There often comes a point where you graduate from your kitchen table to, well, wherever you can carve out your own space. Sometimes it's getting a studio that is not connected with your home. And that can be overwhelming. We talk with maker Jill of Material Rebellion about her maker space journey.
Please introduce yourself. Tell us a little about yourself and what you do.
I’m Jill Maldonado, Head Rebel at Material Rebellion. I design bright, beautiful, fun and durable stuff for kids including pencil rolls, adventure bags and blanket forts, and then I use jeans and t-shirts that have been rescued from the waste stream to make them. I live and work in the beautiful Berkshires of western Mass with my husband, two teenagers and three rescued Pomeranians.
In the beginning, where did you run your business? How did it work?
In the VERY beginning, I ran my business from my dining room table. The constant interruptions (Everyone needs to eat AGAIN?!) and the perennial clutter pretty quickly made the situation untenable. So, I set about finding another solution.
The only place in our 116 year old house where I could have my own creative space was in the unfinished basement. I carved out a corner for myself by hanging some curtains and putting down a rug. Initially, it seemed like an unbelievable luxury to have a space all my own – I put up shelves, added a cutting table, a heat press and a die cutter. It was marvelous to be able to disappear down there and get some serious work done. Best of all, I didn’t have to put everything away in between work sessions.
However, when winter set in the novelty wore off. It was cold and windowless and I started to tire of the company of spiders. While my basement studio was pretty functional, it certainly wasn’t Pinterest-ing and I had a perpetual case of studio envy. But I made it work for three years.
Why didn't this work for you? What impact did the space have on your work?
Aside from not being a very inspired (at ALL) by my space, I started to feel the pressure of knowing that I was approaching the point of maximum production in my business. One person alone would not be able to keep up with demand and when that day came, my business would stagnate. Without a doubt, I would need to bring in help in order to grow my business and there was no way I could ask anybody else to work under the same conditions I myself had been working in for three years.
At the same time, I couldn’t wrap my head around taking on the overhead of renting a studio space. It felt like a catch-22…if I was waiting until I could well afford a new space, the limitations of my basement studio were going to prevent my business from earning enough to be able to afford renting a new space. On the flip side, there was no formula for how long it would take to increase my earnings once I was in a bigger space, and no guarantee that it would happen at all.
In the end, what made you finally decide it was time to move out of your home and into a studio space?
When a sump pump failed and a flood came dangerously close to damaging my equipment and inventory, I knew a decision needed to be made. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to afford renting a studio, but I also knew that I didn’t have a choice if I wanted to build the business I envisioned. For me, the decision became whether to move the business or shut it down.
What was the process of finding a studio space like? How did you go about finding a space and how did you know you had found "the one"?
I searched for a space for months. My hometown doesn’t have a lot of studio space and rents in general are quite high. There was a lot of office space, but nothing that was suitable for a studio. I really wanted a space that was close to my home, since I have two teenage kids and a part-time job. I needed to be able to dash over and squeeze in a couple hours of work when the opportunity arose.
I had gotten to the point where I had two potentials – one was farther from home than I wanted to be and the other was close to home, not quite big enough and would require me going outside and into another part of the building to access the bathroom. I was discussing the situation with a friend and I found myself saying, “I feel like I need to have the courage to let BOTH of these places go.” So I did. I just resolved myself to let them go and continue looking.
Not 15 minutes later, I was driving down Main Street and passed a building that I’d driven by a million times before. But THIS time I saw that they had a FOR RENT sign up. I called the number on the sign as soon as I got home. The owner described the two spaces that were available and recommended that I look at the basement space. Just the mention of the word “basement” made my stomach tighten and I dismissed that idea. She insisted that it really was a nice space and suggested I look at it.
I drove straight back to the building and found the entrance to the basement in the back, directly off a riverside nature trail. I peered through the windows and was confused because there seemed to be more than one room in there. So I called the owner again. You have to picture me with my phone in one hand, using the other hand to shield my eyes to peer through the windows… I asked her which of the rooms was for rent. She said they were all part of the space I would be renting – two rooms and a bathroom.
We discussed price and I tested the waters to see if they might be willing to negotiate. It seemed like they might be flexible on the rent, so I set up an appointment to see the inside of the space the next day. I had my husband come with me, to act as the voice of reason because I wanted so badly for this to be the place that I was afraid I might lose perspective. It turned out to be truly perfect. Even more perfect than the image I held in my mind’s eye. There was a large room that would be the production space which was big enough for me and maybe two other people to work at once and a smaller room that would be perfect for storage and an office. PLUS a bathroom! AND, it’s less than a mile from my house. Even though it was a tremendous bargain, it was more than I had thought I would spend. The bottom line though, was that it was my best shot for growing my business into what I imagined it could be, so I took the leap and signed a one year lease.
In this new space, what has changed in your business?
Now that I’m in my own space, it’s difficult to imagine what has NOT changed about my business. On a very basic level, I’m able to be much more organized. When you work with reclaimed textiles, it can be difficult to sort and store raw materials. Having a dedicated storage area allowed me to create a sorting system so I can quickly assess what I have and easily access it. This new system also gave me the opportunity to change the way I source my raw materials. I used to just buy the t-shirts and jeans I use in small batches. Since moving, I’ve forged a relationship with Goodwill of the Berkshires and now, part of their job training program is to sort, bag and deliver unsalable clothing to me which I pay for by the pound. It’s a total win/win. My material costs are a fraction of what they used to be, I get to support an awesome job training program, AND I’m using materials that otherwise have a high probability of ending up in the waste stream.
Having my own office has contributed not only to the organization of my business, but also the inspiration for it. I’ve covered the walls with poster sized Post-It notes and use brightly colored markers to brainstorm new ideas, prioritize to-do’s, create my calendar and write down my goals. Every time I walk in there, I have a visual reminder of everything that’s important in my business and the direction in which I’m moving. Back at the house, my workspace was in the basement and my “office” (a vestibule with a desk) was upstairs. Integrating my office and studio space has helped me integrate my dual roles of creative and executive in my business.
Prior to the move, I had wanted to shift my business toward the wholesale market, but couldn’t imagine how I would run a business of that scale out of a corner in my basement. In my new studio I’m able to have a part-time production assistant and an intern and there’s room for us all to work together. With the added support of my team, I was easily able to fulfill wholesale orders from my first trade show. We have a second tradeshow coming up in the spring and are constantly working on growing that part of the business.
When I moved in, I put some time and energy into making the studio bright and happy and I positioned my cutting table so I can look out the window at the river while I work. I truly look forward to getting there every day. It’s an absolute pleasure.
Along with a change of physical space, what kind of impact has this had on your approach to your business?
Signing the lease on my studio removed any lingering doubt as to whether I had a “real” business. I think when I was in the basement, there were aspects of my business that felt hypothetical. Like if I just stopped making things, POOF, everything would disappear and leave very little evidence that I had ever embarked on this endeavor. Every single day, I am driven to grow my business because I have rent to pay and other people counting on me. I’ve always had a vision of building something that was larger than myself and having my own studio has put me on the path to realizing that vision.
In addition to the physical space, I think the new studio gives me the metaphorical space to step back and see the bigger picture. Something about the small, cramped basement space kept my thinking small too. A key aspect of my dream for the future is to become a small manufacturer and improve the lives of people in my community by offering jobs at a living wage. SOMEDAY we’ll be moving into an even larger space with room to bring more team members on board!
What would you say to a fellow maker who is considering and or afraid of taking the leap into their own studio space?
I think “leap” is the perfect word to use. It definitely requires some faith to do it! Of course, there are financial calculations to make and those look different for everyone. Truthfully, it’s entirely possible that your business won’t be able to pay your rent from the day you move in, so you need to have a plan in place for how you’ll write that check every month. But beyond that, I think the most important thing is to really get clear about the vision you have for your business.
Can that vision be fulfilled from the space in which you’re currently making? How close can you get to your vision before you’ll need a new space? What are the indications that your current space is limiting your creative or financial growth? Also, spend some time dreaming into your new space. What does the perfect work space look like for you? What features does it have? Where is it located? What will you be able to do there that you can’t do where you are now? How will being able to do those things bring your vision for your business into being?
I’m a huge believer in being very, very specific when you envision the things you want in your business and your life. Once you’re clear about what you want, stick to it and don’t settle for less than that. Honor your business, your creativity and your dream with giving them the space they need to grow.
Where can we find you online?
You can find me at www.materialrebellion.com. My newsletter sign up and all my social media links are there!