I got an email from Janine complimenting me with my site (such emails are always a good idea) and briefly explaining me about her work and business, (also always a good idea!) called Kwohtations . Since we’ve been in touch and I deeply fell in love with her handmade cards.
The cards are made for ‘random occasions’ which Hallmark doesn’t really cover. Such as ‘Thanks for Watching Me Ugly Cry’ (I can think of a few people to send that one!) and ‘Sorry You Hate Your Haircut’ (Which can indeed be a traumatizing experience and in desperate need of a card!).
I had the chance to sit down with Janine and talk about her handmade cards, confusing feelings and running a business.
You’ve had your handmade greeting card business since 2011. How did it all start?
I was having coffee with one of my friends and we were talking about life and love. We started recounting all the funny situations we found ourselves in over the years, which made us think that someone should really make cards for all of these random life experiences that we are going through. When I got home I opened my notebook in which I had jotted these ideas down, I sketched them out and later turned them into cards!
Do you have a background in art or just always been very creative?
I don’t have a formal background, but when I was little I used to love to just sit and paint and draw for hours. I think I carried a bit of this with me over the years. I still love to doodle and tinker around, and I’ve always had this inherent desire to ‘build things’. I enjoy upcycling furniture – finding it, repainting it, reassembling it – I find a lot of joy in that process.
Where do you find inspiration?
The inspiration for using a printing technique to make the cards came from a vacation in Morocco. At a market I visited there was a man who had some amazing woodcarvings. He’d use them to stamp on square tiles, which was really unexpected. Then I remembered that in middle school we did a project with linoleum carving. Then when I got home I bought a piece of linoleum and carved out some people. These became my Kwohtations characters!
The situations I make cards for are usually occasions I encountered in my own life, or what I hear from friends. I also get a sense of what is resonating with people, primarily our generation, by looking at sites like Facebook or Buzzfeed. And I love to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations when on the subway or on the street — you get a sense of what people are feeling and thinking about.
For example, the ‘Yay You Won’t Die Alone’ wedding card I made because so many people around me started to get married and the conversations I had with friends would naturally turn to that. We would joke about how for those of us that are single, sometimes it feels like we are running out of time to find our person. The card is tongue-in-cheek while also being a nod to that underlying sentiment.
What made you decide to turn your card making into a business?
Honestly it just kind of happened. I started making them for myself and my friends and people really liked them. Someone suggested I put them on Etsy. This seemed like a low risk, low cost kind of way to put it out there and see if other people liked it. I got a couple of orders which gave me the confidence to think about it more as a business. Then I just wanted to see how far I could take it.
The Kwohtations are all made by hand, by Janine herself in her little (home)studio. First she draws the character and carves it out of a linoleum block to make a custom stamp. The character is than stamped onto the card and left to dry. She then continues to colour in the characters with paint, and stamp the message using individual letter stamps.
Do you think about how big you want the company to get? Would you like to venture into other products?
I don’t know yet. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to grow, while still keeping the heart of the business. What are the tradeoffs if I want to make more cards? What would I have to change in my production process? My mission is to spread joy and bring people closer together. It would be really fun to make tote bags, tea towels or cell phone cases. However, an important part of the mission is to get people to write more cards to each other so I’m not sure if I want to venture into other products.
Your cards tend to be full of humour and a bit cheeky; is that important to you?
I definitely think it’s important to have humor when you are celebrating big milestones and to have humor when you go through situations that are hard. My cards want to acknowledge that things can be rough, while also trying to help lighten the mood and inspire a sense of camaraderie and support.
What’s your favourite card and why?
My favourite card is ‘You Give Me Feelings’. It acknowledges and encapsulates in a funny way how confusing and ambiguous it is to have emotions, even when they are good. I believe that, despite our differences, everyone has this inherent need to love and be loved. But it’s tricky to sort through and correctly identify all these feelings that are intertwined and often can’t adequately be explained. This is what I wanted this card to reflect.
Did you actually send the ‘you give me feelings’ card to someone?
I did! I told you, they were inspired by real life! It’s a lot less nerve-wracking than sending an “I Love You” card..
Could you share one of your favourite aspects of your business?
The interactions and funny moments with strangers I have, especially at flea markets, is definitely one of my favourite parts of having Kwohtations.
Like one girl told me her friend was hit by a drunk driver. The friend was ok, but still felt very rattled. She asked if I could make a card to help cheer her friend up. I made a card that said “Sorry Some Drunk Asshole Almost Killed You”. The next time at my flea market booth this girl came up to me and gave me a big thank you hug. It’s those interactions that make creating cards really rewarding.
“I never thought I’d be an entrepreneur. I always thought you had to be really charismatic, big personality, have a business plan.. and I am just bumbling myself through it and it’s working! “
Has your life changed now that you have Kwohtations?
I have less time! I have a fulltime job, and sometimes I get up at 5 AM to work on the cards before I go to the office. Then I do find myself questioning what the hell it is I am doing, getting up this early.. But it’s nice to create something with my hands, especially because I spend a large part of the day behind a computer.
Also, I can’t stop thinking about card ideas! Everything that happens to me I’m like “oh, there’s a card in that”.
Another important thing that has changed is that I feel a lot more confident. It’s giving me confidence in my creativity. It’s really scary putting a product out there. I am used to writing a paper or doing a data-analysis, and presenting that as my work. But putting something you made with your hands out there is really personal. It’s really about what I think is funny, the things that I like. Putting it out there is a risk – doing it and having such a positive response has really boosted my self-confidence.
It also made me realise what sort of impact I want to have. I don’t want to change the world, but I want to bring joy to the people around me and to prompt them to remember to celebrate the little things. And the big things. And I found that Kwohtations is a way for me to do that.
What do you find are some of the more difficult parts of running a small creative business?
I have to be mindful that I’m still having fun. Which is actually something a lot of people told me when I was turning it into a business. Before, as a hobby, I could just put it down for two weeks if I wanted to, now I am accountable.
The business is not just about making cards. It’s the social media marketing, the finances, the inventory.. Sometimes I get caught up in that. And get caught up in wanting to sell more cards, and do better on all fronts. That’s been hard. It’s a lot of work so I need to check-in with myself regularly to see if it’s still something I want to be doing. Which luckily it is.
Another thing that can be difficult is to decide what kind of cards I make. Should I make the cards I want to make because I think it’s funny or should I make the cards that will sell?
For example the ‘Sorry Your Job Made You Fat’ card. When people see it they often talk about it and it makes them smile. I made it because I thought it was funny and true in my experience, but even though people like it, they don’t buy it very often. I guess because it’s a bit of a mean message.. But I am happy because it does make people smile.
Online you sell on Etsy. Do you have additional selling points?
I’m selling in two stores, one in Somerville and one in Arlington (both in Massachusetts, U.S.A.). The owners of these stores genuinely support local artists and they are the kind of stores that every time I go in to drop off cards, I end up buying something!
I’m looking for more stores in Boston, or even beyond, to sell my cards at. But it’s quite scary to contact these stores and tell your story. The reason that these two stores now carry my cards is because a man came over to my booth at one of the flea markets, and we chatted about the cards. Later he came back and gave me the business card of Davis Squared, and told me to go. So I did! It’s just another example of how people unexpectedly helped me, which has just been a really good part of the journey.
What are you working on the upcoming months?
In May I am part of the Somerville Open Studios, which takes place in Somerville on May 2nd and May 3rd, so I am currently preparing for that.
And I am also collaborating with a friend on a set of cards for ‘LGBT Pride Month’, which is in June.
Where can we find you work online?
Thanks for all the things, and this interview especially, Janine!
Are you a creative with a small (side)business as well and would like to be interviewed about your work and your business? Get in touch!