“I think that in order to be successful, women have to figure out what they’re passionate about first. No matter what you aspire to, you’ve got to love what you do in order to be successful at it.” – Michelle Obama
Though wise, Ms. Obama’s words are easier said than done. However, Patty Palmer, Co-Founder and CEO of Deep Space Sparkle (DSS) has proven that the “find your passion” cliché still has merit.
DSS, founded in 2008, is an online resource for art teachers and parents. The company provides art lesson plans, curriculums and support materials through their membership site. Before launching DSS, Patty taught art at Mountain View Elementary School, in Santa Barbara, California.
Patty Palmer – Co-founder & CEO Deep Space Sparkle
I contacted Patty to better understand her journey from elementary art teacher to the CEO of a thriving subscription business. Note: Patty’s remarks have been lightly edited for brevity and readability.
Helping Art Teachers Sparkle
John Greathouse: Hello Patty – thanks for taking the time. I’m curious as to the inspiration for the name “Deep Space Sparkle?”
I had purchased a pack of metallic crayons for my Kinder art class. I was about to demonstrate how to use the crayons in the art project when I noticed the crayons had descriptive names.
This exposed a fun learning opportunity to see if the children could guess the color based on the description. As I was reading the crayon names, I came to Deep Space Sparkle. The kids guessed purple, and pink and blue but ultimately, it was an unremarkable grey. But the name resonated with me and when I started my art class blog, I named it Deep Space Sparkle.
Greathouse: I love that the name harks back to your roots teaching elementary school art.
I know you put a lot of time into your mission and curating your corporate culture. Please share Deep Space Sparkle’s mission, as well as proactive tactics you’ve initiated to nurture it.
Palmer: Our mission is everything. It drives our operation from writing copy for an email, to designing our lessons, to showing up on Facebook Live. We’re committed to providing the best art resources for art teachers that we can. We call it our Sparkly Standards of Excellence. We design our lesson plans so they are easy for a teacher, at any skill level to teach, but also a joy to open and experience. We want teachers to feel inspired. If we can bring beauty and ease into a teacher’s daily practice, then we know kids will be the recipient of the experience.
I’m a stickler at making sure that everything we put out in the world is recognized as a Deep Space Sparkle product: our colors, white space, language, etc. Even internally, I insist that team meeting minutes, emails and anything printed and passed around uses certain fonts and formatting. If the team knows it’s important just for our eyes, they’ll know it’s important to our customer.
Greathouse: Emphasizing (that) internal communications have a style consistent with external customer interactions is a clever way to engrain your “voice.” Nice.
Tell us about the origin of The Sparklers Club. If I properly understand your business model, you’ve turned your initial website, which serviced episodic purchases, into a subscription offering. Brilliant.
Palmer: The one thing I would say about a membership site is that it is dynamic. What you think it might look like at first, evolves into something else later on. When I started The Sparklers Club, I envisioned a library of art lessons members could access. Which it is, but something surprising happened – members became friends.
Through my daily communication in our community group, I got to know the members and they got to know each other. I included them in decisions I was making about the membership and they weighed in. Members contribute ideas about what art bundles they would like to see. Some even contributed lessons. This community has become the cornerstone of our membership.
It’s been wonderful to see that the community is the reason why many members stay a Sparkler.
Greathouse: Your Co-founder is your husband. Spousal teams can bring a special efficiency and synergy to their startups, for obvious reasons. However, startups can stress the best of relationships, including marriages. What strategies have you two created to keep your marriage on track, while staying sane on startup emotional roller coaster?
Palmer: Neil comes from a computer software background which in my mind, is the perfect complement to my strengths.
Like many things in our business, our business partnership has evolved organically. Neil set up my first store back in 2009 when e-commerce was still evolving and there were only a handful of options. We added about one new lesson plan a month and every time we had a sale, we would celebrate with the kids. The amounts were incredibly small, but it represented possibilities to us. We knew if we could sell ten lesson plans, we could sell a hundred.
Those days were almost blissful because the intention was to explore what worked and what didn’t. I didn’t have any expectations or goals. I wanted to serve teachers and provide them with a lesson plan that kids would love. Everything I did came from a place of service, so there was little stress for Neil and I.
Fast forward ten years, the intentions are the same but the goals are different. Within a few months of each other, Neil resigned from his job as a Director of Software of a large company and I resigned from teaching art. With the two of us working in the business full-time, my first goal was to rent a physical office space. I knew that if Neil and I were going to go all in, we needed to treat Deep Space Sparkle as a real business and not an extension of what I was doing previously.
Our first rental was above a pizza parlor. We added our first employee who is still with us today. The best part about an office space meant that we could leave our work at the office. It was a huge shift for me as I had always worked from home in random spurts of time. This way, we had business hours.
Even today, with a bigger office and bigger team, we keep work separate from our home life. But we still love spending a Sunday morning on the patio sipping coffee and strategizing growth.
Greathouse: “Blissful!” I always felt like my startups were similarly fun, but only in retrospect. When I talk with my fellow co-founders, they remind me that our early days were filled with hard work and stress. You had the advantage of growing your business organically, from a side gig to a full time, professional venture.
It is often difficult for entrepreneurs to scale their business beyond the first few million dollars in revenue, as it requires specific skills to scale and professionalize a venture. How have you dealt with this inevitable challenge?
Palmer: I had to acknowledge that the person who was crafting and selling single lessons isn’t the same person who is running the business today.
The biggest shift was internal – moving away from the entrepreneur who did everything to the CEO who builds a team. Believe me when I say this, I never imagined four years ago that I would have a team of teachers design the lessons and curriculums for the membership. Their talents have surpassed what I could ever have done. My role is not in the “doing” anymore but leading the team and finding opportunities for growth.
I still chat with my members every day in the community group. That’s something I don’t want to give up. It keeps my connected with our mission and the intentions I set all those years ago.
Greathouse: You Started Deep Space Sparkle after your youngest child was a teenager and your other children were in college What gave you the courage to jump into a startup at this stage of your life – do you have any advice for female entrepreneurs with adult children who might be considering taking a similar path?
Palmer: That’s right – my kids were becoming more and more independent which made it very easy to dive into my business with all my energy and focus. It was a pivotal time for me. My world shifted from art class and softball games to masterminds and conferences.
There was a very distinct moment in our business that was the impetus for many changes. After amassing a collection of over 200 lesson plans and a couple of online art courses, I noticed my customers asking for advice on what lessons to purchase, and in what order. It occurred to me that my offerings were so numerous that teachers were feeling overwhelmed.
I wasn’t sure how to address it, but I knew that I needed to streamline and scale in a different way. I reached out to an online business coach who suggested I reign in my offerings and offer them through a membership site. The idea piqued my curiosity straight away. I researched and studied how membership sites worked and within six months, I had reduced the number of single lessons in my shop to a dozen but offered the rest in a monthly membership.
After the first initial launch to a small customer list, I enrolled 900 members. Six months later I enrolled 2,400. Teachers loved the format and Neil and I knew we made the right decision.
I was a bit obsessed. In a good way, I think. I knew I had something I could offer to art teachers and it was making an impact in their lives. Decisions came easy because I based them entirely from the viewpoint of the teacher. I knew the world in which they lived in and I knew I could make it easier.
Greathouse: That’s inspirational. Many folks struggle with finding a purpose when their children begin to leave home.
Your workshops have become extremely popular. I understand your annual conference in Santa Barbara was oversubscribed. How do the workshops augment your core business?
Palmer: Yes. We usually sell out. This is a direct reflection on how necessary community is for teachers. All too often, art teachers can feel separate from the grade level teachers at a school. Many never get PD (Professional Development) or are included in staff development days. Creating an art workshop for teachers and creating a weekend for them is something many have never experienced. There’s been many times that teachers have cried because they made new art teacher friends or the art swag was just too good. Hosting these workshops has been one of my favorite things to do.
Greathouse: What does 2020, and beyond, have in store for Deep Space Sparkle’s customers?
Palmer: We really hope to add more teacher meet-ups and workshops plus develop our own brand of art supplies and subscription box to support art at home.