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Meet Jen Bilik of Knock Knock in Culver City

Today we’d like to introduce you to Jen Bilik.

Jen, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I started Knock Knock with the desire to write and design at the same time and to create products that had fun yet substantive editorial content in not-necessarily-book formats. The early 2000s constituted a marketplace moment when there was very little voice-driven product; instead, newly ascendant big-box retailers were targeting a lowest common denominator. But I thought there might be enough people out there—at least a small audience to support a small company—who would appreciate voice, a point of view, interestingly conceived publishing, and even a few big words and smarts that didn’t have to dumb down to “Yeah, I think everyone on the planet would probably understand that.” Finally, I liked the idea of focusing on nurturing a creative studio where we got to make what we wanted and then foist it onto the marketplace to live or die, rather than working with clients or sticking to one widget. A studio felt creative enough for me to swallow what I imagined as the castor oil of business (I was an artiste, you know, and a liberal—I didn’t think we were meant to do business).

Having moved out to LA four years earlier, I was able to launch Knock Knock with money from the sale of my NYC apartment. I rented a small studio space, hired a couple of people, and we set out to develop what turned into a debut list of 14 products. We designed an impressive enough showstopper catalog that we couldn’t imagine anybody not opening it. We scraped some 700 retailer addresses off the internet and off the catalogs went. I was able to get appointments with some of my favorite independent retailers, and they not only bought the product, they referred me to sales reps—which I didn’t know existed.

Knock Knock’s products were unique and appealing enough that we had the good fortune of being in demand from the get-go. We built up our network of reps across the country and had more orders coming in than we could comfortably handle. A month after that inaugural catalog went out, our wrapping paper was featured in the New York Times (this is before social media and online publications).

The challenge in growing Knock Knock was less creative than logistical. How to build a team? How to manage a team? How to get quality product manufactured profitably and delivered on time? How to process and ship customer orders effectively? For Knock Knock, business was always more of a challenge than creative. The big surprise was that I liked, and was reasonably good at, business. So much for my liberal artiste street cred! We grew relatively organically from there, responding to the needs of growth and team-building along the way.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
I’m not sure if I know a single entrepreneur who would characterize their road as smooth. I myself flew straight past “rocky” to “totally treacherous, do not pass.” Building Knock Knock is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and there are parts of it I continue not to be very good at. I fell prey to manufacturing fraud. I turned away for a while and our accounting department collapsed. I worked 90 hours a week and gained 80 pounds and was personally miserable even as I was professionally fulfilled. The experience has held a mirror up to every weakness I had, which can be personally quite devastating. People frequently confuse the words “honored” and “humbled” (pet-peeve alert); I was, and continue to be, truly humbled by how challenging it is to run a strong company that has to reinvent itself on an ongoing basis along with keeping culture and morale from plummeting.

As with most worthwhile pursuits, I’d guess, the biggest challenge has been internal—becoming and acting as the CEO that Knock Knock needs, which is not necessarily a natural fit for me. I don’t know how people improve at leadership and management without a lot of constant personal work. Perhaps it’s the high percentage of CEOs who are sociopaths that skew the numbers (oh, to be a sociopath who doesn’t care, I think on difficult days).

Personnel is one of the biggest challenges at any company, given that it’s the team that comprises the company and its output, and Knock Knock is no different. We want to be as productive as possible, but sometimes a new hire doesn’t work out, or a longstanding team member quits. Or, as we just recently experienced for the first time, financial challenges lead to layoffs. HR—hiring the right people and keeping those right people fulfilled in their jobs, and turnover—is one of the most challenging elements of any business.

Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about Knock Knock – what should we know?
In 2018, Knock Knock and Emily McDowell & Friends joined to create a new entity, the Who’s There Group. Both companies create witty, design-forward gift and stationery products, and Knock Knock also publishes books. Our stock in trade is saying out loud what might already be in your head or helping people find the wit or compassion to say something they might be struggling to articulate.

Knock Knock is known for being a pioneer in a product revolution that brought voice and point of view to the gift industry. Also, everybody knows us for putting the fun in functional with multiple choice—multiple-choice pads, cards, stickies. Why write when you could just tick a box? Putting the fun in functional definitely characterizes Knock Knock’s products—a lot of our stuff makes productivity and work fun.

Both Knock Knock and Emily McDowell & Friends are smart and continue not to dumb down their writing and messages, and we’ve found that our approach appeals to far more (not dumb) people than the small audience I first envisioned. I’m proud that we’ve continued to tell our truths in a mass-market arena that encourages zero risk when it comes to opinions and point of view. And I’m proud, and heartened, that there’s an audience who still wants something that doesn’t just consist of pretty flowers and bunnies.

How do you think the industry will change over the next decade?
Right now, our industry is going through some big changes. Brick-and-mortar retail has been suffering to various degrees since online shopping began its rise, and in 2018 and the early part of 2019, we’ve observed a steep intensification of that shift with a corresponding negative impact on our sales. The gift and publishing industries have long been sold to the trade by commissioned sales reps—including dedicated road reps who go from retailer to retailer, show-and-telling the samples they carry in their trunks (I call them the “shoe leather” of the gift industry)—but online platforms are nipping at that sales model’s heels as well. Younger retailers are accustomed to shopping online, so they’re looking for that convenience in wholesale.

For a long time, I felt like Knock Knock was the new kid on the block, and me along with it. We’re 17 years in now, however, and I’ll be 50 in July, so neither of us are so new anymore! Knock Knock and our sister company, Emily McDowell & Friends, have to stay up to date and relevant, so we’re grateful to have young team members and knowledgeable folks helping us to surf the waves of voracious online media, especially social, trying to keep up and anticipate the next Facebook, the next Instagram, etc.

All of that means the nuts and bolts of our future—channels of distribution, where and how retailers and consumers are going to want to buy—is currently in flux. Our job now is to stay open, to keep our eyes and ears peeled, to steer our boat in new and ever more rapidly evolving waters. One thing that has characterized Knock Knock from 2002 to today? Never, ever a dull moment. For someone who’s shaped three decades of educational experiences and jobs expressly to avoid boredom, I certainly got what I (be careful what you) wished for!

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Yvette Roman, Jason Ware

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