Ellen Witt Monen started out in the corporate world as a designer, but she had a fun side business going making jewelry. As her jewelry line, Marcellina G., gained momentum, she started designing the marketing materials for the line, and other people began noticing — not just the jewelry, but the branding itself! She began helping other small business owners with their branding and eventually, it became an entirely new business all its own — SeeMeDesign. Ellen left the corporate world behind to focus on growing what has now become a very successful business, and about a year ago, she and her husband added a new member to the team, a baby named Joseph. Get to know our newest FACE of Atlanta, Ellen Witt Monen, a woman handling the circus juggling act that is life … but hey, who doesn’t love the circus?!
You went from designing for a huge consulting firm that works with worldwide corporations to working for yourself as a jewelry designer of Marcellina G. and designer for SeeMeDesign. What was the scariest part about going off on your own?
Making the jump had its scary moments for sure, but it was a slow move for me. I built my business in baby steps. SeeMeDesign started when I graduated from college as a portfolio website and a series of freelance projects. Five years later, I cut my hours in the corporate world to pursue Marcellina G. It was never a part of my plan to build a graphic design business, but people started asking who created the brand for Marcellina G. Three years later, I was at the point where I was deciding between turning SeeMeDesign clients away or leaving my job. I remember calling my parents on the way to work and telling them I was going to quit my job. When my dad didn’t flinch, that was the moment I actually made the decision to walk away. A few years later, I made the same decision to leave Marcellina G. behind. Funny enough, for at least the first few years, I was slightly paranoid that one day every single one of my clients would pick up and leave, all on the same day, of course. It was totally an irrational fear, but I can laugh about it now.
What would you tell others trying to start their own business?
Most people would say to think about the big picture and write a business plan. If I had done that, I would have given up before I started. My best advice is to take baby steps and let things grow organically. If you want something, you have to be willing to put a lot of hard work into it. It’s a lot like having a baby (only a little easier since you can choose to sleep) … but whatever you do, don’t get bogged down by big ideas in the far-off future.
Secondly, even though people can cheer you along, you are the only one who can make big things happen for you.
Your mantra at SeeMeDesign is “love work pause play repeat.” Can you go into more detail about the meaning?
It all evolved from a quote by a 19th-century novelist/poet Guillaume Apollinaire — “Now and then it’s good to pause in our pursuit of happiness and just be happy.” We translated the quote into 21st-century terms, which, of course, turned into a series of simple icons and single words, almost like modern-day hieroglyphics. The idea is that if you have all of these elements in your life, you will achieve happiness. It begins with love and the basic need to contribute to something bigger than yourself. But to be successful, you need to pause, refocus and get some play time in so that you can wake up and do it all over again.
The mantra has another meaning for the entrepreneurial types who we work with a lot — if you truly love your work and treat it like a craft, you can probably motivate yourself to work hard enough where the only option is to succeed. The key is that it all begins with love.
How has life changed after giving birth to your child about a year ago? What was the most unexpected thing that happened after you became a working mom?
Being a mom has been the best and hardest transition of my life. I’ve learned that just about every mom might as well be their version of Superwoman. Over the past 16 months, I’ve gained a huge respect for every working mom I’ve ever known. I’ve also felt some guilt for not being more empathetic in the past. There’s just no way to relate until you’re there, but it’s a super-powered world for sure.
You live in the lovely Virginia-Highland neighborhood. Describe for us the ideal day in your community.
It would start with a coffee from Alon’s, a family walk along the BeltLine and a visit to a park at some point in the day where my husband and I watch our favorite baby chuckle his way down the big-boy slide. The greatest part about our neighborhood is one of the biggest reasons people leave — we all live within spitting distance, which means we get to be a part of our neighbors’ lives. So, we’d probably spend some time talking and playing with them, too. For dinner, we’d head to La Tavola and end the night with their flourless chocolate cake. And since you said ideal, the baby would sleep in until 8:30 a.m. Any later than that, and I’d worry too much!
What is your favorite type of project to work on? What has been the most challenging in your career thus far?
My in-laws are in the restaurant business, and they approached me four years ago to help build a brand for Milk & Honey, a full-service gelato shop and restaurant in Chattanooga (and on its way to Nashville). Milk & Honey has been by far my favorite and most challenging project. My sister-in-law is the client every designer dreams to work with. She’s open to all ideas and not afraid of what so many others consider risks. We built an amazing brand together, and it’s more extensive than just about anything I’ve ever seen. Now we’re working on a similar project in New York created by the chefs of Raymi – Latin Beet Kitchen. It truly takes amazing clients like this to produce great work. This type of opportunity is the most challenging and rewarding process of any designer’s career, and we are all lucky if we get to experience it even just once.
Who are the people you look up to, whether professionally, personally or both?
My grandfather was my favorite person in the world. He always had a smile on his face, would sing and tell us the same funny anecdotes over and over again. And he would give us a kiss for “first prize.” That is the type of person I aim to be.
You helped write a paper about the effect of color on the economy and people as a collective. What were your findings? Is there a color that will help us excel in life (seriously, we will wear whatever color it takes to trigger prosperity and good health)?
We learned that even though there are way too many outside factors to correlate color and the economy, it is true that light colors (think Zen spa and yoga shades) have a calming effect and bright colors inspire people to work their way out of a funk. People have a natural tendency of choosing bright colors and busy patterns during recessions since they help add positivity to their lives. My best guess is that if you wear bright yellow and neon colors, they might help inspire you to build something big and new. But if you want to stabilize your life, go with the muted Zen tones.
If you could be any superhero, who would it be and why?
Is there a superhero who can speak dog and baby?! That’s who I would choose to be. I’m so curious what those little guys are thinking.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Honesty is the best policy, and you’re never fully dressed without a smile, courtesy of my mom.
What three things can you not live without, excluding faith, family and friends?
Dark chocolate, good design and coffee
Thank you to Ellen Witt Monen for sharing a little insight into her busy life and why believing in yourself is one of the most important assets, personally and professionally, to hold on to.
And, as always, a gigantic pat on the back to CatMax Photography for today’s lovely photos.