biz ladiesinterviewsLife & Business

Biz Ladies Profile: Dana Tanamachi

by Stephanie

Dana Tanamachi Portrait photos by Eric Ryan Anderson

Today’s Biz Ladies Profile comes to us from graphic designer and letterer, Dana Tanamachi. Starting off in the graphic design world working for major firms, Dana never truly envisioned a full time freelance career. As her work gained more recognition and bigger projects came her way, Dana finally decided to branch off on her own and establish her own studio.  Today, she shares her journey with us.  Thank you Dana for offering this glimpse into your career path.  —Stephanie

Read the full interview after the jump…

Dana Tanamachi Magazines

Why did you decide to start your own business?

I’m not sure I ever decided to actually start a business, honestly! I was doing something I loved and found great joy in, and people began noticing. Four years ago, If you would’ve told me I could make a living drawing letters and creating large-scale murals and installations, I might’ve laughed in your face. But, it so happened that two years ago, I was able to begin pursuing my part-time passion as a full-time job—and I officially launched my studio about 9 months ago. I guess I wanted to start my business/studio as a way to build a more sustainable life for myself. I had been grinding it out in New York City for a few years, working a full-time job, and doing freelance on the side, and I started to wonder what a more balanced lifestyle looked like. I knew it would take some hustle on the front end, but the potential freedom and flexibility of the future was a great motivator.

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

When it came time to officially start something, I sat down and asked myself what I wanted my business to represent. Obviously, I wanted to make beautiful things. No brainer. But, I also wanted there to be heart behind each project. I wanted to create work and letter phrases that were thoughtful and inspiring. Along with that, I hoped the business would be something that empowered others to do what they do best. Whether that be dreaming about big goals with my manager, or letting a freelancer experiment and run with their vision on a particular project, or celebrating with a client on a collaboration well done. Though the studio has grown, opportunities have increased, and mediums have varied—my business is still shaped by these initial vision and values.

Dana Tanamachi Studio

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

I’ve said this a thousand times, but the absolute best piece of business advice I received was that “No” is the most valuable word you have as someone working towards your dream. Especially if you’re still working your full-time job while taking baby steps towards starting your own business. In Jon Acuff’s book, Quitter, he unpacks this a bit:

“…when you still have your job you don’t have to obsess about the consequences of saying no. You can instead focus on the benefits of saying yes to the right opportunities. When you keep your day job, all opportunities become surplus propositions rather than deficit remedies. You only have to take the ones that suit your dream best.”

So, each time I was approached for a commission in “the early days” of 2011, I would run it through my mental filter and ask, “Since my time is so limited, does this align with what I want to do or what I’m about?” If the answer was no, I didn’t have a problem saying no to the job because I already had security—I had a full-time job. My day job allowed me to only take on the jobs I really connected with. That small piece of advice continues to serve me well!

Dana Tanamachi Quiet Life

What was the most difficult part of starting your business?

The most difficult part about starting my own business was the insane number of hats that I had to wear as an entrepreneur. Figuratively, not literally! Not only was I the designer/artist, but I also had to be the business manager, presentation maker, contract expert, payment collector, email answerer, conference call machine, and PR person. Just to name a few! Don’t get me wrong, in the beginning, you have a reserve of super-human strength that comes from the buzz of seeing your dream becoming a tangible thing. But, when looking at the long term, it’s simply impossible to wear all these hats forever—and build a sustainable life, or be a good friend, spouse, or parent at the same time. At least it was hard for me!

As my strengths and weaknesses were becoming more evident early last year, I began working with a studio manager—and it couldn’t have come at a better time! My art had just been featured on the cover of O Magazine, and the inquiries were (thankfully!) streaming in. I found myself drowning in my ever-growing inbox and unable to stay on top of invoicing and other aspects of the business. Admitting my lack of margin and trusting someone to help me help myself was such a life-giving step for me. Learning to delegate and hand off responsibilities so that I could do what I do best—not easy, but so worth it!

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

Absolutely: The story behind your work is what counts the most. That’s something that you will always have, and it’s something that’s undeniable. In a Q&A session, someone recently asked me, “How do you deal with the copycat culture that we live in?”. I thought long and hard about it, and this is the honest response that I came up with:

For me, it’s always been quality over quantity, as the origins of my work are very personal—and the work comes with a robust story behind it. I’ve always wanted to create work has heart, soul, and guts even—and that isn’t the result of jumping on a bandwagon or trend. One of the challenges I’ve had to face is that I’m just one person (and now we are a small studio)—we are not machines, and cannot possibly take on every job that comes our way. Believe me, it’s an honor to have more work than you know what to do with, but it does comes with its unique challenges. As someone who is very particular and works to carefully curate the work that we put out, I’ve also had to learn the art of letting go. It’s standard protocol for us to decline a job, and see it in someone else’s portfolio or out in the real world a month later (identical style, same medium). And that’s okay. There is enough to go around, but to me, it’s the story that’s most important, and that’s something that I’m thankful we don’t lack.

Dana Tanamachi Burton

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

I wish this wasn’t a reality, but at one point last year my manager was on vacation and I had been working on/managing several projects with tight deadlines over a two-week period. One of my returning clients wanted to hop on the phone and discuss a small new editorial project. So, I scrambled to hop on the call and felt completely scatter-brained during the whole thing. I was under a good amount of pressure with the projects I already had on my plate, so it was hard for me to focus on the details of taking on another one. I think my client sensed the frazzled-ness in my voice and ended up not following up with me about anything we discussed. Instead, I saw the project in someone else’s portfolio a couple of months later, in an extremely similar style (which is a bummer). I was frustrated at myself and at the situation, but I learned to value my clients even more, and really prepare for and invest in my professional relationships. And, work extra hard to be on top of things when my manager’s out of town!

Can you name your greatest success in your business experiences?

Having a life and doing personal work again. After a couple years of being spread so thin, I finally got my old self back. I feel that we’ve slowly created a model of sustainability which provides joy and inspiration in the daily ins and outs. I finally have the bandwidth and energy to look ahead with renewed vision and clarity.

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

Quitter and Start by Jon Acuff. Not only are these books funny, they’re incredibly practical. Quitter is about closing the gap between your day job and your dream job. Start is about shedding fear, escaping the average, and doing work that matters. They’re fun, easy reads that are full of wisdom.

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

Know your strengths. If you’re good at something, you’ll usually be passionate about it. Typically, we look at it from the other way around, but sometimes (and if we’re honest) we’re not that great at everything we’re passionate about. And in starting a business, we’ve got to be realistic. Both passion and skill have got to be there!

Know and admit your weaknesses. What stresses you out? How can others help carry the load with you? It’s humbling, but know what you’re bad at; hire people who are more talented than you at those things.

Think about sustainability. Where do you want to take your business ultimately? How do you get there? I recommend making goals and naming your seasons. I sit down a few times a year with my manager and trusted friends and see how I’m doing on the goals I’ve set. Last year, my goal was to launch the studio—so, I was taking small steps each month to get there. The entire season of 2012 had that overarching theme, and 2013 has been a season of tightening the screws. Give yourself time to build a sustainable structure—most people overestimate what they can do in one year, and underestimate what they can do in five. You must have some grace with yourself and take it season by season.

Also, regarding sustainability—don’t only think about where you want to take your business, but where do you want your personal life to go? And then how does your business fit into that? Do you want to have a family down the road? Now is the time to set up your business in a way that gives you a little more flexibility in the future.

Suggested For You


  • I’m in the same boat that you were – running a creative business on the side while working full-time. I’ve been day dreaming for years about the day when I can jump ship and turn my part-time biz into my full-time gig. I’m at the point where I’m really tired of splitting my focus every day and tired of using my day job as an excuse for why I’m holding back. Thanks so much for sharing your inspiring story! I’ll definitely check out the books you recommend. Your work is absolutely beautiful, by the way.

  • Awesome interview! Love her work and point of view on being her own boss. Also, just bought Quitter and Start…can’t wait to read them!

  • So great to see this! Dana envisioned the branding for the coffee shop my husband works at in San Francisco (St. Frank Coffee), and her stuff is just beautiful.

  • Thank you for this fantastic Biz Ladies profile – probably one of my favorites yet! I was first introduced to Dana through a “What’s In Your Toolbox” feature on D*S back in 2011, and it’s been so wonderful to watch her work evolve. And her career advice here is so timely for me, especially in regards to learning how to say no. Bookmarking this post right now. :-)

  • I am at the “beginning of quitting” and planning a new start after 10 years into a career that is incredibly rewarding, but makes a balanced life impossible. It is so helpful and inspiring to read about your own new start. Your work is so beautiful!

  • So much wisdom and perspective, about creating meaningful work, and creating a life beyond the work. Love this.

  • Great advice! Definitely going to grab a copy of Quitter! The division of brain space between creative endeavors and the daily grind of an office job is probably my biggest challenge right now. I hope following the advice of Dana and all the other amazing gals profiled on Biz Ladies will help me grow my own business, and who knows, maybe end up on Biz Ladies myself one day! Dream big, right? ;)

  • Hi…where did you get the snowboard shaped chalkboard? My sister would love this! Thanks for your help!