It was a perfect late-May afternoon on the Iowa City Ped Mall when we first met Jessica & Derek Balsley. Jessica – having just presented at EntreFest, Iowa’s awesome annual entrepreneurial gathering – was now enjoying a moment in the sun. The same could be said for the Osage, Iowa, couple’s online-based company, The Art of Education, which provides “ridiculously relevant professional development to art educators”. But whoa! What does that even mean?
“I was working towards my masters degree, and discovered it was nearly impossible to find relevant professional development opportunities out there for art teachers,” she writes on their website, theartofed.com. “Through this personal experience, the idea for The Art of Education was born.”
Jessica clearly saw the opportunity to focus on creating great on-line professional development tools for elementary and high school art educators. Coming from an “artistically supportive” family, she went ahead and resigned from her job teaching 600+ Ankeny school district students and she and Derek – whose background was already rooted in start-up type businesses – got right to it, launching the Art of Education (AOE) out into the world. Oh, and they also decided to move back to small-town Iowa. And were growing their family. Yes, life was busy, but that was important – they could (and can) relate to their customers.
“As a former K-5 Art Teacher, current higher-ed instructor, wife, mother, and entrepreneur, I understand what you are going through every day,” she writes to her customers online. “AOE exists to help empower you to thrive in your profession, to reignite your passion for teaching, and help you discover that one small tweak you can make in your teaching to change your life and career for the better.”
The Art of Education provides web-based services: a digital magazine, online higher education for art teachers, and an online conference model – the latter of which had never been done in the art education world. The idea has taken flight, and the couple is now moving their several-year-old business from a home office into a new space in downtown Osage.
And while the mix of business owner, husband, wife, parent, and boss can be a real juggle, Jessica and Derek wouldn’t have it any other way.
The Art of Education / Osage, Iowa
Name: Derek and Jessica Balsley
Age: 32 and 30
Business: The Art of Education (www.theartofed.com)
Years in Business: 4
Tell us about the “leap” moment. When/how did you decide to jump in and become your own boss?
The process was very gradual. The idea started as Jessica’s blog for art teachers, and we quickly realized we could provide more value if we offered additional products and services which all fulfill the same mission: To provide “ridiculously relevant professional development to art educators.”
Derek’s background in entrepreneurship, marketing and business propelled the small venture into something scaleable. For us, starting a business was something we did in the evenings and weekends while both working full time jobs. We hoped it would one day allow us to move back home to Osage, which it did!
We enjoy working on our business, and it’s truly a family affair. Within two years, we had both quit our day jobs to do this full-time and now have a team of 26 people who work satellite for us.
What’s the best thing about being your own boss?
The freedom and flexibility for our family is really great. Some weeks we might put in 60+ hours and work all weekend long, but we can also quit working on the next Monday at 2 pm and go out on the boat if we want. As a mom, I enjoy picking up my child and not ever missing her events because of work. There is no ‘normal’ day, but it all seems normal to us.
We also enjoy the fast pace in which we can accomplish things working as our own boss. We don’t have to wait for long approval processes and policies that stifle us. If we decide to do something, we can hit the ground running immediately and live or die on our own intuition. This fast pace and accountability is important to any startup and has really impacted our success.
How about the worst?
It can be hard to get away from the business. It comes up in our dinner conversations, family vacations, and everyday life. The business is a big part of our life, and there is no hiding from it, it can be difficult. Up until now, we’ve been working from home, but it’s time to get an office outside our home, to attempt to gain some work-life balance. We are excited for this change.
Was there ever a hurdle where you just thought, “I can’t do this?” How did you overcome it?
For us, hiring the very first person was very difficult. I had the impression that ‘no one could do the job like me,’ but we quickly realized this was the only way to grow. A more focused employee can take the task and go deeper than I ever could. We are all stronger together. I think any business, no matter how large or small, can benefit from delegation in some way. We now live by the motto: “Only do what only you can do.” It helps us refocus our efforts on big-picture thinking, growth, and new-product development while letting our talented team members execute better than we ever could on the every day tasks of running the business.
Any mentors/role models you look to/have looked to?
We believe that our mentors should change as we grow and change. We learn fast and adapt quickly. As we outgrow learning resources we try to have new websites and coaches to follow that will match where we are (or want to be.) ‘Growing out’ of your mentors is a good thing, because you know you are pushing yourself to the next level and need something new to break out of your comfort zone.
What’s the one thing you wish you had known before you started?
You don’t need to ‘have all the answers’ to move forward with something. You can make a decision, and then find a way to make it happen. We’ve learned this over time, and without it, we couldn’t have grown as quickly, both personally and professionally. To have no fear. This is your life. It can be fun, it can be terrifying, but you are the only one who can shape your own life. We feel by starting a business we have taken our life into our own hands in all areas, and it’s empowering.
How do you manage your life/work balance?
This is a constant struggle, but one thing that works well is setting some boundaries. I don’t like to talk about ‘business’ before breakfast or after 9 pm. This allows a bit of time to ‘just be.’ I don’t check my email during these times, either. We also recently moved to the country. This natural outlet has proven to be wonderful for us. It allows us an instant chance to step away from the computer and go 180 degrees in the other direction.
What keeps you inspired? Any quotes that keep you going?
One thing that keeps us inspired is knowing we are changing the world, and accepting the power we have, as two small people with an idea, to do so. When people tell us how our services have truly changed their life for the better, we know the mission is important and we never regret going down this path.
We’ve discovered something that I think most students will never hear from their teachers, and most adults will never hear from popular media. That business, regardless of how it is usually portrayed, is most notably a powerful way to improve the world. To make a difference in the lives of our fellow man. We leverage our business to make an impact for the better… and we make a good living as a result. Talk about a win-win scenario!
One of our favorite quotes, from Steve Jobs, is: “Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”
Life as an entrepreneur, for us, isn’t something we will be leaving anytime soon. We enjoy the lifestyle, we enjoy the leadership and pressure that comes with owning a business, and I imagine in our lifetime we will start many more businesses, both individually, and as a family.
Check out Inspire(d) friend Peter Awad’s Slow Hustle podcast for more fun interviews with Jessica (episode 22) and Derek (episode 12), and great insights into how the couple has built their fascinating and purpose-driven business. While you are there, check out more of the awesome episodes that Peter is creating while traveling around the country with his family – a whole other story!