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Tracy Porter of Tracy Porter design

Tracy Porter

Tracy Porter

Tracy Porter began her company in 1991 in an unheated chicken coop in her Wisconsin town. Newly married with no money, she and her husband John decided to follow their dream. Now, 15 years and 4 babies later, Tracy has built a multi-million business with beautiful wares in a large range of categories - tableware, rugs, lighting, furniture and much more, all bearing the signature Tracy Porter design. She has created a loyal following of customers across the country who collect her unique pieces.

Describe your company and your product (or product line).
From our studio in Wisconsin we design a wonderful assortment of things - from dinnerware to rugs, napkins to glassware, fabrics, note cards, name it, we want to touch it!

Why did you start this company and when?
We started our company in 1991 - the same year we were married. My husband John and I both always had entrepreneurial spirits, so we knew that going into business was just "who we were." We were pretty young, I was 23 and John was 28. I think that was a great time for us - we had no children then and it really didn't feel like a risk. It felt like more of a necessity, to create our own destiny. This was what made sense based on both of us being self employed at the time.

What were your initial goals?
To be able to create beautiful things that would put a smile on peoples' faces. That, and to stay in business!

Describe yourself and your family. What is your background and how does it relate to your company?
porter_artesian2I am 38 years old, married to an incredible man who I adore and who I am fortunate to drive to work with every day. John and I have a lovely family - 4 young boys. Our twins, Max and Fin, are 6, followed by 5-year-old Sigerson and 7-month old Gus. I am a dreamer and total optimist. I believe that if we want to do something, we can. We are very persistent people, and very "glass half full"! I love being a mother, I find it incredibly fulfilling. I also love being an entrepreneur. Each day is different and filled with various challenges that push me to think on my toes and to be a better person. I love the balance in my life, it keeps me right where I need to be! My family is my first priority, and knowing that makes all my other decisions in life simple. I am generally not an overwhelmed person because I try to take everything one step at a time.

I graduated from high school and moved to Europe for a few years to model. It was a fantastic opportunity to see the world and to gain great perspective on who I was and how I wanted to approach my life. It was very humbling. I knew I needed to be more in control of my destiny from a very young age. I chose not to go to college, instead I just set many life goals and tried very hard to reach them. I am still trying, the goals are does life!

Have you ever experienced an epiphany that changed the direction of your life?
I wouldn't say an epiphany so much as an overall awareness of myself. When I lived in Europe I didn't know many people and I spent a great deal of time alone. I explored the city (Paris) and read non stop, anything I could. While at times I felt lonely, I did really learn about who I was...I had time to explore me. Something many people never get to, or take time for, something that's usually considered a "luxury". I think I am who I am because I was able to have lots of "selfish" time at a very young age. I think it allowed me to feel complete in my person early on.

What process did you follow to develop a prototype?
porter_artesian1I have made things my whole life, so some of our early products I made myself. Anything that I didn't make, I would draw up and find a craftsperson to help. Never let anyone tell you that you don't know what you're doing. We ALL started somewhere!!

What process did you follow to determine your product's marketability?
I showed my first line of products to a group of friends of my mother-in-law. They were a great test market, and they bought about $3,000 worth of things in a few hours. At that point we knew we really had something beyond friends' and family members' compliments!

What process did you follow to find a manufacturer for your product?
We found local woodworkers to build our furniture. People were literally making this stuff in their garages, and we were painting it in our chicken coop!!

When we decided to branch out and expand our offering, we didn't have the capital or "want" to manufacture rugs, ceramics, lighting etc. So we found companies throughout the USA and created contractual agreements with them to license our designs. So we design everything in our studio in Wisconsin and send the designs to their factories around the world. We approve the products once they are made, and then the manufacturers sell them through their sales representatives into the marketplace. They are all labeled Tracy Porter and marketed through very specific retail channels that we allow for, depending on the category. We are then paid a royalty on each item sold.

Although much of our business is done this way, we are now starting to contract out our designs on a non-license basis as well. This means we find a manufacturer to make the items for us, and we buy them directly and sell them on our website. The latter method increases our margins, and enables us to offer products not sold anywhere else in the world except through TRACYPORTER.COM and our catalog.

It makes sense for us because we want to expand into other product categories. We try to find companies that are experts in their given field. We do this by going to various trade shows, researching online, finding agents and basically asking lots of questions. Anything can become an opportunity for growth if you are flexible and willing to be open minded. Do they all work all the time? No!!! Is one easier than the other? No!! People often think to license your products would be a no-brainer, but this is unfortunately not the case. It can be very complicated and costly and if the relationship doesn't work, you can be out of time and money, which can be frustrating.

Were there any setbacks in product development that had to be overcome?
porter_clydeThere always are. We try to view them as temporary, and as good learning! At one point very early on we had nearly $100,000 worth of raw wood furniture and accessories become warped, because of a very rainy season.

What was the biggest learning curve in terms of developing your product?
I think there is always a balance that must be found between being as pure as you want and being able to market and sell your goods. You have to move your ego aside and be VERY objective. That, or find someone who can be. I trust my gut everyday on what will sell, but I am open to input as well.

Through what markets are you selling (retail, wholesale, internet, specialty sales)?
We sell directly through our website, This is the most comprehensive collection of our goods that can be found. We also have a mail order catalog that will be going out in March 2007. We also sell through retail stores around the country, from small mom and pops to department stores, catalogs and other websites.

What secrets have you learned in terms of publicity and marketing your product?
If an editor calls, bend over backwards!! Do anything to help them get what they need from you! PR is essential to a company's growth. We knew this very early on and have always done anything we can to be proactive in getting PR/Buzz. Share your story - everyone loves to hear someone's story. It's fun to know how others got started, I find it so inspiring. I remember reading about Anita Roddick of The Body Shop. I just could barely breathe when I read her book, I just wanted to get started!!! So put yourself out there any way you can!!

What was the biggest learning curve in terms of marketing your product?
I can honestly say that our look was so unique that it was one of our easier tasks. When we did our first tradeshow, we were mobbed because we had a truly fresh look. Again it's humbling though, as you need to stay fresh and yet not forget your roots!

How long did it take to get your product from idea to market (conception to product launch)?
Five months in the beginning, now it may take eight months to a year. It really depends on where it's being made. Many things we design are imported so it takes a bit longer now. When we began and were doing so much ourselves, so it was quicker.

How have you managed to juggle the roles of business owner and mom? What falls by the wayside (laundry, work-out, etc. etc.)?


The Porter Family

It is a constant balance that I need to evaluate. I am easy going in general and yet also very Type A. While those sound like they don't go together, that's just who I am. So I try not to let little things make me nuts. For instance, our house is never too sparkly...oh well! It truly could be vacuumed and cleaned top to bottom daily, but I don't care enough, and I know that I'd rather do something with the boys! Yes, things fall to the wayside. Life is not perfect. I try to focus on the things that are most important to me, and what I love to do.

My husband helps the balance HUGELY as he is a remarkable person/father /husband. He is incredibly hands-on. He cooks dinner every night and breaks down any stereotypical male roles. We also have Go-Go (our sons' word for nanny), who has come to our house everyday from 7:30-5:30 since the boys were babies.

She is a saint, we worship the ground she walks on. She helps us watch the boys while we go to work and she also is very proactive in helping around the house. I take short cuts where I can - I don't bake cupcakes for school, I buy them. I believe my children are very capable of helping out around the house, so they all have many "jobs" (and it makes them very proud to help out our family).

I also ask for help, and accept it. Many women feel the need to "be it all." You won't win awards for it. I know hired help is not always in the budget, but if you can ask friends or family, or trade for help, you can find more balance. Truly.

What kind of support system do you have in place personally and professionally?
My long-winded answer above should be clear, I accept and ask for help. I fully admit to not being a superhuman.

I am also surrounded by an awesome team at work that's very passionate and hard working. I am very grateful to everyone in my support system.

How did you finance your business?
We asked my parents for a $5,000 business loan that got us off to our first trade show.

How much money have you invested so far? How do you feel about that?
Owning a business is a constant investment of money and time. Everything we do and own is tied to this company. I always thought it would be different, I didn't realize that we'd still (at this point) be putting as much money back into the company. We've had times when we couldn't make payroll and have pulled it from our 401k's. You do what you can. It's a part of you and I believe in it so very much that I don't think twice about it.

What is your company's current financial picture and what are your projections?
We are a multimillion-dollar company with big plans! We started in a chicken coop with a ton of debt to our names and zero cash! So we have come a long way, but really we are just beginning. We are a small company that hopes to really bust out!!!

What has been your greatest success or "high point" in the process?
I think our greatest success is that we are very capable of evolving and being flexible in our growth. It has been essential for us to step outside of ourselves. The process of going to the Internet and creating our shoppable website and developing our new catalog has also been one of our favorite things so far.

Have you experienced a "low point" and if so, how did you rally yourself to get back on track?
We took a pretty big hit after 9/11. The retail industry was down and it really affected peoples' buying habits. We had perspective of course, as we were healthy etc. But nonetheless, we had to scramble a bit. Since then we've spread out our risk by expanding into more categories and going direct to the customer, as well as nurturing the existing stores.

Who has been your biggest source of inspiration? What keeps you going?
We are very inspired by the amazing customers who have supported us and continue to believe in us. They collect our wares and they write us letters. I am always blown away when someone take the time to write us and thank us for making pretty things or for inspiring them in some way!

I think that what keeps us going is the challenge that we can grow into anything we want to be. It's very gratifying to know that you can do that, to know that you have to think outside of the box and to know that change is a constant daily thing.

Did anyone in particular help you along the way?
So many people - our team is fantastic and very understanding of a small business that is family owned. Our families have been so supportive. Our manufacturing partners are awesome. We have been very blessed to be surrounded by people who want to see this company succeed.

What advice would you offer other moms developing their products/ideas?
Believe in yourself, don't be afraid of anything or anyone. Be humble everyday. Be bold everyday. Be nice to everyone along the way. View your mistakes as a way to grow. Be human, and know that everyone else is too. Be resourceful. Be a researcher. Trust your team. Encourage your team to be autonomous and to be responsible for their positions. Take help, ask for help. Be willing to take risks. Accept change as a way of life. Be Gumby-flexible!! Thank people, let them know you are grateful. Ask questions of everyone you can...learn...learn...learn! View each day as a step towards your goals, one step at a time!

Is there a resource that proved to be invaluable that you would like to share with other moms?
The Internet is the BEST resource there is, use it!

Is there anything else you would like to add?
Thanks so much for the opportunity to share our story, we are so grateful to get the word out about our company. I hope in some way this will inspire others to explore their dreams!!!

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1 Responses »

  1. I just got my Artesian Road dinner ware. LOVE it.

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