A little more than a year ago I came across an Instagram post of a shirt I had to have. I tracked it down, placed an order, and received personalized service from the designer, making sure I got the right size. At the time, Sarah Marie Design Studio only had a few products.
In the year since, Sarah FitzPatrick Clancy’s business has exploded. She’s added ambassadors, including me, has collaborated with the Rabbit brand of running apparel, and her designs are available in local running stores around the country.
Sarah took time to talk to me about being a “runtreprenuer” … right around the time she gave birth to her second child!
One of my favorite quotes from Sarah was on Lindsey Hein’s “I’ll Have Another” podcast. She said that her Twitter handle was @MissFitzNYC but that she was “no longer a Miss, no longer a Fitz, and no longer living in NYC” so basically her whole life is a lie. Since creating her Twitter handle, she is now living in Oceanside, New York.
Sarah grew up on a sheep farm in western New York, which cracks me up because I grew up on a pig farm in Kentucky. She worked in graphics design in the Big Apple, but a combination of moving and having a baby gave her impetus and the opportunity to start her own business.
Chicory: You own a booming business that centers around cheeky running-themed designs. Tell me about your running background.
Sarah: I started in high school on cross country and track. I wasn’t a star, but really, really loved it. I ran occasionally through college, mostly to stay in shape. Did a few races here and there but nothing serious. I got into running a lot more when I moved to NYC, which is an amazing city to be a runner in! There were only so many NYC brunches and sitting in Central Park on nice days that I could take, and needed another outlet to get out and be outside. I lived close enough to Central Park that I started running there multiple times a week. New York Road Runners (NYRR) has races every weekend and it’s easy to get involved. I signed up for my first New York City Marathon and never looked back.
Chicory: You started Sarah Marie Designs Studio (SMDS) after moving out of the city and having your first child. Had you planned to start your own business? What year did it launch?
Sarah: I always wanted to do something on my own, but I never had the right idea. And I didn’t go into SMDS with a business plan or a vision for it to grow into what it is now. It all happened pretty organically, but with a lot of hard work.
When I had a baby and left my job, I knew I wanted to do more than be a stay at home mom. Don’t get me wrong, that is a very hard job in itself, but knew after working for other people for a decade that I wanted to do something that utilized my creativity and brain again.
I like to say that we launched, as the company is today, in March 2016.
Chicory: It has grown so much in the past year! How has SMDS evolved since it started?
Sarah: It all started with some pencil drawings. As a creative person, it’s hard not to make things. I think running filled this creative need for many years, up until I was pregnant, and even though I tried, I was so exhausted all the time that my time spent running decreased drastically. The lack of running left a void.
Steve Prefontaine has a great quote that I always think of when I think about this: “Some people create with words or with music or with a brush and paints. I like to make something beautiful when I run.” Once I stopped running, I needed another outlet to create and I started drawing again. So for a business built around running, it took me not running to create it.
I started filling the hours that I spent running, drawing. I did what I called my “Runner’s Alphabet” first, because I needed a theme and I thought, hell, why not draw something running related. Next there was my first Marathon drawing. I posted them online and people seemed to like them, so I sold the Boston drawing on Etsy for a $1 (they don’t let you give away free downloads).
Chicory: So how did SMDS go from a small side hustle passion project to being a big full-time gig?
Sarah: At the beginning, I had a few things on Etsy. Sarah Marie Design Studio was started, but it was not a running-themed store. I thought I would do wedding invitations. I had designed my own and half a dozen for clients. I was also doing freelance design work. The running part was more for me on a personal level than to make into a business.
One weekend I was doing a half marathon with some friends, and they were discussing getting matching shirts. I didn’t like anything. Most things you find when you search the web are bad designs copied from other people and printed on poor quality shirts. I looked at the selection and thought, “This? This is it? Cool, trendy, well designed t-shirts are everywhere and there is nothing for runners? How can this be?” So that is when the seed was planted.
From there I had a couple designs I sold on Society6, which I made pennies off of, but it was somewhere to start. People started buying them so I knew I had something. The next step was finding a printer and setting up a website. Again, at this point I had maybe three shirt designs and thought I would sell a handful and make some spare change.
It really was people’s feedback that turned this from a side hustle into a real gig. If no one liked my designs, I’d probably be making French toast right now in actual clothes with a clean house and freshly washed hair, not in my pajamas emailing you from behind a stack of orders and drinking cold coffee. But once I saw people reacting positively to what I was putting out there, I knew I wasn’t the only one who wanted different options and I totally took the plunge to make this into a full-on company.
Chicory: What’s your best selling product? Are there products that have done especially well or especially badly that surprised you?
Sarah: First, the “Marathoner” sweatshirts are huge! Which makes me really happy, because it’s just a simple word that means sooooo much to people! And anyone can earn the title “Marathoner”. All you have to do is put in the work.
The list of elite marathoner women, which was one of my first designs ever, has also been a great seller. I think any runner who knows those women are super proud to wear that shirt, for so many reasons. The inspiration they provide, the talent they have and the way runners feel connected to each other makes it a favorite.
The “Feed Me and Tell Me I’m Pretty Fast” is a popular one too. I’m not all in-your-face gung-ho feminist over here, but let’s be honest, this one is one of my favorite girl power ones.
The Marathoner shirts surprised me on how well they did. The response was amazing and they sold out so fast, I barely had them in stock before they were gone.
Especially badly? Nothing really. But I feel like I test out things a bit before I sell them so I have a gauge of what will do well or not. If you see a new design pop up on my Instagram that hasn’t been released, you’ll know that I’m testing it for reactions!
Chicory: Where do you find inspiration?
Sarah: This is hard to answer. I work very hard to not copy other people’s designs, but I also like to play off what’s trendy out there. So it’s a mix of keeping up with what’s in style, things that are trendy and trending and pulling from my own personal running experiences. I also love to hear from customers on what they think I’m lacking and respond to what people want.
Chicory: What’s something you wish you had known starting out?
Sarah: I grew up with parents who had their own business and my husband runs his own business, so I went into this with pretty open eyes. The work behind it, the hours, the non-stop “on” you have to be. However, I had no idea about printing, about clothing, about selling things online, etc. So patience with learning things has been hard. Especially when trying to work and being a full-time mom at the same time. It’s a lot of work, but it’s also very rewarding.
Chicory: How does running your own business affect your running? I’m going to wager having a toddler and being pregnant affects that, too!
Sarah: Yes! Being pregnant has really dictated my running schedule more so than the business. I’m not “allowed” to run, by order of my doctor at the moment, so it’s been an easier decision to dedicate more time to work than I probably would have otherwise without feeling guilty about it. I know, too, that once the second baby arrives and the weather gets nice out again, I’ll be itching to get out and run, so I’m trying to get as much done as I can now to line things up to have a more balanced life, if that even exists.
Chicory: I think we can all agree balance doesn’t mean that everything in your life gets equal attention and time. How do you prioritize? What are the challenges and benefits of working for yourself?
Sarah: I think balance isn’t a day-to-day thing, but has to be looked at on a bigger scale. Look at balance for the week, for the month, for the year. Some days I’m nauseous and need to nap and physically can’t handle carrying boxes to the post office, so I don’t do it. Some days I need to focus on work. Some days I’ve spent the last week working and the fridge is empty and dishes are piling up, so I know I have to tackle life tasks. I will say, my kids always come first, but after that, things ebb and flow.
Some weeks are super busy with work and I know I have to handle that, some weeks I have less pressing work tasks and I’ll take a day off and it’ll just be time for me and my kid. If you look at everything on the small scale, it’s overwhelming, but I want to look back 20 years from now and be proud of my family, of the company I’m building, of the life I’ve created. I think if you focus on that, the days you feel like crumbling, that you don’t feel like you have “balance,” will seem a little more in perspective.
And as far as working from home, challenges are the fact that half my house is literally boxes and racks of inventory! My dining room table is a fulfillment center. I’m never not working. The benefits are I am home with my kid all day. I work when he naps, before he gets up or after his bedtime. I can answer emails as he eats breakfast and then we can go play. This also is hard when he’s needy and is on my lap crying and I just need to get an email out … again. balance. It’s hard.
Chicory: How do you fit running into your schedule and why is it important to do so?
Sarah: Running literally keeps me sane. It’s like a pressure valve that just puts things back into perspective. I’m getting a double running stroller and can’t wait to get out and start again! It’s changed a bit since I became a mom. Now there are two kinds of runs. Ones that are for me, if I ever get out by myself, when I can zone out and feel like myself again, running off stress and worries and letting my brain reset. The other kind are the ones pushing the stroller, which becomes more about sharing what I love best with the people I love the most.
Chicory: What are your goals for SMDS?
Sarah: This one is harder to answer, mainly because I didn’t go into this with a business plan and a solid outlook on how I wanted everything to unfold. It’s all happened organically, which I find very exciting. I don’t see SMDS as a running apparel company; I’m not trying to compete with the companies out there making amazing running clothes. I’m more about the lifestyle side and celebrating being a runner. I want to keep bringing new, fun products to the running community and we are expanding into triathletes and ultra runners.
Chicory: What are your running goals?
Sarah: I want to come back and run a sub 1:30 half marathon. Oh man, I’ve said it out loud, now I HAVE to do it!
What else would you ask Sarah about runtrepreneurship or Sarah Marie Design Studio? Is there a runtrepreneur that you’d like to see us profile?