elle crée, Rachel Austen
Rachel Austen has had an entrepreneurial spirit since the age of 13. “I started in middle school making and selling jewelry at craft fairs,” she reminisced. Flash forward to today and Rachel is still creating, only instead of jewelry, it’s paint-by-number kits. She got the idea to make her own product after being frustrated with the existing ones that were out on the market. “Most of the kits were overly complex, too time-consuming, and missing the stylized simplicity of original mid-century paint-by-number. I was nostalgic for the vintage aesthetic.”
Rachel filed for a business license in 2016 under the name ‘elle crée’ (pronounced EL CRAY) which, translated in French means “she creates.” The name could not be more fitting for Rachel, as she loves working with her hands. The business was launched in her basement, selling almost exclusively on Etsy and at various craft shows.
When it came to finding an illustrator to design her 5 initial canvas designs for her product line, she didn’t have to look far. Rachel’s previous career was as a self-taught graphic designer for 15 years. That design experience became a crucial part of her ability to create designs quickly in a one-person shop. She persisted without any employees, working tirelessly to create and fulfill every order herself and with the help of some relatives. She mixed custom paint colors, filled the paint pots, assembled and shipped kits during the day, and designed the canvases, updated the website, and kept up with the marketing and bookkeeping at night.
In 2018 as her retail orders grew and she began wholesaling her kits, Rachel felt the need to understand more about what was going on with her business and to find a business mentor at SCORE. “It had been 15 years since I studied business at Portland State University and so much of the business world is constantly changing. I knew that I needed to bounce my ideas off some local experts.”
It wasn’t until contacting Jim Heath at SCORE Portland that she’d ever thought about the concept of scaling. “It made total sense, Jim taught me how to make pricing, staffing, and sales channel decisions through the lens of what it would take to scale the business up in a sustainable way.”
In May 2019 elle crée kits began selling wholesale through Faire.com which led to orders from over 100 different retailers nationwide. By a twist of fate, in January 2020, the local Portland TV show More Good Day Oregon had come to interview Rachel with the intent of interviewing a local small business. By the time the news segment finally aired in March 2020, the country was already in the early days of the pandemic shutdown. Millions of people were stuck at home and eager for home crafting projects to try out. Demand for Rachel’s kits skyrocketed. The company sold 500% more kits in 2020 than in the previous year.
Elle crée now has three full-time and five part-time employees and a retail storefront in downtown Milwaukie. Rachel is proud that she pays her employees living wages and each of her kits is assembled in the workshop space connected to the storefront. The company’s product line has expanded to over 50 canvas designs to choose from and the number keeps growing. After some initial problems with paint supply during the pandemic, Rachel has now secured her own branded paint line with the original paint manufacturer at wholesale prices.
To find out more, check out their website elle-cree.com or their new storefront 10863 SE Main St, Milwaukie, OR.
-written by Drew Cardinale and Matt Rutter
My mentoring focuses on business planning, marketing, retail and ecommerce. Among the areas I cover...