As an independent retailer, I receive product submissions daily. I say no often: In my head, in emails, in person. It’s uncomfortable, confrontational, and I would love to avoid it. But lately my relationship with no is changing. Though no can feel like a door closing, it also offers you the ability to carve your own path and to hone in on what you do best. If you let it, no can be the sharpest tool you have to help your business grow. ~ Emily of Clementine
Illustration by Emily McDowell for Oh So Beautiful Paper
I’ll set the scene: You’re a designer, I’m a small retailer. You are excited about your line. You put together a great submission. You ship or email it to me. I say no, or worse, you don’t hear from me (oof, I’m sorry, email again!). Here are the top reasons why I say no:
- Your work isn’t a fit for my shop. Clementine is mine; I get to trust my gut as it screams yes or winces no. The yeses are fun, the nos are hard. There isn’t always a clear reason – maybe your style isn’t for me or maybe too many other shops have picked you up and it feels like you’re everywhere. These are the nos that make trade shows or your follow up emails hard: I love meeting each of you and watching your lines grow, but it can feel like the interaction rides on my yes or no. I’m working to see this moment differently. Rather than saying no with apology, I try to remember it is the unique combination of my yeses and nos that make my store mine. The same is true for your business. No is not a comment on your talent, or your future. A no from one shop might mean you’re ready for far bigger things. If you really want to grow your wholesale line, these are the nos you should be seeking out; they are the glacier that carves the path to stores and customers who will say yes.
Scout’s Honor Paper reminds you: you probably think each “no” is about you, but it may not be.
- Your work doesn’t stand out/You are growing. Maybe I have too many hand lettered lines or maybe you haven’t found your voice yet. Either way, I want each line I carry to have a consistent, unique voice. I may see something really great in what you’re doing, but I know you need time to develop. If you listen closely, this isn’t a no, it’s a “call me in a few years.”
People I’ve Loved with precisely the vague encouragement I want to give to many submissions I receive.
- Your work feels too much like someone else’s. Pretty touchy subject right? We could go down the slippery slope of copyright, but instead, here’s a story: Recently, I received a submission from a new designer. One of their cards was very similar to a card I already carried. I emailed my current seller to let them know that I was concerned. Rather than being angry or defensive, they simply said yes, it did look “inspired by” theirs but “designers see each others work often and copying is not always intentional, we’ll keep an eye out to make sure it’s only a one time thing.” I loved this response. As a retailer, it’s not my job to adjudicate copyright infringement. It is my job to make sure each line I have has a place and adds something to my store. As a designer, it’s your job to be inspired and to make (and also be sure you made it first.)
- Your work needs work. A lot of people seem to be starting stationery lines. I applaud this. But hey, a lot of people seem to be starting stationery lines. Now more than ever, lines are launching with founders who lack traditional design or fine art experience. You don’t always need traditional training (but sometimes you do.) You should follow your dream, but if you want me to sell your dreams they need to be well designed, well printed + packaged, and distinctly your own.
Sapling Press’s Beyonce Card: We’re all supposed to feel not like Beyonce sometimes.
- I don’t have the space/money. This is totally not about you! At last count, I had 64 stationery lines. I would love to add more, but we’re full. Sometimes submissions come in and I think: I love it, I need it, I can’t buy it now. To these submissions I always try to say: keep in touch! And I mean it.
- Your understanding of wholesale is a bit wonky. Sometimes I love a line, but the pricing or minimums are way off. This is common for lines that are new to wholesale. After all, without a mentor, how would you know what’s standard? Each industry is different. Luckily, a tactful email to a designer you admire, or google search will get you far (and I’ll do another post on this soon.)
This Dancing Cat print should be your compass as you reach out to wholesale accounts.
Those are some of the reasons I say no. Now I want to try to shift your relationship with no a little more. I want you to consider inviting it in to your business. Stay with me. If you invite no into your business, you also invite more opportunities we have to hear yes. Here are a few ways I’ve seen that happen:
- “No” can help hone your line: Stationery brands may try on several styles before finding their own. This is great for figuring out what you do best. My no, in this case, means I’m waiting to figure out who you are. But if your first catalog shows several discordant styles, I may be wary to establish a relationship with you right now. Luckily, people grow, lines develop (even after you find your voice, keep finding it)! Your voice shouldn’t be static, but it should be clear: mix your gut, your inspirations, the yesses and nos to find your style. Let nos give you permission to shed your old skin, drop the cards you don’t love, prune your line to make it stronger. Reflect on your voice and delve deeper into your style and your unique voice. (Still not sure what your voice is? There are some great podcasts, blog posts and courses that can help, I’ll share my favorites soon!)
- “No” is an opportunity to ask for feedback. I often procrastinate saying no because every no is different: not now, not ever, not until you find your voice, I’m excited to see what you do next, I love what you’re doing but I can’t afford it. Based on the quantity of submissions I get, the quality of my replies has diminished. I want to tell you more, but I just don’t have time. Honestly, my dream job would involve having these conversations with emerging lines each day. I’m not suggesting retailers always have the time to reply, or have a clear answer why they said no, but if you’re willing to ask for more feedback, you might get some really valuable advice. How? Simply thank the retailer for replying and tell them you’d love to hear their thoughts on why it’s not a fit, or what you can do to grow your line. Don’t want to start with retailers? Ask friends and colleagues what they like about your line, push past “it’s all great!”
- “No” helps you find your people. No doesn’t feel good until you get some yeses. When you do, you start building your identity, your brand, and your tribe. Your first wholesale submissions should cast a wide net. They should grow more tailored as you understand the landscape. Some stores may take several submissions before you get a yes. Some will never say yes. But as your line evolves, no will become something you rely on to help spur you further and relieve you from the places you shouldn’t be.
Ghost Academy’s Warrior Card ~ for the days that “no” has you down, remember….
I own Clementine, in large part because of some big nos I’ve been dealt. Yet, some days I’m still not brave enough to say no to others. This post is to remind me to embrace no too. When I avoid no, emails go unanswered, thoughtful submissions pile up, we stay stagnant. Instead let’s make a space to give and receive everything no has to offer. I know that no feels weighty, but it doesn’t have to be a barrier. If you’re open to hearing no, you can help determine how it guides you. That’s powerful stuff.
You know? (Now I’d love to hear your stories of no)