Bart Bradshaw: (00:31)
Hey builders. Today we’ve got a special episode with two guests, builders on their own journeys. They’re in the thick of it and are going to share what they’re doing to build, to stay. We’ve interviewed a lot of founders, and don’t get me wrong, we’ve learned a lot, but I think there’s a lot to learn from people who are riding next to us. So without further ado, let’s meet our builders. First up, Craig Rabin, who invented an all in one travel hook for the back of the airplane seat.
Bart Bradshaw: (00:55)
Hey Craig, thanks for joining us.
Craig Rabin: (00:57)
Bart’s such a pleasure to be here on such a fantastic day. How are you?
Bart Bradshaw: (01:01)
I’m very good. Thank you. So, um, Craig, take us back before the Airhook. What were you doing before you came up with this idea? I’d love to hear a little bit of a, the story and how you came up with it, but you know, what were you doing beforehand?
Craig Rabin: (01:14)
Yeah, great question. And if I take myself back, it actually has to start when I was 16 with a few friends. And uh, the, the cool part about that is I was so scared to do it alone. So I know there’s probably a lot of builders that are listening that are kind of either debating if they’re going to take that leap to be an entrepreneur or maybe they just put their toe in the water for me, I was scared to do it. So the very first company actually started with two of my friends. Um, so we, we started that web design company and I was 16. I was, I want to say what I, a sophomore. And as I became a junior, one of the members of this team was a senior. He left. So we branched off into, there’s two of us. We started a new company, if you will, or just kind of split off.
Craig Rabin: (01:58)
And then he went to college and then I created a new one. And then, so by the third company, um, that was the first time I actually went out on my own. So I was about 18 years old at that point. And so from that moment on, I have been an entrepreneur leading all the way up to the Airhook with probably about 10 different ventures that I have tried along the way with varying success successes. And in doing so and trying many of these ventures, I started to travel a lot. And while I was traveling, while I was, um, really developing a love for being on an airplane, I, uh, had to take my first trip and we can get into kind of the Airhook story in a bit. But really before the Airhook came around, I was hustling and I was working on something else.
Craig Rabin: (02:44)
After that, I moved to Seattle and I’ll jump back to that here real quick while we were in school and for any, um, builders out there that maybe are in their junior or senior years of college and you are majoring in business or finance or entrepreneurship, anything in that realm, the best tip that I could give you is make it real. And here’s what I mean by that. In many business curriculums, a two or four years for that matter, one of your final classes is going to be coming up with a business plan. So for my team, we tried to come up with something that could legitimately be run out of school. And what that became to be was a collegian poker tour of all things where we traveled the country and did poker tournaments for scholarship run through university intramural programs. We weren’t doing a babysitting gig, we weren’t doing the hot dog stand.
Craig Rabin: (03:35)
We took it seriously. But long story short, or maybe a long story less as long. Um, we graduated and we started it. We traveled around the country and this is before I started traveling on planes. I was doing this all via car and we went to, I want to say it was nine schools the first year in 16 schools. The uh, uh, second year, it’s kind of second and a half year, and then liquidated our assets to a different company that basically purchased all the rights. So I did that right out of school and then I moved to Seattle.
Bart Bradshaw: (04:04)
So with Airhook, tell us the story of like how that started. You were on airplanes a lot. Is that when you had the idea and what did you do then?
Craig Rabin: (04:13)
Yes. Um, I love telling this story and to be honest, I’ve, I’ve told it so much that it comes across, uh, very naturally at this point.
Craig Rabin: (04:22)
But in my previous career I was filling in for my boss and coming from Seattle, I had to fly to Sacramento to close a deal over lunch. I then had to travel back that evening. This was my first day trip I’ve ever gone on. So I was already excited. I can’t believe I’m going to another state for lunch. This is crazy. And it was the most responsible that I’ve ever had to be at this company based on the meeting that they gave me to lead and close. So I was, I was very excited. I was very excited. So as you can imagine, I am dressing to the nines. I wear my best suit, right? I’m wearing my best suit. I get on that plane and it’s like, Oh, all right, here we go. So I have a few options for this coat of mine. I can either hang it in first class.
Craig Rabin: (05:09)
I was not sitting in first class. Um, they did not have any room for me, so I was like, okay, I’ll check that box. I could put it up in the overhead. Well, if I put it up in the overhead, you know what’s gonna happen? It’s gonna look like an accordion by the time that I am landed in my city. So I’m there. I’m not, that’s not gonna work either. So it’s okay, what am I going to do here? I could drape it over my legs, I can wear it. I’m going to be a sweaty mess by the time that I land. And so basically what I ended up doing, cause I tried to do it over my legs, it was too uncomfortable. I was wrinkling it anyways cause I ended up just wearing it. Long story short about this sport coat I wore the entire trip, didn’t take it off.
Craig Rabin: (05:45)
And so this entire time that I’m on the flight down, I am staring at the tray table in front of me, miserable. And two weeks before this I had just bought my first 3-D printer, now mind you to any other builders out there, I’m not an engineer, I’m not a designer. I thought three D printing was cool. I thought it was going to be a cool wave of the future. So I invested in something that I thought was cool. Right? So take that leap for, for other builders out there that are thinking and if it is a financial thing, maybe put your plan together, but take that leap, take that leap. So I bought a threeD printer and, and as I’m staring at this straight table, I said, you know what, I have to be able to print some type of little hook that I can mount over the side of the tray table from my next trip.
Craig Rabin: (06:30)
Cause I had one the following week to hang my sport coat. That was it. That was the inspiration, if you will, the moment, if you’ll let this dream kind of started. And now I want to say kind of because on the next flight I three D printed this hook. Okay. I bring my sport coat, I hang it. Um, I’m high fiving myself. No one around me cares at this point. I’m high five in myself. I’m in all awe. I’m think I cracked this code, right? I solve my own problem until, until the flight attendant comes by and asked me if I’d like a beverage. I chose to get a water, well, uh oh. I had to put down my tray table to hold my water and that coat became over my S put over my legs now. And so that was the spark. That right there was really what I consider the spark that created the Airhook was, wow, what if this coat holder also had a little cup holder?
Craig Rabin: (07:22)
Because why am I putting down my 16 inch tray table for my two inch beverage? Right? And I looked around and I noticed, you know what? Who really eats on a flight anymore? Maybe about 10% of the people do. I mean tray tables were designed decades ago because food was a permanent fixture. When you traveled, you always ate, no one does anymore, right? So that became the spark. I created the cup holder for it. Then I started getting rec unwell and we actually, let me take that back before I actually created the cup holder and brought that out. I got a provisional patent now for any builders out there that are thinking, okay, I’m going to give you the quick 90 second patent chat real quick. All right? You basically, anytime you see patent pending for those builders out there, anyone who sees it on a box, all that means is that person more or less has a provisional patent.
Craig Rabin: (08:10)
A provisional patent is not something that’s ever going to be looked at by the U S PTO. It really just has a line in the sand that says, I created this or tried to on this date. So for builders out there that are trying to get this done effectively or affordably or both, I should say, take photos, use those photos and file your own patent application. There are many books out there. I think the one I would recommend to, um, to any builders, and I think it’s patent pending in 24 hours. It will walk you through, I think it’s like 15 bucks on Amazon and it’ll walk you through the entire process. How to get your spec sheets up, how to get your drawings up. For a provisional patent, all you really need is black and white photos, sketches, very basic words. You don’t have to go through a lawyer at this stage, right?
Craig Rabin: (08:54)
So once you have that provisional patents, you can actually start saying it’s patent pending, which is pretty cool when you can tell your peers that it’s patent pending. But what the neat part about it is is that you don’t have to sign nondisclosure agreements anymore. You can actually hit the streets running and get as much feedback as you can and for any inventor out there or anyone with an idea. Once that idea is protected enough to share screaming on the mountaintop, literally, because the more feedback you can get before launch is great. If nothing else, you’ll get good feedback. If something, you’ll get an email address because they’ll want you to follow up with them. You just got a customer and free feedback jackpot. Today’s needs outside of the tray, table size and all that. Everyone was on their own device and their own device. I mean they didn’t steal it.
Craig Rabin: (09:43)
There’s so many different devices out there these days from so many different cell phones to now, so many smaller seven inch tablets to your iPad pros and your surfaces and so on. So what we wanted to do in order to accommodate travelers of every type of device was we created the Airhook to not only latch onto a closed tray table, right? That was key. Then we had to have it hold a sport coat, right? That was of course what I wanted. The third thing is it holds your beverage so it can hold up to a 12 ounce beverage. It’s shaped, um, properly. So you can put a can of bottle or an airline cup. But the key, the thing that I really think made it stand out from anything else on the market especially was our universal device holder in the back. So that universal device holder and I still had a prototype.
Craig Rabin: (10:31)
Now granted this prototype was made with two nails and elastic that I cut off underwear that I had drilled two holes in a three D printed Airhook that I brought to my parents’ house in Arizona at the time. And I’d built this in the garage when I had the idea on the flight down on the flight back, it worked again. I was in awe. And about two months later we launched on Kickstarter. I had no clue how to use Kickstarter, but we launched, we were funded in 73 hours. Our campaign that needed 15,000 ended up raising all said and done I think over like the 90 day period after we got off Kickstarter about 150,000 so we said, um, okay, I think we have an idea here. I think we have an idea but I don’t, Oh go ahead.
Bart Bradshaw: (11:18)
You keep saying we where you’re working with everybody or are you talking about like your lawyer and you know anyone who helps you with the design like contractors.
Craig Rabin: (11:26)
Now Bart, I just got, I got goosebumps right now because that is one of my favorite questions and it’s one that I’ve gotten asked probably the most when I tell this story.
Craig Rabin: (11:35)
I do not work with anyone. I do all of the work myself. Sure. I have contractors along the way that helped me with various topics. And because of that, and mostly because of all the support that I’ve had since I have been 16, trying so many crazy companies that have led up to this point. I do it for everyone. And so I will rarely ever hear me say I. um, I always say we because it just, it takes a village to kind of make dreams work. I feel like these days. So it’s, it’s never I out there folks. It’s always we,
Bart Bradshaw: (12:06)
Yeah, that makes sense. So, well don’t say that. That means everyone says it, but no, I’m just planting. No, it was a unique answer and I like it. It makes sense. I do think that, uh, people say we a lot and I don’t think usually the motivation is always as pure or simple. A lot of the time it’s like we to make it sound like there’s more momentum or more of a team behind this and it’s actually an I. But in this case, I like the way you’re saying actually, you know, I recognize that yes, I was doing a lot of this myself, but ultimately it takes a village. It takes tons of feedback from others. It takes contractors and lawyers. And so that’s uh, like I say, it makes sense. It’s a good answer. So 150,000 on Kickstarter and what next you’re like, that was 10 X what you were going for, right?
Craig Rabin: (12:58)
Yeah, yeah. I mean, and so we had some really good coverage. It was right at the time when a another travel product, which was like the first ultimate travel jacket that had 74 pockets, each one designed specifically for one thing, which I never really liked, but they crushed it. They got like $1 million. We were the second in line at 150. Right. So we both got written up in an amazing CNN article about Kickstarter, about travel, about innovation, and that, I think at one day it probably was one of our biggest sale days. And this was before we even had a product when we probably did about 50 all presales, um, all presales. And the key to that was we knew things were happening. But yeah, once that all happened, then we kinda got to the, to the grits and I’ll, I’ll get into the Airhook story here.
Craig Rabin: (13:45)
So again, there hook, we labeled it as a, as a fantastic travel gadget. It fit a cell phone to a tablet right around seven inches tall and had pretty limited mobility, but it worked. So we went out, we got our industrial design. Now a lot of people always ask, wow, you 3d printed all of those three D printing is solely for proof of concept. Um, it isn’t a very slow process. The, uh, defects are very high. The quality of materials is kind of middle of the road and the cost of print is also very high. So we only use those for cost-effective prototypes. Back in the day. Imagine every prototype being even like a hundred grand. It was immensely expensive to create an concept. Now, three D printing kind of rules in the world. And I say that, I say that unfortunately because folks were, for anyone who heard that thinking, you know what, but it’s also clogging the ocean’s arteries with all the plastic.
Craig Rabin: (14:39)
You are right and there is an opportunity for anyone out there, any build or any dreamer, any advocate to come up with a solution. And I will be your first backer because yes, we do need less plastic in the ocean and the Airhook is plastic. So I sleep with that every night folks. So yeah, so hopefully someone will save the world one day. But anyhow, we designed for manufacturing. It’s a much different type of design. And then went out. I didn’t actually go to China. We had contacts that I was consulting with again that I met through networking. All of the same networking that I was mentioning earlier that had factories they’d worked with in China. And long story short, found a factory imported our first order, it was short, it was about half of the orders that needed inventory for. And so it was an immediate baseball bat to the back.
Craig Rabin: (15:26)
This is like dealing with China. They shorted us. I didn’t know why they didn’t communicate it. They was just a big back and forth and I broke down. I broke down Bart. And what I did there also changed the future of the company because rather than blaming anyone, we were honest with them and we didn’t lose that many orders. What we ended up getting was a lot of really heartfelt emails like keep your head up, keep trying. And these are from complete strangers and I’m not gonna lie to you Bart. I printed those out and I put them on my wall. It’s not how well you execute. It’s how well you pivot in a point of crisis. That’s probably the best way that I could put it. Um, and we had to figure that out. Yeah. It sounds like the, the idea of saying we was actually, well kind of confirmed in this situation.
Craig Rabin: (16:14)
You did have a community that was supportive and that’s awesome. I love that. And you know what, I’ve actually never, I’ve never thought of that before, so I appreciate it. I got those goosebumps back. How do you continue this business? It was a a lunch. And then what and that continues the let’s make stuff up, Craig. Um, now again getting out and doing some networking and just finding someone who had a similar product. Now in Seattle, a lot of the new inventions that come to market are very electronic based. They’re a go to market strategy is much different. The, I mean much much different. So finding someone that had a very simple kitchen gadget and that’s what I ended up doing. Um, he had launched on Kickstarter, he had some success so I could go to him and say, okay, what have you been doing?
Craig Rabin: (17:01)
Like what worked for you? So we looked at various levels of marketing, um, from trade shows to uh, publicists to uh, digital marketing. Like most people are familiar with like the Google ads and Facebook ads and things like that to print ads. Um, you know, getting in a magazine. Uh, so sky mall was still in the picture at this point. They are no longer, but I, you know, do we want to get in there? How do we get into airport retail? Um, what’s this whole Amazon thing? Cause I guess people are starting to buy a lot there. Um, so it became all of that and really part, we each tried everything and that was a failure. I look back and say that that was a failure because I didn’t know a way to track, I didn’t have a proper, if you will, to say, Oh cam, I’m putting X amount into a publicist and I’m getting X amount of sales directly from that.
Craig Rabin: (17:56)
And so on and so forth. We had funds and I had no real prior knowledge of how to make this work. And we put those two things together. And when you have excess funds and little knowledge, you end up with little knowledge, a little funds. Um, and so we kind of were in that boat and I made a few wrong turns along the way. But what, what ended up working for us was a publicist. And so we hired our first publicist for coming right around like 2016, 2016 was just a kind of a LOL year for us. Um, we shipped all the preorders. We weren’t doing that much business at the time. Um, I mean I was still probably taking odd and end jobs that my friends would throw me, uh, you know, around the community to put food on the table. I mean, it wasn’t a full fledge business yet, not knowing or when people purchase.
Craig Rabin: (18:50)
So for example, now I know November and December, we do about 50% of the business that we do of the course of a year, which is crazy, absolutely crazy. I mean, specifically in November and December, I mean actually the last like six weeks. Um, once you get to, uh, you know, black Friday and cyber Monday and, and all the gift guides start coming out. But in 2016 I didn’t know any of this. And so we hired a publicist, we started to get our feet wet. We got an old lot of gift guides, this, that, and the other. And our real peak then came, I want to say in 2017 we were invited by Mark Burnett, who’s the producer of survivor of everyone’s favorite shark tank. Um, I was invited because I had knew him through a previous trial on shark tank. We got to the very final stages before you speak in front of the sharks on the very first season for a completely different concept than a business.
Craig Rabin: (19:50)
And that was working on at the time. Yeah. So I had, I had gone through that process and it was much more intimate at the time cause it was the first season. Um, fast forward to 2017 they created a show called Steve Harvey’s funder dome. It was on ABC and they needed another travel products. So basically the premise was Thunderdome, kinda like the, those, I can’t remember the actual show. I believe like ho Kogan was in to be like two people enter, one person leaves, um, to inventors enter with similar travel products if you will, or travel segment products and one person leaves with funding. For us it was $20,000 is what myself and the person I was going against. But yeah, so we, uh, we, uh, have the opportunity to do that. And, uh, we ended up becoming the first one year in history. It was my first really big, um, I wanna say TV exposure.
Craig Rabin: (20:41)
After that. We did a few interviews with, um, you know, local news about the, we had one or two national spots showing off the product, which was neat. Um, we’re actually gonna be on the today show here, um, in, in late October, which is fantastic. But that was the real goal Lobel on for us, uh, if you will. So that’s when the brand really got our things really started getting kicked into high gear. And our holiday season in 2017 was absolutely unreal. I mean, we went from the year prior, maybe doing 150 K, um, in 2016 to getting classically just broke 300 in, um, in 2017. So it was like, wow, this is fantastic. Now we had the real business and it was, it became growth. Like we had people coming, we had people using it. Um, how can I grow from here? You recently announced that you’ve joined forces with ride share drivers and home share owners to get in front of travelers.
Craig Rabin: (21:47)
Tell us more about that program. Yeah, absolutely. And for any builders out there that may be a, an Uber or Lyft or Touro driver or an Airbnb or a VRB Hill. There’s so many, um, social sharing companies, if you will. But the idea was we wanted to get in front of more travelers. Obviously people that are doing Airbnb, I shouldn’t say obviously, but a good majority of them have flown in, right? If it was a drive away, sometimes they would just drive home. We wanted to get in front of those. So we partnered up with, with drivers, with Airbnb hosts basically put very small product or advertisement in their, their place of business, which becomes their vehicle or their home so that if you are traveling to the airport, you can pick up an Airhook on your way there. If you are staying in an Airbnb and before you get on that flight, wow, that’s pretty cool.
Craig Rabin: (22:34)
I’m going to take this and something else. And when that host gets back, it gets added. And so we thought that that was a really unique way to kind of not only provide more revenue to those ride sharing individuals, but also an extreme level of convenience for the consumer who basically doesn’t have to buy it. It’s here waiting for you and it’s a solution to a problem that you didn’t even know you had. Another one that we were interested in was your Oscar experience. Is that a too long of a story or can you tell us that in a couple of minutes? I can, I can’t and I do have one, uh, one thing that I would like to close with, so I’m going to leave a minute on that too, but when it came to our marketing strategies, a lot of those that we handled in house, but one that we didn’t, was publicity and we really enjoyed having a publicist.
Craig Rabin: (23:22)
So with the launch we were invited through a publicist, a contact of a contact to the contact, if you will. They lost their bag sponsor for this Oscar event. That was the bag that everyone carries, if you will, down this version or the red carpet. So it wasn’t in the same room as like Bradley Cooper and lady Gaga. We were right down the street. We basically had a direct feed from that room. So all of the, all of these celebrities were not at that level. No, I shouldn’t say that. Being that I’m at no level, but we had the opportunity to be the bag sponsor. We had just sorted bags for a trade show. We sent it to them. They said, I cannot believe that you just picked us up so quickly and turn this into a solution. You’re invited. If you can make it, we’ll cover your thousand dollars entrance fee because you helped us in a jam.
Craig Rabin: (24:08)
I went, I went, it was an incredible experience. I got to talk a lot about the brand met Corey Feldman, which was fantastic cause I said I’m like the real life up cause I’m an inventor so I love the Goonies. So that was probably the coolest person I met and just a handful of other people, um, as well. So it was a neat exposure. Now did it do the brand much good? Eh, it can kind of be debated, but at the same token, you make money and in this sense, we spent it in a way that just kept my motivation and my, my needle turns to the right. Sure. I’m at with that. With that turn to the right, I do just want to leave everyone with one thing that I haven’t mentioned yet, but advice for any builder out there to keep that needle. Turn to the right, keep that motivation up.
Craig Rabin: (24:50)
Make sure that whatever you’re doing, what you’re doing, you’re doing it for a passion. And what I mean by that is every Airhook that has been sold from anyone that got sold, the very first one I should say to any of that I’ve gotten sold today to any, any listener on here that goes to the air hook.com and picks up an Airhook for their next flight. A percentage of that purchase will always go to cancer research and honor of my mother. Now she passed weeks before she was able to see the final product and we, and this is one that I will say I, I made a passionate decision to make sure that we donated in her honor to this product and this product alone because she saw me go through the workings of it. Not a lot of companies out there that are on the scale that we are now.
Craig Rabin: (25:33)
Now, yes, the real big companies have a very huge philanthropic arm, but smaller companies should be corporately responsible as well. So as you are coming up with your own company to all those aspiring builders and your inventors and entrepreneurs out there, make sure that you are also giving back. Because there are days that I don’t want to work. There are days that I don’t have a 100% but knowing that if I show up with 100% I’m going to do more to end cancer. I’m going to do my part to bringing funds to this horrible disease so that hopefully no one loses their parents too soon like I did. And so having that passion, having that, that drive will help you in anything you do, both personally and business wise and highly encourage you to find that drive and that Avenue to your heart.
Bart Bradshaw: (26:22)
That’s fantastic. And again, expanding the we not to be a, you know, weird about it but uh, I just like the um, the way that you, you know, you, you kind of, you are a in some ways your own entrepreneur but uh, in many ways you’ve, you’ve got a community and a you’re doing things for others as well. Um, Craig really appreciate the time you’ve taken to join us today. Yeah, absolutely. You can find a link to Airhook on builttostay.com as you know in our, in our show notes as well as um, definitely you can leave feedback there if you are interested in hearing more about Kickstarter and how that went and how to be successful on that, that could be a really interesting person. Hey builders, if you haven’t yet, please rate and review Built to Stay. Like any business, we feed off of feedback.
Bart Bradshaw: (27:10)
And if you haven’t yet subscribed to our email list, we send out a weekly email with exclusive downloadable content for that guest episode. All right, now let’s get back to the episode. So Chelsie Tamms one $10,000 in startup funding from Bradley University and decided to take the leap into business ownership after graduating Chelsie runs Lettering Works, specializing in logo design, branding and custom graphics for small businesses, artists and causes. She recently started selling her work in Chicago’s renowned field museum and plans to scale her products to museums across the country. Chelsie, thanks for joining us today.
Chelsie Tamms: (27:48)
Yeah, thanks for having me.
Bart Bradshaw: (27:49)
So you’ve been working on Lettering Works for about three years now. Um, can you kind of take us back? Like where did it come from? What was your plan from the beginning?
Chelsie Tamms: (27:58)
So does trace back about three years. And my very beginning started with some education from the entrepreneurship department at Bradley university where I was a student. So I studied graphic design, Spanish and marketing, but became really interested in entrepreneurship and learning about it outside the classroom. So I didn’t have room in my schedule to take any official courses, but got really involved with extracurricular activities and competitions. So the first thing that really got me into business was participating in a startup con competition where I won $10,000 of startup funding and really was able to take this idea of loving graphic design, loving lettering, loving creating things for people and building a business around it. So it was kind of the very beginning and in another way it also traces back to my time in high school when I took my first graphic design class. And that’s really when I got a feeling for how much I enjoyed graphic design and how I could actually utilize it to make money and to build a business and a career around it.
Bart Bradshaw: (28:56)
Very cool. My daughter and I are actually exploring graphic design right now, just a little course on you to me and a little Adobe illustrator. It’s pretty fun.
Chelsie Tamms: (29:06)
Yeah, it’s a lot of fun.
Bart Bradshaw: (29:07)
Yeah. So tell us more about winning $10,000 in the competition you did, and that was your first competition.
Chelsie Tamms: (29:14)
So I participated in some smaller scale competitions around the same time and started to formulate a pitch explaining what my business was, what I was interested in doing, how is interested in taking it from something I did on the side while I was a student and actually turn it into a sustainable business that could support me after graduating from college. Um, so the $10,000 and preparing for that was really figuring out a lot of what it means to be in business for what it means to create a business and make value for other people. And prior to that, I didn’t really have any experience with the business side of things. I was really focused on creating, um, graphic design and working on the art side of things. Um, so that competition really gave me a chance to figure out a lot of the numbers, figured out a lot of the things I really didn’t understand prior.
Chelsie Tamms: (30:02)
And then after winning that money, it was really a great opportunity to be, to give myself a chance to do the creative ideas that I had, execute different things and just kind of have this money that served as a foundation for me to just execute these ideas and try out kind of my dream job right out of school and having that buffer, that balance of money was really, really enabled me to kind of go for it rather than just work on building a business along on the side as I worked at advertising agencies or anywhere else that I was looking to work after.
Bart Bradshaw: (30:34)
Yeah. It gives you a nice financial starting point, but also some validation you, you mentioned like artists don’t generally do those kinds of competitions potentially. Is that because you feel like artists as a whole maybe don’t have kind of an entrepreneurial spirit?
Chelsie Tamms: (30:50)
Yeah, I really come from the perspective of I think a lot of artists love the craft. They don’t want to think about the numbers. They don’t want to think about all these business things because they fear that it will take away from their craft and kind of muddy up what they love doing. So we love creating, we love making this art, but it’s kind of scary to think about turning it into a business and turning it into a job. One that might not always be fun. So I think that’s a huge deterrent from artists participating in entrepreneurial competitions, working on business plans and all this formal stuff because there’s really such an intense love of the craft that there’s also, it comes with this fear of knowing if you turn this craft into your job, you might hate it like the past jobs you’ve had or you might overdo it and overwork yourself in a different way.
Chelsie Tamms: (31:38)
And I think that that’s really one of the main reasons a lot of artists don’t necessarily like the numbers side or don’t like the business side because naturally that’s not what we’re drawn to. We’re drawn to the creative side. So if you can’t find that perfect balance between the two, owning your own business can become too much of those. Like daunting tasks, whether it’s accounting or just anything numbers related, I feel like can really get artists out of their groove and kind of make them forget why they love doing what they love doing. So that’s really in my mind, gotten a lot of artists kind of away from like taking their business seriously from creating a business plan in a structure, something that’s sustainable and really works for them.
Bart Bradshaw: (32:19)
Did you have that same fear?
Chelsie Tamms: (32:21)
I think a little bit, but I learned as I got into it that all of these tasks are necessary in order to do what I truly love. So I viewed kind of my options. I was like two different paths. I could take one where I might work at an agency and do work. That’s pretty cool, but sometimes I don’t get to what works put on my desk. So that was a deterrent for taking that path. And then this path that I’m on currently has the same kind of idea, but just with doing these tasks that might be more daunting or less appealing in general. But I got to on the flip side work on the exact projects I wanted to do, really focus in on what is exciting to me and what is um, really the reason I’m willing to do all this stuff I’m not passionate about is that core passion for design and lettering.
Bart Bradshaw: (33:09)
So three years in, do you feel like Lettering Works is what you kind of envisioned and pitched back in the day?
Chelsie Tamms: (33:16)
It’s absolutely not what I thought it would be at first, but I think in a weird way it’s coming back to what I initially set out to do. So when I first pitched my business I was really focused on custom greeting cards and I thought that it would be really cool to create a line of custom greeting cards. Um, just a general line as well as custom designs for different businesses. So some of the local hospitals in Peoria where I started, where I target at one point and just wondering how can I create these custom super specific cards for different businesses and really use my lettering skill set for those very specific projects. Not necessarily working as one of their main graphic designers, but working on these very niche project projects that I was really interested in taking on. And over the course of the past three years, that shifted quite a bit.
Chelsie Tamms: (34:05)
And really my focus was custom design, whether that was branding or poster design or t-shirt design or anything in between. And it wasn’t necessarily just the greeting card. So I think when I started out I had a pretty narrow mindset of what my potential was and it’s really grown beyond that. But the reason I say it’s kind of coming back full circle is my connection with the field museum and starting to try to scale my work to a larger audience and the products that I’m creating. So it took a while to build up those different products and connect with some of the right people to helpfully grow that part of my business. But now that’s becoming a bigger area of interest for me. I knew as a graphic designer, the work that you put out in the work that you create becomes the work that people reach out to you to create. So I was really intentional about being proactive about being the one that got to control that conversation and how I control that conversation is being proactive in the work that I create and putting out passion projects and things that are exciting to me. So I attract the right audience and so that I’m able to tell people or really show people what it is that I do and that I want to do instead of just saying that I’m a graphic designer and hoping that cool projects come.
Bart Bradshaw: (35:16)
So you can do a combination of paid projects and passion projects?
Chelsie Tamms: (35:21)
Yes, and I would say that passion projects have definitely taken a lot of my time and energy over the past three years. But I use them really as a tool to connect with the right audience to showcase what I really care about and to hopefully get me the work that I’m really interested in.
Bart Bradshaw: (35:38)
Very cool. Kind of displays what you believe, what you really are into and that attracts people that believe in or are into those same kinds of things. I didn’t say that well, but you know what I’m saying.
Chelsie Tamms: (35:51)
Yeah, that’s exactly, it helps you create a deeper connection with people that might want to work with you because there’s more in common or that you have the same values. And I just see passion projects as a way of showcasing your values and your interests in a way that’s really intriguing to people that might be a good fit to work with.
Bart Bradshaw: (36:08)
So tell me like how do you get the word out about these passion products? So you put them on social media, do you have them on your website?
Chelsie Tamms: (36:16)
Well things I usually get passion projects out by telling my personal friends and network that might be interested in the topics that I’m covering with them as well as putting them out on social media on my website, whether that’s through a blog posts or creating a separate page for them. There’s been an occasional time where I’ll look at making a separate website for it. But for the most part I use the framework that I’ve already set up for most of my existing portfolio and projects and get the word out through there.
Bart Bradshaw: (36:42)
Do you have any examples that you can share with us that’s like a passion project that you loved doing and then it also kind of helps your business Lettering Works?
Chelsie Tamms: (36:52)
Yeah, so two of my favorite passion projects, um, are stuffed stickers, which that project was derived from a friendship that I had in um, Peoria. One of my friends, her daughter has, um, autism and Ehlers-Danlos. And we really created a project around building up her self esteem and confidence and creating, um, stickers that were derived from her original designs and built just this whole project around it. And I essentially went through the entire experience that I would go through with any other paid client and gave her a full brand that went everything from a logo that I created for her to a photo shoot that we had, um, help with setting up a social media account for the brand and just all the different things that go into working with somebody I did for that project. And I think that really helped showcase my entire process in general to any other potential clients.
Chelsie Tamms: (37:46)
Um, and really showed what I’m passionate about in working with people, creating connections and getting important messages out. So that project was by far my favorite and collaborating with somebody else. Um, and then the second passion project that I think is a great example is a hundred days of Chicago. So that’s one of my more recent ones where I’ve been illustrating a a hundred different icons, local businesses, events and attractions in the Chicago area to put myself out there in the community, connect with local business owners, connect with people that are running their social media accounts and just put out into the community that I’m interested in doing community based work. And I actually did this project also in Peoria when I first started my business. So back in 2017 I did the project and launched it on the first of the year and for a hundred days I shared different illustrations I created for that community and that because it’s already, I have a little bit more on the metric side of how it affected my business and how I was able to benefit from it. And really the biggest things that came out of that was being able to share just my love and passion for Peoria. And that led to a lot of local businesses hiring me and working with me.
Bart Bradshaw: (38:53)
I love that we, we’ve heard a theme, uh, with, you know, local that it’s all about relationships. It’s all about, um, being a part of a community. And it sounds like you’ve really tapped into that in a, in a unique and fun way with your art.
Chelsie Tamms: (39:11)
Yeah, I definitely would agree with that. And I think being able to utilize my art as a way to introduce me to other people has been a really interesting way to go about building those relationships because I think it helps create this foundation or basis for them where I’m able to put what I’m really passionate about and excited about in the forefront and then able to connect and build a strong relationship that has this foundation of what I’m interested in and oftentimes with the other person who is interested in as well.
Bart Bradshaw: (39:38)
Yeah. So have you felt like there have been any big challenges as you’ve set up your own business? Like everyone has challenges, but for you, what have the biggest challenges been and uh, you know, did you expect them, I guess?
Chelsie Tamms: (39:53)
Sure. So I think the biggest challenge that I faced early on in business was understanding how to sell what it is that I love doing, but also figuring out how to explain that value in the need for it in the community. So coming from a smaller central Illinois community, one of the biggest challenges was really getting people to get onboard with hiring or working with a designer in general. So I felt like a lot of times living there, I was competing against the business owner who wasn’t looking at the portfolios of three to four other designers. They were looking at the free tools and options out there and believe that they could do it themselves equally as good as what I could create. And I think that that built in a lot of challenges in and of itself because as an individual business owner, you might not have the same network of people or its staff to work with, where you can all kind of build each other up. So being an independent designer, you have to have this confidence that you’re always working to build so that you’re able to sell your services. You’re able to provide value to people and believe in that value. And I think that was the biggest challenge living in that community was just figuring out how do I convince somebody that they should be working with the designer, that they should be investing in their business in this way. Um, versus just doing it themselves.
Bart Bradshaw: (41:08)
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. There’s a lot of content out there that talks about how entrepreneurship can be super lonely. And you kind of mentioned that, I mean it, you didn’t say lonely, but you said you don’t necessarily have the support network that you might have if you had a bigger team. How has that been and, and tell us a little bit about like why you chose to be a solopreneur versus say a a cofounder or bringing in other designers and you know, scaling your shop.
Chelsie Tamms: (41:39)
Yeah. So I decided to be a solo preneur just because I knew exactly what I wanted to focus on. And it was the work itself. So for a long time starting out, I saw the vision of my business as more of a lifestyle business with the potential to add in these other elements, whether it’s wholesaling products or providing or coming up with a passive income stream, but really seeing it as I want to focus on the part that I really enjoy most. And for now that doesn’t mean hiring people because then my role will shift to managing people. And I really like creating the work that I’ve been creating and focusing on that. So I think that’s the first reason for choosing that path. But I also, to answer your question about the lonely feeling of entrepreneurship, I think there’s a lot that we can do as individual entrepreneurs to connect with others that are in the same position.
Chelsie Tamms: (42:30)
So one of the things that I do frequently is participate in networking events that are meant for similar business owners. And I’ve been able to connect with, we share a lot of the same struggles and issues and problems and challenges and just be able to use them as resources and use them on your team and give, give and take a lot in those relationships where you’re able to simulate kind of that idea of being on a team but still get to focus on the craft that you really enjoy doing. The focus is still really rooted in what you enjoy doing and not having to scale to the point where your job becomes a manager or the CEO in the sense that you’re making decisions but you’re not doing the actual work. Um, like the nitty gritty, whatever it is your business does. So I think for the station that I’m at now, I’m really happy with how it’s going and I find kind of ways around feeling like a lonely entrepreneur by just connecting with networks of entrepreneurs or other creative individuals and have found a lot of comfort and connecting with those people, hearing about things that they’re going through, being able to help in some instances than being able to help me in some instances and really just finding community there.
Bart Bradshaw: (43:40)
Yeah. Um, what are your longterm plans? Are you planning to stick with that solopreneurship for a while? Are you planning to scale at some point or you know, do you know at this point?
Chelsie Tamms: (43:52)
I think generally speaking, I don’t really know what’s gonna happen. I’ve been very open to taking on whatever projects come before me as long as they interest me and I’m still excited about the work. So that does take me in a couple of different directions. Like I mentioned, having the wholesale products growing at this point is the way that I see my business scaling for the next year or so. Really focusing on developing all those resources and materials. Maybe taking on a larger inventory of that I keep on hand so I’m able to fulfill larger orders or just facilitating that process. So I don’t necessarily see myself hiring full time employees, but I do see myself and I have been open and I’ve have worked with contractors in the past. If there’s a project that fits my skillset but need something else to compliment it to complete the overall project instead of just plugging into that little piece, I am moving in the direction of being able to manage and take on the whole project, do the part that I really love and work with other artists and creatives that can do the other parts that are needed for the whole project.
Chelsie Tamms: (44:51)
So that’s really how I see my business expanding in the next couple of years is taking on interesting projects, projects and kind of putting the puzzle pieces together of other people, but also really focusing on the wholesale products because they’re much more scalable. And then I guess one other thing I’ve been thinking a lot about too is a passive source of income. So I have taught lettering workshops in the past in person only. So expanding some of those opportunities to online courses is something that I’m really interested in as well.
Bart Bradshaw: (45:20)
Yeah, that’s a great idea. I liked what you said about, you know, one, none of us really know what we’re going to do in the next five to 10 years. Um, it’s always interesting to try to figure it out. Um, and it sounds like what you know is what you love doing and you’re pursuing that. Um, and you’re finding ways to do a lot of what you love as well as, you know, make it, um, something that’s meaningful to the market as well, which is awesome. Um, the other thing you said that I really liked, um, and it kind of rung a bell is I think, and maybe I’m just making a connection, but today it’s easier to be a solopreneur and actually scale to a decent size without taking on any management responsibilities or employer relationships when you know, you can, like you say, contract out certain things, it’s not that hard to even contract out manufacturing and you know, all this stuff that you would need to do wholesale products or, and you can scale as a solopreneur to a pretty decent size. I have plenty of friends who have done that. And it sounds like that’s kind of what you’re exploring right now a little bit.
Chelsie Tamms: (46:34)
Yeah, definitely. I think there’s so many opportunities and also just getting into the network of all the other entrepreneurs and creative individuals out there. I think a lot of people are looking for more of this gig economy and being able to connect with the projects that resonate with them. So they’re not even all looking for an opportunity to be hired on as an employee, but rather just plugged into these really specific great opportunities for them and their skill sets. So I think that’s really helpful too. And being able to scale as an industry.
Bart Bradshaw: (47:04)
Yeah. Now you recently got your city designs in the field museum. Tell us a little bit, how did that happen? What are those, um, what has that meant for you?
Chelsie Tamms: (47:15)
So the first thing I did upon moving to Chicago was reflect on what went really well in Peoria and what can I replicate. And the first thing that I decided to replicate was postcard designs. Um, this kind of traces all the way back to the beginning of my business. But one of the very first projects I had was creating postcards and looking back on it now, it was done in kind of an unconventional way. I really just showed up at the post office and the person there said my handwriting was really nice on the envelope that I was mailing and she asked if I made a book, which the truth was, I had an art designed book, but I didn’t write a book. So we had an interesting exchange and it basically wound up with her telling me to go immediately over to a local ice cream shop where her husband worked and owned it and he would love my work and she thought that I needed to go over there right away.
Chelsie Tamms: (48:06)
So I went over there and showed him this little sketch of an ice cream cone that I had and basically he asked me if I had ever made postcards, which at that point I hadn’t, but I didn’t have any clients or projects at the time. So I said, sure, I will give me a couple of weeks, I’ll go back, I’ll figure out these postcards and I’ll bring you some designs. So it was not an official project, but it was one where I was able to go back, just create exactly what I wanted to see for the community, and then brought back four samples of postcards for him and he placed an order for like $250 worth of postcards. And that was really the beginning of that and a really great foundational piece to creating an establishing myself in Peoria. Um, so upon moving to Chicago, that was my first priority, creating that same set of postcards re-imagined for Chicago so I could connect with the community and have something to put up there and show my work.
Chelsie Tamms: (48:57)
Um, so what I ended up doing was having a Kickstarter that funded the print and production of the postcards, but it was more about announcing and explaining what I was trying to do involving, um, previous fans of my work and fellow designers in the process of being able to figure out what I should create. So I created a handful of different designs and had people who supported the Kickstarter vote on their favorite. So I narrowed just a couple of designs down and ultimately created a set of five postcard designs. Um, so that was really like my first big project in Chicago that I created. Once again a passion project. It wasn’t really directed by a paid client, but it did have that element of Kickstarter in it. And after that I felt I was ready to go to different businesses and see if I could sell my products there.
Chelsie Tamms: (49:43)
Um, so I started creating stickers around the same time stickers and magnets, but the postcards were kind of that driving initial force. So I did connect with a couple local business owners and started to kind of feel out getting into different shops. But I met another business owner, Christine, who is starting her own gift shop in the Chicago area. And she had previously worked at the art Institute. And after a while she kind of connected me. We met and she gave me some advice on how to get into some of the bigger places like the art Institute and other museums. And I took her advice and she gave me the context to kind of set up that initial meeting and while I haven’t met with the art Institute yet, I’m looking forward to getting that on the calendar as well as exploring future opportunities in other cities as well.
Chelsie Tamms: (50:29)
But the field museum was the first one that a meeting actually happened and they said that they liked my work and they placed an order for those same postcards, three designs, a thousand each of them, which as you were saying, what, how did this make me feel that that was kind of the moment. I feel like in business, at least in the past year, that’s been most impactful of all of these different things. I’ve been trying to do the right thing. I’ve been trying to work on making all these pieces happen and putting out the work that I want to be hired for and seemingly doing all the right things, but it doesn’t always happen perfectly. It doesn’t always work out the way you think it will, but that just felt like the moment that it happened, like I showed up at the right place at this big institution and they took a chance on buying these postcards.
Chelsie Tamms: (51:15)
So I think kind of coming full circle from that first time of like not really knowing what I was doing, I created postcards, brought them back to an ice cream shop, and that was such a different experience from more confidently trying to go into the museum and show my work. I created a pitch deck for it. I worked on some pricing and it really to me, just showed how far I’d come in just three years of creating work and creating products and really how the small town kind of prepared me to work with bigger organizations as well.
Bart Bradshaw: (51:43)
Yeah, I love that. And I’m sure it’s just the beginning of that sort of validation as you continue. So, and the artist attitude of Chicago would be awesome to be in. So we wish you luck in that. So when you look back and you think about what you’ve learned, what is the best advice that you feel like you can give them based on your own experiences and some of the challenges and things that you’ve, you’ve faced and overcome?
Chelsie Tamms: (52:09)
I think the best advice I could give is just to communicate what you’re interested in doing and for different people that looks different. If you’re an artist, create something. If you know, what project do you want to get hired for? Just start and making that work and don’t think about it as not getting paid for doing that thing or starting that project. But think about it as investing in yourself. That’s something that I’ve done consistently and it’s probably paid off the most, both in feeling rewarding, doing these types of projects that are exciting to me and like putting them in the forefront and proactively putting them out there, but also the return on investment for those as much higher than just making money on things I don’t care about in spending that on advertising and marketing and just being in control of the work that I’m doing.
Chelsie Tamms: (52:54)
Um, for other careers. I think it could just be doing these passion projects, creating something, whether it’s visual or verbal or performance or it could be really anything. If there’s something up there you want to do, find a way to just do it so that you can more effectively communicate it to others and then going hand in hand with that I think is just communicating to your existing network what you’re interested in doing. You might have a connection that knows the ideal connection you’d like to make but they’ll never connect you if they don’t know you’re interested in that or looking for that.
Bart Bradshaw: (53:27)
That really resonates. I think that there is a lot of credibility in just doing in building and creating in sharing and yeah, I love the way you’ve talked about passion projects and getting them out there. I like that perspective. Well Chelsea, really appreciate you coming on today. It’s awesome story and love to hear your success so far. We wish you further success as well. Where can people find your content if they want to look more? Is it the website, the best place? letteringworks.com
Chelsie Tamms: (54:00)
letteringworks.com is one of the best places to keep up to date with everything I have going on, but I’m also pretty active on Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn as well.
Bart Bradshaw: (54:10)
Okay, awesome. And a builders will make sure that those links are on builttostay.com as well. if you want to see our show notes.