Meet Janine Kwoh, often found in an apron – letter pressing a greeting card on an antique printing press, and then hand painting each one of it to make it truly one-of-a-kind. Commercially known for her brand name “Kwohtations”, she is the owner / artist / one-person assembly line behind a handmade stationery company and letterpress print & design studio, based in Brooklyn, NY.
So much remains underrepresented in card aisles. So much is unsaid and often hidden in words that are spoken less frequently but mean much more than a simple thank you, or a happy birthday. This is what makes this brand desirable. Kwohtations is an ever-changing collection of greeting cards, art prints, and other curiosities that reflect and celebrate a diversity of identities and life experiences, and always with some humor and whimsy that is so critical to savoring the good times and surviving the hard ones.
And as Janine further describes it, “My hope is that anyone can recognize some part of themselves in Kwohtations, and feel a bit more seen and less alone. For example, many of our card designs feature a variety of character options with different skin tones and genders, and lift up everyday triumphs, challenges, and life milestones for people on all different paths.”
Kwohtations today is a self-funded, growing small business, and proudly a one-woman show. In 2011, Janine started making greeting cards on a whim without any formal art background, which she continued primarily as a creative outlet and hobby for a few years.
In 2012, she left her job in finance to work at a venture philanthropy organization, whose mission and work was more aligned with the impact she wanted to have. In 2014, she did her first craft market and sold into her first retail store, at which point she started thinking of Kwohtations as a side business, but with the idea that she would probably always do this alongside her “real” job.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2018, seven years after she first started making cards, that she took the leap to being an artist full-time. “I think that gradually transitioning to running the business full-time was incredibly helpful – it gave me time to refine my products (including learning to be a letterpress printer), to learn more about how to run a small creative business, and to begin to build up a customer base before I made the big leap”, says Janine.
As of 29th January, 2020, seven billion greeting cards are purchased every year. Evidently so, it can be hard to stand out in an increasingly crowded industry, especially when it can seem like there are so many other people doing exactly what it is that you are trying to do.
In such a scenario, Janine believes that the key is to clearly identify – for yourself and others – the WHY behind your business (versus the how and what) and WHO you are hoping to serve through your work. “Not everyone will like what you make or have to offer, and that’s okay. Keep making and sharing the work that you want to do, and those that resonate with your work will eventually find you,” she claims.
So what makes Kwohtations different from other greeting card messages in the market?
According to Janine, many of the images and narratives that we regularly engage with – distort or erase the complexity and diversity of our lived experiences. Mass media shapes our identities and interactions in powerful ways; it teaches us how things “should” be – what love and family should look and feel like, what it means to be beautiful and good, what parts of ourselves can be expressed or should be kept hidden, what we should aspire to and what we are worthy of having.
It influences the judgments we make about others, and who we value and invite into our lives. Some likenesses, voices, and stories are well-represented in meaningful and multifaceted ways; but conversely, other pieces and people are often reduced to flat characterizations or even non-existence. Kwohtations as a brand believes, that expanding the types of images and stories that we see and share on a daily basis is critical to radically changing the way we view and treat each other and ourselves, and to moving us towards becoming a truly more inclusive and open society.
But running a small creative business is no easy task and requires some self learning as well. When Janine started out she recalls to have leaned heavily on a lot of the available resources out there, e.g. reading articles online, listening to podcasts, taking online classes, accessing free small business meetups and conferences around the city, and talking to more established creatives and business owners.
She confesses, “I think starting something new is always scary and risky, but worth it if you think that you will regret never giving it a go, even if it doesn’t work out. My approach has always been to stay as lean and flexible as possible, and to grow the business gradually and organically.”
Currently Janine works out of a home studio – one of the limitations of living in a city like New York is that space is limited and expensive. Over the years, she has learned that keeping her space organized with lots of shelving to keep inventory and supplies is key to being able to work efficiently in a small space. “Putting up art and keeping some plants around have also helped create a space that I want to work in, despite often being surrounded by boxes and shipping supplies,” she adds.
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Jumping into #marchmeetthemaker 10 days late with DAY 10: AUTHENTIC SPACE – This is what my tiny Brooklyn home studio looks like today. This is Kwohtations HQ, where I do pretty much everything (plan, design, paint, pack, ship…) besides actually printing the cards (I'm pretty sure I can't fit a printing press in here 😬). Alternately super messy or super organized, a constant work in progress, and always filled to the brim with precariously stacked cards and ideas – in many ways, it's the closest representation of what the inside of my mind looks like at any given time, my tiny patch of world. 🌎❤️⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ #marchmeetthemaker #marchmeethemaker2020 #marchmeetthemakerday10
One has to agree that there are a lot more daily ups and downs as a creative entrepreneur, as there is a lot of uncertainty to navigate in almost every aspect of a business. Therefore, as per Janine, it is important to take time to celebrate the small (and big) wins, and to periodically reflect on the progress you’ve made and why you embarked on this creative journey in the first place, which can be easy to lose sight of.
She also believes that learning anything new can be intimidating and hence would urge others not to let that stop them! If doing a full-time internship or intensive training is too intimidating, time-intensive, or expensive, START SMALLER. You can watch a free YouTube video, take a short online class (Skillshare and Creativelive have good creative classes that are a few hours long), or sign up for a one-day or weekend workshop. She herself learned letterpress by watching videos online, taking a weekend class at a local university, and then renting time at a studio to play around on the press by myself.
And as they always say, ‘it takes a village’, reflecting over the brands journey, Janine’s friends have been an unbelievable support network – from talking her through all the times she felt like giving up, to being sounding boards for so many card ideas, to bringing her the much-needed food and coffee at craft fairs, to unabashedly spreading the word about Kwohtations to anyone who will listen. Other makers and creatives that she met along the way have also been unbelievably helpful resources to her, and many of them have become good friends.
Today, Kwohtations continues to strive to release a new collection of products every now and then, including greeting cards, a new tea towel and a bandana design. “Continually coming up with new ideas can be challenging, and I’m glad that I am able to make and share another collection of products that I’m really proud of,” concludes Janine.
To end with a bit more, here is a quick informal rapid-fire we played with Janine to share resources, ideas, her advice and tips for other learners:
Best piece of advice that someone gave you? : “Take a break and go for a walk.”
Favorite Stationers? : Emily McDowell (@emilymcdowell_) – for their uncanny ability to articulate real-life sentiments with humor; Ghost Academy (ghost_academy) – for their simple yet funny and touching designs, and block printed style; Sapling Press (@saplingpress) – for their irreverent and always relatable sentiments and clean, crisp letterpress aesthetic; People I’ve Loved (@peopleiveloved) – for how honest and empathetic their designs are, and so, so many more.
Favourite Hashtag? : I’ve recently started following is #joyspotting, which I really love to look at for some daily inspiration.
Your view on healthy competition? : I think it’s always worth finding companies that you admire, and then learning more about how they got there and if they have any advice for those who are at an earlier-stage.
Favourite book? : “Tiny Beautiful Things” by Cheryl Strayed is a book that I will re-read every so often and have gifted to many others.
A work routine that you would recommend? : I think the most important thing is that people try different routines and find the ones that work for their individual preferences and lifestyles. For me, I have found it helpful to create a schedule for my entire day either the night before or the morning of, so that I don’t get stuck throughout the day on what to do next, or distracted by the giant list of to-dos I always have running in the back of my mind.
A successful portfolio tip for young professionals? : Make the type of work that you want to get hired for (even if no one has hired you for it yet), and include that in your portfolio.
A strict no-no tip for aspiring entrepreneurs? : I think one of the biggest mistakes we make is to NOT start at all. My advice if you are just starting out is to go ahead and start, even if you don’t know everything yet, even if you are not entirely prepared, and even if you are not sure where you are headed. I think that mistakes are inevitable – they are how we learn, and for the most part, everything will end up okay in the long run. So, just start!
Favourite life-hack quote? : “Don’t worry, no one else knows what they’re doing either.” – Ricky Gervais
Favorite Podcast recommendations? : Some of my favorite podcasts for small business owners/creatives are: Proof to Product with Katie Hunt, How I Built This with Guy Raz, Creating Your Own Path with Jennifer Newman, and Etsy Conversations with Ijeoma Eleazu. Other podcasts I love for life in general are: This American Life with Ira Glass, Death, Sex, and Money with Anna Sale, and Checkbox Other with Nikki Innocent.
One thing you collect and why? : I’ve kept every piece of real mail that I’ve received – and have a box full of birthday cards, love letters, sympathy cards, and everyday notes of encouragement from people that have been significant in my life. Every once in a while, I’ll read through them and remember so many little and big things that have happened in my life.
One survival tip to beat the competition? : Try not to compare yourself to others on the internet.
Your tip on managing finances? : Open up a separate business bank account! And have a system to track money coming in and out of your business, whether it’s an accounting software or just an Excel spreadsheet.
Your tip on staying sane through all the ups and downs? : Remember to take time for yourself. As a small business owner, there is no end to the work that you can do or feel like you have to do, and no formal working hours to provide structure to your day. Taking a break from your business – whether it’s unwinding at the end of each day or taking off the weekend or going on a vacation – is necessary to run your business (and life) in a sustainable and healthy way.
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Volume on 🔊 for GREETING CARD STORY TIME, ie to hear me read one of my cards aloud over soothing music. I hope it’s a good reminder that whichever path you choose, you are already on the right one. You can watch the whole mini doc on Kwohtations on my IGTV, conceived and created by the amazing @opalitemedia 💕 There is never only one correct path. Any path you choose will be windy and bumpy at times and longer than you think it will be. Any path you choose will also lead to hidden wonders and spectacular views that you wouldn't have known otherwise. You will meet people and have experiences that will change your life in both wonderful and hard ways. All of this is incredibly valuable. You also don't have to stay on a path just because you started out on it – you can always get on a new path, stay on it for a long or short while, get on another different path, or return to one you were on before. The journey really is the whole point. So pick a direction and go – whichever one you choose, you are already on the right path.