Women in Business Q&A: Liz and Sarah Downey, Two Tumbleweeds

01/09/2015 08:43 am ET Updated Mar 11, 2015

Originally from the Midwest and finally settling in Sonoma County, California, sisters Liz and Sarah Downey wanted to put their strengths together to create thoughtfully crafted goods that inspire everyday life.

They started Two Tumbleweeds in 2013 with their Kickstarter campaign for Foodie Dice, raising $156k in pre-orders. Foodie Dice is a set of nine laser-engraved wooden dice designed to inspire simple, whole ingredients meals. Since then, they've launched Mixology Dice and more products are in the works.

How has your life experience made you the leaders you are today?
I'm not sure we think of ourselves as leaders, not in the traditional sense. But I suppose we are, in our own way. Our oldest sister was always the most outspoken one in the family, but we've both always been very independent, and have never been afraid to try new things. We've moved around a lot, travelled a bit and done things that pushed us out of our comfort zones and made us grow as individuals. We both have a bit of a 'thrill-seeker' in us (I used to water ski jump and Sarah used to ride racehorses.) The determination that it takes to succeed (or even fail) doing those types of things really teaches you what you're capable of.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenures at Two Tumbleweeds?
One of the reasons we believed we could be successful in business together is because we have very different but complimentary backgrounds. I've [Liz] worked in many different creative environments in my career--ad agencies, corporate, magazine, interactive, product development, etc. Doing that always kept me learning something new and has made me pretty versatile. Sarah's accounting and business operations experience keeps everything running smoothly, but more than that, her experience is what's going to allow us to grow and scale efficiently.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenures at Two Tumbleweeds?
Certainly launching our Kickstarter campaign for Foodie Dice (hoping to raise just $7,500) and watching it skyrocket $42k in one day when it was chosen as Project of the Day is one of the biggest highlights. It was exhilarating and fun to create something together and see such an amazing positive response. But the stress of delivering 6,000 sets of dice on a short timeline (in time for Christmas gifts!) was also one of our biggest challenges. We really had to learn to work together--we're still learning--and although our skills and talents complement each other, that also means we're very different in the way that we approach things.

The retail business is also new to both of us. We've learned quite a bit about pricing, margins, and working with retailers.

No matter what ups and downs there are, we're working together on something that we're excited about and that we believe in, and that's what matters most.

What advice can you offer women who are looking to start their own business?
I think often the barrier to starting your own business is a fear of failure. Start small if you have to. Pick something that you enjoy doing and treat it as an experiment, so that there's not too much pressure. You never know where it could go, and at the least you'll learn a lot along the way that will help with the next thing you do.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
What's that? Ok, seriously, we're still working on this but we've gotten better. It's hard to maintain that balance in the start-up days of your business, even though it's important. You really have to make yourself take time to decompress in order to be able to be to be your best when you're at work and not burnout. The law of diminishing returns definitely applies. I've [Liz] learned that I can't neglect my exercise routine because as soon as I do everything else falls apart. It's also especially important for us, because we're sisters, to try and separate work from our personal lives. If all else fails, we just roll the Mixology Dice and mix up a tasty drink.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
In a male dominated work environment women's voices and opinions can sometimes be overlooked. We sometimes have to work harder to make sure our ideas are heard and respected.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal lives?
We wouldn't be where we are today without business mentors. They've provided support, advice, and connections, all of which are important, but more than that, having close relationships with successful people that have been in our shoes at one point--knowing that they've had challenges, too, and learning from how they dealt with them--gives us perspective and confidence, and also saves us from having to learn some things the hard way.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Alice Waters, Anna Lappé, and Nona Lim-- all women who advocate for sustainable agriculture and have made strides in improving our food system, as well as being admirable business women.

What do you want Two Tumbleweeds to accomplish in the next year?
To build a trusted brand around the things we believe in. We started with food, as food and cooking are important to us, but more broadly it's about connecting to the people, places, and things around us. We hope that our products bring joy to people's everyday lives and inspire experiences they might not have otherwise had.