Website: www.torihiga.com and www.torihiga.blogspot.com
Biography: Tori Higa started her own handmade greeting card company in 2004. Her cards have been sold to over 300 stores and boutiques including Anthropologie, Kate’s Paperie, and Urban Outfitters Europe. Her work has also been seen in the pages of InStyle, Country Home, Jane, and the “O List” of O Magazine. In addition to her handmade line, she has recently started illustrating stationery for Cardstore.com and has an exciting design collaboration in the works with a non-profit organization called International Sanctuary (where her handmade card designs will directly help survivors of human trafficking in India). She lives a happy and creative life in Southern California with her husband, Branden, and young son.
What do you do and how did you start?
I design greeting cards and stationery. I started with a very small collection of about twelve handmade cards and brought them to three different stationery stores I had scouted out. Two of the three buyers placed orders on the spot. Because of the initial encouragement, I filled the orders, designed a slightly larger collection, and quickly applied to exhibit in a couple of trade shows in order to make more sales and grow my business.
How old were you when you realised you wanted to do and how old were you when you actually began.
I always knew that I wanted to grow up to do something creative. It wasn’t until my first “real” job after college (as a textile designer) that I started obsessing over greeting card design and longing to break into that industry. So I guess I was around 23 when I specifically wanted to become a stationery artist and I was 26 when I officially took that leap.
What steps did you take to create your own business?
I definitely took baby steps. I took various art classes in the beginning and did a lot of personal artwork I thought would be suitable for greeting card illustration. I did a lot of research before I finally ventured out on my own. When I felt ready I invested a small amount of money into some supplies, designed my first collection, and started showing my work.
What kind of formal education, training or experience do you have that applies to what you do?
While attending community college I worked part time at As You Wish (one of those pottery painting places) where I worked on the floor helping customers pick their pieces and in the back with the glazes and kiln. That was the first place I was given the opportunity to do custom artwork. I had an amazing and supportive boss who let me paint samples for the store and out of that came custom design projects on the side. She even had me paint a mural in the store which led to more commissioned art opportunities. At nineteen years old that little part time job coupled with the custom work on the side showed me that people would actually pay me for my art and creativity and that being an artist is a valid profession and the path I am supposed to take.
I went on to earn an art degree from Pepperdine University (where I remember a professor telling me that my paintings were “too cute” and “sweet with sugar on top” – which I guess is a compliment if you want to design greeting cards). After I graduated, I worked as a textile designer for Milliken Carpet, designing carpet patterns for large public spaces and corporate offices. I learned so much about how to be a designer at that job. I’m so thankful for that experience – especially getting to work alongside such inspirational and talented women.
The most relevant job that I had before I started my company was working as a handmade card manufacturer for Studio Daedre, an established stationery company who produces handmade cards and other stationery items with the lino block printing technique. Daedre was truly a great mentor. I learned so much about the ins and outs of working in a small business – so much so that I swore I would NEVER start my own company. It just seemed like way too much work and way too many hats to wear. At that time I really only wanted to be an artist – and not a business owner. I guess a lot of artists who start a company are reluctant business owners at first.
How did you first begin to sell/market your work?
The very first thing I did was make appointments with buyers to show my designs at local stores. Because selling is not my strong suit, I did a local trade show (Los Angeles) and a few months later did the Stationery Show in NY, which really took my company to the next level
What is the most rewarding aspect of what you do? The most frustrating?
The most rewarding aspect to what I do is being able to be creative as well has make my own hours – especially now that I am a mother, being able to work when my baby sleeps is key. The most frustrating part is not having enough time in the day to get everything done.
Do you have any fears about what you do, and if so, how do you deal with them?
My biggest fear has always been dealing with the business side of things. I consider myself an artist and not a businessperson. My way of dealing with this has been a long process but I have reached the solution to the best of my ability at this time, which is that I know what my weaknesses are and that it’s OK to have weaknesses. So I just get the help that I need in the areas that aren’t my strengths and try to focus on the areas that ARE my strengths. Basically my sweet husband does the books – I wouldn’t be here without him.
How do you deal with creative blocks?
If I am experiencing a creative block chances are that I have been sitting in front of a computer way too long and not really getting out much. So the first thing I usually do is get out into the world and start observing and absorbing what is going on. In other words, I people watch and trend spot. Another thing I do is just start sketching – the subject matter isn’t important as long as I can put pencil to paper and am drawing just for the love of drawing.
What has been your biggest struggle(s)/challenge(s) with your creative career?
My biggest struggle has been trying to do too much. I have the tendency to work too long of hours if left to my own accord which leads to burn out. And that’s not pretty. Having a baby definitely helped change that because a baby needs you whether you have deadlines or not. Suddenly the concept of a “greeting card emergency” seemed rather funny to me. I always knew logically that we all need to have a healthy balance in our lives, but it wasn’t until I had my baby that I learned that first hand.
What kind of work environment do you have?
I have a home office/studio that is separate from the rest of the main living space. That makes such a huge difference for me – no longer do we have envelope boxes stacked up in the bedroom like that first year of business! Now work and personal life don’t get mixed up as much and there is more balance and order in my life – not that my studio is always clean and organized by any means – but it’s freeing to actually have a creative space.
Have you encountered any financial obstacles, and if so, how did you overcome them?
I think that all small businesses – especially those that are product driven as opposed to service driven – have financial obstacles. Mine is no exception. There actually seem to be a lot of obstacles in my experience – i.e.: stores not paying for their goods when they are supposed to and sometimes (rarely) not ever paying, a large corporate store cancelling their order after you have already put up the money to get the order filled specifically for them (this only happened once to me and thankfully I was able to sell it to another chain and move the inventory anyway – phew!) having to put up large amounts of money in products that you don’t know are going to sell or not, needing to re-invest your profits in your business when you really just want to go and drink a fancy latte and do some shopping like a normal person.
The way I try to overcome those obstacles is to focus on what I do best which is create artwork. The minute I try to guess what is going to sell and invest my money there, I end up loosing in the end. Nothing I have ever designed because a sales rep told me to or I thought I needed to for whatever reason has sold well for me. When I create from the heart, that’s when I make sales as well. Go figure. Also, because my work is handmade, I am able to manufacture things based on individual orders as opposed to having a lot of inventory sitting around which really helps for cash flow. As far as late payments go, I now only work with reps that I trust and that go after those sneaky stores for me (also, getting a valid credit card when the order is placed helps a lot) Lastly, I have recently been learning to overcome those obstacles by focusing more on design and less on manufacturing. Because my priorities have changed a bit after a baby, I now believe my time is much better spent doing custom work (which I love), creating art for art’s sake, and partnering with other manufacturers instead of trying to do it all on my own.
What is your definition of success?
I think that success can be defined as having integrity in what you do. You should have the same integrity in your professional life as you do in your personal life. You may not be “successful” in the corporate world’s eyes if you don’t make a ton of money, but I really believe that as long as you don’t compromise your basic moral structure that you are a bigger success than someone who does shady business deals just to make an extra buck. So if you treat everyone with respect or turn down a big job because of a personal conviction that you can’t ignore, you can count yourself as very successful in your career – and you can sleep well at night, too.
Who or what are your inspirations?
I find inspiration in anything vintage. I especially love vintage textiles – the patterns, colors, textures – everything about the design. I also love mid century fashion. If it was socially acceptable (or practical in any way shape or form) I would walk around with enormous hats, sunglasses, costume jewellery, and three inch heels twenty four seven. But instead, those items just tend to show up in my artwork.
Words of advice for those pursuing their creative goals.
Try to carve out a little time for your creative pursuits – even if it’s just a few hours a week. Those few hours can make all the difference. I’ve always been “athletically challenged” to say the least, but I do love NIKE and their famous motto: Just Do It. That’s what you have to do to achieve any creative goal. I say that it’s great to have lots of ideas and daydreams, but if you really want to live your creative ideal you have to make time to do it and not just daydream about doing it. You literally have to Just Do It…and the rest will work itself out.
Do you know any helpful/inspirational books, websites, organisations etc.?
There are so many fantastic business sources and inspirational venues for artists and crafters these days. Hmmm…where to start…
First of all, I really love all of the resources on Another Girl At Play – and I’m not just saying that! There is a wealth of information as well as inspiration here.
My current favourite blog for inspiration and motivation is Creative Thursday; I love Marisa’s art, love her pod casts, and love her insights.
Speaking of pod casts, Craft Sanity is really great for inspiration as well. ()
I have also really been enjoying the Lilla Rogers blog lately. Click on “thoughts” on the right and scroll down to the title “Can Artists Make a Living?” on the left for an especially good blog entry.
I also love the book Craft Inc, by Meg Mateo Ilasco. I only wish I knew about this book before I started my creative journey – although it was still helpful and inspirational in the midst of it.