Kwohtations | Being Risk Averse is Okay
People are always saying to be an entrepreneur, you have to be a risk taker. While that is most definitely true, there are times when it’s okay to be risk averse, says Janine.
Meet Janine Kwoh, the founder of Kwohtations Cards and a manager on the portfolio team at New Profit, a venture philanthropy firm. Graduate of Brown University, majoring in Commerce, Organizations and Entrepreneurship, Janine has always wanted to be an artist. At her full time job, Janine works on tackling the complicated, long term problems of our education system but at home, she creates fun and simple greeting cards that give instant gratification. I spoke to Janine to understand the balance of having a full time job and running a business.
*Update Aug 2018: Janine has left her full time job and now runs Kwotations full time!
I really like the concept of your cards and embracing and celebrating diversity. What was your inspiration behind it?
Kwohtations started out more focused on celebrating the absurdity of life. I think it's important to draw humor out of the big and little things in life. So it started out as something fun, not necessarily meaningful. The more cards I made, the more I thought about the occasions that we celebrate. There are cards out there for occasions that we celebrate as a society. Which got me thinking, why aren’t there cards for certain occasions, and what does that mean? That’s what expanded the mission to celebrate the diversity of life as well.
When did you think that this was something you wanted to pursue and make it a business?
There were a couple stages. Towards the end of 2011, I started making cards as a hobby. It was low risk and low investment and I started selling on Etsy which was a great platform for that. I would always think about expanding beyond Etsy but I was never sure. Then I went to the Somerville Flea and I saw someone else selling cards. I instantly thought, if they can sell cards at a flea market, then I can sell cards at a flea market! That was my push. Someone had recommended selling my cards at Davis Squared, a store in Somerville. So I dropped off some cards at the store and within an hour, they called me back! And they've been a wonderful partner and supporter ever since. All I needed was a little bit of momentum and little bit of affirmation to get me going.
How did you envision the design of these cards, especially without an art background?
It started out by hand. I would sketch out some ideas and send them to my friends. I went to Morocco on vacation around that time and saw a vendor who was selling square tiles that had been block printed. This reminded me of my middle school art class where we would carve linoleum and make our own rubber stamps. So when I got back, I went to the art store and bought some linoleum and just tried it out.
Wow. That went full circle. It’s funny how some things come into your life at certain times for certain reasons. How did you decide the final design of the cards? Did you get these cards approved before you decided this is Kwohtations?
I am constantly asking my friends for advice. I think one of the hard things about not having a business partner is honestly, loneliness. I miss having someone to bounce off ideas off of, so I lean heavily on my friends. At the end, though, I find that at some point you just have to decide that you're done and put something out in the world for other people to respond to.
What are some challenges you faced while starting this business?
One of the main struggles was putting myself out there. Being an introvert, it’s hard. Approaching stores and even doing flea market and standing there for eight hours talking to people is fun but a little nerve wracking.
Do you ever think about taking this full time?
I think that’s something that I’m trying to figure out through this process. I don’t know if its feasible and I also don’t know if I want to. I think doing something as a hobby versus as a business is a totally different experience.
When I started the business, I did a lot of thinking about how I want this to fit into my life. And a lot of people around me were like just do it, just quit your job and make cards! Figure out how much savings you have, and give yourself six months to give it your all and see if it works. I think that’s the typical startup story of quitting your job and giving your idea your 100%. But I know myself well enough to know that I couldn’t do that because I’m pretty risk averse. I rationally knew that I could do it and be okay but the stress of it would prevent me from enjoying the process. I think there is something in between working full time and not pursuing your dream at all. For instance, I just started working 80% at my full time job so one day a week, I dedicate to making cards. This already feels risky to me, but I have benefits and I have a salary - it's a balance that feels good to me right now. And I'm taking a tangible step and a very symbolic step for myself that I’m taking this venture seriously.
Did you have any help along the way?
There’s a lot of resources around the city. For instance, I went to the CWE - Center for Women in Enterprise, where I went to a workshop called Legal Considerations For New Business Owners, and also scheduled a consultation with one of the business consultants who was really helpful and referred me to a copyright lawyer. I also went to a session by the SBA, who gave out a packet of free resources. Basically I’m trying to bootstrap this whole operation! General Assembly does workshops like social media for business, which is another great resource.
Since a lot of your inspiration comes from real life events, are you ever afraid that you will run out of card ideas?
I’m not afraid because the experiences that I have, have changed as I have gotten older. It’s fun to see because I feel the cards have become a record or journal of all my experiences. For instance, I made the “yay, you’re gay” card for one of my friends who came out a few years ago, and last year I made the "yay you won't die alone" card for all my friends who are getting married, so I feel like a lot of the cards are representative of that time and experience. So as I get older, I'll have more life experiences that I’ll try to capture in the cards.
Who runs your Instagram and why did you decide to start one?
I do. It’s really fun. I started it within the last year. It’s been a really good platform to share more about me, the behind the scenes of things that you don’t get with the website or Etsy. I started it because it was one of those things that I felt like “I should” and because when people come across new brands, they immediately google and see if they have an online presence or not. But I’ve come to really enjoy it. As an introvert, I found it’s a great way to connect with people before I meet them in person. I’ve been featured by other local vendors and some of my customers, and vice versa, so it’s a much more interactive platform and it has made me reflect more on what I want to share in terms of what I’ve done.
Collaboration with Dillan DiGiovanni for cards for allies:
I was thinking about the people and life milestones that we don’t typically celebrate, and those communities that are under represented. I wanted to make cards to lift up LGBTQ communities and experiences, but as a straight, cisgender woman, I don't have a lot of personal experience to draw on and didn't feel well equipped to design the cards on my own. So when I met Dillan DiGiovanni, whose job is to coach people into becoming the best versions of themselves, and also who has openly and deeply reflected on the experience of transitioning and being transgender, I asked Dillan to be my collaborator on a set of cards in time for Pride Month last June. It was definitely fun but a learning experience for me, since I really wanted to make sure that the cards were accurate and sensitive, and didn't want to accidentally reinforce common misconceptions or stereotypes.
Do you think this is your passion?
I felt really bad about myself for a really long time because I didn’t have a single passion - something that drove me every morning - and I kept waiting for it to hit me. I don’t have one raging passion, but I have a lot of things that I’m passionate about and it took me a lot of time to feel okay about that. This is definitely one of the things that I am passionate about it right now - it could turn into a bigger driving part of my life or my interest could flicker out, I don’t know.
The other thing to remember and ask yourself is, “Is it making me happier right now to do it versus to not do it? If the answer is yes then I'll keep doing it. When the answer becomes no, then I'll stop.”
Do you have any advice for other women entrepreneurs?
JUST DO IT. Don’t wait for things to be perfect. I have this problem, that I want everything to be perfect before I start but the nice thing is if you put something out there, it will help you get your ducks in a row, because people will help you and give you feedback. Even on social media or Etsy, don’t wait to have the perfect photo or caption - just put it out there!
At just $5 each, Kwohtations cards are being sold at Davis Squared, Olives & Grace, Boutique Fabulous and other stores in and around Boston. For a full list of retail stores that carry Kwohtations cards, visit the Kwohtations website. Each card is all inclusive of every skin color and on Etsy you can customize your own card to reflect you.