Life in Circles: Growing a life through business.

April 23, 2016
Julie VanDyke

Julie VanDyke

Life Circles by Stephanie Wagner.

Sponsored by Pro-Master Carpet Cleaning, 231-757-9061,

It is hard to be patient.

We expect food to be ready in the time it takes to drive from the order box to the pick-up window. Texting, cell phones, instant messaging, and Snap Chat allow us to instantly communicate the most mundane details.  Media stories heralding the “overnight success” of products, companies, and individuals make me wonder if anyone sets long-term goals anymore.

This week, my faith in hard work and diligent planning was restored.

I met with Julie Van Dyke in her store, Cottage Works, just a week after her seasonal re-opening. I can’t help but remember walking through the site with her less than two years ago when it was a cold and uninviting storage barn. Let me be the first to say, I am impressed.

We sit at a cheerful yellow pub table in the backroom that Julie uses as both office and inventory storage.

“I just had this put together for a delivery next week, so I thought we should try it out before it goes to it’s new home!”

She is clearly excited by her product, but it is the next sentence that gives you a clue to who Julie is at heart.  “Did you see this?” she asks, gesturing to a large barrister bookcase, half-painted and sitting on a drop cloth.  “My friend Andrea is doing some pieces for the store. She likes to work here, so it is great to have her company while she is doing it!”

In a world filled with competition, Julie wants other women to feel empowered and she is thrilled to have a venue where other entrepreneurs can take baby steps into the business world.

“I coached people for years on how to start a business, how to market themselves…. I knew I wanted that to be a part of this too.”  

Ironically, the original Cottage Works was born when her husband Dann lost his engineering job in 2009. Having just moved their family to the Mason County area two years prior, Julie and Dann were not keen on moving back to a more urban area.

“We really embraced the lakefront lifestyle. The peacefulness, the quality of life, and especially the community. We decided that I would be the official ‘breadwinner’ for the family while Dann pursued his dream of owning his own business.”

They started out with a shoestring budget, with Dann working from their basement to provide cottage maintenance services. By the second year, they had 1 employee and a garage, which has now grown to the storefront on US 10 and a staff of 7.

“I always wanted to be more a part of the business, but I had a good job with benefits and steady income. I felt like I was providing the security for the family, and it seemed too risky to give that up.”

Julie continued to advance in her career, then was offered a promotion.  

“I honestly think if I had not taken that step up, our lives would be very different right now. I don’t think I would have had the courage to take the risk that became all of this,” she says gesturing to the storefront all around her.

The new position put Julie in direct conflict with her deeply held values about leadership.

“I have this quote – In fact I just used it this morning with a group of new supervisors in training – ‘Leadership is not a position or a title. It is action and example.’  I really believe that, and I found myself in a place where my integrity was being challenged on an almost daily basis.”

Julie made the hard decision that it was time to speak up, and it eventually her the job.

“It was really scary. I didn’t know what exactly was next for me. I felt embarrassed because I had always held positions of leadership, and I felt like everyone was judging me.  And a lot of it was really public.  I just wanted to find someplace to hide.”

It was the support of her friends and husband that kept her going.

“I had some friends who basically forced me to keep getting out there. I volunteered at Oak Tree Learning Academy. I went to the same club and business meetings that I had been going to for years. I just tried to face it, and smile through it.”

She also went into planning mode.  Julie and Dann had been talking for some time about the need for a storefront for the business, but it seemed impossible since Dann is most often out on jobs during the day and Julie had been working full time.

Out of that, Cottage Works the store was born.  “I didn’t want to sit in a warehouse and sell one dock a week.  I wanted something for the women too. I knew what I liked in my own home, and I knew how hard it was to find great gifts and décor in the area. I wanted a place that I could feel good about going to, and that other people could enjoy too.”

The store is just beginning its second season, but has created a lifetime of changes for Julie and her family.

She tears up a little when she talks about the support she has received. “I was so afraid of how my old contacts would see me. I was worried they would see me as less somehow, or not as successful. But then we had the ribbon cutting….. I have never seen so many people at a ribbon cutting before. The store was just full, and everyone was amazing. So supportive and excited.”

It is a testament to the way that Julie puts her own leadership style into action. She admits that she quickly forgives and forgets, sometimes too much.  Her enthusiasm is contagious, and she is always ready with a kind word or encouragement.

“I try really hard to stay positive, to always have a smile ready. But I don’t share easily about myself either, so sometimes it is hard to connect.  I’m working on that right now.”

She readily admits that the challenges of the last two years have made her more aware of her relationships.

“I never really had time for a lot of things when I was working. I would go in at 7:30, come home between 5:30 and 6:00. I didn’t have time to exercise or make friends.  The store has been freeing for me in that respect.  I have met some wonderful women, and I actually have time now to make the effort to develop friendships.”  

Eight years and a lot of uncertainty later, Julie says she has no regrets.  

“Sometimes the ugly propels you into making a life.  It is so worth the risk!”  

I couldn’t agree more.


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