American Business Women’s Day

empowering businesswomen

The Empire is honored to be featured at the Iowa Secretary of State this month to celebrate American Business Women’s Day. September 22nd highlights the American Business Women’s Association’s mission statement, which is “to bring together businesswomen of diverse occupations and to provide opportunities for them to help themselves and others grow personally and professionally through leadership; education, networking support and national recognition.” As a female-led design studio, we connect with that mission statement deeply. We love that one of the Iowa Secretary of State’s focuses is highlighting entrepreneurs throughout the state, and thank them for including 818!

After being interviewed for the article, we thought it would be fun to share the “insider edition” of the Q&A. Maybe some of these insights will help another small business owner, and inspire you to support small businesses in your area. Enjoy!


Pictured left to right: Melissa Carlson and Rachel Abel

Could you introduce yourself?
Hello! I’m Melissa Carlson, co-owner of 818 – a tiny design empire along with my amazing business partner, Rachel Abel. Professionally, I enjoy learning about an organization’s brand and brainstorming ways to take it to the next level. Personally, I enjoy biking, volleyball, sunshine, art, gardening and hanging out with my dog, Riley.

Tell me a bit about why you decided to start 818, the meaning behind the name, and what you hope to achieve.
After working both at advertising agencies and as freelance designers, we recognized something. Small business owners didn’t need the vast creative resources from agencies but needed more support than a freelancer could provide. And, at that time, there weren’t a ton of options for them to work with small design studios of our size, so we formed our company with the intent of being intentionally tiny but mighty — hence the “tiny design empire” tagline. The name “818” has a few different meanings to us, but in short, it’s the elevation of Des Moines in a meaningful location to us. At the base of the capitol grounds, there is a state of Iowa map with all the counties and a compass. The elevation there is 818 feet and looking west, it overlooks the most iconic view of downtown Des Moines. My obsession with the Capitol building’s beauty aside, the Iowa map is a reminder of where we began, and the compass inspires our vision traveling forward.

Why is owning your own business important to you?
For me, it’s important for a variety of reasons but I’ll name the top 3. First, I like knowing that I have the ability to create my own destiny which is empowering. Second, I want to create a company that provides employment opportunities for good, talented people and I like helping them grow in their careers. Last, I want our team to use our skills to contribute to our community and help others succeed which is meaningful for everyone.

What aspects of your company set it apart from competitors?
We are truly dedicated to the success of our clients, and that comes out in the relationships we build with them. We get heavily involved in their day-to-day operations and serve as an extension of their companies. We strive for those kinds of partnerships.

How has the entrepreneurship community in Iowa, specifically in Des Moines, helped you be successful in achieving your mission?
Over the years we’ve been a part of several entrepreneur groups in the area and the referrals and support were awesome. Many of our clients are located in Des Moines and are also entrepreneurs. By working together and spending money with each other, we support each other’s missions. Most recently, I participated in the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Program in Iowa and it was incredible to be connected to so many talented faculty, business programs as well as other business owners.


What has been the biggest risk you have taken since starting your business, and did it pay off?
I remember when we decided to hire employees and at the time, it seemed like a big risk. It is intimidating when you make the decision to have others’ livelihood depend on you. Bringing on employees meant we had to strategically plan, take on more overhead, bring in a substantially larger and more consistent amount of work, and it meant that we would have to move into a different role as leaders instead of designers — which is what we loved doing. Honestly, it was an uncomfortable, awkward time but deciding to grow this business past us and develop our team has been hands down the best thing we ever did. Our team is just awesome, we create amazing things together, we have fun, and we wouldn’t have the opportunities we have today without them.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of starting your own business?
When I reflect back on everything we’ve achieved and everyone we’ve helped, that is what brings meaning to me. It’s so rewarding to use my personal talents in a constructive way AND get paid doing it. I know many people don’t feel this in their current careers and I wish everyone could – which I think is why I enjoy supporting small businesses and helping others to follow their dreams.

What are some barriers you faced in starting your own business, and what resources did you use to overcome them?
As we were writing our business plan and just getting started, we used the Iowa Small Business Development Center as a resource, and they were helpful with general questions we had. Cash flow and taxes are always big barriers when you’re first getting established. We didn’t take out any business loans, so at first, we just struggled through the ups and downs. A few years ago, we ended up getting a credit line with our bank and that has been handy at times. We maybe should have looked closer at small business loans, but we haven’t taken on traditional loans thus far. Being a small company, finding appropriately sized office space has always been a challenge for us — we’ve had 4 different office spaces in 6 years and will be moving again next year! There are several solid co-working spaces available now that I wished were there for us in the beginning as we went through the “unpredictable years” when we needed more flexible lease terms. As we look to our next move, we are looking for more permanence and have connected with a realtor as a resource this time. 

What has been one of the most difficult lessons you’ve had to learn since opening your own business?
The importance of working ON your business and not IN your business. I think most business owners find delegation difficult, but if you don’t get comfortable with it and trust your team, you will run into trouble as you grow. Let go. Empower. Trust. Do those things sooner than later!

How do you hope the community benefits from your company?
Rooted in Des Moines, this community has sculpted who we are and what we do. We feel it is important to give back through the support of worthy causes. We’ve helped a handful of local organizations along the way through monetary or design contributions and will continue to benefit them and our clients with our talents when possible.

What keeps you motivated and inspired on a day to day basis?
We get to work with some really amazing clients on inspiring projects on a daily basis and that makes it easy to get up and go to work each day. Our clients depend on us and that is motivating as well!

What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
1. Be persistent and power through. 2. Have a clear vision & company goals and re-visit them as you grow. 3. Delegate! Empower and trust your team. 4. Make time for personal projects & hobbies. 5. Eat healthier, sleep more & drink water. 6. Find ‘your people’ and support each other.

Let’s work together and
create amazing things.


401 East Court Avenue, Suite 200
Des Moines, IA 50309
(Suite on south side of the building)