Megan Steffen

Megan Steffen

Show Details

In this episode, we explore Art and Entrepreneurship as I chat with Megan Steffen, an artist, business owner and entrepreneur of Dishique, a tabletop and giftware company in Chicago, Illinois. Megan is such an inspiration as she shares her journey of creativity, tenacity and an urge to always do something more with her life led her to convert a hobby into a thriving and successful business.

Megan shares her tips for becoming successful in any industry – work hard, stay motivated, seek advise and help as and when you need it and follow through on your dreams.

Show Notes

Karthika interviews Megan Steffen, owner and founder of Dishique, a tabletop and giftware company in Chicago, Illinois. Megan shares her journey of how an itch to do something unique and her creative talents as an artist has become a thriving and growing business over the past several years.

Megan shares her perspectives on how entrepreneurs who juggles a lot of different roles can try to maintain balance by really focusing on being present in the moment in whatever they are doing – work, play, create or spent time with family. This ensures that all those different roles are met with the success they deserve.

Dishique is ready for its biggest year yet and we cannot wait to celebrate all of Megan’s much deserved successes.

The Transcript

Karthika: Welcome Megan, thank you so much for joining me on CulturallyOurs today. I’m so excited to be chatting with you and I cannot wait to dig into your entrepreneurial journey.

Megan: Yes, I’m so excited. Thank you for having me.

Karthika: Oh, absolutely. So before we begin, can you maybe just tell us a little bit about who you are, where you’re from, just to sort of set the stage for our conversation?

Megan: Sure. My name is Megan. I own a tabletop and gift business called Dishique. We manufacture different products anywhere from state themed platters to custom kids piggybanks. We sell them on our website and to different wholesalers around the country. I live in Chicago or actually in Park Ridge, Illinois, which is a suburb of Chicago and we work in another suburb nearby where our studio is. I’m not originally from Chicago but moved here for a job after school. I grew up in Alabama and went to school at Georgia and then moved up to Chicago for a job where I worked for about eight years full time there and started Dishique on the side for, Oh man, maybe three years or so, just as a part time hobby and then left that full time job to work full time at Dishique and sort of coordinated it when I started growing our family. My husband is originally from Chicago, so that has sort of kept us local in the area. And we love it here.

Karthika: I didn’t realize this was started as a side hustle and it’s an amazing business now. I know you and I have met prior and I’ve seen all your amazing work. So how did this hobby /side hustle transition to what it is today?

Megan: Sure. So I get asked this quite a bit because it’s sort of a obscure line of work and I just sort of giggle thinking about the journey getting here. It was very much of a hobby and like I said, I had a full time job and I was just experimenting. I think I always sort of had a, an itch to do something else creative. I mean my full time job was creative, but there was still something missing and I am kind of a busy body so I wanted something to play around with in the evenings. I always like to draw, sort of experiment different ways to utilize some of my art and we came across the act of decorating porcelain and I remember the first time I took something out, we actually drove to Wisconsin and used this kiln that these two  little ladies had. I just sort of borrowed it to test out some pieces and I remember driving up there and picking it up and I was so excited. When I pulled it out of the kiln and it was like Christmas morning it was like, I can’t believe I made, this is amazing.

Megan: So that definitely set the stage. And then I made something for a friend, she had a baby, I made her a piggy bank, I made a plate for a friend moving away and then it has just sort of steam rolled into where we are today.

Karthika: So you started off as just doing artwork, you said you were creative and you kind of liked to draw and all of that stuff. And how did you think about, like you said, putting it on porcelain. I’m just trying to understand the thought process behind taking an idea and actually making it into like a product. What was the logic behind it?

Megan: I remember watching all sorts of youtube videos and then I remember going into a store and seeing like a mug with a decoration on it. I’m just curious like how did they do that? And so then I investigated more and realize that you needed a kiln and then you needed to decals and then you apply the decals and then fire them. And then I think what really sold me on the idea is my husband. He was  my fiancé at the time. He was sort of curious about it as well. Just the fact that there was this big piece of machinery and it was a kiln. He had some interest in it. So it was something that we were both curious about.

Karthika: I love it. So it’s basically curiosity and youtube videos, which is a great place to start anything actually. There’s nothing you cannot learn and everything on youtube these days. Let’s talk about industry and the space. The creative field is exploding in so many ways, but specifically for what you do, how is the competition in your area.

Megan: Sure, so we definitely have competition out there. There are other people that make state and city themed product, which is a big part of our business. There are also other people that make custom children’s gifts, which is also another part of our business. There are all those people, but I think there are few that do the scope of what we do and I think the other part to what we offer is that we actually designed the products in house so we’re able to customize. If you see something on the website and want to change the color or the font we are able to offer those types of things, which is gives us a little bit of advantage in the space.

Karthika: So that personalized appeal and you said that you do a lot of the artwork yourself, right?

Megan: Correct

Karthika: So would you say that’s kind of your uniqueness. I mean that’s your differentiating factor.

Megan: Definitely. The other key part of that is that we actually decorate everything in house. So that means that we apply the art to the porcelain and we fire the kiln. Whereas for a lot of people that may be outsourced or done overseas or that sort of thing. But we’re literally making each piece in house, so that allows us to offer that customization.

Karthika: Thats fantastic. Now, how many years have you been in business and how has this ride been so far for you?

Megan: So I, I feel like whenever people ask me that, my answer is always like about four years. And I’ve probably been saying that for about eight years. Been saying the same answer, so it’s probably been seven or eight years. But again, the first three years, it was a complete hobby, but the last three years this has been my full time job and we have a space and are really devoted to it.

Karthika: That’s excellent. Now I feel like sometimes as a people, as a culture, we, especially us entrepreneurs, we don’t celebrate the successes in our lives. We are always looking for like the next goal, the next task. So maybe before we go further into this, can we just take a moment and celebrate the successes that you’ve had? In these seven, eight years of your business, what has been some of your proudest accomplishments, Meghan?

Megan: What a great question and you are right, we don’t ask that a lot. One of the things that I’m most proud of and probably the biggest hurdles that I have overcome, but when we had overhead for the first time. We moved into a space that’s sort of a scary undertaking. But we’ve been so comfortable there and I’ve made it ours. Its a warehouse and a studio space. So we pay rent for the first time. And that to me was rewarding. Making a jump to owning space. And we have sustained it. The other big thing that I find rewarding is having a staff you know, each time that I hire someone new, obviously it’s about finding the right fit and all of that, but the fact that I’m able to provide them with work and that is something that I’m pretty proud of.

Karthika: Yes, that’s incredible. Did you ever think starting off that this is kind of where you would be?

Megan: No, it makes me giggle because there are many days when I wake up and I’m like, how did I get here? We are in business, we are growing and so thats really exciting.

Karthika: For sure! Now just on the flip side, what are some of the challenges? What are some of the downs and how have you sort of overcome them? What is your personal sort of motto or mantra in overcoming these huddles? And we all know as entrepreneurs we have our ups and we have our downs, so how do you get through them?

Megan: One of the biggest things that I’ve found in owning a business and a creative business is just staying on track. I’m a creative mind. I like to create so I’m always looking for creative ways to add to the business and quite often you know, it may be varying from what’s best for the business or introducing a new product that doesn’t necessarily fit within our realm or or that sort of thing. So I think one of the biggest hurdles is just staying as a focus leader and just to keep it going.

Karthika: That’s very interesting. Yeah, you’re right. With us creatives, what’s the next project? What’s the next creative thing I can do. You want to explore, you want to get those juices flowing and staying on track is hard. So do you kind of talk about it with the team? Do they have any input or are you kind of by yourself making these decisions? Yes, let’s move forward or no, let’s not do this even though I really want to do it.

Megan: A lot of times I will make my own decisions. And I think it’s best to have a knowledge in and you learn as you go, but have a little bit of business knowledge and make some decisions that are based on financials and run the numbers before you before you dive in.

Karthika: Excellent! Now in terms of support, you just said something, right? You’re making these decisions. Yes you have data and analytics to back it up but at the end of the day you are at the helm of your shop. So what does your support system look like? I mean, who do you kind of turn to? Obviously  your husband and your family probably are right up there, but do you have any other mentors or people that you can rely on to kind of guide you a little bit?

Megan: You know, I definitely leaned on lean on my team. I’ve got some great employees here that I will run some decisions by and that’s helpful. And certainly, like you said, my husband will turn around and he loves to weigh in when he can and that’s all great. Its definitely been a lonelier journey than I think I realized, but I’ve certainly met people both in the industry and also just other entrepreneurs through some different classes and what not and just from being in the industry and going to trade shows that have been helpful to meet. And quite frankly, helpful in that I can a quick idea by.

Karthika: Yeah, for sure. Now you said industry peers, so let’s maybe talk a little bit about that just because I know in different countries the support system is very different and we’ve heard from a lot of people from outside the states where they don’t have this support and they don’t have this mentorship. But I think being in the US we do have access to some great programs. So have you found that there’s a lot of support from a community, from a non for profit or even, you know, kind of government programs that you can kind of access as an entrepreneur and maybe perhaps as a female entrepreneur?

Megan: So there’s a program here in Chicago called Score and they offer mentorship and I’ve been so fortunate to have met a lovely mentor through that program. Its gotten away from me a little bit, but we were on a lovely schedule of meeting once a month and, you know, running through everything from financials to new products and that sort of thing and she actually had some background in the industry. So that was super helpful. I’ve also taken, through the women’s business development center class, their scale up program, which is sort of a business based class, and that’s been helpful and we’ve met a lot of entrepreneurs through that. And then I also did the Goldman Sachs 10,000 small businesses program and again, another business program. It’s a free program. It’s put on by Goldman Sachs and you apply to get into it. You have to meet some criteria that they set out but that was a great program as well.

Karthika: So a lot of great sort of resources that you’ve tapped into or we have available to tap into. Right?

Megan: Yeah. And I think the biggest thing that I could say about that is when I first started and even, a year and a half ago, things were all going great. And then it just got to a point where this thing was growing, and I was asking myself now what do I do now? My background is in art. I don’t know how to run a business and how to find employees I need help. That was sort of a big thing to get to that point and say that I need some help here. So to turn to some of those programs was really nice.

Karthika: Excellent. Let’s talk motivation, mindset, growth unlike corporate where somebody else’s in charge, it’s all us. Right? And especially for somebody like you who has staff, you kind of are paying them so they probably using it to pay the bills. So how do you keep yourself motivated and excited for your future? What keeps you going when tough times come around?

Megan: My biggest motivation are my kids. I am so fortunate to be here and have such a flexible schedule that when my son starts preschool, our preschool is a block away. I’ll be able to walk into preschool and have that flexible schedule. Then another big motivation is quite frankly just setting goals for myself. Each year I try to map out a few things that I’d like to accomplish in the year, and it could be anything from expanding social media to gaining x amount of new accounts to getting published in a national magazine or something like that. Just things that I would like to accomplish that I feel like it’s nice to have. And I physically have to write them down. I also have them in the back of my mind so that I know what I would like to do and this is who I am doing it for.

Karthika: Oh, I love those three things. What am I doing? Who is it for? and how am I going to get there. Now how do you balance all this, Megan? I mean you have a full life, you have a successful business, a loving family, and you have all these things. How do you juggle everything?

Megan: That is probably the hardest part for me because I don’t like to fail at anything. But this past year has been interesting and it’s been a test to my capabilities and quite frankly, I think it’s surprising to see what we’re all capable of. But I think one of the biggest and possibly the most helpful thing is, is try to devote my time fully to something. When I’m at work, I’m at work and this is work time and I’m devoted to work. When I’m at home I try to commit my time fully to my kids and you know, not respond to emails when they’re around, not take phone calls when they’re around. I do a lot of that when in the evening when they’re asleep after bedtime and save a lot of that for them. But I think the biggest thing is quality time and essentially quality over quantity. The time that I’m spending with my kids is time that I’m spending with my kids. The time that’s with my husband is the time with my husband and the time at work is, is for work.

Karthika: I love it. I wish I was more disciplined. I tend to be a little all over the place at times and my daughter is now 13 and for her to tell me, mom put your phone down and I’m like, oh no.

Megan: Don’t get me wrong. I mean my daughter is 10 months and she is gravitating towards the phone because she knows that it’s how we face time and how we talk. It’s amazing what they pick up quickly. But it’s a conscious effort every day.

Karthika: No, I’d definitely be putting that into my learnings because you’re right, being present at that moment no matter what is important. That moment, it’s even valuable from a quality perspective, right? Then you’re much more focused at work, you’re not distracted and when you’re with your family and your kids, you’re dedicated to that time.

Karthika: Let’s talk specifics because I know a lot of times when people listen to other people in business, they always want to know numbers and specifics because it helps sort of them figure out where they are with respect to their scenario. So however you are comfortable sharing, let’s just kind of go through some specifics. How long have you been been in business and how long have you been profitable?

Megan: I think we’ve been in business seven years now, again, started as a hobby. But we have been profitable since day one.

Karthika: That’s awesome. How have you pivoted? Have you pivoted in like the products, the services since you’ve established and if you have then how does that pivoting process look like? Like what, what decisions do you make when you decide to do something different?

Megan: Sure. And that’s a really great question for me in particular because that was sort of my motto from the beginning. Again, I’ve got a creative mind and one of the big things that I struggle with is staying focused. When I first started it as a hobby, and then there was a point when I realized, okay, I think this is growing. Maybe it could be a business I had to make the decision. And I remember telling my husband this and I came home and I’m like, you know what, we’re just gonna try a bunch of different things. I’m going to throw a bunch of things out there and whatever sticks is where we’ll go with the business, which is probably the worst business decision that someone would tell you in school, but it is what grew us. I’ve followed the sales. We tried a handful of things and some of which we still do and if I was really following the numbers should maybe cancel out, but they fulfill something else for me. That’s not necessarily number based, but there’s definitely been a change in focus towards our products and growing our wholesale portion of the business. It’s our fastest growing portion of the business. So we’re selling our products to different boutiques around the country and focusing our efforts there. We’ve seen a large amount of growth in the last couple of years.

Karthika: I love when you said that sometimes it’s not about the numbers, it satisfies something else. And I think spoken like a true creative because, you know, we always want that creative part of our brain or our body to feel like it’s producing and achieving something. You’ve been in business, you’ve been profitable, you know the numbers, but sometimes it’s not just the numbers, it’s not just the money, it’s the, it’s why you were in business in the first place. So I love that you acknowledged that and that’s still a part of overall for Dishique. Now you said you have a staff and so can you tell me what that is like, especially for a small business for an entrepreneur. How is that process been for you in employing people, finding the right people? What do you look for?

Megan: Sure. I think the process has been overall good. I have people that have been with me for years and sometimes it doesn’t work out and it just varies. I think the biggest component in an employee at Dishique is self motivated. I run a very relaxed shop and I think it’s part of being a creative. We listen to music and you can be on your headphones and all sorts of casual rules like that, but the biggest thing is just if the work is done. Just come in, get the work done and move on. And I’m not the type of boss to micromanage and fill out the quota for the day. Obviously we’re in manufacturing so there’s some importance on that, but I found that if the person’s not self motivated then it’s just not gonna work out.

Karthika: And how do you judge the self motivated?

Megan: Sure. I’m still still trying to figure all that out. There’s no one question in an interview that I think will give you that good answer, but I’ve found that if employees have some sort of creative juice and curiosity, then typically it works out. Because what we’re doing is we’re manufacturing product and a little bit about the process sometimes. Obviously there’s some skill to applying the art and sometimes it doesn’t turn out. And obviously we want to minimize our waste costs to the company, but I found that if someone is creative and curious about that process, then they want to do good work. So I think when they’re able to take ownership over the pieces that they make and that sort of thing, then it turns out better.

Karthika: Now where do you invest most of your time? Is it in marketing, sales or production or ideation or all of the above?

Megan: So I quite frankly get bogged down with a lot of the accounting things right now, which I’m sort of in the transition of trying to figure out how I can pass that on as we grow. For instance, entering orders, some customer service, some payroll and tax things. And then I try to save a lot of the creative projects for when I am home and in the evenings as that works well for me. And a lot of those, at least beginning parts of those creative projects, I will start at home.

Karthika: Okay. Now let’s talk a social media. How important is social media for you as a business and in the space that you are in or do you kind of rely more on maybe some traditional forms of marketing? Like what of mouth or ads or things like that?

Megan: Definitely social media is huge and definitely instagram for us because it’s visually based. So that is a constant thing that we’re trying to improve and work on. I also feel like too, it’s the best platform for people to share their products with us. Pictures of those and then in stores we’ll share our products in the stores and whatnot. So it’s a sort of a circular process. They’re on instagram and it sort of comes back to us in those forms. So definitely that is a huge piece of the puzzle for us and it’s a constant battle to keep up with it.

Karthika: Yes. And I’ve spoken to a few entrepreneurs already and trust me, Instagram has come up almost always. So it’s really interesting that the platform that was just for photos now has 1 billion users and businesses are flocking to it. And so there’s definitely some lessons to be learned and it’s interesting to see how it grows and how different businesses are using social media and particularly instagram too.

Megan: Definitely. And even use it to seek out new opportunities. Sometimes I’ll just out of curious type in New Orleans themed gifts or that sort of thing and may seem some see some inspiration there, but also I will find myself in this rabbit hole of finding this new beautiful boutique in New Orleans that would be a perfect Dishique customer and we’ll add them to our contact list. So there’s lots of ways to use it to.

Karthika: Oh for sure! And I love that. Using it for inspiration and also kind of looking for new avenues and new places to launch Dishique. Alright, so perhaps just in the interest of time, I know you and I can chat about this forever. Let’s maybe try wrapping it up with a few questions. What has been your biggest Aha moment, Meghan? What has been the most important part of your journey so far?

Megan: Oh Man. Oh Gosh. I don’t know if I could drum that down to one thing. But I think the biggest thing is just realizing how good it’s been for me and my family. Owning a business is hard and it’s a lot of work and it becomes its own child. But then when I have my own children involved, the fact that I’m able to have the freedom to spend time with them, I feel so fortunate. To just keep that present in my mind is pretty sweet. And don’t get me wrong. There’s definitely days when I have to remind myself this is what I chose, these are all the perks that I have. Most people that work a nine to five don’t have them and that is a big one for me.

Karthika: No, I can imagine. I mean like you had said earlier, motivation, your family and just being able to be a part of that life that is beyond nine to five, but still kind of follow your dreams. That’s a great place to be for sure. If you could go back in time when you first started knowing what you know today, would you do it all over again or would you change something? And if so, what would that be?

Megan: Oh man, thats really good question. And it’s hard for me. I laugh because I think the best thing that I had going is being a little naive about business and this business, a lot of work has to go into it. And quite frankly, more than some jobs would require. So that part is a rude awakening some days. But I think the best thing I had going when I started was kind of being clueless and learning as I go because I think if I knew everything that it would entail, I would have second thoughts.

Karthika: That’s a good way to put it. So what lies ahead for you? Everything that you envisioned it to be. What are your dreams for Dishique?

Megan: This is a really hard question for me and I’m still trying to map it out because I think it’s grown to a point that I didn’t even know we could get here. And quite frankly, the way I’m forecasting this year to be is pretty big for us. It’s bigger than what I thought. So to paint a picture of what I think it will be is really hard. We’re just kind of going with the flow and seeing what flows are and figure it out along the way.

Karthika: No, that’s totally fine. Are you fulling living your dream. Are you living life to the fullest?

Megan: This is all very fulfilling. There are many days when I ask myself if I did not start Dishique what would I be doing? And I just know myself. And my husband won’t always like to chime in because he knows me too well as well, but there would have been something else. Maybe it wouldn’t have been as successful as Dishique. But I would have started something. This is fulfilling for me as a person and it’s fulfilling for me as a creative and it’s also fulfilling for me as a mom. It’s very rewarding to show my kids hard work and going after your dreams. So that entrepreneurial bug has always been with me somewhere deep down, buried among all the other things and it has broken free and come up.

Karthika: Well! thank you so much Megan. I really appreciate it. This has been very insightful and you know, a lot things that I think for me as an entrepreneur too for those ‘Aha’ moments. So thank you so much. I really do appreciate you coming on and sharing your story.

Megan: Of course. Thank you for having me. What fun.

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