How These Sisters Turned Their Passion for the Alaskan Wilderness into a Small Business
For sisters Anna and Kelly, life was anything but ordinary growing up in Fairbanks, Alaska. On chilly school mornings, as they’d make their way towards the bus stop, it wasn’t uncommon for moose to be idling nearby. Careful not to alert the striking creatures, the girls would nimbly make their way around the animals while somehow still boarding the bus on time.
An encounter like that might be frightening to some, but Anna and Kelly were raised to always respect and appreciate the wildlife they were surrounded by. Living in Alaska, away from relatives, they learned to rely on both their neighbors and the nature around them as their community and family. Now, as adults, they look back at their childhood and appreciate how unique their experience was.
“For a couple of years, we lived in what we call ‘in the village,” Kelly said. “There were a lot of bears where we lived. And every spring, you could walk down to the river and see the beluga whales coming up. That time was quite magical for a kid because it’s just unlike anything else.”
Their parents always stressed the importance of being present in the moment – something quite easy to do when living near the vastness of the Alaskan wilderness – and intentional in the way they communicate with others. Presence and intentionality were values the girls were raised with and have stayed with them. And while it would take many years before they would eventually open up their own art business, these very principles are what inspired Arctic Haven Studio.
“When we started the business, our biggest goal was to share the art we’re creating, but to do so in a way that connects people and back to nature,” Anna said. “Whether it’s nature that they’ve experienced themselves — like if they’ve actually seen a Musk Ox, they can buy [our] Musk Ox and think about that experience — or to connect them to something they want to experience.”
Together, Anna and Kelly have created a small business that they hope will not only bring people together but also remind them of the beauty around them. This past July, Arctic Haven Studio celebrated their one-year anniversary. In a short amount of time, they shipped their artwork to 16 states, created 17 different design sets, and spent an average of 72 hours on the pieces.
Here’s how the two set up their brand in a way that’s allowed them to pursue their passions while doing a lot of good along the way.
When Kelly was a business major in college, one of the things that were drilled into her was to never go into business with a family member. But she’s glad she didn’t heed the advice of her former professors, as creating Arctic Haven Studio with Anna has been a special experience. Though the two have full-time careers – Kelly works in contract management and Anna is a wildlife ecologist – their other job is running Arctic Haven Studio together.
The studio relies on both Kelly and Anna’s unique strengths. With her business insights, Kelly has been able to handle all of the logistic and administrative work, while Anna creates the artwork that is made out of tiny pieces of recycled paper – a technique she’s been exploring since high school.
For each piece, Anna starts with a simple sketch of an animal, then she begins filling in the outline with scraps of paper – often starting with the creature’s eye which is usually the most detailed part. It’s a long process, and Anna has spent anywhere from 40 to 80 hours working on a piece. Each animal offers its own unique challenge. Recently, Anna made a walrus and enjoyed playing around with paper to create its wet and slimy texture.
It was Kelly who saw just how special and marketable this very art was.
“I would never have started this business if I didn’t have [Kelly’s] support and knowledge as a business major and a business person because I like creating stuff, but I don’t have the patience or knowledge to actually start a business,” said Anna.
In particular, it was a specific design that Anna had made of a ptarmigan, one of Alaska’s iconic birds, that became the catalyst for their small business. It was one of the most detailed paper-cut pieces Anna had created at the time.
The duo didn’t just want to sell any kind of product, however. They knew they wanted these art pieces to help connect people to one another, which is why they initially launched note cards with Anna’s designs on them.
“We started with notecard sets being our primary product,” Anna said. “We both write a lot of letters and [note cards] lend themselves well to being able to have some art that you get to enjoy, and then can give to someone else,” Anna said.
By playing off each other’s strengths, the two have launched a company that perfectly embodies everything important to them.
As Anna said, “personal connection and community is a founding value for us.”
Despite already having a very clear vision for their products, Anna and Kelly didn’t rush to open up their doors. Instead, they carefully looked into vendors, reviewed contracts, and researched everything they needed to know about starting a business. In fact, it took them 13 months from their first official design to their grand opening.
While they were in the planning stage, they had clear talks amongst themselves about how they’d run Arctic Haven Studio. First, they broke down the six core functions of the business. They then turned each of those functions into job roles and divided them up between the two. While they value each other’s input, they also decided there would be a decision maker for each aspect of the business.
“The agreement was that we both had a say in all the categories, but when a decision had to be made, whoever was assigned that category got to make the final decision,” Kelly said. “And we’ve never clashed on that.”
This methodological approach to opening the business is something they’re both glad they took the time to do. It allowed them to lay out a foundational groundwork for Arctic Haven Studio, making them feel confident in the business’s mission – to create meaningful work that not only represents their hometown but helps cultivate community amongst their customers.
While they’re proud of the growth they’ve achieved so far, they’ve always been realistic about their business and the fact that for now at least, Arctic Haven Studio is not their full-time job, but their passion project.
This perspective has helped them from getting discouraged.
“Everybody wants to be successful right away. But you have to figure out what that success even looks like and recognize, ‘I’m probably not going to make much money in the first three years’… but knowing that’s okay because success is making one more connection and just having those reasonable and reachable goals,” Kelly said.
Taking their time to open up connects back to the sisters’ goal of always being intentional with their work. This slower pace has allowed them to check all of their boxes, ensuring they were fully ready to become small business owners.
Contributing back to the wildlife they were raised by is something Anna and Kelly knew they wanted to do with their small business, which is why they’ve decided to donate 10 percent of their proceeds to the Alaskan Wildlife Conservation Center annually. So far, they’ve donated over $300 dollars to the organization, and hope to give even more soon.
“The Alaskan Wildlife Conservation Center ended up being a perfect fit for us because they do a lot of conservation and rescuing orphaned animals that then they rehabilitate and get back into the wild,” Anna said. “Or they use them as captive animals in an educational sense. But they have very strong animal care guidelines. And so it’s something we felt really good about.”
Along with giving back directly to the wildlife, the sisters have embedded sustainability into their business as well. They use recycled paper and recycled materials for their packaging as much as possible – despite the fact that it is quite pricey for them as a small business to do so. They are well aware of the fact that they could be bringing in more money if they used cheaper supplies, but doing so would feel wrong.
“How can we sell art that reflects nature, but [our customers] are going to rip open the plastic and throw it in the trash?” Kelly said.
But as much as they’re hoping their business can make a positive impact on the world, the sisters have also found that Arctic Haven Studio has brought back so much value into their own lives. While running a small business is not always easy, it has given them a chance to unwind from their everyday lives. For Anna especially, it’s been a creative outlet. The wildlife ecologist recently graduated from grad school and says the business helped balance things out for her.
“I honestly think [Arctic Haven Studio] is kind of what kept me sane in grad school. Having the creative outlet, creating the art and then also having the business side of things to work on with Kelly, where it was completely separate from my grad school work,” Anna said.
Even more, however, this side project has given the two a reason to spend more time together, strengthening their bond. The most fulfilling part for Kelly has been seeing everyone appreciate Anna’s art – something she’s been doing since childhood.
“I really enjoy seeing people enjoy Anna’s work because I grew up with it,” Kelly said. “There’s satisfaction in that and seeing Anna being proud of what she’s made.”
Just recently, Anna and Kelly celebrated a big moment for their small business: their first in-person exhibit at Wild Scoops, an ice cream shop in Anchorage, Alaska. This was the first time they had printed out Arctic Haven studio pieces on such a large scale and displayed them in a public setting for so many to see.
Another step they’ve taken is reaching out to local businesses to start selling their notecards, stickers, and prints in physical stores, moving away from their online-only model. They’re also extending their product line and considering including prints in poster sizes. While they are still selling their original note cards, they’re looking into diversifying their items a bit to reach more customers.
The two plan to continue growing Arctic Haven Studio together with the goal of adding more beauty, nature, and meaning into their customers’ lives.
“We all know that feeling that you get when you’re looking at art and you just want to be where that is,” Kelly said. “And so we hope our customers will take away that [our products] are more than just a piece of paper to write on, but an intentional piece with an intentional connection.”