If you’ve ever picked up a greeting card and thought: “Hey, I could do that,” you’re not alone. In the five years since she founded her $5 million gift and stationery company, Knock Knock, Jen Bilik has heard the line hundreds of times.
Knock Knock has built its brand by injecting whimsy into otherwise mundane organizational tasks with its to-do list memo pads, home library kits, and delivery-menu organizers. As she’s the lead creative force behind these products, Bilik says many people assume that her job is just as much fun. “People who want to start this kind of company think: ‘I’m going to get to be creative all the time,’ and that’s so not it.”
In fact, Bilik says she spends more time addressing issues like the rising cost of oil (who knew it would drive up the price of plastic binders?) than she does penning witty one-liners. A lot more. Bilik estimates she gives 80% of her 60-hour workweek at Knock Knock’s Venice (Calif.) office just to maintaining organization and operations.
A Small Biz Dilemma
A creative business is still, well, a business, after all. And once those creative ideas are down on paper, Bilik says, it’s all about logistics, as she learned when Knock Knock released its first product line in 2002.
Although the items sold well, small manufacturing runs hadn’t left much margin for profit. With just a few items, Knock Knock wasn’t a money-maker for its independent sales reps working on commission, and big retailers didn’t want to add to their administrative loads by ordering just one or two products from a manufacturer, either. Bilik realized the company would have to scale up—fast.
That meant dealing with the headaches of moving manufacturing operations to China while pulling months of dizzying all-nighters to develop new products. Soon, orders were pouring in from major chains such as Urban Outfitters. “On one hand, it was great, these were creative ideas that I had writ large, and people were liking them—but I was so stressed out there was acid coursing through my veins,” Bilik says.
Newbies’ Logistical Problems
With so much going on, she hadn’t spent much time checking up on the fulfillment company they contracted with to unpack, inventory, and ship the orders. “I thought, what do you need? They have packing tape, they have a postage meter, great! But they just didn’t know what they were doing.” Inaccurate inventory counts turned into a nightmare when Knock Knock ran out of stock of its most popular products during the holiday season, but didn’t find out those orders hadn’t shipped until it was too late to place a replenishment order.
That logistical problem was a relatively easy fix, she says, with the exception of a one-day standoff involving eight idling semi-trucks and multiple cashier’s checks, which was solved by finding a new, more competent fulfillment company to fill the orders.
But seemingly simple projects often turn out to be trickier than they look, Bilik says—like sticky notes, one of the first products she wanted to make. “I went into it thinking, sticky notes, they’re everywhere, why would they be challenging?” But the process of applying the adhesive to paper was actually harder—and thus, more expensive—than she imagined. The “stickies bricks” she had in mind would have cost $20, retail, while the average consumer, she reckoned, wouldn’t pay more than $12, and it was back to the drawing board.
The Voice of Experience
This year, when Bilik started working on a different sticky notes idea (a desktop stickies kit), she knew better. Instead of developing the entire concept from the ground up, the Knock Knock team now starts by working with manufacturers to figure out practical questions like what a box will be made of and how many pages each pad will have. Only after the cost/price analysis confirms that the product will be profitable to produce do they start concept development to determine what actually gets printed on the paper.
Bilik still has to force a smile when she hears, for the umpteenth time, “I have an idea for a greeting card; I’m going to start a company,” especially when it’s followed, as it usually is, by the disclaimer, “I can’t tell you about it, though, because I haven’t copyrighted it yet.” The idea may be brilliant, but when it comes to starting a company? More likely than not, Bilik thinks, “you have no idea what you’re saying.”