Whoops! I knew I loved weddings (even though I’m such a single Pringle but totally a hopeless romantic) and design, so it was something I wanted to experiment with. I actually have my Bachelor of Fine Art in graphic design, so I was formally trained in layout design and ads. After my internship and before I started creating ads for the newspaper, I really wanted a creative outlet, which is so funny to have a creative outlet from a creative job, haha. That’s where calligraphy came into my life. Typography and graphic design were always something that I noticed throughout my life without even knowing what it was. I started getting serious with typography then handlettering, so calligraphy was the next step. That year, I designed my first save the date, invitation, bridal shower invite, and baby shower invitation for three people. I really enjoyed it, but now I’m a little embarrassed about the designs! I wish I would have had someone to talk to. Ad design is much more different than stationery design. Because I couldn’t find a resource for stationery design for tips and advice, I decided to get a group of stationers together to tell me their three pieces of advice. Below you’ll learn how relationships with other stationers can be helpful not hurtful, why you should trust your gut, why it’s okay to say “no,” and so many great tips. I hope you enjoy!
When I was starting my stationery business, I already had a background in starting up a business – my mom and I owned a paint-and-sip studio – so I thought I had a good jumping off point to work from. I knew how to make my business official (settle on a name, file to become an LLC, register for sales tax, etc.) and as a professional graphic designer, it was a relatively painless process to develop and create my brand. What I didn’t know was how challenging the next steps would be: creating and updating products, how to find my ideal clients, and building relationships with other stationers in the industry.
Creating and updating products was (and still is) difficult because it’s not something that you can add to your to-do list and check off when it’s complete, never to be thought of again. Products and services are always evolving and growing like organisms. For example: early on in my stationery career, I added calligraphy vows to the list of products I provide on Etsy. I used photos of my own wedding vows as the inspiration and left the listing to (basically) gather dust. Eventually, I realized that I needed to keep that listing updated with fresh content to keep it new and exciting. I began regularly updating my listing with recent vows, tweaked the pricing to reflect my steadily increasing rates, and showcased my current calligraphy style so that my clients could see what they’re getting. If I would have ignored that listing in perpetuity, it wouldn’t be current and I’d have to explain that to my clients every time they inquired about calligraphy vows.
I’ve read so many books about starting up a business, listened to podcasts, and read blogs about the best practices for a good startup. Starting up a business is difficult, and oftentimes we don’t know exactly who our perfect clients are until we’re a few months (or years!) into it. While this isn’t a make-or-break piece of your business, having a clear idea of what you want to provide to your clientele is definitely a time saver. Do you only want to sell custom designs? You need to develop a way to market to the brides with a budget for that. Do you want to create products that are ready to print and require little customization? There’s a market for that, too – but you have to do the research to know where to find your ideal clients!
This may sound counterproductive, but developing relationships within the stationery industry is a necessity. These professionals are not your enemy. They’re not your competition (well, not in the way you’re probably thinking). Because you love stationery (I hope, otherwise why are you getting into the stationery business?!), these individuals should inspire you and should excite you. I love seeing my friends succeed, and I feel the same way about my stationery peers succeeding. Your industry friends can also become your mentors and sounding boards. If you have a client that’s giving you a hard time, you could call your mom and ask her advice, but chances are, she won’t be able to give you the answer you need. Your friends in the industry have likely been doing this longer and will have some advice that will help keep you sane.
In the end, when you’re starting your stationery business, believing in yourself is the first step. From there, even on your off days, remember why you started. Let that feeling fill you up. Tackle the problem at hand, then work on the next problem. Everyone has a different journey…the important thing is to begin.
There are so many things I wish I knew when I started my stationery business. One tip is that everything gets better with practice. I remember being so discouraged when I couldn’t do everything perfect right out of the gate. Looking back on my work from when I started to where I am today, I can definitely see a progression and an improvement from where I first began. Secondly, being on social media is a necessity within the stationery business, but I wish I would have known not to compare myself to others so much. When I started my business, I was always looking at other calligraphers who seemed to have more followers than me, or they would get more likes on their photos, or they would just make these incredible works of art, and I would feel like I was never going to make it in this business. However, you never know how long they’ve been in the business or how hard they’ve worked to get there. So just stay in your own lane and you’ll get there someday too! Lastly, I wish I would have know what a wonderful community there is in the stationery world. When I began my business, I was doing it all alone with no guidance whatsoever. Now years later, there are so many wonderful calligraphers that I can reach out to to ask for advice or give advice. You don’t have to go at it alone- there are many amazing creatives out there that you can bounce ideas off of and collaborate with!
You’re more than a one-trick pony! It’s easy for product based entrepreneurs to post only photos of their work on social media. But you want to create a following of raving fans, not just halfway interested followers. You need to connect with them, and people connect best with a real person. Social media is your handshake, rather than a sales platform. Pick five things about yourself, and rotate through sharing about those things (one of which being your business). What would you share with a friendly stranger you sat next to on a plane? Maybe you like to travel with your husband, you love your puppy, always could go for a taco, oh and you’re a calligrapher as well! No one can do what you do exactly the way you do it, and so make your online presence feel like the real you!
Don’t take yourself too seriously. If a peer is asking for tips or advice, don’t be afraid to help them and make a friend in the process. If you’re successfully practicing number one on this list, it will be evident to your clients that you’re unique and so you don’t have to be afraid of giving away some “secret.” We all have access to basically the same tools. Hold your business with an open hand and be willing to share transparently. Sure, there may be risk involved, but the rewards are so very much greater.
Think of your business as a way to serve others. You are an artist. But your business will succeed because you are adding some kind of value to another person’s life. Think first about your client’s needs and wants. And don’t be afraid to give away free stuff, even if it’s just a helpful guide, like a free printable or a PDF guide on adding meaningful details to your wedding day. Give, give, give, before you ever ask. This builds up a longer term relationship with your audience, even if someone isn’t ready to buy the first time they discover you.
Oh my gosh do I wish there were even half the resources for newbie stationers when I started my business 13 years ago as there are now! But I’m thankful that all these years later that there are communities of stationers learning and collaborating with each other all over the internet. The top 3 tips I wish someone had told me when I started are lessons that were sometimes hard learned over the course of my career but I’m grateful for each one! The first tip is super simple, super cliche but SUPER TRUE. You have to spend money to make money. Period, end of sentence. Beautiful packaging, effective advertising, great marketing materials and a really good website can make the difference in your business’s bottom line. And I think one of the best uses of your money is education so take the class or sign up for the webinar! There’s no need to reinvent the wheel when someone is willing to tell you how to do it for $99. The second thing is “trust your gut.” Again it may sound obvious but if a client feels wrong or they want something that you can’t deliver, do not take the job because you think you need every job that comes your way in order to build your business. Some of the clients or jobs that aren’t a good fit can actually damage your business and reputation if they don’t turn out well so trust yourself when it doesn’t feel right. And lastly, narrow your focus and find your niche. You love stationery, that’s great but what is your style and who is your ideal client? You can’t be everything to everyone so show people the specific work you want to create and that is the kind of client you will attract. If you are a modern letterpress studio with a flare for minimal designs show that work then those are the brides who will come calling.
The last thing I’d like to offer if I may is that you will make mistakes and every mistake will eventually be in the past so learn from it and move on. Life and business will keep moving if you do!
My first piece of advice resonates from my background in marketing–and that is to have a strong brand from the get go. Your brand is more than your logo, you need to actively convey your business through voice (the words you use and tone you write in), your images (what kind of shots do you share?) and probably most importantly, your business name. Whether you decide to go with YourName Design Co. or something totally different, make sure you always tie what you do back to your name. With revelry + heart, all of my initial branding and blogging was to focus on what my business name meant, and conveying my studio’s values. I list what I do (custom invitations + personal design) on each printed piece as well as posting it on all of my online identities.
To follow that nugget, I would tell any prospective small business owner to anticipate a LOT of time to get your business off of the ground. I thought that since I had been designing custom invitations for 5 years, I would hit the ground running with a client base and a business plan. WRONG. I needed to revamp my entire backend–digitizing my contracts, building a new website, creating a client experience, organizing my finances, setting up wholesale accounts, networking with local event professionals, and building and sustaining a social media presence. I always figured I’d need to wear a lot of hats, but once you launch, it seems the to-do list is never ending. You invest so much (time and money!) before you see any clients or return. I found other business owners in the wedding industry were most valuable when trying to direct my steps.
Lastly, I would encourage new stationers to find your niche and stand behind the value of your work. It is very easy to feel overwhelmed, overworked and lost in the noise of other designers. If you find what makes you different, it’s easier to keep from comparing your work to the “big boys” in the industry. At revelry + heart, I create an experience for my couples that is completely based on what they want rather than what is popular in current trends. I fly my freak flag proudly, following the traditions my couples wish to adhere to and offering alternatives for those who do not. I swim upstream with my stationery, my paper isn’t photographed on white marble backgrounds and I use a lot of bold color and typography. I am always looking to push the envelope with mediums like acrylic and laser-cut pieces to shake up the white wedding world. By doing this, I attract clients that are seeking the experience I provide, and they value my time and my talents.
…one other piece I want to mention is to make sure you are dependable and consistent with both your clients and event partners. If you take on a styled shoot, show up and do good work. If you say you’ll send an email or follow up, make sure it’s sent. Networking is critical to establishing relationships and referrals to your studio, and you need to be there when you say you will. Reputations form and spread quickly. Sign on for opportunities you’re passionate about pursuing and decline those you are not. I’d always rather have someone decline up front than disappoint later.
I started my stationery business because I fell in love with the creative process involved, and I couldn’t wait to be a full time stationer and design things all day for a living. What I didn’t expect was that for every hour of creative work, there are other 12 hours of not so fun jobs like website designing, bookkeeping and marketing.
The second thing I wish someone had told me when I first started is that comparison is not only going to kill your confidence, but also your creativity. Finally, I wish I had known earlier that I didn’t have to go through this alone. “Community over competition” is not only a hashtag, and there are amazing communities of creatives out there where you can exchange knowledge, support each other and build friendships.
Photo by Juliet Ashley Photography
Because everyone gave such amazing advice, I’m going to keep it simple. When you become a stationer, it’s a lot of hard work. Not only do you create beautiful pieces, but you have to keep track of the finances and business aspects. Start off having fun. Participate in styled shoots, get your name out there, and build relationships. It’s okay to fake it ’til you make it. Remember those mockups I did in the beginning? They didn’t go to anyone real, and they were for my personal use. Don’t be afraid to do something for yourself. Create those custom vows that you didn’t get to have at your wedding or make a keepsake invitation suite that you aren’t actually going to send. Do small items to build up your portfolio and do what YOU want to do. We aren’t always going to have clients who want marble tiles, so we can create them just for our enjoyment! Don’t be afraid to reach out to stationers, event planners, and photographers to build relationships or ask for guidance. The worst thing they can say is “no” or totally ignore you. You took that chance and you’ll hope for a better result next time.
Thank you SO much for taking time out of your day to read this. I hope you learned something new and will be able to utilize it. I’d love to hear your tips if you’re a stationer or calligrapher, don’t forget to follow the gracious ladies who contributed their amazing advice. Have a wonderful day!