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Kelly Tomlinson

Justin Watkins

October 2015

Kelly helps builds community through Coffee & Design and designs experiences and products for VML. It should also be noted Kelly watches an inordinate amount of Netflix. Because like “she does so much” but also gets plenty of couch time.


How did Coffee & Design get started?

Okay so Coffee & Design literally got started for purely selfish reasons. There were a ton of tech, startup, and developer events in Kansas City, but not really much in the way of design. So I wanted to create an event that I wanted to go to, and Rob felt the same. So we did the exact opposite of the whole process of customer research and validation and blah blah blah, and went with our guts. We pulled together a site and some partnerships to get off the ground, asked Tad Carpenter to be our first event and BOOM, C&D hit the ground running. That first event (launched in January 2014) “sold out” within 24 hours and immediately we were overwhelmed with feedback around how excited people were to have something like this and it’s exactly what they were looking for. So, we got our validation after all :).

Fast forward and Coffee & Design is almost two years old now and I genuinely feel we are still true to our mission of connecting, inspiring and growing design professionals here in Kansas City. We’ve done some pretty awesome things since our launch with other initiatives too. We have Design On Tap on a fairly monthly basis which allows an evening opportunity for some who can’t make it to the mornings along with just a more laid back time to hang out with fellow designers. We also have a “virtual co-working space” via Slack to connect with fellow designers about what’s going on in the industry, KC, and even feedback on your work. We also launched earlier this year to showcase the faces of the design community here in Kansas City. We’re excited about that foundation and what we can start doing with it. We’re also moving towards having more interactive events and workshops to really emphasize the mission around growth. We brought in a national speaker in August for a Friday morning C&D event and then had a Saturday paid workshop which was just awesome. We’re also stoked about some of the super duper top secret things that are in the works to help bring together the community even more.

Whew, that’s a lot! But I have such an amazing team with Rob, Joe, and Megan to come up with these ideas and execute them which is how we are able to do the things we do. Also we’re looking for people who want to get more involved…


You pour a lot of time into these events. What do you get out of it personally and professionally?

You know that quote “be the change you want to see in the world”? It’s like a micro-scale of that. I get to help build the design community that I want to be a part of. And every time we get a message or someone comes up to us telling us how excited they are about C&D and can’t wait for the next event.. . well, that’s a pretty awesome thing.


It took a couple months to find a good rhythm with this interview project. Have you had a similar moment?

I would says moments – plural. When we can do some pre-planning and lock in events and commitments in advance it’s pretty smooth sailing. But there are months when we’re scrambling, ideating, and securing everything just days before an event is announced. As we’ve been going towards more interactive events, they take way more planning and logistics to figure out which just requires more effort. So I guess I’d say no we haven’t really found a good rhythm but that’s mostly our own doing. We’re constantly pushing ourselves to do bigger and better events, experiment with new things, execute a new idea, etc. so that’s always shifting our cadence which never really allows us to to settle into an autopilot mode. Which, definitely has it’s pros and cons as we all have incredibly full lives outside of C&D but ultimately we want to be proud of what we’re putting together. So that’s how it goes.


Let’s soapbox for a minute. What do you wish people in our startup and design communities would do more or less of?

I’ve grown tired of so many things just being inspirational style talks and discussions. I think that absolutely has it’s place but I want to get to the tangible nitty gritties of how to execute things and share true learnings from experiences. We have a tremendous amount of ideas and drive, but so many just don’t know what to do with that or how to access resources or mentors or even know what the first step is. I want to see more things that helps with that. I want to hear real talk about how a process went or something that was tried out and if it helped or flopped or what. Something beyond high-level this and that.


What is your latest epiphany?

I’m growing up. *takes off Captain Obvious hat* It seems like a silly statement but it’s a crazy realization. I now care about things like 401k and health benefits. When my mom asks what I want for Christmas I rattle off things for my home. I also realize I’m not invincible and need to take care of myself both physically and mentally. I make decisions that factor in their consequences just a little bit more than I used to. Sounds less fun but it’s actually awesome. Now I’ll choose an extra hour of sleep because I know I’ll be more productive or I’ll shut my laptop to veg out because my brain needs a break. I’ll travel to places I want to see because I want to see them. I’ll pursue passions and pour energy into things just because I want to because that makes me happy. I’m getting rambly but hopefully you’re picking up what I’m putting down.

Interviews with KC Makers & Marketers