A design shop owner on how losing her job pushed her side hustle into her full-time focus.
India Shannon has a varied background of managing relationships and keeping people happy. Before owning a design shop, she’d worked for years as a nanny and office manager. When she was suddenly laid off from her office job, she felt pushed to take her side hustle – blogging and selling design products online – full-time. As a people person with a love of color, India feeds her natural talents and hard work directly into the vibrant world she’s created in her Chicago store. She’s steadily grown Apartment 528 from blog to brick and mortar design shop over the past 8 years.
Describe your work and how long you’ve you been doing this.
I run Apartment 528, a furniture and housewares shop in Chicago featuring amazingly talented makers, artists, and designers. I launched Apt528 eight years ago as an online design shop, and opened my first storefront in 2014.
I’ve been doing this full-time for 7.5 years. Running your own design shop isn’t cheap and there have definitely been times when I considered going back to a day job to have a guaranteed paycheck. Despite that, we’ve been lucky enough to somehow survive off the shop and my husband’s job.
What’s your work history prior to your design shop?
I spent 3 years as a live-in nanny after dropping out of college. I truly loved that job. Later, when the kids grew older and went to school, I left and spent 4 years working as an office manager. First for a radio station, then for a PR agency.
I launched the shop in my backyard during my honeymoon. The website was crappy and I only had three makers, but it worked!
What were the first few steps you took to start your blog, and then design shop?
I’m a rather impulsive person – I literally started Apt 528 with zero planning. While I was interviewing a designer for my DIY / design blog, he mistakenly thought I had a shop and asked if he could be in it.
Because I was already thinking about opening a design shop when this happened, it kind of pushed me over the edge. I launched the shop in my backyard during my honeymoon. The website was crappy and only had three makers, but it worked! Since then, I’ve been learning as I go.
How did you take it full-time?
It wasn’t quite my choice. Five months after starting Apt528 as a side hustle, I was unexpectedly laid off from my job. So I decided it was the perfect chance. As much as getting laid off sucked at the time, it was a blessing in the end. Like many people, I think I would have had a hard time leaving the security of a full-time job to do something as risky as running a tiny online design shop. Sometimes you need life to give you a push.
I’ve become a part of the vibrant maker and vintage communities, which has been a lifesaver. It’s nice to talk to others that are going through the same things…
Who has helped you along the way, and how?
My mom was a giant influence. Growing up, she was constantly building, sewing, or designing something new. She tried to teach me, but I hated learning to sew or going to hardware stores. Thankfully, I got her creativity and work ethic. Now, she helps me brainstorm ideas and has even knocked down walls and built displays at the storefronts.
Financially, my in-laws were a huge help in getting our physical design shop off the ground. They believed in me even when all I had was a far-fetched dream. I haven’t had a mentor, per se, but since moving to Chicago, I’ve become a part of the vibrant maker and vintage communities, which has been a lifesaver. It’s nice to talk to others that are going through the same things and draw support from one another.
What skills or talents do you think helped you succeed?
Probably my stubbornness and determination. Although I’m sure my mom and husband aren’t always fans of these traits, they’ve helped me keep going when things were difficult.
…our first storefront was live/work…It was a huge money saver, but I was always “at work” and never felt like I was home.
What has been your most difficult moment with this business?
Opening our brick-and-mortar location. It put a huge strain on my marriage, my work/life balance, and my sanity. At first, the storefront was an exciting new challenge. After about a year, that wore off and I went into a depression.
The first 5 years, I ran the online design shop from our dining room table. I felt like Martha Stewart – making a week’s worth of meals, packing orders for the store, and building a new kitchen island all in the same day. Since I have a hard time focusing on one task for any length of time, this open schedule was perfect. It allowed me to move on to something else when I felt bored, and still be productive.
So early on, opening the store took away some of that freedom?
Suddenly, I felt trapped during open hours with no ability to focus on other things when my mind started to wander, and I didn’t have time to do stuff around the house. I know that the majority of people in the US work outside the home and make it work. But after 5 years of perfecting my life/work balance, it was hard to go back to a standard work schedule.
In addition, our first storefront was live-in, with a small, windowless studio in the back. It was a huge money saver, but I was always “at work,” and never felt like I was home. I had no motivation to do creative projects there, and I had to ask myself: is the sacrifice worth it?
Tell me more about the challenge of a store schedule.
As a store, I’m open on the weekends, which are the only days my husband has off. It was (and still is) difficult. We could no longer do Sunday brunches or sit around the house watching crappy sci-fi movies, and could only see each other if he came into the shop.
It’s hard when one person in a relationship changes their life in a drastic way. It’s not what you signed up for in the beginning, and if you’re not 100% on board with the change, you’re the jerk that didn’t support their spouse.
Have you come past those struggles?
We still have a lot of the same issues, but we’re always figuring out how to deal with them.
We spent two years in that space before we were able to move the design shop to a better location and afford a separate apartment. It was worth the wait! I have my sanctuary once again and my creativity is back.
What does your design shop rent cost?
Our shop rent is $1700 per month.
I often say that I work at a store and my husband always asks why I don’t say that I own a store. I’ve always had a hard time talking about it.
Do you finish everything you start?
Uh, no! I come up with at least 10 new initiatives every day. If I had my way, I’d be running about 50 companies by now. I struggle constantly to pull my head out of the clouds and focus on the here and now.
Do you plan thoroughly and set goals?
I’m actually trying to stop. Right now, my only goal is to have a design shop. I used to have all sorts of goals, but found myself constantly thinking about the future, and not able to enjoy what was actually happening. Not long after opening our first storefront, I was thinking about our next location and trying to figure out how we would get to the next level.
Finally I realized that I never just sat back and gave myself credit for the huge goal I had already achieved. These days, I’m not worried about the future, I’m just focusing on the here and now. If there comes a point when that’s not enough, I’ll reevaluate and set a new goal.
I’ve decided that I’m not going to let myself get pressured into extra events and projects…I’m going back to basics and focusing on what made me love Apartment 528…
What have you had to do that you don’t enjoy, but is good for the business?
Networking and talking about the shop – I know it’s good for business, but I hate doing it. I often say that I work at a store and my husband always asks why I don’t say that I own a store. I’ve always had a hard time talking about it.
Are you as excited about this as you were when you started?
Well, I started out bright eyed and idealistic. Now I’m exhausted and just want a month off to sleep. Sadly, I never see many creatives talk about the hard part of working for yourself. Like we’re all afraid to admit that it’s not always perfect. Since we chose to go out on our own, maybe we feel guilty complaining.
Running a business is much more than the beautifully messy workspaces, giant cups of coffee, and cute motivational sayings on Instagram. There are late nights editing photos, hours spent fixing your printer, and days of researching affordable bag vendors. You handle everything. There are times when you’d like to go home and let your boss deal with a customer issue, until you remember you are the boss.
How do you counteract losing excitement or motivation?
Right now, I’m on a mission to reconnect with my design shop. It’s like when marriage counsellors tell you to put the spark back in your relationship by remembering what made you love that person in the first place. I’ve decided that I’m not going to let myself get pressured into extra events and projects. Instead, I’m going back to basics and focusing on what made me love Apartment 528 from the start.
there is literally nothing else in the world I would rather do. Nothing. Every time I think about quitting I remember this.
If you did this all over again, what would you do differently?
Not hesitate. I had a chance to open a storefront six years ago but was nervous about the risk, so I waited. Now, I would scream at myself to go for it!
Also, I would have chosen my “advisors” more carefully. Listening to folks who just want to give you an ego boost isn’t always the best. The encouragement felt great, but clouded my judgment and made me ignore some of the realities. I would have been less disappointed later on if I had considered both the good and the bad.
Where do you find inspiration or motivation?
Browsing the websites and Instagram feeds of makers and seeing their ability to continuously bring new ideas to fruition is so inspiring. It reminds me that imagination is limitless.
I also find motivation in the fact that I’ve spent hours upon hours trying to figure out what I would do if I didn’t run this design shop. So far, I haven’t found an answer! I’ve had waves of joy and depression over these years, but what gets me through is the thought that there is literally nothing else in the world I would rather do. Nothing. Every time I think about quitting, I remember this.
Apt528 is the physical manifestation of my mind. Over the years, it’s grown and changed to reflect my style and life experiences. It’s how I express myself. I love this little shop, warts and all, and can’t wait to see what’s next!
All photos in this story are borrowed from India Shannon.
You can find India Shannon and her store in Chicago, Illinois. She regularly writes about her favorite makers, and shares their products on Instagram.