Posts Tagged: entrepreneurs

Sum of Your Business: Kate Rattenborg / Dragonfly Books


Sum of Your Business: Kate Rattenborg / Dragonfly Books
Introduction & photos (unless noted) by Aryn Henning Nichols

There are few places more magical than bookstores. You walk in the doors and can choose to go – virtually – anywhere. Across the world to China through a Peter Hessler book, into one of Mo Willem’s Elephant and Piggy chronicles, to Texas to see what that wild Jenny Lawson is up to, or even into your self as you carefully pencil in the spaces of an adult coloring book.

KateFor Dragonfly Books owner Kate Rattenborg, just walking into a bookstore wasn’t enough – she wanted it to be her very own. Now, for the past five years, she’s gotten to walk through those doors in Downtown Decorah most days. Some times she gets to be transported to another place – be it through a book, a customer, or even an author reading. Other days she SumBusinessLogo_2014has to do the less glamorous stuff: bookkeeping (the accounting kind), marketing, shelving – but no matter what, she’s happy to be living her dream.
Dragonfly Books is the stuff of a little Driftless town’s dreams, too. Kate and her two daughters, Sarah and Rachel – who often work alongside mom – make sure displays are fun and thought-provoking, events coordinator Kate Scott schedules great local, regional, and national (sometimes even international) authors for readings both in-store and around the community, and, most importantly, the shelves are totally stocked with a well-curated collection of books.

We were excited to feature Kate for this Sum of Your Business. This February 2016 marks her fifth anniversary in business, but we can hardly remember a Downtown Decorah without Dragonfly Books. Looking for a specific book? You can email the store to see if it’s in stock! They don’t have it? They can order it! Want it instantly? You can even order e-books! Indie book stores, guys. They’re where it’s at.

Name: Kate Rattenborg
Age: 55
Business: Dragonfly Books
Years in Business: 5.0

Tell us about the “leap” moment. When/how did you decide to jump in and become your own boss?

I’ve been a micro-business owner for the past five years. It is a career path that I love, but one that I did not see myself taking when graduating from college. My late husband, Steve, and I had often talked about opening up a bookstore once we were ready to retire, sometime off in the future. When Steve died unexpectedly in 2002, I shelved our dream while adjusting to life as a single parent.  Eight years later, I was driving home from a seminar where we were asked to state our five, 10, and 15-year goals. Almost as a lark, I had stated I wanted to own a bookstore, and my fellow attendees quizzed me on the concept, getting me to articulate more fully my dream, a dream that I had stifled for years. Throughout the drive home through the rolling fields, all I could think about was ‘why wait?’ Why wait until retirement? Why not take the plunge and open a bookstore now?  Well, there are a lot of miles between Cedar Rapids and Decorah, the traffic was light, and my mind raced with possibilities. By the time I reached Independence, I had formulated a list of the next steps I would need to take to move forward and make my dream a reality, including resigning from my job. (A very scary thought!) Yet, I needed to name my potential business in order for it to seem real. As I was trying out different store names that would fit in with Decorah’s ‘water’ street theme, such as Brown Trout Books or Eagle’s Nest Books, I drove through a swarm of dragonflies. Not once, but twice! Dragonfly Books. Just like with the velveteen rabbit, a “funny new tickly feeling” ran through me, and I knew I could make my dream Real.  Six months later, on my fiftieth birthday and with the help of my two daughters Sarah and Rachel, I opened Dragonfly Books.  It has been a fabulous first five years! (photo below courtesy Dragonfly Books)


What’s the best thing about being your own boss?

I love that I have been able to create and shape a business that fits in with my own personal values.  I strive to foster an environment where diversity, creativity, excellence, and mutual respect is honored and respected.  It is rewarding to have created a business that promotes literacy and reading; a business that also is community-centered, complementing Decorah’s literary and artistic aesthetics.  One of the unexpected benefits has been the opportunity to work alongside my daughters in the bookstore.

How about the worst?

About a year after opening, I had to turn down an author event as I had too much to handle, there wasn’t enough of me to go around, and I had over-promised on what we could deliver.  It was clear to me that even though I didn’t think the bookstore was financially in a position to add non-family staff members, we needed to in order that the store could grow and flourish.  I was fortunate in hiring an outstanding and talented events coordinator, Kate Scott, who along with other part-time staff, has complemented my skill set in an amazing fashion. (photo below courtesy Dragonfly Books)


Was there ever a hurdle where you just thought, “I can’t do this?” How did you overcome it?

It is easy to feel ‘alone’ when creating and running a micro-business. To counter this feeling, it has been important for me to network with fellow booksellers through my trade association, with other retailers in Decorah through the Chamber of Commerce, with other entrepreneurs, and with friends.  I use a variety of different opportunities, such as trade shows, face-to-face meetings, conferences, email, and even facebook, to reach out to others and not get lost in the (sometimes) lonely nature of small business ownership.

Any mentors/role models you look to/have looked to?

Not surprisingly, much of my personal and business philosophy is drawn from a variety of books. Recent books that speak to me include Michael Gerber’s classic book on small business entrepreneurs, The E Myth Revisited. There are lots of pertinent ideas to apply from this book; my favorite is the reminder to schedule time to work ‘on’ and not ‘in’ your business. It is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day activities, and to ignore strategic planning, but without the latter, a business will stagnate and not be able to sustain itself. Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness, a book about establishing outstanding customer service, is another book that has helped shape my business philosophy.


What’s the one thing you wish you had known before you started?

How much fun I would have!! If I had known, I would have taken this leap years earlier!  Although I was perhaps somewhat naive about entering the retail business during an economic downturn, much less a brick and mortar bookstore, I think if I had waited until absolutely all my questions had been answered, I would still be in the planning stage. For me, I needed to just take the plunge, jump in, and make a few mistakes while learning what works.

StackBoxesHow do you manage your life/work balance?

I feel that it is not possible to separate out ‘work’ from the rest of ‘life’ so instead, I consider a life/life balance.  The hours I spend on my business are also a part of my life and not separate from my life. As long as I am able to foster friendships and good relationships with family – either inside of or outside of ‘work hours’ – I am content. However, I have at times struggled with figuring out how to relax away from the bookstore, as I took my relaxation channel (a love of reading) and turned it into a business.  I am now surrounded by the books that I love, in all genres, and I receive advance reading copies to review daily, sometimes by the bushelful.  I have no lack of reading materials! My evenings, when I used to be able to forget about the day-to-day activities of a eight-five workday by sitting down with a cuppa tea and delving into a book, are often the same.  However, instead of an escape, the same reading activity has become another arm of my work life.  Reading has become a time for evaluation of new products to order (or not order), preparation for work-related book groups, analyzing new trends in all genres, and reviewing the books read.  In short, I haven’t left my business behind. It’s been critical for me to find a new way to relax that is not business related.  And so, you can find me at the Blue Heron Knittery working on a scarf, participating at the ArtHaus Poetry Slam, or on stage with the Oneota Valley Community Orchestra, sitting in the viola section and losing myself in the music. (photo above courtesy Dragonfly Books)

What keeps you inspired? Any quotes that keep you going?

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work… The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking and don’t settle.” – Steve Jobs


Kate’s Recommended Reading
Add these to your reading list for 2016!

Shapiro_Muralist_Jkt_HRThe Muralist by B. A. Shapiro

When a young Abstract Expressionist painter working for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) vanishes in pre-WWII New York City in 1940, neither her Jewish family living in German-occupied France nor her close-knit group of friends and fellow painters, including Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Lee Krasner, knows what happened to her.


Johnston_Descent_HC_jkt_HRDescent by Tim Johnston

The Courtland family unravels as their daughter never returns from a hike in the majestic, yet terrifying, Rocky Mountains.



NordicCookBookThe Nordic Cookbook by Magnus Nilsson

A definitive guide to Nordic home cooking from internationally renowned chef Magnus Nilsson, featuring over 700 simple and authentic recipes.



H is for HawkH is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Heart-wrenching and humorous, this in an unflinching account of bereavement and a unique look at the magnetism of an extraordinary beast. Madness, myth, and history combine to achieve a distinctive blend of nature writing and memoir.



Sum of Your Biz: Jessica & Derek Balsley


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, “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.


The Art of Education / Osage, Iowa

The Basics:
Derek and Jessica Balsley
Age: 32 and 30
Business: The Art of Education (
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.

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.


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! 

Sum of Your Business: Robin Bartell

We’re excited to be hosting a new, regular Q&A section in Inspire(d): Sum of Your Business, featuring entrepreneurs in the Driftless Region. Our readers have asked to learn more about people who have started their own businesses, how they’ve done, and how they’ve done it! We thought that sounded like a great idea! Who knows – maybe you’ll even be inspire(d) to create a business yourself! 


Introduction by Aryn Henning Nichols

Anyone who has ever ventured in or around Spring Grove, Minnesota, has undoubtedly seen Robin Bartell’s work. Either inside her fun store – the Yah Sure You Betcha Shoppe – or in the seriously great graphic design she’s produced for area projects and businesses.

The Shoppe features all sorts of silly and unique items and gifts – lots with Norsk and Midwestern humor, along with a “solid nod to the Norwegian heritage of Spring Grove”. Robin designed many of the pieces in the Shoppe herself through Robin Bartell Designs, and she offers promo product design for other companies as well.

The young entrepreneur has been at it for five years now, but had long been planning her move to self-employment before she took finally took the step. For her, planning and research were key to finding the courage. Robin shares what she’s learned, the ups and downs of being your own boss, and what’s kept her inspired. Has it been easy? Probably not. Has it been fun? You betcha!

RobinThe Basics:
Robin Bartell
Age: 36
Business: Yah Sure You Betcha Shoppe (and the home of Robin Bartell Designs)
Years in Business: 5

Tell us about the “leap” moment. When/how did you decide to jump in and become your own boss?
The desire to venture out on my own actually happened slowly. I didn’t jump, I planned. I did a lot of research. I over-researched. I read a lot about personality traits needed to be a successful entrepreneur. Looking back now, I believe the things you will read about ‘creatives’ being ill-equipped to be business owners is mostly rubbish. Self-doubt nearly killed the big plan. In a fit of confidence, I decided that I owed it to myself to try. The worst that could happen was that I would have to find a job again, right? (I should also tell you about a recurring dream I had where colleagues and entrepreneurial-type people in my life kept saying ‘what are you waiting for?’). True story. I jumped.


What’s the best thing about being your own boss?
I get to decide what my job will be everyday! Yah Sure You Betcha Shoppe is a three-part business: a retail apparel and gift store, a graphic design firm, and a promotional products distributor. I get to assist other small businesses with their marketing and branding efforts everyday. I love getting to know my customers and working with them directly. It’s so much better than being in a ‘cubicle-corporate-graphic-design-departmental-hell.’

How about the worst?
Two-part answer: A. Always feeling like I need to answer calls, emails, etc, even when I am at home or on vacation. B. Balancing the importance of creativity and time management on a daily basis.


Was there ever a hurdle where you just thought, “I can’t do this?” How did you overcome it?
Little bouts of self-doubt were the greatest hurdles. Having supportive family and friends is key to overcoming that self-doubt. Then you just have to be prepared to work your patooty off to make it happen!

Finding the perfect spot for the retail store was a little bit of a challenge in the beginning. My office space moved a few times, and I grew impatient about where the store would be permanently located. Thankfully we were able to purchase our cute little building on Main Street last year. Now I feel like it’s finally permanent and real.

Any mentors/role models you look to/have looked to?
Early on in this endeavor, I spoke with colleagues and a few like-minded small business owners within the community. The advice given by those who have blazed a trail before me is definitely gold-nugget wisdom. I have learned to NEVER disregard networking – at any stage of life, or in any job I’ve ever had.


What’s the one thing you wish you had known before you started?
You simply cannot plan for everything that may/will go wrong. Sometimes you just have to trust your instincts. Not every decision will be rational, and not every irrational decision will end in failure.

“I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.” – Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

How do you manage your life/work balance?
It’s tough, but I try not to work/check messages/email when I am home and it’s family time. Sundays are family days – always. If I do have work to do at home I try to use ‘time blocking.’ As in “kids, I need one hour to finish my work, then I’m all yours!” Sticking to that is the trickiest part.

What keeps you inspired? Any quotes that keep you going?
My design clients and retail customers keep me inspired to push forward, create more, design better, and keep forging ahead! I feel like there are so many creative and imaginative people in our area; keeping people in your life that nurture your talents is very important.

“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.” – Stephen King

Check out Robin’s Yah Sure You Betcha Shoppe in Spring Grove, Minnesota at 118 East Main Street (open Wednesday through Saturday), or online at