by Nicole Morell of Honeybunch
Jennifer Playford is a Victoria-based commercial illustrator and serial entrepreneur. Her illustration work has been licensed by Mudpuppy, Cosmo Girl, Coca Cola, the LA Times, Klutz Publishing and Random House – to name just a few. In addition to her regular gig creating fabulous illustrations, Jenn is also the owner of Furochic, a line of Japanese-inspired fabric gift wrap, and the author of the gorgeous book Wrapagami.
Jenn sits down with us this month to share her experiences as an entrepreneur who never quits.
Let’s start back in 2004, shall we? Your first venture was Clementine Tree. Tell us a little about getting started that year.
I have always had a strong entrepreneurial spirit and an unstoppable creative force. My first little business, Wild At Heart jewellery, started in high school and continued until the end of University. But as an illustrator I have always wanted to apply my designs onto consumer products.
My first attempt was Clementine Tree; I silk screened my designs onto dupioni silk, and had a company make them into lampshades. I would put my daughter Ava, who was less than a year old, to bed and then frantically silk screen in our dining room, hoping that I wouldn’t hear her cry. It was messy but fun, and I loved the magic of transforming a blob of ink into one of my designs.
The One Of A Kind Show was great – like setting up shop for 11 days. I remember being happy with the number of sales. Although estimating how much stock to make was difficult, and of course I was left with more than I would have liked.
How and when did Clementine Tree wind up?
There are two reasons why I decided that Clementine Tree wasn’t worth pursuing. Mainly, it was difficult to strike a balance between a wholesale price that made sense to retailers and that allowed me to make money, too. It was also difficult to find a supplier to turn the printed silk into actual lampshades. My supplier in Toronto ended up being a nightmare – quality and bad attitude. About six months after launching we moved from Toronto to Victoria, British Columbia and the cost of production would have tripled.
Lampshades are also large and delicate – making them difficult to store and ship. I did one outdoor show where most of the stock got ruined by gusts of wind blowing fine dust and dirt onto the silk. The shades were becoming too high maintenance.
There is one thing I have learned: if you can simplify and start small, do it! Having a product that is easy to ship and difficult to damage is a huge benefit.
How did you come up with your next idea, Jenny Wren Paperie? Tell us about that business.
It took me awhile to learn the lesson of simplifying and starting small. I decided to apply my illustrations to a line of greeting cards called Jenny Wren Paperie. I loved the process of selecting designs to print, deciding how they would fit together into a collection and be enticing to retailers.
I decided that the best way to start this business was to have a booth at the New York City National Stationery Show. It felt great to be a part of something on such a large scale and to be amongst some very beautiful and inspiring stationers.
It was at the Stationery Show that I realized that I wanted to work with a distributor so that I could focus on the designing and let someone else take care of the sales, collecting payment and shipping. I walked around the show introducing myself to companies I thought were a good match and inviting them to come to my booth. One company did and two months later called to say that they were interested in signing me on.
In the end, it wasn’t the best decision. Distributors traditionally are only vested in selling your product if the numbers are high right away, and they want to see that you are coming out with new product and designs each season. Also, you lose personal contact with your customers and quality control of your shipments. I didn’t like how I lost control over my business; it felt like it was too much in someone else’s hands.
I would recommend working with sales reps over a distributor as they take a smaller commission and work by region. I had trouble receiving payment from my distributor, which made it difficult to run my business and pay the bills, so I decided to end our contract. It took six months to recover and plan how to relaunch Jenny Wren Paperie.
And yet this not-great experience leads to something terrific: your current venture, Furochic. Tell us about that.
I had I also used the Stationery Show to test the market on my idea of using fabric as reusable gift wrap. I did up four silk screened prototypes. I entered the wraps in the Best New Product competition and was chosen as a finalist and had a display of Furochic in the Best New Product Awards gallery. People loved the idea, and I realized that Furochic was an idea worth pursuing.
What happened to Jenny Wren Paperie?
I decided to focus on Furochic exclusively and discontinue greeting cards. I had to print a minimum of 3,000 cards of each design to get the cost to a “regular retail” price point – it meant I had to carry a lot of stock. Retailers expected new designs quite often, so a lot of capital was required. It’s difficult to predict what designs will be popular, so some cards sold out while I was left with lots of others.
Furochic was new, and there was a lot of interest from both retailers and press. I was the only Canadian company offering fabric wraps. I had also been approached to write a book called Wrapagami, the Art of Fabric Wraps published by St Martin’s Grifin. The book came out last August and has been a fantastic selling tool for my product.
What has been the learning curve for Furochic in terms of price, packaging, production and sales?
Since the Furochic prototypes in May 2007, I have produced 12,000 Furochic. I sold out of the first run, and I’m about half way through the second. Furochic originally retailed for $12.95. The price point was too high for something perceived as gift wrap, even though it’s meant to be taken as part of the gift and then reused. But price was an issue, so for the second production run I found a new supplier and changed the packaging which brought the price down to $9.95.
The new, simplified packaging also makes it easier for retailers to display the product. I’ve found if you make it easy for stores to buy and display your product they will make a faster decision to stock your product – even if they’re hesitant on price. I put together a Starter Kit which comes with 36 assorted wraps, a clip strip to hang them on, a display wrap, and a copy of my book Wrapagami. Most stores are happy to order this way as it is easy for them, and I end up selling 36 wraps, where most stores would have ordered 24.
Where is your focus now? Where have you had your biggest success?
I am focusing on Furochic and do everything from marketing, pr, sales, shipping and designing. I have finally figured out how to simplify my business – I have one product, 12 designs, and it is easy to sell and ship and very difficult to damage! I also decided that if I am going to exhibit at trade shows I will only do it if I can fit my entire display in one suitcase! So far, it has worked great – no shipping ahead or dealing with customs, and set-up is quick. Filming a professional video demo-ing Furochic was one of the best things I’ve done. It’s on my website, and I also play it at tradeshows.
One of the things I admire about you is your resourcefulness. You seem to be very intuitive about when it’s time to outsource tasks. What is your decision-making process about these things? How do you recognize that you can’t or shouldn’t do everything?
Accounting and book keeping is a no brainer – I have to outsource this aspect of my business otherwise things would be a mess! Although I enjoyed manufacturing Furochic, I realized how nice it is to be the artist and have someone else produce and sell the product. But everything comes down to the numbers: for me to produce each Furochic cloth personally would result in a retail price much higher than $9.95. I have outsourced the printing and packaging to a company that is set up to print on fabric.
How do you want to spend your time? I have two young children, so I have to work fast, and I have limited time for my business, so that often means that I can’t do everything. I finally paid a professional photographer to photograph Furochic – something I should have done from the beginning as it has made such a huge difference. I would highly recommend hiring out for photography – it can make all the difference to your professionalism. I am limited in my web knowledge, so I design my site, but I hire a web developer to do the technical end.
I think every entrepreneur begins each venture with the greatest enthusiasm as well as equal measures of financial and emotional investment. How do you know an idea is worth sticking with? Aside from being a runaway financial success of course! And the flip side of that is, when do you know it’s time to move on?
There’s a fine balance of believing in your idea and being realistic. You have to be ok to move on if something isn’t working. The timing in the marketplace has to be right. Have the patience to see your idea grow slowly and keep your expectations realistic.
As long as there are encouraging signs, whether it be from sales or press, then you will know that it is an idea worth sticking with. My business has taken lots of twists and turns and grows slower than I originally thought it would. I can see though that everything is connected and helping it grow in the right direction. Each bit of press, contact, workshop and tradeshow etc., makes a difference. Sometimes you don’t see the results right away, but each little thing leads to another. Blogs are a great way to get out there. It’s all about linking!
If your business stops being fun then I believe it is time to move on. If you lose that enthusiasm and daily appreciation of being your own boss and loving your work, then it may be time to start a new venture. It’s difficult to sell yourself or your product if you don’t have your heart in it.
What made you make the leap from commercial illustration to starting your own business?
I continue to do commercial illustration, which I love, but I also enjoy having a business that is completely mine. It’s the best of both worlds and allows for a lot of variety – I never get bored! My latest endeavor is to develop my art licensing portfolio. I will have a line of children’s toys in the marketplace in early 2011 with my illustrations as well as a couple products for Mudpuppy.