Q&A // Ali Makes Things

On Creativity, Running a Business, and Finding the Balance

For our latest installment of Parker Clay Q&A, we caught up with one of our favorite ladies, Ali Nelson. She is the founder of Ali Makes Things, a creative genius, world traveler, and a faithful carrier of our Makeda Crossbody and Miramar Leather Backpack. We're so inspired by her story and advice...we dare you to read and not feel the same. 

Meet Ali: Hi, I'm Ali! I grew up in a one-stoplight town in Northern California, but have split my time this year between Atlanta, Santa Barbara, and Kigali, Rwanda. I'm a jack-of-all-trades creative...installation, styling, design work, and hand lettering. I love exploring new places, finding/making good food and drinks, hiking, and reading. I'm a podcast junkie, on my phone way too much, and I don't watch TV. I love partnering with brands and organizations doing good to help share their story visually.

What has been the biggest obstacle you've had to overcome in starting your own business? 
Myself! But really, anyone who has started their own business knows this can sometimes be the uncomfortable truth. When it's just you running the show, you earn all the credit...and, unfortunately, you're *also* the only one to blame!  As business owners, we need to play many roles and that can be challenging. I got into this because I love making things, not because I wanted to sell things, write emails, or send invoices. So much of my education has been "live and learn" or "learn on the fly." We have to figure it out, because no one else is going to do it for us! 

The self-employed life can be tough, and it takes a lot of resilience. In my experience, creative entrepreneurship is feast or famine... work comes in waves and learning time and money management has been essential. I also live with depression and anxiety, which can be pretty crippling. There are days I'm really on top of things and feel like I can take on the whole galaxy, and there are days I can barely leave the house. Even on the days I want to quit, I'm really grateful to have created a job for myself that allows me the flexibility to work when I feel "on" and give myself a little grace when I can't.

How do you balance your creativity with all of other details that come with running your own business? 
That has been a big challenge for me, actually. It often feels like my work requires completely different parts of my brain, and it's really tough for me to bounce back and forth. I think the best advice I can give is to learn the way you work most efficiently, and lean into that.
Over the years, I've learned a few tricks that have streamlined this for me. Maybe they'll help you too! 
  1. Time-block your days. I read a study that said the average interruption takes 23 minutes to recover from...not good. So now, I'll block my days into Creative and Operations. If I'm shipping orders, I won't pick up a paintbrush, instead, I'll make a note of whatever I need to make and do it later. If I'm in a creative flow, I will honor that. If I'm making things, I won't even open my computer. 
  2. Batch your process. If I'm working on 3 different projects, I might do the lettering for all of them at once, scan them the next day, and then work on them in Illustrator or Photoshop after that. I've found that it allows me to be more present and detailed in each part of the process and I end up liking the final product better too. 
  3. Not every fire has to be put out immediately. Opening an email can totally derail the creative process. I've (finally) stopped feeling guilty for ignoring my inbox when a project needs my creative attention. 
  4. Hire the right people for the parts of your business you hate. When we begin, we have to handle every part of the process, and it's good that we learn it! But the truth is, my business thrives best when I stay in my strengths: dreaming, concepting, and creating...and allow someone else to handle the parts I'm not good at! It can be a tough decision to let go and bring someone on, but I've found I can take on more projects and stay more sane with this investment. 

What are your favorite Parker Clay product(s), and why? 
I love my Parker Clay pieces! I'm obsessed with my Makeda Crossbody and my Miramar Leather Backpack! They honestly are the best travel accessories. I wear the crossbody when going through airports/boarding trains to keep me organized so my wallet, boarding pass, and passport are easily accessible. It's got enough pockets inside that I throw my headphones, chapstick and chargers in and they won't get lost. And bonus: It's slim enough that it never gets counted as an extra accessory when I'm boarding a plane! I love throwing the backpack in my checked luggage to use at my destination...it's low-profile so it doesn't take up a ton of room in my suitcase, but is roomy enough to contain everything I need for a day out exploring a new city! I love how sleek it is - it makes me feel super put together, even though it's probably stuffed with my wallet, a wrap of some kind, a bunch of jewelry, a couple notebooks, a thousand pens, and all my impulse purchases! I get so many compliments on this bag, it really is the best.
How many countries have you taken your Parker Clay product(s) to, and of those, which country was your favorite? 
Oh gosh, lets see...ten? Last year was a really amazing year of travel, my first time going to Europe! These bags have been to Hungary, Finland, Estonia, France, Spain, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, The Netherlands, and Mexico. Each of these places are incredible, but France and Kenya hold special places in my heart. There's nothing quite as magical as sitting under the sparkling Eiffel Tower with a baguette and a bottle of champagne... except maybe watching lions on safari with a gin + tonic in hand! Our world is mind-blowing, and I am so grateful I've been able to see a little bit of it.
What does adventure mean to you? 
"Adventure" has meant something different to me in different seasons. It has been moving to a brand new city to study art, driving cross country through golden agricultural towns and blustery mountain snowstorms, making art that felt honest, moving to an island where I knew not a soul, riding a moto along dusty bumpy roads in East Africa. It's been pursuing my passions for work, climbing up mountains in spite of crazy dehydration, lounging on a dhow enjoying sundowners with friends, standing in the majesty and deafening silence of a glacier, writing true things and exposing my heart to a large audience, or a new friend. It's been letting myself fall in love, learning to love myself, embracing my imperfections with grace and compassion and extending forgiveness to others. It's been leaning in and letting go, being present and having a reverence for the magnificent and the mundane... to me, adventure is the magic of everyday life... really truly living and being present to feel it all.

What advice would you give to women today who are searching for their passion in life?
The "easy" answer would be "find out what makes you come alive and do that." But if I'm honest, when life gets hard or bills need to get paid, passion feels like a luxury. The good news is we don't have to do a personal or professional 180º to get there; we already possess all the traits and tools we need!
My advice?
  • Figure out what gets you worked up. Injustice? Making things? Education? Human rights? Nutrition? Politics? Being a good mom/partner/friend? Business? 
  • Use the skills you are already really really good at - Photography? Writing? Systems? Public speaking? Making things? Fundraising? Advocating? Educating? Volunteering? 
  • Now, figure out how you can merge those two to support an ongoing effort. Release yourself from the pressure to reinvent the wheel, there are a lot of really awesome movements and organizations already doing great work that would love your support. 
A few years ago, I was part of a really cool project where we adventured around the US telling the stories of people who were doing good in their communities. At that point in my life, I was not prepared to do what they were doing - longterm investment with a single project or community. But, I realized, I could use my skills to share the incredible work they were doing and ask others to join in support. Sometimes that meant creating a new logo for an organization. Sometimes it was creating social media content or articulating their story to better share with others. Sometimes it looked like connecting them to another organization or person I knew who would help forward their goals. 
In time, this kind of work will develop a passion and purpose within us that is much more meaningful than the work we do to pay the bills. Bottom line: we all have skills, connections, and resources that would be invaluable to others... all we have to do is recognize them and be willing to show up and share! 
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Thanks for taking the time to chat with us Ali - we love hearing how you've turned your passions into a lifestyle! 

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