"Meet the Maker" is a chance for you to learn more about the talented individuals behind the items we carry at Homespun. This week, meet Chris and Jen Goepfert of The Mad Owl. Working out of their St. Paul studio, Chris and Jen create their line of hand-stamped winter hats and baby onesies. Read on to learn more about Chris and Jen and their artistic, entrepreneurial journey.
Chris & Jen Goepfert of The Mad Owl
How did The Mad Owl get started?
The seeds of our business, including our name, were actually planted way back in the 1980s. As kids we set up a maker “workshop” in our backyard (aka the bushes near our swing set). We found clay on a creek bottom that we dug up and molded into all sorts of pots and figurines, which we then sold door to door for a tiny profit that funded a trip to an amusement park. That entrepreneurial spirit is the foundation of our business today. We also have a long-running inside joke that started at that age that served as the inspiration for our business name.
Fast forward to present day when Jen had twins and started making clothes and bibs for them out of fabrics that aren’t traditionally associated with baby clothing. Friends and family started requesting her creations. Chris was eager to help, but sewing is not her cup of tea. Eventually the two of us started to experiment with carving stamps. Using artwork created by Jen’s husband Travis, we taught ourselves how to carve and experimented with stamping baby clothes. It was a lot of trial and error as we tried several ways to stamp directly onto cotton, but we were never satisfied with the results. Chris came up with the idea that we should stamp on a separate material and sew it onto the clothes, resulting in our current line of stamped patches for the baby bodysuits. We loved the way the muslin patches looked, as did adults who wanted items for themselves.
Hand-stamped patches have become the central focus of our work now. We have grown our stamped-patch line to include baby bibs, winter hats, slouch hats, and wristlets, in addition to the baby bodysuits, each with a cute or funny saying. We moved our operation into a spare bedroom at Jen’s house and set up a “studio” for our work. Travis created our beloved logo and The Mad Owl’s first official sale as a company was in March 2017, so we are still fairly new.
You're sisters who run The Mad Owl together. What are the best aspects of working together on your business? What's the biggest challenge?
Working with your sister has its pros and cons for sure. We can sometimes be a little less patient and a little more snippy with each other than we would be if we were working with someone we aren’t related to. But on the bright side, we know each other so well, we never take those moments personally. There have been some tense interchanges that would have maybe ended any traditional business partnership, or at least made working together incredibly difficult, but we have spent an entire lifetime navigating each other’s moods and getting to know each other’s ways. Because of that, we are able to continue to move forward and create even on our worst days.
We have different strengths and have figured out how to leverage those, and we work well together and find comfort and peace in our creative partnership. We aren’t sure that process would be easily replicated if we were not sisters who had spent so much time together creating and building our own worlds together as we were growing up.
What inspires each of you?
We both are incredibly inspired by our family. Travis is an unending source of artwork and ideas. We have four other sisters, Angela, Rachel, Katie and Mary, and Jen has a grown daughter, Sarah. These five amazing women have advised us on social media tactics, given us feedback and ideas for sayings and hashtags and new product ideas, and have come to help us at markets. We turn to our family when we are looking for ideas and when we are feeling a little stuck. We wouldn’t be anywhere in this venture without our family.
Jen also finds a ton of inspiration from other artists in Minnesota. She loves to chat with fellow makers at events and online about the creative process. She has found an incredibly warm and welcoming community among Minnesota makers and draws on their positive energy for inspiration and motivation.
Jen hand-carving a stamp of Minnesota.
Describe your creative process.
Jen tends to approach creating in a fairly frenetic and chaotic way and she has a hard time focusing. She has about 100 new ideas a day and is always adding them to a long ongoing “someday” list.
Luckily Chris has a practical approach to the creative process and is able to temper that chaos with reason and focus. She tends to reign us in and get us on track and remind us that we must have a “cohesive collection” of products. She has the talent of taking big ideas and distilling them down into actual products.
We also deliberately spend time gathering ideas and listening to feedback from people. We generate lists of possibilities and “to-dos” while we are out in the real world and then a few times a week, we head into our studio together, block out the rest of the world and focus on creating. This is the place where we bunker down, listen to music on vinyl, or watch Xena, drink beer and make stuff, mostly during the naps and the quiet hours of the night when Jen’s toddlers are sleeping. The creative process arises from the quiet conversations and feeling of calm, close comfort we find when we’re working together.
Winter hats by The Mad Owl.
Do both of you consider The Mad Owl to be a side hustle? And if so, how do you balance The Mad Owl with full-time jobs and/or parenting?
Someday we would love to have The Mad Owl be our main hustle, but for now, we have to fit it in among all of the other things we both do. Chris works full time as an environmental advocate and travels for pleasure whenever she can. Jen is an education consultant in several districts and also has twin toddlers, Eva and Aela. It is definitely a balancing act but we have figured out a pretty good rhythm.
While we dream of someday having our own space somewhere else, right now having our studio inside of Jen’s home has been an incredible blessing. It can be a challenge to get quiet time to work when there are two 3-year-olds running around the house, but at the same time, it is easy for Jen to slip into the studio when they are napping, after their bedtime or when Travis is home and we can get work done without leaving the house. Chris usually comes in the evening to work but she knows she can pop over whenever she needs to get work done (in fact the girls think she lives back there!).
Onesies & hats by The Mad Owl.
Any words of wisdom for fellow makers and artists out there who are also pursuing creative side hustles?
Find your support network. We have a business mentor who just happens to be our Aunt Jeri. She has been a business owner for over 25 years and manufactures leather and other products. She has been a constant source of advice both in how to run a business and how to create products.
We also have tapped into the strong network of other makers online or in person. Creating and making can be isolating and while we know that many makers prefer to work in peace and quiet, when it comes to moving your work forward and making it into a business, we think it is so incredibly valuable to have support from others who are out there in the trenches like you are. Go to events, join online support forums, invite other makers out for coffee. We have made strides because of all of the connections we have made, all of the advice we have been given, all of the questions we have had answered and all of our fans who spread the word and encourage others to support us.
And then make sure you make your workspace a place of refuge. We hit blocks now and then, face rejection from outside, and face self-doubt here and there, but our workspace is such a lovely place to retreat that we keep returning to it time and again. For us, that means a fridge stocked with beer and chocolate and a great collection of vinyl on standby. We hate to use old cliches, but in this case, it’s absolutely true that first and foremost, you should do what you love. When the other aspects of having a business get hard, you will always have the creation process to return to. That part is so unique and personal. Center yourself in your creation process. The rest can be learned as you go.