My youngest child is leaving for college in the fall, and then (sigh…) after 2 decades, that will be that. Suddenly, I'll be an empty nester.
What I need now is an amazing 3rd act. A real showstopper that weaves deep community bonds into a slingshot of engagement and personal growth.
But I'm pelted by advertisements for serums and peels promising wrinkle-reducing, age-defying miracles of science. I'm offered deals on dietary supplements from places with preposterous names like ReNew Life and Life Extension. (Not kidding. Those are real companies.) I get ads for elective procedures and a dizzying array of pharmaceuticals. All this hoo-ha trying to shove me into a marketing category whose core message is that as a woman over 50, I’m un-fuckable and about to die.
Well, forget it. I’m launching my own brand: RokoPack - a community for people who like to make stuff. I want to be part of something based in joy. That speaks to my potential, rather than defines me by my most imperfect parts as a way to sell me things I don't need, as if I were somehow damaged goods.
My 1st act began when I became obsessed with making ceramics in college. (Still am btw.) By 26, I had my own production studio. That was 1991 so I kept invoices and bills in 3-ring binders labeled in sharpie down the spine, and production schedules in spiral notebooks that had pencils attached with string. It's hard to remember what it was like before computers ran our lives. At that time they were expensive. As was production management and accounting software. It was all just for big companies.
To keep up with production I hired local artists and bought 4 large electric kilns that ran 24/7. I was selling tons of work. I was psyched. And super proud. But weirdly broke. After 3 years, we were working hard to keep up with demand, so why didn't I have any money?
(Photography: Bill Checkvala)
Slipping deeper and deeper into credit card debt, here's what I did: sat down with the staff and laid it all out on the table: exactly how much we were doing in sales, what everyone was getting paid (including myself), rent, materials, electricity - everything. I figured the problem was, if I couldn't pinpoint how much it cost to make the pieces, then there was no way to accurately know what to charge for them. I asked for a commitment from my staff to help me better understand my business.
For 6 weeks we kept clipboards at our side, recording exactly what we each did throughout the day, every day. Like 8:00 - 8:20 unloaded kilns. 11:15 ate a muffin. 1:05 - 2:40 glazing. 4:15 - 6:20 packing + shipping.
Data sheets piled up on my desk. Every aspect of the business was under the microscope. How many pieces were we losing to breakage? How much of that was due to material or equipment malfunction and how much was human error? And at what stage of the production? It took me months to sort through and compile information from a zillion handwritten scraps into digestible categories. Remember, I didn't own a computer. Plus it's not like I'd run a business before. I didn't really know what I was doing.
(Photography: Bill Checkvala)
Afterwards, what became clear was that if I continued to make the kind of work I wanted to make, while employing local people and paying them a legal, living wage, and also make some money myself, I would have to charge a fortune for each piece - way beyond what the market would bear. It was devastating to have let everyone go and fold.
I worked for a few years as a wax carver - model making - for a fine jewelry company and in 1998 launched my own collection. The margins on jewelry are way better than ceramics, and by then computers and software had become affordable. I was able to more accurately track expenses, production, and sales.
Even though I still hand cut each prototype myself, so that it was recognizably my work, this time I contracted out the casting, stone setting, and polishing so the production costs were fixed. Then hired a showroom and road reps to do sales so those costs were fixed as well.
The collection kicked ass and was available in over 200 craft galleries, boutiques, catalogs, and department stores nationwide including: Anthropologie, J.Jill (both catalog and stores), and Neiman’s Direct. I had my own dedicated counters at Macy’s, Marshall Fields and Bloomingdales. And a little money in the bank.
(Photography: Nicole Rosenthal )
Until the stock market crash of 2008. In the aftermath, 80% of my accounts went out of business. Macy's, my biggest account, closed the whole category; in times of financial instability, the last thing people buy is a $600 bracelet. By then I had 5 + 6 year old boys, who were the center of my world. I didn't have the juice to borrow money and work crazy hours trying to resuscitate the business. I didn't want to miss out raising my kids. Folding for the second time was a heartbreaking decision, but ultimately the best one I've ever made. I started teaching and it turned out I was good at it. Plus I got to be home every night for dinner.
One Halloween my older boy was an old-timey eyeball salesman with a slicked down middle part and bow tie. The younger one, an aluminum foil knight on horseback. When the horse reared up to trick or treat, candy slid down its cardboard throat and collected in a belly bag. There were chore charts and also a puppy. Cheering at debate tournaments and swim meets. Railing against what was certainly a poisonous amount of video games. No taking the subway after 11pm - sometimes they listened. I’m thrilled they're heading out into the world; I did my job; they’re ready. But I'm very sorry to see them go.
Except I'm ready too. Ready for my next chapter. Ready to put making art back into the center. But geez, it's a little daunting. I'm a decade out of practice. So I've decided every quarter, I’m going to dig into learning a new skill. Could be high brow, could be low: forget judgmental distinctions between fine art and crafts. As my celebrity super-crush, dj D-Nice, is always saying, “Nothing but good vibes.” More on him later. (Probably a lot more on him...)
I think a lot of people are looking to get in touch with their more creative selves, especially during this unprecedented time of Covid-19, when we're all stuck at home. So come on, let's do this together! For the nest 3 months, I’m going to learn about making paper. I’m planning to start with a few functional objects, notecards or something, to get warmed up. Then hopefully shift towards making something more experimental. (I'll admit to being a little nervous. What if everything I make sucks?)
You can follow my progress here, on the 1Q=1Skill blog. Or better yet... purchase a pack that has the same tools and materials I’ll be using, on my brand new website and join me!
I’ve built out a private community platform where people who buy a pack can watch how-to videos, ask questions, upload their own projects, and join discussion groups. Every cycle a different artist's work will appear on the packaging, as a limited edition printing. Guest writers will be posting to the blog. I'm going to build something fertile and unusual, forged from joy, that anyone can get in on.
So ... c'mon, join the pack, let's see what happens, and make some stuff!
- Roanne Kolvenbach
It's one thing to get an idea for a business and think,wait ... this is a great idea. And another thing entirely to spend down your savings trying to make it real. Launching a business is a scary proposition. Overwhelmed by tech-ignorance, besieged by doubt, and escalating credit card debt, RokoPack founder, Roanne Kolvenbach finds inspiration from her celebrity crush, DJ D-Nice.