Interview: Kate Rosenthal of Stubby Pencil Studio

by Sara Tams of sarah + abraham

I first came across Stubby Pencil Studio a couple of months ago in my quest to find the best handmade children’s items on the web to feature in the OMHG shopping guide. I immediately fell in love with the clean, easy-to-navigate website design and fresh illustrations (it came as no surprise when I discovered that the site had been designed by Aeolidia!)

The products themselves are equally delightful… a wide selection of eco-friendly goods at an affordable price including do-it-yourself stationery products for young children, craft supplies, sketchbooks, gifts, toys, games, books, and many other fun and creative products for kids.

I had so many questions I wanted to ask the owner, Kate, and she was happy to oblige…

1. Tell us a little bit about yourself and how the idea for Stubby Pencil Studio came about.  What were your first steps to make it a reality?

When my twins turned two, I looked for simple cards to send as thank you notes for gifts. Nothing seemed to fit, so I quickly made cards for the girls to color, and I wrote the note inside – everyone loved them.

At the request of friends, I designed more themes and printed the cards on recycled paper to sell locally. Having a website allowed us to make the cards available to everyone, and I found art supplies like biodegradable soy crayons and FSC color pencils to sell as well. The focus was on eco friendly and do-it-yourself.

The response from parents seeking eco alternatives for their children was overwhelming. We added all natural playdough, non-toxic toys, recycled sketchbooks… more and more products were added to the store, and now we have a terrific selection, including water color pencils, party favors, reusable bags… it’s great to be able to source these items and make them available to families.

2. Do you have formal training in illustration? Did you have prior experience as a buyer?

I have a degree in Graphic Design, but at the time, I was a stay-at-home mom. It was fun to create the cards, but some days I would think, “What am I doing?!”

For buying, I had no prior experience, other than shopping for my own children and loving art and supplies. If I find a quality product that we like to use, I figure other families will like it as well. If we find the pencils or the crayons break easily, I don’t stock them.

3. Please describe your workspace and process for filling orders.

Stubby Pencil Studio is home-based, but we hope to get a formal studio space soon. I converted one of our bedrooms into an office for design, printing, paper storage, office supplies and filing. Inventory and order processing have taken over the bonus room. We process orders daily (most of the time) and ship by USPS – we have the BEST mailman – some days he picks up 100+ packages!

All products are in inventory, and we do not drop ship. This gives us a chance to include little extras in each box – like a few cards to color, a pencil sharpener, an organic lollipop… and makes shopping with us a little more personal.

4. Wow – that’s a lot of orders in one day! Do you have employees? How has it worked out having them come to your home to work?

I haven’t hired permanent employees, yet, but I do have friends who work for me on a contract basis and family to help when it gets busy. Kim, my bookkeeper, also works on contract, and has the code to the garage door so she can work if I’m gone. Some days she’ll arrive to a table of clean laundry to fold, then it’s a scramble for me to tidy it up before we can work. We laugh about it – what else can you do? We’re great friends trying to balance work and family, and some days are just like that.

I look forward to having a space and a division from home and work. Having the business at home is convenient because I can work when the kids are in bed and on the weekends (if I need to), but it’s also a disadvantage because I never get to leave it. I struggle with keeping on top of the house, running errands for the family, grocery shopping, appointments during the week… it’s all jumbled together when I work at home.

I should be able to do a load of laundry or run the dish washer while working – right? – but it’s distracting and I get even less done. The “but you’re home all day,” I hear once in a while from my husband drives me crazy. We’re still working on that!

5. Are you able to have uninterrupted work time when your daughters are home, and if so, do you have any tips you could share for how you make that work?

I enrolled them in a Montessori pre-school when they were almost 3 years old, and that allowed me to work several half days a week. As the business grew, I increased them to a full day, five days a week and so they are in school 8:30 am to 3 pm. With this, I have a good block of time to work and once they get home, I stop for the rest of the evening and it’s family time.

We are super lucky to have twins, because they entertain each other and are interested in quiet activities reading books, coloring, painting or drawing, play dough… so I can usually get a little work done, even on days when they are at home. The most challenging time is trying to make a phone call – that’s when they usually start fighting.

This summer, I’m hiring a sitter for 3 days a week so they’ll have the summer off, but I’ll be able to work. This Fall, they start first grade, and we’ll see what the future holds.

6. Have there been any obstacles or major turning points as you’ve grown your business?

The biggest obstacle was that I was not prepared for the volume of sales the internet can bring. At first, we did not have an inventory tracking system and that was a nightmare. Using Paypal for payments was easy, but entering the transactions into QuickBooks for inventory and bookkeeping was cumbersome. I spent a lot of time trying to find an ecommerce cart solution. Now, thanks to Aeolidia, we have a great system in place and work so much more efficiently. Hours of bookkeeping now take minutes, and I have time for expanding the product line, marketing, and sleep.

7. With regards to promoting and marketing your business, what has worked well for you and what hasn’t?

We’ve been featured in a few magazines (Cookie, Hybrid Mom, Real Simple), but most of our customers have found us via a blog. The best marketing is word of mouth – moms telling other moms about our products and service. Being a small business, we’ve not been able to afford a marketing campaign, but honestly, we’ve been successful despite that. The power of bloggers is amazing – nearly priceless.

8. What advice would you give to someone who wants to start an online business like yours?

If you are personally interested in and love the products, it feels more like play than work. You’ll work WAY more than you anticipated (or your family thinks you should) so you better LOVE it. I really enjoy this business and that people seek us out for eco alternatives to things they might buy at Target, but choose to buy recycled or biodegradable instead. That feels good – not like we’re just putting more “stuff” out there. Also, select an e-commerce system you can grow into (if needed).

9. What are your future plans for Stubby Pencil Studio?

I’d love to have a studio space – a place where we can offer classes and projects using eco art supplies and move the inventory and production. Until then, we’ll continue to seek out and add products – for example, more options for favors and ideas for eco birthday parties.

2 comments

  1. lakshmi says:

    What an incredible story ! I love your eco-friendly philosophy. Your workspace may not have be a studio yet, but its one of the most organized ones I have seen 🙂
    Congratulations on your success, and wish you the best.
    Lakshmi

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