Entrepreneur Profile: Chelsie Tamms

Chelsie Tamms at The Nest Coworking

These questions were written and sent by a local college student in an entrepreneurship class who is studying graphic design and social media marketing. Instead of just sending them back to her, I thought I’d share them here as well.

Where is home for you?

I am originally from the far northwest suburbs of Chicago - specifically Cary, Illinois. I’ve lived my entire life in Illinois, aside from a semester abroad in Granada, Spain. Peoria has become my home as I’ve been here since 2012 and built my business here.

Where did you study and what did you study?

I earned a dual-degree in Graphic Design and Spanish with a minor in Marketing from Bradley University.

Did you have a certain career path after you graduated or ideal career path when you started school?

My high school, Cary-Grove, had a strong arts program and first exposed me to graphic design, so I knew I wanted to pursue design as a career since I was about 16. I expected to go to college and work at an advertising agency after graduating. Instead, I worked at different advertising agencies throughout college and held several design roles on campus. I started my own business right out of college, and that was largely due to the experience I gained alongside my education.

How did you start your business?

My business started out as an idea that I brought to a Student Entrepreneurship Competition prep class. After months of preparation - financial planning, business model creation, etc., I competed against other students and ultimately won $10,000 in startup funding. I used that money to launch my own business upon graduating from Bradley instead of working at an established agency.

What was your business like in the beginning?

I knew it would take time to build up my client base, so I worked on several personal projects including developing unique Peoria products. I spent about half of my time working on my own artwork and the other half of my time working on building the business. I held an artist residency at The Prairie Center of the Arts in Peoria’s Warehouse District the fall following my graduation from Bradley. My time at the studio allowed me to focus on building my ideal portfolio that would attract my ideal clients. 100 Days of Peoria came out of my artist residency.

Did you receive any criticism when you started? How did you deal with that?

I did not receive much criticism when I started. Because talent retention is often a hot topic in Peoria, there were several other business owners and involved community members that went out of their way to encourage me to stay in Peoria and start my own business. The only area I’ve really felt criticized in is my age - I’ve received comments from people who are surprised that I don’t have a “real job” or that I’m able to make a living in Peoria on my own this early in my career.

What mistakes did you make and how did you learn from them?

It’s easy to make mistakes as a new business owner because there is such a huge learning curve. One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced is understanding how to value my time and charge for it accordingly. I started by accepting projects that were too small and didn’t help my business grow. I feel like I learn from each experience and adjust accordingly. In addition to that, realizing that sometimes you need to outsource areas of your business to allow your business to succeed was a hard lesson to learn. Areas like accounting and taxes are challenging for me to keep up with well on my own and often require outside assistance.

How did you grow and develop?

Having my own business has pushed me outside of my comfort zone more times than I can count. It has ultimately allowed me to develop a design style that is truly my own, but also challenged me to learn new areas of business, apply knowledge on the go, and push myself beyond what I thought possible. Each project I work on has an impact on me and helps me become both a better designer, and more importantly, a more efficient business person.

What is your target market?

My target market is primarily other businesses, creatives, communities, and causes that need quality graphic design.  I specialize in branding, campaign design, and custom lettering for a variety of applications. My products have a more local market, but ultimately only comprise a small portion of my business.

How did you get people to sell your designs (stickers, postcards, etc.)

I first began selling greeting cards at One World and Bradley’s Student Center for Valentine’s Day. It was market testing and part of my research for the Project Springboard Student Entrepreneurship Competition. I now sell products at Emack & Bolio’s, the Peoria Airport, Peoria Riverfront Museum, Urban Artifacts, Relics, Whiskey City Architectural Salvage, and Lost Art in Junction City. All of these places have taken an interest in selling my products because I created them specifically for Peoria with hopes of instilling more pride in the community.

How do you deal with collaborations and competitors in your market?

I don’t really like the term “collaboration” in the Peoria market, because a lot of times it has served as a disguise for a potential client wanting free work from me. It can be challenging to accommodate pro-bono work being the only one behind my design business. I do collaborate with other artists in the area, but many of these collaborations are through ideas that we share at meetups or projects we come up with together. My favorite collaborator is my photographer Sarah Waldo of Violet and Ivy; we work well together because we both value each other’s work and come up with projects that can benefit us both.

The biggest competitors that Peoria designers face, in my opinion, are the business owners that want to do the design work themselves. This is a huge challenge for designers in this market because it can be draining to try to explain the value of your services, especially if you are newer or don’t enjoy professional selling. I also feel there is plenty of work to go around, making the competition less stressful.

How do you find people to collaborate with?

I typically find people to collaborate that I already know and trust. There are enough challenges with working with a new person on a project, so I try to eliminate any unnecessary stress by knowing the collaborator on a personal level. I also have a pretty strong belief that you should only work for free for yourself, so I try to initiate collaborations and projects rather than openly saying I’m looking for people to collaborate with.  I developed Lettering Works for a Cause as a way to direct those interested in collaborating with me, especially those that might lack funding but have great causes, to have a conversation about how well we fit together before starting any project.

Advice for students who plan to study or are studying graphic design?

Create as much as you can and do your own personal projects. Just doing what you are assigned in class isn’t enough to develop your own style and fully exercise your creativity. Doing what you are clearly passionate about will make you stand out from the crowd. Also, making creating a daily practice amid all of your responsibilities is essential to cultivating a life of creativity.

Advice for students who plan to freelance after they graduate?

Know that it will take a while to build up clients, use the initial downtime as an opportunity to correctly set up your business and work on your own personal projects. Keep creating. If you are not a self-disciplined and proactive person, freelancing might not be for you. Also, definitely have money saved first because freelancing is not always a consistent paycheck.

Do you have any future plans?

I plan to work hard and continue to do what I love. I hope to grow my business and build a life that focuses on creativity, building relationships, learning, travel, and working with people I like.

I am always happy to help students and aspiring entrepreneurs with their questions as well as share my experiences with the community. Please send any interview requests to me via email at letteringworks[at]gmail.com.