How this self-proclaimed “accidental entrepreneur” built a multi-million dollar business in less than ten years and what she did after realizing the successful business she’d created no longer aligned with how she wanted to live her everyday life.
Jen Olmstead is one of the most talented designers I’ve ever met, but wow, blame it on her journalism background, she sure does have a way with words! Jen dropped so many nuggets of wisdom in this episode you’ll likely hit pause, playback—over and again.
I laughed. I cried. I nodded in agreement.
Before becoming the founder and lead designer at Tonic Site Shop, Jen Olmstead had no aspirations of being a business owner or an entrepreneur. Majoring in journalism, her plan was to follow that path well after college. But, like it does for most creative entrepreneurs, the plan changed in a way she didn’t expect.
“I got into design by accident. I was designing wedding invitations for friends right out of college and helping with the design elements of some marketing projects at my school. What I started to realize is that all the skills I’d learned about storytelling in journalism translated to design. It’s taking a great story and telling it in a beautiful, visual way.”
Before she knew it, that design side hustle took off. From wedding invitations and brand materials to marketing campaigns and logos, Jen was suddenly being tasked with doing it all. When the first request for a website came her way, her instinct was to decline the project.
“I had no clue how to do a website at the time, so I thought I should just say no. But, thanks to the advice of a good friend, I decided to give it a try.”
“She said, ‘Stop saying you can’t do websites until you try to do a website. There are so many tools out that you can teach yourself. So, stop saying you can’t until you see if you actually can.’”
So, that’s what Jen did. She taught herself through Show-It, the platform she still uses at Tonic today.
“I had zero formal training and no concept of what a brand or website was supposed to be. But in creating that first site, I realized that I had so many ideas of what people’s websites should be and how I could use them to tell their stories. I realized that if I could dream it, I could design it. I think that’s ultimately what set me apart.”
Jen’s work spoke for itself. The more websites she created, the more people started taking notice. One site at a time, her clientele grew.
“The irony is I didn’t even have a website of my own at the time. I had zero invested in marketing myself as a designer. I just focused all my energy on doing great work for my clients and letting their sites be the billboard for my business.”
And just like that, a business was born.
“All of the sudden I ended up with enough clients to create this business I didn’t expect to have. I loved it. For the first time, I felt like I was doing what I was supposed to do. I became an accidental entrepreneur.”
By 2013, her design business was booming. The volume of inquiries was incredible, leaving Jen overwhelmed with trying to meet the demand and her clients frustrated at the year-long waiting list to get their website up and running. This business model she’d stumbled into now wasn’t serving Jen or her clients.
“I knew there had to be a better way, and I started wondering what that could be. What if there was an alternative to custom design that felt like a luxury template people would be proud to have? Something that was affordable? Something that clients could have right away?”
Those questions led to a big answer. Jen co-founded Tonic Site Shop, a company that creates stunning, customizable website templates at a fraction of the cost. That year, they launched 12 templates for sale on the Tonic site, and the rest, as they say, is history.
“It really shifted our business in a way I didn’t expect. For starters, it gave us some passive income. It let me still focus on the one-on-one work with some clients without having to turn others away with no option. But it also really brought in a new audience. People would see our work on our clients’ sites and buy a template from our shop that was similar to what they loved in the design. It really was a better way to do web design for our brand and for our clients.”
For more than six years, Jen continued offering both one-on-one custom design and templates through Tonic. But over time, she started making the subtle shift toward templates alone. Why? Because she started looking at the numbers.
“Custom design was generating 98% of our stress, taking up 98% of our time, and generating 2% of our income. Now, I’m not great at math, but I knew enough to know those numbers weren’t adding up.”
This was a new feeling for Jen, someone who often approached the numbers in her business with a sense of fear and anxiety.
“I had to step up and learn what I was making, where I wanted the business to go, and how I could help it thrive and grow to get there. Instead of just letting it happen, I had to really pay attention to my numbers. I had stop operating out of fear and start operating out of understanding.”
With that in mind, she and Tonic co-founder, Jeff, made small decisions in the business that came with big results. They shifted away from custom design, they focused their energy on templates, and they started building a team to help them with all of that and more.
“My biggest lesson in that season? Don’t fear the numbers! It’s tempting to run away from the numbers and run toward the creativity as entrepreneurs, but the numbers are essential. There’s so much freedom in knowing not just where you are but where you can go. If you’re too afraid to look at the numbers, you’ll never experience the power of what they can do for you and your business.”
In the last five years, revenue has grown dramatically at Tonic. The shift in the business model, the knowledge of their numbers, and the quality of their work came together to grow the business beyond anything Jen expected when she opened her digital doors. Now, Tonic Site Shop isn’t just one of the top web design companies out there; it’s also giving Jen and her family the freedom to follow dreams they didn’t even know were possible.
“It’s important to constantly reevaluate what you need, what you want, and how you can show up in your business. The reality is, the business doesn’t decide what kind of life and work we want for ourselves; we decide. We get to determine the why, and there’s so much freedom in that.”
✓ A permission slip to design a business on your own terms, I’m here for it!
✓ A reminder that if something feels off, we can stop and course correct at any time.
✓ A rallying cry to get back to the basics, put energy where it counts, and show up in a way that only you can!
This episode is pure gold! 🎧 Press play to tune in for the entire interview or click here to download the transcript.
Jen’s Email Newsletter (it’s so good!)
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Jen Olmstead is the lead designer and co-founder of TONIC SITE SHOP, where she makes customizable, stunning designer websites at a FRACTION of the cost.
A former journalist, total type nerd, and lifelong fan of a good story, Jen loves bringing design and story together in both beautiful, engaging websites and personal, story-driven marketing.
She eats gluten so you don’t have to, her love language is witty banter, and she’s always up for a craft cocktail.
September 1, 2022