Creator Profile: Victoria and Deej, Founders of Oak & Melanin - Seattle
Hi Victoria and DJ! Tell us a little bit about yourselves.
V is from The SF Bay Area, but found her roots in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She has a immense love for beautiful things and people, especially in an unconventional sense. Within O&M, Victoria is the design eye in physical space. She stages the content creation shoots, curates the instagrams, and plays a part in the storytelling aspect for our clients.
DJ was born in Oakland, Ca but grew up in South Lake Tahoe. At the age of 21 she moved to Seattle to start a good life for herself. Within O&M, Deej is the design eye in digital space. She’s the photographer, the web and graphic designer and the analytics sector of the business.
What are your backgrounds (i.e. education, previous jobs, experiences that led you to create)?
DJ’s background is in photography. She didn’t go to college, but did live in the Dominican Republic where she took up the hobby of photography and photographing the beautiful 3rd world country.
V has a BFA in Creative Writing and has always been fascinated with learning and telling the stories of people's lives. Yearning to get to know people deeply has always been an overarching theme in her life that morphed into providing either physical or metaphoric space for them. Before O&M she was a nanny, and had future hopes of becoming a sex therapist.
As both partners in business and in life, how did you navigate starting Oak & Melanin together?
In the beginning it was hard. We had to find the balance of life and work in a way that didn’t make sense to us right away, because we had never been independent like that before. We were both a barista and a nanny right before O&M and when we went full time (Jan 2018 for Deej and February 2018 for V) initially, there was a lot of staying in bed all day and starting work at 1:00 in the afternoon. Also way too much takeout, ha.
There’s pluses and minuses to either of us not having educations in business or marketing. A plus being we don’t conduct our business in a traditional sense, and we really like to connect with our clients one on one. A negative being, we don’t know the ropes on some of the more traditional and organizational aspects. So we really hit the ground running with that, especially because Social Media Marketing and Management is so new, and there isn’t a lot of established structure to it yet, so we’ve been writing our own script a lot of the time. It can be overwhelming and stressful.
In the last several months, we’ve really been working towards improving ourselves and refining our overall business. A lot of that has looked like learning when to talk to each other as business partners, and when to talk to each other as lovers. And in both circumstances, doing our best not to take things personally, but to listen openly and seek to understand. We’re not always seamless at it, but I can say we both strive to love each other patiently in both contexts of our relationship.
When did you start O&M and what all does it encompass?
We started O&M in August of 2017. It started out with just Social Media Management, and as things began to grow (aka more clients were asking us if we built websites, or designed logos, and Deej never said no!) we started offering Brand Identity, Web Design, Interior Design and various other design aspects. We’ve leaned on our natural understanding of design and our natural knack for connecting with people. The Foundations of O&M lean on the long talks into morning hours Deej and I had about our dreams and noticings of the world and life when we were first falling in love a few years ago. Then eventually in the intentional conversations we were having with the people we loved around us. These things informed our observations on the need for true connection in marketing spaces. As a nation, we’re craving less hands in the process of what we’re consuming in every sense. We’re yearning for a connection and a well informed meaningful decision because there’s so many options for meaningless transactions now. We miss connecting. We tuned into the need for instead of selling like we’ve historically done, offering––with the consumer and their best interest in mind. We’ve taken our natural inclinations of psychology and our love for people, and applied it in strategy and design.
Could you walk us through your process of working with clients?
We always love to tell clients before we start that they better be ready for us to be best friends! A benefit of working with an agency like us, is we are both the front and back end of the business. We are the ones sitting down with you in the beginning stages of taking on a client, and we are going to be the ones creating for you later. That style happens far and few between within agencies.
V’s favorite part of the process is within the beginning stages and getting to hear our client’s why. How and why they started and where they want us to take them. It’s an incredibly invigorating conversation and gives us a good feel of who we’re working with and what we can create for them.
From there, each collaboration looks different, but each interaction we focus on understanding and incorporating a few things overall. We aim to learn and properly tell our client’s story, and we aim to understand the style personality of our client so we can better understand how to depict that with a little bit of finesse.
In the beginning of the business, how did you put yourselves out there to get clients and collaborations? Any advice on how to develop new business relationships?
Build. Your. Brand. Before we had any clients of our own, we dove into building our own brand aesthetic to become memorable in people’s minds. We simultaneously built our Instragram platform, which is the best platform for most businesses, and that’s been our only source of marketing, ever. We got involved within the creative entrepreneurial community and eventually things started to become word of mouth and turned into its own thing from there.
Now, in the beginning, we didn’t have any evidence that what we knew was going to work for a business, was truly going to. So we sent out cold emails and asked if we could work for free with businesses to get something in our portfolio. We didn’t get a lot of replies initially. But someone who did reply was Julian of Harry’s Fine Foods. We began working with him (created content, rebuilt their website, managed 100% of the Harry’s Fine Foods Instagram and engaging with people within Seattle) and in the first month, Harry’s saw a 33% revenue increase. Before we worked with them, they were only open three days a week at odd hours and their website had a map of Capitol Hill with a small point of reference and below it read, “No phone, No reservations, Come See Us.” We have since finished our contract with Harry’s but our partnership with them was the perfect first collaboration. And the confirmation we needed to give us the confidence to keep going–– that what we were wanting to do wasn’t completely crazy.
All of the above as well as building your community. We were two lone wolves in the very beginning and didn’t have the concept of a creative community quite yet. Last December, we got a comment from the lovely Chloe of Gather (@gatherseattle, @designanddigest) asking us to coffee one day and we were admittedly confused. We weren’t sure what she could possibly want to get coffee for. She seemingly had anything we could offer her, down already. We sat down to coffee and she asked us how we got started and it was the first time that we figured out we could just be friends with the people we felt inspired by in the community. Chloe is such an amazing facilitator of sorts, she’s been the root connection for us to the community we love so dearly now. Point being, never be scared to ask someone to coffee, even if your only goal is to hear their story. You never know what it will yield.
Why do you think social media is important for small businesses?
Social Media is the key most important part of starting a business of any kind. It’s the modern day “brick & mortar” giving people a chance to window shop before they even take the step in investing what you have to offer. When we first came to Seattle a couple years ago, we lived outside of the city and the commute in was pretty brutal, so every weekend, we’d deliberately plan out where we were going to go. We looked for places to go on Instagram, because we were trying to discover cute places in the city to take photos and eat at, and that is a huge missed opportunity for most small businesses. These markets are oversaturated, how are you going to stand out, then how are you going to tell people about why investing in you is better?
As we mentioned above, people are craving more and more, knowing where the things they purchase are from, and feeling connected to the person they’re purchasing them from. Social Media is an opportunity to do that as a business. It doesn’t matter what you’re offering, as long as you’re authentic. People can grab onto that, and when that occasion comes up where they want to buy a meaningful gift for their mom for Christmas, or they are in need of a service you provide, you will already be in their mind because they trust you, and that what you have to offer is credible as well.
We watched that happen in a very different way when DJ’s backpack got stolen. Because of the community we’d already built on Instagram, and within Seattle, people really showed up for us. They rallied behind us in donations and in purchasing paintings we were creating to gather funds to repurchase 5k worth of stolen gear. It was beautiful and really made us understand in a very real way, just how wonderful of a device Instagram can be to facilitate connection and community if you’re putting out the right vibe!
You're still a relatively new business, how have you handled your growth? What pivots and shifts have you had to make?
Man, every day feels like a new pivot. The most amazing thing about owning a small business is the incredible amount of learning that goes into it. The more you learn the more you adapt and the more you pivot. We’ve recently come to realize that being a small business is an advantage in this way. When you want to implement a bigger change, you don’t have as many hands in the process that would slow it down. Things can adapt quickly, and that’s a win.
With that the main thing we have pivoted is our business model. Our hearts crave the connection and meaningful conversations between our clients as well as the storytelling aspects. We love to be motivated to create by our clients and because of that, we’ve created a small business program that will be in place no matter how far we go with O&M so that we can always provide affordable and elevated design on a small business budget because we get it, and it’s were out heart lies.
What makes you passionate about what you do?
The connection that we have with each of our clients, our employees, and the community. It’s so life giving getting to talk about our dreams and ideas and learning and sharing new ways to be better with people who are just as invigorated in those conversations as we are. Before O&M we were having these conversations between just the two of us, and now, we get to breathe life into other peoples visions–– to collaborate on them and that is by far, the reason we get up in the morning. As well as getting to push ourselves to be better and more creative than we were the day before. It’s a thrill to all of us at O&M.
What are some of the setbacks or challenges you face with O&M?
Setbacks for us are always learning experiences. In the beginning, there were a lot of learning curves, we gave people a lot of trust, and not every partnership ended well. We took that really personally in the beginning, and it really brought our energy and tenacity down for a couple months. We really saw a slowdown in O&M around that time as well.
It taught us about the importance of the energy you’re investing in something, and taught us to watch out for certain red flags to not end up in situations we decided to learn from. Now, we don’t really get set back we learn, we evaluate, and we pivot and continue moving forward. With that energy shift, things have become much more bountiful and have grown so quickly since we’ve stopped standing in our own way!
At The Glossary, we believe in women working together and helping one another. Why do you think it is important for women to support each other? How have women supported you?
Wow. Women in business have become this incredibly powerful force, especially in the creative space. When you used to think of a woman in business, there was a hard and judgy idea you’d have in your head of a woman with a tight slick back bun, a pencil skirt power suit and a cutthroat attitude. But what’s beautiful about women supporting women in business, is there’s room for community now. There’s more spaces where a woman isn’t competing for a man’s role in a company, and that allows women to not have to put on in a masculine narrative, but encourage and support each other to collectively succeed in a work environment. We’ve needed that kind of energy around women in business for far too long, and we’re glad it’s starting to become prevalent.
How have women supported us.. How haven’t they really? Aside from Chloe who we mentioned earlier, we have until most recently (we love you Marcos), been a solely woman owned and run business. We’ve been lucky enough to be in a city where collaboration, because it’s only just starting to grow, is a huge opportunity and possibility in these entrepreneurial communities. We’ve been gifted with some of the most amazingly supportive women behind us, collaborating with us, producing work with us, for us, hiring us. The connection has been magical, and being able to reap and offer the benefits of that connection has been priceless.
What women bring you inspiration?
MAN. Can we take a moment to say, these are some incredibly intuitive and well informed questions. We really appreciate that.
A few women that inspire us are namely women within our community. Alayna Erhart (@alaynaerhart) who is a videographer within the Seattle creative community who’s creativity and emotive nature in her art is absolutely untouched and boundless. She’s truly a force that we feel really inspired by. Talitha Bullock (@talithaphotos) is a photographer who infuses her incredible photography with her knowledge of psychology and creates the opportunity of unearthing another level of people she gets to capture. That energy is electric and we feel blessed to be in cohort’s with someone like her.
Recently, we’ve been making a lot of moves with our good friend and Chief Strategist of Operations, Chloe Akahori (@ch103) who has admittedly been the creative fuel behind some expansive moves O&M is currently in the thick of. She’s also expanding her own video and photographic skill set under her brand MASAYO (@masayocreative) that will be live come 2019, so watch out for that. We also had the pleasure of tackling her brand identity for her new endeavor as well.
What have you learned from creating your own business that you think can apply to any creative endeavor?
The art of being true to yourself and your beliefs. It sometimes feels like a cliche or a glitch in the matrix, but we both have found that those two things can fuel amazing outcomes. There’s untapped power in authenticity––explore it.
Do you have a dream collaboration?
Yes, we would love to work with Pampa (@wearepampa) as either a collaboration or a content creation situation, and admittedly, Byron Bay is a dream destination for us, V especially. An equivalent dream would be Sarah Shabacon (@bohemegoods or @sarahshabacon) or Orion Vanessa (@orionvanessa) who have both and will be a continued source of inspiration for us.
Do you have any resources that have been helpful to you that we should know of?
Our parents for emotional support––ha, but srsly. As well as Tumblr for a ton of inspiration!
What are you trying to learn right now or what is something that you are wanting to learn?
Right now we are learning how we want to shape our business for the long run. We are now looking further into the future with O&M and how we would like to be apart of communities near and far. We’re looking into how to be smart for the future and how to lay a foundation for our employees and create a company culture that prioritizes our employees, and have that grow into a standard as we grow. Also to lay a foundation to give return to people that socioeconomically deserve that chance. It’s a lot of admin right now, but we know it’s the right time, we can feel it in our bones.
What are some of your favorite places in Seattle?
Man we love so many places. The Volunteer Park Conservatory is great when we need to decompress. We also love walking through George Town & Pioneer Square and seeing all of the amazing makers, artists, and small business owners do their thing in their natural habitat.
We also love going to Callus for coffee as it’s right across the street from the office we currently work at. The energy of Callus is so bright and the owner Lusha is amazing. She features vendors that create a pop-up featured in the space ranging for a couple months, to a few days long and that always makes coming into Callus lively and interactive.
Now if you want the real insider info, that good good–– you have to head to the edge of Colombia City to a little Ethiopia spot called Adu Cafe. Ask for the ‘one of everything’ option on the menu and be prepared to be floored. If you’ve had Ethiopia, you’ve never had this kind of Ethiopian. You’re welcome in advance.
What's coming up next for you?
For 2019, we plan on expanding to Los Angeles, settling into a design studio of our own, and slightly expanding our team. From there, we have a lot of ideas no one's ready for, and we’re excited to share them in due time. In the meantime, we’re planning on spreading more love and elevated design.