Many people dream of abandoning the cubicle to pursue a life as an artist or craftsperson. But how many take the plunge? Woodinville couple Thea Starr and John Bronleewe did, and shared their story with us. We also talked to an Eastside expert who offered tips for how you too can earn a living outside of the office.
At heart, Thea Starr always has been a maker, but it still took the now-40-year-old several years after she entered the “real world” to make the shift from a life chained to a cubicle to one working with her hands from the comfort of her Woodinville home.
Though Starr grew up on Whidbey Island with creative parents as role models — her first job was working in her dad’s auto-body shop mixing paints, because she had an inherent knack for color matching — she ended up marrying at age 23, taking classes at Skagit Valley Community College and South Seattle College, going to work in finance at a firm in Seattle, and having four kids by the time she was 26.
“I was a young mom, and I needed a paycheck,” Starr said.
Like color matching, Starr also was a natural when it came to numbers, and she made a successful living working in finance. Starr and her then-software engineer husband — the two have since divorced — enjoyed a comfortable life in affluent Normandy Park.
However, when Starr was pregnant with her fourth child, an extended maternity leave set her on a new course. During her leave, Starr found time to tap into her creativity and work on various craft projects.
“I had been making baby blankets and things like that, and I got encouraged by friends to sell at a local bazaar,” she said.
So she continued crafting. Then Starr remembered previously discovering kanzashi, a traditional style of Japanese hairpins made from intricately folded squares of fabric that form decorative flowers.
In order to teach herself how to make the flowers, Starr deconstructed a miniature kanzashi that was attached to a doll her dad, a former military man, had brought back with him from Japan after his time stationed there.
“(The flower) was a super small one, and I just drew out a pattern of the fabric — of the cuts — and I just tried to fold it. I did some origami when I was younger, and I just figured it out,” she said. “It was a long process, but I’ve definitely enjoyed
As Starr continued making the flowers, her friends began asking for some. Soon, Starr set up booths at monthly craft fairs and also launched an Etsy page, which helped her grow a presence online. Business was ramping up, and as Starr spent more time making kanzashi flowers, she spent less time doing finance work.
“I did some freelance work for clients I couldn’t part with because they needed me,” she said. “But between motherhood and some other life events — I started a roller-derby league in the middle of this, too — I just decided I could do this (for a living).”
Going it Alone
Shortly after she took her fabric-flowers venture full-time, Starr and her family relocated to Woodvinille. Not much longer after that, Starr and her husband decided to separate.
As she navigated the waters of divorce and adjusted to life as a single mom, Starr said, previous investments, a fair amount of savings, and good timing all played a role in setting her business up for success.
Today, Starr has a strong following at well-attended craft fairs like Urban Craft Uprising and the Renegade Craft Show in Seattle. She also has built a prominent presence online, filling her website and social media pages with eye-catching photos illustrating her work.
However, despite being well prepared, it was no easy feat to get her business off the ground. During her years in finance, she’d average around $50,000 a year. In her first year operating Thea Starr Precisely Folded Fabric Flowers, she said, she made less than half that. “My first year of being a maker, I’m guessing I made around $20,000,” she said.
While starting a new business is a challenging undertaking, Starr said early on she created some additional challenges for herself. “I would put myself into the group of makers that used to not charge enough for my products,” she said. “It’s a common thing with handmade artists. We makers all need to learn to value our time and our products and price accordingly.” In recent years, her prices have gone up.
Today, Starr said, a simple flower — one that can be clipped in the hair and worn for any occasion — runs about $10-$15, while more decorative and detailed hairpins start around $50 and go up from there.
“The average retail price order for my flowers is $25,” Starr said.
“And custom orders average in the $150-$200 range.”
Custom bouquets are her bread and butter, costing anywhere from $500-$600, and she can make as much as $2,000-$5,000 during a weekend maker fair.
Each of the flowers starts with a small square of fabric cut from a traditional Japanese garment called a kimono. When Starr first began making her flowers, she decided to pay a few hundred dollars for a 200-pound bail of kimono, which she had shipped from Japan. More than a decade later, Starr still is pulling fabric from that original purchase.
Several rooms in her Woodinville home serve business-related purposes. Her dining room, for example, is the “office,” where she makes phone calls, manages billing, packages shipments, and even sometimes meets with clients. Her bedroom is her work station. There, nestled in a corner not far from her bed, sits a table outfitted with a gridded cutting mat, rotary cutter, glue, and countless squares of fabric.
Many of the fabric squares Starr uses are decorative pieces of unaltered silk or cotton kimono, but some are squares that Starr hand-dyes in her backyard. This is where the color-matching skills she perfected while mixing paints for her father come in handy.
“If they want a hot-pink (flower or bouquet), usually there’s no kimono fabric ready-made in hot pink. So, I’ll take the lining out of the kimono and hand-dye it,” Starr said. “Just give me a swatch, and I’ll try to get as close as I can.”
Once Starr has the fabric squares needed for a given project, she carefully folds each square into a petal, gluing each section together until a flower forms.
“A simple flower will probably take me about 15 minutes if I’m taking my time,” Starr said. “I can kick them out now. So, something a little bit bigger (takes) half an hour to 45 minutes.”
The time it takes her to complete a piece also depends on the project and type of fabric she’s using. While smaller projects can be completed in under an hour, bouquets can take several days. A flower made from 100-percent silk, for example, takes longer than a flower made from an old cotton kimono.
“They just fold a little bit differently,” Starr said.
In the years since she launched Thea Starr Precisely Folded Fabric Flowers, Starr has remarried and embarked on another venture with her husband, John Bronleewe. The new business is called 6 By 6 Arts.
When Starr mentioned that she wanted to find a way to make her fabric flowers more durable and impervious to the often-damp Pacific Northwest weather, Bronleewe, who made a career as a graphic designer in Oregon before relocating to Woodinville to be with Starr, recommended she consider laser cutting.
Uninterested in outsourcing designs to a third party, Starr and Bronleewe decided to make a big investment and purchased a $19,000 laser cutting machine. “It was a big, scary purchase,” Starr said. “But I’ve been very lucky with my investment.”
Starr creates all of 6 By 6 Arts’ designs by hand before passing them over to Bronleewe, who converts the designs into vector images on his computer before sending them to the laser cutter.
Like Starr’s flowers, all of 6 By 6 Arts’ goods are made inside the couple’s Woodinville home. Bronleewe operates the laser cutter out of Starr’s oldest daughter’s bedroom, vacated several years ago when she left for college. “We call it the polka-dot laser room,” Starr said, referencing the room’s colorful, hand-painted, polka-dot walls.
The business is entering its third year, and 6 By 6 Arts’ website is brimming with clever, laser-cut wood designs that the duo has dubbed, “goods for the exceptional and humorous.”
Their most popular design is a sign that reads: “We hate everything together.”
In addition to the inventory available on the website, 6 By 6 Arts also offers wholesale and custom ordering. The couple has worked on some high-profile projects, including ones for Dale Chihuly and the Space Needle.
Like her flowers, Starr said 6 By 6 Arts has been a journey, but the business continues to grow. “6 By 6 is only three years old,” Starr said, “but our revenue has doubled every year since its inception.”
With two high school-age kids still at home, Starr and Bronleewe have had to work diligently to maintain a work-life balance.
Mornings start around 7 with coffee. Once the kids are off to school, the couple runs errands, picking up materials, fulfilling orders, and answering emails. Starr and Bronleewe work until the kids come home, and then it’s family time. “We have family time to decompress,” Starr said.
Decompressing could mean taking Starr’s youngest to volleyball practice, or just enjoying dinner as a family. Afterward, it’s back to work. “Sometimes I won’t go to sleep until, like, 2 a.m.,” Starr said.
Finding balance is especially important depending on the time of year. After the holidays during off-season, Starr said, she and Bronleewe may only have to fill as many as 20 orders a month. However, during busier times of the year, they’re hustling to fulfill thousands. “I just accept the fact that I can sleep when I’m dead,” Starr said. “Or in ‘Pajamuary’
— AKA January.”
Like their time, the couple also must work dilligently to find balance with their finances. Starr’s background in accounting helps with this. “It’s like feast or famine,” Starr said. “You have to be a little bit magic with your finances to make it happen, but it can be done — I’m living proof.”
Starr isn’t upset that her new life doesn’t afford her the ability to buy a fancy new handbag every few months, like she may have been able to in the past.
“I’ve got a few of those (designer) handbags, and over time I realized they’re not that cool,” she said. “Dropping $500-$800 on a handbag is actually kind of ridiculous. I understand why people do it, but I couldn’t go back to that, because now I can buy a $100 handbag from a friend at Urban Craft Uprising, and I’m supporting her, too. We’re supporting each other, and that makes me feel better.”
While she may not have as much wealth as she did working in finance, her life certainly has become richer.
“I did very well in the traditional 9-to-5 life, but I do favor a maker’s life for the personal fulfillment,” Starr said. “I like hearing and connecting with personal stories from my customers, and gathering information from them to create the perfect bouquet that will become a family heirloom. I love sending out my ‘Pacific Northwest Lifer’ products out to homesick folks in Wisconsin who had to move away for work and miss the Pacific Northwest greatly. It just beats doing an audit on a company.”
Starting Your Own Business
Shahar Plinner knows what it takes to start a business from scratch. In fact, the Eastside accountant is the founder of not one but two accounting firms: GPL Accounting in Kirkland and Balance Monkey in Seattle. Through these firms, Plinner and his team provide accounting services for individuals, business owners, freelancers, and everyone in between. If you’re thinking it’s time to become your own boss, Plinner and his team suggest reading on.
The complex game of being self-employed and working from home or on-the-go does not suit everyone. Know in advance the environment that enables you to be productive, focused, and profit-motivated.
Seek advice and council from a tax professional on tax deadlines, filing requirements, accounting standards, and all the tools and apps available today to help you track it.
Have a Business Plan
Set your business goals and know how they will impact tax planning strategies. In a high-profit year, what is your plan to reduce your tax liability, increase cash flow, adjust compensation structure, etc.? Seek a proactive approach to solidify the health of your small business and maintain stability.
Work from Home
From checking your security breach points and computing power to the ergonomic standards of your workstation, compliance is key to achieving efficient work flow and productivity.
A virtual presence is a must in today’s business world. Utilizing compatible, interactive technology to communicate via phone, email, message boards, and social media will enhance your customers’ experience and the effectiveness by which you can maximize internal efficiency.
Taxes, Taxes, Taxes
There are several levels of taxation. Be sure to reserve cash for payment of federal, state, and, local taxes. You may be subject to self-employment taxes, too!
Company Banking and Credit Card
You will need to separate your personal banking and credit cards from those associated with the business operation. If you use your personal
Are You Ready to Take the Plunge?
Thea Starr’s success story is proof that you can earn a living as a maker. The following are some of her tips for knowing if your product has value, and if life as a maker is right for you.
“If you make something by hand that you are proud of, share and show it off. Even if it’s just on social media. Get feedback from your friends and peers, and explore what similar products are in your niche.”
Make an Elevator Pitch
“If you are worried or have fear about what you’re making being criticized, I suggest working on your two-minute elevator pitch. Quickly verbally articulate why what you make is good and why someone should buy it. And really believe what you say. You will be reciting that pitch for the entire time you are a maker. It’s your job to show your customers your products’ value.”
Trust Your Gut
“I’m a trust-your-guts kind of gal. I jumped in when I felt there was a need for what I made. My guts have been wrong a couple times, but those were lessons that I built upon.”