Table for Two
A conversation between community builders Amy Thue and Karina Mork
A big part of the Builders Program — and OTA’s mission in general — is to ignite conversation and curate relationships across the region. It is within those genuine connections that we begin to realize our true worth. Perhaps only then can we see that we are capable of bringing our ideas to fruition. We are capable of empowering one another and empowering ourselves.
It merely begins with conversation.
These Table for Two discussions are intentional matches of two community builders, offering a space to talk about their work and bounce ideas, concerns and dreams off one another. These conversations are facilitated by OTA’s CEO, Hugh Weber, but the two builders are driving, and it’s up to them where to discussion leads.
Which makes the following conversations insightful, enlightening and a lot of fun. Below is a 40-minute exchange between two small-town business owners, Karina Mork in Glenwood, Minnesota, and Amy Thue in Milbank, South Dakota.
Amy: I came back to Milbank a little over six years ago. I was a stay-at-home mom and wasn’t exactly sure what path I wanted to take. I ended up in the school, as an aid, but they let me teach art, which was so fabulous! I also was in the elementary library. So, part time it was books, part time it was art.
It was great, but it was highly stressful, too. I was getting paid as an aid to do a teacher’s job. Then a position opened up at the hospital in marketing, so I took advantage. But I was really missing art. Without having my art at the school, even though it was with kids, at least I still was creating every day.
Milbank has changed a lot from when I was a kid. I felt like a lot was missing. So, after conversations with Hugh, I decided with my sister to take a leap and open this pop-up shop on Main Street to fill a need that we had to try and find things locally. We lost our Hallmark store about a year ago. There’s a definite need here, and the money is here to support this type of business. Now, it’s trying to figure out the details.
It’s been an adventure! It’s been a huge growth opportunity in my life — for my family, for my sister — it’s exciting, but I’m just in that process right now of, What’s next?
Karina: In sharing your story, I definitely see a lot of similarities. I started out doing event planning in college and that turned into doing that full time for a couple years, but I burned out and couldn’t see myself doing that for the rest of my life. I worked in marketing firms, too, but I missed that interaction of creating for the customer.
So, on a whim, I said, Ok, I’m going to open this store. I intentionally wanted to go to a small town, because I think there’s huge opportunity there. We moved to Glenwood, and I opened the shop in October (of 2012), and I remember sitting there by January and thinking, No one is coming in the doors. Everybody hunkers down in the winter, so what do we do? During that time, there was a lot nervousness — I took this leap, but is this going to work through tough times?
So I started to sew and create these projects and do different things, and eventually, we added new product lines, and I took over another store. Now I go into January, and it’s fantastic, because this is the time when I get to create. This is a slow-down time where I get to enjoy this, and I want to encourage you in that process.
January is really when I start to think big picture and start to redo the focus for the year. We redid the flooring, and last year, we built a studio, but it also is when we paint furniture and develop additional classes and workshops for the customers. It’s diving in to creative work that otherwise gets pushed aside the rest of the year. You begin to relish this time because when a store gets busy, you don’t get that. It’s a wonderful time, because you get to walk in to your store and say, Where do I want to spend my creativity today?
Amy, what’s it been like taking your passion work into full-time work?
Amy: It’s crazy.
A year ago, my sister and I both had sewing machines in boxes. We didn’t even know how to run them. Last May, I got my sewing machine out and said, I have this idea for my girls’ dance recital in two days, and I need to sew something but I needed help because I didn’t even know how to thread my machine.
Now, my sister, just this last weekend, repurposed some Bulldog gear into bibs. It’s shocking to me! It really hits you when you decide, I’m going to do this, and I need to figure out how, then realizing that people are buying them.
I always wanted to create, but I didn’t think I could do it. Now, I’m thinking, What can I do next? That’s exciting.
Both of you focus on this idea of taking a leap. What does taking an entrepreneurial risk like that look like? And how did you get there?
Amy: I have a lot of ideas that I talk about, but most people don’t really listen. This time, when I sat down and said, “We could really do this,” everybody listened, and it made me feel like, Ok! I really have to do this. Everyone was actually buying in, so I have to make this happen. Sometimes, all it takes is permission.
Sometimes, all it takes is permission.
Karina: I was trying to create, but with the position I was in at the time, it wasn’t happening. I wanted to create on my own terms.
The whole concept of having painted furniture in my store — I had never even painted a piece of furniture in my life, but I quit my job to do that, and it was that first afternoon after I quit that I figured it out. I created a whole business plan around it without ever actually doing it. But I knew I would figure it out. It was just a matter of trying and building on resources you have.
Being that bold is a great thing. During that learning process, it’s important that you put out the work that you do first because people will still appreciate that. It doesn’t have to be perfect to put it on the floor. I still created this, and people will love it wherever it is in your creative process. It’s going to make you better as you continue to grow.
Being bold is a great thing.
Karina, what barriers did you have going into a community that you hadn’t lived in before?
Karina: To find a location for retail in a small town is difficult. But it was through connections that I started to build that I was able to even get into a space. You just start by going into the community and talking to people. I had never even met most of the people I was working with to get my business up and running before I moved here and opened. It was a lot of phone calls and emails building that trust.
Going into a small town, you are the new kid on the block. I got to say, “This is who I am. I am creative, and here are all of the things I’m going to do,” versus, if I were to go back home, people would say, I know you, and would be more resistant to accepting the creative you say you are.
Amy, you did go back home. What has that experience been like for you?
Amy: I didn’t ever think I would come back. But we were a long way from our family, and moving back was important so our kids could have their family in the stands or in the audience (during their school events).
But, once we got back, I was expecting it to be different than it was. It was hard, and we are still in that phase. We haven’t really found our place as grown-ups. We haven’t found a core group of friends. It’s been a challenge. This is not the Milbank I wanted to move to. I want my kids to have the experiences I had when I was kid. I finally started those conversations with people who live here, and we’re forming a bond. It’s slowly turning into, “Let’s do something about it.”
The skate park that opened this winter has been fabulous, and they’re talking about frisbee golf this summer for our kids. I’ve been talking to some Main Street business owners, discussing how to get people downtown. Right now, when it’s 1 p.m. on a Saturday, it’s a ghost town. We could have a party on Main Street, and no one would get run over, and I’m trying to run a business!
But, I’m starting to feel a shift. It’s never going to be the same Milbank, but we can make it a better Milbank. I have those preconceived notions of what I want it to be, and I’m trying to get past some of that and make it okay that it’s something different.
It’s never going to be the same Milbank, but we can make it a better Milbank.
You are both young, creative, female business owners, which can be disruptive in a small town. What is that like in the communities you’re in?
Karina: There is a double-edged sword. People come in and say, “We love what you’ve done with the shop!” And the classes are a really great bonding process, and it’s wonderful connection. But in the same sense, as we want to build Glenwood, we need a website and a face to put Glenwood on the map. We need a strong, consistent marketing plan to show that we’re a small community, but we’re awesome. There’s a lot of things going on here!
All those things that you talk about, Amy, that you had as a kid, that pulls on my heart strings, because I’m in that same boat. But how do I come into a community and say, This is how things should be, when other people are holding onto what they had been? It’s tough.
Amy: For me, I’m a grown-up now, but I’m also a creative, and it’s difficult getting the elders to take me seriously. As a creative, let’s just face it, a lot of people do not like the way we think.
Amy: I know I have big idea, but hopefully together, we can come to a common ground. I’m not the 18-year-old who left here. It’s establishing that I’m a professional. That’s a challenge in some ways.
Karina: Both of us are trying to establish ourselves as creatives, to be seen and taken seriously. It’s difficult being a female. A lot of the larger roles on committees and boards are filled by males. Not that that’s a bad thing, but I walked into a meeting recently, and all of the women were on one side of the room, and all the men were on the opposite side of the room. They were discussing a lot of the same things, but they naturally segregated themselves! So I filled up my coffee mug and started talking to some of the guys and then started to mix up the room, but we almost don’t even realize that it’s happening.
What does it look like if your businesses thrive?
Amy: At this point, it’s the small things. By June, our goal is to be open Monday-Saturday, and my sister will manage the store. In my perfect world, it expands to the point that we are both there every day.
My husband is in finance, and he keeps telling me, You need your day job! But in my dream, we are that place on Main Street that is a destination. It’s not just a retail space. We host events, we have a commercial kitchen space, kind of a bakery. Right now, everything is done at night and on the weekends, and it’s a lot of hours, but it’s so worth it, because that’s what it’s going to take.
Karina: It’s really exciting and encouraging to hear you talk about this. Those things that you want are hitting on a lot of my passions and things that I want for my business as well!
They always say three years of business is the make-or-break time, and if you can get past those three years of business, something changes. And I can tell you, there is something that happens, because I don’t think I could’ve had this conversation six months ago. We hit our 3-year mark in October, and the stride just feels right.
How can we be creative in (small-town) communities?
Our moving forward would be a food and cooking store and having a commercial kitchen doing cooking classes and really building community through food. My big picture is actually selling off the businesses that I start, so if I open another one, I’m chomping off and giving portions to other entrepreneurs so I can dig the ground work, and they can build the rest from their own dreams. Eventually, I’m helping to build small businesses for other people across the country, having that small-town heart and feel and asking, how can we be creative in these communities?
What have you learned about yourself in the work that you’ve done recently?
Karina: There is this quote I love, something about, “I want to be the person who is the hot mess, running forward full-steam, take-it-as-it-comes, figure-it-out-as-I-go type of person than just getting by with the status quo.”
I’ve learned that in my creative process, that is the person I am. Let’s build something and create it and make the refining process part of the piece. I would much rather try and fail and build off of that then never put anything out.
Amy: For me, failure is not an option. Pieces of it might fail, and we might have to redirect, but I am just looking at it as it’s not a failure. We just have to learn from it, and I have to be okay with that. It might be Saturday morning at 9 a.m. and everything isn’t perfect, but the doors still have to open.
Failure is not an option.
My perfectionism has to be put aside, and that’s been really good for me and good for my kids to see that. I’m not Wonder Woman — as much as I really want to be — and I’ve had to say no to things, but this has been really good for me.
Karina: You have to know, too, that your perfectionism is also what pushes you to do better and to do more, so it’s a balancing act, because you never want to get rid of that piece of you that says, “This could be great IF …”
But still celebrate where you are now, because it’s a beautiful thing.