How do you catch a star or a comet as it streaks past? Simple. Go to the coast. Sarah James, an up-and-coming pro crafter and self-identified interior and exterior designer, is unleashing her amazing talent and creativity and making a mark in her local community.
I had the opportunity to sit down with her in her cheerful, welcoming home that was dotted throughout with her varied talents. Sarah James is an interesting mix of contrasts; old-school charm and grace and new-school, "It's not just a boy's club" confidence that is clearly part of her increasing success. She’s young, talented, and hard-working. But above all of this, she’s kind and spent a lot more time than we’d agreed upon to share her experiences in the hope that it will help others follow their dreams, too.
Sarah is a beautiful, charismatic young woman; someone who can make overalls look elegant and grease stains enviable. She’s friendly and has a stunning smile that’s infectious. She’s smart, and savvy, as well as very conscious about her decisions and where they lead. She’s also the kind of person that can give you honest feedback – even if it was news you didn’t want to hear – in a way that would make you nod, agree, and incorporate it because you valued it and knew it wasn’t given to hurt you.
You may think that someone who is starting to obtain part of their dream and pursuing new professional goals may be a bit of an egotist. That may be true for some, but not with Sarah. She lives modestly, in a sunny upstairs apartment that she’s done many creative and beautiful personalizations to. When you enter her home, the first thing you see is a beautiful, multi-toned pallet wall. It begs you to gently touch it as you turn into her living area. There are gorgeous pallet and mixed-media side tables, coffee tables, and more.
You look down in the hallway and see beautiful dark wood floors... or do you? No. More painting that fools you, it’s done so well. It’s the attention to detail that makes her creations eye-catching, and misleading in the best, most interesting way. She told me that she tore out all of the carpets, and at first, the project seemed overwhelming, but she took her time and let it happen. This was shared as she leaned back with a wide smile like this was no biggie; just all in a day’s work so to speak. And I think that’s her secret. She kicks fear and doubt to the curb, jumps in, figures it out, and then it’s just another experience to add to her resume. No big deal.
The adorable kitchen with the beautiful floors and dark counters makes you pause. Tile? Cement? Nope. The countertops are CHALK PAINT. And you’re only beginning your adventure. Her living room is cozy and airy and filled with beautiful little touches. I was invited to sit in a purple chair, and she casually said when I commented on the color, "Oh, I painted that chair. It originally looked like the rest of the [beige] set." Like this is something everyone does! And I didn’t think I was sitting on a painted surface. It still felt like material. Pretty crafty. And these were just a few of the highlights. The head spins!
But she’s more than just an apartment that has been transformed by someone with interior design talent. That’s just one of the ways the inner woman shines brightly to the outside world.
My whole family is handy! My grandpa built homes and my dad was a handyman by trade. He taught me a lot of the basics. My mom is an amazing source of inspiration, because she was actively involved in home projects too. I call my dad a lot more for advice on projects than my mom. They really got me started on doing crafts, including woodwork, fixing things, and using items you have to create what you need.
I go to Home Depot nearby and just walk through the store, slowly looking around, and will find something and stare at it. Sometimes I don’t know what it is used for, and that doesn’t matter. I use it for inspiration. I look at things . . . weird, and it keeps me creative. It’s part of the source of my inspiration. I got into recycling and upcycling materials. You look at it and think, ‘How can I use it,’ and don’t worry about what it started out as. I also use suggestions from loved ones as inspiration. A random comment can be the start of a new idea!”
When asked about how she has so many different types of creations in the home, and in her workshop below the apartment, she said:
I don’t just use reclaimed wood, although a couple neighbors and lots of my friends send me pallet building ideas via social media sites like Facebook. I use whatever I find to match the vision in my head. Most of the time reclaimed wood goes with things, since I like earthy projects, but I don’t restrict myself or define myself as just one type of crafter. I just get into a zone and examine things, building it in my mind.
She cites her family and close friends as her continuing support system and greatest cheerleaders.
I have a small group of friends for “market research” that give me honest feedback. My boyfriend is the first one I turn to, because he’ll give it to me straight – even if it hurts my pride a bit. I’m very lucky to have my friends and family for support. They send me stuff on social media sites all the time, and there are lots of things they’ve asked me to build for them, so that’s great feedback.” She sat back and smiled, petting a puppy she agreed to house-sit for a family member. Yeah. They’re always there to cheer me on. I’m lucky.
But what about that notion of "men’s" and "women’s" hobbies? Does that idea still exist?
A chauvinist attitude? Sure, every once in a while, but it’s not as bad anymore Sometimes when I’m in Home Depot in the morning when it’s loaded with construction workers... and me. I’ve had a few guys ask if I needed some help, and usually I just politely decline. I have had a moment where I did lose it.
She described a moment where she was intensely focused – in her zone – and someone interrupted her train of thought, and the “claws came out.” She laughed about it but shrugged it off as something to learn from.
Usually I get people walking by when I’m in my workshop, covered in sawdust, and they’ll say comments. I’ll hear, ‘I haven’t ever seen a girl do something like that’, but it’s not meant as a negative. At least, I don’t take it that way, and I think that’s important. You can make anything a negative if you want. After all, you don’t see many women with their workshop open, jumping on wood projects. I know it’s happening, but it’s not a common sight – yet.
She grins as we both share stories of our crafting learning curves.
But confidence is important. And knowing the ‘language’ of what you’re doing. The terms, ‘whatchamacallit’ and ‘thingie’ give pros the opportunity to question your knowledge. That’s something I work hard to change, and want to constantly strive to learn. What my family calls something may not be the absolute professional term. I’ve also had to ‘peacock up’. It’s a technique, really. You get ready for a big presentation or meeting, and you do these strength positions [as she demonstrates by rolling her shoulders back, sitting up straight and spreading her arms wide with a grin to match]. They really do help boost your confidence. But you even see it on the DIY shows. At first the women were only decoration. They’d stand there and point, or hand a tool; kind of like that girl from the ‘Home Improvement’ show with Tim Allen. Then they started to ‘Tomboy’ out.” She paused and smiled. “Yeah. Sometimes we have to think about what we want to be and be assertive. It may mean a strength position to be taken seriously, but once they know you, it’s fine. You can be just you again. All the staff in Home Depot know me now.
I asked her, as we at 1001pallets.com have received this question. How does one go from casual crafting to turning it into a business venture?
First, I network. I use social media sites, like Facebook, LinkedIn, an friends for word-of-mouth referrals. You never know. But most importantly, I didn’t try to walk into a huge organization and hand them something I made at first. We all go to the same restaurants, bars, or other types of places routinely, and you get to know the staff. You hear about renovations, or changes coming to your favorite haunts. Instead of waiting for people to come to you, reach out. Ask! Walk up to the manager and tell them who you are, and what you do. Bring them a sample if you can, and have a portfolio ready. A business starts with making a connection with one single person that likes your crafts. And once they like it, even if they don’t buy it right then, they may be able to help you network. One opportunity leads to more. Maybe offer to help with a project that you’re comfortable with. For me, it was doing a pallet wall, and making certain types of crafts.
But you have to push past the fear. Fear of rejection. Fear of the ‘what ifs’ out there. You can’t improve if you don’t get feedback. Take the risk and rent a space at a local flea market or swap meet. It’s not that much money. Set up pieces, and listen to what people say. Sometimes you’ll hear things like, ‘Well, it’s not the right color for our house,’ and instead of just letting them walk away, take charge! Approach them with a smile and tell them that you can create a color to meet their needs, and get them to talk. It can be the difference between succeeding and not selling a thing. Some weeks, you’ll take home everything you brought. But you can’t let that crush your goals. Just re-evaluate, and don’t sit back and ignore people. Listen and don’t let harsh words or comments hurriedly dropped stop you. Use it. Incorporate it, and learn from it. Don’t let fear paralyze you!
She also mentioned a few resources, including things like community or local area business meetings. She’s had other businesses mention her and refer opportunities her way, so now it’s an important part of her business plan.
One thing she mentioned that she felt held her back at first, was feeling like she wasn’t really good enough.
I sort of felt like a fraud at first. Who am I to say I’m a designer, or a woodcrafter, or whatever I’m presenting myself as? Sort of like I was playing a role of an artist, instead of really believing I was an artist. I got past that by finding a few friends and family members I could really trust to give me honest feedback. Not the feedback where everything is great, and they love it all. I want to hear if it makes them hesitate. I want to hear what they’d really like to see. Sometimes I see something, but I miss an opportunity because it’s one way in my head, and that may not be the best option. I have to be open to that feedback. It’s not criticism. It’s a valuable marketing tool. Critique, if given honestly, is invaluable! I’d rather hear it from my friends or loved ones, even though it still stings because you do take pride in all of your creations, than from a client who is unhappy after spending money up front for work.
How has becoming a business changed me? Well, I try to keep all my receipts, or at least bank statements. I found a good accountant who specializes with small businesses and independent contractors. You have to set up an account for the business and you pay yourself from it. It’s much better to be organized early on, because a lot of things are actually deductible, such as tools, products like sand paper, supplies for your crafts, and the like. You’ve gotta learn what you can and cannot write off. You can’t be passive. And if you suddenly start writing off thousands when you didn’t before, it’s a big flag if you didn’t show a history. No one wants I.R.S. hassles. Get everything organized early if you really want this. And be smart. It’s hard to justify a Costco purchase if you’re doing woodcrafting, as an example, compared to purchases at Home Depot.
The other thing I’d advise is get insurance. What if you did a pallet wall and a kid got cut by a jagged nail you missed accidentally? Who pays the medical bills incurred? What if you mounted something on the wall and missed the stud. It falls and causes damage or hurts someone. I was told that ‘You know when you’re becoming successful, such as a business does, when someone finally sues you,’ and I think that’s probably right. You have to really think and try to constantly improve. If someone got hurt because you didn’t know what you were doing, or didn’t change something because that’s just what you’re comfortable with, it’s not worth it. So yeah . . . insurance is rather important.
Sarah’s workshop is as modest, and charming, as her apartment upstairs. She’s not possession-proud, but she is human.
Yeah, one thing I’d like is better lighting in my garage. When the sun goes down, I’m out of luck. Of course a bigger, better table saw wouldn’t be bad, either. But in all honesty, I’m blessed with what I have, and being in my workshop that I arranged the way I like, makes me happy. I can just sit down there and get ideas.
She’s got a chalkboard in her workshop to prove it. It’s filled with a to-do list of ideas.
I think there are a couple skills I’d like to add, and welding is definitely one. Metal art. Mmm. It’s all part of the earthy elements I appreciate. I’d love to learn more about electrical wiring, and I think it’s very interesting. Honestly, you can’t go wrong by learning new things. Don’t limit yourself. You may add a skill that opens a lot of doors.
I asked her what project she’s the proudest of, and I was surprised that I stumped her. It took a few minutes of absently petting the puppy as she started, paused, and started again.
You know, I’m proud of a lot of my projects. I can look back and see where I could change things, but like a coffee table I made for a friend that came out really nice, and conquering the floor project here when it seemed overwhelming and massive... But honestly, it hasn’t happened yet. I’m searching for that ultimate thing to be proud of. Everything can be improved upon. I suppose I’m actually proudest of taking a chance on myself; of pushing past my own fears, doubts, and self-criticism. I had to push past my negative talk and really focus on some of my language. It’s no longer, ‘I wish’, or ‘Someday’. Instead, I say, ‘I AM,’ or ‘I WILL’, and it’s changed my life. Your language dictates your actions. Because I don’t have one niche market, or want it, I now identify myself as an interior and exterior designer. Don’t apologize for what you want to do. It’s hard to fully call myself a “pro”, but every step raises my confidence, and it feeds on itself. Sometimes you have to step back, and stop forcing it. Let it happen organically. I’m not where I want to be yet, but I’m happy with where I’m at right now. I’m managing to avoid the office, and it feels great.
On my way out, I shared with her something that was happening for me. She held her hand up and gave me a High-Five. Then she smiled with a naughty tilt, her eyes sparkling.
Cool. Now get out there and build some s**t.
She knew just what would make me laugh – and inspire me.
Thanks Sarah for this interview and we wish you all the success for your upcoming projects!
To find more about Sarah and her projects, you can visit her website Sarah James Design.