Talking Shop and Felt Florals with Lauren of Zella + Kay

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in motherhood is how important it is to find and cultivate your own unique identity. When you’re utterly and completely knee-deep in taking care of someone else every second of every day, it’s easy to lose yourself. Between diaper changes and bottle feedings and sleepless nights, you lose the time and often interest for things you were once passionate about. I know, I’ve been there. More than once.

It’s taken me a long time to accept this, but I finally have: I am more than just a parent. I’m a unique individual with a personality beyond mothering. I have interests that I have to spend time pursuing, not just for my mental and emotional health, but because it’s important for me to develop my identity.

Because I have had to re-learn how to value my personal time and creative pursuits, I have to guard time away from my kids as sacred time. I know, I have to battle mom guilt constantly, too. It’s a work in progress. But YOU HAVE TO. You cannot feel bad about taking time for yourself.

When I’m momentarily stepping out of my Mom Role, I’m typically setting type for new pencils, exploring my favorite bookstore, or picking out new stationary at one of my favorite spots in Austin, The Paper + Craft Pantry. This picture-perfect paper store has a wall of cards and washi tape, pens of every color, and the kindest owner (hi, Pei!) Plus, the shop plays host to some of the most fun craft workshops. That is where I first met Lauren.

As owner of Zella + Kay, Lauren creates the most gorgeous felt flower bouquets (and we all know how I feel about flowers). Earlier this year, I used a Mom Day Out to take two of her classes at The Paper and Craft Pantry, where I learned to make my own felt floral bouquet.

Not only did I LOVE the class, but I was so inspired by Lauren. Her work is insanely gorgeous (and perfect for those of us without green thumbs). What’s more, she has built Zella + Kay as a majorly successful side hustle while working full time. I know. Amazing, right?! I am SO excited to share more about her and her journey to Zella + Kay. On today’s Talking Shop, she chats about how she built her business, how she finds balance in her work, and what fuels her creativity.

Everyone, meet Lauren!

About You:

Tell us a little bit about you and your background.

So my name is Lauren Meyer and I am originally from College Station, Texas. I’m now living here again, so my life has come full-circle, in a way. I did my undergraduate degree at Texas A&M and then went on to a Master’s program at Florida State right after finishing up. My first job out of grad school was in Denton, Texas, at Texas Woman’s University and that’s actually where Zella + Kay got its start! 

I work full time advising college students at Texas A&M now – I moved back to College Station in fall 2016 for a job in Student Activities. I also started a doctoral program, part-time, in Higher Education Administration, in fall 2017. I’m in my third year of the program now and probably have another 2-3 years to go. 

Other than that, I have really gotten into running over the last several years and ran my first marathon this past January (2019) in Houston. I’m part of a running club here in town and love it. I’m also really involved in my church community and see all of this – the business, my work, school, etc. – as ways of leveraging giftings for the glory of God and the good of my community. 

Life is busy these days, but I really love every different part of my life. On days where I feel overwhelmed, I think about that a lot. 

How did Zella + Kay get started? What drew you to felt flowers?

I’ve always enjoyed making things – whether just for myself or as gifts. Around 2014 or 2015, I opened up an Etsy shop selling crocheted items and named it Zella + Kay. In spring 2016, I was feeling really stalled out. I had started looking for my next step professionally, but wasn’t having much luck yet. I decided, as a challenge to myself, that I’d try to sell items at the local community market in Denton. Because it was early summer, though, I knew that I’d have to augment the crochet items with other goods. I looked through past photos and Pinterest pins and realized that I could create some felt flowers (I had made a couple of hair clips and a wreath in the past, so I thought it might work). After doing some basic research online and creating my first few items for sale, I got everything together and had my first market. The felt flowers started selling way quicker than the crocheted items (baby blankets, headbands), and so I started making more of them. 

When I got the job at Texas A&M and moved away, I continued making felt flowers and actually got my first wholesale account with The DIME Store in Denton – which was such a dream at the time…I admired (and still admire) that shop so much. I was elated when I found out I was accepted as a wholesaler there! 

From there, it’s just really evolved. I’ve taken an online course with another felt florist, connected with a lot of other creatives over Instagram and other online platforms, and grown my wholesale and consignment operation a lot. It’s been neat to figure out the creative components, as well as how to build a business. 

What inspired the name?

Zella + Kay actually comes from my two grandmothers’ middle names – Mary Zella and Patsy Kay. Both were women who were creative in their own ways and cared well for their families. The shop name is a way to pay homage to strong women who came before me. 

Was there a learning curve in the creation process? How did you work through that?

Oh gosh, yes! Initially, I learned a lot through reading blog posts and articles. I learned where to source felt from, how to make and assemble really basic blooms, that kind of thing. From there, the online class I took with Flohra Designs, a past felt florist (she recently closed down her business), really helped my technique – that was in spring 2017. I learned so many tips and tricks from Deidre (the owner) that really revolutionized how I put together flowers. From that point forward, it’s been a lot more subtle honing of the craft — figuring out how to do more mass assembly, experimenting with different flower types, that sort of thing. 

What have you learned through running your own side hustle?

Phew, that’s a big question. One of the things I like most about having a side hustle is that it allows me to cultivate a side of myself that’s often absent in other areas of my life. I can feel like I need to have it all together as a Student Affairs professional or a doctoral student, but being a creative entrepreneur allows me space to try new things and get to build something that doesn’t have direct connections to other parts of my life. I also love getting to work with my hands – especially after a long day of work on the computer and advising college students. It’s nice to have some quiet time, making something where I can visibly see progress. I’ve learned that a little side hustle that started out as just a fun experiment could turn into a part of my life that I really cherish. 

What is your favorite thing about running Zella + Kay? What do you love about making felt florals?

I think the connection with other creative entrepreneurs is one of my favorite things about running Zella + Kay. I’ve gotten the chance to establish really deep, beautiful relationships with other makers and shop owners that would have never happened without it. And those are people who I just admire tremendously – they’re going out and bravely doing things, trying new things. They’re people who have the courage to chase down new ideas and opportunities and hustle hard while they’re doing it. It’s brought about so much joy.

As for making the actual felt flowers, I’d say that I love how tactile it all is — it’s nice to use my hands and to be able to make things that people appreciate. 

How do you balance your time with the business and your other responsibilities?

That’s another doozie. Haha. One of my past mentors used to say that balance is less about time and more about energy, that it’s important to balance the activities that give you energy and those that take energy away. For me, running a business and making felt florals is an outlet that helps offset some of the professional and doc program responsibilities. Yes, it’s more work, especially in busy prep seasons, but it’s enjoyable work that helps me take a break from other responsibilities. Also, I watch a lot of Netflix while I’m making blooms, so it gives me a good excuse to do that!

What advice would you give for those looking to start a business? 

Experiment a lot! Sometimes the things you think are going to be a hit are big flops and vice versa. The really cool thing about the time we live in right now is that there are so many opportunities to float new ideas and products out into the world. Just try different things and see what sticks — that goes both for what people are willing to purchase and for what you enjoy doing. Something will catch on and you get to ride that wave for a little while — and it’s pretty fun!

What have been the biggest challenges — and biggest benefits — of running Zella + Kay?

Honestly, the balance piece has been huge. This is just a really tiring season of life with a lot going on and sometimes the things I choose as an outlet (felt florals, running, volunteering) can become more work than I intended. In those moments, it’s about seeing my commitments through and then reevaluating the balance I’ve struck, once I get a chance to take a break. I enjoy all of the different areas of my life, but I have to work hard to set boundaries and keep things in check – which takes a lot of trial and error. 

As for benefits, I think there’s a great deal of satisfaction to be had in creating products that add value to others’ lives. It’s been such a joy to hear about the ways people have used the flowers to encourage friends and family. Customers have come up to me at shows and talked about how the felt flowers were great to send to a friend in the hospital who couldn’t have real flowers or how the felt flowers were a great gift for a mother-in-law who lived overseas. It really makes me take a step back and thank God for the ways He’s grown this business in ways I never would have imagined. 

What fuels your creativity? How do you stay inspired?

I love seeing all the things that other creatives are doing. It’s so fun to cheer one another on! I think when I see another maker launching a line or stepping out and doing something bold, it encourages me to do more of the same. It’s like we’re all in it together. 

As for inspiration, I LOVE real flowers. I get so excited when I can find fun, different flowers at the grocery store and then when I bring them home I like looking at them and trying to figure out how I might make them in felt. I usually think on it for a while before I actually try anything, but it’s so fun when I feel like I’ve gotten it right!

How do you avoid burnout?

That’s a great question. And honestly, one that I feel like I might be in the middle of right now. I think it’s just (1) making sure to take breaks and step away from time to time; and (2) finding new ways to connect with the work in different seasons. This year, I took on my first intern and that’s been a great way for me to find new meaning in the work – I’ve had an opportunity to get some extra help and to mentor a college student who has become a really close friend now. 

The Fun Qs:

Your favorite dish to make?

My roommate and I are suckers for Buffalo Chicken & Rice by the Skinnyish Dish. It’s so tasty and easy to make.

The song that’s currently stuck in your head?

“Say It” by Maggie Rogers. Honestly, her whole album has been on repeat for the last few weeks. It’s just so good. 

What makes you laugh?

I’m a sucker for witty, glass-half-full tv shows like Parks & Rec, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Gilmore Girls, etc. I LOVE the way that the writers on those shows can sneak in obscure references that have a delayed laugh. They’re just so stinking talented.

Your favorite flower?

I’d say that it’s a tie between a ranunculus and peony – both have so many pretty, dreamy layers. 

Your favorite way to unwind?

Running has been such a blessing to me (though I never would have imagined saying that 5+ years ago). It’s something that helps me both manage my stress and to feel strong and healthy. Even though I’m definitely a slow runner, it makes me feel really capable to knock out a long run. And it’s been an incredible source of community, too. I love being around people who are pursuing new goals and ideas, no matter what they look like doing it – they make me braver and more comfortable in my own skin. 

Shop Zella + Kay here and follow on Instagram @zellaandkay.

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