Female Founders Series Part 3: The Art and Joy of Balancing Education, Motherhood, and Entrepreneurship

Kathy Austin, owner of Bits of Joy. Photo by Holly Beasley

To foster the spirit of entrepreneurship and build connections among female entrepreneurs, Block Advisors recently partnered with Selfmade, a 10-week (virtual) business course offered through Brit+Co, helping female founders create and grow their businesses. Our sponsorship provided 200 scholarships for women to take the course at no cost. This is the third in a series telling the stories of select Block Advisors scholars.

They say life imitates art, and in this case, that’s certainly true. Kathy Austin’s life is full of joy, just like the adorable polymer clay products she lovingly handmakes to share that joy with others.

Kathy’s own joy comes from living out her childhood dream—to be an artist and help people, as well as teach. She’s happily married to her high school sweetheart, AJ, she’s a hands-on, work-at-home mom raising two young children, and she recently reinvigorated her appropriately named small business, Bits of Joy, after receiving a Block Advisors scholarship to attend Selfmade.

But that’s not to say there weren’t twists and turns on Kathy’s road to small business ownership and female entrepreneurship.

Dreams find their own paths to fulfillment

Growing up, Kathy was a creative child who always asked for craft kits and art supplies for her birthday. She took every art class available in school but couldn’t enroll in art extracurriculars because her family had limited means. Kathy is a second-generation Asian American who grew up watching her parents’ struggle as small business owners running a restaurant – in Sarasota, Florida.

The first person in her family to attend college, Kathy was determined to get a degree, even though her academic pursuits were a little unconventional. She and AJ got married after her first year at The University of South Florida. After the wedding, Kathy transferred schools and graduated (a full year early) from the College of Charleston. Then AJ enlisted in the US Navyrequiring them to move around a lot.

With AJ’s deployments, several moves, and welcoming two children into the mix, finding and keeping a job was difficult for Kathy because she and AJ never knew where and for how long they’d be in any one community. And being a mom of two little ones added its own complexity.

During this time of transition, Kathy tapped into her love of art and developed a hobby making clay hearts adorned with little anchors for herself and the other Navy wives. She started selling them on Facebook in 2011 and slowly developed a following through word-of-mouth among the wives, support groups, and military networks.

Wanting to contribute financially to their family, Kathy also began teaching English online to kids in China. By working early mornings, she could stay at home with her kids while doing meaningful work educating children. She still teaches online ESL in addition to running Bits of Joy because it helps fill up her cup.

“In a sense, my childhood dream has been fulfilled in an unexpected way,” Kathy says. “I didn’t end up pursuing elementary art education in college (I thought it would be too difficult to manage with the military lifestyle), but I do get to continue making and selling my art, and I get to teach children a useful skill to help change their lives and improve their education.”

Recognize when it’s time to get help

Beyond filling her cup, Bits of Joy proved to be more than just a small cash hobby on the side. As Kathy diversified her products into cute earrings, desktop figurines, and – the big sellers – Christmas ornaments, orders picked up rapidly.

Although my parents were business owners and ran a restaurant for most of my childhood, I didn’t know anything about business! I had never taken a business course and was just taking it day by day,” she says.

She realized she needed to get a handle on her business finances, but found herself in the same boat as many female entrepreneurs—not knowing where to turn for business advice.

She had plenty of friends who were also work-at-home moms, but they weren’t as committed to growing their businesses as Kathy knew she needed to be. When she heard about Selfmade, she applied for a Block Advisors scholarship so she could learn from other small business owners, as well as CEOs and experts across fields.

And learn she did.

Everything is “figure-out-able”

“Attending Selfmade taught me that everything is ‘figure-out-able.’ Sometimes it’s better to launch an imperfect product and listen to your customer feedback to make it better,” Kathy said.

“Also, it’s okay to ask for help. If you believe in yourself, your mission, and your product or service, others will see and appreciate that and that will help you grow.”

Kathy also learned a few important small business tax tips from Kathy Pickering, Chief Tax Officer at H&R Block, who gave a special presentation to participants during the course.

“Ms. Pickering advised us to separate our personal and business finances for tax purposes. So, I opened the first business bank account for Bits of Joy.”

Kathy also decided to switch her business structure from a sole proprietorship to a single-member LLC. Then she took a giant leap of faith and rented studio space to move her business outside the home.

“Aside from my craft supplies and shipping boxes taking over the house, I didn’t do very well with separating work and home,” Kathy admits. “With the pandemic, my kids were also home a lot more and so was my husband. It was hard to work when everyone else was relaxing from their day off work or school. Since moving to the studio, I have gotten a lot more work done and am more focused when I am at work and more present when I am at home with my kids.”

Now, Kathy can focus on her business and implement many of the other lessons about female entrepreneurship she learned during the course, including:

  • Dream bigger and consider different ways to build your business.
  • Network with other female business owners, share your struggles and successes, lean on each other for help and cheer each other on.
  • Take advantage of the myriad tools and resources available to small business owners – many of which are free.
  • Get out of your comfort zone so you can push yourself to grow.
  • Provide excellent customer service. The key to retaining loyal customers is providing them with the utmost care and attention.

These lessons also helped inspire Kathy’s vision for the future of her business. She eventually wants to hire other females – especially moms – so she can simultaneously help other families out financially and offer flexibility, so they don’t have to worry about balancing “mom/work life.”

And while Kathy still handles most behind-the-scenes aspects of her business by herself, she hopes to soon outsource bookkeeping, shipping, and some website maintenance.

Block Advisors helps millions of small business owners like Kathy every year. We can save you time so you can get back to what you love. Connect with a Block Advisors tax pro today to learn how we can help your small business with taxes, bookkeeping, or payroll. Make an appointment now.

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