Meg Gleason is the founder and designer of Moglea (pronounced Moh-glee), a letterpress and stationery studio. You've probably seen her work, even if you don't know it.
I met Meg at Iowa State back in 2006. It was a brief but memorable interaction. Long story short, she was a junior when I was a freshman. I saw her work and thought it was the coolest (she had a poster that featured a llama). The following year she remembered me and asked if I was accepted into the graphic design program. Fast forward 10 years later and her work is still the best and I'm still trying to play it cool.
Today Meg works from her studio on her family’s farm in Audubon, Iowa (which is beautiful). Her husband Chad is also a designer and farmer. They have several employees and they ship their stationery and other paper goods to Anthropologie, Paper Source, Steven Alan and shops all around the world.
Meg was kind enough to let me hang out with her at the studio when I was in Iowa a couple of months ago. She gave me the full tour and some pretty great swag. She dropped some knowledge and I learned a lot about what to expect from the stationery world as I move on to the next phase of my creative residency—developing my creative business.
Here are a few of my questions about starting a stationery business and some of her answers.
Q: How did you first get your work into stores? Where do you sell the most products?
A: Tradeshows. If you want to make a big splash in the stationery world, you need to attend the National Stationery Show (NSS). It’s in May, but it’s best to apply early (ideally by October in order to get a good spot—you don’t want to be on the outer ring). There are others too, like NYNOW, which is twice a year (this show is optimal for gifts like prints and other products).
Q: I’ve looked into NSS, but the price of attending seems unclear. How much does it all cost? How did you know what you were doing when you first attended?
A: NSS costs about $2,500 for a small booth then several thousand more (at least) to put the space together and cover travel, food and products. It’s not cheap, but this is the place to be seen. As far as how to navigate the new tradeshow scene, sign up for Tradeshow Bootcamp.
Q: How prepared were you when you first attended?
A: “I never sold a card before attending. However, I did go into it with confidence from my Minted line that was doing well. Since I was sharing a booth with some other designers, something that helped give me attention was another company that directed big buyers to check out my work. Before I left the NSS in May of 2012, I had orders from Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters. I came in with 30 designs, but buyers wished I had an even bigger catalog.”
Q: How do you start a new business when the markup is so low per product? It’s so expensive to print a low quantity that selling a few here or there seems hardly sustainable.
A: “You might not make money right away. It takes time. The idea is to grow to get big enough orders so that it lowers the cost per product.” Meg said she doesn’t see how people can grow a business without going into debt. “If you make $30,000 from a tradeshow, you have to invest that right back into the business in order to grow and meet the demand.”
Q: What’s a line? How many cards do you need to have in a line?
A: “A line is all of your cards. It’s best to have 60-100, but it’s okay to start smaller.” Meg went into the first tradeshow with about 30 designs. Her products went over well, and retailers even wished she had more. Obviously it’s best to have quality over quantity, but quantity is really important too. When I had lunch with her and Chad, they told me that retailers like to be directed to top sellers. “The top 3% sounds better than the top 30%. That’s the difference between a line of 100 and a line of 10.” Well put, Chad.
Q: How do you find the time to design and run the business?
A: Shocker: delegation. While Meg does do all the lettering and card designs, she has designers who work on the website and online marketing, as well as employees who work on shipping, sales, painting the paper, printing etc. She focuses on the things that need to be cohesive for the brand—essentially the work that nobody else can do. “You have to learn to trust others with your work and be able to clearly communicate the vision behind each piece so that they can help you accomplish your goals.”
Q: Where do I start?
A: Observe what’s missing in the market. See what people are doing. Find the right balance between being knowing the market really well and not finding yourself too…inspired…by other brands. When Meg emerged, nobody was doing what she was doing—mixing hand painted cards, collage, hand lettering and letterpress (they still aren’t). She’s found a way to mass-produce individual pieces of art. Find what makes your style unique and run with it.
Thank you, Meg!
*Photos courtesy of Moglea