Posts Categorized: Entrepreneurs

More Than a Hobby: LüSa Organics

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Rachel Wolf, LüSa Organics founder

By Sara Friedl-Putnam • Photos courtesy LüSa Organics
Originally published in Fall 2015 Inspire(d)

Rachel Wolf has been called many things – “rock star,” the “bee’s knees,” “genius,” and, yes, even “master of all things natural and pure.”

wolf_family_colorAs the owner and founder of LüSa Organics – a Viroqua, Wisconsin-based body care product company that she runs with her husband, Pete – she could easily let such lofty praise go to her head. Instead, Rachel keeps it real when describing herself. “I’m a writer, a mother, a homeschooler, an herbalist, a homesteader, and an all-around crafty lady,” she says with a laugh.

She also happens to be a firm proponent of the pursuit of happiness. MoreThanHobbyLogo“Life is supposed to be fun,” says Rachel, a former environmental educator who cooked up her first batch of soap (unscented honey oatmeal) with a group of friends in 1997. “You can choose the safe path, but if there is something that speaks to your heart, it’s always worth taking a risk to pursue it.”

And she has the life experience to prove it. Rachel was pregnant with her second child in 2006 when she and her husband moved from Baraboo, Wisconsin, to Viroqua to focus their energy on raising their children – son Sage and the then not-yet-arrived daughter Lupine – and on growing LüSa Organics, which was operating under two names, Queen Bee’s Earthly Delights and Baby Moon. “Pete quit his job as a solar system electrician, so we took an enormous leap trusting that the net would catch us,” she says. “But it felt right – it felt like the net would be there – and it was. We have never regretted taking that leap.”

lusa_illustrated_logoToday LüSa Organics offers a full line of handcrafted body care products – including soaps, balms, exfoliants, moisturizers, and sugar scrubs that smell – and feel – great. Even better? All LüSa products are made from ingredients that are organic and/or sourced locally; all its fragrances are created from essential oils (lavender, patchouli, peppermint, eucalyptus, and citronella, to name just a few); and all its coloring comes from natural pigments, herbs, and clay. The sunflower oil used in LüSa soaps (22 varieties and counting) even hails from an organic farm just down the road.

“Our products are of consistently high quality because we never compromise on ingredients or techniques,” says Rachel, whose own favorite essential oil derives from calendula, a plant with a long history of use as a healing herb. “Our customers want to know what the products are made of, how they work, and who’s making them. That’s part of the reason I write my ‘Clean’ blog – I want to be trusted by our customers and transparent in our business operations.”

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In the blog, she invites readers into her family’s daily lives. Read through the entries­ – which date back to 2008 – and you’ll learn, for starters, how Lupine makes jam, Sage taps a maple tree, and Rachel herself perfects peaceful parenting. (Some of her basic tenets? Forgive, accept, and love yourself). This refreshing transparency – as well as her company’s unwavering commitment to quality – are big reasons why LüSa has generated such a passionate customer base worldwide. Word of mouth has landed many of its products – like its bestselling, cloth-diaper-safe Booty Balm and Baby Wipe Juice – on the shelves of retailers in most states and even as far away as Australia.

And while LüSa Organics continues to grow in product sales and reputation, don’t think for a minute Rachel is content to rest on her laurels. To the contrary, she is constantly dreaming up, tinkering with, and testing potential new additions to the LüSa product line. “I’ve always been intrigued by the chemical alchemy of turning simple, safe ingredients into warm, luxurious body care products,” she says. “It’s satisfying, and somewhat thrilling, to know we can create something new with not much more than a good idea, a few quality ingredients, and our bare hands.”

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LüSa Organics products are available in stores throughout Wisconsin, Minnesota, and (now) Iowa as well as online at www.lusaorganics.com. Each year the company donates 10 percent of its profits to organizations generating positive global change, like Sow the Seeds, Heifer International, and the La Leche League. If you visit the LüSa website, be sure to also take a peek at Rachel’s engaging blog, “Clean.”

Sum of Your Biz: Jessica & Derek Balsley

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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?

Jessica“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 ArtEdLogoelementary 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.”

DerekSelfieThe 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.

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The Art of Education / Osage, Iowa

The Basics:
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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

JessicaDerekWe’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.

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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! 

Lori Biwer-Stewart, linocut printmaker

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More than a hobby: Lori Biwer-Stewart, linocut printmaker
Story and photos by Sara Friedl-Putnam • Originally published in the Fall 2015 Inspire(d)
Artwork by Lori Biwer-Stewart

lori_horizontalLike many artists, Lori Biwer-Stewart discovered her calling very early in life.

“I’ve loved to express myself artistically for as long as I can remember,” she says, recalling long, happy hours doodling and drawing as a child growing up on a farm outside Elma, Iowa. “It’s the only thing I ever thought I could do really well.”

That cMoreThanHobbyLogoonviction – and a naturally curious mind – led Lori to a commercial design degree at Hawkeye Institute of Technology in Waterloo, Iowa, and, a few years later, a basic printmaking class at MacNider Art Museum in Mason City. Armed with an abundance of natural talent, an expansive library of reference books, a deep love of the art form, and, yes, two printing presses, she began making (and selling) linocut prints out of her home in Osage, Iowa, more than 20 years ago.

Today she is known across the Midwest for her crisp, whimsical work, which explores themes like youth and innocence, relationships, and spiritual awakenings through the use of symbolic images like birds, doors, or keys. “The carving process is very therapeutic for me and has gotten me through many bad moments,” Lori says, candidly referring to her longtime struggle with depression. “Some people can write well or tell interesting stories – I much prefer to speak through the images and symbolism in my linocuts.”

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Popularized by the likes of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso in the early- to mid-1900s, linocut is a deceptively simple, relatively inexpensive “relief” printmaking technique in which the artist uses a knife or gouge to carve a design into a sheet of linoleum (sometimes mounted on a wood block), inks the linoleum with a brayer (i.e. roller), and impresses the image onto paper either by hand or with a press. It was the ability to use the technique to create bold, decorative designs that first piqued Lori’s interest.

“Linocut printing enables artistic expression like no other art form – the cut of the knife creates a primitive feel that only adds to the intent and intensity of the message being communicated,” she says. “Sometimes my work is dark and sometimes it’s fun, but it’s always thought-provoking; whatever the image is, my goal is always to make the viewer think and question.”

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ShinyThingsShe does exactly that in pieces likeMe and You,” in which a floating red balloon tied to an empty yellow chair symbolizes the yin and yang found in so many relationships…and “Fireflies,” in which a jar of fireflies nestled among wildflowers conjures up childhood memories of capturing the magical insects on hot summer nights…and “Shiny Things,” in which crows hording small gleaming objects suggest the tendency of so many to collect things they don’t really need. The three works are among more than 70 linocuts currently displayed on her website, www.lbstewart.com.

Her always eye-catching work has earned Lori, who also works as a graphic artist at Curries in Mason City, more than a few awards at art festivals over the past two decades. Yet, despite the accolades, she admits she still struggles with the challenges of “getting out there” and marketing her work, especially through social media. She encourages other artists just starting out to stay on top of current social-media trends and to do what she has done from the start – stay true to self. “Do what really interests you – whatever subject that is, whatever medium that is,” she says. “You will never find joy in your art if you are just creating what you think people will buy.”

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Sara Friedl-Putnam has never considered herself particularly “artsy” or “craftsy,” but after being inspired by the talented women she profiled in this issue is seriously contemplating making a few gifts this coming holiday season.

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Biwer-Stewart will display her work at the Wausau, Wisconsin, Festival of Arts on September 12-13 and the Autumn Artistry in Osage on September 19. Her work is also available in galleries across the Driftless Region and online at www.lbstewart.com.

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“More Than a Hobby” is a special section of the Fall 2015 Inspire(d) Magazine. We’ve highlighted doers and makers in the Driftless region who are turning what they do like to do into so much more than a hobby – it’s a living! We love that. Stay tuned for additional More Than a Hobby features online in the coming weeks!