On Failure, and Not-Failure

I just finished reading Bréne Brown’s new book, Rising Strong, which is awesome (not surprisingly; she is the best). It’s about the process of taking life’s risks (big and small), falling on your face, and getting back up, so I’ve been thinking about this in my own life more than usual.

The past few years, and the last year in particular, have been very strange for a couple of reasons. One, a lot more people know about my work and what I do than ever before; and two, I’ve experienced what most of us would consider professional success. These are awesome things, and I am really grateful for them every day. However, they come with some weird side effects.

When we don’t know someone personally, it’s totally normal to make false assumptions about who they are and what they’re like. I mean, we all do it. But it’s super weird to hear people’s assumptions about YOU. The “fact” that I hear (or hear about) the most? I don’t know what failure is like, because everything comes easily to me.

To this I say: BAHAHAHAH. But also: I get it. To an outsider who’s only seen the growth of my company over the last few years, sound bites of interviews–which often include shit I didn’t even say, btw– and instagram, I totally understand why it may seem this way. Even my man-friend, who I’ve been with for close to five years, has a somewhat incomplete view of my track record with success. (Which he is even more sensitive to than most of us, given his job as a Hollywood screenwriter, aka The Hardest Job To Succeed At In America.)

I wish he’d known me earlier. I wish all of you guys had known me earlier.

But there’s a reason you didn’t. I was busy having like 43 different jobs and not wildly succeeding at any of them.

I am 39-and-a-half years old, and in the greater context of my life – including my adult life — I have fallen on my face a shitload of times.

As an exercise, here’s a very incomplete list of my life’s “failures.” With the benefit of perspective and hindsight, I don’t see very many of these things as failures anymore, but at the time, they sure felt like it.


But my biggest adult failure is this: I failed at working in advertising, pretty much every day, for the better part of a decade.

I failed to sell work, failed to win awards, failed to get the right kinds of jobs and assignments, failed to get the promotions I wanted, failed to be tough enough, failed to prove to every boss that I was talented, failed to be good enough that I didn’t get canned.

When I started out, I believed with my whole 26-year-old heart that I was going to fucking kick ass in my advertising career. I won a full scholarship to portfolio school, and won every student award, and came out of school with, like, the best student portfolio ever in the history of anything. And then, I Glory Days’ed. I just made up that term, but you know what it means. I peaked as a student, and none of that promise ever converted into significant success in the real world. I did okay, but I was never great. Yet, I banged my head against the wall every day, trying to become great. Every day was a new attempt to prove to myself and to everyone around me that I was enough and I deserved a spot at the table. (Brené Brown calls this “hustling for your worthiness,” which is exactly what it felt like.) I switched jobs almost every year, honestly believing my problem was having Joe Dumbass as my boss, or working on the tween yogurt account, or with Bro & Partners’ agency culture. (All identifying details have been changed.)

In the end, my problem wasn’t the ad business, it was me. I don’t have the right temperament for advertising, and ultimately, I wasn’t all that good at it. But after sacrificing so many late nights, holidays, and weekends trying my hardest to make it work, and having so much of my identity tied up in it, that realization (and the accompanying feeling of Ultimate Failure) was a really nasty pill to swallow.

The story of how I started my company is in my bio, so I won’t go into that here. As it turns out, I use all the skills and lessons I learned at ad agencies every single day in my current job. I couldn’t do what I’m doing now, the way I’m doing it, if I hadn’t had that experience first. (Not to mention, the “failures” I’ve experienced are a huge reason I’m good at making things people can relate to!) But when I was fresh out of my last job, feeling totally unmoored and like I’d just wasted a huge chunk of my life, there was no way for me to know what the future had in store.


So do I know what failure feels like? Hell yeah I do. I just try to look at it differently now. I wrote our “On Failure” card, pictured above, while I was eating dinner by myself at an Italian restaurant in midtown during the 2013 National Stationery Show, which was the first time I showed my brand-new card line to the public. I wrote it in my journal as a meditation, a reminder to myself, and a way to actively change my attitude around failure and what it meant. Now it’s hanging in my office.

TL;DR: Social media is a lie and I fail all the time. But it turns out failure is kind of a lie, too.


PS: By the way, if you think for one minute that my company’s growth means it’s all been smooth sailing in this context, all you need to do is read my recap posts and you’ll see there are PLENTY of mistakes in there to go around.



Instagram Sale Update & Soldsie Review

Hi guys!

A few of you have posted on instagram asking “what happened to the Sunday night sale?” A few weeks ago, we tried doing a new Sunday night IG sale with an app called Soldsie, which our friends at Emily Ley have been using with great success, and we learned a few things.

1. Sunday night isn’t the best night for our customers.

2. Sunday night isn’t the best night for ME. I underestimated how much work it would be to run the Soldsie sale, and I didn’t want to spend every Sunday afternoon and evening chained to my computer/phone. (I do that often enough as it is, due to deadlines and work beyond my control!)

3. Soldsie wasn’t the best solution for us. Here’s a little information about our experience with Soldsie, in the event that it might help you:

Soldsie is an instagram sale app that allows people to buy an item in a photo simply by commenting with the word “sold” along with their email address, or by pre-registering with their IG username and email address and just commenting “sold” on the sale item’s photo. Soldsie then automatically generates an invoice for the pictured item and sends it to the customer at the email address they commented or registered with. The customer has 24 hours to pay the invoice, which is processed through your normal Shopify checkout (if you don’t have Shopify, there’s a different way it works, but I don’t know the details). It costs $99 a month, or $49 if you don’t hook it up to your Shopify store.

Here are the numbers behind our Soldsie experiment:

Our net result from our Sunday night sale was $127. We sent out something like 65 invoices from instagram, but only 12 were actually paid. It took me about 3.5 hours of work to create the images, link them, deal with the Soldsie back end, and answer everyone’s questions, plus I had to be at my computer for the beginning of the sale, because the sale item’s price had to be changed manually in Shopify.

Something we didn’t realize when we signed up: Soldsie requires you to change the sale item’s cost in your shop for the duration of the sale AND the 24-hour period in which invoices may be paid. Also, any visitor to your site during that time can buy the item at the sale price. This means your sale isn’t restricted to your instagram followers, and it ends up lasting 24 hours beyond when it officially ends on IG.

Again, I know Soldsie has been great for some other folks, but for us, it seemed like more trouble than it was worth.

So! We’re going to try out a regular Wednesday night IG sale, the old-school way. (We did a quick informal poll to see which night customers preferred, and Wednesday seemed to be the most popular.) We’ll announce the sale, post a pic of the sale item, temporarily lower the price on that item in our shop, and change the link in our IG profile to go directly to that item for the duration of the sale. When the sale is over, we’ll delete the post. This seems way easier for everyone, and won’t cost us $99 a month.

Have you used Soldsie or other apps that connect your shop and social media? I get about 10 sales emails a week from new apps that are trying to do this. So far, everything seems either a) really complicated, or b) really sell-y in a way I don’t love. What do you guys think?



The Story Of The Card Dress, and a Social Media Experiment

Back in March, I was thinking out loud (which I do a lot, to the annoyance of everyone around me) about our spring wholesale catalog, and I said something like, “What if I was wearing a fancy dress made out of cards?”

Our director of production, Katherine Voorhies, who has a background in fashion and costume design, piped up from across the room: “I could totally make that.”

Three weeks later, I was posing for the front cover of our catalog on a street corner in downtown Los Angeles, wearing a custom-tailored floor-length gown made entirely from our cards.

This is the story of how it came together. At the end of this post, we’re asking for your help with a little social media project involving Hallmark and Project Runway. Intrigued? Keep reading!

Photo credit: Dikka Afidick, dikkavega.com

Starting from a sketch (I provided absolutely zero direction on this, beyond my measurements), Katherine worked out design and construction methods that were suited to the material, and came up with the idea of a bodice top and skirt that would look like a seamless dress when worn.

I am way more glamorous in sketch form.

I am way more glamorous in sketch form.

For the bodice, Katherine collaborated with architectural designer Duane McLemore to help custom-tailor the fit. Duane used 3D modeling and scripting software (both of which he teaches at Woodbury University) to shape the bodice to my measurements.  

Katherine then cut the greeting cards according to the output of Duane’s 3-D file, to create a bodice tailor-made for me. The bodice is made of cards attached together by cut notch and groove; no glue, fabric, or other material was involved(!). To form the skirt, she draped long strands of cards from a concealed waistband that she made from one of our dish towels and tote bags.

CatalogCover1 copy

Photo credit: Dikka Afidick, dikkavega.com

As you can see from these pictures, Katherine and Duane totally nailed the fit. Like, it fit better than many articles of normal clothing I own. I can’t really sit down in it, and the card edges make it kind of pointy, so it’s not practical for wearing for long periods of time, but I can easily walk in it.

After the photo shoot, we shipped the card dress to New York, where it was displayed on a mannequin in our booth during the National Stationery Show in May at the Javits Center. (I would have destroyed it by sweating all over it if I’d tried to wear it. Ew.) NSS is the only trade show focused exclusively on stationery, and thousands of store buyers from all over the country come to see and place orders from vendors’ latest collections. (If you’re curious, I’ve written more about the show here.)

We invited buyers to photograph the dress in our booth and post them using #CARDWEAR.

We invited buyers to photograph the dress in our booth and post them using #CARDWEAR.

We’ll be returning to New York and the Javits Center this week for NYNOW, another trade show focusing on the gift market, and the #CARDWEAR dress will again be front and center in our booth, #7849. After the show, we’ll be shipping the dress back to its new permanent home in our Los Angeles showroom.

We’ve just learned that tomorrow night’s episode of Project Runway (airing on Lifetime, 8pm EST, August 13th) was sponsored by Hallmark, and the contestants will be making dresses out of Hallmark cards.

I think Katherine’s amazing creation, and our idea, deserves to be part of the judging, don’t you? When Project Runway fans tweet about the show, each designer has their own hashtag: #designersteve, #designerkim, etc. So I’m proposing an experiment: let’s see if we can get photos of our dress with #designerkatherine and #emilymcdowellstudio trending on social media before, during and after the episode (don’t forget to tag @projectrunway and @hallmark!). You can grab photos from this post, or our instagram, twitter or Facebook pages. Or just keep it simple and retweet us! If you’re a store buyer and you took a photo of our dress at NSS, post it!

If you’re a Project Runway designer who made a Hallmark card dress (or you’re friends with one!), and you happen to be reading this, I’d like to invite you to display your dress next to ours in our NYNOW booth next week. Send us an email (press@emilymcdowell.com) and we’ll make it happen.


Small Biz Saga: Reporting from the Infrastructure Trenches

Hi guys!

When I posted last week about the aftermath of our Empathy Cards release, I mentioned some other major changes that had taken place this spring in our studio.

To give you a little backstory: last summer, we outgrew our downtown LA space. Rather than renting an even bigger space, due to the insane cost of real estate here, we made the decision to stay in our studio, but transfer about 75% of our inventory and our wholesale shipping operation to a third party fulfillment house. We kept our retail (orders from our site) shipping in-house at our studio, and kept the rest of our inventory on hand to pack and fill those orders. We didn’t transfer all our inventory storage and shipping duties to the fulfillment house, because it didn’t make sense financially to use them to fill the kinds of small orders we get from customers online.

As it turned out, this wasn’t a great system. We STILL haven’t cracked the issue of inventory management software that meets all our needs and integrates with QuickBooks (do NOT use Fishbowl. That’s all I’ll say about that for now — that’s a post for a different day — but it never worked for us), so having inventory split between two locations was pretty hard to manage. We spent a lot of money shipping stock back and forth, a lot of time trying to keep track of things, and a lot of energy talking to each other about how everything was a mess. We also ran out of things more than we should have, which nobody was happy about.

This spring, our fulfillment house raised their prices. At the same time, the retail arm of our business was continuing to grow, and we were looking at outgrowing our studio again, even with wholesale out of the picture. We also weren’t loving our studio building; it was the kind of space that looked great in pictures, but had major issues in real life. KIND OF LIKE MOST OF MY INTERNET DATES. HEYO!

Goodbye, studio. You brought us Skrillex, termites, good times, a space to solve many problems, and possible respiratory disease. I think it's for the best that we're both moving on, but you sure do look pretty in this picture.

Goodbye, studio. You brought us Skrillex, termites, good times, a space to solve many problems, and possible respiratory disease. I think it’s for the best that we’re both moving on.

We had to make a decision about what was best and most sustainable for our business in the long term. I was increasingly uncomfortable being in the position of not being in control of the cost of our shipping operation, and having split inventory was really tough. What I really wanted to do was bring it all back under one roof, but the only way to do that was for us to figure out a way to do it all ourselves.

After I spent about two days panicking and thinking about super radical ways to change our business model, we decided to do a thing that sounded very, very scary: build and staff our own warehouse in a location that made more financial sense than Los Angeles. I have to admit that this plan terrified me, and I thought about backing out of it a couple of times because I didn’t think we were ready, but the rest of our staff was really excited about it and felt really strongly that it was the right thing to do. We also ended up hiring a consultant to help us with this huge undertaking, and it was some of the best money I’ve ever spent. Without him to guide us and cheer us on, I’m not sure it would have happened.

In terms of taxes and the cost of insurance, California is one of the least small-business-friendly states. Nevada, on the other hand, is great for small businesses. Las Vegas is a 4-hour drive from LA, has a big pool of qualified workers and inexpensive real estate, and we can stay in a hotel shaped like a giant pyramid for like $39 a night. Clearly, we had found a great warehouse location.

So, at the same time as we were going to NSS and handling the response to Empathy Cards, we were also working on leasing a warehouse space, planning and building it out, and hiring a Vegas-based staff to join our team. AND, because I clearly don’t believe in doing anything halfway, I put in an offer on a house (my first house!) in the middle of all this, never thinking it would be accepted. I wasn’t really looking for a house, but we wandered into the open house one weekend, and my partner* and I fell in love with it.

The week we released Empathy Cards, I found out we got the house.

The house! Which we are now using as an office. My family and I will move into it eventually.

The house! Which we are now using as an office. My family and I will move into it eventually.

Let’s just say that Q2 was really, really crazy.

We now have an amazing team of 5 full-timers in Las Vegas, and an almost fully operational warehouse.

Our Nevada crew: John L, John G, Val, Brian, and Lee.

Our Nevada crew: John L, John G, Val, Brian, and Lee.

Honestly, you guys, building the right kind of infrastructure has been one of the 2 biggest challenges to growing this business. (Manufacturing gift products at an appropriate margin has been the other.) We re-did our org chart for the 47th time this spring, and if/when we really nail down the infrastructure stuff, EVERYONE’S JOB WILL BE SO MUCH EASIER.

We’ll keep you updated on how it goes in Vegas. In the meantime, we’re looking for some PT assembly people, and we’ll be hiring seasonal help for the holidays. If you live in the Las Vegas area and you’re interested, or know anyone who might be, please reach out to Joe Rubacka, our head of operations, at joe@emilymcdowell.com.


*There has to be a better word than “boyfriend” or “partner” for the guy you’ve been living with for 4 years, whose son considers you his stepmom, who you plan on being with forever but you also don’t plan on marrying for many reasons that don’t have anything to do with love or commitment. Right? “Partner” just sounds like lab partner to me, and “boyfriend” sounds like we’re in high school. Arg. Stupid English language.



Empathy Cards, Part Two

Dear friends,

Please excuse the extreme delay between my last post, introducing our Empathy Cards, and this one, talking about the insane trip that was the Empathy Cards release. There were about two months there where I felt like I was living in a montage from Bright Lights, Big City. Everything was happening in fast-forward, and I was responding to so many things and talking to so many people and hearing so many stories and freaking out so many times a day that I wasn’t even really able to process what was going on until it was over. Which really didn’t happen until a week or two ago.

I honestly don’t really have the words for how grateful, humbled and honored I am that something we made touched the lives of so many people. I realize that “touched the lives” is a stupid cliche, but that’s what happened. The media picked up the story and ran with it, and I honestly lost count of how many places we were featured. “I never thought I’d end up on NPR” is a sentence that seems silly to write, because OF COURSE I NEVER THOUGHT THAT. Who thinks that?

The thing I was the most proud of, though, was that even with all the media coverage, the majority of our site visitors came from people’s personal Facebook pages. That meant the cards and their message resonated so much with people that everyone was sharing them organically. I mean, it doesn’t get any better than that. Not even when a TV stylist makes you a special appointment at a celebrity bra fitting place, so you can go on Good Morning America wearing something other than a Target bra from 2010.

Good Morning America

If you missed this segment, you can click above to check it out. Robin Roberts was very nice.

We were blown away by the thousands of emails, social media messages, and letters we received from patients, survivors, caregivers, and friends/family of people going through illness or loss. I feel very lucky to have heard so many people’s personal stories (and if you emailed us and somehow didn’t hear back, I sincerely apologize).

I’d never claim to be changing the world by making greeting cards when there are people out there working at Doctors Without Borders, but I have to say it was incredibly rewarding to hear how one of those cards helped two people connect, or made a sick person laugh, or made a survivor feel like his or her feelings were normal. The first card I ever made was designed to help people find the right words for an awkward relationship, and I think my work is most successful when it makes people say OH MY GOD ME TOO. So I was really happy when a lot of the media coverage used the cards as a jumping-off point to discuss how we talk about illness in general (or don’t talk about it); this conversation was our bigger goal in all this, because the more we’re aware of this issue, the more we can support each other through our inevitable hard times.

Thank you all so much for all your support, shares, emails, suggestions, feedback, comments, and willingness to share your stories with us. There will be more Empathy Cards added as we release new products (our next release will be in early January), and there are some other, related projects potentially happening that I can’t talk about quite yet. But it’s all pretty exciting, and it’s been a crazy couple of months. Thanks for hanging in through the craziness.


P.S. Next week, I’ll be posting about all the OTHER changes that have happened around our office since May. Semi-spoiler alert: there are many of them.


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.


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.


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.

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


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.)



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.


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!


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!


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.