Stationery in Mom's Basement: My Small Business Story
I first started compiling this when I was sitting at the Toyota dealer waiting for an oil change to finish up. I don't really remember what prompted it but I wanted the entire evolution of Sketchy Notions in one spot once and for all. For a TLDR (too long, didn't read), condensed version then you can check out the About page here but if you want the entire saga of why and how I started making greeting cards, read on!
I've been drawing and making things ever since I was little. We have drawings I made in pre-school and all throughout Elementary school. I loved to draw people (and I still do!)
Late in the 90s/early 00s when my family first got our first computer, between playing Where in the World is Carmen San Diego, I started using CreataCard. This was a greeting card and design program from American Greetings. I had my own "business name" of DumBlonDesigns and made card after card after card as well as business cards for my nonexistent business. I even laminated them between pieces of clear packing tape.
The concept of selling these cards wasn't entirely there but not unprecedented. I come from a family of self employed folks with unique jobs (stenographer mother, stunt driver dad, architect step dad, cattle ranching and drag racing grandparents). Many of my aunts and uncles also own their own small businesses so I've grown up around folks with flexible schedules and being their own bosses in some capacity.
In high school, I was deep in the art program and anything artistic (including doing mock trial as the court room artist). After graduating High School, I went off to college at the University of Texas at Austin. At UT I dove into thinking I would be in the fine art world and take up oil painting. Before I could get a painting class on my schedule, I got into Intaglio printmaking and fell in love with printmaking. I started getting into watercolors and more bespoke projects through my bookbinding classes.
Between my 3rd/4th years in college, I studied abroad in Italy for 6 weeks. This summer adventure gave me time to really explore watercolors and solidified my love for them. While all my classmates were in the studio at their easels with their oils and acrylics, I was wandering around Castiglion Fiorentino in Tuscany with my sketchbook, my pens and a travel watercolor set. Within those 6 weeks, I had fallen in love with watercolors and Italy. It was around this time I started to blog in lieu of getting an actual website portfolio and I first started using the name Sketchy Notions. It's wild to think that I've been blogging off and on for over 10 years now! My very first blog post was in 2009 sharing my first sketchbook from Italy.
When I came back to Austin for my last year of college, I started incorporating more watercolors into my work. Many of my last bookmaking projects involved watercolor illustrations. I even did my first custom children's book commissions for my Aunt Kim. Before graduating, I even printed my own grad announcements with a mixture of debossing (longhorns!) and lithography. I had also applied and been accepted to an internship at the study abroad center that I spent the previous summer at. Come mid May of 2010, I was back on a plane to Italy on my actual graduation day.
What came next was a lot of washing dishes, learning Italian, running a bar, and wrangling college students on their study abroad programs (more on that adventure here). During all this, I was sketching and traveling inbetween semesters of students. I decided to open up an Etsy shop and the very first listing I had was for a custom children's book, (priced waaay lower than it ever should have been). As a result, my very first Etsy order I ever received was for a custom children's book...while I was living in Castiglion Fiorentino, Italy at the study abroad center, for a woman living in Nova Scotia. It was a wild adventure going to the hardware store and art stores with my limited Italian to get supplies and then ship the book the Nova Scotia. But it set the precedent for me wanting to make traveling and working coexist in my life.
After I spent 2 years at the study abroad center, nannying for an Italian family and even taking a class on tattooing, I came home in December of 2012. I was broke and crushed to no longer be in Italy. I was back living in my mom's basement with sketchbooks of Italy watercolors and drawings. To combat the brokeness, I started working for Arts Outreach and playing with making prints of my sketches and taking on small invitation commissions for my cousins.
I downloaded Gimp since I was too broke for Photoshop and I still use it today. I started learning to combine printmaking, watercolor, lettering and printing to make cards and products and even started listing linocut cards in my Etsy shop alongside prints of my sketchbook watercolors. At first everything was printed at home on a 4 color Epson all in one printer scanner with card stock and envelopes I bought from Michaels.
Fast forward a few years and I was still teaching elementary and middle school art classes with Arts Outreach and slowly building my little stationery business alongside starting an art retreat business in Italy. I was also taking on odd jobs like chalk signs for wineries and making wine labels for different wineries around the Santa Ynez Valley. In 2013 I officially filed the paper work for a DBA under the name Sketchy Notions and in 2014 I finally got the trademark approval of Sketchy Notions. It all felt very official!
I got my very first wholesale account when a friend of mine cold pitched me to the newly opened Los Olivos General Store. I began making more greeting cards based on things their customers were asking for, and cards my mom would find most useful. I was also making Pearl Snap earrings at the time. I branched out and did more markets, including two back-to-back years at Renegade in Los Angeles.
During this time I was making a lot of commissioned wedding albums and one-of-a-kind projects. I also started some online weekly postcard projects which got the attention of Instagram. As a result I got reached out to by the folks at Walter Foster and Quarto Books to start collaborating on my first book Modern Drawing. By this point I had been living at home for a few years so I also started online dating...and met Louie!
Going into spring 2018 I got the opportunity to collaborate with the Crafter's Box and I thought I was ready to try my hand a trade show... specifically, the National Stationery Show in New York City. It was okay. I survived. A couple of my products were finalists for Best New Product! I got some orders but in hindsight I still didn't really know what I was doing. I printed my line sheet at my local UPS store which worked but damn. Luckily I met some lovely folks like Amal Iqbal and Jenna from Paper Wilderness and I got to meet Pei from The Paper + Craft Pantry in person but overall my first trade show was a missed opportunity.
In the fall of 2018, the studio and I moved to Pasadena with Louie and I slowly began phasing out teaching for Arts Outreach as I took on more wholesale accounts after signing up for Faire. Around this time I upgraded from my Epson all in one printer to a Canon Pixma Pro 100 but I was still cutting, scoring and folding all my cards even as orders kept getting more frequent and larger. I didn't have the systems in place to know how to do follow up for outreach, let alone have the guts to reach out to new shops with cold emails.
The studio space evolved a lot during these years. Living at my mom's gave me free reign over most of the downstairs so I had a full "bubble" studio. In Pasadena my desk in front of the sliding door next to our dining area of the kitchen became the studio while I stored my inventory in bins in the closet. My market supplies lived on shelving on our little patio. After a year in Pasadena, we we moved to Berkeley in the fall of 2019 so Louie could get his MBA. The studio shrank to a bar height kitchenette table in our less than 600 square feet apartment. Inventory was stored in the (very not up to code) loft above our bed and under the bed until I finally caved and got a storage unit a few blocks walking distance from our apartment. I was getting more orders and had decided to participate in another trade show in San Francisco, Noted, in spring 2020. I had also started teaching in-person workshops at Austin, Texas at the Paper + Craft Pantry!
Then 2020 came around and the pandemic hit. My markets all cancelled, the tradeshow canceled, my Italy retreats postponed and I was fully an e-commerce business. I collaborated with Pei on some workshop kits and taught a few workshops online. Besides having lots of extra time at home, I had time to step back and assess how to grow Sketchy better. 3 years later and I was still printing, cutting and scoring my own cards. Besides stickers, all my products were printed in house and while I took a lot of pride in that, my time would be better spent painting and designing new products, as well as reaching out to new stores to wholesale to.
So in the fall of 2020 I took the plunge and enrolled in Proof to Product's Paper Camp and dove into learning how to wholesale smarter, and improve on all the ways I had Googled, MacGyvered and jerry-rigged my business over the years. Paper Camp was one of the best investments I ever made for my business and I'm still feeling the benefits of that investment over 2 years later. It also prompted a facelift for Sketchy Notions.
By the time 2021 rolled around, I had fully outsourced the printing of all my products (except prints). Louie was also wrapping up on his MBA in our living room program and we were getting ready to head back to So Cal. In June we moved back to my folk's house to use as a home base while we shopped the rental market.
After a couple months we found the perfect apartment in Northeast Los Angeles and moved back south! With a 2 bedroom apartment, this gave Sketchy the biggest studio to date and I finally was able to put in a whole wall of shelves and see all my card designs in one spot. The shelves took a bit of jerry-rigging with Ikea being out of their wooden shelves for ages but I was able to trade for a couple shelves with my soap making friend Christie. Writing this now in February 2023, the shelves are already too small for how many more designs and products I've added to the line.
2021 was wild. Louie and I got engaged and planned our wedding for summer 2022 in Italy after I wrapped up another round of Wanderful Retreats. We also adopted our two cats, Ginger and Babka, who are a fixture in my Sketchy Instagram post now.
And here we are! Sketchy Notions has now wholesaled to over 200 stores, there's more than 100 card designs, over 300 SKUs and I'm prepping for my return to trade shows with Noted* in April. It's wild to type this all out and think back over how Sketchy came to be and has evolved over the years. I'm grateful I had that time in my mom's basement to play and experiment with turning Sketchy into a business. Overall, I'm very proud of where Sketchy is today considering how meandering the road has been and continues to be!
Holy smokes my friend. You are a DYNAMO. I am so impressed with all you have done. You make it look easy!
Gail Deschamps said:
Chelsea, We really enjoyed reading about your journey and we are so proud of you. Hoping to meet Louie soon! Terry & Gail