When asked how she would describe her business, Meridythe Emmanuel of Park Hill Design turns to her fellow business owners, neighbors and long-time friends and asks for their feedback on how to summarize her merchandise. “Handmade clothing for kids,” says one. “But it’s almost folk art, really, and eclectic,” says another. “And the clothes are tactile and sensory-friendly and you do household items too,” says a third. This is how it goes with the group who meets regularly to throw around ideas and lend a compassionate ear.
Emmanuel was the first to start a business 3½ years ago. Inspired by soft but textural items she sewed for her work in special education, she began sewing clothes for her daughter and friends’ kids and the business grew from there. Although she was the first to take the leap, Emmanuel says she was inspired long before by her artist friends Jodi McDonough, whom she met 15 years ago in college, her partner Joseph Gebhardt and McDonough’s ex-husband, Jeff Weihing. “They motivated me by the entire idea of art as a tangible thing instead of something people had inside them,” says Emmanuel. “I learned a lot by watching the way they designed their entire lives around art.”
Soon after Park Hill Design began, McDonough and Gebhardt started Colorado Joe’s, making custom, wooden outdoor lawn games such as cornhole and ladder golf and Colorado-themed décor. Their business started after making a cornhole game for a wedding while working in special event design. Orders started coming in for more and the couple realized there was a market. “It started out just being a hobby and a creative outlet but we just kept pushing it and then it exploded and then we couldn’t say no!” says Gebhardt.
The third friend to go into business, and to join the others in living in Park Hill, was Park Hill Country’s Weihing who makes custom wooden beer-related accessories including coolers, beer tasting boards, tap handles and coasters. Formerly an art school professor, Weihing would go to parties with his store-bought, red and white cooler and then couldn’t figure out which one was his because they all looked the same. “I made the first wooden cooler and thought ‘this is something I can do,’” he says.
The group of friends (who dodge ex-spouse awkwardness due to McDonough and Weihing’s very amicable divorce) originally met once a week at a Park Hill coffee shop to talk about their visions and goals for each of the companies and to brainstorm designs. They also talked a lot about how to combine work and family (they have five children between them) as well as art and business. “There’s a dichotomy between the business and the ‘making’” says Weihing. “We’re all makers and that’s where we start. You might make the best product out there, but to sell it and market it takes the opposite brain.”
Now that their businesses are established, and the hours long, the group still meets regularly with intentions that are more social than business-oriented. “We’re all working from our homes, so to get out of the home and get together is an important part of every week,” says McDonough, who concedes that most conversations make their way around to work. “Whether we’re talking about life in general, our businesses are still at the forefront of conversations.” Emmanuel agrees saying, “It’s a really big endeavor to run a business and not everyone understands that, so it’s nice to see other people working through the same stuff you’re working through.”
Their talks also lead to prospecting. “We share news about a brewery opening up, for example,” says Gebhardt. “And if we get an order for a cornhole game, we’ll tell the brewery about Park Hill Country’s taster boards and tap handles.”
The group also helps each other out with volunteer labor. “In the beginning, you can’t afford to hire people to do a lot of different jobs so you have to stretch yourself as thin as possible and you have to rely on other people,” says Emmanuel, who benefits from McDonough and Gebhardt’s design experience to set up booth space at artisan markets. “Having friends you know will come through for you 100 percent in the way you need—you can’t really make it through without that.”
The group describes their mutual support as being invaluable. “We’re neighbors, we’re friends; we don’t feel like we’re alone,” says Gebhardt. “The proportion of time you spend with other people goes way down. So the people you do choose to be around are super important,” says Emmanuel, who adds that they all consider themselves co-workers in a way. They talk of maybe having a storefront someday where they could form a Park Hill co-op.
Without the support and friendship, the group says they would not be where they are today. “It pushed everybody to do more,” says Emmanuel. “I feel like we’re all just starting and where we’re going to go together is so much bigger than where any of us have been.”
All three companies can be reached through their websites: www.parkhilldesign.com/, www.parkhillcountry.com/, and www.coloradojoes.com/. In full disclosure, Jodi McDonough and author Courtney Drake-McDonough are related.