, and there’s this long process before you actually end up with your ticket to LA, and you can be eliminated at almost any time,” Strauss said. Even in the final moments before airing, being sent home was a real possibility. But her segment aired in season 11, episode 20 of the show and her company was eyed up by Barbara Corcoran.
For artists of any discipline, there’s often a resistance to the very concept of money, because visual art is something that’s so difficult to quantify into 1’s and 0’s for quotes and price tags. But this only perpetuates the trope of the starving artist and a culture which looks down on the arts as an unsuccessful career path full of debt-ridden useless degrees. It’s a self-perpetuating culture of self-deprecation that leads to so much talent undervaluing their own work. Strauss’ story of a jump from fine arts into finance is a valuable lesson that there’s real money to be made in art, and that success and creativity aren’t mutually exclusive. “But I would advise any artist that’s going into business that when it’s not your hobby anymore, your mindset does change. And you have to ask yourself, are you willing to be okay with that?”
That isn’t to say that Strauss never does any painting, but that she doesn’t consider herself a studio painter anymore. She now taps into her fine arts background when she and her boyfriend work on redoing their house in Jersey City Heights and come up with creative new interior design plans. “And delegating things is also creative, when you’re thinking of ideas and innovation. I still get that jolt of excitement the same way I did painting a canvas.” Balancing business skills and creativity is no easy feat, and Strauss would be the first to tell you that. But the rewards, as Strauss’ success shows, make the investment undeniably worth it.