I get asked this question a lot, from attendees, coworkers, and friends. For this reason, I figured I should share what was on my mind and how Makewell came to be.
*If you’d like the short version, scroll all the way to the end. If you’d like to really know the lead up to Makewell, keep on reading.
The story of Makewell, as any good idea does, starts long before the idea ever came to be.
I went through several failed ideas, believe me. But before we dive in, I want to share some quick background on myself.
I grew up in Bismarck, ND and had a wonderful childhood filled with creativity and possibilities (which I’m incredibly thankful for). My mom was a stay-at-home artist doing both commercial and fine art work, so I was constantly making something.
Fast forward to late high school, I was lucky enough to know I wanted to study graphic design pretty early on. Having that advantage, I was able to find the perfect community for my years in college at Northwestern University in the Twin Cities area.
My four years there were wonderful, and even though it was quite the investment, I don’t regret it for a minute. My design department was a close, little family with accessible, helpful professors, and the Twin Cities area has one of the largest design communities in the nation.
Come January of 2015, I made the transition back home to Bismarck. I made the move for several reasons, but primarily because I was dating my now-husband, and found a great job designing at a local startup called CoSchedule. Although my college years were great, Bismarck was growing and moving forward, and I wanted to be apart of that.
The Season of Ideas
This cold, winter season back home is where my ideas began.
I was recently done with college (done with school forever), and had the world at my fingertips. There was a new joy and excitement in having what was homework time, open to whatever might come my way.
As some may know, along my way studying and earning my degree in design, I also found a new love in photography. What started as simple fun taking photos of friends, turned into getting my first wedding client, and from there it took off.
So, moving back home with new time on my hands and this photography business on the side, I had my first idea.
What if I could use photography to encourage child sponsorships?
Would that work?
Could I get others involved?
And that’s how Compassion Week was born. The idea was for every new sponsorship, a local photographer would donate a free mini session. And to my surprise, I had several amazing photographers on board. For that week in April, we advertised, promoted, told everyone we knew…
...and only four sponsorships happened.
While helping four lives was a true pleasure and something worth celebrating, it wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for. I had high hopes that this would take off, and we’d have 20+ sponsorships.
So, what did I learn?
Not every idea, even if it has the best intentions, is a successful idea.
I learned that marketing in this area is very word of mouth, and that failing is okay.
If anything, the experience made me realize that my definition of success and satisfaction lives at the intersection of creativity and community. This time it just didn’t happen.
Another photography season was slowing down as the weather was becoming cooler, and so my schedule was opening up as it usually does late fall into the winter. What should I try this year?
Ever since college, I’ve been really fascinated with the idea of eating around the table.
How could I use my creativity to help eating around the table?
What could I make to encourage cooking and making connections?
And that’s how Bevö Magazine was born. Bevö is from the German Word ‘Bevölkerungsgruppe’, which means group of people and community. The idea was that I’d create a full-course magazine easy enough for any cooking level with large, beautiful imagery to follow along with in hopes that cooking would be easier and more approachable, thus making eating at the table both fun and enjoyable.
I assembled my amazing team to help me out, as I wasn’t a great cook myself, and together we made our first digital issue (enjoy a free download!). I fell in love with styling all of the food and decor, and enjoyed being a major cheerleader of my roommate and friends’ amazing recipes.
Around that same time, the amazing OTA group was offering a new program called OTA Builders. I wasn’t sure I had a project in mind, but felt like I’d be a good fit, so I applied on a whim. Sure enough, I was selected and received a small budget to bring any idea to life.
With Bevö on my mind, I approached my team, and asked if they wanted to see Bevö come to life with a print edition to really see what we were made of, and they were all on board. So we did.
We made our Spring Issue in March, and I was able to present on the project at the OTA Bismarck event that spring.
Several people came up to me afterwards excited about the magazine and had ideas for how I could scale it. Of course, ‘advertising’ was the word of the day, and that was simply something I wasn’t going to do. My purpose wasn’t to scale, but to bring people together. That day and over the next few weeks to come, we sold about 80 issues total.
...And then I waited…
I waited to see if more people ate together. If they enjoyed the recipes. If it was enjoyable to cook more often. And it was surprisingly quiet.
I didn’t hear the stories I expected to, the stories I had hoped Bevö would help create. If I’m honest, the quietness made my heart sink. 80 issues sold meant nothing without hitting the goal of people eating around the table in community.
Certainly this wasn’t a failure! But it made me really think about my approach.
So, what did I learn?
I learned that my project was just a means to the end, and that it didn’t quite satisfy my creative soul like I thought it would. I wanted the end result of community.
I definitely learned more about myself… that I loved creative styling and wanted to continue down that creative path.
I learned that working with a team has its challenges and victories, but that in the end it was worth it all to share in the journey together.
Around now, you’re probably thinking, ‘Ashton, how many failed ideas did you have?’ or ‘Are you ever going to talk about Makewell?’ We’re very close, stick with me...
Another photography season was coming to an end, and here I was again. The weather was getting cooler, my schedule was opening up, and I came to this very familiar season of ideas. But unlike those years before, I faced my own questions and hesitation.
‘Should I really try again? Just to see another project fail?’
‘Maybe I should invest in myself and our family this time.’
‘Even if I had a great idea, would the Bismarck community care enough to support it?’
‘Ashton, just relax for once.’
All these thoughts and questions filled my mind. I did have some ideas rolling around, but so many reservations… so many.
But then I did what I’ve been taught to do since day one at CoSchedule: Make an MVP (Minimum Viable Project) and ship it.
So, I finally got up the nerve and sent out a 10-question survey to 40 of my favorite makers in the local area to see if they’d even be interested in my idea.
‘Let’s just test it out this time before going head-first,’ I told myself.
Overwhelmingly, I received positive responses and, more so, people who genuinely wanted to help see it through. Everything was pointing in one direction…
I knew what I had to do.
I knew that this idea was larger than anything I had ever made before. I knew it would take a lot of people and resources that I was unfamiliar with. I knew it would mean entering into the unknown. Failing again.
But my heart was made up. I had to do it.
I was going to make the best, one-of-a-kind event for local creatives and makers, and it was going to work this time. It had to. I was determined to see the creative community come together, once and for all.
So with everything I had, I told my husband that I was going to go for it, and laughing at myself I said, “If this doesn’t work, I don’t know what else I’ll do...”
Fall of 2016, I reached out to those committed, creative individuals that wanted to help see this event come to life. Starting afresh with my previous projects behind me, we had our first meeting to brainstorm what we wanted (and didn’t want) Makewell to be.
As creatives, we knew this event could be anything we wanted it to be. The options were endless: The format, the style, the theme, everything. To help rein us in, we wrote down a list of pain points we had all previously experienced with events and conferences that we wanted to avoid:
Usually it’s way too large of a group making it hard to meet people
The format is too static, became boring and hard to learn from
We came out of obligation, rather than excitement
The giveaways were trash
And the list goes on...
With that, we started writing down some must-have’s for our event to make it something we’d like to attend (and pay for) ourselves. After all, we were our own audience. Here was our top requests:
Smaller group size for easier connection
Direct interactions with other makers like ourselves
A diverse format for all types of learners
Killer branding experience to make it magical and exciting
Resources that actually helped that extended beyond the event
After a lot of discussion, conversations about bad experiences, and shared dreams of what we wanted our community to become, Makewell was born. My team was determined to create a maker community that easily connected, challenged and encouraged each other, and one that grows from each other’s experiences.
We planned, scheduled, emailed, promoted, you name it.
We launched tickets early November in hopes of selling all 50 by the new year. We knew that hitting 50 tickets an entire month before the event was scheduled would be really hard, especially for our local culture.
Plus, this event was totally new. And different. Very different. How do you describe something that’s still in the making? Something that none of us has had ever experienced before?
Well, we tried. We truly did our best, and sure enough tickets were coming in! It definitely wasn’t all at once, but to our great surprise, we sold all 50 plus 5 more by the first week of January. Sold out.
‘Wait, the event that nobody knows really what it is?’
‘This idea worked?!’
‘Now we can’t mess this up... we have one chance.’
An even dose of excitement and fear came all at once. Now that I finally found myself in the midst of something great, there was a lot on the line. I felt such a deep responsibility to myself, my team, and everyone who volunteered their time, services, finances, you name it, to help make the event possible.
The night had come. February 11, 2017. Makers came from all over the state to attend our event. As people walked in, I looked around at a room full of makers that I looked up to, just hoping, praying that it would work. It was a personal dream come true, to see so many makers in one space dedicated to learning and growing together.
To my great relief, as each speaker came and went, as small group discussions happened, I started to become less anxious and looked around. People were intrigued, they were entering into deep conversations, they were laughing with tears… my heart wanted to burst.
It Was Working
This crazy idea birthed out of years of previously failed ideas, was working! This unique, science project of an idea, was actually helping people meet each other, and let their guard down to help one another.
My heart was bursting with joy. So much frickin’ joy.
And just like that, the night ended.
All that work from my team and myself, came together for four hours of sweet community with one another. We laid it all out, and had no regrets. If I’m being honest, the only thing I could think about in that moment was ‘When can we do this again?’
No more hesitations, no more doubts, just pure exhilaration to see where this would go. It only took a week or two to book our second event just a few months later in June.
So, you ask, ‘Why Makewell?’
Because our community needed a community of makers, rather than isolated freelancers and small business owners trying to do it all alone.
Because we were meant to live in community, and we were born to make. So why not make stuff together?
Because having community over competition makes us all better at what we do.
Because our friends and family rely on local makers to make our community attractive.
Because supporting local makers grows our economy.
Ever since moving back home in 2015, I’ve personally wanted all of these things. I’ve felt the pain of feeling like the only one here going through fill-in-the-blank obstacle with my business. And I didn’t just want to meet other photographers or designers, I wanted to meet everyone so I could collaborate with those gifted with other strengths.
And I didn’t want to go to another conference.
Another conference where I get too intimidated to meet anyone at all, and gravitate towards what’s familiar. An event that I pay far too much for, and just hear fluff from the stage, and get dinky pens to take home.
Makewell Is More
Makewell is a social hour, speaker, small group discussion, entertainment-filled event to meet every need a local maker might have.
Are you new to town and need to meet people in your industry? Perfect.
Are you three years into your small business, and need advice on how to make it to year four? Perfect.
Are you a side-hustler exploring what it would mean to give it a go? Perfect.
And the list goes on…
While every event lends all of these things, it’s what happens afterwards that’s the true magic.
At the end of the night, each attendee goes home with a custom book with every attendees info and bio, so the event isn’t the end, but rather the starting point of connections, collaborations, and community.
You see, Makewell is a community of makers, together tackling our craft.
We are your family, we are your tribe.
Welcome to Makewell.