How to run a creative business while having a day job: Stephanie Win from Ruataniwha Dye Studio

Hello and welcome to a new Creative Boss Interview series! I'm so excited to be talking to other creative business owners again - and this topic is super special! It's something I know a lot of you are interested in, but where I can't really speak from experience so I decided to ask people who are doing a damn good job at it: How to run a creative business while having a day job.

I have a series of really cool interviews lined up for you with amazing people from the fibre world - from knitwear designer and online shop owner to indie dyers, we're going to be glimpsing behind the scenes and learning a lot about how to juggle a day job and a creative business.

The guest for today's second interview is Steph Win, the dyer behind Ruataniwha Dye Studio. I enjoyed her interview immensely, not the least because Steph has a refreshing take on what her business should do for her (spoiler alert: it's not about the money!) and I loved learning about how her scientific work informs her dyeing and vice versa.

Here's Steph about herself and her work:

Ruataniwha Dye Studio is a small, indie yarn-dyeing company; here we find respite from all of life’s bustle in the immersive world of colour and fibre. We dye sustainably produced, traceable wool or wool-blend yarns from New Zealand or the UK with the utmost scientific rigour. You can find us on Instagram as ruataniwhadyestudio or on Facebook and Ravelry.

And now on to the interview! 

Tell us a little bit about yourself! What is your creative business and what is your day job? 

My name is Steph and I run Ruataniwha Dye Studio, where I hand-dye ethically-sourced, sustainable wool or wool-blend yarns. (Note: Ruataniwha is pronounced ‘roo-ah tuni far’, where the ‘wh’ sounds like an ‘f’ or the ‘ph’ in Steph). I’m originally from New Zealand, however, for the last almost-decade, I’ve been an itinerant research scientist, working at various universities throughout Europe and Japan. I study immunology, more specifically the interplay between immune cells and bone cells during autoimmune disease. The show is on the road once again and I’m currently in the process of re-locating to Delft, in the Netherlands.

One of the various reasons I started dyeing yarn was to counter some of the rigidity of scientific discipline I encounter daily. In scientific fields, creativity, in an aesthetic or philosophical sense, is not considered favourably and I have felt this quite keenly over the last few years, despite having many creative extra-curricular pursuits. Ruataniwha has really been a way for me to expand and explore more of the right side of my brain in a constructive way.

What is your main reason for keeping a day job? Do you foresee that changing any time soon? Would you even want it to change?

There are a few reasons that I maintain both a professional career and a creative business. The first being that I’ve studied or worked in my research field for over ten years and would not have done so had I not enjoyed this line of work and found immense value in what research can achieve. Also, because it’s always been more of a side project, Ruataniwha Dye Studio doesn’t generate a liveable income. Whether it would grow to a point where it could, with more time and energy put into it is open to discussion!

Additionally, I have never really envisaged myself as a ‘business person’ and am not that interested in having a business for the sake of having a business. I derive so much joy from creating hand-dyed yarn, from the fibre itself to all the potential colour combinations and the knitting of it, and it’s such a tonic to the glacial pace at which research moves.

Will Ruataniwha Dye Studio ever supersede my science job? At this point in time, I think it’s unlikely, but that being said, there is a great deal of intellectual stimulation in the fibre industry and I do aim to find more of a balance between these two vocations to enable Ruataniwha Dye Studio room to expand a little. With our impending move to Delft in the Netherlands, I’m really looking closely at how I’m going to split my time, so we’ll have to see how that turns out!

I’d love to dive a little bit deeper into the nitty-gritty. How does a typical week look like for you? How much time to you spend working your day job and how much time do you spend working on your own business?

Time management is most definitely a key skill to doing two jobs without feeling overwhelmed (which it really can be at times!) Research can be a bit unpredictable in terms of the hours you need to work on a day-by-day basis, but typically I work 9–10 hours per day in the lab, and frequently more in the evenings or weekends as experiments or projects dictate.

I’m far more active in the mornings so tend to get up quite early to do Ruataniwha Dye Studio-related activities; pack up orders, respond to emails, do mini-photoshoots, plan dye sessions, reskein and label yarn etc. before heading to work. All the dyeing and major photography happens on the weekends, which can be a little weather dependent, but armed with a bit of forethought and a decent list, it works out fairly well. The time I spend per week on my business varies week to week so I wouldn’t like to hazard a guess at how many hours it works out as.

Do you have any systems in place - organizational (like a planner / bullet journal / etc.) and supportive (friends, family) - that help you juggle both? 

I keep things really simple when it comes to the organisation of the business. I use a standard calendar planner and make lists to ensure things get done in a timely manner. Having set workflows for various tasks ensures the process is as efficient as possible, for example, getting new yarn listed online requires that you have a variety of things ready concurrently, photographs, information, a social media plan etc. Knowing what all the steps are and what is required at each step helps to prevent time wasting.

My family are certainly very supportive and often take on various tasks to help out, for which I am endlessly grateful. I think nearly everyone in my immediate family has taken receipt of or ferried my yarn at some point, and for the indie shelf appearances and trunk shows that I’ve done, between my mum in New Zealand and husband, Duncan, they’re really who make it possible, logistically.

Additionally, I’ve co-opted some of Duncan’s skills so that I don’t have to do everything myself. Aside from being very understanding about all the yarn in the house, he has taken on various tasks, such as the design work for the labels, often posts the parcels, keeps an impartial eye on the budget, and in the beginning was instrumental in implementing the actual dye processes (he’s also a scientist, but with far more chemistry knowledge). He’s also important as a sounding board for ideas, especially so because he’s not otherwise that interested in yarn so looks at things objectively and he also tries to keep things in perspective for me, questioning whether I’m having fun and enjoying all this extra work. He’s truly invaluable.

Does your day job inform and influence your creative work - and vice versa? If yes, would you like to share how?

I think it’s impossible for the two aspects of my work to not influence one another. Interestingly, both jobs are entirely output based, focused on efficiency and productivity rather than the time it takes to do said thing. At a surface level, science is a very process and analysis driven pursuit, which naturally lends itself to the process of dyeing yarn. Years of practical experiments that don’t work if you’re too slow or poorly organised have certainly set me up for the practicalities of dyeing.

Indirectly, working independently and flexibly on multiple research projects concurrently, and valuing knowledge and its exchange have really helped in the running of a small, independent business, and certainly ensure that Im constantly striving to better inform myself about yarn, techniques, sustainable practices, and the industry in general. Scientists also tend to be a collaborative bunch, so searching out people with skills that I don’t have, such as pattern designers, is certainly something I prefer to do rather than try to do everything myself.

Conversely, there is much to be taken from the openness and acceptance of the fibre industry and the true joy that people gain from freely sharing their knowledge and skills. If all facets of life were as inclusive and gentle with each other, I’m sure the world would be a better place.

What are the main advantages that come from running your own business while working a day job?

Diversity. The two jobs I have are quite different and certainly prevent me getting bored! Probably more importantly, having another job has meant that I could work on developing my business at a pace that is comfortable for me without the (largely financial) pressure to make it successful instantaneously. It takes a while to get your name out there, to figure out what works best, and how to do so in a way that is authentic. For me, it is important that I can dye yarn that I am passionate about and not have to give over to fast fashion trends in order to survive, financially.

What are the main challenges? 

I actually don’t get as much time to knit for myself as I used to and I shouldn’t really wear all the samples I do knit!

It can be a real challenge to maintain some personal time and to stop thinking about some aspect of work, especially with social media, but I do enjoy both of my jobs, so it’s not too bad. Having to forgo opportunities or weekday engagements because of time or financial restrictions can be disheartening, but I try to be realistic about what I can achieve and for the most part, people seem to be really supportive of small businesses that are run part-time.

If you were to give advice to someone who’s starting out their own creative business while working a day job, what would your number 1 tip be?

I’d say, totally go for it! There really is no time like the present! But be patient and realistic, especially regarding your time and energy; there is nothing more disappointing for all involved, than a poorly delivered product. Take the time to develop your product and refrain from looking over the fence, to all those folk who are already established and work on their businesses full-time.

Thank you so much for your beautiful interview, Steph! Do head over to Ruataniwha Dye Studio to learn even more about Steph and her business and her Etsy shop for some gorgeous, gorgeous yarns.