Achieving success as a women-owned business in a male-dominated field can be challenging, but don’t tell that to Amy Pastre and Courtney Rowson, the founders of the branding and design company, SDCO Partners in Charleston, SC. Amy and Courtney were recently handpicked to reinvent elements of Reese Witherspoon’s charming Southern-inspired brand, Draper James. This is an amazing feat considering these two female entrepreneurs started their company from the ground up and have grown their business primarily through referrals and word of mouth. Since launching SDCO in 2009, Amy and Courtney have been the creative masterminds behind hundreds of brands including Le Creuset, West Elm and Target. They joined me from their 100-year-old historic home turned office space to chat about how they got their start, working on the Draper James brand, and everything in between.
Caroline Castrillon: Your partnership seems to be incredibly strong. What are the advantages of starting a business with a partner and what makes it work for the two of you?
Amy Pastre: I would say that we share a lot of the same core values, are similar in terms of our tolerance for risk and have a high level of respect for each other. It’s not unlike a successful marriage! There are definitely compromises, but we always put each other first.
Courtney Rowson: Having a partner allows you to have someone to collaborate with and bounce ideas off of. Ultimately it helps you get to a better answer versus having just one vantage point as a solopreneur. In the long run, it has made our decisions smarter and more informed.
Castrillon: What are the five essential elements to build a successful business from scratch?
Pastre: I would say from a creative standpoint to keep your body of work diversified. Do different kinds of projects to keep you on your toes and your perspective fresh. Work hard to choose clients you feel very connected to because ultimately it’s a partnership. We spend quite a bit of time getting to know our clients and making sure it’s a good working relationship. Being organized is crucial! The best creative work starts with building trust with clients and trust quickly erodes when you’re not organized. We’ve focused on operationalizing the organizational aspects of the business so we can concentrate on being creative. Listen! We do a lot of listening to ensure we’re really hearing the challenges our clients are facing. We also work hard internally to create an inclusive environment where our team feels that they can share their ideas openly and honestly. This also contributes to our employees being more vested in the long-term success of our company as well as our client’s businesses.
Castrillon: What gets you through the ups and downs of being an entrepreneur?
Rowson: We’re still so excited about finding great solutions for clients. Courtney and I are very goal- oriented, and we’ve always been able to maintain our focus on the big picture. So even if we have a bad day, we understand that it’s a short-term event. Also, being a business partner is a huge responsibility. I don’t want to let anyone down, so our partnership helps hold me accountable.
Castrillon: As a company, what are some of the growing pains you’ve had over the last ten years and how did you overcome them?
Rowson: Probably the biggest one is just determining how to add team members and grow the business responsibly over time. Early on we felt like we were just keeping our heads above water and adding team members as needed. Now we’ve gotten better at staying ahead of the curve. We’re also continually striving to grow while still maintaining that small company feel and high-touch experience for our clients so that Amy and I can continue to be directly involved in the creative process.
Castrillon: Do you think work-life balance is achievable and how do you balance motherhood and entrepreneurship?
Pastre: Yes, I think it’s achievable but also challenging. We both had 1-year-olds when we started the business and then we both had our second child within six weeks of each other! Early on, there were a lot of nights and weekends that we would spend working. Now, being organized, prioritizing and setting boundaries with clients allows us to protect our personal time the same way we would protect a deadline at work. When I go home, I leave my phone in my purse, and I don’t look at email. I look at it when the kids are back in bed or when I’m in the office the next day. It’s not always an easy balance, but whether I’m at home or at work, I just try to be fully present.
Castrillon: What is the best part of running your own business?
Pastre: I love seeing the positive impact our work has on our client’s businesses. Especially when we’re working with someone in the early stages of a project and helping them bring that idea to life—that’s why we come to work every day.
Castrillon: How were you given the incredible opportunity to work on the Draper James brand?
Rowson: Draper James opened a search for agencies to rebrand the company. We were one of the lucky ones considered. It was important to them that whomever they hired had a great understanding of the Southern heritage that Draper James was built on. We had an immediate connection with their team which I think also contributed to the fact that we were ultimately selected.
Castrillon: How involved was Reese Witherspoon in the process?
Pastre: We were actually impressed with how involved she was in the redesign. She saw everything we did along the way right up until the final solution.
Castrillon: Which female entrepreneurs inspire you the most?
Rowson: Actually, many of our clients are doing incredible things, and they are really the inspiration for us. One reason is we’ve gotten to know these women first-hand, so we see all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes. Obviously, one great example is Reese Witherspoon—a female entrepreneur who started Draper James to honor her Southern heritage and in particular her grandparents.
Castrillon: What advice do you have for women struggling with the fear of taking the leap to entrepreneurship?
Pastre: You have to believe in yourself, and if you’re going to do it you’ve got to go all in. You have to take yourself seriously or no one else will. If you just try and dip your toe in to see if it’s going to work, you’re not giving it your all–you’re kind of half in and half out. You’ve got to go all in to set yourself up for success.