Today’s Biz Ladies Profile comes to us from Christine Schmidt of Yellow Owl Workshop. After a slew of random gigs and a final job firing, Christine decided to follow her artistic passions rather than apply for another set of endless jobs. Christine launched a print-to-order greeting card business in 2007 and today Yellow Owl Workshop items, including rubber stamps and stamp ink pads, greeting cards and a line of exquisite gold pendants, are found around the US. In this interview, she shares a bit about her journey to becoming a biz lady and the lessons she learned along the way. Thanks so much for sharing your story with us Christine! —Stephanie
Read the full interview after the jump…
Why did you decide to start your own business?
I was fired from a terrible job. Because Bachelor of Fine Art degrees are always so in demand, I always had random jobs to pay the bills. I have been a cake decorator, mural painter, bartender, nanny, and sales person. I just took whatever job would pay me the most with the least amount of commitment. Looking back, each of these “getting by” jobs taught me skills I use now.
My then- boyfriend, Evan, and I had recently packed up our two mutts in a rented Hyundai to manifest some destiny in San Francisco. He had a job. I did not. Eventually I got a job as a personal assistant to a super rich lady whose demeanor and extreme facelift(s!) earned her the name Skeletor. Entering that faux Pacific Heights mansion was soul-crushing and I hated it.. Every day that weight got heavier and darker and bigger, but I stayed because I prized my self-sufficiency and it was easy. One day I got fired and it was awesome! Rather than looking for another job, I steeled myself to create my own business and Evan was completely on board. My constant complaining bugged him for sure, but he had faith in me that filled the gaps of my own insecurities. Starting a business costs money and I had to swallow my ego to accept the support.
When you first decided to start your own business, how did you define what your business would be?
People buy greeting cards when they want to convey a message and none of the cards on the market were speaking to me. I figured other people might feel the same way and I decided to print my own cards. I didn’t have to invest in expensive equipment and there was not a lot of upfront cost because I printed to order. I first stated printing linocuts with a hand-cranked press. As my business grew I moved to screen printing to make larger runs of cards. When I had enough regular wholesale accounts I started making rubber stamps. Most of the stamps on the market were pretty lame and rubber stamping was relegated to the then undesirable realm of “scrapbooking.” I looked at the stamps on the market and thought I could use stamps in new ways. I created a line of stamps that contained different graphics that could be repeated to create scenes. There were upfront costs and minimum order quantities so I had to have established accounts as income and payments towards this new stuff.
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
My husband, Evan, gave me this advice: “they can only say no.” The only risk is rejection. And “No” won’t kill ya.
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
Me. I over-think things until I bleed them dry. The painter Agnes Martin said, “A lot of good things don’t get made because of too much thinking.” I wish I was fearless and never looked back. Instead I just stew ideas in self-doubt until they evaporate.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
Own Up and Own Out. When I first I delivered samples to shops, so many said “no.” That made me start second-guessing everything. I have no skills. I am bugging them. I made those choices that set my business apart on purpose. I have to be true to my own vision.
I also had to own out. I had to recognize that the business is separate from myself. It is hard, when you are spending every dollar and every minute on your business, not to take things personally. But you have to. Maybe it doesn’t work for your intended audience right now and that is ok. Trends, markets and tastes fluctuate. Bending to meet market tastes isn’t worth it even if it gets you traction in the short run because creating a business identity means distinguishing it from the pack.
Another big part of “Owning Out” is adopting manners that work for business and not life. In my own life I am habitually and to-a-fault polite. I have learned the hard way that “polite” is too often equated with “weakness” (especially for women). I am never unkind or (I think) unfair but I will contact people relentlessly until I get the results I want. My owning out gives me the confidence I need to demand and persist. This is especially helpful when you have to sell your products or services. I hate HATE talking about myself, but when I consider the company as a separate entity I can speak with confidence and not take rejection (so) hard.
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences?
After our first National Stationery show I felt so good. I took a risk blowing dough getting there and it paid off. We doubled sales and accounts in an instant. I was invited to a meeting with a sales rep group that I coveted. Under the florescent glow of a desolate gift show table, I ceremoniously unwrapped and presented each of my goods and laid them on the bare table like they were precious relics. After deafening silence, they drilled me on my methods to scale-up production, handle the logistics of large orders and packaging concerns for larger stores. I had no answers and they rejected me. I felt so defeated and slinked away dragging my box of samples. As the year progressed we started getting larger orders from more accounts. Slowly we figured out the shipping and logistics and streamlined our making of goods. A year later we had a meeting with the same rep and they agreed to take us on. We have been incredibly happy with our rep group, Keena, for over four years now. As tough as that day was I needed to answer those hard questions in my own time.
Can you name your greatest success in your business experiences?
Two years ago I had just released my book “Print Workshop.” I worked on that for ages and to hold it in my hands was an enormous joy. I totally cried.
What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of his or her own?
I haven’t read any business advice books. This business grew organically and we just adapted with the aid of google. When I have practical questions I consult the Small Business Association website (http://www.sba.gov) and my local small business office. Both have tons of helpful and free resources.
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
1. Be Original: what are you offering that nobody else is? Would a different material or method of creation or action or delivery set you apart? Would your packaging make you stand out?
2.Know your own limitations and ask for support. If you are finding yourself moving away from your concentration to take care of business maintainace (like accounting, web site or shipping)—ask a pro for help. It may cost you but you will work better with good focus and you will be happier. Also ask for emotional support from friends and family. Running your own business can get lonely. You don’t have to give people all the details but people that love you will appreciate your sharing and then they delight more in your success. I struggle with knowing my own limits and sharing all the time.
3. Will this give me more than it takes away? This seems like such an obvious question but it is crucial. Running your own business presents the possibility of rewards and the certainty of negatives. The yin always has the yang here and it can consume your whole life if you let it. Is it worth it? For some very smart and talented people I know the answer has been “no.”
I didn’t think much about this until I had my baby, Emmy, last year. I always loved my work and felt lucky to be able to make my own way. Long hours were a mandatory and both the highs and lows ate most of my waking and dreaming hours. But when that girl was born all the work just fell away. I honestly felt like quitting and getting a 9-5 with no commitment (even though getting a 9-5 is hard in this economy.) In my brain I wanted to hold that baby forever and nothing could ever change that. Slowly my work thoughts started creeping back in because, and I know I am lucky to say this, my job is also my passion, my necessity. I need this work to make me happy and complete. Now that I have gone back to work (with the help of childcare) I view my workday much differently. I realize that every hour I spend at work is an hour I don’t spend with my kid so it better be ****ing worth it. I am not saying you have to have a kid to realize this- just realize that everyday you live is YOURS and running your own business has to give you more than it takes away.