I’m always fascinated by the paths people’s lives take, the detours, the reinventions. There’s so much we can learn from each other’s journeys as we navigate our own. In your mini bio on the Aeolidia website you mention your time as a marine biology student. How did you go from a life of being bitten by baby seals to your life now, captaining a brand identity and web site development company? Can you share a bit about your background and the journey that took you from there to here?
Though my family doesn’t have a long or wide history of college graduation, my parents always expected me to go to college, in a way that made it a given for me. It did not seem optional. I had no grand plan, though, and I figured (correctly, it turned out) that having a degree was the important part, and what it was specifically about was less vital. Since I would be going into so much debt and spending so much time there, I wanted to enjoy it.
If you’ve ever had a teacher who absolutely loved their work and came to it with shining eyes, a bubbling-over of goodwill, and a desire to make each student passionate about their particular specialty, you’ll know what a huge thing this is. My passionate teacher was Mr. MacGowan, who let us call him Mac. He taught marine biology at our science magnet school to a bunch of kids who started out dubious, then found themselves strangely fascinated by the gooey creatures you can find living along the tideline. He had a Neil DeGrasse Tyson / Steve Irwin level of enthusiasm for nature, and it was infectious (particularly to me, who needed no special prodding to be fascinated by nature). So I applied to some colleges on the coast, and ended up in UC Santa Cruz’s marine biology program.
The drive from Seattle down to the Monterey Bay only took a day, but dropped me in a strange new world where wetsuits were hung to dry in the dorms before classes started each morning and our school mascot was a banana slug. I had an accelerated path through college, due to community college credits I’d earned in high school and summer school classes I took to finish early. I spent two years doing the basics (chemistry, calculus, physics), and only got to the fun stuff in the last year. But boy was it fun – I spent six months traveling in a van with my small group of classmates out to Año Nuevo state park to help collect data on elephant seals.
I’ve been promising (in my bio) to tell the story of how I was bitten by a seal for years, so here you go: baby elephant seals are huge. HUGE. A newborn seal can weigh 75 pounds, and they gain 10 pounds a day while nursing. One of our tasks was to weigh the seal pups and record their weight gain. The technique to do this was to sit astride the seal (don’t worry – this seal was much bigger and stronger than me, and was not overly concerned about my presence), pin down the flippers with your knees, then work with your team to roll the seal gently over onto a tarp, keeping the flippers tucked neatly in. Then the tarp is lifted a bit off the ground by ropes and pulleys hooked to the scale. You get the weight, roll the massive pup back off the tarp, and everyone goes about their business.
I had done this a number of times, but this time the seal had other ideas. She let me get settled in, then turned her head backwards over her body to gaze at me, grabbed me by the leg, her teeth just grazing the skin and connecting through my jeans. There I was, dangling upside down in the air from a seal’s mouth. I was quickly rescued by the other researchers and had a big bruise and scrape on my calf for a while. I didn’t blame her for messing with me, as I was messing with her. We called it a draw.
The story about switching from the sea to the web is less action-packed. I never intended to be a marine biologist, and I started college in 1996, when the internet was a toddler. So I got my first email account and was able to make my first website, and it was a hobby I never got tired of. It also turned out to be a useful skill, and slowly blossomed from helping friends out to getting paid, to what I have now: a strong team of 15 web strategists, designers, developers, and content creators, known for making some of the most lovely and effective shops in the handmaker/designer world. Everyone on my team is better at their job than I ever was back when I did it all. I pinch myself a lot.
Aeolidia is named after “a shaggy mouse nudibranch.” Names are so important for businesses, especially creative businesses. In fact, at Aeolidia one of the services you offer is help with brainstorming and choosing a business name. Can you share a bit about how (and why) you chose to name your company after your favorite sea slug? How does this name convey the heart and soul of your brand?
I do not recommend naming your company after a sea slug. There was nothing purposeful whatsoever about the decision. I could come in after the fact and make up a bunch of fancy-talk about making sure your website is perfectly suited to its environment (as a sea slug is), but that’s cheating. I was 18 and my name was already taken in the email system I was signing up for. Most of the aliases I tried didn’t work out, either, until I hit on “aeolidia.” By the time I turned my business into a real business, I was so used to being Aeolidia online that I just stuck with it.
Now people can’t spell, pronounce, or remember my own name or my business’ name! Yet another instance where I can help people learn from my own mistakes.
I love that you are honest and open about mistakes that you’ve made in your business. For example you admit that how for a decade your business did not have a real logo and your website “looked nothing like what [y]our clients wanted for themselves”. For a company that designs websites this seems like a huge misstep, but you also share that this mistake didn’t hurt your business as much as it would have had your brand not been as strong. There are so many details that go into creating a business and so much to learn as you go about it. What would you say has been your biggest challenge or steepest learning curve as you built Aeolidia and what helped you overcome it?
My challenge is something that I still wrestle with. I am fairly independent and self-sufficient and have to fight my natural instincts to be an island all the time. Hiring my first employee felt crazy to me. Requesting outside help and advice for my business felt unnatural. I’m right now shaking off my inward-facing inclinations to collaborate on some promotional ideas I’ve been thinking about. My first instinct is always just to do it myself. I’ve had to give myself a shake and tell myself to stop being silly about that many times.
Aeolidia has an impressive client list from Rifle Paper Co. to Alicia Paulson’s Posie to Renegade Craft Fair… Is there a specific project that you’re most proud of or if not a specific project, perhaps a milestone reached that made you feel as if you and your company had “arrived”?
I am most proud when our work does exactly what it’s meant to do: be the necessary tool our clever client uses to make her wild ideas work out even better than she’d imagined. I want to give people the strongest, fastest, smoothest hammer, but I don’t help them swing it and pound the nail – that part is their job. So I’m most proud of our clients that are visibly working their butts off being themselves in a way that works for their customers.
Rifle Paper Co., Emily McDowell Studio, June & January, Handcrafted Honeybee (in progress now and we’re all so excited!) – these women aren’t sitting back waiting for things to work out for them. They are working smart every day, using the best tools, spending money to make money, getting the help they need, and sharing their enthusiasm with their customers. It’s a joy and privilege to be able to lend a hand and watch them soar.
Being in a situation where you’re able to play hooky, to have time to spend with your family and have a life outside of your business is important to you. Have you always made this a priority? What strategies do you employ when you’re feeling bogged down, overwhelmed or simply don’t have time in your schedule for adventuring? How do you return to joy when you’re not feeling joyful?
I used to try to set up scheduled time off, but always find myself working on Saturdays. For the last few years, in fact, Saturday has been my favorite day to work. Our two young boys sleep over at my dad’s house most Friday nights, and my husband, Chris, is a night owl. That means Saturday morning I can pad quietly up to my computer, with no clients or Aeolidians expecting replies from me, and dedicate myself fully to something like a blog post, process project, or task that has been shoved aside from day to day.
Recently, instead of fighting it, I came to terms with working six days a week, by being generous with myself each day. Once deadline-driven work is done, I move to what I’m most inspired to do next, using my existing motivation rather than trying to build motivation for a different task.
If I worked productively and used my motivation well on Saturday, for instance, it’s easy to “be lazy” next Tuesday or take some leisure time on Wednesday. Instead of taking a solid weekend off, I incorporate time off throughout each day. I take breaks during my work day to run errands (I love being able to hit the grocery store when most people are at work), read books, organize a drawer. If my sister wants to go out for a three hour weekday lunch, I don’t hesitate.
I enjoy my work so much that it can take a concerted effort to put it aside when my kids get home. When I quit for the day, I know what I want to do tomorrow, and it stays on my mind, percolating quietly until I can get back to it.
My kids love going places and are wonderful airplane travelers, hotel-stayers, and sightseers, and we take enough vacations that I feel kind of sheepish about it. When I get back from a long trip, I am SO ready to get back to work – I’m itching to, and bursting with ideas and motivation. So it all works out.
You are clearly an advocate for and admirer of handmade. I enjoy the #aeolidiabizcrush posts on Instagram; you have such excellent taste! I have a sneaking suspicion that you’re also a maker. Am I right? What sorts of arts, crafts or other creative pastimes do you enjoy yourself?
You got me! I have been a serial crafter since I was a kid. My mom was great at finding “things to do for kids” type of books. My sister and I made a million crazy things. We made our own accordian-style haiku books with dip-dyed paper towel covers. We wove placemats for dolls out of long flat leaves in our back yard. Our grandma taught us how to latch hook and crochet, and we always had a bit of finger weaving or a friendship bracelet going.
I’ve gone through a lot of craft hobbies. Usually I learn just enough to “get it” and then I quit with few (or no) finished projects (this happened with crocheting, knitting, embroidery, calligraphy, watercolor painting, and probably other things I’m forgetting). I’m curious about technique – and learning a new craft is a puzzle to solve, which I love. Sticking with it is another story.
When I was pregnant with my first son, Calvin, I found some delightful vintage sheets with jungle animals on them, and thought I might try sewing him a baby quilt. Nevermind that the one and only time I’d used a sewing machine was in high school home ec class.
My sister let me borrow her machine and I figured it out and loved it. So much fun! It used all the same parts of my brain that web design did. There was picking and matching colors and patterns, deciding on a layout, measuring and calculating seam allowances and border size, keeping to a grid, but being creative and making my own decisions within it. I was about to put myself out of a job designing for Aeolidia (by hiring people much better than me and having a newborn to take care of), so quilting was a soothing replacement.
I made Calvin another quilt for his first birthday, then another for him and one for his new baby brother, Desmond, the next year. I made a watermelon quilt, a woodland quilt, a really fun solar system quilt, a sunny zigzag queen size quilt for my bed… it was the first craft I ever stuck with enough to feel experienced. Each time I make a new quilt, I learn a new skill (such as applique, sashing, new ways to bind it, new methods for straight line or freehand quilting), and it keeps it fresh and pleasantly challenging.
I’m in the middle of two quilt projects right now, but it’s been months and months since I picked either one up. Quilting is one of my benchmarks for work-life balance. When I am sewing a quilt, I know that I’ve tamed work and everything is running very smoothly.
Our house is full of handmade items (most bought, some made by me), and both my boys (5 and 7) get excited about things like embroidery, rubber band bracelets, potholder kits, and the like.
One of the things that immediately impressed me when I first encountered your website, blog and newsletter was how generous you are with your talents. You share a wealth of knowledge on all aspects of crafting and running creative businesses. This represents a LOT of work. What inspired you to give away so much advice and assistance? How has doing so helped your business to grow? Finally, if you could leave us with one piece of advice, what would it be?
I am a person who needs a creative outlet. Having quit doing web design, that thing is writing now. I have always enjoyed writing. I kept a journal for all of my teenage and young adult life, and now I have a private blog just for grandparents and other family to share in what the kids are doing. I wrote a zine in high school and through college and I sent it out to dozens of penpals and other zine writers. I tried my hand at fiction a few times, but mostly I write about stories that really happened.
I feel best when I’m teaching people or helping them to improve what they’re doing. I just can’t help myself! If someone emails and asks me a question that hits the right spot – a spot that I’m curious about – I will stop everything, sit there for an hour, and give them my best advice in detail. Solving problems and telling stories are both my jam, and my job lets me do both all day.
I started blogging because a client asked me to! She started a blog called “Oh My! Handmade Goodness” and I ended up writing for her regularly. Jessika Hepburn bought that blog, and I wrote for her for almost four years. Eventually I decided to start my own blog, and happily, was with Jess in person at the time of the decision and she helped me brainstorm so many good post ideas. It’s hard to believe there was ever a time I was looking for post ideas! Now I have way more ideas than writing time.
The blog and my weekly newsletter are a large part of our business now. The blog brings a lot of traffic through Google and social media, it helps people trust us to be kind, generous, and experienced, and I often reference articles we’ve written when helping our clients make decisions or solve problems. It’s a tool that helps us in a lot of ways.
As for advice, everyone’s on a different path doing different things. So for general advice, I like this quote by J.M. Barrie: “Always try to be a little kinder than is necessary.”
This interview was originally published on My Giant Strawberry.