Hello, my name is Natalie Davis and I am a designer, leather worker, and owner of Canoe, a modern leather studio based in Austin, TX. As a designer, I’ve always focused on pattern design and tactile work, making with my hands to solve problems. The process of figuring it out drives me most days, and with leather work, it’s all about process. Everything I do in the Canoe studio takes many steps, from hand-tooling to hand-dyeing our leather, then finishing and construction. It is slow, laborious, and immensely satisfying to use time-honored tools and techniques.
What most people don’t know is that up until December, I was also a tenure-track assistant professor of graphic design. To keep my sanity, I separated my two lives so many folks didn’t realize I had a day job. Telling the whole story of what I did was too complicated, so I kept it simple with acquaintances and customers. It makes better marketing copy to say you are pursuing your dream wholeheartedly, right? The reality is that many successful makers also have a day job, are currently juggling part-time work, have support from a partner or family, or may be living off credit cards. That side work or support is rarely discussed publicly — it’s not glamorous to be in debt or have three jobs. It’s stressful and stretches us all too thin. Aside from gripes to our friends, that hard work and pressure is kept private, lest customers think we are ungrateful or not living examples of our brand.
I began working full-time as a professor in 2010. I did this while getting Canoe off the ground, renovating a house, and helping my husband launch his business, Salt & Time. How did I do all of this? Looking back, it was sheer determination, hard work, and a heavy dose of stubbornness. My husband and I are both passionate people who had put in our time working for large organizations and believed in following our dreams. My day job as an assistant professor helped provide us with financial stability as we pursued these goals.
After my first year of Canoe, I started really thinking about what I wanted from this business. What does it look like for Canoe to be a success? What’s the roadmap for getting there? I saw good friends achieving success in their businesses, and it took me a while to step away from those models and write my own definition of success. As I worked through these ideas, one important item always came to the top — for Canoe to be my full-time job and main focus. At this point in my life (mid-house renovation), that idea was a dreamy mirage. I focused on pushing my business forward with collaborations, pop-up shops, and launching new product lines, all while teaching 3-5 classes a week.
While some people truly loathe their day jobs, I felt the opposite. I love teaching. I love being in a classroom, sharing ideas, and hearing what the students think. The discussions, critiques, and off-topic conversations were emotionally fulfilling and I cared deeply about making a positive impact on my students. Not many folks can say that they helped change someone’s life for the better, that by believing in someone, you helped push them beyond their own expectations and grow. Those sentiments were expressed to me in thank you cards by my students over the years. In 2012, I began teaching leather tooling workshops as a way to bridge the gap between my day job/dream job. I felt called to teach and, like many teachers, struggled with guilt about dividing my time between too many priorities. I was giving a lot in my classroom and that often left me feeling drained and tapped out. The studio was where I went to recharge and inspire myself, playing with ideas and techniques that would become the heart of my business.
Bills still had to be paid, so despite the tricky juggle of day job/dream job, I kept at it, planning and working towards a slow and steady growth for Canoe. At the end of every year, I reflect on what’s worked and what hasn’t, and set my goals for the coming year. The first week of January I go into serious hustler mode and begin implementing those plans. For 2014, those goals included attending my first trade show, growing my wholesale business, and national press. I participated in three trade shows by the fall of 2014, secured a sales rep, and had a mention in the New York Times and American Craft Magazine. I also opened a new sales channel of custom work for restaurants and interior designers. With a relaunch of my website, canoegoods.com, before the holidays, business was moving along very briskly.
That’s when life took a sharp turn and a personal tragedy in our family made me stop everything and assess my life and priorities. The stress of juggling different people’s expectations and being pulled in so many directions had reached a breaking point. While my business had grown exponentially, my day job had placed new demands on my time that I couldn’t meet at the current pace. Instead of planning how to keep everyone happy, I wondered what would make me happy.
What did I want my life to be? What’s my quality of life right now? Going full force at everything had become my standard approach. When I stopped to reflect, I realized that this was not a longterm, sustainable solution. I needed to have time to breathe, to focus, and to be quiet. I wanted to give myself space to think about the decisions I was making, not just plough forward without question. What if I let go of the security of my day job and bet on myself to make it happen with Canoe? I felt 100% confident that I could be more successful if I stepped away from the intense juggling act and took the leap. That sounds incredibly bold and brave, but it was my intuition telling me that, so I trusted it.
Once I had this realization, I did not deliver my resignation letter the next day. That beautiful, handwritten “follow your dreams” poster everyone is liking on Pinterest should actually say “plan your dreams.” I spent a lot of time thinking about this decision, discussing the change with my family, and then thinking about it some more. I drew up a realistic budget to understand what this change would mean in our lifestyle. I had five months of salary saved to use as a cushion in slow months. I’m a planner and pretty thrifty, so I felt confident that we could make it work. The lifestyle changes we’ve made are supporting our dreams, so they feel less like a sacrifice and more like a smart step forward. That doesn’t mean it isn’t hard at times, but it pushes me to make daily decisions based on my values and not just my desires.
As of January 1st, I am working for Canoe full-time. As soon as I officially gave my notice, several important business opportunities presented themselves. Each project draws on my unique skills as a leather worker and designer, and pushes my business forward. If I still had my day job, I wouldn’t have been able to say yes to any of these projects. While discussing my concerns about leaving my day job, a friend gave me this valuable piece of advice, “It’s like flying trapeze. You can’t catch the the next bar until you let go of the first one.” Once I had a solid plan in place for the transition, I’ve been able to turn my attention fully to pursuing my goals with Canoe. I feel grateful every day that I walk into my studio. Leather work has taught me the value of patience and slow growth, and appreciating the process, not just the finished product.
Here’s a list of steps to take if you’re considering leaving your day job:
-Spend time reflecting on what benefits you get from your day job. Not just tangible benefits like a 401k, but emotional benefits like your relationships with co-workers. We often just focus on the negative aspects of a day job, yet even the most menial jobs can bring us joy at times. It’s important to weigh the good with the bad.
-Get your financial house in order. Pull together all of your accounts, debts, and scary credit card statements. Start tracking your spending for a few months. You can use apps like Mint or LearnVest to get started, or download a budget template from Google Docs. Understanding where your money is going and how to make it work for you will relieve a lot of stress. It’s the not knowing that keeps us scared and immobilized.
-Once you have a realistic budget in place, start saving! Figure out what you can cut to put away for slow months. This might be small luxuries like morning coffee runs, or it might be downsizing into an apartment on the other side of town. Depending on your current salary and budget, saving 5-6 months of your salary is a good place to start.
-What does your dream job look like? Write out a job description of what you want to do. Talk to folks who are doing what you want to do and ask them about a typical day. Most illustrators don’t spend their days drawing — it’s a small portion of their day, which is filled with a lot more administrative work than you can imagine.
-Get started now on your dream job. Work on building your dream job during lunch breaks, early mornings, or after you get home. That might mean freelancing or interning on nights/weekends to gain experience. What skills are essential? Leverage your steady salary to take classes or seek a mentor to teach you.
-Talk about this decision candidly with your family and close friends. Share your fears, listen, and give yourself time to reflect on what you truly want to do. When you daydream about the possibilities, what decision brings you a sense of calmness? That’s the right one for you.