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Profile: Chelleline Cards

Michelle Lin of Chelleline Cards has had slow but steady growth of her stationery business – alternating with law school! Here’s her story about following her passion while taking her time to make sure she was doing the right thing at the right time.

The Start


I started Chelleline Cards as a hobby in 2007. It was the summer before I started law school, I was temping sporadically, and I really wanted to start working with my hands again. At that time, my main hobbies were reading and writing. It had been years since I’d done any drawing or art. I considered drawing and painting, but when I stumbled on a greeting cards blog online, I knew I’d found my new hobby! I bought cardstock from Staples, and I had a lot of paper sitting around from BookExpo, and voila! One day in June, I sat down and created my first four cards. I showed them to my friends, who encouraged me to try to sell them, and a month later, I listed my designs on Etsy.

I was interested in expanding the hobby into a business and turning it into something full-time, but I was scared and with law school, it felt like things were going full speed ahead, in a direction I wasn’t sure I wanted to go. For the next few years, business development nearly screeched to a halt: I made the occasional sale on Etsy, sold at craft shows, and got a few wholesale accounts (one through an email asking for an appointment, and the other found me at the Brooklyn Flea). Then, at the end of 2009, one semester before my law school graduation, I confessed to my friend Lorina of Beadscarf that I wanted to do Chelleline Cards full time after graduation. She encouraged me to grow the wholesale side of my business, and to do so by walking into stores. So in January 2010, I followed her advice and gained 2 more wholesale accounts. Then law school and studying for the bar took over, and then the job search, although I was frequently wondering why I was trying to hard to look for a position I wasn’t sure I wanted. Although I graduated with good grades, the only thing I was able to find was a part-time position as a research assistant with a professor at my law school. I then picked up a second seasonal part-time job at the Stewart/Stand Design Store (which also sells my cards), which, although it was immensely helpful to me in many ways, left me little time to grow my business.


Finally, at the beginning of 2011, I decided to pursue a two-pronged strategy: I would continue to look for jobs in law, but would also grow my business as well, so that I would have that in case the law job search fell through. My plan was slightly upended in February, though, when my then-boyfriend and now-husband found a job in Montreal. I found out that if I wanted to practice law there, I would have to take 1.5 to 2 years of classes. From that point on, I focused all of my energy on building Chelleline Cards. I focused on the wholesale side of the business and pursued wholesale accounts mainly by walking in, although I was able to gain several by phoning or emailing for an appointment, referrals from friends, and participating in craft fairs. When my position with my professor ended in July 2011, I had a sufficient client base that I felt comfortable leaving – and in fact, I was eager for the position to end because I felt that it was interfering with the growth of my business.

As far as law school goes, I have found the education useful for my business, especially with regards to deciding what corporate structure I wanted for Chelleline Cards and with regards to intellectual property strategies. I discovered that while I liked the study of law, I wasn’t quite as enthused about law practice. I think the firms I interviewed probably picked up on this as well. (For more detail on this, you can read this post on my blog.) While I am keeping open the possibility of returning to the law, however slight, I also think that once you start creating things, it’s dangerous to go back to anything else because you’ll always feel that there’s something missing.

Challenges

In the beginning, I was tracing, cutting, and gluing everything by hand. This was incredibly labor intensive and time-consuming. Although I loved all my designs, I would be so relieved if a wholesaler decided to pass on one of my more difficult-to-make designs. However, this problem was solved in early 2011 when, at the encouragement of my husband, I bought a cutting machine. I guess you could say it’s like a die-cutting machine. I create my own dies, scan them into my computer, and the machine’s software converts it into a shape that can be cut by the machine. Although I still cut some shapes by hand (especially those on fine paper and origami paper), and although I still assemble everything by hand, the machine has saved me a countless amount of time and has allowed me to take on more orders than I would have before.
However, I would say that the most difficult challenge for me, when I was trying to grow the business, was the lack of support from my family and friends. My husband was really the only person who supported me from the very beginning – although, I guess if you had to pick one person to be supportive, that’s the person you’d want, right? But aside from him, my plans were mostly met with blank stares, silent disapproval, or comments like “Can you really make money doing that?” and “I’m glad your cards are doing well but I really hope you find a job as a lawyer.” I’m very sensitive, so reactions like these hurt me a lot.
However, it didn’t stop me from doing what I wanted to do. I just tried my best to ignore the negative comments and disapproval and worked really, really hard to build up my business. Once it was obvious that the business was becoming successful, all the naysayers quieted down and some even became grudgingly supportive. Even my mom, who had been encouraging me to have a baby since I “would have nothing to do in Canada”, started designing cards for the business!
Good Advice
Like other people have said, I would encourage you to build up your business on the side and see if it’s viable before you make the leap to full-time. If you’re a product-based business, don’t depend on Etsy as your main source of income. It works for some people, but not all, and you should be pursuing other streams of revenue. I also think it’s helpful, though not necessary, to get a little work experience in an area similar to your business. My retail experience at Stewart/Stand, for example, was immensely valuable to me in terms of understanding my wholesale customers.
I’m one of those people who believe that entrepreneurship is all about psychology. Your mindset will be a big factor in determining whether or not you will succeed. Try not to get too discouraged in the beginning. Eliminate or, at the very least, ignore negative influences.  If you’re struggling and having a difficult time believing in yourself, keep a running list of compliments and positive comments about your work and go back to them when you’re feeling down.  I did this when I was first starting out and it helped me immensely.  Most of the comments came from my husband, strangers, acquaintances, and the occasional friend. It helped me keep my perspective and stay the course.  And I’m sure it will do the same for you!
Thanks, Michelle! Small business owners, if you have a great story about your business, please contact me. I apologize in advance if it takes me a while to get back to you!
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10 Comments

  1. Shannon says:

    This was such a fantastic read and how great are those cards!? I especially loved your insight on growing a business while working. Kudos to you for going after your true passion and keeping your eye on the prize! Thank you for sharing your story Michelle!

  2. A very inspiring interview… Thank you :)

  3. Natsumi says:

    It’s so nice to hear your story. Especially because its not one of those over night successes and you had the pressure of law school on your back for years. I’m glad you stuck through it!

  4. Emily says:

    “Don’t stop believing”. The big business always starts from small one, such as Apple computer, Microfsoft, Avon, Estee Lauder, etc… You just never know.

  5. Michelle says:

    Thanks so much for your encouraging comments! It helps remind me that I’m doing the right thing. I wish all of you the best of luck in your endeavors!

  6. Melissa says:

    Thanks so much for sharing! This was a great story and I can completely relate especially when you talk about all of the nay-sayers who hope you find a more real job. I love the idea of writing down the compliments though, I’m going to have to incorporate that into my day. All of the compliments seem to be overshadowed by all of the negative comments about never making any money doing what you love. Thanks for the tip!

  7. Bozana says:

    Very inspirational. Can really relate to your story. I also studied law and recently resigned from my safe government job to pursue a creative dream of designing my own women’s tee collection. From law student to public/civil servant to designer! Onwards and upwards I say!

  8. Janine says:

    Thank you for sharing your story! I also recently discovered a passion for handmaking greeting cards and opened up an Etsy store – while also holding down a full-time finance job. Like others, I can relate to the experiences, doubts, and excitement that comes with pursuing a hobby completely different from your “career.” I’m glad it worked out!

  9. Thanks a lot for sharing this story … I have a greeting card business as well… and right now my main focus is to grow my business through Esty, social webs & anything I can do to boost the sales .

  10. Carla says:

    Thank you – that is EXACTLY what I needed to read today, when I’m tired, jaded, struggling to make sales and finding the day job hard too. Stick with it – and I’m off to create that list of positive things to refer to, I think it will help enormously!

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