We woke up to a nice surprise this morning. The video of our talk from Weapons of Mass Creation Fest is online!
WMC Fest was billed as three days that would change your life. For us, that was definitely the case. As our first big speaking gig, it truly was one of the highest points of our career so far.
It’s hard to believe that we were in Cleveland only three months ago. Since then, we’ve been working nonstop, and so much has happened. Tomorrow, we’ll fill you in on everything with a special epilogue.
Watch the video below! For those who prefer to read, we’ve included a transcript along with all of the slides from our talk. Enjoy the ride!
How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Enjoy The Ride
A talk by Jen Adrion and Omar Noory of These Are Things
Weapons of Mass Creation Fest
Cleveland, Ohio • August 2013
(Warning: Lots of images ahead! It may take a second to load them all.)
O: Hi everyone! We’re Jen and Omar of These Are Things. It’s great to be here in Cleveland at WMC Fest. Before we get started, we’d like to thank Joseph, Jeff, and everyone at WMC Fest for inviting us and for putting on such an amazing event. We’re honored to be speaking to all of you and to be sharing the stage with such a great group of talented artists and designers.
J: Today, we’re here to share our story with you. Now, if we really wanted to impress you, really prove that we belong up here on this stage, here’s what we’d tell you.
J: We started out as child prodigies.
O: We’re responsible for one of the internet’s greatest animated memes.
J: In 2010, we created a modern world map that became an overnight sensation, selling hundreds of prints in a matter of hours…
J: And over the past three years, we’ve continued to build on that success…
J: Shipping over 10 thousand pieces of art to happy customers in all 50 states and 30 countries.
O: We illustrate for clients around the world, including a monthly spread in AFAR magazine.
J: Our business was featured as a case study in a New York Times bestselling book.
O: Our website delights hundreds of visitors per day and has won many awards.
J: Our maps even co-starred in an indie film with Jim from The Office!
O: And we’ve ridden that wave of success from Columbus, Ohio all the way to New York City, where we currently live and work in a beautiful studio with a view of the Manhattan skyline.
J: Not too bad, right?
J: We’ve built our career on visualizing data, so let’s make a graph. If we were to plot out our story, as we just told it, it would look something like this.
J: All of the success…
J: The fame…
J: The fortune…
J: The accolades…
J: They’ve all led us here, to our greatest accomplishment, standing on this stage speaking to all of you.
J: Using our expert data analysis skills, we can see that we’re on an upward trajectory with no end in sight.
O: But that’s not the whole story. In fact, we’ve left out some pretty important points.
O: The mistakes…
O: The failures…
O: The rejections…
O: The hard times…
O: The REALLY hard times. Taking all of this new data into consideration, let’s redraw our graph.
O: It’s a little different! So, in reality, our trajectory isn’t as straightforward as it first appeared. Today, we’d like to take you on a journey through some of these highs and lows.
J: So, let’s try this again. Today, we’re here to tell you our story…
J: Our FULL story.
J: That story begins a year and a half after we graduated from art school. We were lucky, during a rough economic time, to get great design jobs right out of school. We both had the chance to work for some cool clients.
O: And, some not so cool ones. Like many artists who find themselves in the professional world, we needed another outlet for our creativity.
O: So, whenever we weren’t at work, we did art projects together. We tried everything, from street art to jewelry to textile design.
J: And while these projects were fun, we dreamed of a day where our side projects WERE our jobs. unfortunately, we weren’t quite there yet. Here’s us at the end of a weekend craft fair. I think we made 20 bucks.
O: That all changed in February of 2010.
O: One of our many side projects was to create this silkscreened world map. We had started traveling together and wanted a pretty map to hang up in our apartment.
O: Once the design was finished, we had a small edition printed by a screenprinter in Portland. Since we only needed 1 map for our apartment, we ordered the minimum quantity, which was 50.
O: With the extra maps sitting in our apartment, we decided to try and sell them. On a Sunday night before we went back to work, we made a one page website with a paypal button and sent a few emails to our favorite design bloggers. We honestly weren’t expecting much – it was just another one of our many side projects.
O: The next morning, we woke up to our first order, from a creative director in South Africa.
O: Before the day was over, we had sold 350 more – and counting. We were blown away. Maybe this project wasn’t like the others after all.
J: Now, you may remember that we only got 50 prints made, and we sold 350. We quickly found ourselves in over our heads.
J: Not only did we not have enough prints, paypal was a little concerned that a brand new account had brought in so much cash so quickly, especially on a pre-sale item. So, they froze our account and said they wouldn’t release the money until we shipped the orders. Here’s the tricky part. That’s the money we needed to get more prints made!
J: We had to figure things out – and fast. We spent all of our savings and all of our free time figuring out how to run the business that we had accidentally started.
O: That learning process took a full year. It took months for us to get those first orders shipped out and for PayPal to release the funds. By March of 2011, we finally had a handle on our business and had even quit our day jobs to run it.
O: We moved into a new apartment and built a home studio.
O: When the business outgrew our apartment, we hired a warehouse to store, pack, and ship all of our stuff.
O: And we were making tons of new products…
O: …that were getting as much attention as our first map.
O: We were feeling pretty confident, so we decided to challenge ourselves to create a series of prints that went together.
O: So, we started our most ambitious project to date: designing a series of six European city maps.
O: We spent a long time on the design and planned a big launch to go along with it. We made a video…
O: Working with popular blog Design*Sponge, we launched the prints with a giveaway…
O: …that got over 350 entries. We were excited – looks like we had another success on our hands!
J: And it was a successful launch. Except for one thing.
J: They didn’t sell. The giveaway came and went, the video was shared, but they just didn’t sell. We didn’t plan our first launch at all and it did great. Now, we actually planned and it did awful. We didn’t know what to do.
J: In the excitement of our initial success, we hadn’t really thought about taxes. So when the five figure bill came in April, we found ourselves with less money than we had started with in the first place.
J: As a last ditch effort, we applied to a small, local craft show that we’d done before. We figured we’d at least be able to sell off some of our extra inventory.
J: We were rejected. At this point, we started to think that maybe this was it! It was fun while it lasted. Maybe our old jobs would take us back…?
O: Right as the money was about to run out…
O: We reached out to a little site called Fab.com. They had been doing timed sales of designy merchandise for about six months, and they were starting to get really popular. They agreed to work with us and run a sale with our products. Three days later, we had sold nearly 2,000 units. Just like that, we were back in business.
O: Two weeks after that, we received a call from The Land of Nod, Crate and Barrel’s kids line. They made a huge opening wholesale order and started carrying a bunch of our prints in their online shop.
O: With this very well-timed cash infusion, we were able to grow and expand like never before. We made dozens of new prints – and they actually sold this time!
O: And we upgraded to an amazing new apartment in downtown Columbus
O: Six months later, our business was profiled in The $100 Startup, which became a New York Times bestseller. We were really on a roll. Everything in our business was going great – better than we could have ever imagined for ourselves.
J: But even though our professional lives were better than ever, 2012 was a hard year for us, personally. If you’ve been following us online or even if you know us in person, you probably don’t know this, because we haven’t shared it with anyone.
J: I spent most of 2012 dealing with a personal issue from my past. I am not yet able to speak about the details, but I can tell you that it was very, very hard on both of us. Most days, it was a struggle just to get out of bed. And my anxiety over the situation made it hard for me to even leave our apartment. I was using all of my energy to work through this very tough emotional situation, so when it came time to sit down and design, sometimes there just wasn’t anything left.
J: Fortunately, I am lucky to have Omar and a supportive family, and as the year went on, we tried to focus on our work as much as we could. It actually helped take our minds off of all of the things that we couldn’t control.
O: Thanks to our warehouse, the shop side of our business was essentially on autopilot. The orders would come in, and our warehouse would ship them out, so we didn’t have to do much on that end of things. So, we were able to take that time and focus more on the freelance side of our business, which really picked up in 2012.
O: We started doing editorial illustrations for a bunch of great magazines, like AFAR and Spirit, Southwest’s in-flight magazine.
O: By the end of the year, we had signed contracts with some really huge clients – including Cleveland’s own American Greetings.
J: Business was great. But, as the year came to a close, we were still feeling some of the effects of my personal situation, which made it very hard to be in Columbus. It was the perfect time to get a change of scenery – and fulfill a lifelong dream at the same time. We decided to move to New York. Our inventory and production would continue to hum along back in Ohio, just an email or call away. And our freelance contracts would more than pay for our year in the city.
O: So, we got on an overnight Chinatown bus, headed out to Brooklyn…
O: And signed a lease on an apartment. It was a little more than we wanted to spend, but we were determined to make it work.
O: In January, we packed up our stuff and headed out east.
O: We set up shop in a beautiful little studio apartment in Williamsburg.
J: As soon as we got there, we knew immediately that we had made the right decision. Even though it was freezing cold when we landed, we put on our extra large earmuffs and heaviest coats and started exploring the city. The change of scenery was exactly what we needed and we were feeling more inspired than we had been in months.
O: But not long after we got settled in, the projects that seemed so promising started to fall apart.
O: Budgets were slashed, concepts were rejected, and projects were put on hold indefinitely – or killed. This was not good. We were relying on those contracts to pay for our new, much more expensive life in New York. (For the record, our project with American Greetings went great and they paid right on time!)
O: After a few months of freelance fiascos, we decided to shift gears and get back to doing what we love most: creating for ourselves.
J: We spent two months designing a collection of greeting cards, something we’d wanted to do for a while.
J: We had a great time working on these and were so happy with how they turned out.
J: We were so confident in our designs that we decided to do something we’d been thinking about for years: exhibiting at the National Stationery Show.
O: The National Stationery Show is the biggest trade show for paper goods. It’s where retailers go to find new lines to carry in their brick and mortar stores. All the way from small boutiques to big national chains like Target and Anthropologie. This was a chance for us to sell a lot of product at one time. Our goal was to get more large wholesale accounts like The Land of Nod.
O: Even in our fancy New York apartment, we were still running a pretty DIY operation. But we spent a lot of money to make it look like we had been exhibiting for years. We spared no expense as we got ready for this show. The stakes were high, but we were confident about our product.
O: We had a little over a month to prepare – which is NOT enough time – but we managed to get it all done. We got our wholesale catalog printed with a day to spare, designed an entire booth…
O: And set up shop in the Javits Convention Center, where we spent a week showing our products to retailers from around the world.
O: The show was exhausting, but the response was great. Our line was getting attention from national buyers and our design work piqued the interest of some pretty big companies. By the end of the week, we had signed orders with a dozen boutiques across the country and had started serious conversations with a number of very promising leads.
J: We left the show feeling great about the possibilities. It looked like all of our hard work – not only the time and money that we put into the show, but the three and a half years of work that led to this point – we felt like all of it was about to pay off. So we packed up, headed back to the studio, and waited for the big orders to roll in.
J: By now, you all probably know what’s coming next. We, on the other hand, had no idea.
J: Those big orders we were waiting for? They never came. But what did come…
J: Is rejection…
J: After rejection…
J: After rejection. Opportunities that seemed like sure things just a few days ago were falling flat quicker than we could reply.
O: And piled on top of the rejection letters… were the bills.
O: We spent a TON of money to do this trade show. We were certain we’d see an immediate return on our investment – or at least break even. But, two months after the show, that just wasn’t happening.
O: Meanwhile, the costs of running a business from 500 miles away were piling up. The business we thought was running smoothly on autopilot back home in Ohio was actually careening off course without us there to manage it.
O: And don’t even get me started on the cost of living in New York! We knew it would be expensive, but we had no idea just how expensive it would be to live here – especially with the costs of running a business at the same time.
O: No matter how many times we ran the numbers, no matter how many times we tried to recalculate, this was a bad equation. Our business was bringing in more money than ever before, but even our best financial year was no match for these kinds of expenses.
J: So, last month, we sat down and made an extremely difficult decision. In two weeks, we’re breaking our lease, packing up our beautiful New York apartment and moving into my parents’ basement.
O: Making this decision meant that our dream of living in New York, a dream that we had spent years saving and planning for, was over – after just eight months. We were never planning on staying there forever. It’s just that we were so confident about our ability to make it work and we ended up failing so hard and so quickly.
J: We were in shock. We did not see this coming at all. We’ve gone through all of the stages of grief. Denied it was happening. Angry at ourselves for taking such huge risks, New York, Anthropologie, bargaining to stay longer, afraid that we killed business, and of what people would think.
J: This was two weeks ago. And now, here we are, standing on this stage, telling this story to all of you. To be honest, we have been dreading giving this talk. When we agreed to do it a year ago, we were on top of the world. Now, we are lower than we could have ever imagined. So, the big question is, why? Why get up on stage and share our biggest, most embarrassing failure? When I ran the idea of this talk past my brother, here’s what he said…
J: And maybe he’s right! Maybe this IS stupid.
J: It certainly would have been easier to just stick with the highlights reel and conveniently gloss over everything down here. But we couldn’t get up here and tell some whitewashed version of the truth. That’s not reality. That’s not our whole story.
O: The truth is that the highlights reel is NEVER the whole story. When you only see the highlights of someone’s life – whether it’s their portfolio, their twitter feed, or a talk at a design conference – it’s all too easy to connect the dots yourself and assume that everyone who is successful spends their entire life enjoying success… after success… after success.
O: The reason we’ve chosen to share our full story with you – the highs and the lows – is to show you that every success is built from a series of failures, mistakes, and rejections.
O: Down here, this is where the magic happens. This is where we learn our biggest lessons. The things we learn, and the struggles and hardships we face down here…
O: …are what help propel us to new, even greater heights. And while these parts are hard to talk about, our story – and yours – would be incomplete without them.
J: It’s easy to think of yourself as being defined by one of these points on your graph, whether it be your worst failure or your greatest success. But, we’re not just points on a graph.
J: We’re the line. We’re the journey, the total of all of those experiences, the twists and turns, the ups and downs. So, we say, bring it on. Bring on the next failure, bring on the next mistake, and, if you don’t mind, bring on the next success. And, no matter what happens next, we’ll continue to share our story with the world – our full story.
O: So, what IS next for us? Even though we’ve faced some tough challenges this year, our business is doing better than ever and things are looking up. We’re excited to be back home with family and friends who have supported us every step of the way. We’re excited to finally get back to work and start a new chapter of our lives and our business. And even though we have no clue what the future will bring, we’re looking forward to whatever happens to come next. If we were to graph our vision for the future…
O: Of course, we’re hoping that it looks a little something like this!
J: Above all else, we hope that wherever you are at this very moment, whether you’re up there, or down here with us, remember to appreciate every point on your graph, stop worrying so much about where you are… and enjoy the ride. Thank you!