biz ladiesinterviewsLife & Business

Biz Ladies Profile: Jessica Karle Heltzel of Kern and Burn

by Stephanie

Jessica Karle Heltzel at General Assembly – photo by Krissi Xenakis

Today’s Biz Ladies Profile comes to us from Jessica Karle Heltzel of Kern and Burn. Jessica and her business partner, Tim Hoover, launched the Kern and Burn project during their graduate studies together in an effort to help fellow design entrepreneurs find the resources they needed to build and maintain effective businesses.  Today, the project turned popular blog turned book, is now a top destination for design entrepreneurs, and Jessica shares a little about the path she took to along this creative journey.  —Stephanie

Read the full interview after the jump…

Kern and Burn: Conversations With Design Entrepreneurs, cover illustration by The Heads of State

Why did you decide to start your own business?

The catalyst for me was taking the risk to go back to graduate school for graphic design. I had been working as an interior architect for three years and I knew that I wanted to eventually go out on my own but I also knew deep down that my true passion was graphic design. So I left a great job, went back to school, and have had such an amazing past few years starting Kern and Burn, running the blog, publishing the book, and finally getting it out there for readers to enjoy.

Interior spread, Illustration detail, “Break The Rules” by Scotty Reifsnyder

When you first decided to start your own business, how did you define what your business would be?

I started Kern and Burn with my design partner, Tim Hoover as a collaborative thesis project in grad school at MICA. We knew that we wanted to start a business, build a community, and discuss topics relevant to designers and anyone interested in starting their own business. The final form of a blog and a book specific to design entrepreneurs developed out of those goals. We are constantly iterating, defining, and redefining what Kern and Burn is and what it can become.

What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?

The best piece of advice I was given was to ask for advice. To reach out and discover how others started their businesses, how they create work/life balance, how they make time for side projects, etc. I’ve learned so much just by taking the first step to ask.

What was the most difficult part of starting your business?

One of our professors always recommended that we research broadly and focus narrowly. We found that super helpful in getting Kern and Burn off the ground. We took a few months to narrow our ideas to a single idea: creating a resource for design entrepreneurs. Then we used that focus and intention to make sure all of the content we put out fell underneath that same mission.

Many designers, ourselves included can get stuck at the beginning of projects under the pressure of needing to come up with the newest or greatest idea that no one has ever thought of before. We came to realize that the idea itself doesn’t have to be new, it just has to be done in an new way, and executed well. As designers, that’s where our opportunity lies to use our expertise and skill sets to create businesses that rise above the competition.

Interior spread, Interview detail, Riley Cran, Lost Type Co-op

Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?

To run a business successfully it truly needs to becomes a full-time job (even if that business is a side project on top of another job). You also have to let yourself dive into unknown experiences and be ok with trying new things. That’s definitely easier said than done, at least for me as a self-proclaimed perfectionist!

Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences?

We were fortunate enough to successfully Kickstart our book. However we underestimated the time it takes to make a great reading experience and didn’t meet our original deadline for the ship date. It was really important to us to take the time to get it right but if we could do it over again we would try to manage those expectations better from the start. Every failure eventually turns into a learning experience.

Can you name your greatest success in your business experiences?

When a reader reaches out and tells us that they’ve been inspired by the book to chase after their own dreams. To know that the content we’ve created is meaningful and stirs people—that makes it all worth it. That’s success.

What business books/resources (if any)  would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?

I’ve heard good things about 99U’s latest book, Manage Your Day-To-Day. Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, and of ours of course, Kern and Burn: Conversations With Design Entrepreneurs. Ha.

Interior spread, Illustration, “Create What You Love” by Invisible Creature

In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?

Solve problems that you are passionate about. You’ll always be committed to an idea if you are invested in the outcome.

Partner with people who strengthen your weaknesses and don’t be afraid to admit your weaknesses. Self-awareness will only make your business stronger.

Create opportunities for others. Whether you create a product that you build a community around or create experiences that bring people joy it’s always important to keep your audience top of mind.


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  • Kern and Burn is new to me; thanks for the introduction! It’s really inspiring to read about people striking it out on their own in an area they are passionate about.

  • Great interview. I can relate to the comment about making your business a full time job. I started my jewelry website to be part-time but has quickly turned into a full time job.

  • It is always comforting to hear from other designers that have taken a risk and now have a successful business. At times you can feel like a crazy person going back to school or leaving a secure job. I am passionate about textile and surface design. I plan to be the go to girl for print and pattern. As for weaknesses gosh there are many that I let stifle me. Thanks for the comment Jessica, that these will make me stronger. I love your can do attitude.

  • Thanks Design*Sponge for letting me share my thoughts with your readers!

    Tia, Zhanna, Fripperyvintage, and Anne Marie – you guys are the best! Thanks so much for the support and for reading ;)