This blog is a part of our series highlighting and celebrating Black founders within the subscription industry. With thousands of SUBTA members, we’re proud to tell their stories. Other blogs featured in this series include Unboxing Splendies: CEO Anthony Coombs on Gender Collaborations & Race in the Subscription World and Creating Black Representation in the Publishing Industry with Call Number Box.
Dorethia Kelly, founder of Work Space Spark, launched her career-focused subscription box in March 2020 – at the onset of a global pandemic that resulted in more than 7.7 million Americans being laid off from their jobs.
Despite the staggering drop in consumers who spent eight hours a day in a work space, Kelly managed to adapt to the needs of her customers and create a community that met the coronavirus pandemic head on.
Not only does Kelly run Work Space Spark, she also serves other business owners as a personal finance and business coach. Now, she lends her business development expertise to our readers.
Learn how Kelly launched, adapted and grew her cubicle-inspired subscription box, Work Space Spark, all while maintaining the everyday demands of her main business.
Business Coaching Meets Subscription Box Design
What originally started as an idea for an office-decor gift box quickly evolved once Kelly, a coach and speaker, noticed a pattern emerging.
“I was seeing how people were upset at work because they’re not making the money they want to make, or they’re not really understanding how to navigate the corporate world,” says Kelly, reflecting on her time with professionals in healthcare, finance, and leadership. “How you show up in your career and your personal brand for your career affects the money that you make.”
Recognizing that many employees were settling for going through the motions of employment – wake up, go to work, go home, collect a paycheck, frown at said paycheck – Kelly took things one step further by layering in her coaching experience.
“People would ask me things like, ‘Why don’t they pay me more?’ And I would have to teach them that nobody knows who you are,” says Kelly.
“Nobody’s going to vouch for you because they don’t know anything about you. Your cubicle is your space to let people get to know you and, for most, there’s no conversation piece, no style, no anything for someone to say, ‘Hey, when did you go to Hawaii?’ Or, ‘Wow, is that your daughter?’ Most people either have piles of paper or nothing at all.”
Seeing that so many people were unhappy at work and needed ways to simultaneously bring joy to the office, express themselves and propel their careers forward, Kelly created Work Space Spark.
More than a Subscription Box
“I researched the subscription industry for a year and a half. I read white papers, I ran focus groups, I tested and iterated,” says Kelly. “What I found was that you need something more than what’s in the box.”
For Work Space Spark, what’s inside the box are office supplies, decor, career-oriented books, productivity and tech tools, and other office goodies. But the success of Kelly’s business really hinged on what accompanied the box digitally.
“What people needed beyond the box was career growth. So I married the two,” says Kelly. “In addition to the box, people also get career training, happy hours for networking, a weekly newsletter with career tips for individuals and corporate clients. They get a community.”
Work Space Spark officially launched in March 2020, at the onset of the pandemic in the U.S. By April and May, people were being laid off from their jobs – and cubicle decor was no longer on their priority lists.
While traditional economics tells us that Work Space Spark should have lost a lot of subscribers or even gone under, the Work Space Spark community rallied and stabilized.
“We said, ‘We’re here for you.’ One of our early boxes included Kanika Tolver’s book, Career Rehab: Rebuild Your Personal Brand and Rethink the Way You Work,” says Kelly. “We reminded people to revisit the book and really apply it to their lives. Then we gave them support any way we could.”
Kelly and the Work Space Spark box met people at the hardest point of their professional lives. What people valued more than the subscription box was the fact that Kelly continued to reach out, be supportive and provide real value that helped them get back on their feet and propel their careers forward.
Investing Early to Prevent Burnout
Like many of her peers, Kelly isn’t full time in her subscription box business. She started as a personal finance and business coach and, to this day, continues to coach while running Work Space Spark.
“When I launched Work Space Spark, for the first six months, I was all in,” says Kelly. “I had one assistant to help me and we worked tirelessly to get it off the ground. After those first six months, I was able to restructure my time.”
Following the launch of her subscription box, Kelly transitioned from one-on-one client coaching to group coaching so she could better split her time between her two passions.
All the while, though, Kelly had the right amount of help at the right times. “I had an advantage because I am a business and financial coach, so I knew how to avoid burnout,” says Kelly. “One of the ways I did that was by hiring help. You have to know that you cannot do this all on your own.”
One of Kelly’s many pro tips: Even if you hire on a project basis, get help. From procurement to operations to marketing, you need to bring in support, especially from experts who can really move your business forward.
“It’s hard as an entrepreneur because you’re always looking for money. A lot of us are working day jobs, have families, going to school, all kinds of stuff,” says Kelly.
“You don’t see where you can even squeeze out extra money to spend on a coach or an assistant or whatever. But if you don’t find some money to hire somebody that can help you along the way and to join organizations like SUBTA, you will chase your tail because you will not have the inside scoop.”
Kelly’s business and coaching experience enabled her to avoid burnout while also creating stability and longevity for her subscription box business.
The Digital Marketplace Is Dissolving Barriers
In addition to finding and hiring the right help to launch and run Work Space Spark, Kelly attributes much of her success to the endless possibilities of online business. The key, though, is knowing where to find the opportunity and claiming it for yourself.
“When it comes to being in business and being online,” says Kelly, “you really set your own course. A lot of barriers are broken in a lot of areas because you can create your brand and your image online and then do your thing.”
Digital business allows subscription box owners to reach customers all over the world, build communities (even in the face of pandemic lockdowns!), and leverage resources they otherwise wouldn’t have access to.
The digital landscape also provides opportunities for increased visibility, particularly for those who have been historically underrepresented.
“My goal has been to make sure that I am being a representative; that I’m there showcasing and telling people my story so that people can see that Black people are in this industry and that we are making it happen,” says Kelly. “So every chance I get to chime in and speak and teach, I do it so that people can see that we are forging ahead.”
While Kelly credits much of her business savvy in the subscription industry to the 18 months of research she did prior to launching Work Space Spark, she also advises business owners on the importance of courageous action.
“A lot of times we overanalyze before we act,” says Kelly. “People either tend to jump in without having done any research, or they overanalyze because they’re scared to push the button. I encourage everybody to teeter in the middle. Do your research, make a decision, and move – because it’s not until you start that movement that you begin to learn.”