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Pivoting in the Pandemic | Westminster Family Photographer

Let’s just say this together: “The year 2020 sucks!”

For some even more than for others, right?

As a family photographer in the Denver area, I get to work with families from all over Colorado, and I love the striking variety of people I get to serve. One family from Westminster has a particularly interesting story from 2020: as the pandemic shifted their economic situation this spring, they quickly pivoted and started a business called Renew Urban Garden that designs, builds and even delivers planters made from repurposed materials.

Westminster family in grass at sunset

I found their resilience and ingenuity inspiring and thought others facing challenges due to the pandemic might as well. I called Kristal last week to see if she’d answer a few of my questions about starting a new business in these challenging times and was so pleased she could spare a few minutes for an interview.

Holly Freeman Photography:

When the pandemic hit, you and Stephen jumped right into a brand new enterprise. In what ways were you already prepared to start your business?

Kristal Kostiew-Smith:

Well, I already had the skill set I needed. Growing up, my dad was a carpenter, and even in adulthood we’ve built things together. Also, I had most of the tools I needed, purchased from when Stephen and I were both employed, before we had kids. Some of the materials we needed were donated: fence boards, screws and corrugated metal, and our church and family and friends helped us financially to buy the equipment we needed to run our operation more smoothly.

Stephen and I had been building stuff on the side and selling it on marketplace for fun, kind of as a hobby, so we just stepped it up. I’m a big fan of Nicole Burke of Rooted Garden (#rootedgarden), and she started a similar business five years ago in Houston—similar but on a larger scale—revamping backyards, making planters and doing groundwork too, everything from lawns to full purpose gardens.

Westminster mom with little boy at sunset


Do you see yourself headed there?


Yes. I do. We already do full service sandboxes where we bring in the sand and set up the pulley system to close it all up. People have asked us about delivering dirt with their planters, so why not move in that direction? We’re always looking for ways to get better, to help people have a planter who wouldn’t be able to fill it themselves.


What have been some challenges along the way?


Time. The shift from being with the kids all the time to half the day with the kids, half the day working, and trying to be intentional about getting work done while they're napping is really tough. It pulls at my mom heart more than I thought it would. Partly because when we had kids, we wanted me to just be home for the first couple years.

But it’s shifting. We have a good balance now. Things have slowed down a bit since the spring. Now I mostly get orders done during naps.


What is it like working with your husband everyday?


No comment. Haha! Just kidding.

I love him and the time I get to spend with him, but it was a shift in our relationship to spend so much time together. It’s been a challenge for both of us. He needs his space, too. Now, he is focusing on the website, so we’re not working side by side like we were in the spring.

Westminster lifestyle family portrait, boy being tossed in the air


Your children are young, but you had basically already started homeshooling them this past year. Do you plan to continue that, and how will that fit in with your business?


Yes! We’re doing a homeschool co-op with three other families this fall. With the co-op, I’ll be able to get some work done during the week and still have one-on-one time with the kids. The kids are all pre-k and we’re using The Young and The Beautiful curriculum which is two lessons a week for math and one for language arts. We’ll rotate through the families, so once a month I’ll be the lead teacher for two days. I know the families in the co-op from babysitting or they’re friends we met at the library. They’re working moms too, so it works out for all of us.


What are your goals for your business over the next year?


I want it to grow. I’d like to streamline the construction process. I feel like the design is good, my supply sources are pretty consistent, and the marketing is pretty good. I just need to find a way to a quicker production, so I’m spending less time away from my kids. My goal is to be prepped for a busy springs, to be able to provide products during the busy season without going insane!


What is one thing you would have done differently from the start if you knew then what you know now?


We wasted some time searching for materials that we didn’t end up using. Like anything, the more you do it, the more you know what you want and what you can do for your clients. I really like what we’re using now for materials as compared to when we first started. Also, we were priced too low at first—based on what I’ve seen others doing—but we were just starting. I guess you start low and bump it up as you gain popularity. Basically, I want my product to be worth my time but affordable for clients.

Westminster family walking away toward sunset


Any advice for someone just starting a business of their own?


Ha! I’m still learning. I guess, especially if you’re starting a business with your husband: communicate, have patience and GET SLEEP!


Hopefully, I am a better photographer than I am a gardener, but we purchased one of Kristal and Stephen's beautiful planters and have been so pleased with how it has enhanced our back porch area. They're located in Westminster, Colorado but deliver to the surrounding areas. Please check out their work at Renew Urban Garden and see how your own garden might benefit from their beautiful craftsmanship.


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