The inside scoop: Carina Murray’s advice to independent stationery designers

[Sami Jensen] If you don’t know the name Carina Murray, you should. She’s the founder of Crow and Canary, one of the most respected independent stationery sales repping agencies in the biz. As such, Carina gets a lot of questions. Pros and newcomers alike ask for help navigating the stationery industry and tips on how to survive as a small business. Happily, she shares the questions she’s asked most frequently, and provides the answers here today.

OK, Carina. Let’s start with the most obvious question: What exactly does a sales rep do?
Reps are essentially a liaison between the designer and wholesale buyer. We show samples to buyers and forward the orders on to the lines we represent. We are not responsible for production or shipping. I actually answered this question in more detail on Paper Crave a few years ago.

Where do showrooms come in?
Some rep groups operate showrooms in the industry. Showrooms often require “rent” and the buyers come to the rep, unlike a road rep, who comes to you. Manufacturers will often see a spike in orders during gift shows, as showrooms will time specials and incentives with corresponding gift fairs in their cities.


Case and Kite and King Cat cards by Red Cap Cards

When is a startup greeting card designer ready for a sales rep?
It will definitely vary by manufacturer, but I would say not until they have been in business for at least six to nine months. I recommend that a designer wear as many hats as possible for as long as possible before outsourcing anything. This includes design, production, sales, marketing, etc. It’s vital to get direct feedback from the shops you’re working with when your business is in its infancy.


Personalized Green Owl mug, Rainbow Polka Dots personalized stationery and Noteworthy Lined Journal Collection by Rock Scissor Paper

Once they’re ready, how should a designer approach a sales rep?
For starters, it’s important to be unique and personable. Get to know the rep or retailer and send something that would interest them. Sending a generic greeting is the antithesis of the industry! I would definitely recommend getting references from some existing accounts and designers for any rep you may be considering working with. It’s a small amount of effort, and you should hear great things about any rep that is worth pursuing a relationship with.


But do you… card by The Great Lakes

What do you look for when considering a new line? What’s most important?
First and foremost, I look to see that the line offers a unique and diverse collection — I wouldn’t add products that are too similar to what I’m already representing. The designer should also have a bare minimum of 30 designs, a comprehensive and current website, and sales tools such as digital and paper catalogs. All the reps I know, myself included, prefer to work with organized and timely designers that are flexible with terms and willing to go the extra mile for our retailers.

Thirty designs, really?
Yes. Buyers like to have a selection to choose from, so presenting a line with only 6 or 12 cards significantly minimizes the chances of a retailer picking up the line.


Crow and Canary’s booth at this year’s New York Gift Fair. Photo: Nole Garey, Oh So Beautiful Paper.

What advice do you have for up-and-comers exhibiting at trade shows?
Ah yes, trade shows! Before plunging head first into exhibiting, it’s important for manufacturers to walk the gift/trade show that they have their sights set on before actually exhibiting. You want to see what already exists, what your competition is like, what’s done right, and what isn’t. Do as much research as you can before exhibiting and make sure you factor in all kinds of costs: booth fee, travel expenses, food, booth decor, etc. I highly recommend first-time stationery exhibitors sign up for Tradeshow Bootcamp. It’s a wonderful resource taught by seasoned exhibitors, retailers, marketers and sales reps, including myself. Some rep groups, including Crow and Canary, also exhibit at trade shows. Participation in trade shows is optional and requires a participation fee, along with standard commission. This is an excellent option for most designers, as exhibiting at a trade show as a single entity is a rather large undertaking and expense.


Say Hello card by Carolyn Suzuki

If a stationer isn’t ready for a sales rep, but wants to approach stores on their own, what tips can you give them?
Direct marketing can be quite successful, if you do it correctly. Wait until you have fully launched your line before contacting prospective stores. You want to make an impression, and that can be challenging if you’re missing pieces. I recommend that manufacturers send a catalog, linesheet and a small assortment of samples to stores to start. Don’t skimp on presentation, be sure to make the outside enticing to open — buyers are flooded with submissions, so it’s your job to make your package enticing. Keep in mind, you will likely have to follow up with stores after mailing or dropping off your submission — I like to make a note in my calendar. It’s also wise to ask for the best way to contact the buyer; some prefer being called, while others prefer e-mail or even texting.

You let the customer define the way you communicate with them?
Absolutely, yes!


Coaster Fill-in Invitations by gilah press + design, also a Felt & Wire Shop seller

And what if orders are becoming too large for the designer to fulfill on their own?
Invite some friends over to help with production and make it fun. If the designer is consistently receiving volume orders, then it may be time to hire extra help. Once you know you can handle large orders, you may be ready to to hire a sales rep.

Carina, when did your love of paper begin?
As a little girl, I obsessed over My Melody, Little Twin Stars and Hello Kitty stationery sets — all of my childhood allowance went to stationery and office supplies. I soon fell even further in love with all things paper related during college when I began to experiment with letterpress typesetting at The Evergreen State College in Washington. I went on to found Crow and Canary in 2007.

We’re curious: How did you come up with the name “Crow and Canary”? Are they your two favorite birds?
Many independent sales reps and groups use their real name for their business. That seemed a bit too stuffy for my taste, and I loved the idea of having some iconography to play with. I settled on Crow and Canary because I do love birds — and I was particularly fond of the alliteration. Funny enough, all of my team members fit in perfectly: Kendra, Kimberley and Christine. We joke that the next rep will be required to change their name if they aren’t naturally a C or a K.

Carina Murray is the founder and Washington and Oregon sales rep for the travel-based repping agency Crow and Canary, currently representing 30-plus lines. She has contributed to design blogs such as Design*Sponge and Oh So Beautiful Paper, and has been profiled by Fig. 2 DesignPaper Crave and Rena Tom. She is also an instructor for Tradeshow Bootcamp, which Felt & Wire has covered here and here.

All work shown is represented by Crow and Canary.

Lead photo: © Shimelle Laine.

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Comments (5)

  1. Posted by B. Anderson on 02.9.12 at 11:59 am

    Really insightful blog post, lots of helpful hints throughout. THANK YOU!

  2. Posted by Christina Peressini on 02.10.12 at 1:27 pm

    Almost two years ago I cold-emailed Carina asking about representation and while my line was then far too small, she took the time out of her busy schedule to chat by phone and give me some extremely valuable nuggets of business advice which are, more or less, contained in this blog post.

    Tremendous generosity of spirit. A class act.

  3. Posted by susie Campion on 02.10.12 at 2:00 pm

    Great article, and very specific. I appreciate the 30 designs. It lets me know how much work is necessary.

  4. Posted by Charley Cohen on 02.11.12 at 1:12 pm

    Crow and Canary has curated a great collection of stationery! Kudos, and thanks for the tips for budding stationery companies!

  5. Posted by Bill Warner on 11.29.12 at 7:51 pm

    Hello Carina,

    Our Company, OmmyArt, has about 20 designs (and more coming weekly), a website (www.ommyart.com), and sales of Ommy’s work in posters and Limited Edition Giclee Prints.

    We are launching our greeting card line now and want to interview stationary representatives in California, Oregon, and Washington. Our designs can be seen at http://www.ommyart.com. Do you have recommendations for representatives we could contact in those states. Or, is there a directory we could consult? We are headquartered in Menlo Park, CA (San Francisco Bay Area). Many thanks in advance. Bill Warner: 650/333-8701

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