Today’s Biz Ladies Profile comes to us from Michelle Smith of The Rock & Shop Market, a one-of-a-kind indoor fashion, art & music flea market. Previously working in the web design world, Michelle saw a need (and opening) for an online and offline market-space of well-made artisan goods. Through trial and error, triumphs and missteps, Michelle parlayed all of her learnings into her own line of handmade products and the launch of The Rock & Shop Market in North Carolina. Today she shares a bit about her career journey with us and the lessons she learned along the way. Thanks Michelle! —Stephanie
Read the full interview after the jump…
Why did you decide to start your own business?
In 2001, I was working as a web designer for a company that sold promotional products (pens, t-shirts, etc. with logos on them) and I would spend my days making online shops for Fortune 500 companies and their internal branded merchandise. Through this job I was exposed to a large number of manufactures in the U.S. and abroad and I began experimenting with printing my own artwork instead of logos on these items. I started with my art on a t-shirt, then moved onto a notebook. I made a makeshift line sheet (what I assumed at the time one should look like) and approached my first stores to sell my wares.
My boss at the time saw me doing this and decided to form her own gift products company and brought me alongside her, where I designed the artwork for hundreds of items, photographed them, made catalogs and marketed, displayed and sold these goods at trade shows. It was a huge success and through her company’s mistakes and triumphs I learned a lot which I then was able to apply to my own burgeoning line of goods. I worked part-time as a web designer for this company and another for about five years while getting my own business off the ground for about five years before making the transition to exclusively working on my own business.
When you first decided to start your own business, how did you define what your business would be?
When I first began my business in 2004 sites like ETSY didn’t exist; instead there was a small thriving network of (mostly women) makers all over the country who were connected via online forums. Many of these women have gone on to become the same ones who are profiled here on design*sponge and have successful blogs and businesses and are authors of bestselling books. Inspired by these makers, who, like myself were trying to make a go of running their own products based businesses; I decided to use my web design skills to create an online shop highlighting these makers through their products and interview-style profiles.
The Rock & Market evolved from a fundraiser I organized for the local radio station I dj’d for. That fundraising event featured live bands and a silent auction with handmade goods and went really well. I decided to segue that into the larger stand-alone Rock & Shop Market. Recognizing that this was a trend starting to pop up in other parts of the country, I wanted to create an event in North Carolina where I could sell my wares and highlight the goods of other makers creating similar types of goods. What started as a humble market in 2004 has evolved into a thriving, well-loved event that features over 100 juried vendors selling their wares alongside bands, djs and food trucks and attracting over 1200-2500 people per event.
As far as my own products go, I’ve always been drawn to gift products, boutique shops, textiles and interior design and knew I wanted to create products that would fit in these types of stores. Growing up my Mom went to school for interior design but never actively pursued it as a career. Instead, she stayed home with us and used our house as her testing ground. I remember lots of patterns and textiles and visiting showrooms and loving it. As a teenager I took my camera with me everywhere and was most often shooting pictures of patterns in everyday objects. I began to make collage journals that captured different patterns that I would see. Soon I started turning these patterns into my own surface designs, which nowadays I print onto various products including textiles. I also do styling and tabletop photography work which I believe is an extension of all of the above.
What was the best piece of advice you were given when you were first starting off?
Keep your job, work on your business in your off hours and save money to use as a cushion while your business is just starting.
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
Apart from those online forums I mentioned earlier, it was hard to find others in my area who I felt were striving towards similar business goals. Since then, I’ve developed a host of local artisan entrepreneur friendships but I do remember that it took a little while for that to happen organically.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
I can’t think of a single overriding lesson but here are a series of ones that I value:
- I believe that a successful career doesn’t have to be linear, that it can be full of bumps and detours which help shape you in ways that following a straight and narrow path might not.
- Tenacity, passion and an ability to turn setbacks into lessons are probably the greatest keys to success.
- Just ask/try. How do you know unless you do? The same goes for putting yourself out there.
- Be open to risk & opportunity and use setbacks as a springboard + lesson to move forward with another, better solution.
Can you name a moment of failure in your business?
I’ve had plenty of moments where things haven’t gone as planned but I truly feel like each opportunity that has come my way has made me a better business person with lessons learned that I wouldn’t have absorbed any other way. Anyway, that’s part of the joy of being your own boss, being able to bring your ideas (or others) to fruition, making the calls and taking the risk. Every endeavor is a gamble, but unless you try or ask how would you know if it would be a success or not?
Recently, I put all my other business endeavors on hold while I planned, designed and built a boutique for someone else. It was my dream project (a retail incubator providing mentoring, retail space and workshops for emerging artisans) and a challenge. I gave more of myself than I had to any other business project prior. Unfortunately, it dissolved in an unexpected and heartbreaking way. Nonetheless, I don’t regret having done it or for having put myself out there. I learned so much and flexed creative muscles that I didn’t even know I had. I met so many amazing people and helped my downtown community see artisans and retail in a new light. I look forward to taking the skills and lessons that I’ve learned from this and applying them to future business endeavors.
Can you name your greatest success in your business experiences?
I’m proud to have contributed and helped to cultivate a thriving culture of makers and entrepreneurs, not just in North Carolina but across the country. Through The Rock & Shop and other facets of my business I have helped thousands of growing businesses make a living out of their products by spotlighting and shining a light on their talents. And, I’ve helped to teach these artisan businesses valuable (but not always easily found) niche skills to grow their businesses even further.
It’s also incredibly fulfilling to have discovered my passions and to be able to work daily not just on promoting other artisans but also on my own surface patterns and products, photography and styling – all of which I love.
What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
I think conferences & markets where you can get out and meet customers & people in your industry or trade are important for engaging in a larger dialogue. Grace’s podcasts are great too. Soak up the things that inspire you like a sponge.
Here are some not-exactly business books that I think will be enjoyable to entrepreneurs nonetheless:
- Just Kids
- Bird By Bird
- Appetite for Life
- Alice Waters & Chez Panisse
- Plate to Pixel
- Daring Greatly
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
- In some ways owning a business is like putting your heart on your sleeve daily. You have to be vulnerable, but confident and sincere. You need to be willing to show yourself through your actions and ideas and to take big risks in order to see the greatest fulfillment.
- Do you have the passion to see it through its many fluctuations of success and setbacks? Can you be your own cheerleader and find motivation working and directing with only yourself at the helm?
- Are you willing to be engaged with your business all the time? It is very different from a nine to five job where you can leave your work at the office. Regardless of whether you have a separate work space or not you still will be very focused mentally or physically on your business much of the time.