This is an interview with Arianne for Life + Business on Design*Sponge.
Why did you decide to start your own business, versus work for someone else?
In high school, I started writing and glue-sticking a zine called Kickstand. I covered wide-ranging topics from “Taste Test of Red Drinks” to “Ants! Ants! Ants! A Tale of Spine Tingling Horror.”
When I got to college, I met my husband Chris, who runs a record label. I also had a lot of connections in the music world from running my zine. It was the late 90s, and everyone wanted a website! I began helping our friends create sites for their bands and record labels.
So, I didn’t have a grand plan at the start! It was just a hobby, that would soon become something more.
The tipping point happened when a friend with an actual moneymaking business asked me to help make her ecommerce shop pretty. I knew nothing about ecommerce (and it barely existed for small businesses at that point), but dove right in and started figuring it out. The project went well and she introduced me to her entrepreneurial friends. When I started helping craft businesses with their sites, my work became an investment for my clients and it began to seem like something that could become my job.
Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work? How did you discover what it was and how you knew it was what you wanted to do?
Oh yes! Computer lab, UC Santa Cruz. Due to overcrowding in the dorms, I was given not one but three roommates in a room that used to be a lounge. There was not a lot of quiet time to be had with all four of us in one small room (and the occasional unwelcome “beer bong” party), so I found myself spending a lot of time in the computer labs around campus.
I started off with my very own Geocities website for my zine. Geocities was one of the first ways to have a personal website, and the default site style was a crazy ugly mess. I wanted my site to look like my zine, so I learned to use the scanners and get my favorite 50s clip art up on my site. I redesigned that website very regularly.
This was in the very early days of the web: anyone who knew how to make a site was automatically an expert. Chris worked for the city of Santa Cruz, and his boss hired us to redesign the city’s waste management site. They paid us $1000, and we felt like kings!
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
I didn’t get much business advice at the start, though I have spent years reading anything that might make me better at what I do. I blazed my own trail, not knowing anyone who had a service-based business. Instead of looking for help from peers or mentors, I gleaned what I needed to know from my clients’ feedback and frustrations.
I am a born problem solver, which makes my business a joy to me. There are always problems to solve. We like to solve clients’ problems with our work, but my favorite are Aeolidia’s own problems. I take every bit of feedback I get and consider whether there is any improvement I can make to our process based on it. If a current client tells me something that will make things smoother and easier for my next client, that is gold, and I always act on it.
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
When I started Aeolidia in 2004, the tools I use now didn’t exist. Project management was a big hurdle. When things got busy with multiple projects, it was a lot to juggle, and I kept most of it in my head. I’m thankful for the tools and software we use now, which allow us to keep on top of dozens of projects without missing a beat.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
Success for a client-based business all boils down to communication. This is particularly true when you work remotely, like my team and I do. There are 15 Aeolidians right now, many clients, and each project tends to have at least four people on it. That is a lot of people, mostly communicating over the internet. There are a lot of opportunities to miscommunicate!
I spend much of my time making it easier for our clients to share what they need and easier for my team to share their process and ideas.
People come to Aeolidia because of our unique voice and viewpoint, and it’s important that everyone who works for me shares this viewpoint and is able to communicate it effectively. I’m glad to say that our tight team right now are completely behind the Aeolidia mission of transforming little businesses into “big little” businesses and that’s showing in all the work we’ve done recently.
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences that you learned from or that helped you improve your business or the way you work?
We have had some big shifts over the years as our skills and experience have grown, and whenever we’ve upped our game, I’ve felt concerned about leaving our old market and entering into a new one. Aeolidia began a year before Etsy did, and the crafters that Etsy catered to were our original clients: people with a hobby that they were interested in turning into a business. Over time, our work got so detailed, time-consuming, and valuable that we weren’t able to keep the low prices we started out with, and our client base began to change.
Leaving our beloved beginner crafters was scary and a bit sad. These were the people that I felt comfortable with and I was still such a champion of their businesses! It felt weird that our work no longer fit their budget.
I just hate turning away a feisty business that I admire, so for many years, we tried to find ways to accommodate everyone. We would try to work within a client’s budget by doing less for them than they really needed. I was breaking all my own rules about never cutting corners on a project.
Sadly, we found that in trying to please everyone we weren’t pleasing anyone. By investing less than we normally would in a project, we weren’t meeting our clients’ expectations. Clients started getting upset and my team was beginning to feel burnt out.
We were diluting our brand trying to cater to everyone. I knew something had to change. I had to get realistic about where our area of expertise was: helping businesses at the tipping point who need a push away from their DIY efforts and over to where they can make much bigger sales.
This is such rewarding work for us, because it’s a partnership. Our clients have used their strengths and skills to create a great product and grow a loyal following. We can then use our strengths and skills to push them past whatever has been holding them back. After working with us, our clients are ready for whatever opportunities knock at their door.
Instead of trying to have something for everyone, we’re now focusing on being everything to someone.
If you were magically given 3 more hours per day, what would you do with them?
Take a pottery class! For sure. My phone is going to buzz me to remind me about this in spring, when I think I’ll have a bit more free time. I may just do it without those extra hours. I’ve been watching potters throw clay on a wheel in little videos on Instagram, and it’s so mesmerizing. I need to get my hands into some clay.
What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?
Like every business owner, I’ve sacrificed weekends and time with my family and feelings of security and stability – even my health. I spent two months between project managers once, juggling everything myself, and tooth sensitivity showed me I’d been clenching my jaw at night. Luckily, every sacrifice I’ve chosen to make has been for a good reason and has been manageable.
Talking about business sacrifices feels like talking about parenting sacrifices. Counting sacrifices is kind of beside the point, right? Of course it is hard and scary and challenging to do either thing, but it’s also impossible to imagine life without your business once it’s become your lifestyle.
Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your business experiences?
Aeolidia’s greatest success is when the collaboration between our client and our team exceeds the goals and objectives we all had at the start of the project. We have launched some brands that we are especially proud of. It’s such a pleasure to have given them that kickstart and then to sit back and watch them rocket towards their own success.
Rifle Paper Co., who didn’t have a site. Now they have a breathtakingly huge list of stockists. Emily McDowell, who started small and now is in the national news and has her own warehouse. June & January, who went from DIY to 3x as many wholesale requests on launching the new brand.
Having our greatest success being our clients’ great success is the virtuous cycle that keeps us in business after a decade.
What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
If you’re at all like me, and you’re always following new ideas and plans and projects down their various bunny trails, you’ll find The ONE Thing a truly helpful and motivating book as far as focusing your days, weeks, months and years to only pursuing the thing that’s going to make everything else easier or unnecessary.
Has failing at something or quitting ever lead to success for you? Walk us through that.
I never consider anything a failure. There’s always progress gained, and things that don’t go as planned are usually a learning experience. Of course, hindsight is 20/20 and it’s easy to look back and wish you had done something differently. I like to give myself credit for doing the best I could with the information that I had at the time, even if the outcome isn’t ideal.
This is probably the crazy mindset that makes starting your own business seem like a good idea, and I think it’s something a lot of us biz owners have in common!
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
You want to be prepared by understanding the core values of your business:
- Why do you want to start a business? If you don’t have a compelling reason for starting your business, you’re going to have a hard time convincing people to be interested.
- What is truly unique about what you do, and how are you telling your story? It really is all about the story, and I break this down in detail here: Make Magic For Your Biz With a Strong Brand Story
- Finally, what goals and ambitions will keep you excited about your business? Don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s going to be easy (at least not at first)! You’ll work more than you ever have before, and to keep your heart in it, you need ambitions. As you meet them, you can expand them, and keep your job interesting.
What’s the first app, website or thing you open/do in the morning?
My email. I don’t tend to answer it first thing, but I like to see who we’re talking to and whether any interesting opportunities have come up. On the best of days, I jump right into WordPress and knock out a blog post, but that’s only when I’m at the top of my game. Of course, all this comes after scooting my boys (kindergartener and second grader) out the door with breakfast in their tummies and lunch in their backpacks.
What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious?
To be successful you often have to push yourself to do things you would never have thought you wanted to do when you signed up for the job. For me, this ranges from bad feeling things like letting an employee go who I personally like but isn’t the right fit, to good feeling things, like mustering the bravery to speak or teach at an event.
Thank you, Design*Sponge team, for having me on the blog today! I admire the effort you put into supporting creative business.
Thank you, readers, for taking a moment to peek into what I do. I’d love to get to know you creative business owners better. Please say hello to me in the comments or subscribe to my newsletter to get my best tips for your business – reply to my first email to tell me where your business is at. I’d love to know!