Real Talk With Mary Beth Russo & Becky Brady of UPstudio

upstudio founders
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I’ve always thought I had an overflowing plate, but since interviewing Mary Beth Russo and Becky Brady, best friends, co-workers, and business partners at UPstudio, I’ve realized I can’t hold a candle to all they manage to do on a daily basis. If you think you simply can’t make your side hustle dreams happen, these women — mothers, wives, and general wonder women — will inspire you to give it a go.

Names: Mary Beth Russo & Becky Brady
Location: Raleigh, North Carolina
Title: Co-founders and two-woman machines
Company: UPstudio
What it is: Planner and organizational tool company

How did you discover and define your mission for UPstudio?

Mary Beth: Becky and I work together at our day jobs as an Architect and Structural Engineer. We had both confided that we were searching for some sort of creative outlet. One day at work, we were chatting about our new planners and how we can never find the perfect one, always sacrificing something. The light bulb went off, “we could design and create the perfect planner,” UPstudio was born. Our goals have grown and become more defined, but our key mission has always been simple, clean, and versatile design.

Becky: First, we should probably define what our mission is. We don’t have an official mission statement listed on our website, but all of our conversations and decisions are based around creating quality products for reasonable prices, that are versatile enough to be used by people in all walks of life. Our greater mission is to be servants – to our God, to our communities, and to our customers. We aren’t big enough at this point to be able to contribute loads of money to charities (although we’d love to do this), but we try to make small steps where we can – for example, we offer to give a free Everyday Card with envelope to anyone who is planning to send a note to a veteran or active-duty military member.

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced starting your own business?

MB: Staying focused on why you are doing what you are doing. We have learned a ton of new things since we started UPstudio, we have learned to wear a ton of different hats. You start a company wanting to design planners, and you think that will be your biggest endeavor. But it isn’t, it is setting up your business correctly, branding your company, designing a website, finding a reliable printer, becoming photographers and videographers, and tons of marketing. It quickly turns into juggling a lot of different things and every day is a challenge to stay true to why you started this whole adventure: to design the perfect planner.

B: Trying to strike a balance between our full-time jobs, families, personal time, and running a business. There has been zero time that our company has been formed that one of us hasn’t been pregnant, so working around schedules of newborns and toddlers is also a big challenge. We’re still waiting to officially have our champagne toast to celebrate launching our business!

What would you say has been the biggest surprise of starting and running UPstudio?

MB: How hard it is to reach your market. Every product we design we love and personally use (and would buy). So we know our market pretty intimately, but we are still struggling to break through. We ask ourselves all the time, “If I were selling to myself, how would I reach me?” We try every answer we come up with.

B: How much we’ve learned! We are an architect and engineer by day, so learning to create a business, run a business, and the ins and outs of all of our products and how they’re made are all new ventures for us. You wouldn’t believe how much research goes into every step. You want to know about the difference between a P.O. box and a UPS box? We can tell you. Saddle stitch and perfect bound covers? We’re your girls.

What does a typical day look like for you?

MB: I wake up around 6 a.m. I use to be out of the door in 15 minutes, but with a baby, it has somehow turned into just under two hours. I leave the house at about 7:45 a.m. and head downtown to work. Becky and I work right on the main downtown drag of Raleigh. I arrive at my desk at about 8:15ish. Being an engineer by day mostly consists of sitting at a desk running calculations or sitting in meetings coordinating with architects. Our office gets great lighting, so I can sneak quick blog post or product photos for UPstudio in during lunch. Becky and I are fortunate to be able to easily communicate during the day to make decisions and just talk through things if need be. Another aspect of our relationship is that we also work on the same projects at work frequently, so we see a lot of each other. I work till about 5:30 and then head to pick up my son at school, get home about 6:30 and then it is hardcore family time until 8 when my little guy goes to bed. Then I have about an hour to focus completely on UPstudio before I have to get everything ready for our family for the following day. Rinse and repeat five times.

B: I wake up around 6:30, get myself and my daughter ready for the day (this task is shared with my husband), take her to school, and get to work around 8:00. I work at my day job as an architect from 8:00 – 5:00 and use my lunch hour either as a break or to catch up on UPstudio work (draft a blog post, pick up samples from our printer, have a meeting with MB, answer these questions for an interview), get home between 5:30 – 6:00, make dinner and eat with my family, play with my daughter, get her ready for bed (task again shared with my husband) and in bed between 8:00 – 8:30. Get lunches ready for the next day, then depending on what’s going on, either work on UPstudio items (whether that means having a late meeting with MB or sitting down at the computer to work on product designs, or posting on social media, or catching up on emails and contacts) or spend time with my husband, most likely binge-watching something on Netflix, or playing a board game if we’re feeling really crazy. Go to bed, time varies. (But I’ll have a newborn in a few more weeks, so throw this schedule out the window completely!)

What’s it like to juggle a new business, your careers, and your personal lives all at the same time? Do you have any advice for other women facing the same juggling act?

MB: It is a daily struggle, lots of demands on your time. Having a newborn at home doesn’t help. The best advice I can give is make your priorities, and stick to them. Know what is important to you, and set goals. I know that everyday my faith and my family come first. So I make sure I’m giving my best on those fronts first, and then prioritize the remaining time for everything else, which means extreme multi-tasking, never having time to myself, and late nights. But that is what it takes to launch a start-up, and it is busy and chaotic, but exciting and extremely fulfilling all at the same time.

B: This is a true struggle, built in with a lot of stress and feelings of guilt, but also feelings of being really, really happy. First of all, there is absolutely no way I could do this without my husband. We generally split all work 50/50 and he really picks up my slack at home when I need to dedicate more time to UPstudio. MB and I had countless conversations about needing a creative outlet and something hands-on that we could control. When we had our initial thought to start a company it was daunting, but we both wanted to do it. Sometimes we each start to feel overwhelmed. When we do, we try to take breaks where we can and recharge. One of us may do more work at a certain time than another, but it balances in the end. We are both happy working at UPstudio, creating new products, learning everything from marketing to production to web design to types of paper. My advice for anyone else juggling the same act is that it’s ok to take a break. It’s easy for me to say this because I have a partner that backs me up, but sometimes you just need that rejuvenation. Also, remember why you are doing this in the first place: for me, there are selfish reasons in that I really wanted to do something for myself, but I also want to prove to my daughters that I can do this, and show them that an empowered woman comes in all different forms.

If you could have given yourself a piece of knowledge or advice when you started, what would that be?

MB: Be patient. Everything won’t happen as quickly as you think it will. Everything takes time and research and patience. Over the past year, our definition of success has really changed. With one year under our belt we definitely have a more realistic outlook.

B: It’s ok to not know what you’re doing. If you’re really interested in something or really want to achieve it, you will learn how to do it. Nothing can hold you back but your own self-doubt. Start somewhere and the rest will fall into place, or in other words, fake it until you make it.

Now that you’ve finished your first planner launch, would you change anything about the way you started UPstudio or prepare yourself in a different way?

MB: Once we started branching into the world of resell with our planner, we quickly realized time-wise that we were behind the eight ball. We learned that most stores decide on their planners during the second or third quarter. So we are working hard to get everything ready earlier this year!

B: Marketing, marketing, marketing! We didn’t line up enough shows or make enough contacts before our planner launch so we worked our tails off trying to reach people after the fact. We ran into some unforeseen setbacks during production, so we didn’t have planners in-hand until November and that was way too late. We needed product in-hand earlier to be able to sell it, not just the idea of it.

What’s it like to work with a good friend? How do you manage to keep it both professional and friendly at the same time?

MB: The line is always blurred for us. We go from talking about pricing of cards to pregnancy woes in one sentence regularly. Luckily, the balance between business and personal was natural for us. In order to get a company off the ground, I’d argue you need both aspects because at the end of the day you both need to be equally inspired, driven, and excited about your company, your goals, and your product, and that takes knowing your partner personally and sharing in their struggles and successes.

B: So far so good! The advantage for us is that we’ve worked together before in our day jobs, so we understand each other’s styles and how to work together. Honestly, we work well together, and we knew that going in. MB handles the business side, and I head up the design side, but we don’t make decisions without going over everything with the other person. One of us will create a starting point and we’ll review it together, make corrections and adjustments, and go from there. We both feel invested in all aspects even though we have specific roles.

Would you recommend going into business with a friend to others?

MB: I definitely would, with the caveat of make sure to choose the right partner. You want someone who balances you, you want someone you communicate well with, you want someone you can be completely honest with, and you want someone who shares your priorities, not just in business, but in life. With the right partner, the pros definitely outweigh the cons: They hold you accountable, they help you generate ideas, they help you finesse your own ideas, they inspire you, they can pick up your slack, you have someone to share everything with (the good and bad), they usually have strengths in areas you do not, they split the financial cost, the list goes on…

B: Yes, but with a caveat – it has to be the right friend. Are your styles similar, or complementary? Will you work well together? Are you afraid to tell the other person when you disagree with something? Are you able to concede and make compromises with each other? Working with a friend is great, but just make sure to schedule time into your meetings to talk about personal things too, because that’s pretty much inevitable.

What’s your best piece of advice for others trying to establish a brand on social media, like Instagram?

MB: Be active. You can’t just post and forget about it, you really have to interact. Like other people’s posts, comment on their posts, etc. But invest the time and really contribute when you comment. Don’t just self-promote, start a conversation.

B: You can’t post enough. We are by no means experts at social media, but we try to stage anything that we post (at least minimally), and post anytime there is an announcement, blog post, new release, show, etc. with posts in-between that as well. We want to be able to become a resource for others doing the same thing as us, so we may have some posts focused on lessons learned, behind the scenes, or inspiration. It’s also important to not just be a ‘brand,’ but to feel real to people, so we try to throw in some personal things every now and then too.

What are your hobbies? What do you do in your non-work time?

MB: Haha… what non-work time? Between a baby, a full-time job, and UPstudio, hobbies aren’t really an option right now. But things I enjoy doing are renovating and updating our house, shopping for awesome vintage stuff (estate sales are the bomb diggity), and hunting down great deals of all varieties (I’m a sucker).

B: Non-work time? What is that? Only kind of kidding, but once I do feel like I have time to spare, it goes to my family, and we like to do things together. We go to football games, take walks, go to the park, go on vacations, go to concerts, etc. My husband and I are also continuously working to update our home, which we try to do in spurts. In any time that I have to myself, I enjoy reading and watching guilty pleasure TV shows (Hart of Dixie, I’m looking at you).

Who/what inspires you in work and in life? Are there any books, movies, or a specific person?

MB: I’m so bad at these kinds of questions. I feel like I can never pinpoint one person, book, movie, or idea when it comes to inspiration. I find inspiration everywhere. So many people in my life inspire me daily. I see their strength in areas where I am weak often, and it impresses me and makes me want to be better; more gracious, more patient, more faithful.

B: No one specific thing wins over another, but I am most inspired by others who are in the same position – young entrepreneurs juggling life and not giving up on their dreams, particularly women. I love to look at the work of other designers and pull inspiration from them – both current and in the past. I’m a big fan of Charles and Ray Eames, and especially Ray, who was less vocal, but just as important as her husband. Since I’m the introvert of our team, I appreciate seeing other introverts making a quiet difference.

How do you define success?

MB: Being proud and excited about what you have accomplished.

B: Success is a feeling of satisfaction and peace. Even if you’re stressed about multiple things, if at the end of the day what you are doing makes you happy, then that is a success (work, working multiple jobs, stay at home, any or all of it!)

What’s next for you?

MB: Right now in the thick of things, it’s hard to think about what’s next. In life: Getting the chaos under control. I’m managing it well, but some days it is a cluster. In UPstudio: We’ve got lots of ideas for new products and directions, we’ve planned this year out in quarters regarding what we plan to conquer. So far we are right on track. We hope all the marketing and laying of foundations we have worked on this past year pay off, and we only grow! Cheers to bigger and better things!

B: Next for me personally is to have this next baby and settle into life with a family of four. For UPstudio, we have a lot of exciting new products coming out this Spring! We can’t wait to share what they are, and you may have seen the beginnings of some that are already released with the Vintage Collection. In addition to those, we’ll have some refreshes of current products with new designs, some new accessories, and completely new lines. Big things are happening here!

What’s your favorite thing to do each morning?

MB: My son always wakes up smiling and happy. Hanging out with him before I go to work is definitely the best part of my morning. Really helps me start the day off right, happy and silly. Reminds me not to take myself too seriously.

B: This is tough because I’m not a morning person most days… I would say the drive to my daughter’s school is my favorite thing, because we’re past the rushing-to-get-out-of-the-door point, and we can just talk in the car.  Conversations with a 2 ½-year-old?  Hilarious.

Whats your #1 organizational secret?

MB: I’ve learned that it is easier to maintain organization than to binge-organize once things have gotten out of control. So, put away that laundry right when it comes out of the dryer and stop procrastinating, you’ll thank yourself later.

B: Don’t put things off for later when you can do them now.

What’s your power item? Something you can’t leave the house without?

MB: My planner, it is my life line. I keep all of my lists, meeting minutes, appointments, scribbles, everything. My life is pretty busy and one of the best ways for me to manage everything is with daily to-do lists.

B: Typically my phone, because I can market, work from it, and coordinate with my husband who is picking up the milk at the end of the day.

Who do you think of when you hear the word “success?”

MB: I feel like my definition of success changes when I move between each aspect of my life. If we focus on UPstudio, I typically view success through the eyes of other Raleigh ladypreneurs like Ashley Christensen, Holly Aiken, Sarah Yarborough, the list goes on. If they can make their dreams come true in our small town, so can we.

B: No way I can choose just one person.  This is very much dependent on what I am dealing with at the moment.  If it’s in relation to UPstudio, then I think of other entrepreneurs who are living out their dreams.  If it’s in relation to parenting, then my parents (funny how you appreciate things more and more as you get older) or any single parents (I don’t know how they do it – total rockstars).  If it’s in relation to ice cream, then the options are limitless (I love it all, so any is a success!)

Last modified on December 19th, 2016 at 3:17 pm

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