Salt Lake City, Utah to Bow, Washington
Tucked behind a tall fence in the dusty stretches of the Mojave, just a short drive away from Joshua Tree, California, you find Sara and Rich Combs’ renovated 1940s desert oasis. Their love affair with the desert began in 2011, when the couple began escaping there from San Francisco on the weekends. Those transformative getaways inspired them to buy an investment property in town and renovate it using their distinctive design sensibilities. The home quickly became such a popular AirBnB destination that they rarely had the opportunity to stay there themselves.
In 2013, craving a new adventure, Rich and Sara left their full-time web designer jobs and began freelancing. This freelance flexibility allowed them to work from the road and they embarked on a world tour, finding inspiration in the places they visited and the people they met along the way. Upon returning to San Francisco, they settled back into routine and continued escaping to Joshua Tree whenever their property was free. With a steady stream of rental income and little opportunity to enjoy their desert getaway, they began exploring the idea of buying a second property so they might actually be able to spend more time there. The promise of a breathtaking cactus garden is what initially piqued their interest on their now home.
The listing photographs of the gardens were so beautiful they couldn’t help but take a tour, even though it wasn’t in the price range they had initially imagined. Sara and Rich’s parents, who were in town visiting, came along for the ride. As soon as they walked through the gate they knew they had stumbled onto something truly special. The property offered a large open floorplan hacienda with vaulted ceilings and ample natural light, and a smaller, but equally open and light-filled, casita. Although it was in desperate need of some major aesthetic renovations, the bones of the place were great and the well-established landscaping was incredible. Their parents, also charmed by the place, encouraged Sara and Rich to take the risk and go out of their comfort zone to invest in this unique home.
In order to offset renovation costs, they opened up their personal home for photoshoots and next door casita for overnight stays. It took nearly a year and a half to renovate the two buildings. Looking back, they say it was both the best and toughest times they’ve experienced. They renovated the Casita first for rental income, and lived in the Hacienda as they renovated the space. Most of the renovations they did themselves, learning a myriad of valuable skills as they went. They documented their renovation process on Instagram and quickly amassed a loyal following of people who loved their design sensibilities. By the end, they had created something together that they were proud of, a sanctuary in the desert for people looking to reflect, reset and create.
Guests flocked to The Joshua Tree house in droves and the couple began spending more and more time there. Seeing how transformative and rejuvenating these spaces were for their city-dwelling visitors, Sara and Rich found it increasingly difficult to head back to San Francisco themselves. In early 2016, they decided to throw caution to the wind and move permanently to their Joshua Tree home. At first they weren’t sure if moving away from the city would mean that their freelance design opportunities would dry up, but they were willing to hustle even harder to make it possible to live in the desert full time. Serendipitously, Sara and Rich found that their move actually presented them with more varied creative freelance opportunities, not less. Brands and businesses began hiring them not only to do web design, but also consult on interior design and space build outs. In the last year alone they’ve designed commercial spaces such as the Assembly in San Francisco, and authored their first book At Home in Joshua Tree: A Field Guide to Desert Living. When not working on brand and design projects, Sara and Rich can be found exploring the myriad of trails in the National Park, adventuring in their vintage International Harvester Scout and sharing the serenity they’ve found in the Mojave with their evolving door of guests at The Joshua Tree House. For this couple, escaping to the rural expanses of the desert full time was a gamble well worth taking.
What motivated you to leave Salt Lake City and move to rural Washington state?
My husband, kids, and I, wanted to find a place with land and we knew that the PNW was sort of our calling, we felt at home in Washington when traveling to it. And with the neck break pace of growth in SLC, it was becoming very unsustainable for us to purchase property in our area, this coupled with our desire to stretch our legs and try living elsewhere motivated us in our move.
Did you research a lot of other locations before choosing to settle in this area?
Yes, we traveled to New England, North Carolina, Ohio to before taking one last trip to Bellingham, Washington in hopes of finding that elusive place to call home. We were on the last day of our trip and had felt like we struck out, while Bellingham is an amazing city, it is indeed a city and not quite what we were looking for. We went to a Farmer’s Market while on our trip and purchased pumpkin muffins from a great small business named Bread Farm, which is located in the next town over, Edison. We thought we would take a drive to Bread Farm, not knowing where it was at the time, and purchase a few more muffins since we were all craving them. We took the scenic route thankfully, which is Chucakanut Drive, and found that paradise was opening up the closer we came to the Bow/Edison area. It was love at first sight. We are pretty big risk takers and in hindsight, I don’t think we did quite as much research as we could have, but after several years of traveling around, we felt good about it.
What do you love the most about living in this community?
The entire community is very active, family oriented, open minded and living in this slowed down manner. It’s sort of a “live and let live” kind of demeanor with a hefty scoop of community.
What was the hardest part about making the transition from city to small town? What challenges came later?
The hardest part is the isolation for my children. We went from living in a massive planned HOA community that had a neighborhood park in our front yard, there were so many children and opportunities for our kids to make friends. Now we have to cobble together that community as our area is not heavily populated with young children. After two years we have found our people and our children are making friendships. Also, for me personally, while I craved the simple living, I did thrive a bit on the hustle and bustle at times with my business, and so having to learn to retrain my thought process and be more present has been challenging, something that hit me about 8 months into living here. I had to learn to see value in the different ways of doing business, the slower methods of communication, using checks again, and very slow internet!
How has your professional life changed since moving away from the city?
My professional life has changed quite a bit since the networking is much more sparse and you have to make a real effort to seek out opportunities or make them yourself. It’s been a cobbling of friends, hosting parties to make introductions, etc. Also, my professional life now resides on Skype, Slack and Asana. I don’t have the office space any more so we do everything remotely except when I travel for my once a month, week long, work trip.
Have you been able to foster more friendships and meaningful relationships here or do you feel more isolated socially?
Socially for the first year it was very isolating, as the second year went on, we found a bit of a rhythm but I have to consciously tell myself to get out. I’m an introvert and find that I can not leave home for five days in a row. When I need to get out, I go walk the pasture, hang out with the horses, play with the goats. It still feels so big to me so that feels like an outing, but I would say that the friends I am making here are so different and at ease that I do seem to be the anxious one and they all have helped me to settle in, relax, and enjoy a bit more. It’s so mellow in comparison.
Do you feel like you have more creative opportunities in the country or less?
That’s an interesting question, in a lot of ways less because of the smaller population and different mindset. But on the other hand, my home and the land we sit on creates VAST creative opportunities. From working with people like yourself, to collaborations on our move, to hosting events, photography, etc.
What do you appreciate most about the life you’ve created here?
I appreciate that it’s a challenge that strengthens our character. I can’t just quit or get disinterested, I have to work on it and work on it until I find the missing puzzle. The opportunity to have our horses is a highlight for me, wow does it challenge me, I literally just came in from a two hour “attempt” at loading our pony that still insists on me finding the key to working with her. There is no way in the city life we had that we could have had this type of intimate relationship with animals. We see them every day, we watch them change from season to season, we care for them, and build a bond.
Is there anything you miss about living in a more urban area?
I do miss some of the fun new businesses that always were popping up in the city, here they are oldies but goodies. Honestly, really great restaurants are probably the thing I miss the most. Or a bit of shopping. :)
Would you ever consider moving back to a city?
No! I really could not ever see that any more. I go to cities now and I appreciate them but I feel so out of my skin now.
What advice do you have for people who want to leave the city but don’t know how to start planning their exit strategy?
Know what you are getting into, we rushed it a bit since we like to take risks and found ourselves being duped quite a few times on things. Like when our home was completely flooded and we woke up to our goats in neck high water, looking into the “flood zone” would have been handy. We did some research but I would suggest having a 50% plan on knowing your must have necessities, like great internet, schools, shopping, amenities, and then the rest of my advice is to just let it unfold organically. I live by this 50/50 rule, which in my opinion keeps things lively.
Did you have any experience raising animals or growing food prior to moving here?
HA, no, none except having dogs and cats.
What advice would you give to someone interested in growing their own food?
Learn what grows well, lean on your neighbors to help you understand the cycles, and the soil. We are lucky here since the Skagit Valley is known for it’s great growing ability. We will be expanding our garden next year, and expanded our dahlias this past year to includes 60 plants which yielded a huge amount of flowers. We still have so much to learn.
Do you notice a trend of people wanting to leave city life behind? If yes, why do you think that is?
Yes! Everyone always tells me I’m living their dream. I can’t help but thing the pendulum needs to swing back a bit the other way, to simple and less noisy living. I was always so frenetic in the city, even though it wasn’t a chaotic life, it just felt like it would never be quiet enough. And even here, there is noise, cars driving by, gunshots during the duck/goose season, but it’s “quiet” and I can feel the stillness. I think people crave that, they don’t know how to get that and moving out of the intense energy to a smaller place provides so many opportunities to get back in touch with life and the cycles of nature. I honestly had forgotten what it felt like to see the stars.
What are some common misperceptions about life in the country? What do you want people to know/understand about life in small communities?
People aren’t slow in the country, they just live by a different set of ideas. There’s a live and let live sort of mentality that I think creates the ease. It took us a long time to break into the community since we are “newbies” to the area, but the people we do know are educated, interested, and take you under their wing. They are quick to give advice, assistance, and show you new traditions. I think it’s important to know, or understand, that the life you created before moving to the country won’t matter, your net worth, your name, reputation, etc. It’s not relevant to rural living. We know people who are COO’s of major corporations in Seattle but you would never know it when you first meet them, they are just your neighbor.
What are your future plans/goals for the coming year?
I’d like to build out the structures a bit more, grow more food and adopt a few more animals. We are a bit of a sanctuary here, we foster animals for the local rescue, and adopt animals that are in need of a forever home. It’s my main goal for these 13 acres, this is our idea of country living, to have space to create cycles of life that teach us things we can’t learn in books, offices, or online.
SMALL BUSINESS QUESTIONS
Where did the initial idea come from for The Kinship Creative?
I had worked for a franchisor back around 2006, and my main responsibility at first was as a Field Rep for stores, the goal was to support them with numbers and marketing, but I found that they needed so much more than that. They always craved hearing how other stores were doing, what we were doing in the office, bloopers or successes and they were just looking for camaraderie. So when I set off on my own, I took that lesson and turned my experience into my business model. We are a built in team that can be trusted to be a mentor, understand complex issues in the business and be completely confidential. It’s great because we can share our own experiences that we have inside our own team, our retail proof of concept and of course our other clients.
What is the significance of the name?
Originally I had named the company The Salt Creative but we received a cease and desist letter from a company in San Francisco for a trademark on the word “salt” for use in marketing, and while devastating at the time, the best blessing ever. I had always loved the idea of kin for small business owners, they need it like they need air, so I just decided to name it Kinship, because we truly feel like we are all family to our clients and vice versa.
Where do you draw your creative inspiration from?
I draw my creative inspiration from our area, the PNW, it’s a moody and beautiful place and I like to work people that sort of break the mold. Also, the behavior of animals and how they all play into each other’s lives.
Did you start to build your business in the city or did you build it entirely in this area?
It was built in the city, but a few years in I started to think about how it could become mobile and have diverse revenue streams to support our move to a rural area. So about a year before the move I made transitions to a more nimble business model with the anticipation of us either traveling with our children or a more remote move.
If you could time machine back to the early stages of your business, what advice would you give yourself?
Find really good, solid people, and have a good amount of cash flow that you aren’t afraid to spend. I started with $5000 from the sale of my grandfather’s 1960 Mercedes that was gifted to me from my dad, it was enough to get me started but I wish I had saved a bit more. It would have allowed me to cut out so much of the work in the middle that I muddled through. I find our clients get stuck like this too.
Walk us through a typical day here?
6:00 AM is wake up time, grab a cup of coffee, check the emails.
7:00 AM, get the kids up for school
8:00 AM, head out to open the chicken coop, let out the goats and feed the horses
8:30 AM, kids head out to the bus stop and I head up to my office, which is part of my master bedroom.
8:35-9:30 AM is usually prep time for a client call
12:30 PM Finish up client calls, work on strategies from the call, collaborations, photography shoots, team meetings
2:38 PM Get my son off the bus
3:00 PM Back to work on website updates, strategies for ongoing collaborations
3:38 PM Get my daughter off the bus
4:00 PM Work on the Kinship business side, prepare for a mentor session until 5:00 Pm
How did you/do you overcome any feelings of uncertainty and fear when it comes to making decisions and taking risks?
My personality is to be risky, I believe in the DISC profile and I am a “DI” personality, which notes that I have a tendency to be risky, all in, and bored with the status quo. Because of this I do spend time on calculating my risks with a back up plan A, B and sometimes C. I know what my threshold is and then I just go for it. I don’t feel uncertain necessarily because I know I have a bottom and when I need to pull out of a potential nose dive or pivot. I’ve had some doozies.
How do you separate home life from work life?
It’s hard but I have a hard stop time now, at 5:00 PM I really try to turn off any communication. I don’t read my work emails and will only do social posts that are scheduled to go out in the evening. Otherwise I don’t check Slack or Asana. Also, I keep my work area really tidy so it doesn’t feel like this looming place of unfinished projects. Somehow I can tune it out that way.
How long did it take you to reach a point where you were generating income?
It took us about two years before I started to pull in any consistent income, I wanted to make sure the company was really solid in cash flow. At first I was just paying myself enough to pay for my child care so I could work the full-time hours. It was crazy to work to just pay for daycare but I knew it was the only way to build the freedom and financial goals I had set for myself.
How have you handled scaling up your business? Did you feel any growing pains? If yes, how did you navigate through them?
Scaling for us needs to be nimble and mostly online, we can’t get too top heavy since finding the person with strong experience gets harder the further you go out from a city, as well as space for an office. We also don’t want to become too tech heavy since the Kinship is all about relationships, because of these reasons we have scaled the business off of using our time more wisely. Instead of having several retained clients, or one-on-one clients, we have combined these skill sets and experience into a intimate and unique setting with the simply.kinship series and a small 25 person mastermind that will be launching in 2019. Both of these facets of the business allow us to keep our resources low, double up our exposure on our current platforms and still allow for remote living, and flexibility, while opening up our capacity by the hundreds. Our problem with scaling is time, we can’t create this natural resource so our growing pains lie in maximizing time without losing the personal touch. One way we work to overcome them is by having a very unique and dynamic team of individuals, everyone on this team is so talented and offers a lot to the table which makes being creative with our skills and time easier.
How important has your local community been to the growth and success of your business?
Honestly, we have had a bit of a hard time with the local community. In our experience we have not encountered too many people who are looking for our larger scale services, which is another reason as to why we created our speaker series/mastermind group, simply.kinship. The demand for knowledge and personal experience far outweighs the need for manpower from our team, so while we haven’t tapped into it as much as I would like, it did help us to better understand and shape the offerings for those that are big enough for a healthy and sustainable business, but too small for the a retainer type service.
How important has expanding your reach beyond your local customer base been to your success?
Huge, without the community at large we would have been painted into a corner for growth and scale. We can reach the far corners of the nation and still be relatable and personal, the product is the same no matter where we go, creativity, camaraderie and know how. There are so many entrepreneurs out there that are just trying to find their tribe and being able to expand has allowed us the opportunity to reach them.
What techniques and channels have been the most successful in marketing to new customers and building your business?
Instagram, our personalized email list, and strong website. We are currently moving away from our Shopify platform for a showit.co website that will have a Word Press blog, this will amplify our SEO. Once that is online we will go back to doing Google Ads as well as Facebook/Instagram ads which are lucrative but limiting. Beyond tech, our biggest success has been the word of mouth from our clients. We have had so many opportunities from referrals, I wish we could duplicate this over and over since our clients know us well and they come to us already vetted.
What has been the most challenging part of running the The Kinship Creative? What has been the most rewarding part?
The most challenging has been the amount of content we want to create, to tell the story the best possible way we can. I feel so frustrated at times that we can’t always capture the magic in our client’s voice or vision. It feels limited at times and that is challenging to me, I sit with that feeling and try to push and push to get their brand to a place that really speaks volumes about who they are, sadly resources, availability or time can limit us. The most rewarding is being invited in by our clients into their inner circle, they trust and value us, and that is the best feeling because it’s fulfilling the meaning to our name Kinship.
Do you have any advice for people wanting to build a creative business?
Go for it, don’t wait until it’s perfect. In this day and age, there are so many resources available that you can make mistakes along the way and not topple your business. We have made lots of mistakes, some major and some minor, but because of how nimble business can be now, you can do it with little risk and resource. If you don’t try it, that will be your biggest regret. I work with individuals all the time that just HAVE to try staking their flag in the business world and it’s amazing to see how creative they can be, and fulfilled once they have dared to do it.
How do you see your business growing and evolving in the next few years?
I’d like to have our series and mastermind group up and maxed out over the next three years. My goal is to have this revenue fund a small investor branch of the business, and pair up with like minded entrepreneurs that are looking to scale their business for equity. There are so many amazing people out there running their business, contributing to their community, creating jobs, and then are unable to go to the next step, I’d like to be able to offer them that step with the assistance of the Kinship’s talent to scale.