2007: THE BREAKDOWN
2007 Overview: The sixth year. Yeah, it was still kind of miserable. A friend of mine is starting a new company right now and he’s enjoying that unique combination of high demand and difficulty fulfilling logistically—he just wrote this blog post about it, and boy did it resonate. He said to me, “I’m feeling SO FUCKED at the moment,” and I get it. He’s in a position where he can’t back out, he can only move forward, no matter the consequences. I sent him an adage that has long resonated with me: “The only way out is through.” In 2007, the only way out was through, but I finally decided I wanted actual out and began to work toward selling the company late in the year and during most of 2008. But even that out would prove impossible. “The only way out is through.”
2007 was the outrageous turnover year. The have-to-hire-lots-of-people really fast year. The “Fuck, everybody can quit except me year.” Really—you’ll see as you read on that it’s just one person after another (including our entire design team at once). Of course, much of that could be a testament to the difficulty of working at Knock Knock at that time, and to my persistent bitchiness. But you know what? It’s also just dumb bad luck and the fact that people time their departures for their own needs, not the company’s, and who can blame them? (Well, I can, not that it does me—or them—any good.)
But 2007 was also the year in which a lot gelled, most notably my co-leadership relationships with the VP of sales and the VP of creative services, successful collaborations that extend to this day. In key ways, they stopped being employees and started being more like partners. We hired an amazing managing editor, our first real editorial hire, and she was key in the process of transferring Knock Knock editorial out of my head and into a form that was teachable to others. We also almost killed ourselves putting out eight books in eight months. You know, books we pretty much wrote ourselves and/or led a motley crew of freelancers through, word by word. One of those, The Complete Manual of Things That Might Kill You, is still a bestseller for us.
And so. In the wake of all the turnover, I decided that I’d had it. I was good at creative and Excel, but I sucked at everything else. It was time to get the hell out. I knew I’d have to stay with Knock Knock post-sale for at least three years, so selling the company wasn’t an immediate fix, but at least I could get the process started before the complete and total nervous breakdown. I now think one of the characteristics of adulthood is that it’s really hard to get out of things. As another friend of mine recently wrote on her blog, “There’s no right way to run away.”
- The art director is promoted to VP of creative services. She has truly been the first person with whom I’ve felt I had a co-leader (other than, briefly, the ex-boyfriend). The VP of sales is the second, coming along two years later, and the three of us are proving to be a solid team. One of the primary challenges of being an entrepreneur is that until you are sizable enough to hire people to do the things at which you suck, you must stumble along doing them and hope that things will be okay until you either get better at them and/or hire someone else to do them. My two biggest issues as an entrepreneur have been managing people and overseeing finances. I am lucky to have the backstop of funds availability to soften the finances part, and now that I have the VP of creative services and the VP of sales, I have the start of a solid enough management team to help buffer the people part.
- At an all-company meeting after we all return from vacation (KK somewhat closes down between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day), I talk about the fact that we are professionalizing as a company, especially in the realm of departments (i.e., we now have them). We have individuals in charge of distribution and ops, accounting, production, sales, customer service, and design—single-point failure in almost all, to be sure, but the seeds have been planted. I also note that we are lean and mean, the best team ever, and that we have achieved our goal of having sales samples ready to go out before the new year, a gargantuan task.
- I am neck-deep in production on KK’s first books, to be released with our Fall 2007 list. We initially set out to do 18, of which we will accomplish 7. I am creating outlines and contributor packages for them so I can farm chunks out to the 75 freelancers I interviewed between Christmas and New Year’s.
- Because we don’t yet have adequate alternative manufacturing sources, we are in the position of either placing an order with the crooked manufacturing broker for Family Travel, our first Target program, or not doing it at all. We attempt to protect ourselves by creating what we have now realized is standard for manufacturing purchase orders, terms and conditions, and the crooked manufacturing broker fights us every step of the way. It will take months—and many attorneys and their fees—to hit upon a mutually agreeable set of terms and conditions, and it will go right up until the final minute, an unnecessary and stressful game of brinksmanship. It is clear that both the crooked manufacturing broker and his cut-rate attorney (AOL address, anyone?) are merely throwing out slimy, petulant roadblocks.
Oh, my sweet rambunctious Paco, loving and narcissistic, a snuggly sweet self-centered eternally adolescent boy. And he kept Maisie young almost until the end with top-notch wrestling.
Paco the golden retriever arrives. He is five months old and comes to me through a friend who is a dog trainer. His first family has won him at a benefit auction but they have since determined he is vicious and untrainable with reference to their also apparently untrainable two-year-old daughter. Having always loved golden retrievers, this one suits my rescue ethic just enough and now it is Paco and Maisie the dynamic duo.
- We begin planning our second program for Target as well as a series of product for Michaels. With our new VP of sales, we are able to take advantage of all the mass retailer interest and have high hopes for the Ding Dong brand.
- The backs and forths on the books are insane. As, clearly, am I. To get these books produced with random Craigslist applicants is going to be a feat of superhuman impossibility. In order to manage it all, I have produced the project management spreadsheet to end all. I will need some in-house help very soon.
Okay. This was the insane project management spreadsheet for the Fall 2007 books. At the top you can see all the tabs/worksheets in the workbook (yes, these usually show up at the bottom of an Excel doc, but this is an extra-special visual patchwork). The big image in the background shows the outline and assignments for "The Takeout Cookbook"; the one on the upper right is for "The Savvy Convert's Guide to Choosing a Religion"; and the one at the bottom is for "The Complete Manual of Things that Might Kill You." The most intricate sheets, sadly, have lots of people's names on them, so I can't share here, but boy are they OCD! Oh, so proud.
- We wisely reduce the Fall 2007 book release from 18 to 10 titles.
- Our accounting manager resigns, which is a surprise to me. In general, when something surprises you as a leader, it means you were ignoring, overlooking, or neglecting something. Most people’s decisions to leave, I will say, have, over the ten years, not been a surprise to me. In this particular case, I have not been aware that she was unhappy, and I did not know that she felt she was underpaid (or that she was, in fact, by industry standards being underpaid). I am concerned that she felt she could not come to me to (a) let me know she was unhappy; and (b) tell me that she needed and deserved a raise. I admit I did not know she was underpaid, and that with all I have on my plate, I am not keeping track of accounting industry salaries or of the changing needs of her position. I tell her that when I hire a new position, I investigate competitive salaries at that time, and almost never turn to it again except at critical salary revisions. This also brings to mind something I am learning over my years of running Knock Knock: for the most part, women do not ask for raises or negotiate very well for those raises. Either they become ineffectively emotional (i.e., angry that they’re not paid enough—before they’ve asked for a raise—to they point that they alienate their audience) and do not bring facts to back their request up, or they ask very timidly for too little. As an employer, my job is to keep overall personnel costs down, and I’m generally juggling unforeseen expenses over which I have no control, trying to keep all of us employed and paid. I have at times given people bigger raises than they’ve asked for, and of course we most frequently give raises that are not asked for at salary review time. But one of the key things I feel women must do to achieve pay parity is learn how to negotiate on their own behalfs. In any case, I and the accounting manager are able to talk openly about her concerns and I grant her the significant raise she deserves. However, I will also learn another lesson (which will not cement itself in my gut until I make this mistake a couple more times): never talk someone into staying, as the original reasons they resigned—and the original reasons you were also perhaps unhappy with their performance—will undoubtedly come up again. In truth, neither of you buys much time or satisfaction. At the time, however, I feel (incorrectly, I will soon learn) I have both assuaged her resentment and dodged a bullet.
- We make one of the most important hires of Knock Knock’s history, a managing editor. This is the first editorial position we have had at Knock Knock. Until now it has been all me, plus a sporadic freelancer here and there. This managing editor will prove vital in transitioning Knock Knock’s editorial output out of my head and into systems. She and I will work oh-so-closely together and she will prove adept at turning my “This is how I do it” brain dumps into standard operating procedure as well as communicating the Knock Knock approach both to freelancers to come and to the editorial department she will subsequently grow. For now, I am breathtakingly relieved to have a comrade in this book morass. Despite the managing editor’s stamina and strength, however, this season of book production will just about break her, and we will go through freelancers like frontliners at Normandy. Wow—that’s probably an inappropriate analogy. But in our own ways, it kind of felt like Saving Private Ryan.
- Knock Knock begins to work with the one freelancer from these Craigslist days who will prove to be an ongoing asset to the team, an editor at large who is still with us today. One out of seventy-five ain’t bad!
- I quit smoking. Again. And pretty much for good this time (at least as of this posting). I’m sure this only proves to make me more lovely to work with.
- Knock Knock has worked with one PR agency for its entire existence, a boutique agency run by a delightful and talented friend of mine. However, we are hankering for more marketing-level, big-picture guidance than we are getting and decide to make a change. We make this change based on one recommendation, from someone whom I respect and admire greatly, without going through a compare-and-contrast RFP process. We will make this mistake once again, in 2008, with a web development firm. We have concerns about the new agency from the beginning, especially around personality and ego conflicts. We fly to Los Angeles the key people from the New York–based agency for launch sessions and become increasingly worried, but overrule these gut feelings because of the agency’s accomplishments and the source of the original referral. Plus, we’ve already made the commitment.
Oh, Rachael. How honored we were to share "People" with you in May 2007.
- Knock Knock breaks into one of my favorite media behemoths, People Magazine, to which I have subscribed since my grandmother started sending it to me in college.
- We postpone another book, The Savvy Convert’s Guide to Choosing a Religion, which I will write almost single-handedly, with the help of one researcher, for our Fall 2008 season.
- At an all-company meeting, I announce that we have increased personnel by 50 percent in 3 months. This primarily comprises assistant-level positions: accounting, production, etc., taking us further away from single-point failure. I talk about the evolving company culture and major projects that lie ahead. I also note that the VP of sales, the VP of creative services, and I are going to have an offsite retreat to examine where we are going and how, after which we will report our thoughts to the team.
- The management retreat, at the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa, is an unmitigated success in terms of bonding the three of us as a management team and beginning to get ahead of the company with respect to strategy—starting to steer the company rather than letting ourselves be buffeted by chaotic, unrelenting (thank god) demand. We are so relieved to be there together that I make the mistake of snapping a picture of us drinking comically large beers and sending it back to the office; I soon learn that this has fomented resentment among the hardworking troops back at headquarters (mostly, I will also later learn, bitched about by one person in particular, someone who will over time do great morale damage in her role as toxic gossip). At one dinner, the VP of sales and the VP of creative services take an opportunity to talk to me about my problematic management and people skills. I cry, but then again, I always cry, and I thank them for being honest with me. They are surprised to learn that I don’t always know when I’m being a bitch. I also am not sure whether they truly realize how much stress I am under—it’s a lot easier to be nice when you’re not worried about everything. We return from this retreat and announce to the team:
- We must get out of the trenches in order to plan, identifying opportunities and sticking with them. “Quantity isn’t necessarily return.”
- When we’re in the trenches with unreasonable deadlines, it’s easy to lose sight of what we’re doing this for. The management team commits to taking more time with the company for vision and team development.
- We’re doing this because we love to do it and because we need to make the company profitable in 2008 and 2009.
- We need to implement multiple tiers of development: Long-term —> design —> mass execution.
- We propose an orderly schedule for KK products and books, mass opportunities, and KK marketing.
- We characterize a regular rhythm of Spring releases for new KK piecetypes and Fall releases for books and line extensions.
- We will not do books again until Fall 2008, rather than Spring 2008, because we need longer lead-time.
- In order to catch up, for Spring 2008 we will only do 5 new lines of 6 SKUs each, developing on existing piecetypes.
- We plan on 8 mass programs, with different degrees of customization (to this point, we are seeing mass as a dilution of our signature products, a strategy that will not work for us and which we will have to radically rethink in coming years), and 1 licensing program (calendars) for 2008.
- We must fit our degree of perfectionism to the audience.
- We will revamp the website in 2008, in time for holiday 2008.
- After repeated clashes, I let the new PR agency know that I don’t think it’s a good fit and we’d like to move on. I am certain that on this phone call they will say “Yep, we have been feeling the same way,” but instead I find them shocked and aghast. After yelling at me for a while, they hang up on me. They then proceed to write me haranguing, unprofessional emails and bother us about paying them when we are up to date on our billing. There are lots of all caps in the emails, recitations of prior bona fides and accomplishments, positive self-comparisons to our previous PR agency, and phrases like “Per hard feelings: Umm, yes, and it would be a bit naive of you to think otherwise.” And there lies one of my overall experiences of being in charge: you get to bear the brunt of all the outside, and inside, guff. Punch in the gut? Check.
- Our previous PR agency is, fortunately, gracious and non-ego-driven enough to take us back, and it is like sliding into a nice warm swimming pool in the sun.
- I find myself copying and pasting the same emails to friends with whom I’ve dropped out of contact. One bespoke email, to my godmother, reads as follows: “I’m still buried in an interminable haze of 7-day weeks and 13-hour days. I’ve had 3 days off—literally—since before Christmas, and 2 of them were for Bruce’s wedding and the other was because I got sick. I committed to doing too many book projects, and I’ve taken the entire team down with me, and things are incredibly behind, and I have no choice but to finish. I keep trying to throw myself in front of the bus so the team doesn’t suffer more than they already have, but there are only so many hours in a 7-day week. I’m doing okay, but I’m exhausted and wanting a personal life and ready never to do this again. It’ll be over at the end of June (it was supposed to be over in mid-May). The lateness has all kinds of other ramifications for the business, so in addition to trying to fight through to finish, I’m having to put out fires left and right. Totally all my own doing, and now I have to get myself—and the team—out of it. I know I’ve been a workaholic before, but I think I’m finally ready to hang up that hat and move on to a normal life. Or at least semi-normal, as much as any business owner can expect.”
- We have received several overtures from calendar publishers to create calendars with them. Because calendars are dated, meaning, they have actual dates on them and so are obsolete the minute the new year comes along, they require special skill in determining manufacturing quantities and in selling them in to accounts. I know this from my time as a book editor, when I also worked on calendars, which are just about the most mind-numbing things to proofread you can possibly think of—one number’s wrong and the entire calendar is worthless. We are sifting through the offers and moving them along but have our heart set on one particular publisher, whose representative, a senior executive, gets back to us only erratically. Though we will move forward with them in 2008, the deal will ultimately be thwarted, in part by erratic communication. I find myself thinking of the much-paraphrased Maya Angelou quote, “The first time someone shows you who they are, believe them.”
- The VP of sales and I once again travel to Target. The buyer who was a fan of Knock Knock and who championed us has left (for a personal relocation, but we also learn that Target and other mass retailers move buyers to different departments every two years in part so they don’t get too attached to their manufacturers) and we are working with another buyer. This new buyer is a finance person rather than a product person, which I will come to realize is the norm. The buyers give manufacturers loose parameters (e.g., season, event, etc.) and it is up to the manufacturers to create good-selling product. One anecdote: Though we did not have confidence in luggage tags as a piecetype for the Family Travel program, the original buyer had pushed us to include them and told us she’d take responsibility if they sold poorly. It turns out that they were the only product in the lineup that sold poorly—very poorly—and they brought down our average sell-through. The new buyer points this out and I begin to say, “The previous buyer wanted us to do luggage . . .” and she interrupts me with a look that says “No excuses.” This and a few other incidents will be lessons to us that we and only we will be blamed for poor-selling product, no matter its genesis, so we must learn to resist when buyers ask us to create product in which we do not have faith. When the VP of sales and I are boarding the plane on the way home, I see something dangling out of the business-class overhead bin as we make our way to coach. I point up and he sees it, too: a piece of carry-on luggage adorned with one of our Family Travel luggage tags.
- Our two designers, our entire design team but for a very new (and very junior) junior designer, the design team that has done so well for Knock Knock over recent years, tell us they are quitting to start their own business. We did not see this coming in the slightest—in fact, during the June reviews, when asked about their goals and plans for the future, they indicated their commitment and happiness and thanked us for their positive reviews and salary increases. We are beyond shocked. They feel they are being generous when they offer us three weeks’ notice, not experienced enough to realize how difficult it is to hire so quickly and have no overlap, despite the fact that they have no immediately following commitments or urgency in next steps for their company. When I react in the moment with angry disappointment, one of them says, “You followed your dream, Jen. Now we get to follow our dream.” To cover, we negotiate with them a pricey freelance stint. We will miss them dearly, remember them fondly, and always look back at them as a high point in Knock Knock’s design history, and we will not gel with another design team for quite some time.
- The VP of creative services immediately sets to hiring designers as well as securing the production team, another pricey proposition because critical departures not only make other people nervous, they also inform the remaining mainstays that they are so vital almost any salary demand will be met. Turnover is expensive on many, many levels. I cancel my birthday party and go hide under a pillow without regard for the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup stains.
Check out the Self-Hurt series! Such good info in these babies. Do you get it? "Self-help," "self-hurt"? And they actually worked, meaning, if you did the instructions exactly the opposite, you could drive well, lose weight, train your dog, save money, raise well-adjusted kids, and/or get shit done on time. FYI, only "How to Traumatize Your Children" did well. In fact, an updated version of it still on our list/website in updated form and performing quite well.
We have finally, finally finished the Fall 2007 books: six Self-Hurt titles, The Complete Manual of Things That Might Kill You, and The Takeout Cookbook—eight books in eight months. It has been a herculean, almost fatal task. We all but researched and wrote them ourselves, given the challenges of working with freelancers in the way I’d though would be so easy. The managing editor, the great freelancer who is still with us, and I go out to a decadent, boozy lunch.
- The junior designer quits before the two main designers have even left the building. She has only been with us since January, and she is problematic, but it is clear she is quitting primarily because she sees others jumping ship, and that annoys us all the more. For a few days during her notice period she fails to show up without even the courtesy of a call. I will take great pleasure over the years in checking her LinkedIn to confirm that indeed she will not or cannot hold a job for longer than six months, though I am sure, given that she exhibits the worst of Millennial characteristics, she does not think this is a problem.
- We make the Inc. 5000 list, a national list of the most rapidly growing companies in the United States. Out of 5,000, we rank 901. This is an objectively proud honor, and it results in lots of unsolicited and aggressive phone calls from companies that make plaques asking if I would like to have a commemorative plaque made. We will apply for and make the list for three more years, and each time I will have to duck calls from the plaque makers.
- The fast hiring in design continues. Unfortunately, the speed will show, and the turnover and problems with the team are far from over.
- I continue to get yucky emails from the old PR firm, including “We were going to take the high road . . . In any event, we don’t see a heck of a lot coming out of your old-new association . . . and, we’ve been looking. Are we a bit bitter? Umm, yeah, I’m not one to circumlocute, so, yes. Cheers.” Plus: “Happy to have given you that idea . . . and glad to see you used it.” Really? REALLY?
- I receive a fan note from a prominent graphic designer: “You’re my total hero. I keep telling people how much I respect what you’re doing. Because you’re doing it right. That’s the way to make really cool product: Produce it yourself! And you put your own money on the line. You didn’t inherit anything or have a sugar daddy. You rock.” I think to myself, what a great compliment! And then I think to myself, “How does he know that I don’t have a sugar daddy/uncle? How does he know I haven’t inherited anything? And if I did, does that invalidate what I’ve done, what we’ve done?” I ponder the meaning of money and access to it, and how its abundance invalidates in other people’s eyes just about anything you do, makes meaningless how hard you’ve worked, nullifies the fact that you’ve done something that others could not have done no matter how much money they had. Money, in short, is very funny. Or not very funny at all.
- I attend my twenty-year high school reunion, burdened with the shame of weight gain, non-marriage, and non-procreation. People who have only married and had children talk only of their families and feel inferior because they have not had business success but make me feel inferior because they talk only of their families. It will be my least-favorite reunion, vs. my class’s other two, the tenth and the twenty-fifth, but it is during this trip that I finally realize that after years of thinking I would someday (an always vague and unspecified someday) move back to the Bay Area, now I really want to. I really want to move back to the Bay Area, but I can’t.
Love this book. Nobody got it. Isn't it clear to you from the title that this is a fascinating history of our progression toward outsourcing our food preparation? With illustrations?
- The first review of our books comes out! A nice little piece in the Sacramento Bee puts our Fall 2007 release on the public map.
- The VP of creative services, my right hand and compadre, tells me that at the end of the year, she and her husband and son are leaving Los Angeles to move to the Bay Area to be closer to family. She would like to continue working with Knock Knock remotely in some capacity, however. My first thought is “I want to quit my job and move to the Bay Area.” It hits me that I am the only one who cannot quit. The business can burn around me, people can leave in droves, but I must stay.
- I call my uncle and tell him that I need to come see him in New York—immediately. I buy the first first-class plane ticket I’ve ever purchased because, so last minute, it’s the same price as coach. I talk it through with him and we determine that it makes sense for me to sell the company. I set out to get all of KK’s acquisition ducks in a row, choreograph an exit strategy, identify potential buyers, and execute a sale. I know that any buyer would want me to stay on for at least a 3-year contract, so I want to do something before I actually keel over.
- I attend a one-day conference on mergers and acquisitions put on by business brokers—meaning, they offer the conference for free but then hope to have your business in selling your business. They talk a lot about value propositions in a hotel conference room near LAX. They will not become my BFFs.
- The accounting manager resigns. It is not clear whether the accounting assistant will stay in the face of her resignation.
- I tell the VP of sales about what’s going on with the VP of creative services. He tells me that he may quit if she leaves, given the extent to which she holds things together and acts as a buffer against my bitchiness.
Yup, Core Ding Dong was basically Knock Knock Signature in different fonts, shapes, and colors. Why didn't it do well at Target? The general consensus was "People don't read. Too many words."
- Our second Target program, Core Ding Dong, a new styling of some of Knock Knock’s signature products, has hit the stores. I receive the following email from a customer: “Congratulations on your presence in Target! I was shopping there this week and a grocery list caught my eye on one of the endcaps. I’ve been using the All Out Of list for years (I think one of the items should be ‘love’). I wondered who made it and flipped it over, and lo and behold, Knock Knock was there! I literally squealed!! I cheered you on out loud and people must have thought I was a bit nuts. And I guess I am nuts about your products. So, congratulations! I hope you make lots and lots of money!” I realize that I am so caught up in KK’s internal struggles that I cannot even connect with how people are enjoying it out in the world. This email reminds me what we aredoing and why, and it makes me feel really good.
- I come up with a proposition to get the VP of creative services to stay for at least another year. It involves reduced hours, higher pay, and participation in the sale that I now feel is an inevitability. We come to an agreement over the next few months—she and her husband will endure a commuter marriage for one year, and she will single-mom it with her young toddler. In the end, however, they will not move; he will leave his San Francisco job at the year mark and they will settle in down south for the longer haul, and she is still with us. Thank. God. (And if you were wondering about my previous lesson, “Don’t convince somebody to stay if they don’t want to,” this was different because she did want to stay with Knock Knock, she just wanted to relocate.)
- We have our first nibble of interest from a television production company, about turning The Complete Manual of Things That Might Kill You into a television show. This is very exciting for us, and feels like vindication for how we killed ourselves over the books. It will not come to fruition, in part because our attorney impedes progress on the deal (more on that in 2008), but it will not be the last such offer. Because TV is not our business, it’s just plain fun, like going on a field trip to Hollywood.
- The VP of sales and the VP of creative services and I have another offsite strategy session. This time I do not send back a picture of the three of us drinking. The agenda includes the following points, including many words I thought I would never write or say, let alone even know what they mean:
- Tight, focused plan to maximize company value; “value enhancement” step of company evaluation and financial review, moving toward creation of offering memorandum
- Exit strategy: overview of sales process
- Necessary company documents: mission statement, positioning statement, product strategy, sales strategy. All figure into offering memorandum, document that must be prepared before sale process can begin (AKA “The Book”). Like creating a business plan, but includes past and future.
- I begin making television appearances on morning shows to promote the books, primarily the Self-Hurt series. Over about two months I will be on morning shows in Denver (in conjunction with the AIGA Conference), Austin (on a brief visit for pleasure), Phoenix (I fly there just for the interview), and Las Vegas (ditto). I learn a few things: weathermen walk around the studio and scratch themselves while the big-screen weather is up, untethered, with wireless microphones; all on-screen talent swear like sailors when the camera is off for a break and then go all bubbly the moment they are back; and I have a figure made for radio. Each time, all of this takes place around 5:00 a.m.
- Clearly not having learned from our first experience with books, we start work on our 2008 book release, six tomes for our new series concept, Lines for All Occasions. Also, I will finish The Savvy Convert’s Guide to Choosing a Religion, a task that will take all my free time in the new year.
- We decide to do a marketing consultancy with an outside firm, with the goals of defining ourselves more clearly, increasing profitability, and exploring exit strategies. This will prove an interesting experience. More on that in 2008.
- Because I don’t have enough on my plate, I start planning a home renovation. The VP of creative services warns me this may be too much to handle. She will be right.
- I make my last offer to buy Knockknock.com from the crazy person who’s not using it. I offer more than three times its appraisal amount, $35,000, in part because it will be a valuable asset in selling the company. I do not hear back.
- For Thanksgiving week, I travel to Banff to meet my cousin. I have been fighting a terrible and feverish flu in the two weeks beforehand but feel better by about a week before I leave. On the plane, I feel an all-new cold coming on. By the first morning I wake up in Banff, I am so sick that I might have trouble hauling myself out of a burning building. I am also experiencing continuous and copious nosebleeds. I get better after about three days then break a tooth (as soon as I get back I will have three root canals, and the penicillin from the root canals will give me a yeast infection). We try to ski on the second-to-last-day and I get altitude sickness. On the last day, we go on a hilly hike in the snow that involves crampon-like hiking boot attachments. I slip and fall on an exposed stone switchback step and immediately feel sharp pain in my ankle. I am certain it is just sprained, because it’s always just sprained. It takes an hour to hike the one mile out, downhill. I insist that we continue on to Lake Louise and that we not go to the hospital. The next day, I move through the airport in a wheelchair. My ankle is killing me. I go to work on Monday, but somebody says, “Go and get it X-rayed, you idiot!” (but not quite in those words), and I finally do. I have broken my leg in two places and will have a cast, walker, and boot for many, many weeks. I cancel and/or postpone multiple trips but am relieved I can still drive my stick-shift with the cast on (it’s the right leg, of course).
- Our UK distributor implodes in a cocaine and soccer scandal. Because the distribution climate and business model in the UK has changed, it will take us four years to get new UK distribution.
- The VP of sales and I travel to visit the company that had previously expressed interest in acquiring us. I let them know that I am ready to explore this option, and my overture is met with enthusiasm. This process will unfold over a good part of 2008.
- I join an executive development organization called Vistage in order to improve my executive skill-set (what a barfy sentence that is). I will be a part of Vistage for three years and it will help me immensely, though it will not end terribly well.
- Well before the end of the year, we have hired four new people in design and production as well as a new accounting manager and a manufacturing manager. Most of them will be problematic and will turn over relatively quickly. Hire slow, fire fast, and don’t hire people about whom you have a negative tickle in the gut—this will take us a while to learn.
This was one of the top-selling cards in our Graphics Cards series, inspired by a trip to the Hallmark Store, during which I noticed how specific mass-market cards were: "For my favorite cousin's mother-in-law's dog on the occasion of his graduation from puppy school." I thought it might be easier to have it all in one. Goodbye, Knock Knock cards! We loved you well.
- We decide to discontinue creating greeting cards. While we love our greeting cards, we have encountered a number of issues with them:
- Because we manufacture the cards locally, as soon as we finish creating a product season, we immediately go into card development. This does not allow us to catch a breath, and their profitability (and average price point) does not justify the work that goes into them.
- While we have a few very successful card series (most notably our bold Graphics Cards and our Report Cards for Grownups), we are having difficulty following up on their success with such lines as Reality Rhymes, It’s Official, and Anatomy Is Destiny. We wonder whether we are two-trick ponies in this area.
- There is no aftermarket for loose (i.e., not boxed) cards, meaning we cannot close out or liquidate the ones that do not sell.
- Oddly, fulfilling cards is challenging, because they are easily dinged and bent. Also, they are strangely labor-intensive, because they must be bundled into packs of six with their envelopes. Retailers are also clamoring for plastic sleeves, which would be even more labor-intensive.
- As with wrapping paper, which we discontinued in 2004, we are finding that to go to the next level in greeting cards requires a certain level of commitment—go big or go home. In the cards’ case, that would mean hiring merchandisers to make sure retailers reorder when the cards go out of stock, along with a few other costly measures.
- We have an absolutely fantabulous holiday party at a local restaurant that will host our holiday parties for a few years to come. This year is one of our best. Despite the travails, we are all in high spirits (and drink many spirits). Before my toast, standing in front of the team and their significant others, I break a glass with my butter knife in an attempt to get everyone’s attention.
Our other best-selling cards series, Report Cards for Grownups, designed based on actual report cards from between 1850 and 1950 that I ordered from Ebay. This one, Aging, was our top-selling greeting card of all time, if I remember correctly.
High Points of 2007:
- Paco the golden retriever’s arrival.
- The success of our first Target program.
- The arrival of the pivotal and kick-ass managing editor.
- Pride at managing to put out eight great books in eight months.
- Getting our first TV offer on one of our books.
- Enjoying and making productive our first executive retreat.
- Bonding with the VP of sales and the VP of creative services as a dynamic trio management team.
- Discontinuing the greeting card line.
- Deciding to sell Knock Knock.
Low Points of 2007:
- The failure of our second program at Target.
- Killing ourselves to create eight books in eight months.
- Multiple resignations, including the entire design team.
- Having to bargain desperately and expensively to keep in place the people who didn’t resign.
- Changing PR agencies, landing in crazytown, and returning to our old PR agency, all in the space of three months.
- Deciding to sell Knock Knock.
Strangest Point of 2007: During appearances on several regional morning TV shows (you know, like Good Day Detroit!) to promote our Self-Hurt book series (with, might I add, call times at, say, 5:00 a.m.), watching the bright and shiny TV morning show anchors swear like sailors during commercial breaks then return to their bright and shiny, high-gloss, oh-my-god-you’re-too-cheerful selves.
Epiphany of 2007: All my adult life, starting in late college, I’d had the sense that I had something of my own to do creatively. I didn’t know what that something was, and it would take six years of active searching—what I call the “abyss years”—to start that something, Knock Knock. My twenties and early thirties were characterized by an unsatisfied drive to make my mark, and it wasn’t until Knock Knock that I felt I was operating on all cylinders, producing unique creativity that fulfilled me on a very deep level. While I was aware that Knock Knock was finally scratching that itch, it wasn’t until around 2007 that I realized the itch had been fully scratched. I had, in a way that resonated somewhere deep inside, made my mark, expressed my voice, produced my opus. While there were still plenty of things I wanted to do, both with Knock Knock and outside it, they wouldn’t be driven by this sense of desperate desire. There has been, ever since, a deep sense of peace and satisfaction about having made my mark. The only parallel such drive I’ve ever experienced is the one to have children. It goes beyond words and thought and even emotions, feels like it’s in my cells. I am assuming that when I have a child (which, in 2011 and 2012 I would actively start trying to do), that restless, insecure drive will be sated in the same way the creative one was. I see those of my close friends who are also creative at their roots who haven’t quite expressed their creativity in the way they’d hoped to and I recognize in them frustrated drive, even though they’ve done many other things in their lives (especially, with most of them, having children). I feel very, very lucky that I’ve had the opportunity to experience both the hunger and the satiation of my creative drive.
Whole Point of 2007: It would seem, perhaps, that the whole point of 2007 was deciding to sell the company. And that might be the case if we had indeed proceeded to sell the company. Certainly the decision to sell would lead to a process that would lead to my recommitting to keeping the company, which will be one of the whole points of 2008. For 2007, though, I think the most important point was finally identifying and trusting the right people to work with as a senior management team, and forging constructively honest, partnership-like relationships with those people, the VP of sales and the VP of creative services. Long may they live!
2007: THE PRODUCTS
New Bestseller of 2007: Vouchers. We wanted to do an update on relationship IOUs, and the idea was to style them like pre-computer airline tickets, on perforated cardstock. I still love love love the graphic design—deceptive in its simplicity, it was actually a lot of work to get exactly right. And, as mentioned above, The Complete Manual of Things that Might Kill You.
Can you tell these soon-to-be Knock Knock mainstays (at least for four or so years) were inspired by 1960s plane tickets? Isn't everything better with a receipt stub?
New Flop of 2007: Probably Self-Mailers, though we’ve had worse sellers. Oh—and the Takeout Cookbook. Nobody got it. “It’s not a cookbook?” It was more of a treatise on the history of outsourcing our food. “You would cook takeout?” Definitely a packaging and positioning blunder on our part, though I still do love it. Maybe we’ll reuse the content one day.
Alas and alack, our Self-Mailers did not single-handedly reverse the fortunes of the United States Postal Service.
Interesting New Product Note of 2007: We got our first offer to option our work for a TV series, from a very reputable production company, for The Complete Manual of Things that Might Kill You. Unfortunately, some legal foot-dragging killed it. Another option would go much further in 2008.
Quantity of New Products Released in 2007: 84
Quantity of New Cards Released in 2007: 84 (I know, weird that they’re the same number, right? but I double-checked)
Quantity of Products and Cards Retired in 2007: 222 (yes, a function of the ginormous and ill-considered expansion of the previous year)
Total Live Products and Cards at Year-End 2004: 324 (starting to approach a sane count once again)
2007: THE MONEY
2007 Revenue: $4,887,804
Year-Over-Year Growth from 2004: 48 percent
2007 Loss: 12 percent less than 2006’s loss
2007: THE PEOPLE
Number of full-time employees: 15
2007: THE BONUS
Our little nod to Magritte’s Ceci Ne Pas Une Pipe, our “This Is Not a Bookmark” holiday mailer.