Website: Parlez Vous Cards
Biography: Julianna Smith is the designer and illustrator of her greeting card company, Parlez-Vous. She sells her products wholesale to boutiques and card shops across the country as well as through her website. She lives and works from her home studio in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and two children.
What do you do and how did you start?
I design and produce a line of hand-embellished greeting cards, notes, and invitations. My cards are kind of girly, kind of old-fashioned, and a little playful. I started my business in 2001 when I decided to print my first run of cards. I got the bug after I made my daughter’s birth announcement and thought it might be a great way to earn some extra cash for our growing little family.
At first, I submitted my designs to large greeting card manufacturers like American Greetings and Sunrise, and I was rejected by all of them. I was crushed and confused but also tenacious and optimistic and I decided to self-publish my own work. My parents started several businesses over the years so the notion of running my own company wasn’t foreign or overwhelming to me—sort of a rite of passage in our family, actually. I looked through some old fashion sketches and illustrations I did in college (I dreamed of being a fashion designer) and pulled together some couture-inspired greeting card designs with French phrases (I also dreamed of being French).
I had experience in commercial printing so I called my old boss to get costs for printing on different papers in different quantities, etc. I had a very tight budget (pretty much nothing) so I fit as many designs as I could on a press sheet and printed just enough to make it cost effective. I opened up a business checking account and printed 1,000 each of eight different designs. I also designed a business card and put that on the same press sheet to save money. I put the printing costs on a personal credit card and I found a local supplier of envelopes and plastic sleeves and bought all of my embellishments at a craft store.
I put together my samples and my sister (Alicia Paulson) made me a really beautiful portfolio cover made of cotton and silk with my logo hand-embroidered on the front. I called the nicest stores in town and set up appointments to show them my wares. I took my portfolio of samples, my business cards, and some handwritten order forms and did my very best to sell my work without revealing my mind-numbing nervousness. (Unfortunately, I can’t hide an emotion to save my life. My face was splotchy and red and I was totally pitting out my favorite shirt.)
Fortunately, the buyers didn’t notice (or didn’t mind) and they placed orders. I was very honest about what I did and didn’t know and asked lots of questions. One buyer recommended a sales rep that she thought might suit me. I jumped at the opportunity to have someone else sell my stuff and within a few weeks, I got my first sales rep.
How old were you when you realised you wanted to do and when you actually began?
I’ve always wanted to be an artist and I have been making art since I was a young girl. I remember going to my dad’s office where he worked a graphic designer and drooling over the pens and markers (no PhotoShop or InDesign back then). At some point, he gave me an old cartoon book and I learned to draw animals and people. I thought about doing greeting cards when I was 28. It was everything I loved to do: lettering, illustration, color, pattern, and I could work from home. I started my own business a few months later.
What jobs did you have before you went out on your own?
Most of these jobs did not last six months: camp counselor, nanny, picture-framer, volleyball coach, salesperson for the Gap, seamstress, display designer, jeweler’s assistant, product designer for a gift manufacturing company, production coordinator for a printing company, and illustrator. I quit my last job when I was 25 and I vowed to never work for anyone else again.
What steps did you take to create your own business?
After I decided that I wanted to produce greeting cards, I made the prototypes. I tracked down the sources for all of my supplies and made sure I could assemble my cards by the hundreds, not just one at a time. (I must admit, I always thought big.) I didn’t want to get stuck making one lovely sample only to find out later that it was impossible to reproduce in large quantities.
Then I opened a business checking account and went to press with my cards, business card, and letterhead. I turned my bedroom into my studio and got a business phone, a fax machine, and an email account. I told everyone I knew about what I was doing—someone always had a friend that owned a store, or had a neighbor who could help me do production, or something. I learned as much as I could from other business owners (not necessarily in my field) and read lots of magazine articles, books, and websites.
What kind of formal education, training or experience do you have that applies to what you do?
I received my fine arts degree in papermaking from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. I took lots of classes and even convinced my advisor to let me substitute sculpture for science. I made a ton of art over the years but I think most of the experience that applies to what I do was gained from a job I had doing package design and illustration for a gift manufacturing company. I learned how to take an idea from concept to tangible product and I also learned about sales reps, marketing, and trade shows.
After that, I worked for a large printing company that printed brochures, magazines, posters, and greeting cards. I was fascinated by the printing process and intrigued by the mysteriousness of ink on paper. I learned as much as could from that job, too, and since everyone in the graphics industry was in the process of going digital, I wasn’t the only one who had a lot to learn. My dad gave me his old iMac and I taught myself to use it (though I must admit I had a significant amount of help from my incredibly tech-savvy husband). I bought a scanner and started scanning some of my drawings and playing around with them in PhotoShop. Basically, I learned as I went and asked lots of questions along the way.
How did you first begin to sell/market your work?
At first, I went around to the best boutiques in town, saw how they displayed their merchandise, and made mental notes about what kinds of things they carried in their stores. I made sure that my packaging looked as professional as the things I saw, maybe even better. I felt good about what I was doing and aimed to prove to any store or magazine—no matter how fancy or famous—that I was worthy of their attention.
After I got my first few orders, I went to the next city and wrote some more. As I mentioned earlier, I hired sales reps with established customer bases that showcased my line in showrooms all over the country. Travel (for me) was not an option so this made sense to me, as is does for lots of manufacturers. I sent press kits to magazines and newspapers telling them about my new business and products. Once I was in a few reputable boutiques, it was easier to get people to notice what I was doing and they starting coming to me.
What is the most rewarding aspect of what you do? The most frustrating?
The most rewarding aspect of what I do is that I get to grow and evolve at my own pace. If I want to stop, I stop. If I want change something, I change something. It’s very gratifying to drift wherever the wind takes you, where you can truly live your own life.
Another rewarding aspect of what I do is that I make money doing what I want and I get to be with my kids at the same time. It’s always been important to me to set my own schedule. When I was working retail I just wanted to heave myself out the window when my boss would come over and say, “You can take your ten minute break now.” I like working hard for myself—not working hard to make someone else rich. I do something that I love, something I would be doing anyway even if I weren’t getting paid to do it and no one but me gets to decide when to take a break!
The flipside to having all that freedom is that there is a lot of pressure to keep a small business like mine afloat. It’s just me at the press checks and it’s just me doing the bookkeeping. I am the one in charge of generating sales, marketing my designs, funding my own production, filling orders, and collecting bills. Having to deal with production problems and credit checks wasn’t part of my original dream but it’s all worth it to me and I’ve never looked back.
Do you have any fears about what you do, and if so, how do you deal with them?
How did I deal with the fear that the orders will stop coming or that there may be cuter, cheaper stuff at Target? The truth is I don’t let myself think about it much. I do my best and I do what I love. I trust in my ability to adapt. I have realistic goals and I believe that my business has already been a success, regardless of what happens to it now. I remind myself everyday that I am living my dream, and in the process, teaching my kids to do the same.
How do you deal with creative blocks?
Creative blocks don’t happen to me all that often. I usually have more ideas than I have money to produce them but there are times when I am just so sick of thinking about what to make! My tried and true method of dealing with blocks is to start cleaning. I take a good look at my studio and change what’s starting to look ugly and get rid of the clutter. (I must admit that I am borderline neurotic about rearranging my house and studio. Mission: Organization is my favorite show.) I firmly believe that when my physical space is organized, my mental space is, too. And when I’m organized, I’m free to create.
Sometimes, even when my space is clean and there are no excuses, I just can’t get that last design to work. The printer is waiting and the reps start calling and the phone starts ringing and the next thing I know, I’m behind schedule and I’ve missed my deadline. To save my sanity, I give myself permission to make something bad and move on. And sometimes, as with my last press run, I struggled and struggled with my last design and I really hated it but I ran out of time and it was the best I could do and the kids had to get ready for school and we were carpooling that morning and I had to get groceries and I needed a shower and my voicemail was down and I had a headache and it was time to go and people were waiting so I sent in the file and I promised myself that I would do better next time and the next thing I knew…it was my best seller.
What kind of work environment do you have?
The production part of my business is done from my studio in my basement. It’s not bad—lots of light, high ceilings, brick walls with existing built-in shelves that we painted a bright white. Everything is labeled on big heavy duty shelving units and we (my two assistants and I) work on big worktables in the center of the room.
I also have an office in my children’s playroom, that’s where I do my designing and bookkeeping. It’s nice to have the kids and me in the same space. It might be loud but I get a lot more done if my kids aren’t running around the house wondering where I’m hiding. My daughter is seven years old and my son is three so my work environment is pretty “lively.”
When I first started my business, I would only make or take business calls in a quiet room when the kids were asleep but now I’ll take a call any old time. I don’t try to hide the reality of my situation anymore and I think my customers appreciate hearing those little voices in the background. (At least they have never complained.) I’m always looking to rent that perfect studio space but so far, it’s still right here.
Have you encountered any financial obstacles, and if so, how did you overcome them?
Yes, definitely so. I have a very limited amount of money to work with so sometimes I have to print fewer designs than I’d like. Or, I have to think of ways to cut other production costs. Having a limited amount of resources causes me to get pretty creative with my money and though I hate to admit it, I think it makes me a better designer. I’ve also been known to take advantage of a 0% interest credit card offer or two.
What is your definition of success?
To me, success is leading—or at least trying to lead—the life you truly believe you should. I think it comes from taking risks and pushing yourself past your comfort zone, even if it’s just a little bit. I think a person’s idea of success can change overtime, maybe even over the course of a day and that even the smallest successes should be celebrated.
Who or what are your inspirations?
My tireless, passionate daughter for her discerning, artistic eye. My son for his irrepressible enthusiasm and his desire to get in the game. My husband for his dedication to the task at hand and for his refusal to get wrapped up in the details. I’m inspired when things are quiet, when life seems simple, and when the days are longer than the nights. But more than anything, I am inspired by change and all the possibilities that come with it.
Words of advice for those pursuing their creative goals.
Don’t wait. There are some things you just can’t figure out until you start doing it. Have conviction and be flexible. Stay focused while remembering to do stuff that is pointless and fun. Keep an open mind. Give it everything you can. There is no such thing as failure when you are following your passion. Don’t wait.