1) When/how did you get started?
Red Thread Upcycles: I was first introduced to stained glass back in college by an art major friend. I borrowed his soldering iron and supplies for the summer and was hooked.
2) Do you have an interesting or funny story from when you started?
RTU: He is actually an ex-boyfriend and I can't remember whether I ever gave his supplies back.
3) What inspires you?
RTU: Nature. I make a lot celestial pieces, leaves, raindrops, etc.
4) Where did you start?
RTU: In my parents' garage.
5) Do you have a special connection to the location you operate in?
RTU: My studio space is a renovated 1 car garage that came with our farm.
6) What was your business’ first best seller or big success?
RTU: It was actually upcycled men's shirt aprons. My Etsy business started in 2015 as a repurposed sewing shop, until I received a bunch of boxes of stained glass from a church renovation. I've always worked with whatever materials I had on hand. Once I received all that glass I decided it was time to get my soldering iron back out.
7) What was your first setback?
RTU: Taking on too much the first couple of years after I quit teaching to do strictly art. I signed up for every art festival and craft sale I could. Taught classes, sold inventory online. I got burnt out pretty quick.
8) How did you overcome it?
RTU: I took a break. I paused Red Thread and went to work for a year and a half in the county attorney's office as a legal clerk. I realized pretty quickly that I really, really missed making things.
9) Do you have a favorite product or thing to make?
RTU: I love making stained glass Christmas tree toppers. It's pretty cool to think that something I make could potentially become a family heirloom.
10) Are you a solo operation?
RTU: How many people do you employ? No employees. Just me. I'm too particular to let anyone help me.
11) What is your current best seller?
RTU: My stained glass chakra strand suncatcher.
12) What is the most recent product you’ve made?
RTU: I've been making leaf suncatchers lately for a spring event I have coming up at Peace Tree Brewing Co. in Des Moines.
13) What’s a recent success you’ve had in business?
RTU: I've recently been asked to participate in a series of online art demo videos.
14) Who are some of your favorite businesses in your category?
RTU: Definitely The Stained Glass Store in Grimes, Iowa. The staff is talented, knowledgeable and helpful!
15) Are you seasonal?
RTU: My full time job is making stuff out of stained glass. I vend through my Etsy, pop-up events and wholesale.
16) Do you have a physical operation?
RTU: No physical storefront, but I'm not making things at my kitchen table anymore. I have my own studio in the backyard.
17) How did you manage the ongoing COVID-19 situation?
RTU: Quite well actually. My online sales picked up so much I was able to leave the part time job I'd been working to support my art.
18) Does your business support any local nonprofits or causes?
RTU: I donate items to auction each year to the Children's Cancer Connection in Des Moines. They offer support to families in Iowa affected by childhood cancer.
19) Does your business host any events?
RTU: When I teach workshops or vend at pop ups it’s usually in cooperation with other businesses at their locales, since I live pretty far out in the middle of nowhere.
20) Do you have a seasonal specialty?
RTU: My Christmas tree toppers are my most popular holiday item.
21) What is the most interesting thing about your product or service?
RTU: My suncatchers are made from repurposed glass from a church renovation, and other old stained glass windows I disassemble and reuse. My tree toppers are soldered onto old bed springs. My business cards are stamped on old cereal boxes, etc. My family and friends save useful cast offs for me so I can make art out of them.
22) Do you have any plans for next year?
RTU: Keep filling orders for my Etsy shop and wholesale requests, and a pop up show or two in the Des Moines area.
23) How do you take care of your mental health while operating a business?
RTU: Physical activity does wonders for my mental health. It’s hard to take the time with looming order deadlines, but totally worth it. I’m much more productive if I start my day with a run.
24) Do you have any favorite suppliers?
RTU: I go to the Stained Glass Store in Grimes when I have specific glass color requests that I don’t have scraps of.
25) Do you have any favorite customers?
RTU: In 2017 Wisconsin Patty was responsible for my first sizable order- 60 stained glass cardinals for her family, friends and business associates.
26) Do you have any advice for someone starting a business?
RTU: Don’t underestimate the value of your product. For a couple years my prices were so low that I was constantly overwhelmed with orders, which led to burnout. Finding the right price point for my art has allowed me to do less work for the same amount of money.
27) Do you have any advice for someone starting a business in your industry specifically?
RTU: It doesn’t always come quick. At least my handmade business didn’t anyway. After mustering the courage to quit my full time job, it was years of part time jobs, figuring out my niche in the market, 7 day work weeks, and a dining room table constantly covered in craft supplies. It eventually gets easier. It took about 5 years, but my handmade business is now my full time job, I have a separate studio space, and my family can now eat at the table again.
28) What would you do with your business if you won a million dollars?
RTU: Whoa! Probably slow down the small suncatcher production and hire someone to teach me how to make big cathedral windows.
29) How did you adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic?
RTU: My online sales picked up hugely overnight. Through most of the pandemic I was at home in my pajamas making things out of glass. The bump in business was so significant I was able to quit my part time town job.
30) Will you expand your business more?
RTU: I really kind of like the size it’s at now. I’m such a perfectionist I don’t think I’d ever be able to hire staff to help with production. I want to do it all myself so I’ll probably stay small.
31) How did you get the idea for your business?
RTU: About 12 years ago my folks had an art gallery as a retirement business. I started off making hand sewn items and stained glass ornaments for them. I got such a good response I decided to open a shop on Etsy.
32) What do you attribute your success to?
RTU: A very patient partner and super supportive parents.
33) What do you look for in a good employee?
RTU: That they work for free! Ha! The only help I have with my business is my mom and sister-in-law sometimes help me at large craft shows/events. In all fairness I usually buy drinks afterwards.
34) Is there a reason that you operate where you do?
RTU: It’s where I live. I walk 30 feet out my back door to my renovated garage studio.
35) Do you operate locally, nationally or globally?
RTU: Mostly nationally, I’ve sold and shipped my stained glass to all 50 states and a few different countries now.
36) If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
RTU: I’d probably still be teaching middle school reading.
37) If you could give yourself one piece of advice when you started, what would it be?
RTU: Your time and talents are worth more than discount super store prices.
38) What makes what you do unique?
RTU: Probably that so much of my material is repurposed. From the stained glass I use to the packaging it’s shipped in.
39) What hobbies do you do when you aren’t working?
RTU: Chauffeuring my kids to all of their activities. If I’m lucky I might fit a run in during one of their practices.
40) What has been the reaction from your customers?
RTU: Customers are able to give me feedback via my Etsy shop. It’s super gratifying to get appreciative reviews and see customer photos of my art in the wild. The best is when they share how and why they’re giving my work to someone else. It’s a pretty cool process to be a part of.
41) Does your business do anything for the holidays?
RTU: I try to get out and do pop up events at local businesses. I also start making ornaments and tree toppers months in advance.
42) What keeps you motivated?
RTU: Lovely customers.
43) What about your craft do you like the most?
RTU: I love that stained glass is solar powered art work. When it’s sunny outside it’s usually bright and cheerful, but the look of a piece can change throughout the day depending on lighting and the weather outside.
44) Is this your first business?
45) Will you ever sell this business?
RTU: No, it’s like a child to me.
46) Do you have a favorite quote?
RTU: “Try harder.” It’s a family joke that when my kids say they can’t do something my husband usually responds with: try harder. Joking aside, it’s true that one is usually able to accomplish something if they just keep at it and try harder.
47) How do you handle customer support?
RTU: Customer contacts go directly to me. I respond asap and do my best to rectify any situation where someone is disappointed, i.e. replacing a broken piece of art, etc. Happens very rarely though.
48) How do you handle shipping?
RTU: With the good old United States Postal Service. I repurpose old granola bar boxes and paper grocery bags for shipping. Reusing free packaging helps keep costs lower and ekes out an extra use before the materials go to a landfill or get recycled.
49) What do you like most about the operations of your business?
RTU: Probably the customer interactions. It’s really fun to collaborate with customers on requests and hear what they have planned for the pieces I make.
50) Do you have a favorite business tool?
RTU: My glass grinder- so much more efficient than filing glass.
51) Do you do your own finances or outsource?
RTU: Thank God my mother has a banking/accounting background. She helps me with my book work.
52) Where do you source your materials?
RTU: Nearly all of my glass comes from a family church renovation or broken windows/lamps given to me by friends. Over the years I’ve become the community member to contact if folks have junky stained glass pieces to get rid of. I disassemble old items and turn them into new suncatchers. I buy my copper tape and solder at a local craft store in Des Moines and go to The Stained Glass Store in Grimes when I need to purchase glass for specific customer requests.
53) Do you have any advice on running a business?
RTU: Figure out where you can go cheap, in order to splurge in other areas. For instance, I created my logo using a free app and I stamp my own business cards on discarded cereal boxes. Keeping my marketing costs low early on allowed me to invest in nicer equipment.
54) Do you have any advice on sourcing materials?
RTU: If you’re a handmade business and you have the storage space, never say no to taking other people’s cast offs. Free materials are priceless. Literally.
55) How fast did you start to get customers?
RTU: Very slowly at first with my online business. I did a lot of small town craft shows and farmer’s markets to build up a customer base. Over time I had repeat customers that would search me out and order my work online. Once I started getting semi-regular orders from repeat customers, I became more prevalent in Etsy searches. My sales started to snowball after a while, must have had something to do with Etsy’s algorithms.
56) When did you know that you could make a living doing what you do?
RTU: I knew I could make a living at my art, when a couple years ago I started getting enough orders that I was working at my art 8 hours a day plus weekends.
57) What metrics or analytics do you track?
RTU: How many views my Etsy shop gets, how much interaction my social media posts receive.
58) What is a personal goal of yours?
RTU: Have an amazing garden and learn to can.
59) Do you have a favorite store?
60) What is your favorite state in the Midwest?
RTU: Iowa, 100%.
61) What state in the Midwest are you in?
62) What is your favorite thing about the Midwest?
RTU: I love that the midwest has 4 distinct seasons. Also, people are typically nice and it’s a great place to raise kids.
63) Have you traveled to any other states in the Midwest?
RTU: Yes, quite a bit when I had more time to train for races. I’ve ran marathons and halves in all of the surrounding states.
64) What is your favorite state to travel to in the Midwest?
RTU: I enjoy relaxing in the Ozarks, but not running- way too hilly for me.
65) What is your favorite place to visit in your state?
RTU: Ledges State Park.
66) Have you ever been to your state’s capital?
RTU: Yep, seems like most kids in Iowa go there on a field trip around 4th grade.
67) What is your favorite part about your state’s natural environment?
RTU: All of the green in the summer. We lived out west when my husband and I were first married and besides our mothers’ cooking, what we missed more than anything was leaves, corn, grass and humidity.
68) What is your favorite season?
RTU: Summer, but spring is probably my most anticipated.