10 lessons from my past year


I can’t really believe it.
I’m just about to wrap up my first full year being self-employed and working on my business.

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, from 2014-June 2017, Quirky Paper Co. had always been a side hustle, and it was only in the last year that I made the transition to leave my full-time design job to focus on growing the business. The past year has been filled with so many new adventures and milestones, as well as learning lessons. I took some time to look back on the past year and reflect on what I've learned on my journey so far...

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1. It’s not just about designing a business, but designing a lifestyle you want to have.

Over the year, I met with a few other entrepreneurs in the stationery & greeting card industry and it was so interesting to hear their perspectives and how they chose to run their businesses. I met one business owner who mentioned that travel was her main priority, and that she had a trip planned almost every month. I met another business owner who blatantly told me that I can’t go on vacation now, and that she will still work while on vacation. Both of them had very different perspectives on how their businesses and lives should be run. Each person has their own set of priorities and definition of success for themselves. While listening to others can broaden your perspective and there’s something to learn from everyone, at the end of the day, you will need to choose what’s right for you and that will require you to figure out on your own.

2. The better you know yourself, the better you’ll be able to run your business and life.

The more you know about how you work best, the more you can set yourself up for being the most productive and happy while you work. Some people need their workspace to be quiet, some work better at night, some need lots of breaks….it’s all about what works for you. In the first few months, I really enjoyed the freedom of running my own schedule. But I started to feel like I didn’t have clear boundaries of “work time” and “personal time” - it all started to blend together, and I didn’t yet know how I wanted to run my days. It took me a while to realize that I worked best when I had a consistent schedule and daily routine - that structure gave me peace of mind knowing what I should be doing at each time of day, giving me the energy to focus on the important tasks at hand. Understanding this about myself, I continually try to set up systems and streamline routines and processes as that’s how I work best. So besides my daily routine, I block out time for recurring tasks weekly and monthly, and I also have a release schedule for my new collections.

3. Having the right tools, systems and processes will save your butt every time, but keep in mind that these tools and systems may change as your business evolves and grows.

In my past design job, our studio was always paying attention to the tools and systems we were using, and then checking in and adjusting as our needs changed. In my business, there were definitely some key shifts. At first, I was taking wholesale orders by email, sending Square invoices, keeping track of inventory in another program, making a Canada Post shipping label for the order...there were so many steps and it was quite inefficient. It was a big step for me to streamline this process and  launch a wholesale shop on Shopify for my retail partners, where they would be able to order and pay in one step, and where I would be able to view orders, keep track of inventory, and print shipping labels on one platform. Getting the right systems and tools definitely does involve a big investment of time and energy to research what works best for you, then to actually implement and use the system, and communicate any changes to the people who will be using it. But if you choose the right system for where you’re at in your business, the investment will be well worth it, as it will truly help to streamline your processes, making your workflow much more efficient.

4. Ask for feedback often, especially when you work by yourself.

My husband and I started a bi-monthly group, Crit Club, to share our work and get feedback from our peers. It was a great way to get together and see what everyone was working on, and get honest critiques. It was great for me to bring my in-progress concepts and designs each time, I loved getting honest feedback from fresh eyes, and it really helped to improve each new release. I also gained feedback from some amazing store buyers and sales reps that I work with, who offered suggestions on new designs to create and what their customers are looking for. Oftentimes when we work by ourselves, we can get stuck easily, or create work that perhaps we “get” but everyone else doesn’t understand (I’ve totally made cards in the past that I thought were funny but no one understood…) so it’s great to get feedback often from people whose opinions you value.

  Each design goes through several rounds of revisions based on feedback I receive from friends and peers. I love getting honest feedback and their suggestions always help to improve my work.

Each design goes through several rounds of revisions based on feedback I receive from friends and peers. I love getting honest feedback and their suggestions always help to improve my work.

  So grateful to have Makiko helping me with packaging and photography throughout the year!

So grateful to have Makiko helping me with packaging and photography throughout the year!

5. Getting help is AWESOME. It’s fun to invite others to join you, and they want to help you.

Prior to this year, I pretty much took care of every aspect of the business. It can really be overwhelming. I knew that the first thing I wanted to get help with was packaging my cards. It was something that was time consuming, and I knew that time could be better spent growing the business. I reached out to my friend Makiko to see if she would be interested in helping. It has been a great partnership and Makiko has also helped me with photography as well. Most recently, I’ve reached out to my former co-worker, Maddie, to assist with copywriting and brainstorming new card ideas. I realized that with each person I reached out to, they were so enthusiastic about helping, and I realized that inviting people to join you on your journey is incredibly fun.

6. There is no magic course, magic partnership, or big break - it’s all about continued hard work.

In the beginning of the year, I kept thinking... once I did that course, once I got that partnership, I’d be set. Ha! I look back now and smile at how naive that was! Like everything else in life, you have to keep putting in the work to keep it moving forward. Just like how signing up for a gym membership doesn’t mean that you’ll be fit, and you need to continually put in the effort, running a business means you consistently need to show up and put in the hard work.

7. If you’re going to be disciplined about working hard, you should be disciplined about taking a break.

As creatives who build businesses we love, it can be hard to stop working, because we absolutely love what we do. I realized that if I didn’t set boundaries, I was going to get burnt out pretty quickly. I tried my best to be really conscious about how I felt each day and would make adjustments. While I had a schedule for myself, I was also very flexible about it—some days I could feel that I hadn’t gotten enough rest...and needed a nap. So I would take a nap. Revolutionary, I know. It was really important for me to give myself the rest I needed, because I wasn’t going to be productive if I was exhausted. What’s the point of a flexible schedule if you can’t take a nap?

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8. You might get disappointed. You might have bad days. Allow yourself to feel whatever you feel, take a break, and then get back to it when you’re ready and have the energy to move forward.

Over the year, there were plenty of times that I was disappointed. Some things just didn’t go the way I would have wanted them to. There were definitely a few days that were especially rough. During those days, I would just take a break, call a friend, and allow myself to just feel disappointed. I found that for myself, if I allowed myself to go through the feeling rather than brushing it off and continuing to work, I could process it a lot better, then allow myself to see it from a new perspective (could there have been something I could have done differently? Am I taking this too hard? Am I overreacting?). I started to be more conscious about how I was reacting to the situations I was faced with each day, and to take things with stride.

9. People can relate to you. Share your successes and failures and learn and grow together.

I’ve found that as business owners, we may sometimes feel like other people who aren’t entrepreneurs themselves won’t be able to relate to what we’re going through. The truth is that we usually aren't the only ones dealing with the problem at hand. After chatting with two friends who work in the clothing industry, I started to realize that the companies they worked for operated on pretty much the exact same business model as mine. There were a lot of issues I was going through that they understood because of their role or by observing other team members. When my parents-in-law asked me how things were going in my business, I commented about my challenges, and they immediately mentioned that they go through the same challenges (even though they are in completely different industries), and it was to be expected for any business. It really started to click for me that my challenges weren't something I struggled with alone, and there was a lot of relief knowing that actually this was completely normal. The more you can be open and chat to others who are open and supportive, the more you’ll realize that they can usually relate to your struggles and you are totally not alone.

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10. We are ALL just figuring things out. You will never really “figure it all out”.

One of the awesome things I got to experience over the past year was attending Paper Camp in September 2017. It was a two day workshop focused on the stationery & greeting card industry. We had a great panel who shared lots of information and advice. While listening to one of the panelists explain how she was figuring something out in her business—it occurred to me—OMG! Even she (with a very established, successful business) is still figuring things out!

I realized that at every stage of our business, we learn and level up to a new stage which we don’t have any experience in—so while we have the knowledge and experience of our past, we still feel like a newbie or beginner in our new level. I started to realize that feeling like a beginner was actually a good thing, because it meant that I had grown and was willing to start embarking on the next chapter.


And so, I am still figuring things out. I am still a beginner.

But I’m excited to start entering Year 2 with a renewed sense of wanting to keep moving myself forward both creatively and as a business owner, while also making sure I’m building both a business and lifestyle that I love. Thank you so much for joining me on my journey so far!

Questions for me? I’d love to hear from you! Feel free to reach out to me at: hello@quirkypaperco.com

A major fail, a detour, and a leap: The full story behind Quirky Paper Co.


THE BEGINNINGS

When I attended a local event last year, I started chatting with someone I just met and she asked how I started Quirky Paper Co. As I went on to tell the story, my friend who was also listening commented, “Oh, I didn’t even know that.”

And then I realized, perhaps no one really knew the whole story behind how my business was started.

As I approach one year of working on Quirky Paper Co. full-time (more on that later), I thought it would be fun to look back at how this business really got started, and how I got to where I am today. And for that, we have to go back…way back…

Growing up, I was naturally drawn to working with my hands and creating. I loved to colour, make beaded necklaces, construct Lego buildings, and get my hands on every crafty project out there.

My mom is the master of staying in touch. We moved to Canada around 2000 and I observed as she continued to stay in touch with friends and family. She would write Christmas cards and send an annual update to everyone. During the holidays, our countertop would be filled with cards she had received from her friends around the world. She was always really thoughtful and would remember to send birthday cards and acknowledge others with a thank you note.

And so, growing up, I started making cards to give out to friends and family. My parents actually kept all the cards I gave them over the years. Looking back on them now, I realize how much it’s a part of my identity, and how natural it is for me to make and give cards.

In high school, I pretty much spent most of my money hoarding crafting supplies, and one summer, I decided to make a handcrafted line of cards. I was pretty into scrapbooking at that time, so the cards had lots of stamps, paper layers and cutouts, and embellishments. My aunt worked at a post office and offered to let me display my cards there. The very first day they were displayed, she gave us a call to let us know that one card had sold! It was so exciting. This was the first time in my life that a REAL person paid REAL money for my work! It really was such a great feeling.

  An original Quirky Paper Co. card from back in the day, before I named my business Quirky Paper Co.!

An original Quirky Paper Co. card from back in the day, before I named my business Quirky Paper Co.!


THE FIRST CHAPTER

After high school, I knew I wanted to pursue art & design, so I headed off to attend Emily Carr University. At this time, I was no longer making my handcrafted cards, but I started developing my design skills through my school projects and internships and volunteer positions. When I graduated, I travelled for a bit and then was lucky to find a full-time graphic design gig. It was a remote position, and so I spent most of my days in PJ’s, sipping tea, and working on fun projects. At this time, I realized that I had free time in the evenings and on the weekends - what did I want to do?

I had always wanted to participate in a craft sale, and realized I still had many supplies (like envelopes and clear sleeves) from the days of handcrafting cards, so I decided to sign up for an event about a month away, even though I hadn’t made anything yet. When I called to book my spot, the organizer asked, “What's your business name?” And then I realized...I didn’t even have a business name yet! “Uh…um…Cheryl Loh Designs?” Awkward.

Since the event was coming up quickly, I got busy making. As I worked into the evening creating new greeting cards, I realized that it gave me a huge burst of energy and excitement - it was so fun and rewarding to create! I am always chasing this feeling - it’s the reason I had decided to pursue a creative path in the first place. 

I wish I could tell you that my first craft sale was incredibly successful and my life was perfect after.

Not quite.

That first craft sale in November 2013 was a major flop. When I got there, I realized that I had absolutely no idea how to talk about my work and talk to customers. I was so shy that I could barely squeak out “hi” as they stopped by. In addition, my table was tucked away in the back in an awkward corner. By the end of the day, I had made only 4 sales - 2 of which were to friends who stopped by, one sale was to a sweet couple, and the last was to a guy who stopped by as I was packing up. He bought 6 holiday cards, which helped to cheer me up after that disappointing day.

Once I recovered from that sale, I realized that there were lots of things I could’ve done better and I was determined to keep moving forward. I set my sights on starting up my Etsy shop (another thing I’d always wanted to do), and on attending a different, larger craft sale that I felt was more geared towards the audience I was looking for. I worked on honing in on the type of cards I wanted to create, and realized that I wanted to bring my own cheeky humor to my work. I came up with lots of new ideas and excitedly started working on new designs.

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My Etsy store launched in January of 2014, and a few months after, I received my first wholesale order request. Amazing! Except…I had no sales materials - I didn't have a catalogue, price sheet or wholesale policies in place. I honestly didn't know much about selling wholesale at that point. I scrambled over the weekend doing research, looking at examples, and preparing a catalogue, my wholesale policies and pricing. The theme of not knowing how to do something, and then learning how to do it on the fly is pretty common when it comes to running a business. Sometimes you just can’t prepare for every opportunity that’s presented to you. You may not always feel ready, but you just try to be resourceful and learn how to best approach it, and know that it doesn't have to be perfect and can always be improved.


SIDE HUSTLIN’

Now that I was more familiar with selling my work wholesale, I started reaching out to potential retail partners, and continued to attend local craft fairs. It was a great chance for me to meet more of the creative community, get experience selling my work, and gain feedback from customers. 

A DETOUR

In the spring of 2015, I got engaged! Which meant that most of my free time was spent planning the upcoming wedding. With my full-time design job and wedding planning, I found that I barely had any energy left to grow the business. Unfortunately, it had to be put on pause as I went through the big life changes in 2016 of getting married and also buying our first property.


THE LEAP

In 2017, I had hit a point where I realized that I was pretty burnt out. I realized that we all have limited time in our day, and I could not keep adding more and more work on to my plate - something would have to give. For me, personally, I wanted to place a bigger priority on my health and well-being, and so I decided to let something go, in order to make room for something new.

With the support and encouragement of my husband, friends, and family, I decided to leave my full-time graphic design position and transition to working on a freelance basis, giving me the time and space to really focus on growing my business, while still having different streams of income. 

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THE NEXT CHAPTER

The very first day of me working on my business full-time was July 3, 2017. Woohoo! My days are very different now, but, yes, I’m still usually in my PJ's sipping tea. Okay, I do try to wear "real" clothes once in a while.

Since then, I’ve been hard at work creating new designs, refining the direction for Quirky Paper Co., focusing on selling wholesale and establishing partnerships with sales reps. It’s been a lot of work, it’s been challenging, and it’s also been a lot of fun.

Some highlights from the past year include:

  • Creating new products and designs for three releases, in August 2017, January 2018, and May 2018, growing the line to include 100+ greeting card designs
  • Getting a chance to connect and learn from the best in the business at Paper Camp
  • Growing my wholesale accounts from 20 stores to 80+ stores spanning across North America, and getting the chance to work with some truly amazing store owners 
  • Launching an online wholesale shop to help make the ordering process easier for my retail partners (I thought this would be a huge undertaking, and it was! But I also enjoyed the process and though it was a big investment of time, it has made my workflow way more streamlined)
  • Establishing partnerships with 8 awesome sales reps, covering me in 16 states in the USA
  • Joining a mastermind group with fellow creatives and paper pals, where we meet online monthly to help support each other as we grow our businesses
  • Working on fun collaborative projects with local businesses (to be announced soon!)
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So, what’s next for me?

I still have a lot more growing to do, and I hope to continue to improve upon many of the things I’ve learned over the past year, and to continue to explore new possibilities and growth for my business. And as always, I want to continue to create things that bring a little more joy and inspire connection in everyday life.

The end of my first full year is a great time for reflection, and I’ll be exploring the key things I learned over the past year in my next blog post, stay tuned!