This next story is a really special one that Emily McDowell brought up with me when chatting about this column’s story. She’s been running her company – creative and business – for 5 years and is embarking on a huge change in her company structure. Kindly sharing some very honest details about the struggles she faced in her company’s rapid growth, Emily’s here to delve into how she’s overcoming and choosing what’s best for her business. – Megan
I’m a writer and illustrator, and I started what became Emily McDowell Studio in 2011, as an Etsy shop selling illustrated prints. I had recently quit my full time job as a creative director/writer in advertising, and I was freelancing in that business and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.
Pinterest was just getting started at that time, and people were really responding to my work, repinning it all over the place. Lettering also wasn’t a huge trend yet and I’d always loved lettering – it was what I did in the margins of paper when I was bored all through school, and then in meetings once I started working – so people were really digging what I was doing there, too. For the first year and a half, I only sold prints (printed myself on a home Epson). I really wanted to make cards, but at first I thought it’d be too hard to make a profit on something that costs less than $5. I was very interested in the idea of making cards for the relationships we actually have, since so much of what was out there were traditional messages that I didn’t feel personally connected to. Cards also let me combine my writing and illustration skills, plus my love for psychology and human observations, in a really fun, interesting way.
In 2012, I had an idea for a Valentine card for the person you’re kind of dating, but not really, which was something I’d never seen before. I had 100 printed at a local printer and put it in my Etsy shop in late January of 2013. It went viral and I sold 1700 in a week before I had to cut off shipping. That experience helped me see that there was a real need for the thing I wanted to do.
In May 2013, I launched my wholesale stationery line at NSS with 45 cards. I wrote about 35 orders for boutiques and got a huge Urban Outfitters order, which allowed me to get a studio space in downtown Los Angeles (I had to, since the 96,000 cards I was having printed wouldn’t fit in our apartment!). The company grew really quickly; after a year in business, I had 6 employees and we were in about 1,000 stores and doing a big chunk of our sales online.
I have never had a business partner, so I’ve always run the business and done all the creative. This has been rewarding, but also tremendously challenging. As we continued to grow, I was spending about 85% of my time managing staff, infrastructure, production, finances, and putting out various fires. The creative got pushed to the bottom of the pile because it was the only thing I could do on my own, so I did it late at night and on weekends when emails weren’t coming in and people didn’t need me for anything
It had always been my vision to make all kinds of different products beyond stationery – as a creative person, my brain just works that way, and as a formerly naïve person to the world of business, I figured it couldn’t be THAT hard. (Famous last words!) In 2014, we introduced tote bags, mugs, dish towels, and about 4 other categories of gift products. The bigger we got, the more challenging it was to produce gift – the logistics alone are mind-boggling. After running into issues with quality, timeliness, and cost in the US the first year, we began sourcing overseas, which is of course risky in different ways. We had some major issues and financial hits along the way, like a shipment of 10,000 tote bags that arrived six weeks late with the handles falling off, that we had to figure out how to have re-sewn at a local sewing house, while fielding countless angry phone calls from stores due to the delay in shipping. I’m really proud of us for pushing through when we all wanted to give up, and figuring out so many things on our own.
In May of 2015, we launched Empathy Cards, which took the business to a whole different level. This unexpected growth coincided with building out and staffing our own warehouse in Las Vegas last spring after outgrowing two spaces in Los Angeles due to the storage space requirements of gift products (stationery takes up a lot less room than anything else!). By last summer, we were in 1700 stores and I had 13 employees. The six full-time employees at our office in LA included our head of sales, two wholesale coordinators, head of operations, production/customer service manager, and communications manager. In Las Vegas, we had 5 fulltime/2 part-time employees, who managed inventory and fulfillment of all our wholesale and website orders.
My life was constant, unrelenting problem-solving, which is part of being an entrepreneur, but this was extreme. I was in the strange position of being incredibly grateful for our success, but simultaneously exhausted and stressed out all the time. Part of why I left my career in advertising was that I was tired of the stress and sacrifice of working 80-hour weeks for ten years, but I found that I’d traded one business in for another.
This past year, I began to feel like the quality of my creative work was really suffering, and even though I’d delegated so much to my fantastic team, it felt like an impossible task to continue doing the kind of innovative creative work required to keep the business afloat while I was also running the business. I was also having to say no to a lot of creative opportunities that I really wanted to do, like writing and speaking, because I just didn’t have time.
At the end of 2015, in looking at our numbers, we realized that the wholesale arm of our business was bringing in slightly more than half of our revenue, but took ten times the resources and effort to run than our website, which accounted for the rest of our revenue. We had a lot of internal conversations about the best way forward, and it was clear that we needed to make some changes.
At NYNOW in January, I had a meeting with the folks at Madison Park Group about doing a special licensed collection with them, featuring products that we would never be able to make ourselves. A close friend and mentor of mine, Margo Tantau, had just come on board as MPG’s head of product development and creative, and she and I had been trying to figure out how to work together for a couple of years. I also knew two of MPG’s artists fairly well, and had always heard fantastic things about them as a company.
I came out of that meeting realizing that working with MPG might be a bigger opportunity than a licensed collection, and we started talking about what it might look like to enter into a partnership. We ended up negotiating a licensing contract in which Madison Park took over our production and fulfillment for wholesale, which means that about 80% of my daily responsibilities have been absorbed by their team. I still own and have complete creative control of the brand, and we are continuing to run our website and that half of the business ourselves.
The way it works now is that I come up with ideas, writing, and art for new products, and work with Margo and MPG’s product development team to get them made. Madison Park handles all the logistics and finances of production, and all our products destined for wholesale are stored in their warehouse in Seattle. We are able to buy inventory from them to store at our warehouse in Las Vegas and sell on our website.
Two of my three wholesale employees became Madison Park employees doing their same jobs on our brand, so when retailers call the same person answers the phone. Our sales reps and showrooms are remaining the same, and we’re keeping our own trade show booths and wholesale catalogs; those things are just managed by MPG now. Our wholesale orders are all shipped out of MPG’s warehouse and retailers submit payment to them.
This new system allows me to focus on doing what I started this business to be able to do: write and design products! We’ll still be making as many cards as we always have, but we’ll be adding so many new gift categories that we never could have figured out on our own. Between October and January, we’re going to be adding six new categories, which basically doubles our gift offering.
In some ways, this was a tough decision because it felt a bit like throwing in the towel on a thing we had worked so hard to build for three years. But in looking at the long-term health of the brand, thinking about my upcoming 40th birthday and the badly needed changes to my personal life, we all agreed that this was a great solution for the company. I feel really grateful to have been given this opportunity, and for the first time in a while, I feel excited about ideas instead of just feeling stressed about not having the time to come up with them.
The vast majority of our retailers have been thrilled about this shift (hey, more stuff to sell!). I wasn’t sure how other designers in the indie community would react, given that we basically sold out, but the reality is that 95% of the people in this industry are incredibly kind and supportive, which is really a special thing. All our paths are different, and there are a ton of different ways to build a business. I have the utmost respect for artisans and letterpress printers, but it was never my intention to be a maker; I’m personally more drawn to the creative idea part of making stuff. Ultimately, our businesses have to serve our lives, and as entrepreneurs, it’s all too easy to forget this and make your life about serving your business.
All photos courtesy of Emily McDowell.
Interested in participating in Behind the Stationery? Email Megan at megan (at) ohsobeautifulpaper (dot) com for more details.