This week in our ongoing Meet the Maker series, we’re getting to know Atlanta-based maker Leela Hoehn Robinson, who produces a line of paper goods, home decor, and seasonal accessories called Native Bear. Welcome, Leela!
LBC: What inspired you to take your leap as an entrepreneur?
Leela: In 2011 I was very inspired by the growing maker movement that was happening everywhere. Reading stories about how people were able to quit their day jobs after starting their online craft business was a huge motivator for me. I couldn’t think of anything more fulfilling than designing for myself and generating income through my own brand in the comfort of my own home. At that time I felt the ultimate moment of “success” was going to be when I could work in my pajamas and create my own schedule.
LBC: When you first got started, how did you envision your business would be defined?
Leela: Honestly, in the beginning I didn’t really have too much of a vision or plan for how I wanted to define my brand. I was just trying to get the designs on paper and to muster the courage to put them out into the world. A lot of the beginning days of my brand were very much about my own personal development and figuring out what the Native Bear ‘look’ was. I always knew I wanted to keep a very natural aesthetic throughout all of my designs.
LBC: How would you describe what you create?
Leela: I design paper and home goods that feature my original illustrations and block print designs. I also make custom hand carved wedding invitation stamps for brides to hand print their own invitations. In the beginning I focused mostly on custom stamp making and block printing all of my stationery and textiles, which has gave Native Bear its rougher, more natural aesthetic .
LBC: Where can we find your products?
Leela: You can find Native Bear wares online at native-bear.com, Etsy, or at various shops and boutiques across the country. This season we have started to focus more on wholesale outreach, so I’m happy to say that we are growing our stockist list every week.
LBC: Walk us through your typical work day.
Leela: With one eye open, I wake up around 7:30 and check my email on my phone (a terrible, terrible habit that I intend on breaking soon…) The night before, I will try and make a list of most pertinent tasks for morning so that I don’t let things slip through the cracks. I’m not too rigid when it comes to scheduling my time, but usually I will spend the morning answering emails, creating social media content, and assessing my order load. After some lunch I’ll often have my husband come into the studio to help me with packaging product and getting it ready to send out to stores. If I’m lucky, I’ll have some time during the work day to sketch or tinker with a new illustration, but I usually design at night when I’m able to relax, not distracted by the everyday operations.
LBC: What are 3 things makers should think through when they initially decide to start a business?
Leela: 1. What makes your product stand out? Make sure that you are creating something that sets you a part from the rest, and try to keep your eyes focused on yourself. It’s good to be aware and ahead of trends, but don’t get too caught up in comparing your brand to others.
2. Be ready to work long hours and sacrifice some of that extra social time. It’s worth it! It’s OK to work hard when it comes to growing your dream business, and in the beginning that means staying in when your friends are all heckling you to go out. If they’re good friends, then they’ll understand.
3. Know when it’s time to NOT do all the work yourself. This is something I wish I had understood when I first got started. You should build as much as you can on your own, but as soon as you can start enlisting a little help to make and execute your product, then do it. It will help your business grow if you can free yourself up to work on the more important things like marketing, designing, or improving your product.
LBC: When you’re overwhelmed, what brings you back to focus?
Leela: Making a list is always a quick way to find a little zen and get the tasks out of your mind. I also like to leave the studio and take a walk with my dogs or run an errand that has nothing to do with work.
I think it’s always important to remind yourself of what’s most important. While, of course, I want to run a successful business, I try not to get too caught up in the obsession with being busy. Taking time away from the business and enjoying a day of doing nothing is just as important as making checks of the list.
LBC: Tell us about a few of the best business decisions you’ve made to date.
Leela: A very recent change in the business has been outsourcing with local vendors to print my stationery and tea towel designs. After hand-printing all of my items for the last 3 years, I recognized that this was not a sustainable method of production for growth. My husband has also recently taken on more involvement in the business and helps with packaging and order fulfillment, which has been amazing. Now, I am able to put most of my focus back on designing, and I can create faster turn-around times and even lower prices on certain items for my customers.
LBC: Please share one mistake or obstacle from your business experience. How did you bounce back/overcome it?
Leela: The biggest obstacle for my business has been the lack of startup funds. Besides the help of a very small crowdfunding campaign a few years ago, I have essentially built everything up gradually on my own. This was one of the reasons that I started to learn how to carve stamps and block print my stationery cards, rather than maybe screen printing. The supplies were affordable and I didn’t need a large studio space to do the printing. The simplified nature of block printing limited my options, but I feel that it ultimately made me a more thoughtful designer.
LBC: What are 3 essential resources in your business toolbox that you can’t do without?
Leela: My online bookkeeping software, Instagram, and the book titled The E Myth Revisited by Michael E. Gerber. A fellow maker and entrepreneur recommended this book to me and it has completely changed the way I think of my business for the better.
LBC: Suppose we had a time machine. If you blasted ourselves forward a few years, where would we see your company?
Leela: I see Native Bear being stocked by international distributors all over the world and throughout the US. Within a few years, I hope to have some full-time employees that can help take on the production and logistical side of the business, and hopefully someone who could assist me with marketing, promotion, planning… a dream!
LBC: What’s one thing you would eat, if you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life?
Leela: Cookies. Any cookie.
LBC: If you could hire someone to do just one thing that you sort of loath doing, what would it be?
Leela: Packaging and shipping. I could probably do without that task…
LBC: If you were given a million dollars, but were not allowed to keep a single penny for yourself, friends or family, how would you spend it or give it away?
Leela: I would love to start a program for young aspiring female – or female-identifying – entrepreneurs to help recognize and develop their vision. I would like to see a program that promoted women supporting women, and that would take in girls who may be financially underprivileged. Through the program, they could have a chance to earn guidance and some startup funds to put their ideas into motion.
Thank you, Leela, for sharing your talent with us! We absolutely love what you’re doing and we look forward to all the wonderful things ahead for Native Bear. We’re cheering you on…
Want to see your brand featured in our continuing “Meet the Maker” series? Drop us a line: hello AT luckybreakconsulting.com. Please use “MEET THE MAKER” as the subject line and be certain to include your web address. We look forward to hearing from you!