‘Well, S***’ Sign-Maker Revitalizes Cole Camp’s Small Business Scene

Ashley Raetz with her daughters, Riley and Oaklee, and her husband

‘Well, S***’ Sign-Maker Revitalizes Cole Camp’s Small Business Scene

What started as a side hustle to pay for daycare has turned into a profitable sign-making, home decor and apparel business for Ashley Raetz.

The central Missouri entrepreneur started RiOak Design – named after her two daughters, Riley and Oaklee – 12 years ago at her kitchen table and has now grown the business to a full-time venture with five full-time and several part-time employees in a recently-renovated 3,500-square-foot building in downtown Cole Camp.

“I ended up painting some signs for extra money to pay for daycare with my second kid that I was pregnant with,” Ashley recalls, “and one thing, honestly, just led to another. I kept getting busier and busier, so after a couple of years, I quit my full-time job and pursued the business.”

Ashley Raetz at her desk surrounded by her best-selling sign that reads "Well, shit."
RiOak owner Ashley Raetz is at her desk surrounded by her best-selling sign that reads “Well, shit.”

Her business has evolved from just handmade wooden signs – like her bestseller “Well, shit” – to other home decor, apparel – from their in-house designer – and hats. In January, she notes, the company launched an interactive area of the store with a T-shirt press where customers can pick out a transfer  to press on a blank shirt of their choice and a laser cutter and engraver where customers can design a leather car air freshener with a fragrance of their choice.

“We make quite a bit of stuff,” she adds.

Ashley might be known for her cheeky handmade signs, but she is also doing her part to support other small business owners and reenergize her rural Missouri hometown.

Before she opened her brick-and-mortar shop three years ago, she shares, she figured out how to grow her business quickly by selling her signs at craft fairs and on Etsy, Amazon and Facebook Live. This led to other makers reaching out to her for tips about how to have success in their own businesses. After trying to keep up with all the questions for a while, she decided to launch a business membership so she could coach other handmade vendors in marketing, online sales and other topics.

“The famous thing is to go to YouTube, and that’s what I had to do,” she explains. “So I just thought, ‘Well, if I can make the process a little bit easier for everybody to go through, it wouldn’t be so frustrating.’

RiOak owner Ashley Raetz holds one of her many patriotic signs.
RiOak owner Ashley Raetz holds one of her many patriotic signs.

“If you’re working at home as a handmade maker, it can be lonely. There’s a lot of sacrifices that go with it. A lot of people don’t truly get that. So to bring a community together of people that do, it’s pretty powerful.”

Eventually, Ashley started to field more questions from fellow sign-makers, she says, so she launched the Creative Maker Movement and her Facebook page The Profitable Sign Maker to give painting tutorials and tips on reusable stencils, plus share industry trends for sign-makers.

“Our little motto inside of the Creative Maker Movement is community over competition because the maker world is very competitive,” she says. “Everyone feels like you’re being copied and those kinds of things. So we’re just trying to help everybody out and bring people together.”

As memberships started growing for the sign-making group, she says, people started to ask about conferences. But because she was still working from home, finding a place she could afford to host one was nearly impossible. This spurred her to start looking for a building where she could have space for retail and events.

“I had always dreamed since we started off of having my own store,” she adds.

She and her husband – who works alongside her at RiOak – found the perfect space in downtown Cole Camp: the place they fell in love as high school sweethearts.

“It’s just a great little town with a lot of heritage and a lot of traditions,” she says.

After two years of renovations, Ashley says, they have space for retail, sign making and shipping downstairs and event space upstairs in the loft.

“I was able to have my first conference last year,” she notes. “I’m getting ready to have my fourth conference in July. And we’re also able to offer the loft to rent for weddings or graduations or other events.”

The RiOak Fall Festival is one of the many ventures that have branched out from the RiOak brand.
The RiOak Fall Festival is one of the many ventures that have branched out from the RiOak brand.

She not only brings in people around the country for her conferences, but she also draws people into downtown Cole Camp with her events like the RiOak Fall Festival – which draws around 2,000 people and 50 handmade vendors.

“It definitely brings people to town,” says Jo Ann Lane, director of Benton County Economic Development, which helps business owners like Ashley with business plans and finding funding. “I can tell you their tax revenue has increased in the city of Cole Camp and that’s, I think, a direct driver to her. She’s always supporting the local businesses.”

Jo Ann and economic development office supported Ashley as she got her brick and mortar up and running by helping with city regulations and phone and internet connection, plus providing a much-needed cup of coffee when she was on a deadline, Jo Ann shares.

“She is a smart businesswoman,” Jo Ann says. “She has so many pieces in place that it takes in a small town like this to make your business thrive.”

Amie Breshears of Missouri Extension, which helps support Benton County Economic Development, says all this is likely just the beginning for Ashley and her many endeavors.

“She’s always adding something new and interesting, and how she makes it all happen, I don’t have any idea,” adds Amie.  “And she’s not done. She’s got plans. She knows what to do and she gets it done. And that’s just really a neat story to see somebody who’s a native Cole Camp girl.”

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