Emily McDowell on cards, swears, collaborations & democracy!
In the same way that parents are not supposed to have favourite children, I often feel like it’s my duty to love equally all the artist and designers whose work we stock on Pancake’s virtual shelves.
But here’s my guilty confession: I absolutely have favourites, and Emily McDowell is way up there in my secret top 5 laminated list! Living, as she does, in Los Angeles, I thought it was fairly certain I’d never get to meet Emily, and, speaking as a classic introvert I am generally way more at home when I’m conducting communication via emails, emojis and cat gifs anyway, but when I heard earlier this year that Emily was coming to London for a trade show I was delighted at the opportunity of meeting her face to face, even if that meant going to our capital city and being in the same postcode as Donald Trump, who was also there for his UK state visit at the time! So at the beginning of June, armed with my phone, charger, microphone, questions for Emily and wearing my anti-Trump t-shirt, I set off to PGLive, a once yearly greetings card trade show that’s held at the architecturally beautiful Business Design Centre in Islington, London.
A little background on Emily for those of you not as familiar with her story as we are: After spending nearly a decade in advertising Emily realised she was at the top of a ladder she’d never intended to climb. Taking stock of her life so far, she took the bold move to quit her day job and realised that writing and lettering was what was had always made her happy. Friends encouraged her to open an Etsy store where she begun selling prints. Although at the time it seemed to make less financial sense than selling prints, Emily was really attracted to the prospect of making greeting cards. They combined everything she liked: writing and illustration. Looking at the current market of greeting cards at that time, they all seemed hopelessly out-of-touch with the modern world, and with that, Emily had an idea! It was for a Valentine’s Day card called “Awkward Dating” (pictured right) which was a card “for when you’re kind of together but it’s not a big deal” Emily’s card documented that awkward early-relationship-minefield with wordy perfection! Speaking to Cathy Heller on her podcast Don’t Keep Your Day Job Emily talked about the conviction she had of just needing the card “out there” “this is a point of view that’s not out there and I wanted it out there”. It soon became Etsy’s most liked and shared post of the year and Emily sold 1700 of the cards almost overnight! What started out as an idea quickly flourished into a business with 40 designs in the few short months that followed and Emily was catapulted into a whole new world of making her trademark cards “for the relationships we really have”.
Emily’s business is currently represented in the UK by Abrams and Chronicle Books and I found their bright and beautiful stand towards the back of the upper floor of the Design Centre on this particularly beautiful sunny June day in our capital city.
As I expected from years of reading her social media posts and online interviews, Emily was an immediately warm and easy-going person to talk to, we bonded over a chat about our recent mutual trips to the Scottish Highlands, the state of our rail system and, as we found a cushioned bench a small way from her trade stand, we turned our attention to the last 5 years of Emily’s life, the wonderful world of greeting cards, swears, collaborations and democracy!
CuriousPancake: We first placed an order with you in June 2014, stocking just 10 of your card designs (6 cards of each design, possibly the most modest first order you’d ever had!) we now stock 61 of your cards (a number that’s ever-expanding) and 6 of your cards make up our top 10 best sellers!
Emily: I love that!
It’s fair to say that it’s been a change-filled 5 years for Emily McDowell and Friends. Looking back, how has your role in the business changed over the years? And are you still finding time to illustrate/be creative?
Yes, ironically, I have more time now than I ever had, my role has really changed. When we started, the business was really successful really quickly and that was wonderful in certain ways, and also really, really challenging. I was doing all the writing; all the illustration and I was also CEO of the company. I didn’t have a business background and I was really just learning as I was doing, trying to figure out who to hire, what the jobs were, you know, how to divide up the work, how to do all the things and how to get things to people that they wanted. The hardest part of the job for me has always been about the distribution, the infrastructure, the behind the scenes stuff, all of the ‘getting the product made and getting it out to people’. Half of our revenue comes from online sales and half comes from wholesale orders, so it’s two different businesses that have different marketing, different sales, and there are trade shows for wholesale and direct marketing for the other…
How many people do you employ currently?
It’s hard to say exactly because we joined with Knock Knock [to form the Who’s There Group in January 2018] and so between the two brands there’s about 30 of us, but that covers both brands.
So yeah, my job was really crazy for 6 years, I was doing everything and the ’creative’ part all happened in the middle of the night when I wasn’t getting emails about other things and when my staff didn’t need me. I probably spent about 10-15% of my time on the creative but it always felt very rushed, and I loved it, but it was always sort of secondary to the business, which was very hard because without the creative being good there was no business!
I can relate to that as a ‘business of one’! My background is in illustration and I had all these grand ideas of curating a collection of other illustrators’ work to sell and then creating my own art “on the side” of running that business…
Oh my gosh
…and now it’s only 9 years later that I’m finally finding time to do my own designs at last. It’s great but it’s an “all-balls-in-the-air-juggling-situation” that I can really relate to in your early days..
Totally. One of the things that has been really nice about merging with Knock Knock is that I now have business partners, which I never had before, and so I was able to step out of operations and step out of sales for the most part and focus more on the illustration, the writing and also the marketing, the things that I’m actually good at and enjoy doing and I’m also now doing some of that for the Knock Knock brand as well. I’d been wanting for a long time to do this “friends” side to the business [The business used to be called Emily McDowell Studio but re-branded in January 2019 to Emily McDowell and Friends] which is basically bringing in other artists and writers to do their collections because once we had the infrastructure (that’s the hardest part, building the distribution and infrastructure) I thought that we might as well do it for other people and not just for me. So we started with Lisa Congdon and we have more creatives that are in the works and it’s really exciting, so I’m able to work on that, to creative direct these people, which has been fun to do.
Things really went up a notch in 2015 for your business when your Empathy Cards hit the market and almost overnight people all over the world were talking about them. There were some really high-profile articles published (Brené Brown Huffington Post The Independent, etc) and I got a crazy amount of hits on Pancake and suddenly had people from all over the country ordering and thanking me for stocking them.
That’s amazing to hear, so cool!
Given its huge success, does the Empathy range sometimes feel like a bit of a millstone around your neck or are you happy that the cards have such a big audience and you’re still looking to expand the range?
It’s interesting because the Empathy Cards are a really important piece of the business, but there are a lot of customers who would like it to be all we do… and it’s important to me that it not be all we do, for various reasons..
Why is that?
A lot of customers feel like we should just have cards for every illness. For example there are people who would really like us to have cards for kidney disease or like really specific things and it’s so difficult because although we need to be able to talk about those things I also have to run a business and the number of people and retailers who will buy a card about kidney disease is just… not huge! So I have to make some choices about not only the subject matter but also from a business perspective: where do we focus that’s going to be sustainable for us as a company?
You’re looking to create cards that relate to illness in a more general way then?
Yeah, a little more general and some of the big stuff, cancer and of course grief, death, everyone dies! I wish we could do more that was specific to certain things but it’s a very…
Anxiety is always a good one [I find this subject endlessly relatable!!]
Oh yeah, but what’s also interesting is that retailers…. well, you [The Curious Pancake] were a very early adopter of empathy cards and now most retailers carry them but it took years for that to happen. The Empathy Cards were immediately embraced by regular people and we sold so many on our website and we had all the press and everything, but even with that retailers were saying “ah, not for my customer, not for my store… I wouldn’t know where to put these, I don’t know what to do with these”
The sympathy section?
I know, right? But they were saying things like “I wish this had a flower on it, it would sell much better for my customer if it had a flower on it”
and I was like “I don’t.. think so, but, but… I’m not going to put a flower on it, but thanks for your feedback” and there’s plenty of cards already with flowers on them so this is an important difference I think. Cards about mental health, most retailers won’t stock them..
That really surprises me!
.. a few will… in fact, we have certain cards that I love that our sales team keeps trying to kill and discontinue because we have 500 [different card designs] and have to continually pare back and we do that based on sales numbers and I keep saying “no we’re keeping this, no we’re keeping this” even though we’ve only sold a couple of hundred but it’s really important, it’s a mental health thing that I really want in there, but if the retailers aren’t buying it then it’s really hard to justify it. Customers on our website and retailers generally want very different things, which has been a really big lesson for the business.
The Broken Objects card seems to strike a chord with a lot of people on our site...
Yeah, that’s one that works well in both places (retail and online) I think a lot of retailers are afraid to speak specifically to anxiety or anything that feels very heavy. We have a card that does so well online that says “You’re not a burden you’re a human”. That’s one that if we went by the numbers we’d have just discontinued it because retailers don’t get it but I really think we need to have it so it’s this sort of balancing act of what do we keep. What feels “so us” that we have to keep versus what lines do we let go in order to bring in some new things.
Humour plays a massive role in the cards we stock (and the cards I create) at The Curious Pancake and I really like that you don’t pull any punches with the sweary elements on your cards (this definitely appeals to our customers too!) but are you or have you ever been encouraged to “play it safe” or been talked out of wording something a particular way to appeal to a wider audience?
Oh constantly, all the time and this is a fight that I have with our sales team often..
Sorry to interject, but I get a lot of American customers buying your cards from me…
To ship them back over to America
Whaaaat? That’s insane!
I have emailed back in the past to say “Emily’s cards are available in your country”
Yeah like, you can get free shipping too!
I know! But a lot of those people are buying the cards with the swears on, which is why I suddenly remembered!
Oh that’s so funny, almost all of our online customers love the swears, they want more swears, all of our bestsellers have swears and if it were up to them everything would have a swear on, but I would say only about 30% of our retailers are willing to carry the sweary cards in their shops
Really? That few?
Yeah because they get really gun-shy about complaints
Oh yeah, I can imagine..
Like “my child saw this” you know and sometimes they’ll have the sweary cards in a box at the front or in like a secret “porn room” or whatever (!) but more people stock them now than when I first started out. One of my best friends has a company called Offensive and Delightful and she was really the first person to do just swears on cards in the US, back in 2002 when there was nothing like it around, and her customers for a long time were basically sex shops!
Yeah, ‘cos those were the only people who would put them out! Eventually, it found its way more into the mainstream but yeah, we do sell a bit to large national retailers like Paper Source and Urban Outfitters and none of those accounts will take a swear, that’s just company policy…
Oh, I see! [secretly grateful to be online only!]
…so we have to be careful. In our postcards book, which are especially popular with those bigger retailers, we had to change one “fucking” to “freaking” on one of the cards in there as it was the only card in 20 with swearing on and it wasn’t really diminishing the value of the thing. Making that one change made it so that if they did want to order it they could, so we do make little concessions like that every once in a while.
Changing the subject slightly onto one of design theft, which is a huge topic for a lot of creatives in the UK. I get really frustrated for fellow artists/creatives who get their work ripped off by other businesses. How do you deal with companies and small businesses who copy your work/style? One of our popular greetings card illustrators in the UK, Gemma Correll, gets her work stolen all the time. Because she’s so loved over here, she has a dedicated group of fans who often shame the other company into taking down the work. Would you ever take to Social Media and “name and shame”?
It depends on what it was, there have been times when I have been close, but I haven’t! It goes with the territory and it’s something that I used to get very upset about but over the years I have really just come to accept that this is going to happen and there’s not much you can do from a legal perspective. Legally if it’s not a direct lift there not really anything you can do.
You can’t really copyright words in that sense, can you?
No. You can copyright something that’s long, and you can argue that something is a slogan. For example, there’s a company that did a copy of my card “there’s nobody else I’d rather lie in bed and look at my phone next to” and I couldn’t do anything about it legally. You just have to kind of depend on people not to do that but that’s never gonna happen because they see something that’s popular and successful and they wanna make money! Those are the people who don’t understand the amount of work that goes into making something that is original. It’s funny though, internet culture being what it is, people sometimes accuse me of ripping off myself, they’ll come to me and say “this is a meme I saw on Pinterest” and I’m like “yeah, I wrote it! A meme doesn’t come from a meme farm, they all come from somewhere and I wrote this card and that’s why it’s a meme, someone re-typed it on their weird little sunset background and posted it on Instagram!” and so there’s so much content out there, like my writing, that’s just been repurposed and it’s like “well if there wasn’t an internet I wouldn’t have a business” so I feel I just have to keep making work I feel good about and also I have to just trust that my best work is ahead of me and you know, it’s a deep well, it’s not dry and I don’t have to cling to this thing that I made 4 years ago because there’s gonna be something else.
I will often comment on a Social Media post when it looks like it’s been stolen/re-purposed and say “ooh this work looks very much like Emily McDowell…”
I have friends who will do that, our customers really do that, and I don’t ask them to do it..
It’s really nice when that happens..
It is because I can’t really say that, you know, ‘cos I come off sounding like a jerk and petty and I can’t spend my time dealing with that stuff, it’ll just make me sad. But people, our customers and fans really will sort of raise their hand and call it out.
I love the new card range by Lisa Congdon (we’re hoping to have some at Pancake HQ shortly!), her artwork sits really well alongside yours. What does the future hold for Emily McDowell and Friends? More Friends and collaborations?
Yeah, more friends! I’m really excited! Our next release is another range by Lisa Congdon because she has such a big body of work. We’re doing a whole zodiac series with her, that’s a huge trend in the US right now, I don’t know if it’s happening over here as much..?
not that I’ve noticed… yet!
Oh interesting, it’s everywhere at home and it was a personal project that she did last year and we’re turning them into cards. We also have another artist who’s totally unknow that I’m really excited about and then we have someone lined up for January that I can’t announce yet but she’s very well known, much more than Lisa, who’s an author actually…
have you sort of cherry picked these people?
Yeah, so that’s what’s been really fun for me, looking at different people’s work and thinking about what works well and what balances. Because we’re known for such strong writing, I really like the idea of bringing in more writers and doing collections with them. I don’t want to illustration them because then it looks too much like our work, I don’t want to confuse it. So this writer we’re working with, the cards and products are going to have a totally different look and feel and I have an outside designer working on them.
Is the idea still to focus on greetings cards or are you going to be exploring other products?
It’ll be 12 cards and 6 journals. We have a lot of product categories right now, so we’ll be paring a lot of them back, just for ease of manufacturing, we have the bags and the pouches and the keychains and just loads of stuff… It’s just gotten to be unwieldy so we’re going to be pulling more back into the paper stuff and leaning more into that.
You’ve just reminded me of a question I meant to ask, so I’m going to sneak it in just here! What’s your view on greetings cards without cello bags? Single-use plastic is a hot topic in the UK right now, and, as a small business, I’m constantly trying to reduce the amount of non-necessary waste we produce.
We would love to offer cards without cello sleeves but retailers in the US will not buy them. We would love nothing more than to do that because a) they’re terrible for the environment and b) the cost of the labour for putting cards in those stupid things adds about a third to the cost of the card, it’s really expensive! And we would love to not have to do them but it’s just.. at home… the United States… (sighs) people don’t really care about environmentalism in the same way that they do in Europe. It’s a deal breaker for retailers over here. You cannot have a card without a sleeve, they say “no, they’ll be shop worn, it’s not protected, absolutely not” and so….
As an internet business I don’t need the cello bags
Yeah and we don’t need it for our online sales but with the way our manufacturing works we have to have everything pre-done if we have runs of 25,000 cards they have to be done all together and they have to be assembled in a standardised way but yeah, it’s so silly, we don’t need them for online, you guys don’t want them in the UK but our US retailers require them so that’s kinda where we’re at…
To lessen our business waste I’m cutting the non-recyclable plastic into little bits and filling plastic bottles. They’re called eco-bricks. It’s just one small way of keeping it out of landfill and they can be used to build houses.
Oh yeah, yes I’ve seen it, it’s awesome
It’s so time-consuming though…
OMG yeah, the cello bag thing is so silly because not only is it terrible for the earth, it’s unnecessary, and from a business point of view it kills our margin…. it’s all those things! Yeah, I would love to do away with them if we could.
Hopefully one day soon we might be able to come to a better compromise. Maybe when the States have a more sympathetic President, ie: one who doesn’t deny climate change exists! Which brings me neatly onto my last question. You are (un)fortunate enough to be in the UK at the same time as your President [it was Trump’s UK State visit on the 6 th June when this interview took place] Are you excited to be in our capital city at the same time as Trump? (tongue in cheek question, we are not fans of the Mad Orange Bumtruffle)
OMG, I just can’t .. I… I would actually have loved to have gone to the protests yesterday [protesting Trump’s visit in London took place on the 5 th June] I was here all day and I always go when we do them at home.
I’m wearing my anti trump t-shirt today (with pride!) [I am wearing a grey t-shirt with the words Impeach 45 written on]
Oh my gosh I didn’t even realise cos your badge was covering it! It’s fantastic!
In answer to your question: No, he’s horrible, he just the worst, unbelievably terrible. I’m embarrassed to say that I’m American, people over here, Uber drivers or whoever I’ve been talking to they’re like “you’re American” and they assume I hate Trump which is great because I’m like “I really want you to assume that!” and I think it’s because the majority of people who are travelling overseas who are Americans are anti-Trump…
because they’ve travelled outside their country?
..right, they have a perspective of the world that a wide base of his supporters just doesn’t have. But yeah, every customer that came to the trade stand yesterday said “So, did you come on the same plane?!” and I was trying to think of a good thing to say after like the third one and I just didn’t ever come up with the perfect response!
In fairness, the UK has courted many controversial figures over the years, the Chinese president Xi Jinping is probably responsible for more human rights violations than Trump, but the fact the state visit cost our taxpayers something like £40million, and also that he’s a Western leader…
Yes, exactly, this can’t happen, how is this happening?? Yeah, it’s still a sense of how did he get here?
I’m fully aware that with our current political system in tatters what with Brexit etc we have no rights to be adopting a moral high ground anymore!
Yeah I know, it’s interesting times, it’s fear. This is what happens when you galvanise people’s fear!
Have you ever been compelled to make political works?
I’ve never met a creative person who is pro-Trump!
No, me neither! [as a business] We’ve raised a lot of money for various things, but mostly for the ACLU through selling cards and totes. I decided early on that I wasn’t going to put his name on anything or directly reference him...
Ha, yeah.. but we’ve done things that are related but not saying his name like the card and tote bag “My American Values: Equality, Justice, Empathy, Science” and from the sale of those we donated a portion of the proceeds to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which is basically the legal defence fund for all of the immigrants and challenges to free speech… it’s sort of a catch-all for trying to protect democracy essentially.
That’s probably a good note to end on!
Huge thanks to Emily for taking the time to chat to us so openly, and to Sharon from Abrams and Chronicle for arranging the meeting. You can keep up to date with all thing Emily McDowell and Friends by following Emily on Instagram. If you like a wry yet thoughtful look at life you should also follow Emily’s other IG account Emily On Life, it’s like motivational quotes but with substance, and not a single unicorn picture or sunset in sight!
Check out our full range of Emily McDowell and Friends awesomeness here