The Story Behind the Past 3 Years!
It's been hard for me to sit down and write this post, because this post going live means that so many things are about to change. If you know me at all, you know that I simultaneously hate the unknown part of change, but am thrilled by a new adventure. I want to start by doing a little recap of my small business journey and then also share a bit about the NEW direction the Rachel Tenny brand is headed! Over the last three years of owning a business, my personal life and business have taken many different twists and turns and at this point, it's kind of all a blur.
It has been three years since I opened an Etsy shop called "A Little Bit of Me" on a whim after one of my then co-workers noticed that I had some bright and colorful paintings in my office. She commented on how pretty they were and said "Have you ever thought about selling them?!" I had, but never seriously. After going home from work on January 28, 2014, I began selling some of the paintings I had done in my free time to unwind. At first, I was only selling original canvas pieces and "stationery." The stationery is in air quotes, because the truth is that the first cards that I sold were literally notecards that I bought at Michael's and then glued (yes, I'm not kidding) the photos I printed from Walgreen's onto the front. They were not as cringe-worthy as they sound...well, maybe they were.
I wanted to start out with a few of my business "firsts" so you get an idea of where it started. These are a few of my FIRSTS! 1) First business card 2) First notecard I just mentioned 3) First #spreadjoyandhappymail design 4) First illustration of a person 5) First illustration with calligraphy (I quickly gave up on that!) 6) First watercolor 7) First hand lettered canvas (It says "You are beautiful, you are loved") 8) First canvas I sold!
I did this for a while until I actually figured out (how did I not know this?!) that I could have my designs printed. Shortly after this fiasco, I met the owner of a local print shop in Columbia who graciously agreed to work with me. I was so fortunate to find a local printer that I loved working with and we often joke that he had no idea what he was getting into the day I walked into his shop like a tornado. Of course, just like anything else, we have had some hiccups, but we have fallen into a rhythm of working together. For example, everyone in the shop knows that I am not a graphic designer and am totally self-taught, so they are helpful to explain things...and they also know that I always bring donuts or some kind of bribe to make up for how picky I am!
Once I figured out that I could print my artwork on cards, I started to dabble in printing designs on stationery. Again, this was all totally trial and error at this point. I bought a fancy scanner and printer and would scan in and digitize my designs. They were all things I was super proud of and I felt a huge tug on my heart to combine the passion that I had to encourage people with this art. I would doodle little ideas at my desk at work while I was on the phone (whoops!) or jot them down late at night. I even created a note on my phone specifically for new idea. They were all encouraging little sayings with bright illustrations and I called them #spreadjoyandhappymail. They sold really well and slowly, I began to build a following and had people buy my stationery that didn't know me (say what?!?!)
I can vividly remember the day that I got my first order from someone is Wisconsin and when it came through my Etsy shop, I was like "Wait? I don't know someone in Wisconsin!" Someone told me to make my personal Instagram page public and start sharing my work. So through the use of social media, I was able to grow a good sized Instagram following of about 600 people in a few weeks. If you scroll wayyyy back on my feed, you will see those original designs and photos. They are grainy and very yellow, but I don't delete them, because they are part of this story.
At the same time that I was working on creating more stationery designs, I was also doing lots of custom illustrations. Of people, of families, of dogs, of whatever anyone asked me (once I painted a photo of Derek Jeter....yeahhhhhh) and the first few orders I charged between $12 and $20! They say that we all have to start somewhere and I will never knock those first people, who supported me, however, I have gone back and cringed a bit at the idea that "somebody paid me for this". I saved my Etsy sales money and deposited it straight into a bank account. Because I was still working my 9-5 job, I was able to tuck this money away. I did all the "business things" like file for an LLC, get a business license...I literally did this all in one day and then went home and cried and wondered what I had gotten myself into. I wanted to be "legit" and remember the painful moment when I received a letter in the mail telling me that I had done my sales tax all wrong. I quickly called my friend in a panic and asked her to recommend a great accountant to me.
From that point, there have been countless ideas and routes that I've gone, from offering custom work, to prints, to tote bags, to pillows...I mean really you name it, I've probably tried it or thought about it. However, what was missing in all of these things, is that while they were things that I liked doing, they didn't represent me totally. In the Summer of 2014, when my business was a whopping six months old, I felt a giant tug to just stop everything I was doing. Not just in my business, but in my day job also.
I had always wanted to be a therapist for as long as I can remember. It was my initial goal out of undergrad to go back to school and get a master's degree, but I didn't. Instead, I found a job and learned how to do it well, but I hated it. Not every minute, but I often came home from work upset and crying over something that had happened. Usually it was that at my job working in staffing and human resources, I could not help my employees as much as I wanted to. I often referred them to outside agencies for assistance with domestic violence, lack of income, childcare, you name it. When my husband asked me what I wanted to do, I told him that I just wanted to "help people." Very specific I know.
I am confident that the deep desire to help others was not just a fluke as both my parents are counselors/social workers by trade. However, it just became time for me to get serious about what this would look like in my life. On another whim (I am pretty impulsive and a go with your gut kind of girl if you haven't figured that out yet...), I put in my notice at my day job and applied to start grad school for Clinical Mental Health Counseling. My husband was incredibly supportive, but we worried about how we would be able to pay the bills, how we would both survive being in intensive educational programs, etc.
A week or so after I had put in my notice, I got a call from a residential eating disorder treatment center. I had applied for a part-time position there while I was in the process of leaving my other job and had totally forgotten all about that application. I had an interview there and started the next week. Through my position, I was able to work with girls and women who were battling their own demons and fighting to be in recovery from their disorder. The work was mentally and physically the most exhausting thing I had ever done, but also the most rewarding. Sometimes in my free time with the patients there, I would come up with art activities. My undergrad degree was in art therapy and I know first hand the healing power that art can have in our lives. On the weekends, the girls and I would draw with sidewalk chalk or write encouraging reminders on sides of their mirrors. I brought my watercolor paints and gave them the chance to make notes for themselves and for their peers.
This made me feel alive. For the first time in my life, I had the feeling of doing what I was meant to do. At the same time, between juggling my work schedule and classwork schedule, my business was busier than ever. Custom orders had picked up and I had started adding other products. I still treated the business as a "for fun" idea and didn't really invest a lot of time and energy into growing it. It kind of grew on it's own, because I was not doing any of the "business growing" things...like creating an email list or marketing or hiring someone to make me a beautiful website. It just wasn't a priority.
In May of 2015 though, I worked with an amazing designer and launched a whole new brand, complete with a website and it's own built in shop! It made me feel fancy and I changed from the name "A Little Bit of Me" to "Rachel Tenny". It felt oddly more of me to have my name as my business name and the switch also spurred some other changes. I also moved off of Etsy and into my own little corner of the world. That was a huge risk as I knew that I could no longer rely on Etsy to help drive people to my site. With that shift, I began to focus on creating content that was both encouraging for my patients and also for other women.
I quickly realized through conversations with the other entrepreneurs that I met, that a lot of people were struggling. While their businesses looked perfect and shiny and successful, they struggled with doubts and insecurities behind the scenes. They struggled to make time for self-care and for other life-giving activities. They were beautiful and killing it, yet part of them didn't believe it. I started a group of local women business owners called the Columbia Creatives. This was before RTS was a thing, and it felt amazing to start to surround myself with women who got it! Who got what it was like to have a business, to run into roadblocks, and all the things my "regular friends" didn't get.
I kept hustling and managed my business (working between 25-40 hours a week) and school (10-20 hours a week) and clinical (20-40) hours a week. If you are any good at math, you realize that that is a lot of hours. I stopped taking care of myself well and was in major burnout. I didn't just want to quit my business, but I wanted to quit EVERYTHING. At one point, I thought about just giving up on al lot it, but after some serious reflection and a much needed vacation, I decided that my work wasn't done.
It wasn't until the summer of 2016 that I had another tug in my heart...(clearly I get these a lot!) This tug was that I wanted to combine the artwork piece of my business with my passion for empowering women to love themselves. The #mybodyisneough project was born as I wrapped up the last semester of grad school and finished my 2nd year of working and interning in eating disorder treatment centers. I knew a few basic facts at that point about women and their bodies: 1) everyone has insecurities about their bodies and 2) nobody talks about them. I mean of course, you hear people talk about being on a diet or losing weight before they go on vacation or about how their body changes after a baby...but nobody talks about how much self-esteem and body image can influence your day to day life.
I knew that I wanted to create art and products with that very small focus: to encourage and inspirit women to love their bodies just as they are. It started as little notes, cards, and prints and now that part of the business is growing again. Moving forward, the Rachel Tenny brand will be focused around encouraging and empowering women. It isn't all about body-image, but a lot of it will be. I am done with my coursework for graduate school and have received my license to practice as a therapist. As part of this process, I am going to transition to some of the other things that I have always wanted to do, like creating a workbook, courses, and speaking publicly on the topics of body image and self-esteem. I will also start to take on a limited number of clients each month who want to dig deep and work on some of these things individually with me.
Please know that I absolutely still love painting and everything I do from here on out will be infused with my artwork...but also know that I am no longer doing certain things because of this shift. Also, before you totally freak...I am obviously in the middle of launching a giant collection of maps, so yes, things like that will still exist..just in their own shop! And a limited number of custom orders will be available a few times a year. And there will still be a few mail swaps too! I am still the same wine loving, dog rescuing, wild hair with my glasses on Instagram stories person. That person is the authentic me. That person isn't changing or going anywhere.
I am just making my "NO's" mean something to me and I am choosing to pour my heart and soul into my passions. It's really scary to be totally honest with you. I'm afraid to fail, but more than that I'm afraid of what success may look like. I have learned so many things in the past three years that have prepared me for this and at the same time, I still have imposter syndrome in some ways. I'm sure that some of you will think what I'm doing is super weird and not get it, and that's okay. I am going to be too much for some people and that's okay too...those are not my people. But you, you're my people and none of this would be possible without each of you reading this.
I can't write this post without say the biggest "thank you" in the world!!
A special thanks to:
My husband, Brad for putting up with all of my wild shenanigans and for taking countless packages to the post office before I started shipping from the house. Thank you for supporting me, challenging me, and believing in each tug of my heart. Thank you for showing patience when I didn't do the things I thought I could get done during the day (re: laundry and getting groceries) and for reassuring me that what I was doing mattered. You will never know just how much your love both saved my life and gave me a new passion for helping others.
To my dad-you are the best. I give you credit for my work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit as I remember watching you always have a million "side hustles" while I was growing up. Thanks for making me laugh with your comments to my Instagram stories and for making and Instagram and Snapchat so you could see what I was up to!
To my mom, sister, and closest girlfriends-y'all still really don't totally get what I do all day (and that's okay), but you love me just the same. You always are still the first to buy my new products and tell me what you love or don't love! I can always count on you for honest feedback and putting up with my phone calls to you at weird hours in the middle of the day.
Another special thanks to all of my small business boss lady friends who cheer me on, believe in these wild dreams of me, and make me want to be better so that I can better serve others. You have truly grown to be like a second family to me and I'm so thankful you get to be part of this story!
To all of my customers, followers, and online cheerleaders-each email or DM I have received abut how what I'm sharing has touched you is WHY I'm doing this. Those messages are saved and something I look at often. Each sale and each purchase you've made from the shop, gives me the opportunity to do this. I cannot find the right words to thank you enough.
To my rescue pups: Tinsley, Sophia, & Carolina-you will never read this, but you already know how much I love you! You keep me going and always remind me when it's time to just take a break and go for a walk.
At the beginning of February, we are moving to Charlotte, NC for my husband to attend a surgery fellowship. It seems fitting that one chapter of this business ends as we are literally starting our life in a new city. So cheers to that...the beginning of something unknown and beautiful and the closing of the door on something that changed my life forever. Like I was reminded earlier this week, we are not trees and we are not meant to stay in the same place forever. We have a choice, each and everyday to wake up and do what we love. I hope YOU will be willing to take the risk to do the same thing!
Thank you for your continued love and support of A Little Bit of Me turned Rachel Tenny over the past 3 years!! And just for fun, this is one of my first official business photos by my dear friend Lauren Carnes on the left and my most updated one by Karly Richardson on the right. My oh my, what can change in 3 years!