You spent your 20s working toward building your dream career, but now that you’re in your 30s, what do you do when you’ve, well, changed your mind? Or maybe you never quite figured it out, and you're now ready to commit to something you’re passionate about, whether it’s a job, a city, or just a new way of life. To celebrate the career changes that can come at any age, we launched a series called Second Life. It proved so popular, we launched a Second Life podcast hosted by our co-founder, Hillary Kerr. Each month, we’ll hear from women who got over their doubts and fears and made the biggest changes of their lives.
After 20 years in the same industry, Dana Castle and Michele DeHaven were ready to pivot their successful advertising careers and flex their creative muscles. "We needed to learn something new and be creative in a different way," says Castle. "We also wanted to prove to ourselves that we could launch our own product." This side hustle turned out to be their new "illuminated art" lighting company, Crosland Emmons.
I think anyone who wants to start a business today can. Don’t overthink it. Take it one day at a time, and stop listening to the what-ifs.
So how did it all begin? Well, a few years ago, DeHaven went back to her fine-art roots and started experimenting with ceramics. After working with numerous clients in the architectural and design space, she saw a need for unique lighting that had a more organic and human element. "We also wanted a new challenge to extend our creativity and grow personally after so many years in the business," she tells me.
Interestingly, Crosland Emmons is an addition to their current business, and they utilize the agency and its experienced staff for their PR and marketing. They kicked off the brand with pendant fixtures, but every day, they think of new things they want to create, including floor and table lamps, and wall sconces. "We want to grow it to be a full offering of ceramic items that embodies a true lifestyle brand," says Castle. "We would also like to grow in the hospitality space, working with designers to create a branded look and feel for hotels, from lighting to accent pieces and dinnerware."
Ahead, the dynamic duo discusses their career path from starting their own agency to launching a product and some of the hurdles they encountered along the way.
Tell us about your first career path
DANA CASTLE: Twenty years ago, Michele and I were working together at another ad agency, and after working together on several accounts, we decided we should start our own. We went to Starbucks, wrote a business plan on a napkin, and jumped in. We started slowly, but after a few years of being a general agency, we decided it was time to put our stake in the ground and focus solely on the building and construction industry.
I had a background in the industry because my mom was an architect. I worked at her architectural firm in college doing technical drawings, electrical plans, energy calculations, and more. Michele had experience with clients in the industry from previous work at another agency, so this specialty made sense for us. We loved taking products that were raw and seemingly uninspiring (as some building products are) and creating campaigns that brought these products into a new light. It was really a new direction for the whole industry—that you can make building products interesting, inspiring, and sexy.
MICHELE DEHAVEN: We knew it was going to be a bit of a hard road to start, but we worked tirelessly to get new clients and grow the business. Wearing multiple hats and juggling different roles from the beginning is what became the foundation of our niche agency. Within a year, we had grown to four and moved into our first loft studio, which we decorated with unique items from the local antique market. We eventually grew to 10 and moved into a 10,000-square-foot warehouse that we renovated and designed. Once we decided to specialize, we enjoyed the challenge of marketing a range of architectural and design products by creating differentiators in the market.
How did you make the transition from advertising and construction to design?
MD: It was a natural extension of our agency business as our primary audiences are architects and designers. We have a lot of knowledge and understanding of products in this space. We’ve always loved designing spaces, both in our studio renovations and our homes. Having been in the industry for more than two decades, we have attended tons of architectural and design trade shows, stayed on top of the news, watched companies launch and fail, and of course worked with a number of clients. We were very aware of the products that were out there and where there was an opportunity for something different.
DC: Several of our clients have products we were marketing to the architecture, design, and consumer interiors markets, so the biggest transition for us was learning to switch from communicating about products to being manufacturers of a product. We did this slowly and have made a few mistakes along the way, but we have learned so much. The biggest thing for us was to make sure the market embraced what we thought was a good idea.
Tell us about your current business and your inaugural Bone lighting collection
DC: Over the last few years, we determined that we really wanted to launch our own product. Marketing and communications take a lot of creativity on the strategy and design side, but we wanted to flex our creative muscles on development and see what it was like on the other side. We've gained more insight into the challenges our own clients face internally too.
I have a background in fine arts but never pursued this. However, I always thought I would come back to my passion for being an artist. A few years ago, I started exploring ceramics and took a class in Mendocino, California, working with porcelain. I was hooked after that. As I took more classes, I noticed many of the artists made things without a sense of knowing what to do with them.
So as I continued down the road, I focused on making something utilitarian, that felt useful to the world while still beautiful and handmade.The idea behind Crosland Emmons stemmed from that desire. We wanted each light to have the imprint of the maker rather than being machine-made. The name of the company also has a personal feel, as my middle name is Crosland and Michele’s maiden name is Emmons.
What have been the biggest challenges?
MD: Starting your own business is always a challenge, from gaining clients and building revenue and day-to-day operations. But we have been pretty lucky in that aspect. Client retention is also a challenge for most businesses, but many of our clients have worked with us for over 10 years. This question is a tough one to answer because we enjoy challenges but don’t actually view them as such, which is probably one of our biggest strengths.
DC: Overcoming the fear of supply—of clients, revenue, good projects—has been one of the biggest challenges we have faced. However, since we began working together (and even before), we have never let fear define our path forward.
What's the most important thing you have learned in making a big change in your career life?
MD: We’re really adding on to our career as our agency is still going strong. We’re lucky to have an incredible and knowledgeable staff, many of whom have been with us over 10 years, which allows us to create Crosland Emmons. The most exciting thing we’ve learned is that our creative opportunities are endless. We are excited to take on a new challenge and learn new things through our exploration.
How did you move past the fear of change to pursue your passion?
DC: We usually just jump into things so fast that the fear we should have felt is already in the rearview mirror before we can even think about it.
What are some mistakes you made along the way that ended up helping your success?
DC: At one point, the agency took on a large client that took over our entire staff roster. We felt like they were running us. We were so afraid to lose them because we needed their revenue that we lost sight of some of the fundamental things that were important to us when we began the agency. Pushing the fear aside, we decided to part ways with the client, realizing that big work is not always good work and that “gorilla” clients are not what’s best for who we are.
MD: We’ve learned a lot over the years, but we’ve always believed in staying lean in our company (not having any debt), which allowed us to be agile during the economic downturn. We’ve learned to believe in everything we do and to challenge our clients’ thought process. We don’t like to do work just for revenue and have found that it’s important for us—like the people we’re working with—to build relationships we can feel good about. In earlier years, we had to take work as it came, but now we try to find working relationships that are a good fit and clients we’re actually helping to grow.
What do you love most about your current role, and why?
DC: Creating something beautiful that other people see the beauty in while building our own product and brand.
MD: The creativity, no doubt. It has been so refreshing and exciting every day. Building a brand is our passion, and it has infused us with energy and new experiences. Each day we learn something new. The opportunity to build something brings new challenges and new perspectives for us.
How have things changed since you first started out? Do you think it's easier for women to start their own businesses now?
DC: When we first started out, I don’t think we ever thought of ourselves as women in a man’s world. We just knew we did good work, although I think our clients always found an agency full of women refreshing—we put a new spin on building products. I think anyone who wants to start a business today can. Don’t overthink it. Take it one day at a time, and stop listening to the what-ifs.
MD: We’ve never considered our women-owned business as a challenge. We’ve always felt like we could do what anyone else did. We realized early on that we may have been some of the only women in the industry. There were times we’d be the only two women in a room of 20, but I think we’d both agree we feel any woman can do anything if they believe in it.
Crosland Emmons The Bone Collection Pendant Light (price upon request)
What was it like to work in a traditionally male-dominated field in your earlier careers?
MD: Sometimes it was a challenge. We had to prove ourselves and our knowledge of the industry, as it has traditionally been more of a boys’ club. But we always felt just as knowledgeable as any male clients or counterparts, so we didn’t really focus on that.
DC: We bought a new view of an industry that needed change. I can honestly say I always felt respected and have been treated as an equal no matter who we were at the table with, from the C-suite to the people who worked on the manufacturing lines at the facilities.
What is your message to other women who want to take the leap and start a new creative project?
DC: Be wise, and build the foundation of your business slowly and properly. Make sure you do your homework, and draw out a clear path of the market opportunities and overlay that with your long-term goals to make sure you have a viable business idea. But set fear aside. Jump in, and enjoy the journey. The view looks different every day.
MD: You can do anything you set your mind to. You just have to jump in and do it.