9 Life Lessons from 9 Years of Heartell Press
Maybe you’ve heard the gruesome statistics: one in five businesses fail in the first year. One in two fail before the five year mark. And after 10 years, 65.5% of businesses have closed (according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics). So I’m immensely proud that this month we are celebrating nine years since I first registered Heartell with New York State and opened our online shop.
The working title of this post was “Nine tips from nine years in business,” but what I want to offer you today isn’t business advice. Today, I want to share with you what working with you, the Heartell community, has taught me—lessons that extend beyond the realm of business. These insights have shaped me as a spouse, parent, friend, sibling and daughter, just as much as they have influenced me as an artist, business owner, and employer.
1. Always Ask Why
It’s easy to get caught up in all the things that need doing. At the beginning you are filing paperwork, learning how to use bookkeeping software, designing a logo and of course, developing your product line. These days there are so many options for what we could make (textiles! calendars! stickers!) and strategies we could pursue to expand our reach (TikTok! PR! Paid ads!). Over the years, I have learned the importance of sitting down, frequently, and asking myself why I am doing what I'm doing. I delve not only into what I hope to achieve but also how it makes me feel and how it serves my family, team, and community.
There’s something I say to my team a lot that I’m finally starting to listen to myself: it's just greeting cards. Nothing we do is life or death. It's just...today’s swim lesson, one dinner, a mess on the floor. Most situations in life are not life and death.
Another way to put it is: it's all life, until it's death, so we might as well savor it as much as we can. Macabre, maybe, but also freeing. I have shed tears over unsightly roller marks on catalogs, packaging labels that weren't the right color, meals I cooked that my toddlers wouldn't eat. But I try not to do too much of that kind of boohoo-ing these days. And it helps to minimize lamentation if, before diving deep into the minutiae, I ask myself why I am embarking on a particular task.
2. Do the Most Important Things First
Not everything deserves our attention, but plenty does—far more than we could ever tackle in a lifetime. Hence, I have learned to apply the fine art of prioritization. I start my day, when my energy is at its peak, by focusing on the most important tasks. Michael Hyatt's insights have been invaluable in helping me articulate and implement this approach.
Over the years, I’ve realized that what is most important isn’t always what makes the most money or gets the biggest reaction. There is plenty of data to support the idea that nurturing our relationships is the number one thing that contributes to long-term happiness and fulfillment. It’s the thought that counts, but you can make every thought count by acting on it and reaching out to the people you cherish.
Sounds simple, right? But somehow it's not. It definitely isn’t about having cards on hand (though that certainly helps!). There have been long stretches of time when I had a whole inventory of cards in the next room, yet I failed to send as many as I wanted to.
Through my work with Heartell I’ve had the chance to have conversations with lots of you about this. Some people regularly send cards, some stockpile them without sending, and there are people who wish they were “card people” but don’t think of themselves that way.
Ultimately, I have realized that nurturing relationships isn't about being the "right" kind of person or having an abundance of love to give or even the energy to share it. In the end it comes down to what you decide is important, and building habits around those decisions, intentionally or not (James Clear is my favorite resource for ideas about habits).
So at the beginning of this year, marking my ninth year as a greeting card designer focused on nurturing relationships, I finally made it a daily practice to start my day by writing a card to someone I care about. Those ten minutes bring me more joy than any other activity could.
3. Find the Right Tools
When I started out, I had limited capital and bootstrapped everything. I built desks from scraps of wood I found in dumpsters and devised an inventory and fulfillment system that involved manually entering EVERY ordered item into a spreadsheet (fortunately, we've since stopped doing that—you can breathe now!). However, over time, I've realized that investing a little extra time, money, or effort into finding the right materials and tools at the outset of learning a new skill or embarking on a project can save us from a world of trouble and heartache.
You want to make things that are beautiful and high-quality. You want to make them quickly. And you want to do it without spending too much money. Welp, sorry friends, you can’t. You can have two out of those at once, but never three. I’ve learned to plan for this, and make decisions accordingly.
We make letterpress greeting cards from hand-carved woodblocks—top-shelf, heirloom-quality items. While we strive to make them as efficiently as possible, they aren't cheap. Fortunately there are enough people out there (thank you!!!!!) who are willing to pay $6 for a greeting card, so that part works. When it comes to marketing materials, packaging, supplies, and studio furniture, we carefully consider our options, selecting the two qualities that matter most.
The same goes for meals I want to make, choices I make for my kids, how we want to live and work and travel. It can be a helpful framework to calibrate your expectations. If you’ve got a decision to make, put it to the 2 out of 3 test: it never fails!
5. Slow and Steady Wins the Race
We live in grow fast or die culture, but all of that is wrongheaded. I’ve learned from the indispensable Katie Hunt that slow and steady is how strong businesses are built. I have also found it to be true in creating robust marriages, maintaining healthy bodies, and nurturing sound minds. The grand gesture, the big splash, the lucky break—these are all fairy tales designed to make us feel inadequate.
Bonnie Christine has helped me find words for a healthy cycle of stages of work: dreaming/planning, implementing, reflecting/evaluating and rest/rejuvenation. I cannot skip any of these stages without losing balance. This structure is not only applicable to projects or changes in my personal life but also enables me to navigate them successfully.
For several years now, my family has been planning a move to the Pacific Northwest. We spent a significant amount of time in the dreaming/planning stage, and as I write this, I am fully immersed in the implementation phase—one of my final projects before officially commencing the packing process! By the time you read this, we will have arrived at our new destination, and once we settle in, we will enter the reflecting/evaluating and (hopefully) rest/rejuvenation stages.
6. Data is Gold
One of the most valuable lessons Heartell has taught me is the power of making decisions based on facts rather than emotions. Hiring the right bookkeeper—after going through FOUR previous ones—has been crucial for this. Recently I’ve come to a new realization that you can think of your feelings as data, and weigh everything with a kind of scientific neutrality that is both refreshing and useful (Emily Oster is my guru for this kind of thinking).
This comes back to the why question I started with. Making decisions without knowing exactly why is a waste of everyone’s time and leads to confusion and disappointment. This is helpful when it comes to family finances as well, and examining our budget and weighing our desires and goals against various possibilities in terms of work and income and spending has been time well spent.
7. Team Work Makes the Dream Work
The prospect of hiring people and assuming the responsibility of consistently paying them initially frightened me. But the more I have been able to do only the work that I can do, the more Heartell grows (Michael Hyatt again) and the happier I am running it. The idea is to stay in your zone of proclivity (Hyatt calls it your zone of genius but that is too much pressure for me), and let other people stay in theirs.
This principle also applies at home, particularly in the realm of parenting. I excel at removing splinters, giving toddler manicures, and accompanying my children to the pediatrician. However, we have collectively agreed that certain activities run more smoothly when I am not present—soccer practice, daycare drop-offs, and dental visits. People tend to cry more when I’m in charge of these things, including me.
We all have our skills, and I’m so lucky to have a team at work and a family at home who have different skill sets than mine. It isn’t always easy; learning to delegate well has been a huge uphill climb for me. But Heartell has turned into something that never would have been possible if I had tried to keep doing everything myself.
8. Learning Never Ends
Sometimes, it has felt like the time I spend drawing just for the sake of practice or learning new skills (such as making repeating patterns) is a form of playing hooky from my real work for Heartell. However, every time I teach myself to use a new tool or work to improve my observational drawing through life drawing sessions or spending time outdoors, it always ends up enriching my work for the business. It also keeps me engaged in a way that nothing else can.
This lesson inspired me to gift my husband a ceramics class for Christmas last year, and it turned out to be a wonderful experience. We both enjoyed it, and it felt rejuvenating to try something new. My oldest son is very into mini golf right now, and it is weirdly invigorating to go out with him on the weekends and practice my swing. Anytime we have the chance to learn something new, it will end up adding a touch of the unexpected, and you know what they say about that.
9. Embrace the Plot Twists
Which leads me to my final lesson. I want to leave you with maybe the most hard-won of my insights from these last nine years: the only thing you can be sure of is that things will change. We’ve had seasons of explosive growth, and seasons where progress came to a grinding halt (thank you, 2020). I’ve worked hard to not be too attached to abundance and not freak out when the numbers dip. Embracing change, and the unexpected outcomes that can arise out of those periods of instability, is one of the things that I think has helped us stay in the game this long.
I don't need to remind you that plot twists are a part of everyone's story; I know from hearing from you over the years that you have all experienced cliffhangers, tragedies, and comedies alike. However, I hope this image sticks with you and brings you comfort when things unfold differently than you imagined. Along every path, if you search hard enough, there is usually a grassy knoll where you can lie down with a good book and take a breath.
Thanks for reading friends! I’d love to hear your thoughts, please comment below!