Annie Lempke is the woman behind two businesses which she co-founded within months of each other in 2016. Nellie Taft (co-founded with Hayley Morgan) is an online American-made clothing boutique based in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Water Creative (co-founded with Nic Paoletta) is a small digital marketing and design company based in Cleveland. She also runs This Land Was Made For You, a blog documenting her travels. She sat down with us to discuss growing a business, sticking to her fashion morals, and running two companies with her two of her favorite people.
You co-founded Nellie Taft and The Water Creative. Tell us about those businesses.
Nellie Taft is a women's clothing boutique. It's all made in America. Nellie Taft was President William Howard Taft’s wife. She was a really cool first lady. She’s responsible for planting the Cherry Blossom trees outside the White House. She supposedly ran the presidency behind the mask of her husband. She did a lot for women at the time, so we named it after her. We buy wholesale clothes from five different manufacturers in LA and we sell them online.
And then there’s The Water Creative, which is a small content marketing company. We get to know business owners and we dive deep into their business with them. We create a plan to help them reach their goals through using social media, mostly through video.
So these businesses were both founded within months of each other.
Yeah, April and May. I worked for a great company where I loved the people, but I hated working 9 to 5. It was super suffocating to me, so I quit and then started both of these companies. I knew [I would start] Nellie Taft before I quit, but I didn’t know what was going to come from Water Creative. So we just did it, and it has worked out so far.
How did you stay sane during the founding of two businesses back to back?
Honestly, I probably didn’t some days. There were a lot of mental breakdowns, a lot of crying, and a lot of thinking “this is too much, why did we do this?” But my plan of attack on hard days would be to go to bed. Turn it off, turn my phone down. I love the quote “Everything can be good again if you just turn it off and put it away for a while.” I would just go for a walk and be done working.
One of the hardest parts about working for yourself is that you have money today, but you don’t know if you’re going to have money tomorrow, because it's only dependent on yourself. There are times when you don’t have a lot of money coming in, and there are times when you do have a lot of money coming in. It's the unknown of “are we going to be able to pay our bills next July?” And that’s one thing I still don’t know if I’m cut out for. It’s very stressful. But it comes with the territory.
"You have to just know that you’ll figure it out. You’re not going to know everything before you start. And if you wait until that point, it’s never going to come. Start before you’re ready."
So when you started Nellie Taft and The Water Creative, did you use your own savings? Or did you get funding from anybody?
I worked a ton throughout high school and college. A TON. I babysat and nannied, had every job and saved up a lot of money. I have always had a large chunk of savings in the bank. When Nellie Taft started, we needed capital, and it all came from my savings. That was super stressful. With The Water Creative, we didn’t necessarily need a lot of money to go into it, but we definitely did need some for cameras and camera equipment. So, we have no investors, which I love, but it’s definitely hard. It's a learning process.
What piece of advice would you give to someone who’s starting their own business?
You definitely aren’t going to know everything before you start. So don’t try to. You’re going to know very little. You just have to do the next thing. I’ve learned so much this past year. I could start an e-commerce company now and be confident that it would be successful. Did I feel like that a year ago before I did it? No. But we did it, and it worked well. You have to just know that you’ll figure it out. You’re not going to know everything. And if you wait until that point, it’s never going to come. Start before you’re ready. When we started The Water Creative, I didn’t have camera skills, and now I do.
"if you just change one thing that you’re buying, it’s a step in the right direction. It’s the little things that add up eventually."
Growing up, what did you want to do? Or what did you see yourself doing?
Since I was little, I have always been a business starter. I was the nanny extraordinaire. In high school and college I worked 40-45 hours a week on top of going to school. It was crazy, but I made a ton of money, and I loved it.
So you’ve always been a worker.
Yeah, as soon as I was able to get an application somewhere. Before that, when I was 11 I took a babysitting course, and then walked around my neighborhood with flyers that I made on Word that said “I’m CPR Certified and I can watch your kids now!” and I knocked on peoples doors and I’m sure they thought " . . .you’re in fourth grade. I’m not leaving you with my four year old” But then they did! There was a pet-sitting flyer that also went out. My parents thought I was crazy. I was like the little neighborhood busy-body. I always wanted to be a business person. And that’s why I struggled so hard working in an office.
How do you suggest that people find out about what companies they should be supporting? How do you find out if a company is ethical?
Just ask “Where do you make your products?” Just submit a contact form. Message them on Instagram. Tweet at them. That’s what I would do. If you care, just ask.
It’s not always easy. Shoes are really hard to buy ethically. They cost a ridiculous amount of money. I have to buy Nikes, even though Nike doesn’t have the best manufacturing practices. So it’s not like I’m the glowing example of buying ethically, but I try to do what I can.
You also have a travel blog. Tell us about that.
It’s called This Land Was Made For You. When me and Nic travel, I write about where we’re going, how we’re doing it for "normal people money," and where we stay. There’s also a “Shop This Land” aspect, where I write about how I try to buy Made in America things, and not cater to fast fashion and manufacturing that I don’t like. For example, I just wrote a blog about how I buy all my jeans on Ebay because I love GAP jeans. Jeans that fit are hard to find, especially for short people. GAP jeans are my favorite, but GAP doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to manufacturing. So [buying on Ebay] isn’t a total solution, but I feel better about it because I’m not giving my money to GAP. I’m giving my money to people. I really try to buy things that are Made in America, but I have a limited amount of money. I just try my best. And a lot of times, I do have to order a random thing on Amazon, and who knows where it’s made. But if you just change one thing that you’re buying, it’s a step in the right direction. It’s the little things that add up eventually.
What is something that you could not go a day without?
If I don’t have coffee, I’m at home in bed because I have a headache. Also, I really love basketball. I watch basketball every single day when it’s on. I love Lebron. I’m a very big Lebron fan. My license plate says “I love 23.” So coffee and Lebron, that’s what I couldn't go a day without.