After a battle with cancer, Emily McDowell launched an empathy card that was irreverent, emotional and unlike anything on the market. Her eponymous company leveraged the success of that card to build a successful and beloved brand. The company has since expanded into greeting cards, gifts, totes, notebooks and more.
Alison Keefe and Rachel Powell work for the company in Seattle, and when they are in town, get work done at the Pioneer Collective. We caught up with them for this month's member spotlight.
First of all, what do each of you do day-to-day for the company?
[Alison] I am the production and supply chain manager for Emily McDowell Studio -- which means I wear a lot of hats from inventory management, to designing catalogs and marketing materials, to coordinating with all our domestic and overseas vendors. (For context, we're a team of 7, located in Seattle, Los Angeles, and Illinois, plus a baller warehouse crew in Las Vegas.)
[Rachel] I'm the wholesale account coordinator for EMS, which basically means I do all things customer service on the wholesale part of the business. My duties range from order entry, phone calls to and from customers with questions, coordinating large orders from our distributors, and managing a territory map to make sure that none of our stockists are too close to each other.
While reading about the history of the company, it seems like Emily McDowell's empathy greeting cards struck a cord and received an enormous amount of press attention and earned media right away. That seems like any small business' dream, but I imagine it can also be hard to respond to from a production standpoint. Was it difficult for the company to keep up with demand initially?
[Alison] The Empathy Card release was actually before both of our times with EMS, but I joined the company shortly after. It was truly an explosive moment for the brand. At the time, the team was still fulfilling orders from a studio in downtown LA (we hadn't yet expanded to our Vegas warehouse). It provided some logistical challenges, for sure, but fortunately we work with a great local LA printer and had a dedicated team of people to make it all happen. Also, I know everyone was really encouraged by the massive out-pouring of people who contacted Emily to express their gratitude for creating a line that was so lacking in the greeting card world.
It also seems like a massive wave of press could lead to a sort of "sophomore slump", where it's difficult to match that initial fever of interest. How did the company maintain a sustainable wave of demand?
[Alison] Emily's voice is what drives this brand. She has a real insight into how people think, feel, react. It's what makes the line so relatable. In our catalog, we have a line that says that "we find it creepily satisfying whenever a customer asks if we’ve been reading their diary, because it means we’re doing something right." People gravitate to things that make them feel understood. It's a reminder we're all in this together.
[Rachel] I agree with Alison that Emily's voice (she's so clever!) is definitely the driving force of the brand. I'd also add that expanding into gift items after beginning with just greeting cards has kept customers excited about what's coming next! Part of any successful brand is knowing what people want - and being able to capture the same "feel" of the greeting cards in fun things like gift bags, pouches, and enamel pins, I think, has been a great move.
My aunt has spent her entire career in the greeting card industry. I remember asking her about threats to the industry when CreateACard kiosks started popping up and again with websites like Paperless Post and eVite gained traction, yet it seems that tactile paper cards are still the medium of choice for expressing grief, empathy, thanks, congratulations etc. Will there always be a place for that level of thoughtfulness and formality, or will we eventually submit to sending valentines written by a neural net?
[Alison] As a paper-lover myself, I am probably somewhat biased, but I think there will always be something special and more meaningful about a tactile object you send to someone. Our customers seem to agree! And the fact that there are so many amazing brick and mortar stores we work with all over the country -- and the globe! -- further proves there's tons of us paper freaks out there.
[Rachel] I'm pretty biased towards paper goods also, but I do think that anything that takes more effort than typing on a computer/phone will always feel more meaningful to the receiver. Handmade items are having a resurgence because everything else is so available, and while we love that (thank you, Amazon!), there's nothing like opening an envelope and seeing someone's handwriting on a card, even if it's just their name.
How much of Emily McDowell sales are online vs wholesale or brick and mortar resale?
[Alison] Interestingly, it varies from product category to product category. Our online retail site definitely drives a lot of revenue, but our wholesale brick and mortar sales are a real backbone of the business, and what helped launch it all to begin with. I'd say stores have a stronger drive for our dimensional products (tote bags, canvas pouches, magnets, pins, and so on), and online cards are definitely king.
Where do you see the industry in five years? Ten years? Eleven years?
[Alison] Both Rachel and I get to travel to trade shows where we meet tons of amazing entrepreneurs from across the country. I think with this number of hand-working, creative minds, the stationery and gift industry will only continue to grow, and of course adapt where it needs (iPhone covers, which we sadly do not produce, were all over the place the last few years).
[Rachel] I'm always amazed by the creative people in our industry. Just when I wonder "what's coming next?" someone has a great idea! I'm still pretty new to this job (it'll be a year for me in November) so I'm not sure I can say I see where it's headed in 10 years, but I definitely plan to be along for the ride!
What are your favorite unknown hangout spots in Seattle / WA?
[Alison] I'm a big fan of Georgetown, having made my first real 'home' in Seattle there. Full of great dives, art studios, funky wares. (Plus, free pool at Seattle Tavern on Sundays, but I'll fight you for a table...)
[Rachel] Well I wouldn't necessarily consider these "unknown" spots - but my 2 favorites(being a Ballard gal, through and through) are Sunset Hill Park and Golden Gardens Beach. One caveat though, is that both of these places are MUCH better in the fall/winter. I love bundling up and heading to either one to stare at the water, mountains, and boats, and sit on a bench and think about how we live in the most beautiful place ever.
The best meal in the city can be found at ________
[Alison] ...Ciudad (also in Georgetown).
[Rachel] ...Picolino's (also in Ballard!). Their homemade pasta is to die for, and I love the neighborhood vibe. It never disappoints.
If you had a surprise four week vacation handed to you, you would _____?
[Alison] I would travel to southeast Asia. It's been on the list, just have to make the time!
[Rachel] I'd do a tour of Scandinavia. I am so fascinated by those cultures and would love to learn more about them. Plus, I could probably get some great yarn for more knitting projects!
Living and working in Seattle is great because _____
[Alison] Living and working in Seattle is great because, as cliche as it sounds, the natural beauty is just so unparalleled. Commuting via LightRail is also a huge bonus, having moved here from Los Angeles via New York.
[Rachel] ....it both feels like a small town with all the different neighborhoods, but also has things I couldn't find outside of a city (great restaurants, art museums, etc.).
Living and working in Seattle would be better if ________
[Alison] Living and working in Seattle would be better if there were less tech-bros crowding me on the train (sorry).
[Rachel] ... I honestly can't think of anything. I really love it here!
I am currently reading_______
[Alison] The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.
[Rachel] I am currently reading too many books about babies (our first is due in December), the most recent of which is "The Birth Partner" by Penny Simkin.
The most underrated show/movie of all time is ________
[Alison] The most underrated movie of all time is Jaws -- seriously, I'm crazy about Jaws. I watch it every 4th of July.
[Rachel] The most underrated show/movie of all time is "High Society" with Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, & Celeste Holm. I'm a sucker for old movies, especially musicals, and I've never understood why this one doesn't get the same response as others like "Singin' in the Rain."
_____ is better than people think.
[Alison] Vegetarianism is better than people think (ahem, Ryan...)
[Rachel] Knitting is better than people think.