biz ladiesLife & Business

Biz Ladies Profile: Rena Tom of Makeshift Society

by Stephanie

Rena Tom, Biz Ladies Profile Photos by Victoria Smith

Today’s Biz Ladies Profile features Rena Tom of Makeshift Society. Formerly the co-owner of Rare Device, a retail store and art gallery based in San Francisco, Rena has gone on to consult other creative businesses in establishing themselves in the retail space, and she’s been a regular contributor to our Biz Ladies series. Most recently, Rena founded the membership-based community workspace Makeshift Society in San Francisco. Today, she shares her amazing career journey with us. Thank you, Rena, for offering your incredible business insights! — Stephanie

Read the full profile after the jump . . .

Rena Tom, Biz Ladies Profile Makeshift Society, San Francisco

Why did you decide to start your own business?

From 2005 to 2011, I owned and operated a retail store and art gallery, Rare Device, with my friend Lisa Congdon. We made the hard decision to sell the business, early in 2011. Lisa’s art career was taking off, I had a toddler and neither of us had any extra time to give Rare Device the attention it deserved, so we sold the business to a friend.

At that point, I had to figure out what to do next. Working for someone else seemed daunting, since I was used to calling the shots. I haven’t had a steady paycheck since around 2000, and once you become independent, it’s near-impossible to go back to a job where you have to answer to someone else! At the same time, just staying home with my son didn’t seem like the right fit. I like being a mom, but I like having lots of other projects, too.

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

The sensible path for me was to continue working with the people I knew best: product vendors and store owners. I’ve worked on both sides of the fence, and there are a lot of pain points that I knew could be addressed by getting the two groups to really understand and communicate with each other. So, I started a consulting practice aimed at small creative businesses. I blog about business best practices and have some great contributors helping out with posts about the creative process, manufacturing and production, retail trends and business writing and editing.

After about 8 or 9 months of working at cafés, I was going a little crazy. I missed the interaction with my peers, and the more people I talked to, the more I realized that everybody was in the same boat. I began to research a new space — not a store, but a clubhouse for people to come together. Fostering interaction for freelancers and consultants was at the heart of my next project, Makeshift Society. It’s a coworking space largely for solo workers; it provides the framework for being really productive on your own but also encourages learning and collaboration from others.

Makeshift Society library What was the best piece of business advice you received when you were starting out?

I think the best advice, gleaned from my shopkeeper friends, was to focus on the people, and to really understand what they were asking for. This actually applies to any business. I live in San Francisco, which is going through a giant technology boom (again). There are people who live here who think that there’s a technology solution for pretty much every problem. I love gadgets and apps as much as anybody, but solving the underlying issues that really improve people’s lives and businesses seems so much more interesting and important to me than having the coolest way to hail a cab or share a photo.

People are loyal to people. They want to interact with other people. They want to support other people when they purchase a product or get help with a problem. These things seem so simple and obvious but by their very nature are easy to overlook when one is constantly dazzled by features and visuals and trends.

What was the most difficult part of starting your business?

Raising capital and naming my business! Having enough money to launch the way you want to, and creating a name that is memorable and conveys the right impression, were both things I struggled with. For my consulting business, it was easier — I just use my name, and the overhead costs are fairly low. For Makeshift, it was a lot harder. I had to get loans and investors, prepare a thorough business plan and generally do things “by the book,” something that is not easy for me. Ultimately, though, it was worthwhile.

Also tough is knowing when to move ahead and release your work to the world. That said, getting a sense for the right timing is sometimes more important than having all the details just so. I am pretty good at going with my gut — but I also have years of experience, and plenty of research, to back up my decisions. My friend Lane calls these moments “planned serendipity” — a nice balance between being prepared and letting things take their course.

Makeshift Society lounge Makeshift Society lounge

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

Learning to accept (and ask for) help is something I’m still working on. It’s been an extremely valuable lesson for me, since I tend to want to do *everything* and yet the way to growth is to focus on doing what you do best and surrendering the rest.

Even as an independent consultant, you can’t do everything yourself. I think many freelancers and small business owners have a notion that they should, and it holds them back. Part of the mission of Makeshift is to help our creative freelancers realize that and to do something about it. In operating the business, we “eat our own dog food” and give up a lot of control to the members. It makes for a unique environment and is hopefully inspiring our members to do the same.

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

Every week, there’s a moment when I put my head down on the table and groan a little. I have a lot of doubt about what I do — that people will support it, that I can pay the bills, that it is a good enough idea to expand to other cities in the future. However, the moment passes, and I forge ahead.

I feel like failure can absolutely be a learning experience, so in a sense, they aren’t failures at all! But doubt happens to everyone, and it’s how you react to your moment of doubt that makes the difference.

Makeshift Society workstation Can you name your greatest success in your business experiences?

My greatest success is the company I keep. I might be wrong here, but I don’t think I have a lot of enemies. That is success to me — not that I have to pander to anybody and make friends, but that I have treated people right, and they know they can rely on me. I’m in the business of keeping people happy, more or less, and I take my job seriously. It makes *me* really happy to connect people I know who ought to know each other.

Because of this, I feel like a lot of opportunities are in return presented to me, generously and often. It’s win-win for everybody.

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

1. Make sure you are in a good place — mentally, physically, financially, emotionally. Obviously this changes for people day to day, but overall you should be ready to embark on your journey and able to react to both unforeseen good fortune and bumps in the road.

2. Make sure you have a team of mentors and advisors to call upon. Your mentors can include folks who are already in business plus overall knowledgeable, steady people in your life. The support of people who know your strengths and weaknesses, even if they aren’t experts in the line of business you are undertaking, will be invaluable.

3. Don’t start your business if it doesn’t sound like fun. I can’t stress that one enough. If you don’t wake up excited about your business every day, you aren’t going to have the passion to see it through. Have a great time, and good luck!

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  • Ahhh, the bookshelves in that top image are killing me! What I wouldn’t do for those cubbies. Great article. I really appreciate what she shared here, especially that her greatest success is the company she keeps. I’m finding that more important as the days go on and, again, really appreciate her putting that out there! Bravo.

  • She’s so honest- and I love her comment about treating people right. How many people feel confident to say out loud that they don’t have a lot of enemies, not very many. Good person to know.

  • I would love to hear about books that our Biz Ladies have found helpful and inspirational. Could that be added to the question list once in while? I am trying to read what is on Rena’s bookshelves!

  • So encouraging to hear a successful business owner say that she weekly has moments of doubt! I keep feeling like I should have it all together by now, but it’s great to read reminders that it’s okay if I don’t : )

  • Ideas into fruition and to have income to boast as well. Truly lovely. I mean all is doable especially when there is income at the end of it.

  • Went and had a wander on the site. Brilliant idea, great video, very reasonable membership rates and packages and I LOVE the different workshops. If I lived in San Fran I’d be in like a shot!

    Many congrats on developing the whole concept.

  • Rena’s story is so inspiring! Thank you for sharing! We would love to start our own business, but of course this is a scary venture, so reading that other successful women doubt themselves at moments is so refreshing. Bravo, Rena!!
    xx Liz and Lo {celesteandpearl.blogspot.com}

  • Oh my word, the universe is indeed a strange place…I was just this morning (South African time) going through Makeshift society’s webpage and reading up on it on Remodelista and pop here comes D*S feed! I think this is an amazing idea and I would love to start this concept here in Johannesburg, SA. As a blogger and aspiring writer and full time mom I get the need to be removed from your home environment and to converse with creative minds! A wonderful initiative and as well the wonderful D*S providing us with such wonderful insights ! You made my day

  • Another fantastic interview!
    However (with zero intention of sounding like a debbie) I’m left with the same burning questions that I have after reading all of these Biz Ladies Profiles. Do these folks have mortgages (or downpayment money if they are even interested in buying a home), health insurance, car payments, retirement accounts, are they able to save for their kids college (if they have or even want kids)? And do they have a dual income (read: bank rolling spouse) that allows them to be able to afford such things or do their creative businesses generate enough profit for them to live on a sole income? How long did it take them to reach profitability and what sort of financial challenges do they continue to face?
    While these interviews provide a great understanding of these women’s creative journey, by leaving out the financial side (which I can appreciate as being very sensitive), these interviews end up painting a skewed picture of these people’s businesses.

    • hi brandie

      that answer differs for everyone, but i know rena personally and she is not bank rolled by a spouse. she is the hardest working woman i know (with a child, too) and is very smart about how she spends and invests in her businesses.

      we haven’t interviewed anyone that’s “bankrolled” by a spouse, for that purpose. i agree it makes for a more realistic picture to offer up an example of a business that has to stand on its on feet.


  • Hi Grace,
    Thanks for the response. I certainly didn’t intend to imply that Rena or any of the people you’ve interviewed are being “bankrolled” by anyone and I’m sorry if my comment came across that way. It is quite evident that these are all hard working women as they certainly wouldn’t have arrived at this point without a lot of hard work.

    My comment was more about gaining a better understanding the financial side of these profiled businesses (an area in which having a dual household income may (or may not) have an impact on their business decisions and investments) and how having the financial side included as an area of discussion in these interviews could shed a more realistic light on the joys and challenges of running a business.

    Again – thanks for the feedback.


  • Great article on Rena! I met her back when I sold her some of my bags at Rare Device in Park Slope and she was one of the nicest shop owners out there. I love Rena’s new concept for Makeshift and her newsletters are inspiring for independent designers like me. It’s great to see someone who set out to do what she wants and is doing a great job at it. Nice post, Grace!

  • hi brandie, i’ve been self-employed since around 2000. i do have a spouse with a conventional (f/t) job. but i also have a mortgage, preschool tuition, and all the usual stuff. and i am a very conservative spender. we have a 1 bd apartment and a ford focus – being self-employed is definitely not the high life! this is why my business has evolved to helping people like me improve their business, so they have a little more flexible time and income to pursue their dreams. how i do it: i have prioritized what i want to spend on, and what i don’t. lots of thrift store clothes, no cable tv, i walk to work, no vacations. everybody has a different financial situation so while we may not provide explicit details, it may or may not be applicable to you anyway. i just want to emphasize that it *is* often a long and hard road, so choose your passions and projects wisely.

  • Since moving from SF I have so many times seen something going on at Makeshift and wished I still lived there to attend! Great to hear more about Rena and her business. I would love to hear plans for Makeshift to expand to other cities! :)

  • Yay Rena! So glad to have you doing such amazing things for the creative community here in SF, and you do it with such a style and grace :)

  • congrats to rena! i’m proud to be a makeshift member – rena has created a warm and inviting community, clearly fueled by her passion and enthusiasm for her fellow creatives.

  • I just wanted to say thanks for creating such a wonderful creative space . I had the opportunity to take a watercolor class last Saturday at makeshift society and I was just blown away by what a bright supportive space you’ve created. I wish i lived closer to become a member since I live over an hour away . But I would highly recommend as a great resource for creative entrepreneurs

  • This was just the article I needed to read this morning and I have already signed myself up for her blog mailing! The one thing I find the hardest about freelancing is the isolation, away from other creative peers and just people in general, especially if you’re working on a time-intensive project. I hope Rena does find a way to expand her business to other cities…when she comes to Seattle, I’m so in!

  • Really interesting and inspiring, what a great attitude, wish she was in LA! Will definitely sign up for the blog mailing too.

  • Having the support of a spouse or partner often makes a difference in the risks a person will take, consciously or unconsciously. I can say that from experience. I would never have pursued a freelance career if I didn’t have an stable, emotionally (though not financially) supportive partner when I first started out. However, I think it’s more important that we learn from the creativity and ingenuity of these people. Not sure if it’s fair or relevant to put each person’s financial situation under a microscope. These profiles seem to be more about a general overview.

  • Hi Rena – thanks so much for the feedback! It’s so helpful and encouraging to hear that you can have a cool business in a great city like SF and still maintain even some of “the usual stuff!”

  • Great profile on Rena.
    I was fortunate to meet her recently and she is very open to sharing advice and contacts. Looking forward to future interactions with Makeshift and Rena.

  • Rena’s honesty, self-depricating ways, and tireless effort to return emails, and to be a quality person, are unparalleled. Thanks Rena, for everything you do for this community. Every interaction that I have had with you has left an impression. You are legend, lady. I can just see you shaking your head, but seriously, take the love!

  • I really enjoyed this little peek into the Makeshift workspace! I trying to plan a day to go into the city to take a class and meet some other creatives. And thanks for the biz tips, Rena! I keep up with your blog and always click right over to read your helpful posts. :)

  • I am so inspired by everything I read about Rena. From Rare Device to Makeshift it’s so fun to see her creative endeavors take life. I wish I’d had her as a creative consultant when I started my brick & mortar, but I’ve found it so helpful to read her website since finding it. Love this profile!