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Meet Nicole Stevenson of Dear Handmade Life in Orange County

Today we’d like to introduce you to Nicole Stevenson.

Nicole, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
From a young age, I knew that the corporate world wasn’t for me. Nearly everyone in my family is independently employed, and our family ethos of entrepreneurship and creativity was ingrained in me early. I’m not cut out to sit behind a desk under fluorescent lights just working for the weekend. Those types of jobs would always make me think about that scene in Joe vs.

The Volcano where he’d finally had enough with his oppressive office job and launched into a big speech about how short life is. Like Joe, I knew that I didn’t want to sit at a desk, working for “the man.” I wanted to make a living doing something artful, purposeful and filled with passion. I’m Nicole Stevenson, writer, illustrator, maker, teacher, creative business consultant and co-founder of Dear Handmade Life. I can’t recall a time in my life when I wasn’t creating.

I spent many childhood afternoons combating only-child boredom by scrawling poetry and drawings on the inside of my closet door where my mom couldn’t see my own private ‘art gallery.’ When I was nine, I DIYed my first ‘business cards’ with Mr. Sketch scented markers and Mrs. Grossman’s stickers for my first ‘business’: a handmade stationery shop housed in a refashioned refrigerator box in my front yard. In fifth grade, I snuck into the teacher’s lounge to self-publish my first short story on the mimeograph machine.

In high school, my love of making continued when I almost got kicked out of my Catholic girls’ high school for submitting nude sketches for the student art show. (No regrets.) Fast forward to a post-undergrad summer spent on the Venice Beach boardwalk hawking my paintings to tourists that led to nearly a decade designing prints and imagery for my clothing line in my twenties. I juggled running my clothing line, teaching art and crafts to hundreds of children and adults in my own brick and mortar workshop space and other schools while getting a master’s degree in English.

Creating has been not only been present but is the driving force in everything I’ve done over the course of my life. One night in 2007, over margaritas, my Aunt Delilah and I got to talking. We both noticed a gap in the market. I had grown extremely tired of schlepping my handmade wares to the big surrounding cities for markets and shows. And Delilah was looking for fun things to do in Orange County (where we grew up and were both living) that centered around the creative community.

Together, we founded Dear Handmade Life and in 2008, and we hosted our first event – Patchwork Show: A Modern Makers Festival. As with most new endeavors, we started with humble beginnings. Our first show included just 25 vendors, but it was exactly what our town of Santa Ana and its community needed: a way for local artists to showcase their crafts, an opportunity for customers to support local artists and the economy, and a free, family-friendly day outside. I’m proud to say that after ten years, Patchwork Show is as strong as ever. We have grown to six shows annually with over 150+ vendors and artists in each location.

One day on a road trip, location scouting for Patchwork Show, Delilah and I got stuck in bumper to bumper traffic on the 101. We started discussing Patchwork Show but then the conversation evolved into talking about another need we noticed in the independent business community. “I’ve always wanted to inspire fellow business people to take that chance and just do it!”, Delilah said. “I’ve always wanted to take a little crafty vacation where I can get my craft on and share the things I’ve learned with others,” I replied.

We continued to discuss this opportunity as we slowly crept our way up the freeway. We talked about what this “crafty vacation” would look like. We envisioned a place where creatives, makers, artists, and hobbyists could come together for a weekend to learn and craft and network together. A place to really connect and learn in a structured yet inclusive environment.

In 2012, we hosted our very first Craftcation Conference – a four-day weekend at the beach in Ventura, California where we host business classes, craft workshops, self-care exercises, social gatherings, dance parties and most importantly, a safe space to be yourself. Craftcation Conference is a place where makers and business owners can openly discuss their frustrations and seek guidance amongst their peers.

Every year when our community comes together at Craftcation, I am brought to tears daily. This conference that began as an idea in a traffic jam has organically grown and fostered a community of the most inclusive, inspiring group of people I’ve ever seen. The love and support can be felt from the moment you walk in the doors. After seven years (we’re coming up on our 8th conference in April 2019), it doesn’t seem to be losing steam.

In 2017, my long-time business partner and Aunt, Delilah stepped back to focus on her other business, Alta Baja Market (a market and deli celebrating the flavors and makers above and below the US-MX border that doubles as an amazing center for the local community in Santa Ana). While this transition has been an emotional one, I am also very excited for these new chapters in both of our lives, and it has made me reflect on the history of Dear Handmade Life.

I’ve heard people say, “Jump, and the net will appear.” In some ways, I agree. After all, that’s what we did that first year in business. We jumped in and got to work. However, we’d spent years preparing for Craftcation Conference without knowing that Craftcation Conference would ever exist. All the vendors and guests we’d coordinated for dozens of Patchwork Shows, all of our learning we’d done with our individual businesses, the employees we’d managed, the relationships we’d built in our community, the way we’d learned to solve problems quickly…

ALL of that was grist for the mill that became Craftcation Conference which became the cornerstone of Dear Handmade Life. Even though we didn’t realize it, we had been weaving the net on which the Dear Handmade Life of today with our in-person events: Patchwork Show and Craftcation Conference as well as our online offerings: workshops, blog, podcast, and shop would rest on.

That is what people don’t explain about the net. The net is built on your experience, relationships, and expertise in your field. You don’t know if the net is going to hold until you actually use it. So there’s always risk involved. But, if your net is strong, chances are that it will hold. Maybe it will fray here and there, but you’ll be ready with your trusty needle and thread to repair it.

As for me, craft, business, and self-growth have always been my passions so I’m excited to continue to do the work Delilah and I did together here at Dear Handmade Life along with our current and growing team of creative women who inspire me daily.

Has it been a smooth road?
Being a business owner in a creative field is never smooth. There’s no one workshop, connection, event, book or business practice that is the secret to success. Success comes from marrying working smart AND hard which means reevaluating your idea of success often and learning to be ok with the goalpost and how you’re going to get there changing. Before I had Dear Handmade Life, I had several other businesses and what I learned from the mistakes and mishaps from them are the key things that have helped Dear Handmade Life celebrate its 10th anniversary.

Over the years, I’ve had keynote presenters cancel less than 24 hours before our conference, what feels like hundreds of cases of broken A/V equipment from the computers that died in the middle of presentations to generators that fizzled out during a live band performance, samples that didn’t show up to a trade show where I had a booth for my clothing line, a spring line of clothing I designed that totally flopped, in the early years people I had to deal with in the corporate world didn’t me seriously because I was young and wasn’t wearing business casual, employees calling in sick at the last minute, irate customers screaming in my ear and that the time the ovens broke two hours before serving in the kitchen where our staff was cooking dinner for 500 people for our conference, and that’s just a handful that come to mind.

But instead of throwing up my hands and saying “oh well, I guess there’s no dinner, or no keynote or no power points or no band” we got creative. I knocked on doors and asked strangers if we could use their ovens. We called in favors from friends and replaced our keynote. I redesigned that line of clothing that flopped. I took a deep breath and listened to a customer’s point of view and calmly shared mine until at the end of the conversation we were both laughing and had plans to meet for a drink.

There have been more struggles and wrenches thrown into the gears than I can possibly remember, but each and every one of them was a lesson in the hands-on self-taught business school that I didn’t realize I’d enrolled myself in the day I started my first business. No amount of classroom or book learning can replace the first-hand experience of the ups and downs of running of your own business.

Is our city a good place to do what you do?
It’s hard for me to answer this questions properly because our business is based out of multiple cities but here’s a bit about cities and sense of place:

The cities where we hold our events, Santa Ana, Long Beach, Oakland, and Ventura have been so welcoming. We chose these cities because they had a strong sense of place as well as community, an appreciation for the arts and a lack of events like ours.

I love being able to share events they bring people together to support local creativity and business in our host cities.

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