[Chandra Greer] Jeni Shirley owns Stitched Cards, a small company with a large range of amazing stitched cards. She’s growing her little business through word of mouth, inspired collaborations and lots of time spent at her sewing machine. We talked with her about the challenges and triumphs of running a small greeting card company and the meaning behind the little paper-and-thread-enfolded messages winging their way about the world.
I guess the most obvious question is how do you make your designs? They look like an insane amount of work. Do you sew them all yourself?
Our cards are produced by yours truly in the heart of Sugarhouse, Utah. Inspiration comes at all hours of the day. Any time we come up with a design idea, we use it rather than spending a lot of time in brainstorming sessions. I sketch the designs by hand, and I’ve figured out a process where I can stitch and package the cards fast enough to do them all myself. Fortunately, Stitched Cards is growing, which means I can eventually hire people to help me sew, and we can continue to grow.
OK, I get it, if you tell me how you really do it you’ll have to silence me. Permanently. Speaking of growth, how have you developed your business?
Naturally, without growth hormones or other artificial enhancements. All kidding aside, just like any other business, it’s one step at a time. I’ve had to be brave enough to try new things and step out of my comfort zone. I respond to the feedback of my clients and their customers so I can improve, which helps me satisfy our current clients and appeal to new ones. I also enjoy catering to specific needs and doing custom work, which I’ve found leads to new business opportunities.
So, you’re doing things right and the business is following. We’re in love with your Mid-Century Modern series. What inspired you to create cards with Nelson Marshmallow Sofas, Eames Storage Units and Bertoia Diamond Chairs?
It was originally a request from Ron at The Green Ant — a Salt Lake City Mid-Century Modern furniture shop — and the designs became so popular that everyone started requesting them. As a small designer it was great to work with Ron in that way because he loves giving others a chance to fulfill their dreams. And it’s how I began tailoring my cards to each store’s needs. For instance, Ron’s shop doesn’t attract people shopping for cupcakes or roses, but you can be sure that if an Eames lover walked in and saw the Lounge Chair on a card, they’d know they were in the right place. It’s a lot of fun to get excited about things with other enthusiasts.
Do you approach your business with a sense of purpose, pleasure or both?
I feel good knowing what I’m doing is serving a purpose. Every Stitched Card given means there’s another happier person in the world. Plus, I think there’s a bigger purpose for every business, and it starts with manufacturers like me. My livelihood depends on the success of my cards in stores, and therefore I have to work hard to make sure I’m doing it right. I depend on my clients for a venue to sell my cards, they depend on me to produce a good product, and we both depend on the neighborhood to buy those products. Then, part of the sales go back into the neighborhood and we all benefit. I think that’s a huge purpose.
What were some of the challenges in the beginning?
Initially, it took about 30 minutes to make each card, and the retail price was around $8.50. So the biggest challenge was figuring out a way to produce them faster and at a more competitive price, both of which we’ve successfully done. Before I started my company, running a business was something I had participated in but not fully managed on my own, so spending the time to learn and evolve has been an everyday part of what I’ve done.
My husband and I lived abroad for two years, and when we returned to Utah we were accustomed to not owning a car. So one of our earliest challenges was driving around on a scooter, making our deliveries, even in the dead of winter. You would see me out and about with packages strapped to the back of the scooter. But out of challenge comes good things, because this inspired our line of Scooter cards!
What would you say to a retailer who may be hesitant about taking a chance on a small designer just starting out?
I don’t blame retailers for being nervous about taking the risk. They have to protect their businesses. And people who are just starting out often do so with a lot of work that isn’t quite up to par — I know this, because I’ve gone back and looked at some of my original designs that probably never should have been seen the light of day! But individuals have a lot of potential and a lot of heart and they’re able to adapt. I am where I am today because someone took a chance on me and was willing to tell me what they expected from me.
Where do you think the stationery industry is headed? Are you in it for the long haul?
In the last 10 years, the industry has become a niche market. There’s a certain audience of people who are drawn to handwritten notes and unique artwork, and those people are aware that there are quirky and thoughtful ways of communicating beyond texts and e-mails. I hear on a daily basis from Stitched customers how excited they are about the card they bought, their experience at our retailer’s shop, and the positive reaction when they gave the card to someone. I love hearing about it because beyond the physical aspect of my cards there are stories and personal meaning associated with them. I’ll continue to remind people of that, and do this as long as I can.
We’ve talked to a lot of designer/entrepreneurs, and it seems a good support system is key. Who’s yours?
My husband Jake is my biggest supporter. First of all, he designed and built our website, one of the most important elements of the business and something that takes a lot of time and talent. He’s very patient, knowing that starting a business requires investment in time and money. He has a lot of funny ideas — the “Animal for Cake” card was his idea, among lots of others. And on a personal note, he makes me laugh daily, and I love him more than life itself. Family and friends constantly encourage me. My clients have also been a big support, many of whom have become close friends.
Where would you like to be in five years?
On the wire is series of monthly conversations with up-and-coming stationery designers that, while tiny in size, are titanic in talent. Our interviews are hosted by Chandra Greer, the owner of Greer (@GREERChicago), an independent stationery shop and website with a longstanding commitment to seeking out and supporting independent designers.