Karen Tracey always knew she wanted to do something artistic or creative with her life, but a copywriting class at GVSU really opened her eyes to the power of words. Courtesy The Image Shoppe
When Karen Tracey says her trip to Mexico was life changing, she isn’t exaggerating.
At the time, Tracey felt she was in a rut professionally. So, she and her husband, Rob McCarty, did what many people dream of doing. They quit their jobs and hit the road for several months, starting domestically and then crossing the border into Mexico. The couple got to see firsthand the vast stretches of Mexican landscape from behind the windshield of a modified Mitsubishi Montero, which quickly could become their sleeping quarters in a pinch.
Having the opportunity to drop everything and explore another country triggered something in Tracey’s mind, and upon their return to Grand Rapids, she had figured out her next step. She was going to try her hand at entrepreneurship, and Karen Tracey Design was born
“I think part of it was just the freedom, realizing I can just pick up roots, move and do what I want,” she said. “And it felt really good to not be tied down to anything, in that sense, feeling like I could be free and do what I want.”
In 2003, Tracey partnered with McCarty and Troy Best, and Karen Tracey Design became The Image Shoppe, a brand marketing firm in the heart of Grand Rapids’ Wealthy Business District. And nearly 17 years after she first set out on her own, Tracey is as passionate for her craft as ever.
“For me it’s just super important to be able to express yourself creatively,” Tracey said. “If I was in a 9 to 5, regimented job, doing the same thing day in and day out, I would just lose my mind. The ability to see and make and create things that are not just beautiful but meaningful and to help people get to a solution, that’s me and that’s ultimately what I find rewarding. It’s what keeps me going every day.”
Growing up in Grand Rapids, Tracey always thought she would end up leaving the area. But unsure of what she wanted to do out of high school, she attended Grand Rapids Community College and then Grand Valley State University while she tried to find the right career path. Wherever that path would lead, Tracey knew one thing — it had to be something creative.
“I had always been someone who was playing around with art and painting and colors, and that’s always been my focus, so I knew it had to be something that fulfilled that need.”
Tracey’s ‘Aha!’ moment came at GVSU, when a copywriting class opened her eyes to the power of words to create. After graduation, she secured a practice job interview with American Seating Company, figuring her job search had just begun and she could use all the experience she could get. But to Tracey’s surprise, the hiring manager called her shortly after and offered her the position.
“At that time, I didn’t know where I’d end up going, if I would even end up working in this field or what, and who knows at that stage of your life?” Tracey said. “That offer was a big break for me, it sort of hit me like ‘Wow, I can do this, I can have a big girl job and I’m capable.’ It sort of set the tone, because I had talked about maybe moving to another state, but that set the course for my career here in Grand Rapids.”
Tracey worked in American Seating’s marketing department for about eight years before pivoting to a public relations role at Amway and, eventually, back to marketing, this time in the nonprofit sector at Heart of West Michigan United Way. It was after United Way when she and McCarty took their trip south of the border, and Tracey found her freedom.
But that freedom came with a caveat — the first years of entrepreneurship were scary.
“There were points in time where I didn’t really know what I was doing, where the next client was going to come from or what was going to come next,” Tracey said. “Writing and design has always been my thing, but business management not so much, so that part of it was scary.”
It was then when Tracey decided to take on a partner, someone who could handle the business side of things while she focused on her true passions. It wasn’t easy to admit, but Tracey eventually realized she couldn’t do it all, and once she handed over that part of the business, The Image Shoppe blossomed.
“I think having an open mind is really important in entrepreneurship and having the chops to stick it out and not let little things throw you off track,” she said. “There’s going to be tons of failures and road bumps along the way when it would be easy to say, ‘I can’t do it anymore, I’m done.’ But you just have to barrel through and know that if it’s really something you want and it’s meant to be, you’ve have to go for it.”
This past year, Tracey’s 50th trip around the sun, has been a whirlwind. In April, The Image Shoppe became the first agency in Michigan to receive B-Corp certification as a business that promotes and adheres to the standards of environmental sustainability, another one of Tracey’s passions. Additionally, The Image Shoppe recently underwent a branding overhaul and is planning a new website launch for the first quarter of 2017.
Tracey also is keeping busy through her involvement in several local community organizations, including sitting on the board of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and in her role as the founder of Grand Rapids for Animals, a grassroots initiative dedicated to promoting animal welfare.
“That’s a huge part of what we do and what I’m proud of, is the passions people on our team have for the things that matter to them — from a social justice standpoint or sustainability standpoint, or so on — that’s what we incorporate into our daily life and that’s very important to us,” she said.
As she looks at the future of The Image Shoppe, Tracey said she hopes to continue to grow her business — the agency is now up to 12 employees — while fostering and developing the talent on her staff. Tracey says, eventually, she’ll transition into a more hands-off role but knows The Image Shoppe always will be a part of her life.
“I don’t ever see myself being fully separated from it, because my passion for it is raging and it’s a huge part of our life — as a couple-owned business, it is our life,” she said.
As for how entrepreneurship has changed her, Tracey said running her own business made her more of a risk taker.
”A calculated risk taker,” she said. “But it’s being smart about risks and being open to them and less worried about how it’s all going to play out in the end. But knowing that being in control of that, you can makes things happen that you couldn’t before.”