Photos by Victoria Smith
Today’s Biz Ladies Profile features Rena Tom of Makeshift Society. Formerly the co-owner of Rare Device, a retail store and art gallery based in San Francisco, Rena has gone on to consult other creative businesses in establishing themselves in the retail space, and she’s been a regular contributor to our Biz Ladies series. Most recently, Rena founded the membership-based community workspace Makeshift Society in San Francisco. Today, she shares her amazing career journey with us. Thank you, Rena, for offering your incredible business insights! — Stephanie
Read the full profile after the jump . . .
Why did you decide to start your own business?
From 2005 to 2011, I owned and operated a retail store and art gallery, Rare Device, with my friend Lisa Congdon. We made the hard decision to sell the business, early in 2011. Lisa’s art career was taking off, I had a toddler and neither of us had any extra time to give Rare Device the attention it deserved, so we sold the business to a friend.
At that point, I had to figure out what to do next. Working for someone else seemed daunting, since I was used to calling the shots. I haven’t had a steady paycheck since around 2000, and once you become independent, it’s near-impossible to go back to a job where you have to answer to someone else! At the same time, just staying home with my son didn’t seem like the right fit. I like being a mom, but I like having lots of other projects, too.
When you first decided to start your own business, how did you define what your business would be?
The sensible path for me was to continue working with the people I knew best: product vendors and store owners. I’ve worked on both sides of the fence, and there are a lot of pain points that I knew could be addressed by getting the two groups to really understand and communicate with each other. So, I started a consulting practice aimed at small creative businesses. I blog about business best practices and have some great contributors helping out with posts about the creative process, manufacturing and production, retail trends and business writing and editing.
After about 8 or 9 months of working at cafés, I was going a little crazy. I missed the interaction with my peers, and the more people I talked to, the more I realized that everybody was in the same boat. I began to research a new space — not a store, but a clubhouse for people to come together. Fostering interaction for freelancers and consultants was at the heart of my next project, Makeshift Society. It’s a coworking space largely for solo workers; it provides the framework for being really productive on your own but also encourages learning and collaboration from others.
I think the best advice, gleaned from my shopkeeper friends, was to focus on the people, and to really understand what they were asking for. This actually applies to any business. I live in San Francisco, which is going through a giant technology boom (again). There are people who live here who think that there’s a technology solution for pretty much every problem. I love gadgets and apps as much as anybody, but solving the underlying issues that really improve people’s lives and businesses seems so much more interesting and important to me than having the coolest way to hail a cab or share a photo.
People are loyal to people. They want to interact with other people. They want to support other people when they purchase a product or get help with a problem. These things seem so simple and obvious but by their very nature are easy to overlook when one is constantly dazzled by features and visuals and trends.
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
Raising capital and naming my business! Having enough money to launch the way you want to, and creating a name that is memorable and conveys the right impression, were both things I struggled with. For my consulting business, it was easier — I just use my name, and the overhead costs are fairly low. For Makeshift, it was a lot harder. I had to get loans and investors, prepare a thorough business plan and generally do things “by the book,” something that is not easy for me. Ultimately, though, it was worthwhile.
Also tough is knowing when to move ahead and release your work to the world. That said, getting a sense for the right timing is sometimes more important than having all the details just so. I am pretty good at going with my gut — but I also have years of experience, and plenty of research, to back up my decisions. My friend Lane calls these moments “planned serendipity” — a nice balance between being prepared and letting things take their course.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
Learning to accept (and ask for) help is something I’m still working on. It’s been an extremely valuable lesson for me, since I tend to want to do *everything* and yet the way to growth is to focus on doing what you do best and surrendering the rest.
Even as an independent consultant, you can’t do everything yourself. I think many freelancers and small business owners have a notion that they should, and it holds them back. Part of the mission of Makeshift is to help our creative freelancers realize that and to do something about it. In operating the business, we “eat our own dog food” and give up a lot of control to the members. It makes for a unique environment and is hopefully inspiring our members to do the same.
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences?
Every week, there’s a moment when I put my head down on the table and groan a little. I have a lot of doubt about what I do — that people will support it, that I can pay the bills, that it is a good enough idea to expand to other cities in the future. However, the moment passes, and I forge ahead.
I feel like failure can absolutely be a learning experience, so in a sense, they aren’t failures at all! But doubt happens to everyone, and it’s how you react to your moment of doubt that makes the difference.
My greatest success is the company I keep. I might be wrong here, but I don’t think I have a lot of enemies. That is success to me — not that I have to pander to anybody and make friends, but that I have treated people right, and they know they can rely on me. I’m in the business of keeping people happy, more or less, and I take my job seriously. It makes *me* really happy to connect people I know who ought to know each other.
Because of this, I feel like a lot of opportunities are in return presented to me, generously and often. It’s win-win for everybody.
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
1. Make sure you are in a good place — mentally, physically, financially, emotionally. Obviously this changes for people day to day, but overall you should be ready to embark on your journey and able to react to both unforeseen good fortune and bumps in the road.
2. Make sure you have a team of mentors and advisors to call upon. Your mentors can include folks who are already in business plus overall knowledgeable, steady people in your life. The support of people who know your strengths and weaknesses, even if they aren’t experts in the line of business you are undertaking, will be invaluable.
3. Don’t start your business if it doesn’t sound like fun. I can’t stress that one enough. If you don’t wake up excited about your business every day, you aren’t going to have the passion to see it through. Have a great time, and good luck!