Meet Keli Spanier, the designer behind Colette Paperie, a greeting card line with a bustling wholesale business.
Based near Cincinnati, Ohio, Keli previously worked in-house at Target. After setting out on her own, she was faced with the challenge of growing her business into a profitable venture. Thanks to her sharp wit, friendly illustration style, and a whole lot of hard work, she’s done just that. I wanted to know about how she’s built this house of cards (but you know, in a good way), so I just went ahead and asked her.
What’s your earliest memory of working with art?
My mother owned a flower shop - and I consider making flower arrangements pretty crafty - so it was definitely in my early teen years. I have dabbled in many art forms including classic art training at Columbus College of Art & Design, which was the first time I sold a painting. I have always loved the feeling of having someone purchase my work and having it go somewhere out into the world.
At what point in your career did you decide to start your own greeting card line?
I began it when my mother passed away of cancer in 2007. I had quit my corporate job to spend time with her, and found myself with absolutely nothing to do. At one point I tried to go back into the workforce, but it was impossible to keep both going. It was amazing how much time I had now that I didn’t have a job. The rest is history.
I know you previously worked at a large chain store. How did your previous work experience influence your stationery line?
The only lesson learned from working there was how badly I needed to be my own boss. Some people thrive in those kinds of environments, and I didn’t. I knew I could do more, and I was lucky to have a few key partners push me in the right direction at the right time. I had a friend running his own successful graphic design firm that helped me see that this scary idea of working for yourself could actually work.
It felt like jumping off a cliff, but somehow I was convinced to go ahead and take the plunge. It was a bit of kismet that my mother wasn’t doing well at the time, and I could spend more time with her as well. She did end up passing away and it only reinforced the decision that I needed to be on my own from that point forward.
What’s something you learned from working for a big company?
That design is design. It’s not so big when you are one of the little people. The designers at Target are still sketching things out and exploring new ways to make art just like a tiny company would.
How have you built your brand as a business of one?
My goal is for this business to remain small and friendly. I don’t ever want anyone else answering the emails or doing the real work. That’s where I think some companies struggle with growth. Yes, I may hire help from time to time, but it’s only for bulk packaging and things that don’t affect who this brand is. You don’t want your water to get muddied up in the process of growing.
It’s a struggle to keep it just me, but I think it’s made this brand a lot stronger. Whether I’m exhibiting at a trade show or answering emails, everyone who buys from me has contact with me and no one else. I’m never going to just send someone to do the work for me. And people have a lot of respect for that.
Have you been surprised by popularity of any particular piece of work compared to others?
Oh yes. My most popular card, Real Bad Friendship has no artwork on it whatsoever except a little hand-lettering. A little disappointing, but at this point I can’t change something that sells so well. (It is in Urban Outfitters now, no turning back!)
What about a personal favorite that customers just didn’t get?
I have worked hard on many designs that haven’t sold well. Whether the joke was too far-fetched, or the design wasn’t quite there, or who knows what reason. As a designer I have to just scrap things that don’t work, regardless of the time and energy that went into them. I save a lot of old designs to possibly revisit if the mood strikes me - and maybe I can make it work better next time around.
You’ve been running your own business for a while now. How have things changed since your shop launch in 2008?
Hopefully my skills as a graphic designer have improved. Some of my early work is pretty embarrassing. Otherwise, a ton more stores carry the line and I’ve learned how to keep things compact and simple. I still use the same paper, the same envelopes, and the same packaging. I do everything in-house and intend to keep it that way. I hand-letter and illustrate every design, print, cut, fold, and package every single card here in my studio.
In the past year or two, I switched completely to using hand lettering instead of fonts. Now I make my own fonts, but I prefer drawing everything out. It was a big change that I think improved the “artistry” of the card and how unique it is. It was a scary change but I feel like I have more credibility as a designer. I love learning new crafts and I think it only lends to my hand in designing cards.
Recently I’ve been dabbling in botanical drawing and watercolors, and I’m always on the search for more calligraphy tools. I’m completely addicted to everything.
You sell wholesale to a lot of brick and mortar shops. How do you balance your time between the two parts of your business?
Like any other business, there are ebbs and flows. While there have been over 200 shops that have wholesaled from me, they aren’t all ordering at once (thank goodness). It is a lot of time management, but it all ends up working out.
What advice would you give to someone who’s working on their own line of products?
My motto has always been that when you sell something you’ve created, make sure it has a defined point of view. Find your item’s purpose in everyday life, a reason to buy it. I could make pretty cards all day but the reason they sell so well is because they have a unique point of view and the buyer thinks of the perfect person to send the card. That “aha” moment makes the sale more than anything.
What does the future look like for Colette Paperie?
More and more stores carrying my product of course, but the most important goal I ever have for this business is to bring smiles to people’s faces. My bestselling cards are cards that don’t really have an “occasion” attached - which is the perfect reason to send a card! Knowing that I can create a fun, bright little gift that pops up unexpectedly in someone’s mailbox and makes their day - that’s pretty awesome.