Empathy Cards For Serious Illness

Hi, friends.

Today we’re launching something new. They’re called Empathy Cards, and they’re designed to give to people with a serious illness. I’ve been working on the idea for these cards for a long time, and this project is really important to me.

Empathy Cards for serious illness: Treatment on the Internet

Click the photo to visit our online shop.

Most of us struggle to find the right words in the face of a friend or loved one’s major health crisis, whether it’s cancer, chronic illness, mental illness, or anything else. It’s a really tough problem; someone we love needs our support more than ever, but we don’t have the right language for it.

I created this collection of empathy cards for serious illness because I believe we need some better, more authentic ways to communicate about sickness and suffering. “Get well soon” cards don’t make sense when someone might not. Sympathy cards can make people feel like you think they’re already dead. A “fuck cancer” card is a nice sentiment, but when I had cancer, it never really made me feel better. And I never personally connected with jokes about being bald or getting a free boob job, which is what most “cancer cards” focus on.

With Empathy Cards, my goal is to help people connect with each other through truth and insight, which is one of the founding principles of this brand. I want the recipients of these cards to feel seen, understood, and loved.

One More Chemo Down Empathy Cards for Serious Illness

Click the photo to visit our online shop.

As a cancer survivor, I have a very personal stake in this game. I was diagnosed with Stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 24. After 9 months of chemo and radiation, I went into remission and have been incredibly fortunate to be cancer-free since.

I Didn't Know What To Say Empathy Cards For Serious Illness

Click the photo to visit our online shop.

The most difficult part of my illness wasn’t losing my hair, or being erroneously called “sir” by Starbucks baristas, or sickness from chemo. It was the loneliness and isolation I felt when many of my close friends and family members disappeared because they didn’t know what to say, or said the absolute wrong thing without realizing it.

In our increasingly digital world, when it comes to someone in crisis, greeting cards have never been more relevant or appropriate. A card resonates in a way that email and text can’t. It’s a personal, simple, tangible way to be present for someone struggling with illness.

As a result of my own experiences as a patient, friend, and caregiver, I’ve wanted to create this collection for a long time. I considered including these cards in the initial launch of my wholesale line two years ago, but I decided it would be more impactful to wait until we’d built a bigger platform and made a bit of a name with the brand. We’re launching this series with 8 cards, and we’ll be adding more with each new release.

I think Empathy Cards are the most important things I’ve designed so far, and they’re some of my personal favorites. It’s not often that you look at a greeting card and think, “The world needs this,” but in this case, I really believe that’s true.

Empathy Cards for Serious Illness

Click the photo to visit our online shop.

If these resonate with you, I’d love your help in getting them out into the world. I’ve never asked you guys to share our stuff before, but I’m asking now, because I want to connect these with as many folks as possible who could use them.

As a small thank you, everyone who posts one of these cards on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter with the hashtags #empathycards and #emilymcdowell will be entered to win one of two $100 gift certificates to our online shop. You can use any of the images in this post or on my instagram feed (@emilymcdowell_), or grab images from the shop. Two winners will be announced on Monday, May 11th, a week from today.

Also! If you have a contact at an illness/research organization, in the media, a blogger, etc., who you think might be interested in featuring these or working with us, please email Sara, our head of marketing, at sara@emilymcdowell.com. We’re happy to donate cards, too — our main goal is just to get these in front of the people who need them. It’s hard to make a big difference with a greeting card, but I’m hoping these can make a small one.

Thank you so much for your help and your support. You guys are the best.

xoxo
Emily

Died of Lemons Empathy Cards For Serious Illness

Click the photo to visit our online shop.

Fuck Cancer Empathy Cards for Serious Illness

Click the photo to visit our online shop.

Friendship through cancer empathy cards for serious illness

Click the photo to visit our online shop.

illness is not a journey empathy cards for serious illness

Click the photo to visit our online shop.

638 Comments

Mother’s Day Cards for Stepmothers & Honorary Moms

One of my favorite things about having a card line: I get to invent ways to celebrate important people and events that are under-represented in Mainstream Greeting Card World.

Honorary Mom Mother's Day Card
Mother’s and Father’s Day fall into that category for me. I’m not a parent, but I’m a stepmom to an awesome 10-year-old kid. There are a lot of us step-parents out there — and godparents, aunts and uncles, foster parents, youth leaders, grandparents and teachers, among others — who are all invested in the lives of children who aren’t our own. And there aren’t all that many Mother’s Day cards for stepmothers, or other non-biological mother figures. So I made some! Because in the same way I consider Valentine’s Day to be a celebration of all kinds of love, not just romantic love, I think Mother’s and Father’s Day should be a time to honor and celebrate all the women and men who behave like parents, whether they technically are or not.

237_NotTechnicallyMom_Web
The card above was inspired by my youth group leader, who was basically a pseudo-mom to me between the ages of 12 and 18 (and beyond). Without her influence, I’m not sure I would have survived high school. Seriously, I was a disaster of a person in about 75 ways, and to this day I’m so grateful to her for opening her heart and home to me for so many years. (Fun fact: I spent hundreds of hours sitting at this woman’s kitchen table in the early 90s, complaining about life, drinking coffee out of a mug that said “Screw Everything,” which definitely influenced our collection of mugs. I’m working on 8 more right now, that will be released in June.)

So, Happy Mother’s Day to all you moms and stepmoms and foster parents, aunts and youth workers, grandmas and godmothers. You guys are doing important work, and you deserve to be celebrated.

Just FYI: our Mother’s Day shipping cutoff is Monday, May 4th. 

Check Box Mother's Day Card

19 Comments

Naming A Business After Yourself: When Is It A Good Idea?

When I started my business, I tried (but not that hard) to think of a good name. When I didn’t come up with anything I loved (after not that long thinking about it), I decided to just go with my own. “Hey,” I thought, “it worked for Jonathan Adler and Diane von Furstenburg!”

I am here to tell you this: I gave myself kind of bad advice.

Now that I’m a couple of years into this venture, with the benefit of our old pal hindsight, I now know a lot more about when naming a business after yourself makes sense, and when it might make more sense not to.

If your business is one person (you), providing a service that only you perform — whether that service is illustration or personal training — naming your business after yourself generally tends to work fine. The same is true if you’re an author, fine artist, or musician; in these cases, it might actually work better to use your own name, because you’re not looking to project a commercial image. You may end up with several products (i.e., books you’ve written), but the one and only thing they all have in common is you.

However, if the primary focus of your business is manufacturing products to sell, and you plan to create a company, I think it’s a good idea to try harder than I did and come up with a name that’s not your own.

Here are some reasons why, in no particular order of importance:

1. Unless your name is Bob Loblaw, it’s not that memorable. If you look at our web analytics, way too many people find me by googling “emily who makes cards.” That is not ideal.

2. As you grow, “me” becomes “we.” (I realized as soon as I hired my first employee that it sounded weird to have her answer the phone “Hello, Emily McDowell!” because that’s not her name. Yet, that was the name of our company, so it would have been even weirder to have her NOT answer the phone that way.) I now have several employees, and we all work together to make our company function. Yes, I write and design the products, but we wouldn’t get very far without our sales team. If our name were, say, Sunshine Industries, I think it would feel more like an umbrella that we all live under.

3. It’s limiting. When you’re starting out, you don’t know where your company will go, or what you’ll love doing most, or what the best business model will turn out to be, so it’s a good idea to pick a name that keeps your options open. Right now, I run the company and do all the creative, which is likely not sustainable forever, especially if we keep growing. If at some point, I decided I wanted to bring on other artists or writers and function as a creative director, it would be a lot less awkward if my company was called Sunshine Industries. For example, my friend Mati Rose is a painter. “Mati Rose for Sunshine Industries” sounds viable as a collection within the brand; “Mati Rose for Emily McDowell” just sounds confusing.

4. When you have a brand that’s your name, people expect you to BE that brand 24/7. Which makes total sense! But this can be an uncomfortable problem as you grow and sell products to/interact with an increasing number of people who don’t know you. In my case, sometimes I’m funny and say interesting things and otherwise embody the spirit of my products, but sometimes I’m introverted and kind of boring and forget people’s names not because I’m an asshole, but because I have a crappy memory. (And if THAT was a brand, nobody would buy it.) Of course, strangers will always have assumptions about who you are and what you’re like as a person based on your work, no matter what your company is called, but if it’s your NAME, it’s an added, strange layer of pressure to “live up to the brand” at events, trade shows, etc.

5. When there’s an obvious name associated with the ownership of your company (yours), some customers really, really want your personal attention when things go wrong, even if you’re not the person most equipped to handle their problem or issue.

6. Social media gets weird. Sunshine Industries could have a social media manager who isn’t me, but if someone who isn’t Emily McDowell is tweeting or posting as Emily McDowell (the brand), it feels disingenuous. As you grow, you can’t do everything yourself.

7. If you ever want to sell your company and go do something else, your name goes with the company and belongs to the people who bought it. If those people start making incredibly hideous products with your name all over them, you can’t do anything about it. Except change your OWN name.

And so! Now that I know all this stuff, we’re actually in the middle of transitioning our brand name from “Emily McDowell” to “Emily McDowell Studio.” This is a good solution for keeping the brand equity we already have, while also expanding the brand umbrella and fixing some of the above issues. (People are still going to have to google “emily who makes cards” to find me, though.) Here’s our new logo, which is deliberately pretty similar to the old logo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Did I miss anything? Any other reasons you can think of? Do you disagree with anything? What did you google to get here? (A lot of people also end up on our site by searching “lady ass,” and I’m sure they’re very disappointed.)

 

56 Comments

Valentine Fogcasting

For Valentine’s Day, I worked with San Francisco ad agency Camp+King to create this insane thing: laser Valentines projected onto the San Francisco fog, in the world’s first use of fogcasting.

I worked in advertising for many years before starting my own company, and it was really fun and strange to be on the other side as the client. One of the best things (for me) about this project was that I got to work with my former boss and his agency on it.

6 Comments

2014 Recap: Q3

July was wholesale gift show season again, and I went to Atlanta, then to my mom’s induction into the Quilting Hall of Fame in Indiana, and to Columbus to visit my friend Allison at Igloo Letterpress, then came back to find out our totes and towels were delayed again. We also exhibited at our first SF Gift Show in July; I’d had quite enough of travel and needed to get some actual work done, so Charlie went to that one.

At the same time, I was researching different fulfillment houses, trying to find a partner to take over our wholesale order fulfillment and assembly of our cards. We were running out of space in our office, and it had become clear that waiting until Q1 of 2015 wasn’t viable – we either needed to make the switch immediately, move to a larger studio immediately, or get an offsite storage space for inventory. If we were in Florida or Nebraska or basically just Not Los Angeles, we might have decided to keep doing our own fulfillment, but the real estate, insurance, and labor costs here are bananas. And leaving Los Angeles isn’t an option, due to family and the fact that I like it here.

My bike, that I can ride in January.

My bike, that I can ride in January.

I’d heard a lot of horror stories about fulfillment relationships gone wrong, and awful fulfillment houses, but also that the good ones were really, really great for streamlining business and freeing us up to focus on what we were best at, rather than chasing the UPS guy around our building. (We are REALLY good at that now, btw.) But a move to fulfillment is an expensive investment, and it totally changes how the business is run, so it was a pretty involved process to find the right partner. We also really wanted one within relatively easy driving distance of both our card printer and a major shipping port, in order to make it as quick and inexpensive as possible to move product to them. And, we wanted one that was within a few hours’ drive of our office.

We planned to continue shipping our orders from emilymcdowell.com and Etsy ourselves, from our office, so we knew we’d have to split inventory. (The reason for keeping retail shipping in-house has to do with the fact that many of our online customers order one card at a time, and small orders like that don’t make financial sense with a third party fulfillment model.)

By the end of August, after much research, I’d settled on a fulfillment house to take over our wholesale fulfillment starting in September. And, in August, our fifth employee, Betsy, moved from Indiana and started working with us. Betsy, I would like to publicly apologize for the insanity of your first three months of work. You handled it like a champ.

August was also the month when I designed all our mugs, which we’d originally hoped to manufacture in India and release for wholesale in January 2015. In fact, in August, I still thought we were going to be doing a bunch of our production in India. So, I booked a trip to India for October, to meet with some factories, meet up with my friends there, and, let’s face it, to meet up with India itself because India is rad.

The Blue City of Jodhpur. Rad.

The Blue City of Jodhpur. Rad.

Meanwhile, in order for outside wholesale fulfillment to happen, we needed two other things to happen at the same time: our new Shopify website had to be up and running, and more importantly, we needed an inventory management system that met all our needs and wasn’t ridiculously expensive. We thought we found one in Stitch Labs, but after purchasing it and trying it out, we discovered that it didn’t actually work with QuickBooks as seamlessly as they’d said it did, so we had to return it and start the search over.

We launched the new Shopify site in September, which for the most part was fine. Lots of work to input all our products and redo all the photos and figure out which apps we needed to add on and all that junk, but there were thankfully no major issues with it. And we were really psyched to be able to offer international shipping and mobile-optimized shopping. (As someone who lives basically my entire life on my phone, this was super important to me.)

Inventory management, on the other hand, was not so easy. We ended up failing in our quest to find something inexpensive, but did find something we thought would work (and I still think it will work, although as of today, January 28th, 2015, it is still not working). We bought software called Fishbowl for a cool $15K – and I learned that $15K, in the world of complex inventory management software, is still at the low end of the cost spectrum.

We made a plan to manually send orders down to our new fulfillment partner in San Diego, and manually track inventory between our two warehouses, while Fishbowl got up and running; we estimated that we’d be doing this for about a month, and everything would be working by the time the holiday rush hit. (HA!)

Back to our tote bags and towels. They ended up being sent on different boats, and the totes arrived first, in mid-September. By then, we were fielding daily phone calls from unhappy stores wanting to know why their orders were so late. Not a good situation.

It turns out that ten thousand tote bags takes up a lot of space. An entire 16’ Ryder truck from floor to ceiling, in fact. I know this because we had to rent one at 7am on a Saturday morning, pack it with all 10,000 bags, and drive from our office to a sewing house in south Los Angeles to have every bag handle re-sewn. At a cost of an additional 25% of the price we paid for them in the first place. (Bye, profit margin!) Yep, the bags finally showed up… with all the handles falling off.

If this blog post were a text, this would be a good spot for the laugh-crying emoji. This would also be a good spot to point out that my team of employees is fucking awesome.

The silver lining here is that Los Angeles actually has a large piecework garment industry, so I was grateful for the fact that it was even possible to send the bags out to be re-sewn. A friend of Sara’s found us a place that turned them around in under a week, which was fairly miraculous, but then they had to be sent down to San Diego, QCed, and repackaged before we could send them out to stores. (Bye, rest of profit margin!)

(Dear stores: I am so sorry. We tried as hard as we could. Things are way better now.)

While all this was happening, we were searching for a mug manufacturer. Our original hope of launching India-made mugs for wholesale fell apart due to cost, risk, and terror that we’d buy a container of mugs that would arrive broken or printed backwards or get swallowed by a whale at sea. I just wasn’t ready to invest in that many mugs, not knowing how they’d sell, especially after Tote-Gate 2014. So we decided to print the mugs locally for a cost that wasn’t doable for wholesale, but we could test them at retail and figure out which styles were most popular, in the event that we could eventually figure out a wholesale solution. And I really wanted to make them.

I feel like I’m forgetting something major from this quarter because SO MUCH HAPPENED. And I haven’t even gotten to Towelgate 2014 yet! (That’s in Q4.)

One major lesson from this quarter was that wholesale manufacturing can be incredibly hard, and it caused me to do a lot of thinking about the kinds of things we want to take on in the future. Even if something is doable and you make a little money, is the potential hassle and stress worth the effort? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

All of this logistical insanity this quarter also meant that I spent maybe 10% of my time actually making work. This isn’t sustainable for the company, since without me making work, we don’t have anything to sell. I think my biggest challenge so far has been figuring out how to balance running the business with creating our products. If it weren’t for brilliant people like Leigh Standley of Curly Girl, who’s been successfully doing both jobs for a decade, I might think it was an impossible task.

Tune in next week for Q4, when we wrap this baby up!

16 Comments

2014 Recap: Q2

I realized I forgot to show you guys a picture of the ambulance I didn’t buy! Here it is. We would have painted it. It was awesome. The whole inside was wood paneling with built-in shelves.

Coming off my near-miss ambulance purchase, at the end of March, I made a last-minute decision to spend the first week of April doing yoga with 20 strangers in Costa Rica. I hadn’t done yoga for a year, and normally, going on vacation with a ton of people I don’t know sounds HORRIBLE. (In fact, I had a small freakout about it the day before I left, and I turned to my boyfriend for comfort and he was like, “Dude, I have no idea why you’re doing that, it’s basically my nightmare.” )

Despite all of those things, I’d booked the trip because my intuition was really calling me to do it. Like screaming in my face and jumping up and down, not like a quiet whisper breeze in a tree or something. And it turned out to be one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. I met awesome people I never would have otherwise met, and did a bunch of things that scare me/I suck at, which I don’t do enough of in life. The trip leader, yoga teacher/writer Jennifer Pastiloff, is now a dear friend, and I recommend her retreats one million billion percent. (She also wrote the “I Have Done Love” quote I turned into a print!)

After a week of no internet in the Costa Rican jungle (which was terrifying, btw – the no internet part, not the jungle part), I came home to an email that our (different) airbnb host had cancelled on us AGAIN for our lodging at the National Stationery Show in May. That’s it. Fuck airbnb.

I spent the rest of April designing for our May release: 12 more cards, the new catalog, and another new category: gift tags. The initial idea with the gift tags was that we’d print them locally and assemble them in our studio. This didn’t quite work – we soon discovered that the labor involved was going to make a proper wholesale margin unachievable. (A common theme of 2014.) So we decided we’d assemble what we’d had printed, then shift production to Hong Kong later in the year. We also officially hired the fabulous Katherine in April (I think?), after she’d been with us on a “temporary” basis for about five months. It turns out that knowing how and when to add more employees is a really tough thing to figure out!

In May, we figured out how to get a crate’s worth of furniture from LA to New York, and exhibited at the National Stationery Show. We won five Louie Awards, which was pretty freaking awesome. We learned a lot of lessons that week, like there is no glue on earth that will stick to fireproofed foam walls (including super glue), renting a 4th floor walkup is a bad idea during a trade show, and when you win a Louie, you’re supposed to put it in your booth. But unlike the winter NYNOW show, we had a great NSS experience in New York. I also got to meet and hang out in person with some awesome people I’d become social media friends with, like Arley and Morgan from Ladyfingers Letterpress and Olga from I Swear (formerly Offensive + Delightful). 2014 was a banner year for friend-making — I think I made more new pals in 2014 than in any other year of my adult life.

At the show, we launched our new notepads, stickers, and gift tags, and took a ton of orders for our new totes and towels, which were supposed to arrive from India in late June. (Spoiler alert: this did not happen.) We also took on 6 more US sales reps, and distributors in Canada and New Zealand.

The week after the show, I went to Salt Lake City to speak at Alt Summit about bringing a product to market – my first large-scale teaching presentation. I ended up having to write the presentation on the plane to Utah, we’d been so busy – but it all worked out. Here I am dropping some sophisticated business wisdom:

I had a ton of fun, did NOT get to meet Martha Stewart, but did get to hang out with some great friends like Sarah Deragon of Portraits to the People (she took my head shots!) and Lisa Anderson Shaffer of Zelma Rose.

By early June, it was becoming really obvious that we needed an inventory management system like NOW – our highly sophisticated existing system of Post-Its was no longer effective, and we needed something that could track inventory from three sales channels: Etsy, Shopify, and our wholesale invoices. Upon doing some research, we found out that WooCommerce, the e-commerce platform my site had been built on the year before, was incompatible with any inventory management software that also worked with Etsy and QuickBooks. We were going to have to redo our website to run on Shopify, which would be expensive and time-consuming, in order to make inventory management work. But there was no way around it. So we found a Shopify developer and got to work on that project.

At the same time, our 2,000 square foot space was starting to feel smaller and smaller as inventory piled up. Our growth was meaning larger production runs, and each new product category was taking up a lot of room. And renting in Los Angeles isn’t cheap, especially when you’re just renting space to store inventory. I started talking with people in the industry about the possibility of shifting our wholesale shipping and inventory storage to a fulfillment house, which seemed at the time like something we would want to do in late Q1 of 2015, after Valentine’s Day, when it was slower.

Late June came and went, and for various reasons, we found out that the shipment of our totes and towels was going to be delayed a month. We let all the stores know. Nobody was psyched. Somewhere in here, we hit our 1,000th store, which was a major milestone, and we started thinking about hiring another employee to help manage our wholesale accounts and sales reps. This was the first position at the company that I actually wrote a description for, took resumes and applications, and interviewed candidates. So we started that process, which was kind of a trip.

Q3 is where shit hits the fan, guys. Coming next week!

14 Comments

2014 Recap: Q1

Originally, I was planning to write one post recapping 2014. But then I started writing, and it turned out we did a lot of stuff in 2014. Way too much for one post. So I’m posting this recap one quarter at a time. We had a pretty intense year, with a lot of success AND a lot of mistakes, and I think it’s important to share stories about both of those things. I’ve never had a company before, and in 2014, almost everything we did was for the very first time, so there was a ton of constant problem-solving and trial and error. I initially wanted to write all of 2014 down for myself, to document our first full year in business and remind myself of how far we’ve come — but I’m sharing it here in the event that something in our story can help one of you guys reading this.

Which takes us to January 2014.

I figured that once the holidays were over, our Etsy shop and website orders would slow down, and we’d be able to focus on exhibiting for the first time at the January wholesale gift shows in Atlanta, Dallas, and New York, and launching our new tote bags and dish towels. But the universe had other plans: we had sort of a perfect storm of press in January, including being the Etsy featured shop, a feature on Cup of Jo, and a Valentine card that went viral, landing on Good Morning America, the Huffington Post, Jalopnik, Esquire, and a ton of other places. Hooray! This was pretty freaking amazing.

As a result of all the press, the “Look At My Phone” card was the top-selling item on all of Etsy in January, and we had to majorly scramble to keep up with demand. We called in everyone we knew who was looking for work to help ship orders, and ate a LOT of food from the 3 places that delivered to our studio. We ran out of the card 2 weeks before Valentine’s Day, and had to reprint it digitally, which of course looks slightly different than offset (our normal printing method) so we had to figure out how to keep those out of our wholesale orders, and try to guess how many we’d need for wholesale vs. retail, and try to guess how much time it would take to ship things to, say, South Africa, and generally just try to not screw up too many people’s orders.

Meanwhile, my January was already dedicated to traveling to/prepping for the wholesale gift shows, so I was in and out of the studio while all of this was going on. I went to Atlanta for our first Atlanta Gift Show, where we exhibited in our new rep group’s showroom, and at the end of the month, Joe and I were scheduled to be in New York exhibiting at NYNOW. While I was in Atlanta, our New York airbnb host cancelled on us — but the NYNOW show was during Super Bowl week, and it was impossible to rebook an apartment. So at the last minute, we decided Joe would stay behind to help Charlie handle Valentine’s Day. I brought my boyfriend to help set up the booth (so we could share a cheap hotel room), and hired some friends who lived in NY to help man it during the show.

In New York, the company that was supposed to deliver our booth crate showed up 8 hours late, which meant we had 2 hours to do 10 hours’ worth of setup. Stressor one. In an effort to save money, we’d had a friend of a friend in upstate New York build us a reusable booth and ship it to the show in a crate, instead of hiring the very expensive display company to build us a one-time booth on site. But when we took our booth walls out of the crate and tried to set it up, it just totally didn’t work. Stressor two. It didn’t stand up on its own, was in constant danger of toppling over, and there were hinges sticking out of the walls on the inside of the booth, so our shelves couldn’t even be mounted. Oops. Lesson learned. The fact that it even remained upright for the duration of the show was a minor miracle.

I did some emergency display revisions on the fly and it wasn’t pretty, but it was good enough. And then it snowed 18 inches in NYC over the next five days. That, plus the Super Bowl, plus us being all the way out on Pier 94 in the “New York’s Newest” section, and not in the main Javits show building, meant the show was a complete bust. We didn’t lose TONS of money (a lot of people weren’t so lucky) but we didn’t come out ahead, and the experience was disheartening and really stressful. My staff sent me champagne to celebrate it being over, but it accidentally went to the wrong hotel, where a DIFFERENT Emily McDowell happened to be a guest, and it was delivered to her instead of me and she DRANK it! True story. I was planning on blogging about all this when I got back, but I was too tired.

When the show ended, our original plan was to put the booth back in its crate, store it, and reuse it for the three New York shows we were planning to do in 2014, but that wasn’t gonna happen. So the union workers of Pier 94 took pity on me, and let me just walk away from the whole mess. Peace out, thousands of dollars. But sometimes you have to just cut your losses and move forward.

There were some bright spots in this trip to New York, though; after the show ended, I stuck around for a few more days to have a meeting with Etsy at their beautiful HQ in Brooklyn and do a meet-and-greet at Pink Olive, which was one of my very first wholesale accounts, when I still just sold prints on Etsy and didn’t even have a card line yet. I also got to have coffee with the lovely Joanna Goddard, where we figured out the illustration series I now contribute to Cup of Jo.

As soon as Valentine’s Day was over, we moved to a larger studio space down the hall, going from 1000 to 2000 square feet, and gaining tons of windows. We set up the new office so half of it was inventory storage, assembly, and shipping, and the other half housed our desks. We welcomed Sara, our third full-time employee, and made some changes with our sales rep groups, adding about 20 more reps in the South, Southeast and Midwest.

My creative work is driven by the cycle of two major releases a year, in January (for the winter gift shows) and in May (for the National Stationery Show). So the time crunch between the January wholesale show circuit and our release in May is a very real thing (and one I’m currently struggling with for 2015 in a big way). I wasn’t really able to get started on our May 2014 release until late February. It turns out this isn’t ideal when you’re working with overseas manufacturers, which we had just started to do. With a few exceptions, these manufacturers generally work on really long production timelines, and the sea shipping takes forever – as it turned out, months longer than we’d originally thought it would.

In March, we made a major and awesome shift from printing all our art prints in-house (anyone need a super temperamental $700 printer? We have three.) to having them printed professionally. I don’t really have regrets about things I’ve done in the last two years of running this business, but I will definitely say that our lives would have been easier if we’d done this sooner.

March was also the month that we realized we weren’t going to be able to keep making our tote bags and towels in the USA. Prior to our January launch, we’d already gone through multiple towel mills and screen printers, trying to get the right quality at a price that was workable for wholesale. We thought we had it… and then it turned out we didn’t. We had so many quality issues with our towel blanks as well as with our screen printer, and store buyers still felt that the towel prices were too high. We didn’t have the same quality issue with our totes, but our margin was too thin, and we couldn’t raise the wholesale price. The result was that we just weren’t making enough profit on either product for them to make sense. So our option was to either start making them overseas, or stop selling them.

I started talking with a friend of mine who owns a kickass gift company in India, and he hooked me up with some of their manufacturing resources to make totes and towels. “What could go wrong?” I thought. “It’s a screen printed towel, basically a square. It’s not rocket science.”

Hahahahahaha. To be continued.

So in March, I redesigned all our towel packaging and put in an order for totes and towels from India, to be delivered in June, with another new bag in the collection. At the same time, I’d started working with a Hong Kong-based paper manufacturer on some prototypes for notepads and stickers for our May release, and all those designs had to be finalized and into production by the end of the month to make our May deadline.

In March, I also got a call from Shark Tank. In 2013, right after I’d launched my line, during a bout of insomnia, I’d filled out the initial application online to be a contestant on the show. The producers got in touch with me a year later to let me know I’d moved on to the final round of casting. I spent a couple of weeks looking over the insane list of requirements for the final round application, talking with former contestants, and thinking about whether I wanted to do it. Ultimately, I didn’t, for a bunch of reasons. It was the right choice.

Also in March: I bought an old ambulance that had been converted into a work truck, that we were going to turn into a mobile, emergency card store. Or, rather, I put a deposit down on it, and we took it to a mechanic to get his input before buying. He said something along the lines of “You guys will die in this thing if you try to drive it anywhere.” So I returned it, which was sad for a minute but looking back on it now, I’m pretty happy that I don’t own a 1980 GMC ambulance.

19 Comments

What We Learned in 2014

I could seriously write a book with all the lessons I learned in 2014. It wouldn’t necessarily be a GOOD book, or useful to anyone else yet, but 2014 was nothing if not filled with lessons. Some people might call those lessons “mistakes,” but I don’t look at it that way. I can’t. If I did, I’d be curled in a ball in my closet right now, consumed with guilt and fear over all the money I wasted and things I screwed up this year. But I honestly don’t see any of 2014’s mistakes as screw-ups, because I learned SO MUCH.

For my entire life until about 18 months ago, a huge part of my identity was about always knowing the answer. I took pride in the fact that I was capable and I knew what I was doing, and if I didn’t, I was really good at faking it. I was that annoying know-it-all kid, the bullshit-artist teenager, and then eventually I had a career, and I did it long enough that I generally did know how to do everything that was asked of me. Which was very important, somehow, in my perception of my own value and self-worth.

And then I started a business. With no business background. I mean, I hadn’t done math in like 24 years.

As a small business owner, the reality is you’re going to make a ton of mistakes (a.k.a., learn lessons) because there is SO MUCH STUFF TO KNOW. From manufacturing meltdowns to workers comp law to handling employee crises to striking dock workers, something new comes up almost every day. There is no way I — or anyone — could possibly know how to handle all those things the right way, the first time. All you can do is learn from your experiences and make the best choices you can with the information you have at the time.

And so, the biggest thing I learned in 2014 is that it’s OK to not know the answer. In fact, it’s great, because it means you have the opportunity to actually learn something. Once I was able to let go of the fear of looking like a dummy (which was likely the result of a seed planted in me by some childhood event that has zero bearing on who I am as an adult human), it became so much easier to learn — to ask for help, to be a beginner, to listen.

Last week, inspired by my friends at the ad agency Camp+King, I asked everyone in our studio to name the one most important business lesson they learned in 2014.

I just spent 20 minutes trying to figure out how to align everyone’s quotes next to their photos, but I couldn’t make it work. So, imagine their faces.

Charlie, VP of sales: “Remain cautiously optimistic. To expand on that: make no promises.”

Betsy, sales coordinator: “Nothing ever goes the way you think it will go. Ever.”

Katherine, retail manager: “It never gets any easier, but if you have enough dogs in the race, a boatload of stained dishtowels won’t sink you.”

Sara, marketing manager: “Murphy’s Law is indeed a real thing. Also a real thing: Reddit.”

Joe, VP of operations:

Pretty much, guys. Pretty much.

13 Comments

Discontinued Prints, and Lower Prices!

Hi guys,

Next time you check out our shop, you’ll notice something awesome: all our prints, dish towels, tote bags and tiny card sets are CHEAPER! Yep, we’ve lowered prices on all those things by up to 25%! (I know. That pretty much never happens, right?) But we’ve made some changes to our production processes, and not to sound like a used car salesman or anything, but we wanted to pass the savings on to you.

CHANGES ARE AFOOT WITH OUR PRINTS:

Until now, we’ve been printing all our art prints in-house, but as we’ve grown, that’s become an unmanageable process. (For example: I now own 3 $700 printers, at least one of which is broken at any given time.) So, going forward, our prints will be professionally printed in New England, and I’m really happy about this. With that change, as of July 4, we will no longer be offering 5×7 prints for sale, and we are also retiring several of our existing designs in all sizes. So if there’s something you want that’s being discontinued, we wanted to give you the opportunity to grab it while it lasts! You can find all our discontinued prints in the LAST CALL PRINTS section of the shop.

If you made it all the way through this post, you get a prize: 15% off any purchase through July 4 with the discount code DETAILSMATTER, valid on our site only. Yep, 15% off everything, even the stuff with new lower prices. Hooray!

Happy Summer!

Emily

4 Comments

Ask Emily: When Your Professor Gives You Crappy Advice

I should start this off by noting that the person who inspired this post didn’t say her professor gave her crappy advice. I said that. Here’s the actual question I got from “Shirley” (not her real name) via email a few weeks ago:

“My question is related to the fact that I gave up hand lettering due to professors telling me what was “really” going to make me successful in the design industry, and I’m wondering if you had an experience like that ever, and how did you determine what to do?”

Oh man. Have I ever had experiences like that! In fact, the first semester I took printmaking in college, our school’s beloved printmaking instructor was on sabbatical, and the class was taught by a visiting professor. This visiting professor and I did not see eye to eye on many things. I remember she gave me a C+ on the piece pictured below, a general linocut assignment, because she didn’t think words belonged with imagery in fine art.

Vintage Me: Linoleum print, circa 1996

Vintage Me: Linoleum print, circa 1997

I mean.

This isn’t Picasso, and yeah, maybe it’s a little sacrilegious (I was 21!), but making a statement like “words don’t belong on fine art” is just a silly, narrow-minded thing to say. It’s a similar statement to “hand lettering isn’t going to “really” make you successful in the design industry,” in that I think it reflects a very narrow and dated idea of what “the design industry” is all about.

As someone who has experienced a few different facets of the design industry, there is one thing I know: There is no one path to success, especially in design. I mean, yes, if you want to get a staff design job at a design firm or an ad agency and work your way up, you need to know Adobe Creative Suite, etc. (and I use Photoshop every day, even though I’m hand-lettering), but beyond that, it is totally up to you what to focus on and what kind of designer you want to be. And if you don’t want to follow that traditional path — like, if you want to make art out of condiments and take pictures of it and put them on Instagram and eventually end up with a book deal, or if you want to draw pictures of famous cats, or if you want to turn your blog into a product line? There are ways to do that now that didn’t exist 10 years ago.

I honestly believe this: the thing that is “really” going to make you successful in the design industry is the thing you most love to do. If you want to be successful, whatever you do, you’re going to be doing it a LOT — because that’s generally how successful people get that way –so you’d better love it and you’d better have fun doing it.

(And to that particular professor who says you can’t really be successful in the design industry doing lettering: I think Jessica Hische, Mary Kate McDevitt, Erik Marinovich, Katie Daisy, and Gemma O’Brien would beg to differ. I know I would.)

8 Comments