Kwohtations Cards

How To Grow With Integrity?

Janine Kwoh1 Comment

Dear everyone,

I think a lot about what kind of person I want to be when I grow up (although I suspect that I will never feel entirely “grown”), and what kind of impact I want to have on those around me.  The “what” is actually the easy part: I want to be me – but a happier, better adjusted, more present, healthier, richer, more content, more giving, more loved and loving, less scared version of me.   The “how” of getting from this me to that me is where things get a little fuzzy.  And by fuzzy, I mean at times utterly paralyzing.

In other words, how do I continue to change and work toward becoming Janine 2.0, without fundamentally compromising who I am or what I believe in?  I feel like I’m constantly toggling, conceding, and negotiating between all these needs and desires: How do I be content while constantly striving to be better? How do I make more money without feeling like I’m selling out?  How do I develop an effective leadership style as an introvert with social anxiety?  How do I stay present in the moment while planning responsibly for the future?  How do I be a supportive friend while dealing with my own baggage? How do I love wholeheartedly without losing myself?  To get to where and who I want to be, what are the trade-offs that I’m willing to make and which are the ones I’m not? 

Over the last year, I’ve been turning this question incessantly around in my head, not just as it applies to me as a person, but as a business.  Kwohtations is still my side hustle and a one-woman operation (me) – design, production, marketing and sales, R&D, finances, social media – I’m either doing it, or frantically YouTube-ing to figure out how to do it.  I still make every card by hand – letterpressing the words, block printing the characters, painting them in, drawing in the eyes and cheeks, stamping the backs, and packing them into little plastic sleeves.  I truly enjoy the process of making each one in this way, and cherish the fact that that each card is a little different, a little quirky, and paid the love and attention that I feel few products are nowadays.  But it’s also a very labor-intensive and time-consuming process: last year I spent about 350 hours stamping, painting, and packaging cards, the equivalent of 1.5 months of just making cards, 8 hours a day, 7 days a week.  So even if I’m basically chained to a paintbrush and foldout table (which is actually not too far from reality...), I’ve hit a ceiling in terms of how many cards I can make this way.  As a business, this means I can’t grow much beyond where I am now.  And where I am now is fun and gratifying and educational, but not sustainable or profitable or scalable.  

So now I’m at a crossroads.  I know what I want Kwohtations to be – a company that makes things that bring me and others joy, and that hold up all those experiences that make us and life so complicated and wonderful.  But I also want health insurance and weekends and a stable income that lets me eat out or buy a new jumpsuit or run away to another part of the world every so often.  So do I stay small, or do I grow?  If I grow, what opportunities would open up, and conversely, what are the costs?  What are the changes I would have to make, and am I willing to make those?  People are always telling you to pursue your dreams, but fewer talk about how you sometimes have to tweak your dreams so you can also pay your bills.  So how do I produce a product that I can build a viable business around, without compromising the heart and philosophy behind why I started making cards in the first place? 

The truth is, I don’t know but I’m hopeful that I’ll find my way to an answer.  So far, I’ve completed the first two steps of my very imperfect problem-solving process – first, agonize endlessly, and second, make a spreadsheet.

I’ve wallowed, self-reflected, dissected, examined and re-examined, and verbal diarrhea-d about this issue to my closest friends and complete strangers long after their eyes glaze over.  I’ve thought about it until my brain hurts from thinking about it, sometimes productively but sometimes just circling through the same tired fears of failure and self-doubt, with a little self-flagellation and imposter syndrome thrown in for good measure. Because what does it say about me and my abilities that I've stayed stuck at this juncture?  Maybe that I’m not smart enough, or disciplined enough, or creative enough, or fill-in-the-blank enough.  But maybe, just maybe, it means that it’s time to try something different.    

Now that I’m sick enough of the incessant self-defeating, backward-looking voices, like a fly hurling itself against a closed screen, I think I’m finally ready to search for open windows.  I recently took all of the recurring concerns and fleeting ideas and laid them bare in an Excel spreadsheet.  And in a decidedly unscientific way, mapped out some initial production scenarios against these key considerations based on what I think I care about:

  • Can I make the cards with less time and effort?
  • Is it cost efficient?
  • Does it keep the handmade quality of the cards?
  • Do I like the way the cards look and feel?
  • What does it mean for how I’m spending my time? (e.g. in the studio vs. in front of the computer, on production vs. other business activities) 
  • Is it even feasible?
  • What’s my gut feeling about putting this product out into the world?

This helped me narrow down the options and see where some of the trade-offs were.  For example, printing the cards digitally would be the most time and cost efficient option, but they lose the handmade texture and uniqueness of the cards.  It also helped me see where I have question marks – Could I possibly letterpress the entire card?  Could I try a combination of letterpress and screen-printing?  Could I outsource to a professional printer?  These are things I don’t know but would like to find out.

I’m just now getting to the third step of the process, which is to try some shit out and see what happens, because that’s the only way I’m going to know what works.  First up is trying to letterpress the entire card, including multiple colors - both a daunting and exciting prospect. Eek.  So, no answers yet, but still doggedly plugging along on this funny little journey I’ve set out on.  Follow along @kwohtations to watch me re-imagine the card-making process – it’s bound to get a little messy, but in a good way.  Wish me luck and as always, if you have thoughts, advocacies, suggestions, or general wisdom to dispel, follow along and drop me a line. 

Love,

Janine