When a stressful career-related health crash sent Kellie Phelan on the search for more meaningful day-to-day, she discovered that her passion for making things by hand fulfilled her local community’s hunger for learning new skills. She started teaching people how to bake, grow food, knit – and set up a DIY school for adults: The Works, Seattle.
Kellie Phelan always found pleasure growing food in her backyard, making pickles, using her hands to make things like scarves or blankets.
She calls these her ‘old-timey grandma skills’ and while working her way up in the corporate world, she did her best to keep making time for them. But, she found it increasingly difficult with her all-consuming job.
Kellie felt the demands of her fast-paced career stretching her thin.
Driven by a desire to leave the earth in a better place, she built a successful career in environmental consulting, working in fields such as sustainability and climate change. The stresses that came with such a demanding position began to take their toll. ‘It wasn’t only that I’d often be working an 80 hour week, but also that I’d go to sleep thinking about it and wake up thinking about it, but not in a good way. I’d just be anxious thinking about what I needed to deliver.’
Kellie suffers from Crohn’s disease, and the hours and stress began to wear down her health. ‘It just became a rat race. My health was declining and I knew it, I just didn’t know what to do. It’s funny how when you sit on these things and you don’t take action, your body will tell you.’
A stress-induced health crash sent Kellie on the search for a more meaningful day-to-day.
Kellie suffered a bad health scare, and after several weeks in the hospital found herself facing the possibility of surgery. It was during this time that she began to reflect on her career. Was her work worth risking her health over?
After a lot of soul-searching, Kellie knew the answer: no. She needed to look for a more meaningful day-to-day life. She wanted to continue to make a difference. But she didn’t want to go back to the corporate grind; she knew she was facing a long struggle ahead to rebuild her health. She searched for a new career angle that inspired her until finally one day she realized that she had been looking too far from home.
Kellie realized that her ‘old-timey grandma skills’ were the one thing that had always refuelled her. ‘They made me feel connected to the earth and also to my community. So I started dabbling with the thought: what if I were to share these skills with other people?’
Kellie thought that she could turn her talent for making things into a business by offering DIY classes for adults.
It started small. In May 2018, she thought to test the waters with a one-woman pop-up. She would call local businesses in Seattle and ask if they were interested in her using their space for pop-up DIY classes. Tailoring her classes to fit these businesses, she began offering craft classes in gift shops, and gardening classes at seed companies. Kellie began to realize that her community was eager to learn the skills she had always wanted to revive!
As word spread, Kellie increased her class offerings and secured ongoing pop-up spots within businesses around town. It was only a few months later though when she found herself expecting twins. ‘I probably would have continued to run The Works as these on and off pop-ups. By then I was popping up a couple of times a week. I was thinking that I should scale that back and continue when the babies were old enough.’
But fate stepped in. In August 2018, she found herself having a conversation about her future with the owner of the seed company. She was mulling over her options and mentioned that she’d love to grow the business one day. But she thought this would be difficult without her own space.
Kellie jumped at the opportunity to increase her business dramatically – just months after starting it.
The owner of the seed company shared that he had grown from retail into a larger, primarily wholesale business. He was thinking about closing his retail space, but he was committed to a lease. He invited Kellie to come in as a sub-tenant. ‘I thought, okay amazing! How about we start in January next year? He said ‘if we’re going to do this, we need to do it now.’ I paused and said ‘you do realize I’m having babies in six weeks?!’
But he felt that it was now or never, so Kellie took the jump right there and then. She felt it was one of those pivotal moments in the small business journey: a door opens and you have to step through.
But the rapid increase in size without the time invested in pre-planning left Kellie struggling.
Kellie immediately found that her one-woman show needed to change dramatically. The addition of fixed costs like rent and payroll had added so much more pressure, so she tried to pack in as many classes as she could for the upcoming holiday season. She realised there was so much extra work to do that she had to step back from teaching to run the business – which coincided with the premature birth of her twins. All of a sudden she was a new mother AND a new business owner and was in desperate need of help.
Kellie hired three part-time teachers to run the classes over Christmas. Providing them with the class model used for the pop up, she got to dealing with the business’s operational needs.
But unfortunately, it was too early. The groundwork was not yet in place for the business to run successfully without Kellie. ‘I pushed too hard. We didn’t have the staff training in place, so we didn’t have the quality control – we didn’t even have an onboarding process.’ While the new teachers were doing an amazing job, customers had come to expect a certain quality experience when they attended Kellie’s classes.
It was a written complaint from a regular customer that made Kellie realize that what she was doing wasn’t working.
One customer who had attended Kellie’s classes from the beginning reached out. She suggested that the most recent class she had taken wasn’t up to par. ‘That was such a hard message to read and yet I valued it so much because only the people who care will take the time to give you feedback like that.’ Kellie launched into action, taking this as an opportunity to course-correct and lay a proper foundation to support any business growth.
‘The email that we received was the birth of us flying a little bit less by the seat of our pants – which is how it had been as a one-woman pop-up. The quality was always important to me, but when you’re one person, you don’t need to sit down and document things. You just know this is how we do it.’
Kellie realized that she’d opened a full-blown school – and wasn’t prepared.
She began to invest her time in things like class development and implementation processes. She prepared documentation detailing the customer experience; laid out the strategy for everything from how to greet a customer to what the handout materials should look like. It was a detail-driven overhaul, but it came just at the right time.
Kellie’s bubbly personality and friendly teaching style was core to The Works success. As primarily a word-of-mouth and relationship-based business, ongoing quality issues could have resulted in a damaging loss of customers during a very important stage of growth.
Luckily, Kellie’s attention to detail allowed her to quickly course correct to get her workshops back on track.
Kellie feels that this complaint was the turning point in her business. ‘We’ve come out the other side as a much better organization.’ Now, The Works can add classes with any number of collaborators easily, using the basics Kellie set up. This groundwork allowed her to add classes teaching far beyond just the skills Kellie herself possessed: The Works now runs workshops with many local teachers, chefs, bartenders. Workshops as wide and varied as The Art of Hand Lettering; Let there be (Vegan) Pie; and How To Make Beeswax Wraps have firmly cemented The Works as one of the most interesting activity destinations in Seattle.
So how did Kellie’s health handle the most stressful points of her business’s growth? ‘Well, I work more now than I ever did in consulting, but it registers differently. My take on it is that it’s fueled by passion!’
Kellie is the founder of The Works, Seattle’s first DIY school for adults. They offer classes on all sorts of skills and crafts, like baking sourdough, knitting, gardening and more.