Behind the Stationery: Emily McDowell

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

Behind the Stationery: Emily McDowell / Oh So Beautiful Paper

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.

Behind the Stationery: Emily McDowell / Oh So Beautiful Paper

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.

Behind the Stationery: Emily McDowell / Oh So Beautiful Paper

Behind the Stationery: Emily McDowell / Oh So Beautiful Paper

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

Behind the Stationery: Emily McDowell / Oh So Beautiful Paper

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.
Behind the Stationery: Emily McDowell / Oh So Beautiful Paper

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.

Behind the Stationery: Emily McDowell / Oh So Beautiful Paper

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.

Behind the Stationery: Emily McDowell / Oh So Beautiful Paper

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.

Behind the Stationery: Emily McDowell / Oh So Beautiful Paper

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.

Behind the Stationery: Emily McDowell / Oh So Beautiful Paper

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.

Behind the Stationery: Emily McDowell / Oh So Beautiful Paper

All photos courtesy of Emily McDowell.

Interested in participating in Behind the Stationery? Email Megan at megan (at) ohsobeautifulpaper (dot) com for more details.

Quick Pick: Native Bear

I’m loving the bold, bohemian and ’70s-inspired vibes in these greeting cards from Leela of Native Bear! I first encountered Leela’s work at the Etsy Wholesale pavilion at NYNOW last summer, and she recently expanded her paper offerings to include greeting cards, art prints, and notebooks. You can see more from Native Bear right here!

Quick Pick: Native Bear / Oh So Beautiful Paper

More greeting cards, notebooks, and art prints from Native Bear right here.

Brick + Mortar: What’s Next for Your Business?

This fall, Clementine, my Brick + Mortar, turned 5. I celebrated. I took stock of the friendships, partnerships, and mentoring I had done. I felt proud and happy. Then, like a punch in the gut, I suddenly felt worn down – heavy with small business fatigue. I imagined working for someone else; letting them make decisions, and giving me a steady paycheck. I left 2015 with two weighty, honest questions:  What do I want to do next year? And, if it’s this, How can I do it really well? ~ Emily of ClementineHello Brick + Mortar: Small Business Advice by Emily Blistein of Clementine for Oh So Beautiful Paper / Illustration by Emily McDowell

Illustration Emily McDowell for Oh So Beautiful Paper

As busy, creative entrepreneurs how do we confront questions of doubt? Like many of you, I have several side-hustles. I love them just as much as my main gig, but I often wonder where and how to focus my energy to be efficient. Last year, I started a styling and creative consulting partnership, I began offering creative consultation, I continued to write here (xo), partnered with Etsy on some of their new wholesale endeavors and, last month, decided to organize creatives to take a stand against gun violence. I love starting new things and having variety to my work. I love how these things relate to each other, but they pull me in different directions. How do I do all of them well?

2015 was about gathering advice and resources to make my business bloom, but I admit, it’s far easier for me to daydream up new ideas than to put them into practice. I’ve been lucky to befriend some incredible small business owners, so I began 2016 by making time to talk to my cohorts about the nitty gritty of what’s next for me. I also relied heavily on the greater small business community, especially on podcasts, to help me think through many of my small business dreams and plans. This year, I need to dig in and create a structure to help my business plans flourish. I wanted to start 2016 by sharing a few of my favorite podcast episodes, many of which I’m revisiting as I plan for the road ahead. I hope they help you move you through your own stumbling points and give you a boost for 2016! (I’d also love to hear your favorites!)

Hello Brick + Mortar: Small Business Advice by Emily Blistein of Clementine for Oh So Beautiful Paper / After The Jump Podcast

After the Jump, has been, without a doubt, one of my favorite podcasts. Hosted by Design Sponge creator, Grace Bonney, this podcast stopped airing a year ago, but there are 100 incredibly helpful episodes. My favorites include: Episode 6 Meg Mateo Ilasco and Mom Inc. (deleted from the web, but still available on itunes!); Episode 20 Becoming your Brand Episode 39 Raising the Bar; Episode 90 Genevieve Gorder returns.

Hello Brick + Mortar: Small Business Advice by Emily Blistein of Clementine for Oh So Beautiful Paper / Magic Lessons Podcast

Magic Lessons is the creative weekend getaway we all dream about in podcast form. This short follows up on Melissa Gilbert’s work with her recent book Big Magic. Each episode comes in two parts – an interview with a creative person who is stuck and then a conversation with one of Gilbert’s co-horts about advice for that person. I adored this short series, but Cheryl Strayed’s advice in episode #2 Pursue your passion like a mofo and Brene Brown’s take in the final episode, Big Strong Magic, were the food I needed to keep my creative heart beating last year (do listen to the complimentary episode for each or they won’t make sense!)
Hello Brick + Mortar: Small Business Advice by Emily Blistein of Clementine for Oh So Beautiful Paper / Being Boss Podcast

Being Boss is a podcast for creative entrepreneurs hosted by Emily Thompson and Kathleen Shannon.  This is one of my regular listens (thanks to Kristen’s recommendation at the August NYNOW). I especially loved episodes #4 How to Be Boss When You’re Afraid of Failing and episode #53 The Value of Staying Small.

Hello Brick + Mortar: Small Business Advice by Emily Blistein of Clementine for Oh So Beautiful Paper / Girlboss Radio Podcast

#girlboss radio. Launched after the crazy popularity of Sophia Amoruso’s book, #girlboss, these conversations are refreshingly honest with a kick of irreverence. They’re all fun, but for business, I really liked Episode #4 Sheree Waterson, CEO Nasty Gal.

Hello Brick + Mortar: Small Business Advice by Emily Blistein of Clementine for Oh So Beautiful Paper / Profit Power Pursuit Podcast

Profit Power Pursuit.  Tara Gentile asks delightfully pointed questions which lead to real, detailed answers from her guests. I haven’t listened to all of them, but especially enjoyed these two so far: Episode #3 Megan Auman; Episode #8 Keri Chapin.

Hello Brick + Mortar: Small Business Advice by Emily Blistein of Clementine for Oh So Beautiful Paper / The Lively Show Podcast

The Lively Show. Jess Lively is effervescent and upbeat, even when tackling difficult topics. I enjoy the episodes when she digs into tougher life stuff, and interviews grounded, deep women. I especially enjoyed #58 Using Values to Thrive in Work and Family with Tina Roth Eisenberg; and episode #107 Quitting a Full-Time Business for More Joy with Melissa Gruntkosky, which explores the extremely important question of when quitting our passion project may be the best thing for our lives.

Hello Brick + Mortar: Small Business Advice by Emily Blistein of Clementine for Oh So Beautiful Paper / Smart Creative Women Podcast

Smart Creative Women. Hosted by Monica Lee, there are some wonderfully extensive interviews with creative women. Two of my favorites include Lisa Congdon: A Creative Journey and Emily McDowell’s Amazing Adventure.

Hello Brick + Mortar: Small Business Advice by Emily Blistein of Clementine for Oh So Beautiful Paper / StartUp Podcast

Start Up – This podcast is all about the making of Alex Blumberg’s podcast company, Gimlet Media. The transparency and awkwardness in this series is refreshing and compelling. Start with episode #1 How Not to Pitch A Billionaire and see if you want to listen on…

Screenshot 2016-01-10 14.19.15

Iron Curtain Press’s The Dream Is Free Print means one thing when you’re dreaming, and another when you’re years in.

We’re experiencing a bit of a golden era of entrepreneurialism. Starting your own business is applauded. Quitting your day job is glorified. Running your own thing is great. But we’re not all cut out for it, and even those who are generally deserve far more support than we’re receiving. I know it’s not time for me to sell the farm (or the store in this case!) but I’m digging in to my resources, I’m making time for tough conversations with fellow business owners (and my family) and I’m genuinely looking forward to some change this year.

What about you? What’s ahead in 2016? What are your stumbling points as a small business owner and where do you turn to overcome them?

Quick Pick: Sono.Ei Feather Candles

I included a couple photos of these gorgeous feather-shaped candles from Megumi of Sono.Ei in my NYNOW highlights – but I thought I’d share a few more photos of these beauties! Each candle is crafted by hand from natural beeswax in an array of gorgeous colors. Megumi just restocked the solid feather candles in her shop (yay!), but she also had some ombré candles – feathers, stars, and pillar candles – in her NYNOW booth that I’m hoping will also work their way into the shop. I love them all!

Sono.Ei at NYNOW Summer 2015 / Oh So Beautiful Paper

Sono.Ei at NYNOW Summer 2015 / Oh So Beautiful Paper

Sono.Ei at NYNOW Summer 2015 / Oh So Beautiful Paper

Sono.Ei at NYNOW Summer 2015 / Oh So Beautiful Paper

Sono.Ei at NYNOW Summer 2015 / Oh So Beautiful Paper

Sono.Ei at NYNOW Summer 2015 / Oh So Beautiful Paper

Sono.Ei at NYNOW Summer 2015 / Oh So Beautiful Paper

Sono.Ei at NYNOW Summer 2015 / Oh So Beautiful Paper

Sono.Ei at NYNOW Summer 2015 / Oh So Beautiful Paper

Sono.Ei at NYNOW Summer 2015 / Oh So Beautiful Paper

You can find the solid color feather candles from Sono.Ei right here!

Photo Credits: Nole Garey / Oh So Beautiful Paper