Brick & Order, Faire’s podcast for wholesale brands and independent retailers, is back for a special two-episode holiday season!
In this week’s episode geared toward our brand community, we spoke to wholesale brand owner Emily McDowell and brand consultant Nataley Shepherd about effective holiday tactics.
Today, we’re sharing Emily’s story. In January 2013, Emily began writing and illustrating products that speak to the human condition with honesty, humor, and heart — designing greeting cards for the relationships we really have. Founded with the mission of helping people connect when they’re not sure what to say, Emily McDowell & Friends believes that humanity is an endless source of inspiration. The team considers it a success when a customer asks if they’ve been reading their diary, because it means they’re doing something right.
Emily shares advice for businesses ahead of the holiday rush, as well as a sliver of hope and positivity that has emerged from the pandemic.
One of the things that we’ve found that’s been a silver lining of the pandemic is as a group, it’s brought us closer together. We have more all-company meetings than we used to. My partners and I are really doing our best to listen to all of our employees and to check in with them and talk about mental health within the company.
Here, we’re sharing an abridged version of our chat with Emily. To listen to the whole interview, head over to the ninth episode of our podcast Brick & Order.
Faire: When did your career pivot to greetings cards?
Emily McDowell: I worked in advertising agencies for about nine years and eventually became a creative director. In early 2011, I had reached a point with my career where I had been promoted to the job that I thought I wanted. I got to the top and realized — this is not actually what I want. I wanted to do something that felt more personally meaningful to me. I went back to what I really loved to do as a kid, which was writing and drawing pictures.
I wanted to make greeting cards because I had always struggled to find cards that said what I wanted to say. Eventually at the end of 2012, I had an idea for a Valentine card. I printed 50 and put them on my Etsy shop. Etsy shared on their Facebook page and it became their most liked and shared post of the entire year. I sold 1,700 in a week and it was an absolute crash course in order fulfillment and customer service. That was really my proof of concept.
How did you inform the initial concept for Emily McDowell & Friends?
I noticed when I was looking at cards that I couldn’t ever find any that really resonated for me. They spoke to idealized versions of relationships. I felt like my personal relationships were often complicated and messy. One of the things that we love to do as a company is help people find the words for situations where they don’t know exactly what to say.
We’ve become most known for our empathy cards, which were born from my experience as a cancer survivor. The hardest part for me about being sick was more just the intense loneliness that I felt. I saw an opportunity with empathy cards to create something that would help friends and family reach out during these times when you absolutely want to connect and you just are at a loss for words. Also, I really wanted to make something that helped people who were going through major illness or grief, loss, feel, seen, and heard.
What were the biggest challenges you faced in the early days?
I’ve said that I have an MBA from Google, which is great in that it was free and also terrible, in that half of what I learned was wrong and the only way to find out was to experience it. I was the CEO of the company, I was doing all of the writing and all of the illustration, all of our social media, and I had sort of fallen backwards into taking on manufacturing, distribution, and wholesale. The real difficulty was in balancing all of those things. I just did an insane number of jobs and I lived a life that was really not sustainable.
What is your best advice to brands who are bracing themselves for holiday rush?
Plan as far out as possible. We’re doing everything we can to try to get people shopping as early as possible, especially with the USPS cutoffs this season. It’s a tough place to be as a small business where we can’t turn things around as quickly as Amazon. It’s really about educating your customer about when your shipping cutoffs are and what they can expect from shipping times. Offer that information in your social media posts and in your emails to cut down on the number of people coming back and asking those questions.
How have you been connecting with buyers in a digital-first world?
It’s been a really interesting shift. COVID has accelerated certain trends and the digital aspect of wholesale and buying. Over the last few years we were re-examining our trade show strategy. Trade shows used to be the end all. But there’s an incredible amount of work, they’re an incredible expense, and we weren’t seeing the return on shows that we were seeing five years ago.
We started with Faire at the beginning of 2020, and we have been so pleasantly surprised with the amount of engagement that we see with buyers on Faire. I think that it really makes sense, it’s really expensive for a buyer to go to a show, and it’s really disruptive, especially for somebody who has an independent shop where they have a small staff or no staff. For us, as we have sort of decreased the amount of money, time, and effort that we’re putting into physical trade shows, we’ve really increased the effort that we’ve put into our digital marketing.
How do you keep your team motivated?
We’re all working from home now, but that was not how we were set up, so that was definitely a big cultural shift. One of the things that we’ve found that’s been a silver lining of the pandemic is as a group — it’s brought us closer together. We have more all-company meetings than we used to. My partners and I are really doing our best to listen to all of our employees and to check in with them and talk about mental health within the company. Our meetings have turned into these beautiful mini therapy sessions. I feel really, really fortunate to have the team that we have.
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