Design Biz Starts in 700-Sq-Ft Home; Now Sells in 43 States

This article originally appeared on Owning My Own on August 22, 2016.

OWNERS
Kaelin Tillery, 37, and Richard Duggan, 49, a husband-and-wife team

BUSINESS
Counter Couture, a company that prints its hand-drawn designs on home décor, glassware and clothing.

LAUNCHED IN
2011

FULL TIME?
Yes. Additionally, Kaelin and Richard have two full-time and one part-time employee, plus five sales reps around the country, who are contractors.

FUNDING
Self-funded

BEFORE BEING OWNERS, THEY:
Kaelin dropped out of college and worked in sales in several Nordstrom departments for 10 years. There, she says, she got her business education from one of the world’s best companies for free. She also worked as general manager for a now defunct Denver coffee company. Richard has an associate’s degree in graphic art. He continued his job at the art supply store Meiniger for the first two years of Counter Couture’s existence, drawing and printing with Kaelin when his shifts ended.

HOW IT ALL STARTED
Kaelin remembers the 2010 day her boss at the coffee company told her it would be closing. Forever. In two hours. She and Richard had recently bought a house.

Determined make things work financially, Kaelin pieced other work together. She cleaned houses and began sewing and selling aprons, made from her grandmother’s vintage patterns, in an Etsy store she named Counter Couture. She was considering opening a bakery, and then one night, Richard mentioned he used to do screen printing – something she’d always been interested in. He taught her by rigging up an apparatus on an ironing board. Two weeks later, a customer at Meiniger’s pointed him to someone who was selling a small screen printing unit for $2,000, and the couple decided to use what little savings they had to buy it.

Their first job came from a friend who worked in radio and needed t-shirts promoting rapper Travie McCoy. That job paid for the investment of the little screen printer — which they still use to this day.

HOW THEY DID — AND DIDN’T — SPEND THEIR MONEY
Counter Couture didn’t rent office space for the first two years of its existence. Kaelin and Richard ran the business out of the kitchen, bathroom and garage of their 700-square-foot house.

“We were willing to make some compromises to keep our house and not go into debt,” Kaelin said. “I had to take showers with screens. It’s what you do. It’s just what you do.”

They also held back on buying equipment the first year, including a conveyor dryer that would quickly dry their permanent ink. Instead, they used a “heat box” that could only dry one item at a time until they could afford the conveyor in their second year.

MOMENT THEY FELT IT WAS REAL
“When we moved the business out of the house in 2013,” Kaelin said. “It felt like it wasn’t a hobby. It felt like it was a business.”

The move came when a friend offered to split rental studio space with Counter Couture. “I had 400 square feet all to myself!” Kaelin remembers.

Still, it wasn’t a seamless transition. Kaelin says she cried on the drive to work every day for the first week because she missed working from home and was nervous about the loss of freedom she perceived would come with, once again, going to work.

The feelings didn’t last long. Counter Couture outgrew that workspace and moved after about a year. They’ve continued to expand, and this summer they moved again to allow themselves to keep their office, production and stock spaces all under one roof. They also have four dogs – three of Kaelin and Richard’s and one of their employees’ – who come to the office and help create the homey feel Kaelin always loved.

BIGGEST SURPRISE
Kaelin says she can’t believe how quickly things have grown. She remembers the first holiday season when Counter Couture was making shirts, pillows and towels. Her friend and now employee, Emily, pushed her to order and print 500 tea towels to stock her holiday market inventory. Kaelin thought even 300 was far too many and would result in unsold product and wasted money. In the end, Emily won, and Kaelin tearfully agree to splurge on 500 towels. And then…

“We sold out before Thanksgiving and had to scramble to make more,” Kaelin recalls. “In hindsight, we giggle, but it was a big deal then!”

Today, thanks to their early participation in craft fairs in multiple cities and Etsy’s wholesale program, and now, to their national sales reps, Counter Couture designs can be found in boutique stores in 43 states.

HOW SELLING AT FAIRS LIKE HORSESHOE MARKET IMPACTED THE BUSINESS
“Early on, markets were our marketing,” Kaelin says. She’s never paid to formally advertise Counter Couture and said she gained her earliest customers at craft fairs. She and Richard used to sell at markets every weekend in the summer and holiday season. “Some weekends, we’d both be selling at markets in different cities,” she recalls.

Now, the business has developed enough that they don’t have to spend every weekend at fairs, but Kaelin still enjoys doing a few of them. “They’re my moment to socialize,” she says. She especially loves Denver’s Horseshoe Market. “It always has return customers,” she says. “Not every market does, but Horseshoe always does.”

BIGGEST DIFFERENCE BETWEEN OWNING AND WORKING FOR SOMEONE ELSE
Aside from being able to bring her dogs to work as an owner (Kaelin’s immediate response), she added that she struggled with setting the company’s daily pace and policies.

“Coming from two pretty large organizations that were so structured, when I started my own business I felt I needed to have that much structure when it was just me,” she said. “It was an unrealistic expectation for myself and my day-to-day running of the business.”

But, she’s found lack of corporate structure can have upsides, too.

“Working for somebody else, you have to go through meetings, and things have to get approved and then you have to have two more meetings,” she said. “But here, it’s just Emily and me saying, “I dunno. Should we print this in blue? Or red? Okay, let’s do that. It’s great to have that flexibility.”

BEST ADVICE TO BUSINESS OWNERS JUST STARTING OUT
“Just do it,” Kaelin said. “You don’t have to start big and get into debt. If you have an idea, test it out. You’ve gotta start somewhere.”

She added that it’s okay to start something and then pivot the business model as you go. She and Richard stopped screen printing custom orders for hire, because they didn’t enjoy it and found there were many other companies in town already doing that. They also abandoned Counter Couture’s original vintage aprons early on because they were too labor intensive to make.

“It wasn’t working and it wasn’t profitable, so we changed the idea,” she said. “We evolved into something that worked that we loved doing.”