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.