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Meet Emily McDowell

Today we’d like to introduce you to Emily McDowell.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Emily. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
I started what became Emily McDowell & Friends in 2011, as an Etsy shop selling prints of my illustrations. I’d recently quit my full-time job as an advertising writer/creative director, and I was freelancing in that business and trying to figure out what I wanted to do next because I’d realized it wasn’t advertising. The Etsy shop was my side project. I ended up transitioning from making prints into making greeting cards because I saw a need in the world for cards that reflected the relationships we really have. At the time, the big card companies were still making very traditional cards that were more about social convention than about real human connection, with aspirational content – gushing poems for love and Mother’s Day, etc., but in reality, those things don’t actually apply to so many people’s relationships. Making cards allowed me to combine my writing and illustration skills, plus my love for psychology and human observations, in a really fun, interesting way.

After one of my initial cards went super-viral, I took that as proof of concept and created my first wholesale collection, which launched to retailers in May of 2013. Over the years, we’ve added gift products like mugs, tote bags, and journals. We transitioned from Etsy to our own site several years ago, and today, our revenue is a combination of online retail and wholesale sales to about 2,000 retailers.

After spending five years as both CEO of the company and its sole content creator (I don’t recommend this, for the record), we merged with fellow LA-based gift company Knock Knock about 18 months ago. We’re two separate brands with a shared office, back end, and management structure, and I’m an equity partner in the joint business.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
Hahaha. I wouldn’t even say it’s been a ROAD. It’s been more like the universe handing me a knife and dropping me in the middle of a forest. Coming up with creative ideas and executing them is the easy part. The hard part is logistics: infrastructure, manufacturing, distribution, fulfillment. We grew very quickly, which meant we were a different company every three months for five years. This made it almost impossible to plan effectively and implement systems; by the time something was completed, it was often outdated. We were also entirely self-funded, which meant a lot of bootstrapping and making do. The retail industry has also been changing very rapidly. Entrepreneurship requires almost a pathological love of continuous problem-solving, because often, change is your only constant, so if you don’t enjoy that process, you’ll struggle to love your job.

Please tell us about Emily McDowell & Friends.
We make greeting cards and gifts for the relationships we really have – not the ones we wish we had. In terms of products, we’re probably best-known for our Empathy Cards, designed to give to people who are going through life’s hardest times: major illness, loss, grief. I had cancer when I was 24, and the hardest thing about it was the loneliness and isolation I felt when people in my life disappeared because they didn’t know what to say. In our culture, most of us don’t learn how to talk about illness and death, but the irony is that these times are when we’re most in need of human connection. “Get well soon” cards are kind of weird to receive if you might not – it’s like, “okay, I’ll try!” With Empathy Cards, I wanted to create something that helped people going through a hard time feel seen and heard, and also helped friends and family to find the authentic-feeling words of support they struggled to come up with on their own.

When we introduced these cards four years ago, they ended up being covered in over 300 media outlets in 22 countries, and their success inspired my 2017 book, co-authored with Dr. Kelsey Crowe, called There Is No Good Cards for This: What To Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love. I’m most proud of the contributions we’ve made to the industry in this area. The larger card companies have now shifted their strategy in this direction, and today, we’re seeing many more “nontraditional” card options for offering support.

Overall, our brand is known for its humor, honesty, and insights into the human condition. Whenever a customer asks if we’ve been reading their diary, I know I’m doing my job right.

If you had to go back in time and start over, would you have done anything differently?
Oh jeez. You know the saying, “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should?” We grew in a lot of directions in response to customer demand, and ideas I had about what success looked like, that ultimately weren’t aligned with what I personally enjoyed, and I ended up working myself into the ground. If I did this all over again, I’d be much more thoughtful about challenging our cultural assumption that when it comes to business, if something is successful, the obvious next step is to grow it. Sometimes that’s the case, but not always!

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Knock Knock LLC

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