Rena Tom


This is a Pencil vs. Pixel conversation between Rena Tom and Cesar Contreras. Pencil vs. Pixel, hosted by Cesar, is a weekly web show that shares insight, advice, and inspiration about creative work. Rena is a consultant and the market editor for Anthology magazine. Plus she is the founder of Makeshift Society, a clubhouse and creative co-working space in San Francisco and Brooklyn. Check out an excerpt below and listen to the full conversation as Rena shares her story.

The story behind Makeshift

I sold Rare Device in San Francisco. I was business partners with Lisa Congdon, who is a great artist. And a good friend. She wanted to do her own thing. Her art business was taking off like crazy.

And I had an 18 month year old, baby, and I was just spending less time at the shop. It had been a really long time for me. Again I don’t do stuff. I don’t focus really well. I don’t work on anything for a really long amount of time.

So I had the store for six or seven years. And that was a long time for me to be doing any one thing. I wanted to do something else.

So I was going to do what was the most fun - the most fun aspects of having the shop. Which was working with the makers. And helping out the makers. So I started doing a little consulting.

But I missed the books. We always had a really good book selection at Rare Device. It was so much fun to get art and design books, to get the catalogs and choose it. What a fun thing to do. I really missed having all those books.

And they’re expensive. Libraries don’t carry them. So initially Makeshift was going to be a a private lending library of art and design books. And I wanted to just have that.

I started telling all my friends “wouldn’t be cool if I did this? Would you come and be part of my library?” And they said - “can I sit and work there too?”

Then it kind of turned into a co-working space. In fact, we have a really great book lending library for the members. But that’s just one chunk of what we ended up doing.

It’s important. It shows our dedication to the creative community, which I think a lot of co-working spaces tend to focus either on tech or are just more diffused and general.

Because I like interacting with makers and creatives, that’s who we want to serve, so we try and think of programs and resources for them.


Consulting is about understanding the other side

Part of it is I didn’t know what I wanted to do, except I knew I didn’t want to work for anybody else. So consulting kind of happens because of that.

I did want to see where things would go after I sold the store. So I just started a website and a blog. I just started writing about business stuff. Whatever was in my head.

And then I kind of put my shingle out there and said, “well if anyone else needs direct help - here I am.” I started to get people responding to that.

I think one of my roles in this community is kind of a connector in general. Because if you have a shop, and you’re concerned with the lives of makers and small business people - you just know everybody. So I knew a lot of folks. It’s fun.

It’s fun to be able to talk to everybody and help them out. Try and suggest other people, other resources for them. And give them some advice from someone, who in the case of retail, has been on both sides of the fence.

Someone who has gone through the pains of manufacturing something and selling it. And the other side, someone who wants to buy good product for their store and can’t buy from everybody that sends them an email.

Don’t take things personally. That’s a big lesson for everybody. You’re rejecting me. No, we’re not really rejecting you. I don’t have any money to spend on your cool product. There’s so many reasons, but not everyone is going to talk to each other about that.

So I think a lot of what I do in my role as a consultant is getting them to understand the other side. Which eases communication, which makes it much more likely that you’re going to connect with someone and actually have that buyer relationship at some point down the line.


Steps to Starting a Business

Lots of research. I tend to do a lot of research first. And most of the people I know end up being really successful through the research.

Though at a certain point they have to just jump in. Everyone has a different learning style. Right?

Some people are like “well I’m just going to make that decision and I’m going to go for it.” Good. And then they’ll learn after the fact.

They’ll learn while something is on fire, how to put that fire out.

And they’re cool with that. Other people are terrified by that. And they have to have their manual and their binder beforehand. But then you kind of have to shove them out the door. Because you look at their work and you say “this is great, is it selling well?”

“Well, I haven’t really told anybody yet.” No, you’re doing it perfectly. Have confidence.

So it’s seeing where people are and trying to reign them in a little bit. Like saying “you might want to get your business permits.”

Or saying, “no, really tell people - like send out an email or do something to let people know your around. Don’t be afraid. You’re never going to have it perfect. Just get it out there.”

I think knowing what style you are is pretty important. And seeing if you can find either a consultant or mentor or somebody who has done some aspect of business before to talk to. Maybe not all aspects, but something that makes you feel really confident about what you’re doing.

That’s useful.


Advice on getting started

It’s hard for me to talk because I’m not good at narrowing down what I do. I’ve always got my fingers in way too many pies. And I know that about myself. I’m trying to get better at it.

I think when I go into a new business, which is pretty often, I give myself a time limit. I’m going to have this much success or this many clients or whatever in six or 12 months. I’ll give myself that much space to screw up or whatever.

If it doesn’t happen, I’m pretty good at chopping stuff off.

I think some people say, “well if I can give it three more months, we’re almost there.” But if you can be really realistic about that and set a time limit of like “well, I have many other ideas and set a time limit if it doesn’t happen in this amount of time,” - I’ll still have some time and money leftover to start that second idea.

And kind of go for it. I think that’s my advice.


Working on Things that will last

I like things that last. I think what helps me eliminate the more stupid ideas or keeps me from doing all the stupid ideas, because I have a lot of stupid ideas, is there any chance that this will be a lasting thing?

I live in San Francisco. And we’re surrounded by people with crazy ideas. People are in a way encouraged just to pursue a crazy idea until it burns out. And then if they fail, pick up and try again.

That’s good and bad. Because you don’t discriminate as much as maybe you could.

So if an idea is really super outlandish, I probably won’t go for it.

I want to do something that will be around. So even if with Rare Device, it’s a store. Sure, it’s just a store. But next year it will be 10. And for brick and mortar that’s pretty damn good.

I’m not responsible for the last three years of that, but I’m really proud of it. I’m proud that we’ve built something that hasn’t just gone away or been gobbled up by somebody else.

I think that’s awesome. It’s just something that feels super good to be there for people for that long. And I’ve met people who’ve shopped at my shop in New York. I run into them on the street there and in San Francisco.

I really enjoy that.


One piece of advice to an aspiring business owner

Stay focused on what you really want out of something. And just do the damn work.

I think a lot of people get stuck in there heads. They want to make things perfect. They want to get things done a certain way.

And you really just have to work it and make it happen. And put it out there or you won’t know.

I don’t sit on a lot of ideas. I just do them. Just get them out the door. Some of them suck. And some of them work out really well.

But I can sleep at night because of that. I don’t regret anything.

Do the hard work. There are no shortcuts. Get it done.

People fail everyday at something, but they also succeed at something every day. To remind yourself about that is a really good thing.

Agreed, Rena.


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