Continuing the final days of Women’s History Month I shine the light on, Jen Bilik.
Jen Bilik, founder of the stationery and gift business Knock Knock, considers herself the company’s “creative monarch.
Jen Bilik calls herself a productive procrastinator. She took time off from her work as a freelance book editor in 2002, intending to write an illustrated memoir about high school. Instead, encouraged by friends’ reception of her “January card,” which listed her excuses for not sending the card before the holidays, she launched Knock Knock, an irreverent stationery and gift company. Today, the $7.2 million Los Angeles-based company employs 24 people and creates nearly 300 products annually, including its best-selling WTF stamp, All Out Of grocery checklist pads, and slang flash cards. For five years, Bilik conceived, wrote, and researched most products herself. Since hiring a creative director in 2009, she has been employing her wit and irreverence to expand Knock Knock beyond paper goods.
There are all these entrepreneurial boosters out there who say, “Running a company is so great! Go for it!” I say, Don’t do it unless you absolutely have to, because it’s really hard!
Being an entrepreneur is about figuring out your weaknesses and trying to improve or compensate around them. Organization and logistics are among my strengths—not managing people. I’m a bit of a hothead: If I’m under a lot of pressure and feel like people are not thinking clearly, I lose my patience. I’m also much more of a rainmaker than a profitmaker, and a spender, not a saver. So another lesson I’ve learned is to delegate.
Jim Papscoe, our COO, came on in 2006. He had previously worked for Mattel. Jim oversees the operations and is responsible for profitability. I once saw an ad on Craigslist that said, Visionary seeks functionary. I found that in Jim. He can pinch a penny until it screams. But he can also spend when it’s necessary. Every two weeks, I’m like, “Jim, will you please take over my personal finances? Please? Can I please be more than your work wife?”
I hired our creative director, Craig Hetzer, from Chronicle Books in September 2009. I’m the brand and voice of Knock Knock, but I realized that we needed to infuse our creative team with that voice rather than rely on one rock star. Craig’s strength is bringing out the creative strength in other people. I’m more of a creative monarch than a democratic team leader. Plus, I cast a pretty big shadow. So three weeks after he started, I went to Utah for a 10-week leave of absence. I was burnt out from working 90-hour weeks and went to a place that focused on healthy food and exercise. It was a really great decision. Craig got to make the team his own, and the company ran fine without me.
These days, I work from home in the morning. I use my iPhone as an alarm clock, which goes off around 7 a.m. I check my e-mail first thing. I’m compulsive to a fault; I should think things through before responding, but I’m a hare, not a tortoise—so I reply, boom, boom, boom. Sometimes that’s good, and sometimes I really could have thought that out first; or maybe that would have been better on a computer and not an iPhone.
Then I stumble to the coffee machine. I used to drink coffee all day, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that caffeine stops having any kind of good effect on me after too many cups. Still, that first one in the morning is like crack cocaine.
After I feed my two dogs, Maisie and Paco, I spend the next 40 minutes sitting in front of the TV like a cartoon character that has been rolled flat. I drink coffee and puff to life.
Before I eat or shower, I handle any work-related e-mails and read all my subscription e-mails, which are mostly publishing related, like Publishers Weekly or the gift and stationery trade updates. I’m also addicted to flash-sales sites, like One Kings Lane and Fab.com. I moved into a new house in Venice last April, so I’m in home-improvement mode. Design and décor are really important to me. Plus, I’m a collector of art and objet. One man’s objet is another woman’s tragedy.
I like to use mornings for exercise, health appointments, and therapy. I’m a big believer in head shrinkage—I certainly need it and know that my co-workers would enjoy me a lot less if I didn’t do it. Then, around 11 a.m., I often walk the quarter-mile to work with my dogs.
I hate unnecessary meetings, but we’re still figuring out the best way to keep me informed. At first, we did meetings whose sole purpose seemed to be to update me, like “Executive Sales Report to Jen,” but that made me feel like a really annoying princess. Now, we do one weekly work-in-progress meeting every Tuesday at 11:45 a.m., which can run anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes. That’s with the entire management team. We implemented this to get feedback from everyone throughout the creative process.
“Why would you ever call me when you could e-mail me? God invented e-mail. Go away.”
We release 45 to 50 individual products for our signature line twice a year. That breaks down to approximately six or seven new product series and quite a few line extensions. We also do roughly 200 custom products for retailers like Urban Outfitters and Target, which are initially exclusive to each retailer. Our first project for Target was a family travel pack with luggage tags, journals, checklists, and Roadtrip Bingo. We just did our first product for Costco, a collection of whimsical office products.
Even though I’m not micromanaging our products anymore, I still come up with ideas all the time. If I’m driving, I’ll do a recorded memo on my iPhone or e-mail myself the idea at a stoplight. If I’m surfing online, I might e-mail myself a link. Ideas come all the time, when I’m working on something else or watching TV.
I used to keep my ideas in journals, but I often found I didn’t have them with me when I needed them. It’s not very efficient. Now I use e-mail for every ad hoc spontaneous idea I have as well as all my to-dos. I’m constantly e-mailing myself—either notes or sketches in Illustrator or Photoshop. Sometimes a screenshot of an e-mail. We have an organization system on our server, which is a collective resource, so if I have an idea for a new product development, it goes into that folder. If it’s a thought for a new line extension, it goes into that one. Organization is critical, and I’m good at it.
I probably receive and send 200 to 300 e-mails a day—we use them like IM or texting. I have instilled this. I prefer e-mail; I hate the phone. Why would you ever call me when you could e-mail me? Why would you subject us both to phone tag? God invented e-mail. Go away. I used to have ridiculous exchanges where I really should have just picked up the phone, so I’ve gotten a little better. We’re also a cc’ing company, a Reply All company, and a “got it, thank you” company. When people don’t reply “Got it, 10-4, copy that,” they don’t follow through. So if I’m giving somebody a task, I want a “got it” reply so I can get it out of my head and off my list, which doesn’t happen until the recipient acknowledges acceptance.
A refrain here is “informal but productive.” But just because we’re informal does not mean you can screw off. I’ve found that some employees confuse having fun with not getting their work done—that’s a problem. It’s something we focus on in the interview process and then try to instill early. We hire slow and fire fast.
I think about hiring as casting. We’ve implemented certain hiring practices, because turnover is so costly on so many levels, not just financial. We do a work-style assessment test that’s more like a personality test to figure out how we all work together. We look at a person’s traits: What kind of person is this? How will he or she work within the specific department? Is this somebody who will butt heads with a particular co-worker we already have in place? You hire a resumé, but you work with a person.
I believe in getting feedback on my performance from my employees. But when you allow too much of it, it can make the hierarchy a little topsy-turvy. So I’m working with, How do you provide room for it without compromising your authority and leadership? I have not figured that out yet—partly because I’m emotional. I take it personally. There’s a popular book out that claims a higher percentage of CEOs are psychopaths than the general population. Not caring what other people think is a psychopathic trait. That’s not me! I care too much! I’m a negative narcissist, and managing lots of people directly plays into that weakness, because I obsess over every interaction.
I try to work from home on Fridays. I want to focus more on my personal creativity, which I think will benefit Knock Knock. I want to spend more time writing and doing some visual art—whether that’s drawing, knitting, or making dioramas. Before Knock Knock, I took classes: bookbinding, boxmaking, drawing, knitting. I feel like doing visual stuff is almost like my catatonic rocking. It’s soothing.
My new place has a garage that’s been converted into a studio and office, which means I can keep my sewing machine out all the time. All of my creative energies got channeled into the company, so I am looking forward to making things again. I think it will really feed Knock Knock.
One of the challenges for any entrepreneur is that you usually start with a creative idea—not because you’re a great manager or executive. The greatest difficulty for me in the early days was wearing every hat, even if it didn’t fit. I called myself Head Honcho for years, because I didn’t feel like a CEO. But now I feel like I’ve earned 20 M.B.A.’s. One of the things that really define an entrepreneur is you get punched in the stomach over and over and over again, and you just have to show up the next day and keep going. It really is just persistence.
Liz Welch is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist who has written for The New York Times, Real Simple, Glamour, and Inc., among other publications. She is the co-author with her siblings of the recent book The Kids Are All Right, a highly-regarded memoir of her childhood.