When I started Emily McDowell Studio five years ago, I wasn’t thinking all that hard about what it could become. I was more focused on the immediate questions like, “Will anyone buy this card?” and “Is there a better place than Staples to buy all this fancy printer paper?” (Yes, and not really.) After burning out on my previous career in advertising, I was thrilled to be excited about work again, and I threw myself one million percent into entrepreneurship.
As someone who hadn’t taken a math class since tenth grade, with no formal (or even informal) education in business, I wasn’t quite sure how this was gonna go. But, with the assistance of Google, kind strangers, and a sophisticated system of trial and error (and error, and error, and error), I was able to figure out the basics of running and growing a stationery and gift company.
I was definitely surprised at how much I enjoyed the business side of my job. I liked using different parts of my brain to solve creative problems and solve business problems, so balancing the different areas of the company didn’t feel hard to me at first. I congratulated myself on not needing a business partner, and on the best days, I secretly wondered if I was some kind of business genius while highlighting cells on my pirated copy of Excel 2008. (Spoiler alert: not a business genius. Also, MS Office 2017 costs $6 a month and is totally worth it.)
Even if you’re not an entrepreneur, you’ve probably heard the saying “good problems to have” in the context of business. As in, “So many people want the thing you made, you can’t keep it in stock! That’s a good problem to have.” Or, “You outgrew the space in six months that you’d signed a three-year lease on? What a good problem to have.”
Here’s the thing about good problems: they’re still problems. And if you don’t solve them post haste, your customers will be unhappy and split, which will leave you with no customers. A bad problem. So, when it comes to business problems, good/bad is kind of a false distinction. Between 2013 and 2017, as the company grew, I spent by far more time, energy, blood, sweat, tears, and money on trying to solve these kinds of problems than on anything else. (Literally: just a little blood, buckets of sweat, rivers of tears, and an amount of money that makes me cry MORE tears if I think too hard about it.) Over these years, I’ve come to learn that the easiest part of having a creative company is making good work. The hard part is all the other stuff -- manufacturing, scaling, warehousing, inventory management, accounting, human resources -- what Knock Knock founder Jen Bilik refers to as “the pipes” in her blog post today.
You are likely familiar with Knock Knock, and if you’re not, be prepared to laugh, then spend a bunch of money.
A few signature Knock Knock products, from left: the Daily Intention Tracker pad; Fill in the Love book (which now has a million variations, to give to everyone from your dad to your favorite teacher); Drinks for Mundane Tasks: 70 Cocktail Recipes for Everyday Chores
I discovered Knock Knock sometime in the mid-2000s, a few years after Jen created it in 2002. Their products were so different, so cool, and I remember thinking, a) “I can’t believe there are people who get to do this for a living,” and b) “I want to be friends with them.” Fast forward ten years. About a year into owning EMS, I found out that Jen and I had a mutual friend, and I asked her to introduce us. Graciously, Jen was willing to have lunch with me, Annoying New Greeting Card Company Lady.
Jen and I hit it off, and it turned out that we had a ton of things in common: we’re both the uncommon hybrid of writer/designer; Jen spent the first several years of Knock Knock as its sole product creator and CEO; we have very similar senses of humor, and we have a lot of overlap in our sensibilities and experiences in the world. Over the past few years, Jen has been a friend, sounding board, and mentor to me as I’ve struggled with running and growing Emily McDowell Studio. And, more than once, we kicked around the idea of working together. I was always immensely flattered, but also hard-headed: I was going to figure it out, dammit. One of these days, we would solve The Last Problem, and everything would fall into place.
I admired many things about Knock Knock, but one of them – the one I most envied – was its infrastructure. The pipes. These guys had their shit together. Like any company, they had problems to solve, but they’d long since figured out the kinds of things that kept me up at night. They had systems and formulas and software that talked to their other software. Each employee had one job, not random responsibilities from 4 different areas of the company. They had a server and it was organized. (FYI: this may sound totally boring, but you are reading HOT small-business porn right now.)
By the time 2017 rolled around, the vast majority of my job had nothing to do with having ideas or writing or illustrating. Those things – the lifeblood of the company – were pushed to the last minute, squeezed in late at night and on weekends. We’d rebuilt our company infrastructure no fewer than six times in four years, I was burned out, my team was burned out, and the creative work that was supposed to feel joyful and fun was just another thing on my endless to-do list. My life was unsustainable, and although everything still looked functional on the outside, something major had to change. Last summer, my employees and I were in the process of talking about what that thing might be, when Jen gently suggested (one last time, she promised) that we might want to consider joining her and her team at Knock Knock. This time, I listened.
And so, after six months of lawyers, accountants, spreadsheets, contracts, meetings, and breakdowns both secret and public, I’m so proud to have joined the Knock Knock team as a partner in the new Who’s There Group of brands: Knock Knock, Emily McDowell Studio, and Sisters of Los Angeles.
I have business partners now, and not just any business partners — these guys are the absolute best at what they do. Knock Knock’s president, Jim, and publisher, Craig, are two of the smartest, kindest people I know, and they’ll provide the kind of mentorship and leadership that my employees deserve. (They are also REALLY good at using Excel.) And my job, for the first time in our company’s history, will be to focus on the things I’m best at: making the work, marketing, and talking to you guys. Expect more blog posts (for real). Expect more charity and political partnerships. And expect more awesome shit. Way more awesome shit.
Thank you for coming along with me on this crazy ride. Buckle up, friends; this is where it gets fun.
With love and gratitude,