Two entrepreneurs combine their love of Hamilton, the arts, and small business
With the rise of coworking, more spaces for communal offices have been popping up all over the city. Partners in life and in work, Jennifer Donaldson and Nadine Ubl collaborated in 2016 to open Hamilton’s first creative coworking space, Steel City Studio. With 4000 sq. ft, they have the ability to offer a unique space for entrepreneurs and small businesses in need of a spot to call their own, whether for the day or a permanent office. With access to artistic tools, such as pottery wheels and kiln, drafting tables, and sewing machines, a variety of disciplines can find a place to get started. Both Jennifer and Nadine are serial entrepreneurs who value community and are happy to have established a place for like-minded people in Hamilton.
Q: How long have you owned your business? Why did you choose that specific industry?
nadine: Steel City Studio has been in operation for 2 years. It’s by far not my first business, but it is the one that has rooted us in Hamilton. We didn’t really choose the coworking industry, it kinda chose us. It has provided the platform for a perfect marriage of passion for small business, admiration for the arts, and firm belief in the sharing economy.
Jenn: I am actually a bit of a serial entrepreneur. I own three businesses, the longest running one involves side-hustling transcription services for writers for 10-years now.The second (and better known) is Steel City Studio coworking space for creative-based businesses which we (Nadine and I) started in December 2016. We actually got into the coworking industry a bit by accident. We found the space first and fell in love and decided to take it on to pursue our own creative passions. After a while, we found the space too big and wanted to share it. We were familiar with the sharing economy and did a bit of research and fell upon this coworking concept and thought it was a great fit, and then the studio was born.
The most recent venture is Holistic Design Solutions, an interior design firm I started 6 months ago. I have always been interested in the arts but went to school for business. After climbing the corporate ladder I found something was missing but I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. While working full-time I decided to take a course in interior design to explore the field and absolutely fell in love. I finally decided to take the leap into the industry when I was laid off in September 2017.
Q: Is entrepreneurship what you thought it would be? Is having a business partner better, or just a different set of advantages and challenges?
N: Entrepreneurship is even more of a crazy roller coaster than I could have ever imagined, but it is also more rewarding than I could have ever dreamed (and not necessarily financially). Having a business partner vs going at it alone does have a different set of challenges. You need a support system either way, so if you can manage to find some of that support in a partner, that’s great. Not everyone can make a partnership work and that’s ok. But they say you shouldn’t go into business with friends or family (that includes spouses especially!)… I’m not really good at following directions.
J: Entrepreneurship is absolutely not what I thought it would be, I thought of entrepreneurship as having all this flexibility and free time and that’s why everyone did it, which is partially true but it’s not quite that easy. I’ll admit, I get a ton of flexibility but I also work my butt off to get it. What you don’t see are the late nights and early mornings which afford me the afternoon off or extra long weekend. But at the same time, it really doesn’t feel like “work.” I’m not chained to a desk, I can wear whatever I want and roll into work whenever I feel like it, but you bet I’ll be staying late if I come in late.
Both having a business partner and going at it alone have their advantages and disadvantages, and I really can’t say that I favour one over the other. Having a business partner is great because you share the workload and you’re constantly coming up with ideas together on how to improve. Going at it on your own it’s just you, you are all of the things, but then you look back on what you’ve accomplished and know that it was all you, all the grit and all the glory.
Q: What has been the most rewarding part of owning your own business?
N: In general: Freedom. I hate the idea of being told what to do, what time to do it, what to wear while I’m doing it and when I can take a break from it. When you’re the boss you can take the credit when things go right, but you’re also accountable when things go wrong. It’s not for the faint of heart, but I love the challenge and the freedom.
For Steel City: Having the opportunity to give back to the incredible community that supports us. We’ve been able to impact the small business landscape in Hamilton in a way that creates a possibility for people just like us who have a dream or a passion to share. Helping to remove barriers for people who are trying to make their way in the small business world is gratifying in a way that is hard to express.
J: The most rewarding thing about owning a business has been to help other people on a very large scale.
At Steel City Studio I’m afforded an amazing privilege of helping other entrepreneurs grow, it is truly fulfilling knowing the space that you’ve created and the community we are able to foster has such a positive and lasting impact on an individual and even their family.
With the Holistic Design Solutions, I absolutely adore watching a client’s face light up and often the tears of joy when they see the finished space. Knowing that something I created is going to have the lasting effect on an individual, family, community, it makes everything so worth it.
Q: Most surprising or most helpful lesson you’ve learned so far?
N: Top 3 tips: 1. You have to work to get paid, just like any other job. If you treat it like a hobby, it will pay you like one.
2. Don’t take advice from broke unhappy people. There are always going to be critics. Don’t listen. Those who speak the loudest often have the least to say. 3. The fear of success can be just as debilitating as the fear of failure. Learn to recognize your avoidance behaviours and make a conscious effort to not dwell on “what ifs.”
J: So, so many lessons through both success and failures.
One of the most impactful lessons I’ve learned is to just say yes, then figure it out. I find a lot of the time I’m faced with challenges or questions I don’t always know the answer to, but I do know that I will figure out a way. I’ve stopped looking at those moments as obstacles and viewing them as opportunities for growth. If I don’t know the answer I can find someone who does know the answer. I never hold myself back from an opportunity just because it’s something new, or something I’m not familiar, just say yes, then figure it out.
Q: What skills do you think are necessary to become a successful entrepreneur?
N: Perseverance and self-reflection. You need to be able to have the door slammed in your face a thousand times and still be willing to put yourself out there. And afterwards, you need to be able to honestly reflect on what you’ve done and determine what needs to change to keep moving forward.
J: The skill of being able to think on your feet and roll with the punches. If anything is certain of entrepreneurship it’s that nothing goes as planned, and most often that happens right in front of your client/customer/potential customer. You’ll need to be able to navigate the unfamiliar or unclear territory, be ok with being uncomfortable and respond to inquiries or questions you weren’t expecting all while having a smile on your face because you are your business.
Q: What’s your favourite way to spend time off?
N: Time off? My Opa used to say, “Why spend 40 hours working for someone else when you can work 80 for yourself?” Time off is limited but so necessary! I love to get out and explore this great city. Take in a show, check out a new restaurant, hike a trail, or visit with family or some of the many friends I’ve made since moving to Hamilton five years ago. I love this city and I’m so grateful to call it home.
J: We plan a camping trip once a year where we totally disconnect – no phone, no email, no electricity, just us, the dog, a forest and if we’re lucky near water… absolute heaven.
Find Steel City Studio at
327 King Street East