Meet Kalyn Johnson, a lawyer turned fashion stylist turned graphic designer, and the founder and creative director of Effie’s Paper. The bright and colorful brand is named after Kalyn’s maternal grandmother, Mrs. Effie Hayes, who believed that a woman should always carry a hanky, wear the perfect shade of red lipstick, and be able to write a “wicked” thank you note. While the brand began with personalized stationery after a fateful experience designing her own wedding invitations, Kalyn has expanded her designs to all kinds of accessories, plus a Black Girl Magic collection that gives customers the “permission to stop hiding their magic, with the encouragement to display it proudly” — because that is what Effie’s Paper is all about.
For this interview, Kalyn spoke with Clarence Sanon, a member of Faire’s sales team and the host of our Brick & Order podcast. After working with small businesses at Yelp, he joined Faire in December of 2017 as an early employee. Clarence was born and raised in Chicago to Haitian immigrants. A small business owner himself, he founded the streetwear brand HAPPY WVLF, INC. in 2018 with the goal of better understanding how to help Faire customers. The line focuses on celebrating adventure and environmentalism through clothing. Clarence is a founding member of HUE, Faire’s resource group for employees who identify as BIPOC.
Clarence Sanon: Can you tell us a bit about how you got started?
Kalyn Johnson: When my husband and I got married, we hired a graphic designer who was based in London to make our invitations and wedding collateral. The catch was that her printers were located in India and everything was going to need to be printed during monsoon season. She told me it would be best to find someone in New York who could print all the collateral. So I found a printer in my neighborhood, got all of the collateral printed, and got married. Fast forward to six months later, I joined an organization called The Links, Incorporated — one of the nation’s oldest and largest women led volunteer service organizations. After I joined, every member of my chapter gave me a gift. When I came home to open them, I realized I had received a number of paper products. My husband made an offhand comment that he thought I could do a much better job. A couple days later I was sitting down to write thank you notes and I looked at my personal stationery, my wedding stationery, and the stationery I was gifted and it hit me — my husband was right, I can do this better. The only stationery I had that I loved was my wedding stationery — because I had been able to art direct my graphic designer and her team. They took what was in my head and reflected it on paper.
I went around the corner to that same printer, and asked him to help me with an idea. I was going to the Links, Incorporated’s National Convention in ten days and I wanted to create boxed sets of Links notecards. He helped me create about 200 and as I walked around the convention center and spoke with people, I shared the notecards and I completely sold out. I knew then that I was onto something. I also knew I had a steep learning curve ahead of me, but that gave me the gumption to push it forward.
You went from creating these notecards, to stationery, to accessories, bags, and now your blog. How did you decide to expand into those new categories, and how do you balance it all?
Balancing is a day-to-day proposition. But I named the company Effie’s Paper::Stationery&Whatnot intentionally, so that I could add “and Whatnots” into the mix at some point. When I started the company, my focus was on personalized stationery because that’s what I loved, and I couldn’t find any personalized stationery I wanted to buy. I knew I couldn’t be the only person who was looking for personalized stationery with personality. But about three to four years into starting the company, text messaging and email became the dominant forms of communication. As a result, people weren’t writing notes in the way that they used to, which was making it difficult to scale the business. As I was coming to this realization, my website was hacked and I lost two great interns — all within the span of about ten days. This happened towards the end of October leading into the holiday season. I had a three-week holiday planned and no one to hold down the fort while I was gone.
While on vacation I took a mental break from the business, so that I could start the new year refreshed. When I came back, I was on my daily walk to the coffee shop and realized — I could pivot and add whatnots into the mix — I buy coffee everyday, I could make travel mugs. I started to think about the things I use daily. That was January, and it took about four months to get everything into place. By April, our new website was done, along with our new branding and products.
At this time, I also started to get my arms around this thing called Instagram. I was definitely late to the social media party — my intern was running it for me and I really had no idea how to use it. I sat her down and had her give me a crash course. For the next month, I still paid her, but I ran the account myself so that I could really get in the weeds and get a better understanding of the platform. When my intern came back onboard (by then she’d been elevated to our Social Media Manager), she told me I should really consider becoming the face of the brand. Initially I said no, I’m a little too old and a little too brown. But she pushed me to step out of my comfort zone. And, bit by bit I did. I had no intention of becoming the face of the brand, but God bless her she had the foresight to see what I could not.
That’s amazing. I’m sure there are a lot of young boys and girls that look at your page and look up to you. When did you decide to try wholesale?
From the moment I started, I was focused on wholesale. Before the internet became what it is, exhibiting at a trade show was the only way to get your products into stores. But exhibiting at a trade show is more than a notion because it is expensive, it requires having a well-curated product selection and it necessitates having a backend that can produce and fulfill large orders within a short timeframe.
When I started out as a Black woman in a predominately white industry, exhibiting at a trade show also required jumping through the mental hoops of who should “man” the booth. It’s one thing when you have an online store and can choose to be anonymous, it’s another thing when you are standing in your expensive custom booth and a potential buyer addresses your barely 21-year-old white or Asian intern as the owner because it doesn’t occur to the her that the Black grown woman in the booth could possibly own a stationery company.
A friend of mine who owns a brick and mortar stationery shop in Tennessee, put it best when she said of trade shows, “when you are bypassed for business because of the color of your skin…”
After I expanded our whatnot selection, it dawned on me that I had products that would probably do well wholesale. However, instead of doing trade shows, I had a wholesale platform built out on our website. In addition, I worked with a PR firm that had a showroom that helped us get in front of a number of stores they had relationships with. Then I learned about Faire. I joined the platform when it was in its initial stages and was pleasantly surprised by how warmly our products were received. Faire has been a blessing for my company. Faire has been an amazing platform for us to be a part of, our wholesale presence has flourished since we’ve been on it.
How do you infuse your own personality and values into Effie’s Paper?
Since the company is named after my grandmother, to pay homage to her, infusing my values into the brand and what we stand for was natural for me. I grew up with parents who taught me that those who stand for nothing, fall for everything. I have a point of view and a platform that allows me to convey it. Infusing my personality, however, was a little more challenging because I was uncomfortable with social media and to be honest, I just wasn’t quite sure what I was comfortable sharing. But over the course of time, the more I learned about marketing and human behavior, I began to realize that people buy from other people. To get my arms around this concept, I started to think about the brands I’m drawn to and the stories they were sharing that I found compelling. As with anything, the more you do something, the more you become comfortable with it. It’s been an evolution but I’ve become much more comfortable sharing bits of myself, my family, and my life on social media.
It sounds like being a small business owner wasn’t always on your mind. How did you end up here?
It was never a thought. I come from a family where we were expected to become doctors, lawyers, accountants, or engineers. So, I became a lawyer at a big law firm. But like many women in these ivory tower institutions, I hit the glass ceiling. However, the golden handcuffs were on and I was trying to figure out what my segue would be. I didn’t love being a lawyer, but I did love the lifestyle it afforded me. One day my husband, who at the time was my boyfriend and a lawyer at another law firm, said that I was miserable and suggested that I quit my job and figure out what I wanted to do with myself. The more we talked about it, the more it sounded plausible. But to be honest, it took getting offered my dream job — or what would’ve been my dream job a year earlier — to become a partner at another law firm and become the head of the practice group to know that it was time to leave the practice of law. The offer was an amazing ego stroke, but at that point my heart wasn’t in it.
When I left the firm, I took some time off and relaxed. My obvious next step was to focus on what had been my side hustle — helping busy professionals get dressed for work. I’d been helping friends and colleagues with their personal style for years, it came to me naturally. I got lucky, I started working with a friend who had been on The Bachelor and who was up for a gig at CNN. He convinced CNN to hire me and from there I began styling more CNN talent and other busy professionals in the city. I loved making people feel good about their personal presentation, but I didn’t love the day-to-day of providing a high touch service to busy professionals. I had the perfect exit when my husband and I began planning our wedding. When we got back from our honeymoon, the economy was in turmoil and discretionary funds for things like styling began to dry up. It was the perfect time to segue; I began to think about starting a stationery company — something I’d always dreamed of doing. But the funny thing is I don’t come from a family of entrepreneurs at all, so this has been a walk on the wild side to say the least.
You have a Black Girl Magic collection. What does Black Girl Magic mean to you?
When I first heard the phrase, it resonated with me and I couldn’t really articulate why. It’s a phrase that hit so many touch points but the main one was visibility. As a Black woman in this country, particularly one who grew up in a predominantly white area, and has worked in predominantly white environments, there was always this fine line of not wanting to make your friends or colleagues uncomfortable with your Blackness.
For me, Black Girl Magic means see me and know that I am proud of who I am and what I am about. I wanted to create a Black Girl Magic logo that would be sophisticated, yet whimsical and ethereal, just like we are — beautiful, powerful, and resilient. My heart leapt when I saw it on the computer screen for the first time. Our Black Girl Magic collection is filled with products that women use in their everyday lives — and they give Black women permission to say ‘I’m here and this is who I am.’ So, to me the phrase Black Girl Magic is about validation.
What do you envision the future of small business to look like?
Everything has changed so quickly and so drastically in the past three months! Most of us are doing what we can to breathe and keep our balls in the air (things like ensuring we can pay rent, pay our employees). COVID-19 has shown us that if small businesses are going to stay in the game, much less flourish, they must have some sort of online presence. We’re also learning in this new environment that knowing how and when to pivot is key. Pivoting is not always easy though.
When COVID-19 started, the city of New York immediately began sheltering-in-place. I was stressed out about a variety of things, the least of which was making new products. But, one of my mom’s friends emailed me suggesting that I should start making face masks. Initially, I poo-poo’d her suggestion. However, after a few weeks of not being able to find a face mask I liked, I found a print on-demand company and we started selling masks. That one little pivot led to a dramatic increase in sales the week we launched the masks. Given that we’re all going to be home a lot more over the next six months or so, it might be time to start thinking about other ways to pivot. I’m not sure what the future of small business will look like, but one thing I do know as a small business owner is that you have to keep your finger on the pulse and pay attention to your customer’s demands.