February 2021 Feature Story - Alyson O'Connor

Alyson O'Connor | Stationer | Rust Belt Love

City Lights Studio

We first met Alyson when we collaborated for a styled photoshoot in Buffalo. I was beyond thrilled that she joined us. Her designs speak for themselves. They are unique, personal, and beautiful! And the fact that they are able to print in-house is outstanding!

As all features we publish on our blog, I get to read them first before they go to publication. Her story was truly moving and exciting to read. Some of the best advice she gives to our readers is this, "trust your gut". I couldn't agree more!

Enjoy her story below.

Tell us about yourself - Where are you from and what did you wish to be/do when you grew up?

I am a classically trained visual artist specializing in pen and ink illustrations and custom stationery. Originally from Buffalo, New York, I moved to New York City after high school to pursue a degree in illustration from the Fashion Institute of Technology. A few years after graduating I moved back to Buffalo to be closer to family. I worked in advertising agencies until 2010, when I turned my side hustle into my full time job. I now run Rust Belt Love, a boutique design firm specializing in luxury invitations and stationery, with my husband, Nick. I design the invitations, greeting cards, and gift items, then Nick prints them on our letterpresses. Our shop is in the historic Market Arcade Building on Main Street in the heart of the Theatre District. Growing up I always knew I wanted to do something artistic for a career. The specific job, of course, changed over time, as I learned the different opportunities available for artists, and as these professions developed with technology.

City Lights Studio

What brought you to where you are today?

I sort of fell into wedding stationery accidentally, the way a lot of stationery designers do, designing invitations for friends and family for years, before deciding to start my own business. Back when I started my company, there weren’t a lot of other people doing custom invitation design in my area, so there wasn’t a ton of competition. The other side of that was that there wasn’t any community, or learning resources easily available, so we made a LOT of mistakes, and took a long time to learn some hard small business lessons. The market is much more saturated today, but there’s also an unlimited number of resources online to help you fast track through a lot of those startup hurtles. Now, there is such a great community of wedding vendors that it doesn’t feel so isolating, and honestly social media can be a blessing or a curse. I have wonderful friends in the stationery industry from all over the world that I wouldn’t have been able to connect with so easily 11 years ago. But - if I had played the comparison game on instagram before establishing my business, I’m not sure I ever would have left the starting line.

Michelle Godfrey Photo

What do you do professionally?

Our company specializes in luxury social and event stationery. We create wedding invitations for couples that want to wow their guests and set the tone for their elevated, beautiful event. We also just launched a line of sentimental letterpress greeting cards and gifts.

What is the number one struggle you find in owning and running a business?

Balance. I don’t believe it truly exists, not the way most people chase. I saw something once that said we should strive for harmony - with highs and lows, and that really resonated with me. Sometimes our family life is able to be the high, and the business can take a back seat. Other times the business has to be the priority, and we can’t spend as much time as we’d like with our kids. But in the end the highs and lows together create a beautiful harmony, and a life we love.

City Lights Studio

What does a day at work look like?

These days things look a little different than normal. We have 2 elementary school age kiddos who are home full time with virtual school, so my husband and I split our time with that. We’re fortunate to have the flexibility, but it does take some late nights and weekends to make up for it. Under normal circumstances, we help get our kids ready for school, drop them off and head to our shop in Downtown Buffalo. We spend most of our time in the shop, but also spend some of our time in our garage-turned-print-studiio, which houses our letterpresses. This is not so awesome in January, but Nick does all the printing, and he doesn’t mind the cold!

What do you spend the majority of your days doing?

I would say probably only 40% of my job is the creative part. Most of my time is spent corresponding with clients, packing orders, printing and assembly (though we do have an amazing employee that does a lot of assembly and packaging for us!), and planning. I’m grateful for the 40% though, I know some creatives who only get to spend maybe 10% of their time on the design and creation.

Michelle Godfrey Photo

What year did you start your business and how long did it take to acquire a consistent client base?

We created our first wedding invitation as a company in 2010! It took about 2 years before I could quit my full-time job, and my husband joined me in 2015. We’ve both been doing this full time ever since.

What do you do to stay involved in the community?

Our love for Downtown Buffalo is a big part of who we are as a business. We’re approached by quite a few organizations every year for donations, and we’re almost always able to give something. One of our favorites is with our friends at the Buffalo Barkery, they do a lot of work to raise money for the local animal shelter, so we try to be a part of any of their events or benefits.

What do you enjoy most about running your company?

Making people happy. The look on someone’s face when they see their finished invitation for the first time, a framed home illustration, or a card that we’ve made - that never gets old. We get emails that say “you made my parents cry,” or “I cried when I saw the invitations” - I never thought making people cry would be the favorite part of my job!

Where do you see your business in 5 years?

I’m honestly not sure. My business looks completely different today than it did a year ago, so it’s hard to guess what it will look like in 5 years. But I’m sure the basics won’t change; I’m sure we will be creating beautiful paper, and I’m sure that we will be providing our customers with the best service possible.

What advice would you give to people your age looking to start their own business?

Invest in yourself, and get some sort of training in whatever it is you want to do. Take the time to learn how to do things the right way, because its much better than the time, cost, and energy it takes to undo things you did wrong because you didn’t know what you didn’t know.

If a child walked up to you and asked for your advice and you only had a few minutes to give them your best tip, what would it be?

Trust your gut. Don’t let others make you doubt your instincts, if something feels right or wrong, trust that. So much of childhood is being taught to listen to others, and so much of adulthood is learning from mistakes you made because you listened to others instead of trusting yourself.


Alyson O'Connor

Website: www.rustbeltlove.com

Instagram: @rustbeltlove

Facebook: @rustbeltlove