We took some time to sit down and give some words to the start of the Kinship and our why.
Article by our own, Carmen Montopoli.
In 2012, one day after her son’s first birthday, Jen Wakeland founded Salt City Emporium. Over the next six years, her business evolved, one step at a time, until it became the close-knit, family-like Kinship Creative, a lifestyle marketing agency that prides itself on championing small businesses and the creative, risk-taking, entrepreneurial people who helm them. Like many small businesses, the path it took was winding, and the one ahead is never fully mapped. But Jen wouldn’t have it any other way. “The Kinship is an ever-moving body of work,” she says. “We’re not where we want to be, and I don’t think we will ever be where we want to be, because there is always a new risk to take, or a new thing to try.” The prospect of it energizes her—she buzzes with ideas, all of them focused on the Kinship’s core mission: creating a family for small business owners who need one.
The Kinship didn’t start out with that mission, or even that name. Instead, Jen started off with an idea that she wanted to test: a US made children’s clothing line, marketed through trade shows and then-nascent Instagram. Rather than pursuing a brick-and-mortar location, it dove into the developing waters of e-commerce, using social media to develop and maintain a lifestyle brand. Called Salt City Emporium, it met its sales goal of $1 million in less than two years, and became what Jen calls a proof of concept—a model that she would use to support other small businesses as they began their own journeys.
As becomes quickly apparent as she speaks, Jen is not the type to feel contented for long. Despite Salt City Emporium’s success, her true passion lay in helping other entrepreneurs owners along their own paths. “I didn’t feel like small businesses get the support they deserve, or the accolades they deserve, because it’s so hard,” she says. “It just takes so much from you and doesn’t give a lot back.” While there were some support networks, like a Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses cohort that offered some needed camaraderie, business consultants who paid attention to people as well as numbers were rare.
The reasons for creating the Kinship were professional—a background in marketing, experience in business development, and a knack for bringing a team together—but also deeply personal. Reflecting on it now, Jen says, “I’m going through some massive growth of my own and realizing that in some ways the Kinship was really created because I grew up looking for a more stable familial network, a level of support. I really truly believe that I wanted to create the Kinship—and this place for people who have been a little bit on the outside, or maybe not been supported the way they should have been—because of the lack of having that and feeling like I wanted to create a family of people who are not blood-related but have some thread in common with each other.”
To pursue the new role she envisioned for herself, she split her business from the successful Salt City Emporium to form the Salt Creative, a marketing firm based on the foundational belief that small businesses deserve personalized, thoughtful backing from a team with broad and deep experience. She started by forming a new team, and hiring Kristina as Studio Liaison, a woman who was, Jen says, her “right-hand gal.” Jen credits her with much of the direction the Kinship finally took: “Kristina helped the Kinship to get on its really solid legs. She was our liaison, but she had customer service skills like crazy. And she was—I like to say she was the yin to my yang, because I’m really direct, and she was very hospitable. She was sort of the sugar that we needed in the studio to bring clients in and to create this really Kinship environment.” Jen describes the transition as one from edginess, sharp angles, and chic blacks—a reflection of Salt City Emporium—to a place that felt more like home. The Kinship slowly transitioned from a consulting firm to a family.
You might be wondering how a business called the Salt Creative became a business called the Kinship. Jen was never wild about the name, she says, and had contemplated changing it even before the next surprise. “Then we got a Cease and Desist letter from a company in San Francisco,” she says, laughing. “I can’t remember what their name was, but they had ‘salt’ trademarked and we were no longer allowed to use it.” As it turned out, this was just the impetus she needed to find a more permanent name. “We didn’t check, we didn’t know—I’ll tell you I learned my lesson after that—and so we had to rebrand everything. And I wasn’t devastated by it because I knew that the Salt Creative was just a shell, that it didn’t feel right. And so I kept trying to find a word that was kind of folksy, and that had a home grown feel to it, because that’s so much what I was drawn to anyway. So Kinship popped into my head and I was a little worried that it would sound too—I don’t know—hokey. But I really loved it, and of course I’ve always loved the definition of it, and so we went to the Kinship Creative. We checked the trademarks!”
The idea of a family infuses everything Jen talks about. Early on in its inception, the Kinship offered one-off services, like creating logos or doing single photoshoots. But quickly it became clear that this wasn’t offering the long-term support and building the long-term relationships that Jen had envisioned. “We wanted to be really real, which was why we decided to stop doing the things that were making us so busy—and it was really scary—and say ‘We’re going to focus on the people who can use us for the long term and not just use a one-off marketing workshop where they go, ‘Wow, that was good, but I’m just as lost because I still don’t know how to do that.’ So we wanted to not only provide the information, but actually work alongside them. Part of our values have always been teach people, so that if the Kinship went away for some reason, they wouldn’t be left as if they had never worked with us in the beginning.”
Her teach-a-business-to-fish attitude can be a challenge to execute, but it’s part of what she believes sets the Kinship apart from other marketing firms. “We have had so many people who have had an experience with a marketing company before us, who have really not wanted to trust us and have grilled us to the point where they ask, ‘How do I know you’re not going to be like our past experiences?’ And all I can say to them is ‘You’re going to have to trust me.’” In Jen’s world, there’s far more to marketing than helping businesses build their Instagram feeds or target their wholesale letters. Through the Kinship, Jen tries to be the cheerleader she didn’t have as a small business owner: “Empowering their team, and not coming in and saying ‘We’re this outside source, and we’re going to make things look pretty, and you don’t have anything to do with that.’ I find that most marketing companies will make people feel that way.” Instead, she says, her mission is to build skills, knowledge, and capacity.
Of course it’s Jen’s job to help business owners assess their businesses and grow with them, but when she talks about Kinship victories, that doesn’t factor in. “We’re not always looking for unhealthy parts of businesses; we’re often looking for where we can really help something shine. So I would say our successes are validating that the person who’s stuck their neck out to do what they’re doing—despite maybe their family saying ‘You can’t do this,’ or ‘Why would you do this?’ or ‘You left a successful career to do this?’ Validating that these people have the right to be creative and to take a risk on themselves. That is our success: being there and rallying behind them.” In many ways, she thinks of the Kinship not as a consultancy but as a peer: a small business that rolls in alongside other small businesses the way an outrigger might stabilize a canoe.
It’s not easy to provide this kind of support; the work can be exhausting, time-consuming, and emotionally draining. “I think my biggest role is being the person who kind of absorbs a lot of their emotions, and maybe the most valuable thing I can give them from my own personal role is a listening ear, followed by an action plan.” This involves knowing clients deeply: how to read eye twitches and body language, words and what’s left unspoken. It also means having a deep playbook of what to do when things get frustrating. “Oftentimes we talk about how we’ve gone through that, maybe ways we’ve handled that, sometimes it’s a pep talk, sometimes it’s a go get ‘em kind of talk. But then we talk big picture—big things, like hey, okay, we’re launching something, or you’re getting into wholesale. We talk about strategy in there. And outside of that strategy comes tactics. And then the rest of the team, we get off the phone and we work on those tactics.”
The balance of big-picture strategy and day-to-day tactics is delicate and constantly shifting. Jen spends a significant portion of her week coordinating: answering emails; fielding phone calls and weekly one-on-one meetings; arranging photo shoots and marketing strategy; and overseeing the work being done by her four-person team. “A lot of [clients] have given me the term of maestro, or like a coordinator,” she says. “I try and be six months ahead as much as possible.” One of her privileges, she points out, is not having to worry about the minutiae of running the business, and instead being able to focus on how to support the business into the future. “They’re not thinking about their fourth quarter right now—that’s so far away! Our job is to be thinking about that now.”
It’s no simple task to prompt a small business owner to think about the winter holidays in June. Clients often feel overwhelmed by all the possibilities and directions, and Jen is no stranger to pushback and even frustration. Her position as an outsider to the companies she consults with complicates the relationship as well. “I find this all the time, that people think we don’t get it because we aren’t ringing people up at the register or harvesting the food. How could we be asking them to do one more thing when they’re out doing this heavy work?” But at the same time, she argues, thinking in the long term creates a sustainable business model, the kind of business that can stand on its own. “Our job is to always bring up in the conversation: okay, is the customer picking up the messaging? Are they reacting? Are they engaging? If they’re not engaging, what can we do that tweaks the messaging a little bit? The end result will be that they’ll spend their money because they’re invested in you, not just because they’re like ‘Oh, I’ll spend my money here quickly.’ We make sure we don’t devalue what they’re doing by saying it’s just about a sale. It’s not just about a sale. It’s about the long-term relationship with their customer.”
The idea of the long-term infuses everything Jen talks about, from the conversations with her clients to the structure of the Kinship itself. She had originally planned to convert a barn on her property into a studio, but after some soul-searching decided to change the direction of the project. “My heart is in taking our resources and investing them more in individuals. So I’ve pivoted a little in the sense that I want to invest our resources in people and create a network.” She’s refocused that energy on building the Kinship Series, a community of creative small business owners who need the kind of support family offers. And her team, she points out, changes from year to year as individual members join, gain experience, and perhaps even grow past their work with the Kinship. “We’re an incubator for people—for our team,” she says. “I think that is the Kinship’s mission: to find people and tease out something they maybe wouldn’t have created themselves yet.”
Jen isn’t done discovering what she might create herself. It’s a job that could consume her, but she works to keep the balance between constant innovation and a slower, rural family life that also deserves her time and attention: “It never shuts off—never, never, never. There’s always a step, and of that step, comes a new layer. But the thing that stops me and helps me balance is realizing that my family is kin also. And I want for them to have a really strong sense of balance and sense of support as well.” She talks ruefully about a recent run-in with a fencing project on her farm that ended with a hammer thrown halfway across the pasture. “I feel very successful and educated in one area and completely useless in another. And a lot of people feel that way when they’re managing a business,” she says. The farm, for her, has become the next link in a chain of innovations and experiments that keep her on her toes, keep her learning, and keep her humble.
It might feel overwhelming at times: when the land floods, or when the horses catch a chill, or when barn owls swoop out of the darkness. But Jen lives by the notion that “You can always do what you need to do, you just have to be thoughtful enough and trust in yourself enough.” In her visions, the Kinship eases that burden for other small businesses. “I want to tell them: You don’t have to settle. You don’t have to stay where you are. We’ll put our money where our mouth is, and we’ll try it here first.” Maybe it will work. Maybe it won’t. But if one thing’s certain, it’s that the Kinship will meet that challenge, take one step, and then take the one after that.