[Tom Biederbeck] I can think of about one company that could send me an e-invitation to “Behold your future—It’s funny as hell” and get me to click through. That’s Knock Knock for you. The pitch is for a book (below) packed with fortune-cookie predictions for each day of the year, sans cookies. It’s one of the witty and sometimes risqué products that founder Jen Bilik and her crew at Knock Knock have been amusing us with for a decade. We invited her to share highlights.
Talking with Bilik—writer, designer, entrepreneur—is like a physics lesson, but way more fun. She responds to questions with the same focus and momentum she’s displayed in growing her California company into an international player in smart products that, as their motto goes, “put the fun in functional.” I had the chance to share her story, including why it “only makes sense” to put the message on paper.
Tell us about starting Knock Knock.
We officially incorporated in 2002. Before that, I’d been a book editor working with illustrated books—art, architecture and so forth. It was an amazing education not just on the text side of things, but also on the visual and design side.
When I left to go freelance, my driving impulse was that I wanted to do both the verbal and the visual. I wrote and designed a few things of my own that eventually became Knock Knock products—one was called the January Card, and the other was a flow chart poster called How to Find True Love. When I sent them out, people said, “You should sell these.”
I began to consider a bigger idea: to have a studio that was about creative products and projects in a number of areas, not just one industry or product type. I felt there had to be a place in the market for a studio with a well-defined sensibility: smart, humor-driven, observational, based on “the way we are now.”
What was your initial concept for products?
Cards, wrapping paper…our first catalog had the Personal Library Kit, which we still offer. We did a set of cards that had everything you’d need for a year—birthdays, holidays. That was something nobody had done yet.
Paper is kind of at the heart of what Knock Knock does, isn’t it?
We also love hard goods and soft goods like textiles. But we’re essentially a content company, and it’s made the most sense to put most of our content on paper.
I love paper; everyone here loves paper and everything you can do with it. I also love to sew, and I knit. The pleasures of those things are tactile and sensory, and I feel that way about paper. When I crack open a book, I stick my nose in it!
Can you describe Knock Knock today?
There are 30 of us, about half creative and half business. We’re off Abbot Kinney Boulevard on Electric Avenue in Venice Beach, and we love it. We have beautiful weather, wonderful restaurants, a terrific creative community. I walk to work and bring my dog.
From the Knock Knock blog: “We have fun at the Knock Knock office. …While there are countless reasons, we can summarize them into three pictures: 1) Paco [Bilik's dog] gives us high-fives, like all the time; 2) There area always free treats around; 3) We play pranks on each other, and no one gets pissed.”
We produce about 100 new products a year, not including custom products that aren’t in our catalog. We sell online, but direct to consumer is a small part our revenue. The rest is to retailers—single stores to small chains to big box retailers. We have international distribution in about 40 countries now, and we’re starting to do foreign rights, with translations of our products.
What were some of the high points on the way?
Having a great team. It’s always in flux, but there are times when you realize you have the perfect people in place at a moment in time. We’ve had phenomenal press—profiles in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Inc. magazine. Getting invited to speak at events. Designing new products for clients like Target. Telling someone about Knock Knock and hearing them say, “I know Knock Knock.”
People don’t just know there’s something called Knock Knock; they know who it is. Where does that voice come from?
Initially from me. It’s finding the humor in truth. Social observation. Self-deprecation. We’ve been able to train the editorial team in concepting and writing in that vein. Knock Knock has evolved to be more of a collective voice. That’s important in making a company scalable.
How did you observe your 10th?
We took three months from Labor Day to the end of November and celebrated over that—in social media, in our blog, we did contests. It all culminated in a party with great chemistry that felt triumphant. The team was proud.
I never, ever thought we would get here. I didn’t think we’d have this kind of success. Ten years has been an opportunity to take stock. Having our work on show at the party to everyone who had been involved was exciting and emotional.
Knock Knock creates design-driven gift products and books (and anything else that strikes their fancy) that bring humor, function, organization and aesthetics to everyday life. Buy Knock Knock products here. Their Coolest Place to Work contest runs through Jan. 22, 1013; official rules here.
Unless otherwise noted, all photos couresty of Knock Knock.