The Slow-Build


By Ren Allen



Stories don’t seem like stories when they are happening. It is only in the telling that one finds the plot or the summary. Because life just unfolds. It doesn’t announce a beginning, climax and resolution. We just turn and turn again.


In the telling of a story we must choose the beginning. As a woman who found her career later in life, the beginning of that re-birth is somewhere in the year 2000.


The year 2000 did not end well for me. My husband of 11 years had left me, I was pregnant with our fourth child and on food stamps and Medicare. I felt more vulnerable and lost than ever.


No idea how to care for these children I was mostly raising on my own now and no idea how to work my way out of dependence.


When my husband and I reconciled shortly before the birth of our last baby, there were newly planted seeds laying dormant. Ideas, inspiration and determination I couldn’t have named at that time. When baby number four was still very young, those seeds started to stir. The urge to never be dependent on another human woke up fully and this formerly mostly-stayat-home-Mum started to search.


There was that urge to work in cosmetics I never did fulfill as a young person and it seemed perfectly logical to take work at the mall just a few blocks away. I interviewed with and landed a position with Estee Lauder in Pensacola, Florida and took up retail sales once again.


The awakening had just begun really. Bringing home a pay check felt good and for that time it was enough. Very quickly, I discovered an affinity for makeup. It was just another art form.


Art had been a constant in my life since a fairly young age. My desire to paint and draw was being fulfilled on some level. I acquired books about Kevvyn Aucoin (famed make-up artist and photographer) and pushed myself to learn more than the basic training my company was giving me.


The region I worked for put me on the “Promotional Artist” roster and had me working the Gulf Coast with their National Artist program. I excelled in the fast paced, artistry-oriented program. Working with artists who traveled the country and worked back stage was exciting and I pushed myself constantly to learn more, do more and help stage events.


The key to my growth at that time was a willingness to be vulnerable, a willingness to ask questions and put myself out there when I didn’t feel ready. A willingness to be vulnerable can empower you in great ways.


After three years with the Lauder company I was recruited by MAC cosmetics and took a part time position with them. It was one of those “why didn’t I do this sooner?” choices. Their training and focus on artistry was exactly what I had been seeking on my own. I was finally being pushed.


Their various certifications inspired my learning and growth in ways that still influence me. I had the honor of being chosen for the Impact Team in the state of Tennessee (we had moved in 2005) and the Dream Team for an industry event in San Francisco. I took Master Classes and sought out training opportunities when and wherever possible.


In 2008, I started teaching myself face and body painting techniques. Inspired by the likes of the MAC “Deck of Cards” and artists like Craig Tracy, I continually practiced and purchased new materials to paint with. With the support and help of some amazing members of the community in Johnson City, Tennessee, we held our first body art show in 2009 and quickly thereafter formed a body art guild which I manage to this day. It is one of the most rewarding groups I have ever organized and one which challenges me to be a better artist constantly. The people who come and paint with the guild never cease to inspire me!


All of this background is just to share a little bit of how I went from welfare recipient to successful business owner. I believe in this thing I call the “slow build.” Most of us are not overnight successes. We work hard, we work harder and we stubbornly keep at it for years.


What looks like a thriving, energetic studio is the combined labor of many years, training sessions, doubts and plain old tenacity.


You build your clientele, you perfect your methods, you book work in between work and in doing this repeatedly I built a thriving freelance business.


During all of that hard work, I also faced a difficult divorce. You build in and around and during the mess. Life goes on … and every movement towards the dream is a step well taken.


When I met my life partner in the form of photographer Keith Dixon, I knew it was time for us to find a brick and mortar location. The makeup artistry, body paint and photography needed a building to be home. One night, when walking around Jonesborough we noticed a “for rent” sign at one of my favorite restaurants. The next day we took a tour and knew we had found a home for Faces by Ren and Keith Dixon Studios. What an amazing find, right in our adorable downtown of the oldest town in Tennessee … Jonesborough. Having our studio upstairs from a thriving restaurant has it’s perks. We are regulars at Main Street Cafe and Catering!


I love our studio, I love being in business for myself and I love my clients. I love it so much I gave myself permission to leave MAC cosmetics in early 2012. I dove into the deep end and in many ways, I’m still learning how to swim.


When you are in the middle of that slow build, it’s hard to see the point. It’s hard to keep on showing up at a job when you want to run your own business. It’s hard to keep moving in the direction needed when you don’t see immediate results. But you just keep taking the next step. All of those steps, even the most seemingly insignificant, become powerful.


In the looking back I can see how much every class, every supply, every client and every connection I made really matters for today. Sometimes it’s easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day living, the feeling of trying to survive. But if you can trust your visions, trust that every step matters, you may one day find yourself thriving.


The slow build requires a lot of trust. It’s an amazingly effective way to work into business ownership though. It allows you to build with what you have right now, to slowly amass resources and connections. It helped me to always have a long-term vision of what I was working towards so that my priorities stayed with the slow-build. I had a foundation of solid reputation, a client base, streamlined tools and enough experience before I ever stepped into a brick and mortar location. There was no debt, the money I took in was re-invested into building the business.


Through that slow build I was able to keep working a regular job with benefits. A job that gave me experience and training but also paid the bills. It hasn’t been an easy path, going into debt might have brought a faster result!


My studio motto is “Be Your Own Kind of Beautiful” and I try to live that every day, both in how I conduct my businesses and in the way I relate to my clients. I love that both Keith and I embrace diversity, that we encourage people to express their own unique beauty in whatever form that takes.


The one thing that our clients say over and over after a makeup or photography session is how much FUN they had with us. When you are doing something you love, something you enjoy then it should be fun. You will excel because your passion and joy will come through in everything you do.


There will always be parts you don’t love … maybe it’s paying taxes or doing paperwork, maybe the marketing is a challenge. Find people who love doing that part and hire or barter with them. Work with people who find joy in what they do because they will do it ten times better than anyone else!


Women should trust their inner urgings. See the obstacles but keep on stepping forward anyway. Another step, another turn and another vote of trust in yourself with each passing choice.


Top 6 tips for women in business:


1. Use what you have. Right here, right now. You can’t progress to the next step if you aren’t fully utilizing what you have in your life now.


2. Market yourself by getting involved! Be connected to your community. Give back. Help others. Support local businesses.


3. Get high quality business cards made and carry them with you EVERYwhere! How can anyone else take you or your business seriously if you don’t?


4. Get a good logo made. Barter with someone if necessary. Hire a person who does this for a living. You can’t replace a great graphic designer.


5. Teach. Give back to people new to your industry. Share knowledge. Teach classes or workshops. Plan events. Be excited about what you do and share that excitement.


6. If you need to maintain a full or part-time job while building a business of your own, try to make sure it is in the same field or at least related so you gain experience and connections continued on page 54 through that process.


To learn more about Ren and her studio, visit

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker