The Story of Put On Love Designs: an interview with Chelsea Tenney- Mother of 2 boys, wife to an Athletic Director, jewelry designer, and owner of Put On Love Designs.
Chelsea sits with her hands clasped on top of her desk where her phone is propped with Marco Polo open, and she leans eagerly forward as though she’s trying to get through her phone to me. She wears an open smile, and her wide eyes shine with their characteristic cheerfulness and ready vulnerability.
I have the opportunity to interview Chelsea (over the course of several days while our kids nap and in between her release of new collections and packaging up orders), and what strikes me about her as I sit down for the interview is her unwavering positivity. I know the events of the past several months have weighed heavily on her as they have on the world. Yet she brings her gifts of joy and empathy with her into these moments. Talking with Chelsea, you can’t help but be warmed by her optimism, her humility, and her easy way of turning strangers into friends.
This is Chelsea’s story, and it is one of hope and humor. It’s a reminder that with a little optimism and a lot of hard work, you can reach improbable horizons.
What did you do before you started Put On Love Designs?
I was a second-grade teacher! I taught for a couple of years, and then I had my son, Everson, who will soon be turning 6. I had him in the fall, and I extended my maternity leave as long as I possibly could because I wanted to be home with him. I really didn’t want to go back to teaching after I had him. But I’ve always been a busy person, and I found myself wanting other things to do. I was constantly making DIY projects. I had always dreamed of being a stay-at-home mom, but once I was actually at home, I found myself thinking, “I actually like the challenge of working.”
Where did the idea to make diffuser braids come from? And what material did you use at the beginning?
The day Put On Love Designs was born!
I remember seeing a pacifier that was attached to a clip using a braid, and I thought, “I could make that!” I was always finding new projects to work on, so I bought some supplies at JoAnn’s and made a braided pacifier clip for Everson. The material I used back then was faux suede, and that’s what we still use! When I made the braid, I thought, “I bet if I put oils on there, you’ll really be able to smell it because it’s porous, so it’ll soak the oils up.” Everson was not an easy baby—he never wanted to sleep. I had been putting essential oils on his blankie to help him sleep at night. So at his 2-month checkup, I put lavender oil on the braid—and he slept through the whole thing! He was so calm. And any time I’d lift up his car seat cover I’d get wafts of lavender. I remember telling my sister all about it and she was like, “You have to sell those. Other people need that in their lives.” So I did!
How did you end up going from the pacifier clip to jewelry?
I never would have thought I would be a jewelry designer. I never used to think of myself as a creative person. I’ve always had a creative side though. Not too long ago when I was cleaning, I found a bin of all my beading supplies from when I was a girl. I was always making different things for other people, braiding friendship bracelets or cowrie shell necklaces. But something in me was like, “Well, I just follow directions.” I never thought I would be able to make it on my own with my own creative ideas.
When I made the pacifier clip, there were next to no oil accessories on the market. There was definitely a need, because oils were getting so popular, but the only thing that was out were lava beads. But I thought it didn’t seem to work all that well. I had started posting on Instagram about the pacifier clip and had gotten a lot of interest, and I had a lot of people saying, “I don’t have a baby but I would love some of these diffuser items!” So the bracelet very much came out of a need.
This was the first bracelet I made!
In the spring of 2015, I was about to go back to work after my maternity leave. One day I made the same pacifier braid, but I tied a knot at the end instead of tying it to the pacifier clip. Then I threaded the knot through the loop at the other end, and I was like, “Huh, that worked!” So I literally just tied it up and wore it as a bracelet! Then I made a real one and started wearing it to work after maternity leave, and I was like, “I can just smell my Stress Away all day!” That diffuser bracelet got me through going back to work!
When your sister said you should sell the diffuser braid, did you know you could make a business out of it?
There was no thought in my mind that this was going to be a business. I never thought it would be something that would replace income at all, I just figured it would be a couple of extra dollars as a side-hustle.
How did you come to realize this was something you could turn into an actual business?
I started out by just making an Etsy store. My friend and I made a logo on Word and I would take pictures of the pacifier clips on my coffee table. I would research everything—“How do I adjust my camera settings? How do I get a white backdrop? How do I upload these pictures to Etsy?”
I made an Instagram account and started putting up pictures, because as a teacher I had made digital products for people to buy and I had an Instagram for that. I knew that the only way to get my name out there was Instagram.
That spring (this was 2015) I made the bracelet. I only had like six weeks till the end of the school year. I was starting to get a few orders and I was working on them on the weekends. That’s when I decided I didn’t want to go back to work at all, so in the fall I moved to a part-time job as an art teacher. At that same time, I decided to make some bracelets in new colors as a kind of fall release.
It was Black Friday of 2015. I had just done my fall release and I had some good interest in that, so I thought, “I’ll post a bunch of coupon codes for really good discounts, and when they’re gone, they’re gone.” I posted them Black Friday morning, and they were gone in seconds! I thought I was going to deactivate the code after enough people had used it, but it all happened so fast, I was trying to cancel the code, and I was like, “Oh my god, there are hundreds of dollars’ worth of orders going on right now! Somebody just ordered 20 bracelets!” I was not at all prepared. It was crazy!
That was the moment I knew—this is a legit business! I said to Adam, “You and Everson have gotta go because I’m going to be sitting here braiding for the next week.” And I did! I just braided and filled orders. It was around that next January that I got my business license and made it an official business. But that Black Friday was the turning point. I finished that year working both jobs, and then I didn’t go back to teaching after that.
What were some key things you did to get your business off the ground?
Making relationships with customers and leaders that were out there already—and it was all totally organic! I was following these influencers and liking their stuff because I was interested in their lives and what they were doing. And then they would see my products and be like, “Oh my gosh, I love this, I need some!”
I always say my favorite part of this business is the relationships and getting to talk to people, and so I just did that. There was never a strategy. It wasn’t like, “Ok, I’m going to reach this many people today.” It was truly just like, “I bet Madison would really like one of these and use it, so I’m gonna send it to her!” Megan Burns and Lesley Graham were two of our biggest supporters in our first days, and they now have huge teams and still buy from us today!
When people ask me for business advice, I always say: “Consistency.” I have never taken a break from Instagram—I took breaks in lots of other stuff, but I would always show up on @putonlovedesigns. I try to find a way to rest and not quit. If I was tired, I would scale back a little bit, but I never walk away.
At what moment did you realize you needed to bring in outside help?
I got through the holiday season of 2015 all by myself, but at the very beginning of the next year I hired on Alex. I used to call her our head braider but now I call her my jewelry assistant because at this point she makes almost all of our jewelry. I hired her in January 2016, and she’s still with me. She’s just amazing, I love working with her. I met her through a friend. I continued to hire people from there — mostly just little projects here and there, but Alex has stayed with me and grown and changed with the business the whole time. She’s the best!
In what ways has your family gotten involved with Put On Love?
As soon as we started growing and scaling the business, I had to start working weekends and nights, so everybody helped pick up the slack: my mom would watch Everson and Adam would do everything around the house. He still does all the cooking and he helps so much with the kids! We had some growing pains figuring out Adam’s involvement with the business. He helps at events and that’s been really fun to do together, he helps with some of the financial side, and any time I need extra help with packaging, he’s there for me. But it has never been a passion for him to work on the business full time. He has gotten a master’s degree and been promoted in his career to athletic director and that’s what he loves. So when women tell me, “My husband isn’t interested in joining my business—how are we going to make it work?” I always say—You definitely can do it! We have just had to get creative with how we made it work and both getting our needs met outside of the business. We’re not business partners, but we’re partners in our home and family.
The first convention we did was when I started having my sister and my mom help. That was the summer of 2016. Later I brought my mom on as an employee to do our customer service and payroll, and my sister does all of our graphics, and then we all work events together. And that has been really fun!
How have you balanced motherhood with owning a successful business?
That has been really hard, just balancing our home life, because the business is always around. But getting more help has always been a big part of balancing things, because then I could be present in both areas. That’s something that has always been important to me—to be present in my work and also present with my kids. For a long time I would try to do both, like have the kids with me as I answered emails, but that got all of us frustrated. So now I block time: when I’m with the kids, I’m with the kids. I try not to look at my phone. And then when I’m working I try to be working and not also be parenting. That seems to work for the most part! [Chelsea says this with a self-deprecating laugh.] My husband helps so much with the kids, and hiring helped so I can have time to work and then be present with the kids.
Where does the inspiration for your collections come from?
Well, first, all of my products have some kind of diffusing element, so a lot of times I’ll make something that I want to wear, like a specific crystal bracelet or a specific color bracelet, and I make it with that diffusing element because it doesn’t exist already. I’ll think, “I’m loving this pink color right now, so how can I make that as a diffuser, and how can I make it beautiful so that I would want to wear it?” Usually, inspiration comes from something I want and then I find a way to make that jewelry a diffuser.
Secondly, I really love color, so I work almost backward with a color palette in mind. So when I came up with the Coastal Collection, I was thinking about the blues and the greens and the tans and loving them, then that reminded me of the ocean. So I kind of start with colors I love or colors that are calming to me that I would want to wear and that I like to look at, and then I go from there!
What is one of your most exciting moments since starting your business?
The most exciting moment to this day was that very first Black Friday where I didn’t have any clue that anyone was going to be ordering and then I got so many orders and I was so shocked! The theme with all my exciting moments is that shock of people actually wanting what I’m making or caring about what I’m doing [Chelsea cracks a big, embarrassed smile].
The highlights along the way are any in-person event—seeing customers in real life! The connection with customers is one of my favorite parts, so having people come up and say, “I have all these bracelets!” or “I follow you on Instagram!” I’m always like—what?! That is so cool! So that’s always been really exciting.
Another exciting time was when I launched the gemstone diffuser bracelet, which was July two years ago. I just put it out there that I wanted to make this bracelet because I think it’s pretty and wanted to make these crystals into a diffuser. And people went crazy over it! I just did not see that coming, I was so shocked!
What is one of your favorite blends to diffuse?
My favorite blend is Stress Away. The vanilla and citrus together smell so good! It’s a combination of vanilla and lime, and it also has Copaiba, Lavender, Cedarwood, and Ocotea. It’s very relaxing and uplifting, and just a little bit exotic!
Where did the name “Put On Love” come from?
My best friend and I came up with it one night. We were looking up songs and Bible verses about love, and different plays on words with the word “Love,” and we came across the Bible verse, “Put on love” [Colossians 3:14]. All in one night, we decided and then I played around with a logo on Word, and that was it!
What is a little-known fact about you?
I broke my right arm when I was ten, and it is still crooked! My arm is just a little bit quirky. Oh also, my favorite food is salsa, and I go way too hard on chips and salsa before my food arrives. I’ll literally ask the server to bring me a salad bowl full of salsa!
What is an affirmation you live by?
For my boss women out there, my affirmation is: “I can do hard things.” This was something my dad instilled into us as kids, and it has been a big part of what has gotten me to where I am today! I face things with that attitude of confidence: “We can do this. We can get through this.”
And then core to who I am is the idea of putting on love, in business and in life. “I affirm that, above all else, I will be loving and kind to everyone.”