Manitou Springs may not officially be called “The New Orleans of the West,” but entrepreneur and Louisiana native Josh Stelly said it’s the closest thing he’s found.
Raised in Arnaudville, La. (population 4,500 “on a sunny day,” he said), Stelly earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at Northwestern State University, lived in the Big Easy for a spell and moved to the Pikes Peak region for the first time in 2012.
Stelly is a veteran of the restaurant industry and is assistant manager at Odyssey Gastropub downtown. But his greatest ambition is running his own business, and a year ago Stelly made the leap and began Craft Manitou on the city’s western edge.
Stelly spoke with the Business Journal this week about how chasing his dream has only led him closer and closer to the mountains.
So you’ve lived around here twice now?
I headed up here shortly after I graduated college in 2010 and lived in Colorado Springs. It’s weird — Manitou kept drawing me to it. Every time I moved — it started downtown, then the Westside, then Old Colorado City. Now it’s Manitou and I’m like, ‘I’m home.’
Why did you move to Colorado Springs the first time?
Friends from college said they were moving to Colorado Springs and asked if I wanted to come with them. New Orleans is 8 feet below sea level and I said, ‘Let me get some high and dry land.’
In a lot of ways, Colorado Springs is the opposite of New Orleans. It lacks all the qualities and characteristics of New Orleans. That’s why I found myself in Manitou Springs. It’s reminiscent of the French Quarter. It’s historic and has character and an energy and vibe to it — and a great sense of community. That’s what drew me here.
What did you study in college?
I studied fine arts with a focus on design and fabrication. I focus on items in the round — not painting or drawing — but functional. My senior exhibition included furniture, clothing, jewelry and sculpture.
How did the idea for Craft Manitou come about?
I’ve always been creative. I work with nonprofits — I did a couple things with Concrete Couch and a nonprofit downtown called Dream Catchers, working with developmentally disabled adults.
That’s really where the idea for this whole space spawned — working with those individuals. They weren’t functioning at full adult capacity but could produce really cool, artisanal products. There’s a storefront within Dream Catchers called Blank Canvas Café. A lot of the clients there do projects and sell them in the storefront. It’s a really cool concept.
What about this concept?
I offer classes Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Tuesdays and Wednesdays I’m off from Odyssey and in here doing administrative work and bookkeeping. I still have my ‘Open’ sign on and you can come in for open studio, hang out and chat with me. We do things like watercolor mugs that take 20 to 30 minutes. People can drop in and do them.
As for my price points, they range from around $20 to $65. I provide all the supplies, instruction, tools — everything you need to get the job done. Most classes are an hour and a half to two hours. Some run a little over because of the subject matter. Classes typically start at 6:30 so people can be off work and get something to eat.
I taught sip and paint classes for a little while. At the end of each class, I noticed there were a handful of people who were just not satisfied with their final product.
That’s understandable because, if you’re not a painter, you’re not going to get the painting you want in the end.
With this concept, it was throwing it back to kindergarten — scissors and glue and keeping it simple.
This is how I would explain my business: In regard to crafts online, there are instructions there. It’s usually Instruction 1, Instruction 2 and then 3, 4, 5.
I’m here to be the guidance between the 1 and 2 and between 2 and 3. You see all these #nailedit. I don’t want you to experience that. I want you to have an understanding on the between steps of instruction.
What are some of the crafts?
One craft is our portable campfires — paraffin wax and recycled egg crate — and it burns like several wicks. It’s $20 and made inside recycled cookie tins. I get the egg crates from Odyssey. I try to implement recycling into new items and repurpose. I think it’s important to consider how much we waste and how much we consume and how much we can reuse a lot of these aspects.
Last month’s craft list includes one of my most popular classes: watercolor mugs. We make soy relax candles, we do leatherworking for tablet cases. Another popular one is our cloud light, because it’s pretty awesome.
What did you do for work when you first moved to the region?
When I moved here in 2012, I worked for a Realtor for a while before moving back to New Orleans. I moved here in 2012, lived here for 3½ years, moved to New Orleans for a year and this is my second time back.
I wanted to start a brick-and-mortar shop by the time I was 33. I’m 33 now and so I was like, ‘I’ll be 33 in 2017. Seventeen is my favorite number.’ This numerology was working out for me. I decided to pursue it and this space came open. Initially, the landlord didn’t know about the concept. I said I would draft up illustrations and show what I wanted to do with the space.
I drew it out and texted the images and she said she liked what she was seeing and that I should give it a try. That was a year and a half ago. I soft opened April 15 and the grand opening was June 1, 2017.
Did you think about cohabitating with your business?
I like the idea of cohabitating but didn’t necessarily want to. None of my crafts require power tools or anything of that sort. I wanted the crafts to be simple and elegant. I don’t need to be inside a woodshop while teaching people how to make candles or watercolor mugs. That’s why I was against cohabitating with someone else. There are ways to partner with people but circumnavigate cohabitating.
And being a sole renter is a perk. I’ve had roommates in the past who were completely irresponsible. So, I supplement my expenses with the money I make at Odyssey while I get the traction I need.
I would say this concept is successful, it’s just not profitable yet. I get positive feedback online, I chat and engage with people on Facebook and Instagram. I see the success in it. The course I’ve taken thus far — I can see myself becoming highly profitable in three years.
Do you have any advice for other young entrepreneurs?
Take the leap. Don’t quit your day job, but take the leap. This is my dream job. Odyssey is my day job to support my dream. You have to get over the fear of failure, because it may happen and it may not. But you’ll never know until you actually take that chance. … A lot of people feel as if they have to focus solely on their business and dedicate all their energy and finances. Don’t quit your day job until you’re seeing black numbers instead of red because your dream can sink as quickly as you sent it off. Don’t be afraid of failure, but don’t set yourself up for it either.