SMALL TOWNER, BIG DREAMER: ROSEBUD'S TEES
By: Krysta Kearney
She’s a small town country girl with a kindred heart who’s paved a new road on her own, setting forth on a journey of self love and light. It’s picturesque, Kari Jo in her 1978 Avion travel trailer, rolling down Illinois’ scenic open roads, both sides lined with cornfields as far as the eye can see. She spreads positivity through Rosebud’s Tees, her apparel and accessory company. Through connecting with women alike, her apparel brings them back to their roots, with clothing that matches the ideals of women in small town USA.
Side hustle turned hobby, Rosebud’s Tee’s began in 2016 during a time where Kari Jo seeked a much needed change in life. After years of doing the ‘right’ thing, she had found herself in a career that was unfulfilling, at a crossroads, not knowing what direction to turn. Rosebud's Tees was discovered from digging deep, finding her true self and unveiling where her passions and desires lie. If she didn’t have the bravery to search her own soul, she may have never found the happiness she seeked nor the successful business that she has today.
Kari Jo grew up in western Illinois, in the small town of McCaw. With a boasting population of nearly 18,000 Kari Jo says it’s a bit larger than your average small town since Western Illinois University is there. Growing up on a farm, she always loved animals so once she was in her freshman year of college at Oklahoma State University it seemed like the logical choice to become a veterinarian.
“I was good at science and I had a background in agriculture so logically that kinda just fit together, so that’s kinda how I fell into being a veterinarian.”
She loved both art and science growing up and always had a sketch book in hand. Although she wanted to pursue a career in art, her parents encouraged her to be a doctor or a lawyer or something of that nature, because of the guarantee that you can make a sustainable living. She agreed, it seemed like a, good route to take, logical, so she went for it. To even go to vet school, you’ve got to have Moxxi! She went through eight years of schooling to get her doctorate in hopes to one day own her own practice, as a large animal veterinarian. Upon graduating, she moved to Texas, finding a job as a mixed animal vet for one year. Once she was in the position, she questioned if it was right for her.
“I wasn’t really loving it, I was working 14 hour days, there would be weeks where I would go 8 or 11 days without a day off, I just felt very run down and kept thinking there’s got to be something else, there’s no way people actually enjoy running themselves into the ground?!?”
Tragically, at the same time, her mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer and in efforts to be closer to her family she began to seek ways to get home. She ended up moving back to her hometown and working in small animal veterinary medicine. To do that, she had to come up with an extra $600 a month. That initial six months, she still had to go back and forth between Texas and Illinois. Both plane tickets and rental cars don’t come cheap! In a scramble to find ways to make money she began researching.
“I started googling side hustles, I remember typing in, (once I knew I wanted to do T-shirts) how to start your own T-shirt business.”
One day sitting on her patio she sketched a prickly pear cactus, inspired from one in her yard and she thought, ‘This would look good on a T-shirt.’ Then it dawned on her, maybe that’s what she should do, design apparel, she always had a connection to art, so why not? She was trying to find something where she could use a skill that she already had, that she enjoyed, but also not have to be the maker. T-shirts fit the bill. Once she decided she was going to start the business, she spiraled into an online rabbit hole, researching all she could and within six weeks she had an online apparel company. She began by using print on demand, was drop-shipping shirts and business was moving. All the while she was traveling back and forth from Illinois and Texas, while working as a veterinarian.
“I would make a list of all the things I had to do. I would have maybe 15 - 20 minutes to work, or an hour of energy when I got home, so just little by little I would work on those tasks with the very little time I had.”
At the beginning she was trying all sorts of designs, nothing super specific, as she didn’t really know what she was doing or what would sell. A time of trial and error and constant manipulation. She noticed that the small town, agricultural based, rural type shirts were selling the best. Taking note, she began creating similar designs and before she knew it, she had a niche.
“I had no retail experience, I didn’t know anything about websites, didn't know anything about marketing, Facebook ads, none of it. So I dove into education and just started implementing things after each course, each book. It was a very slow, gradual, organic, growth. I saw a little bit of growth so that kept me motivated to keep taking the next step.”
About three months after she had moved back to Illinois full time, to be closer to her family, her mother passed away. It was a time of mourning and reflection, but she was so thankful that she had made the transition prior to her passing. Her mother was super supportive of Kari Jo’s new venture, about Rosebud's Tees. She would wear the shirts to her chemotherapy appointments and supported every part of what she was doing. Her mother would have loved to see now all of what Rosebud’s has become and Kari Jo could picture her being overjoyed with going to market’s. Rosebud’s helped Kari Jo get through this difficult time, it helped her channel her emotion and turn it into something else. It was a release for her, helping her wade through all the grief and emotional suffering, it was a form of self expression.
“My mom passing away gave me this whole new perspective. You know, she was only 52, I realized I didn’t want to be stuck in a career that I’m not happy in, where I’m just barely getting by emotionally, mentally, so it changed my whole perspective, I was like, hey something needs to change and it made me put more value on my time and my relationships over my career.”
Veterinarians, as a profession, hold one of the highest suicide rates in the country. She notes there is a culture where people feel pressure to stay committed, that if they made it their career, they have to stick with it, no matter how much it may be affecting their lives in a negative way. The long hours, demanding days and lack of being able to spend time with family and friends really takes a toll after a while. She found herself in a place where she realized she couldn’t be glued to it the rest of her life. She hit rock bottom and knew she needed to do something, she needed to be the change she seeked. She wasn’t happy, it was affecting her health and she knew something needed to give.
“You see one side of the profession when you’re in school and when you get out you see a whole other side that you didn’t know existed. So there was definitely a disconnect there.”
After not being able to take it anymore, she quit her job, unclear of what to do. Rosebud’s Tees had been growing slowly for three years and she ended up going all in, deciding to focus primarily on her business and found a part time job working as a veterinarian where she still is to this day. She has found a happy balance, fulfilling all her passions. It was a hard time but she kept her head up and moved forward.
In 2019, she began going to local and regional markets. Not having any idea what she was doing, after a whole season, she had a much better grasp as well as an even more successful business. Customers that were buying her product at markets were also purchasing online! Side note, at the same time she noticed on social media that there was a trend, people were re-purposing campers and trailers and making them into mobile boutiques and she thought to herself, ‘I got to find me one of those!!’ It fit so well in the vision and branding of Rosebud’s. In April of 2020, she found her beloved travel trailer, the 1978 Avion. The Covid-19 Pandemic hit the US and she, her dad and brother took that time to work hard to remodel it. They totally transformed the whole space. Once markets were back up and running, she took it to the streets, started bringing it to markets and the reaction was much bigger than she had ever expected it to be.
“People were crazy, they were dying to get out of their houses, it was insane! People were everywhere and sales were insane, I think everybody at that market was kind of in shock, people were just ready to get out.”
Everyone loved seeing the Avion. She had done social media sneak peaks but never a full reveal so followers couldn’t wait to see what she had done! The trailer has taken a whole new meaning in itself, has its own following, people are so attracted to it and have to peek inside. Initially, she bought it to have an easier set up at markets and to transport products, never did she think it would become what it has.
“People are attracted to old vintage campers. They come in, just to come in because they want to see it! That’s been helpful, getting more eyes on the business at markets.”
Now, in 2021, Rosebud’s is blooming! Her flourishing business is thriving and reaching people nationwide. Kari Jo herself is still packing up the camper and going to markets, but even further to neighboring states. People love her vision, the brand and the message it gives. Not only is it growing in visibility, she now has two full time employees, women who run her shipping department along with an amazing crew of market workers. She has some pretty big future goals ahead too! Her hopes are to develop her wholesale program into new and different heights and she would like to see the brand in bigger stores as well as farm, tag, and western ranch stores...mainly ones that don’t have a feminine small town graphic tee line. Now that she has help on the back end, she personally wants to go out and be the voice, the face of her brand in hopes to gain more accounts. Since 2017 she has had a wholesale program, but only online, this will be the first time she will put her cowgirl boots on and find accounts in person!
“I’ve always told myself if it gets to a point where it’s not fun anymore I need to reevaluate it because then what’s the point? It’s fun meeting the girls that I know from Instagram and Facebook, then I meet them in person at the markets, that’s fun! It’s created this community around small town women. So that’s been really great as well, meeting people that relate to that.”
Rosebud’s Tees has a really inspiring message in their branding. Kari Jo says the branding is all about connection. She learned a long time ago that the sky’s the limit. If you have a skill, a talent, or a hobby, that you can put yourself out there, to believe in yourself. She felt there is a mentality that happens, that she was a victim of, and that people could relate to (at least in small towns) because so many people are told a similar story. Not only did she want to break down the mentality, but also break down the societal norms. Growing up in a small town, there is a stigma, that there is a limit to what you can do but there isn’t a limit to what you can do, you can do anything! Oftentimes people think they are limited in achieving their goals based on where they come from and their family background.
“I think there’s a lot of self-talk. When I was younger there was this thing about being from a small town where you have limited opportunity. You know, I don't think anyone ever met that negatively but they probably just met that realistically we have less opportunity in a small town. It kind of gets ingrained in your head that there’s less that you can do, that you just don’t allow yourself to dream any bigger.”
She realized what’s the point? Because society tells me to? Her family, friends, and ofcourse, herself are far too important to basically risk her life, for a job. All of this combined made her want to help others find their own destiny, think positive and be true to themselves and what better way to show that than through Rosebud’s Tees.
“I'm passionate about it because I feel like just changing my perception and mindset around what my life could look like, I changed my life so much! I went from being miserable to just loving life! So it totally flipped it, so if that can help other people flip that mindset and change for them, if they don't have to be stuck in that, then I'm doing something good.”
Click on the links below after reading the Q + A to find this #fearlessfemale’s website, Rosebud’s Tees and follow her on social media. That’s how we at Moxxi found her, she has an awesome and inspiring TikTok profile and her Instagram is #killinit! Be inspired! #poweryourambitions!
Q + A
Q: Do you have any advice on starting a small business?
“A lot of businesses never get off the ground because people don’t know how to do it, how to start it. So what really worked for me is making a list of everything that you can because it’s so easy to come up with an excuse, so if you just have that list in front of you and you take 15-20 minutes a day, (if that's all you have) you can start knocking stuff off of your list in a small amount of time. That’s the way to start because otherwise you get so overwhelmed.”
Q: What does the word Moxxi mean to you?
“There’s some bravery to it, being an individual, stepping out of your comfort zone, stepping out of the box and not being afraid to be your authentic, crazy, goofy self!”
Q:Any advice on marketing?
“The biggest mistake I see people make and that I once made too is trying to be something for everyone, and trying to get to everyone saying we’re the best for ‘Men, women and children’ or, ‘We’re the best for all women,’ you know, no one is attracted to that because no one wants to feel like everyone else! You want to call out someone specific and you want your customer to say, yeah that’s me. Once you know who you’re talking to and who your ideal customer is you know how to look for them.”
Q: Do you have any advice for women?
“Touching on confidence, I think it’s something that people think you’re born with or that you’re just confident but honestly it’s just about being brave and just doing it! Everyone is scared, and that’s something I’ve learned working at these markets is that they we’re all scared to start and all scared to do this, but they were just a little bit more brave and that's where the confidence kind of came from. Some people aren’t necessarily more confident, they are just more brave.”
Q: What inspires you?
“I look to big female founders, my favorite podcast is, How I built this. It's not necessarily female focused but I love listening to Sara Blakely and how she founded Spanx. If you go back into their stories, their stories aren’t that much different from you and me, so I like hearing them a lot. Oh, and the girl who founded IT Cosmetics (Jamie Kern Lima).”
Q: It is important to support women-owned businesses, our ideas need more exposure so we can empower each other. What type of exposure do you hope to create for women, or what is the strongest message for women that you want your business to represent?
“I want to tell women not to make themselves small in order to fit into one of society's boxes or storylines. We’re often held back from making our dreams a reality by the fear of 1. Going off the beaten path (not following the college-marriage-kids-carer-retirement storyline) 2. Being too much of something for others! Our larger than life ideas, personalities and vision are what makes us amazing entrepreneurs and leaders.”
Q: Any words of advice?
“The one thing you need to start a business? Courage. The rest you can figure out along the way.”