Happy Cactus Embroidery

So, true confession today: I have been slowly building my stationery company, Happy Cactus Designs, since mid-2011, but lately have been completely wrapped up in a different passion: hand embroidery. How did my desk – once covered in envelopes, sketchpads, and Micron pens – suddenly become overtaken by endless piles of embroidery floss?


At the end of 2014 I was sidelined with a major ankle injury I sustained while running (note to self: watch out for those curbs!). Being on crutches and laid up for weeks, I knew I would soon be going stir crazy. I had dabbled briefly with hand embroidery a few years before and thought now would be the perfect time to pick it back up. I ordered a number of supplies online (since I couldn’t drive anywhere), delved deep into some online video tutorials I discovered via my old pal Google, and began creating some pieces of work.


I was hooked. I soon began sharing my work on my Instagram account (#happycactusembroidery) and was floored by the positive reaction to what I’d been doing (including Nole, who encouraged me to write this post. Thanks, Nole!).


With each piece, I have a general concept in mind, but don’t work with a template or pattern. All of my embroidery work is pretty free flow and I find beauty in the unknown of how a piece will turn out. I’ve mainly focused on floral designs that echo a lot of my stationery work, as well as some geometric pieces. Most recently I’ve found that my embroidery work is now informing my stationery design process – funny how that comes full circle!


I am in the midst of planning to sell pieces from this one of a kind collection in the near future. My intention is to offer them as contemporary pieces of art ready to hang on your wall. If you’re so inclined, you can sign up for my newsletter to be the first to hear when that happens.


Brick + Mortar: I know the feeling.

“Actually, I had a panic attack. It happened in the middle of the Javits center. In the middle of the Stationery Show. It was terrifying. It knocked the breath out of me. It happened in an instant. Minutes before I’d been laughing, I’d been fine.” Has it happened before? “Yes, once. I was on a plane to Italy, traveling alone. I was 16.” Do you know why it happened? “Yes. No. Sort of.” For the past three weeks, these are my answers when people ask how I’m feeling. It is an awkward, embarrassing reveal. But I spend my days talking about life and work. I like the meat of the conversation, the part where someone says: me too. The part that helps you breathe. ~ Emily of Clementine


Illustration by Emily McDowell for Oh So Beautiful Paper

I’ll spare you the details, except to say that I was devastated to leave, and lucky to be able to. A wonderful web of family and friends stepped in and got me the hell out of the city. I regained my equilibrium by talking about what happened (I also saw my doctor and got some meds). But I was surprised how quickly, so many people responded: “I know the feeling. That’s happened to me too.”

I don’t like cliches. I cringe at the idea that the world was telling me to slow down. But, hey, I had a panic attack in the middle of my favorite things, so maybe it’s time to take the long way home on this. I’m writing about it publicly because hiding it means living in fear that it will return. When you share, people shrug, or hug, or send you emails and say: me too. And you learn, you’re normal. Anxiety is part of running a business. People you admire have been here too.

I became a shop owner and a mom within the same year. Five years ago, I hit the ground running and didn’t look back. Through Clementine I found camaraderie, work I’m good at, strengths I didn’t know I had. But I forgot how to breathe. This world of creative small business owners is thick with inspiration; it zings with excitement. It is also filled with people who have a hard time turning off. We stay up late. We barrel toward the next thing. We skip everything, from lunch to vacations. We leave little space for things to go wrong. But anxiety and overwhelm lap at our heels. We all feel it, no matter how happy or pulled together we seem. Sometimes we pull ourselves together to feel it a little less.

I am not an anxious person, but obviously, something is going on. As my business grows, I have non-stop requests for reply; endless customer and vendor relationships to maintain; opportunities I can’t say no to. Each month more to-dos pile on. I was overwhelmed, but I shoved the anxiety down, yelling back: how can I be overwhelmed by a life that I love? But I am. I am anxious about how often I have to reject artists whose efforts I admire, by how many emails go unanswered. I am anxious about disappointing my husband, about money. I am fearful that I’m not making the best choices for my family, about the future.

I was juggling it all, until I wasn’t. I was happy and overwhelmed, they weren’t mutually exclusive. Together, they enveloped me, they ate up the space I had reserved for my creative life, for rest. I want that space back. To help me, I’ve called on a few favorite, kick-ass creative women, to share what they’ve learned about managing the anxiety and overwhelm of running their businesses.  I am so grateful to them for saying yes to this, for making me feel normal. I love the choir of voices. I hope you’ll share your stories too.


Lisa Congdon for her upcoming book, On Swimming: A Tribute to Life In the Water

From Lisa CongdonOne of the things I have realized is that I will never, ever get to perfection. And while that sounds terrible to most of us, it’s actually quite liberating to realize! Running a small business, especially by yourself or with a small team, can feel all-consuming (at times like you are literally drowning & cannot breathe). For a period of time right after my business took off and I got really busy, I had panic attacks every day. And when I relaxed enough to consider why I was panicking, it was always because I was afraid of disappointing someone else — a client, an art director, a customer, my agent, my wife — for not delivering perfection. That somehow if I didn’t make the perfect illustration or get the work turned in ahead of time or get home from the studio in time for dinner, I had somehow failed. I was so stressed out all the time. And so I made a conscious choice to accept (and embrace) that I will never get to perfection, ever. And that’s okay because actually no one is capable of perfection (even those people you see online who look like they have the perfect lives or businesses). I have worked super hard to get comfortable with things being messy or unfinished. I also stopped comparing myself to other people who I admired. I have worked really hard to embrace my own relaxed work pace and to focus on my own unique path. As a result, my anxiety has decreased exponentially, and I still mostly get my work done! If I don’t, there’s always tomorrow. [Lisa is a vibrant thoughtful artist and illustrator, she also writes beautifully about confronting anxiety on her blog]


Emily McDowell’s Awkward Sympathy card

From Emily McDowellI think a huge part of owning a small business is just figuring out how to not freak out all the time. When I get overwhelmed, I remind myself that I chose this life (thanks to Lisa Congdon for that one) and I get to choose how to respond to stress, nobody is going to die if things don’t go right, and the present moment is my only reality. Worrying about things that haven’t happened yet is a waste of time and energy, and if I’ve learned anything in my life, it’s that none of us really have a clue what the future holds. I also try to pick my battles as carefully as possible; I know I don’t have enough energy or time to deal with everything I could technically deal with, so I decide what’s most important to me and I try hard to let the rest go. And, of course, I would also be totally screwed without my small network of close entrepreneur friends. But when all else fails, Xanax is the answer. [Emily has brilliantly mastered truth-telling in her cards, but I’m a big fan of how she talks about it, and this Anne Lamott post she shared]

From Carrie Holmes: I dealt with anxiety long before owning my own business, specifically about work and job security. For years, at any job I had, I would walk through the doors fearing that today would be the day I was fired. Not for any rational reason, but because I always feared that I was an imposter – not genuinely intelligent, creative, or “good” enough. It’s a big part of the reason I decided to start my own business. Fear of failing on my own terms seemed like a better option than being fired. Of course, most of those anxieties came with me, and I developed a few new fears along the way, especially the fear of not achieving perfection with every order, every interaction. Eventually I began to accept that things WILL go wrong. Sometimes it’s out of your control, but sometimes it’s something that was very much within your control that you managed to screw up royally. But the world doesn’t end. And if you have an honest, humble discussion with whoever is on the receiving end of the screw-up, you get a chance to correct it 99% of the time. People are compassionate when you give them a chance to express it, and it helps me immensely to keep that in mind when I feel the fear rising. [Carrie just began a beautiful new textile business, though many of you know from her past-paper life running the popular Two Trick Pony.]

From Carina Murray: I actually swing more towards introversion than extroversion, which often surprises people, as I’ve been able to cultivate a professional persona that (typically) doesn’t reflect my natural resting mode. Over the years, I’ve become pretty dang good at putting myself out there and being warm, friendly and supportive to colleagues and acquaintances within this brilliant industry; that’s not to say that it is an act, but it’s not always as effortless as it may appear. A beloved high school teacher taught me the motto, “Fake it ’til you make it” and I took it upon myself to make this my own mantra in the first few years of my business. And you know what? For me, it really worked! Projecting the type of person that I wanted to become, both personally and professionally, slowly transformed me. I still need some serious recharge time after being booked with a week full of appointments, exhibiting or attending trade shows or participating in conferences, but I’ve learned and accepted that about myself and over time I have become a bit more skilled in striking a better balance. And balance is such a challenge for most of us business owners, isn’t it? I remind you all to be gentle with yourselves and to not succumb to the guilt that so often accompanies taking a much needed breath and a break, which ultimately makes us stronger individuals and business owners. [Carina has gathered some of my favorite stationery businesses under her representation with Crow + Canary and I know she often serves as confidante in addition to cheerleader for the artists behind her brands.]


Carina’s spot on card choice from Laura Berger.

I am still navigating my anxiety, learning how to say no, to slow down. I’m still sad I missed so many of you at the show. What I know is how much I’ve gained by talking, how relieved I am each time someone says;  “I know, I’ve been there too.” So I’m starting with this: I’ve been there too, it’s humbling and incredibly scary. But it’s also normal, it’s part of our work. Let’s talk about it, let’s listen to it. Let’s see our doctors when it gets too hard. And when we’re strong, let’s write letters, smile genuinely, offer to be the call in the middle of the night when the undertow is to heavy for someone else. Like monsters in the closet, a little light can go a long way. Let’s make some space so that creativity can win. We have better things to do.

xoxo for real, Emily

Tropical Stationery and More from Happy Cactus Designs

It’s Brannon from Happy Cactus Designs, and I’m back with some more products from my new collection. There’s no doubt that tropical motifs have been working their way into fashion, home, and the world of entertaining lately (see Nole’s post on Paper Party 2015 to get inspiring ideas for a tropical summer bash). My own recent work was inspired by my honeymoon to the island of Kauai (seriously one of the most beautiful places on Earth).

I think about that trip nearly every day and recollections of those beaches, seashells, and jungle hikes worked their way into my newest card designs. Now I’m just longing to escape to a warmer place again! And don’t forget, OSBP readers can get 25% off the new collection with code OSBP25 at checkout (valid through June 15).




I also couldn’t resist adding a new gold foil stamped card to my line as well as a few other designs in card categories I felt a growing need to design for. My line already has many new baby cards, but I loved creating more cards specifically for the mom-to-be. Wanting to go beyond just “thinking of you” or “get well” sentiments, I designed an uplifting card for anyone going through a tough time as well.



Behind the Stationery: MaeMae & Co.

There is something about Meg(an)s in stationery – there are so many of us! This is Megan of Mae Mae is she’s often known for her stunning mood boards that grace her Instagram. She’s got a killer aesthetic and has learned how to maximize and change the way she works with brides on their custom invitations. With so many options for brides (and their many requests!), Megan is here to share the system she set up for working in the custom world. Take it away, Megan! –The Other Megan

Photo by Bethany Platter

I started MaeMae when I was a senior in college. I was studying art and LOVED all things paper and print. I thought I would pursue a career in book design/publishing after school. After graduating I couldn’t get a job (2008 – woohoo!!) and so I pushed into this tiny business I had as a side project and hustled to make it work. I call the first two years of MaeMae my “unpaid internship”. I have always worked at MaeMae “full-time” (sometimes much less, sometimes much more) but couldn’t have survived or made it work without the support of my husband, Jason, who has encouraged me, cared for me, and sacrificed a lot as I pursued this dream.

MaeMae-68-2Photo by Canary Grey

As most creative businesses do, MaeMae has evolved overtime. When I started the business I only did custom wedding stationery. Three years into MaeMae I created a collection of characters that were ready-to-order and retailers across the country began to carry an album I created that was filled with these designs. I dug into this route because I wanted to be able to scale my business, take on more orders, and work with more people without having to start from scratch every project.

IMGL5847Photo by Bethany Platter


Photo by MaeMae & Co.

My collection of characters have been alive (and growing!) now for four years, but rarely do people order the designs as they were created. I’ve realized that the nature of my style/designs and our array of print methods and paper options invites (nay, tempts!) people to customize their suite further by meshing the different characters together, requesting custom patterns, illustrations, etc. We offer almost all print methods since we outsource our production (flat, engraving, letterpress, embossing, foil, etc!) and so just requesting a change in print method oftentimes requires digging in and redesigning. Instead of pushing back on the natural inclination to really want something totally unique from us, we run with it.

Photo by MaeMae & Co.

We are currently back where we started – offering all custom invitations but inviting people to start with an existing character if they so choose, which reduces the customization fee. I LOVE IT. It was a wonderful and necessary exploration, but I’m happy to call my work “custom” once again and I adore the imaginative and open-minded clients and wedding planners we have been working with now.


Photo by Bethany Platter

MaeMae is currently located in Minneapolis, MN – one of the world’s best cities. I started MaeMae in the Los Angeles area and moved here three years ago. I love the collaborative spirit, buzzing creative community, and craving to be outside during the warm months here. I recently moved into a really amazing space downtown called Restore Collaboartive. It is a co-working space filled with lots of other creatives who work for themselves by themselves or with a team. The energy in here is INCREDIBLE. My favorite thing about joining this space (vs. running my own studio space) is being inspired by the hustle happening all around me and the white noise of people brainstorming, talking to clients, and making cool things.


Photo by Bethany Platter

I would love to have a schedule!! I think…maybe I don’t and that’s why I don’t. :) My day consists of responding to emails with clients, production partners, and collaborative projects; creating concepts and art direction; designing; meeting with new people; helping new designers; working with my designer/stationery consulting clients; styling photos; and dreaming up new ideas. Never do all of the things happen in one day. My designer Anna handles the bulk of the wedding orders and new inquiries daily, and I handle my creative consultation clients and big picture direction on our wedding designs.


Photo by Bethany Platter

Any success of MaeMae ALWAYS comes from moments where I am most myself and make things that reflect how I feel, what I’m into, etc. I feel like side projects, my Instagram feed, etc, create the most buzz around my company because those are the truest expressions of who I am and what I want to make. I’m inspired by stories, music, editorial shots, interior designs, and dance. Check out the MaeMae Movie for more about my artist process and sourcing and using inspiration.


Photo by MaeMae & Co.

Interested in participating in the Behind the Stationery column? Please email Megan at megan@ohsobeautifulpaper.com.