Creativity is intuitive for Ronda Kelly. Even as a small child she enjoyed creating and making spaces beautiful. Ronda’s talent is not limited in size, and her mediums range from metals and stones in fashion jewelry, to sheet rock and landscape of multi-family homes! She’s an entrepreneurial at heart, with a business acumen that steers her creativity well. Ronda’s eye for seeing emerging opportunities, teamed with her willingness to evolve as markets change have helped her balance a growing family and successfully bridge to a new enterprise. I asked this Portland, Oregon mother of three to share her background & career change with us, and I hope you find her as inspiring as I do!
JC: You’ve created businesses in two very different industries. Tell us about them.
RK: My interest in design started early on. As a child, I recall redecorating my family’s home at the age of six. I started making jewelry out of porcelain clay in college and started selling it at local craft fairs and to friends. The feedback was tremendous and I decided to keep going, eventually becoming a self-taught traditional bead work designer, dabbling in various forms and ultimately creating my signature style. During that time, I got a taste of what it would feel like to be my own boss, forge and follow my own path. Over the years, my interest in design morphed and grew and all the while I was supporting myself in the non-profit marketing sector. I had my day job and then in the evenings I would design — I couldn’t not design. When the opportunity arose for me to fully dedicate myself to my craft, I went for it and never looked back. I rode that wave for more than a decade, employing local artisans to reproduce my designs for small-medium boutique accounts across the US which were acquired through four key sales representatives. The recession of 2008/9, coupled with the demands of raising three young children, primed me for a career change. In 2010, with a bit of inheritance money, my husband and I chose to invest in real estate, making me the primary decision-maker in the growth and management of that business.
JC: It seems creativity, and the ability to see opportunity is a common thread in both industries.
RK: The art of making things appealing or beautiful is what motivates me. I rely largely on intuition and a keen sense of trends as my lens for seeing existing or potential opportunities. In the case of my jewelry business, I knew I was at the forefront of a big trend in the ‘local artisan jewelry design’ market, and I could see that there was a marked increase in the jewelry sales category overall. My background in marketing served me well as I grew my brand and business. Later, with real estate investments, my timing was spot on because the real estate market in Portland had dipped (recession) making the first property purchase a bit of a springboard for more to come. In addition, our first property was purchased in partnership with another couple (an architect and a contractor!), so I learned a lot from both of them about the remodeling process along the way, giving me the confidence to move forward with future projects.
Ronda creating custom jewelry and one of her designs
JC: How did you know it was time to make the switch from jewelry to real estate?
RK: The decision to step away from my jewelry business was a direct intuitive hit for me and it came about rather seamlessly because i could feel and sense that my energy and my priorities were shifting. I knew it was time to re-prioritize my life in a way that allowed me to focus more on the children and less and less on my business. Concurrently, the jewelry sector was becoming more inundated with copy-cat designs made overseas, making everything more competitive and less rewarding. I was ready to step away when I did and never regretted it. Over time, though, and as the kids got older, I started to feel that drive to reconnect with my creative side but in a way that would also contribute to the family financially. The opportunity to start investing in real estate was the perfect fit because I could tap into my business side (numbers, investing, managing people) as well as my creative side (choosing key properties, creating beautiful spaces, marketing, etc…). More than anything else, I entered the Portland, Oregon investment market at the right time, as the city has seen a substantial population increase since 2010.
JC: Both of these businesses entail sales in some manner. Were you always comfortable in the role or sales, or did you need to develop that skill?
RK: Right, we are all salespeople at some point, especially the entrepreneur. Skill in the sales arena comes easy when you’re passionate about your trade, and during my years as a designer, that aspect always felt very authentic and natural. I never felt a lot of pressure to sell my work, it was more about information-gathering and understanding what it would take to get to the next level. Through that process, I figured out how to produce a full jewelry line that could be sold on a larger scale, eventually expanding my market reach with the help of seasoned sales representatives. In comparison, with the real estate investment side, I believe that the ability to negotiate is more critical than ‘sales’. There are so many phases of the real estate investment process: 1) Finding the ‘right’ property, 2) Securing the property and negotiating through the final sale process, 3) Hiring the right contractor (multiple bids) to do any necessary upgrades/buildouts, and 4) Dealing with the city for permits/plan reviews, etc…which can turn into a negotiation process as well! The properties in my portfolio are either long-term or short-term (i.e. AirBnB) rental investment properties — in both cases, you must be savvy about marketing each unit. Good photographs, professional quality listings, and market rent awareness are essential to finding the best renters.
JC: Real estate often takes a major financial investment. Can you speak a bit about how you made this happen?
RK: Yes, basically you need 20-25% down for an investment property, and a bit of cash leftover if you intend to do any remodeling of the property. The rental income history for any given property will help you qualify but not every property offers that kind of history. In my case, the infusion of some inheritance money created a cushion for the first investment property. In addition, because the first property was purchased jointly with another couple (a couple years later, we were in a position to buy them out), the financial outlay was cut in half initially. But after that, it was all about leveraging one property to reinvest in the next. Every two years, a new property was acquired, and collectively they produce a decent monthly cash flow (passive income) for our family.
JC: Have you always thought of yourself as an entrepreneur?
RK: Not necessarily. I’ve always been confident in my ability to carve out my place in life, whether it be in the formal workplace or in an entrepreneurial venture. One thing I would say, however, is that once you become and entrepreneur and are used to the rhythms of working for yourself, it’s hard to go back to a more traditional 9-5 job scenario.
JC: What strengths do you possess that you feel have been the most helpful in creating successful businesses?
RK: I think I’m a hard worker (Midwest work ethic!) and once I have a clear vision for a project, I don’t give up. I’m also skilled at thinking outside the box for solutions to little problems that always come up along the way. In addition, curiosity and a willingness to learn new skills, coupled with a sunny disposition has always served me well.
JC: Do you have specific financial goals you’d like to achieve with the income from your properties? Do these goals include continuing to reinvest in your business?
RK: Initially, the goal was to purchase a property for each child (three total) as a way to help save for their college tuition. That goal still remains and has been surpassed as there are currently 4 properties, 8 units total in the portfolio. I like the idea of growing the business in the direction of more and more short-term rental properties (AirBnB, Vacasa, etc…) because I can use my creativity to design and furnish those spaces while also doubling or tripling profits as compared to long-term rentals. I like the idea of providing a space that makes people feel happy, comfortable and peaceful.
JC: What are the biggest impacts business ownership has made in your life?
RK: Imagining what you can do and actually doing them are two very different things. To experience the full joys of owning your own successful business, especially in the creative realm, is pretty darn awesome because you’re proving to yourself that you can do it. The rewards are many but most important is that feeling of accomplishment and a deep sense of satisfaction within yourself. In addition, when you own your own business, you see more clearly how all the pieces of a company fit together and I think that’s been a valuable lesson for me that transcends into daily life. I also believe that over time, I’ve learned to let go of and identify ego-based thought patterns that don’t always serve the greater mission.
JC: What does a productive work day look like for you?
RK: For me, every day is a balancing act between work and family. My mornings start off with a 20-minute school commute which is a fun time to connect with the kids and set the tone for everyone’s day (I’m a morning person!), followed by yoga or some other form of self-care (hiking, etc…) which I believe is essential. By 11:30am, I’m ready to tackle my to-do list, which could be anything from meeting with the Bureau of Development Services for building permits to writing up a new lease for one of the investment properties, or managing contractors on a remodel project. If I can tick off a few items on my to-do list, then that’s a good day. By 4pm my ‘mommy hat’ is on again and I’m out the door for school pickups/sport activities, eventually returning home for meal prep, homework help, etc...
JC: What advice you would give others starting a business?
JK:If your vision is clear and you have focused intention, then you’re on the right path. All good business ventures flow from there I believe. Imagining success every step of the way will support everything you do. In the beginning phases, do your research, seek out and really listen to feedback, be flexible, and trust your intuition.
JC: How do you factor in or dollarize the time investment on your part that is required when deciding whether or not to pursue a particular property?
RK: Shopping for a property is the fun part. Figuring out the viability of any given property is primarily a numbers game, and knowing the rental market. I guess if anything, my experience in the real estate investment market has given me the confidence to know a good opportunity when I see it. Specifically, when looking for a new property to purchase, I look at whether it will break even in its current state as a rental property. Then I assess how to optimize the property with either a remodel or an addition, and calculate the rough numbers for that. If it’s all within the budget range, then I know it has great potential. It’s also smart to assess a property based upon its potential for resale down the road when say the rental market is not so hot.