Small Business Stories: Rachel Jacobson Studio
Friends, meet Rachel!
Rachel Jacobson is a talented and delightful calligrapher and designer from the Portland area, providing brand and logo design as well as calligraphy and hand lettering workshops. She has so much insight and wisdom in how to run a business, but even more than that, she has the perspective to step back from her business and look at it within the grand scheme of her life and relationships and culture.
So if you're struggling with work/life balance, wondering what fruit will come from the endless hours you pour into your business, or looking for practical ways to focus in on work that you actually care about... well, keep reading!
Tell us a bit about YOU!
I'm Oregon born and raised and navigated from Salem, to Newberg (for college), to Portland for eight years and I’ve been back in Salem with my husband Blair for the last couple of years. I majored in art with a design concentration and took a calligraphy class on a whim my senior year. A few years later, I was craving some kind of creative outlet and could often be found at my desk in the evenings, sipping a glass of wine, listening to the Pride & Prejudice soundtrack (or hip hop music, depending on my mood) and trying my hand at calligraphy. It was my process-over-outcome lifeline and I loved it. But more on that later. Growing up, I was homeschooled off and on with my brother and sister and ended up graduating from a tiny, country private high school in a class of twenty. I have a big, extended Irish Catholic family and my parents fostered creativity and nonconformity, with a good dose of both faith and skepticism. Those roots run deep and probably lead me towards both creative and entrepreneurial pursuits, even though it wasn’t necessarily what I pictured for myself. There was a strong pull towards the creative.
What led you to start your own business?
I started out at a small marketing company and ended up switching to teaching in early education for five years. I entertained the idea of getting my teaching degree, started getting my masters in counseling at a seminary, and eventually took a couple of additional calligraphy classes at PCC just for the fun of it. While I loved design, I've also loved working with people (hence the interest in counseling and teaching) and I wasn't sure what type of work to pursue that would encompass both in a compelling way. I was learning calligraphy right around the time that a lot of modern calligraphy and hand lettering was showing up in design. I got the idea to go full time with a design and calligraphy business, so I launched a business. I started doing mostly quotes for prints and eventually began taking on wedding stationery and logo design projects. At the time, my husband and I were talking about having kids, so the flexible schedule appealed to me and I hit the ground running (though that glosses over so much). Needless to say, I learned A LOT in those early years.
Has this business been what you expected + hoped? What have been some of the transitions your business has taken?
It's been a lot more than I hoped. When I launched, I thought, I really enjoy this and it will give me flexibility. My goal was replacing my teaching income. What I found is that I am more invested in my work than I've ever been. I'm passionate about business, teaching calligraphy, the power of good design, and creating beautiful and impactful logos for woman run businesses (which is why I now focus on teaching workshops and logo/brand work). It has changed quite a bit from when I started, with the current focus being on logo design and hand lettering. While I still take on custom projects or wedding stationery from time to time, it’s not the main thrust of my business as it was a few years ago. As I touched on, I started this business thinking that I would have a baby and enjoy a more flexible work schedule (though I was probably a little naive about the “flexible” piece). What I didn’t know at the time is that getting (or staying) pregnant wouldn’t be so easy for us. While my husband and I still aren’t sure what parenthood will look like, we’re hopeful that in time we’ll get to have that family we long for. It’s been really good to have work that I love in a season that’s also included a lot of heartache and waiting.
What's something you wish you'd known when you were just starting?
When I look back, it’s hard to pick out just one thing. There were so many lessons that I learned over the years, and I think that’s a business owner’s rite of passage. My Dad is very entrepreneurial and had a business throughout my childhood, and he’d often tell me things that I didn’t fully grasp until I went out on my own. He told me to value my time, talk about money, and set the parameters from the beginning. I remember at my marketing job I designed an invitation suite for my boss’ wedding and the project was not a good fit. He wanted it to include origami and stick figures and a pretty unattractive color palette, and I said “okay” (I am cringing as I write this). I didn’t really know how to take charge of the project (or not take it on at all!) and I would come home after a long day of work at the office, dreading the extra project. When it was time to hand off the design, he told me that it was too expensive to print. And I didn’t charge him. I learned my lesson. But I never let it happen again. And I knew it was my responsibility for not setting parameters from the get-go. All that to say: take on projects that you’re excited about, be the expert that you are, have a contract, talk about payment, and include due dates. But, it still stands that you might get great advice and have to learn it for yourself. I’ve often found that they say is true: experience is the best teacher.
What is your biggest frustration with the creative industry?
I’ve started seeing how very white the culture is in my creative industry. I’m working on having a more inclusive business, but that also forces me to look at my life and whether it’s very inclusive or diverse. And it hasn’t been. I tend to hang out with people like myself and work with people like myself. A few years ago, I might have countered that, well, I’m in Oregon and when it comes to diverse places, we are not high on the list (which is another important conversation). I see a tendency in the industry, and in myself, to represent white people, and work with white people and kind of further this insulated culture that is more of the same. Of course all of these realizations present the opportunity for me to step out of my own comfort zone, have uncomfortable conversations, face my own prejudices, and go out of my way to try and bridge the gap—which I think begins with looking at what my industry or my business might look like from the outside. What would it be like to see my feed, or come to my workshop, or visit my website and wonder if I’m welcome? Being caucasian, it’s not really something I have a lot of experience with. It’s easy to just keep doing what I’m doing, but I keep coming back to this. And I’m grateful for some of the women that I know who have started talking to me about it. Hearing the stories of other people whose experience is different from my own began shifting the lens for me. I see it now. And I can’t unsee that. I’m still learning and failing and trying to make changes in my own life and business, but I hope that it’s a start.
What is your greatest source of encouragement + inspiration?
Reading. Music. Poetry. Podcasts (On Being, The Liturgists, and The Robcast are a few favorites). Collaboration. Also, walks and time to think and write and experiment. So it’s not just one thing, but I think that the undercurrent in each of those is slowing down, paying attention, and valuing process over outcome. I think it’s also being in touch with and cultivating my own inner, spiritual life separate from what I “do” or “produce.”
How do you define success in your life and business?
I’m looking at that more holistically these days. While I’m inclined to set big goals in my business in terms of how I serve my clients and how it grows from year to year, I want it gauge success on more than numbers and financial growth. I’ve touched on this a lot already, but I’m really trying to develop life-giving rhythms. When I think about the kind of life I want to live, it does include hard work and seeing my business grow, but it also includes those slower, day to day things like enjoying a walk with my husband, cooking a good dinner, being able to spend time with my nieces and nephew, time to be present and be healthy and do things I enjoy. Success in business is not success if it’s at the cost of becoming more of the woman I want to be. I think that every year I’m fleshing out more of who she is, and I’m glad for that...
Anything else you'd like to share?
I think it’s important to be really self aware as a business owner. I’ll plug the Enneagram here because that’s been huge for me in understanding myself, how I work, and what drives me. I’m security oriented (type 6 on the Enneagram), so understanding what’s healthy for me, what motivates me, and where there are potential pitfalls is huge. For me, hustling is something I want to counter. I’m prone to anxiety and it can be a driver for me, but that’s not ideal. I want to work hard but it’s really, really important to rest well. I don’t want to burnout from setting rhythms that are just not sustainable. I think that the conversation of mental health and holistic health is really important for the industry as a whole. It’s something that a lot of us are navigating and I’m glad to see more and more conversation about it.
Also, I have this quote tacked onto the bulletin board here by my desk, and it’s from a workshop I took with Allison Fallon. It says: “Look, don’t miss it. You are a tiny miracle unfolding in this great big world.” I think it’s something we all need to hear from time to time.