Life & Business

Life & Business: Katie Thurmes of Artifact Uprising

by Sabrina Smelko


How many times do you take a photograph that never sees the light of day? If you’re anything like me, it’s a lot. The current photo-count on my iPhone is over 2,000. That’s over 2,000 memories that I always intend to get printed or do something with, but in this digital time and age, it’s far too easy to forget and let the story fade.

The question “what are we leaving behind?” is exactly what prompted Jenna Walker to quit her job and pursue photography. And it wasn’t long before her sister Katie Thurmes and husband Matt joined her, and Artifact Uprising was born. They didn’t exactly know what they were doing, but they knew why: to capture the “disappearing beauty of the tangible,” pushed forward by the truth that everyone has a story to tell. It took years to develop their impressive line of premium photo books, prints and gifts, but by staying the course, they were able to go from launching their business from a basement in late 2012, to a team of 14 and an acquisition by VSCO.

Creatively-driven and committed to celebrating the authentic, Artifact Uprising urges you to get off your device and into your life, something we should all make a priority. Today, we’re thrilled to have Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer Katie Thurmes share some insight into their business; from the desire to create the next bigger thing, to believing in what you’re building, to the importance of giving your creativity room to breathe. –Sabrina


Why did you decide to start your own business?

It’s funny, when we set out to create Artifact Uprising it was a side project. My sister Jenna and I – along with her husband Matty –  had worked together for years as professional photographers. For all intents and purposes, we had arrived at a place in life where we could have stayed. Yet there was this side of us that wanted to create something bigger than ourselves. Closet-entrepreneurs, we wanted to build something that could prove to be an example of what good business looks like for generations to come.

I think it’s part of the creative process – to always be thinking about that “next thing” you want to make of your life – that thing that seems congruous with who you want to become, that thing that challenges you and keeps you learning.


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

Though we had captured hundreds of thousands of images as professional photographers, we realized our documented lives were sitting on our phones and computers with no true place to live on. It’s something we kept coming back to – “What are we leaving behind?” And so we landed on the printed photo goods you see today.

We created so many different versions of Artifact Uprising until our hearts felt aligned with our heads. What resulted? Products we believe in. This is why you see 100% post-consumer waste pages in our photo books. This is why you see fallen Colorado beetle pine in our wood products. This is why we create products every person can make beautiful with their own photography. This is why we keep moving on – we remember that a great business is only as great as the passion behind us. To have real passion, you have to believe in what you are building. You have to believe in the parts with potential to be bigger than yourself.

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

I still recall a customer who wrote in early on. He thanked us and gave us, perhaps, the best advice yet: it is all about love. He writes “Let love be the sum and total of all the little things you do, from the way you answer the phone to the way you write a letter, from the way you make a presentation to the way you fulfill an order. Let love be a way of doing business; not a one-time event, but a process of creating a customer environment of information, assurance, comfort and credibility.”

And every day, in some little way, we try to uphold his words.


What was the most difficult part of starting your business?

The learning curve. Little did we realize in those early days just how steep the learning curve would be. Artifact Uprising was a set of core values and the idea of a different kind of photo book long before it was an actual working product – with the technology and systems to match. To get from there to here has warranted persistence, but the learning is wild and welcomed.

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

You can’t do a good job if your job is all you do.

It turns out, the work will always be there. It will always be easier to abandon balance and keep grinding. But because creativity on command is the most difficult kind to summon – and the very art expected from the entrepreneur – you have to put space between it. So get out there and live a life away from that art. Find spaces that widen your world. Let your best work be the symptom of a life well-lived.


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

You may have heard the saying, “It’s okay to fail – just don’t fail the same way twice.” We really believe that.

That said, our biggest failures are the ones we repeat. We fail every time we forget to celebrate where we’re standing. I’ll be the first to admit that we do forget on the hard days. Sometimes we replace the celebration with fear, worry or hard work. The wins don’t come all at once, so you have to make room daily for the one win that is always yours for the taking: joy. Bring joy – real joy – to everything you do. It will never fail you.

What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?

Survey says: my yoga routine. (Fear not, yogis. I’m working on it!)


Can you name your greatest success in your business experiences?

It’s the community we’ve found along the way. They showed up when we were just a couple of sisters in a basement and they continue to show up, with stories that remind us to lead meaningful lives…each of us.

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

My favorite business read is Yvon Chouinard’s Let My People Go Surfing. As the title gives away, it follows “the education of a reluctant businessman.” Chouinard finds all the right words to remind you that business can be done differently.

I also read Seth Godin’s blog daily and never fall short on time for this talk by Brené Brown.


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

1. Understand what it will take – I once heard someone say “special people lead difficult lives.” Remember that you’ll want to quit as many times as you’ll be warned not to begin. Be prepared to stay the course.

2. Know your WHY – it will move you to your best work, sustain you when the road gets steep and serve as a compass in all decisions. From the core values you set forth early on to the materials you select, identify the choices that matter and stick to them.

3. Plan to do it differently – You’re not here to do what’s already been done. You’re here to find a better way. From the product materials you select to the way you treat each customer, every micro-movement is an opportunity to find a better way.


Suggested For You


  • Thank you for profiling these amazing ladies and their fantastic business! We used their services to print albums of our wedding photos for us and all sets of parents and they’re GORGEOUS. Fabulous quality and Earth friendly.

  • So wonderful. I love Artifact Uprising! I have been printing with them for a few years, even my wedding book in 2012! The quality is just so beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

  • This is HANDS DOWN the most loving, inspiring and honest biz post I have read. These ladies seem to have mastered staying true to themselves and their passion in life, all while creating a successful business. I am printing this one out and putting it in my studio as a reminder- because someday I too want to be creating my own path and creating a business out of my love and creativity. Thanks D*S for posting this- it totally made my day.

    • This is one of my top faves, as well! Definitely in the Top 3. I love everything about what they’ve shared.

  • I really enjoyed this article and Katie’s outlook on business. I like her quote “Let your best work be the symptoms of a life well-lived”. I truly believe this is the key to success in business, both big and small. Thanks for sharing!

  • Insanely huge fans of these gals (and Matty!). What they produce is always amazing and beautiful but most importantly genuine. I’ve watched from the start as Artifact Uprising has grown and give a little personal round of applause as I see each new development. Awesome company, awesome products and incredibly talented/great people. Very inspiring!

  • This is one of the best business articles I’ve ever read. In the grind, it’s very easy to lose focus and forget the passion that brought you there in the first place. As it gets harder, more simple gains become top billing: the person you hired that fills in your weak spots. Opening up your bottlenecks and working up a beautiful system. But it might be years before you wake up and remember to celebrate and refind the spark that kindled the love affair. Business really is like a marriage. Thank you for reminding me to fall in love again! Like an earlier commenter, I will print this up and return to it whenever I need a fresh start.

  • Another great post! Thanks Design*Sponge and Katie for sharing such great insights. I really like the one about doing things differently. It’s very easy to think I have to do it this way or that because that’s how it’s been done but so much about business is changing, with so many resources and avenues for getting your business to the people – it’s an exciting time to be a creative entrepreneur!!

  • Totally agree with previous comments that this is the BEST and most inspiring Life & Business post. I’ve shared this with my business partner and am saving this one to refer back to it has many great points to follow when running your business.