The Side Garage

The Side Garage - Ashleigh and Elena Leon

The Side Garage, a screen printing shop based in Valley Junction, consists of “a mighty team of two humans and two dogs” – the two humans being Ashleigh and Elena Leon. Ashleigh, the “creative workhorse,” has a background in design and screen printing and serves as the business’s creative director. Elena is known as the duo’s problem solver and is a whiz behind the print equipment. Pete and Thulee, the canines of the squad, function as the HR department.

For The Side Garage, community is a key part of its mission. Aside from custom screen printing – think t-shirts branded with company logos or concert posters – Ashleigh and Elena also set up shop at events (pre-COVID, of course), where they conduct live printing, inviting people to see the product they’re buying being made, including by putting the ink down on the product themselves.

As they say, “The Side Garage is powered by the community of creative and forward-moving people that surround them.” I recently talked with Ashleigh to learn more about the heartbeat of their business.

Elena (left) and Ashleigh (right) Leon

Tell me about how The Side Garage came to be.

We started in fall 2016. Honestly, it was an idea that kept evolving as we talked through it. It was always my dream to do t-shirt branding as a designer, and I worked in the screen printing industry at another custom screen printing shop prior to exploring this new opportunity and path, and what I realized I missed the most from screen printing wasn't necessarily the creation of my designs and turning them into a brand, but it was actually working with other people to help their creations come to life and sharing that process and art with them along the way. That evolution of thought and realizing what I actually did love about screen printing is how we ended up with The Side Garage.  

It's definitely evolved even since then. We started as a mobile screen printing shop out of the side of our garage and didn't really even offer custom screen printing too much at the start, but more or less wanted to focus on the process and educating people. We actually launched at the Vintage & Made Fair, which is a craft and vintage maker fair that has been going on for several years now. So that was our launching event where we did our mobile screen printing.

I’m curious what your background is, or how your interest in branding morphed into screen printing.

I went to Drake, and I have dual degrees in graphic design and advertising, so I'm definitely using my degrees. I was always interested in art as a teenager, and I thought I was going to go into CD and band merch design. That was my creative interest.

I had a couple of jobs in marketing and advertising right out of college, and then I took a job at another local screen printing shop where I learned how to be a project manager in screen printing, which was my primary role there.

I've always kind of been a t-shirt junkie; I feel like it's one of those mediums that is a subtle way of sharing what you believe in and what you connect with. Obviously from a business standpoint, it can be advertising, but I feel that from an individual standpoint, it's a way to communicate who you are and what you stand for.

Would you say that you’re self-taught in terms of screen printing?

I would say that screen printing, if you get into it and you stick with it, is a process that you learn from continually because it's always evolving. I wouldn’t say I was self-taught. I definitely had some coworkers at my previous job who spent some time with me after hours helping me learn the basics. Now, when we did go off on our own, there was definitely a lot of trial and error and almost crying moments trying to learn and work through a new setup. But that's the fun thing about screen printing – you can have access to and do it in many ways, from a very basic at home DIY level to something that's even more major, like some of the bigger shops that have large auto presses and everything in between.

What’s your printing process like at The Side Garage?

We focus on manual screen printing, so it's pretty much hands-on throughout the whole process. We have the equipment to manufacture and make our own screens in house. Within that process, it’s somewhat similar to photography, so there's a lightroom and a darkroom to help that exposure process with the screen. And then it's kind of just like a big giant stencil. So once you go through that light and dark process to create the screen, you bring it up to the press. The best way I can describe it is like a stencil that you're pushing ink through onto a substrate.

In addition to your custom printing, do you design and sell your own products, too?

Yeah, we do. We have our own line of products, which you could say is my creative outlet and opportunity to explore and experiment with different design skills or approaches. I'd say I'm kind of a nerd about vintage sports and industrial style designs, so that's a lot of what comes through in the stuff that I create. It’s more or less like my own personal projects that I set for myself, and it's always fun to try and figure out ways to create something that is a tribute to the past, but also new and relatable to people now, too.

It’s evident that community is a very important part of your mission. Could you tell me a little bit more about that?

[Elena and I] both participated in athletics growing up and in college, so we've definitely seen the importance of a team and community environment from the standpoint of you get to rally behind each other and encourage and push one another on, keeping each other on your toes. That’s part of what makes a thriving community work. So, for us, it's very important to do our part in fostering that with the skillsets and platform and relationships that we have established while also seeking new ones, to help further move along the community. I feel like in all facets of life, it's not something that's necessarily meant to be walked alone. And you can learn a lot from the people who share likenesses with you, but you can also learn a lot from people who are different from you. That’s probably been the greatest thing that has come from our event printing, especially, is that we have been in environments and communities that maybe we wouldn't have sought out on our own, and it's broadened our perspective on Des Moines, but also on humanity as a whole. I think that's a very valuable experience that everybody should seek out.

I’d never come across the concept of event printing until I looked around on your website. What a cool idea.

Yeah, it's something we’ve seen done in bigger cities, and it’s an idea that marries with our desire to share the process with others. It seemed like a pretty good fit. When we set out for it, we were like, oh, I have no idea how Des Moines is going to react to this, but it's been a great experience so far, other than the fact that we can't do it right now. That's kind of a bummer. But we'll get back to that at some point, hopefully.

What have been some challenges as you’ve built your business?

I would probably say that the biggest challenge for us as a business is trying to establish and figure out at what point to start scaling and try to grow and take that next step within the business. I myself am a very conservative planner by nature, I guess you could say, so things are typically very calculated, whereas Elena is quicker to act on something that maybe isn't as planned out. And while it's been a challenge, I think the differing views that we have within the business itself has been a strong benefit. Because to be perfectly honest, The Side Garage wouldn't have ever started if I would have kept planning it like I had in my head, because Elena was the one that kind of pushed for it to start.

But outside of the actual skill and practice of screen printing, we've been fortunate to develop relationships that keep business coming in. But it's also that concept of at what point do we start trying to scale this beyond our two human, two dog team?

What would you say has been your biggest success?

I would say our commitment to community and serving small businesses and finding ways to give back and reinvest in the community. The main reason that I count that as a success is because it's a core value that we've had since we started. The fact that we've been in a position to develop the relationships that allow us to continue to do that is a big, big success for us – one that we aim to continue to pursue until we need to pack up shop and call it a day.

Looking to the future, what are some of your goals for The Side Garage?

Our main internal focus is to continue to dial in our daily processes and operational practices so that we are prepared to add to our small team when the timing feels right. Our big goal as a company is to place more of an emphasis on listening and being aware of our client and community needs. By doing so, we can continue to evolve and tailor our services in ways that meet those needs in a more direct and intentional way.

What would be your advice to other female entrepreneurs?

I think my advice would be to align whatever it is that you are offering with your own beliefs and passions, because people recognize genuineness and realness, and they connect with that in a bigger way. They can see if it's something that you get excited about or you're passionate about, as opposed to somebody who's maybe seeking it for alternate reasons or motives or things like that. Yeah, I would say as best as you can, align it within your own passion and beliefs.