Gingiber, based in Springdale, Arkansas, is an illustrative paper goods company selling art prints, greeting cards and tea towels with Stacie Bloomfield’s drawings on them.
You started your company eight years ago. How did you get it off the ground?
I started the company eight years ago because I was pregnant with my first daughter and I couldn’t find any artwork that I liked for her room. I decided to make my own since my background was in graphic design and fine arts. My husband thought they were really cute and thought I should try to sell them.
I listed my illustrations online and bought my first archival printer, which was a $600 investment. I remember being like, “I’m never going to pay for this printer. How many prints would I have to sell?!” I didn’t get my first sale for three months later. It took about a year to get some traction. A popular design blog featured my illustration and it all took off from there.
Three years in, I started running the business full time. Now I’m eight years in and I’ve got myself and four employees. We sell online on our own site, we sell wholesale to about 250 stores, and then I’m designing for other companies like The Land of Nod, Williams Sonoma, and I have a fabric line with Moda Fabrics.
Where were you when you started Gingiber?
I graduated from college in Springfield, Missouri in December. By February I was pregnant, and by May my husband and I moved to Northwest Arkansas for his grad school. We had the baby in November. That’s right about the time I started the company. So we were in Springdale, Arkansas when we started.
That’s where you are now! Do you think you’ll stay?
When we first moved here we thought it was temporary. My husband was getting his PhD in math from the University of Arkansas, and you can’t really be a professor at the university where you got your degree. We moved away briefly for for a one-year position in Oklahoma City. Then he got a tenure-track job in Tallequah, which is 70 miles from Springdale. We decided to move back and he now he commutes. So now we’re here indefinitely, unless something changes.
What effect does the community have on your work?
I’ve created a strong support system here. There’s a great indie artist community in Northwest Arkansas. I’ve been involved in all the craft shows here. There are so many people with different interests and talents. Feeling connected to that world has been really powerful for me. I feel like I’m a part of this breathing, living thing.
When you own a small business based online, you become a local hero, someone that people just know about. And having that support as a small business owner is really beneficial. I think I’ve gained a lot of encouragement from the community here, and it’s helped me keep moving because I know they support me.
I can go to Hobby Lobby with my daughter and someone will be like, “Hey, Gingiber!” And that’s not my name, but I’ll stop and say hey.
Once I was buying something and the cashier asked, “What are you going to do with this giant letter G?” It was like 3 ft tall. The woman behind me, who I didn’t realize was listening, cuts in, “She’s probably going to put it in her brick and mortar that she’s about to open.” She knew who I was from being online, which was really fun!
When I first moved here eight years ago, it felt much smaller. So much has developed and changed in the region. Culturally, there’s a lot more happening. The local food scene has grown, the local art scene has grown.
I always tell my friends who live in New York or Boston how cool it is. I tell them they need to come visit Crystal Bridges, which I love. I go there as often as I can. I have a friend who’s an artist, and she’s never been in front of a Van Gogh before. I tell her, “Dude, come to Crystal Bridges, because I’m pretty sure we have one.” In Northwest Arkansas. It’s so fun!
How does your location effect you when you’re outside of the area? Do people have a reaction when you tell them you’re from Arkansas?
Absolutely! The good thing is that I’m near Bentonville, and people know about that because of Walmart headquarters.
But mostly it’s tricky because in my industry you need to do trade shows to do wholesale, and the trade shows are mostly in New York City, Atlanta, Los Angeles or Los Vegas. So can be hard for me to get there to do the shows because of where I’m located.
Sometimes I do wish I was closer. I have friends who live within a train ride of some of these pockets of industry, and they’re able to participate in a lot more events. For me, with three kids, it’s not always feasible for me to hop on a plane and go. So I find myself kind of disconnected at times. I love Arkansas, but sometimes people make me feel like I’m a country bumpkin.
And sometimes you can play that up to your benefit! At my first trade show I wore gingham plaid dresses and I was really selling the fact that I’m from Arkansas because I had a barnyard series I was debuting. I decided, “I’m not ashamed of where I’m from.” And you know what, it worked. People remembered, “She’s the girl from Arkansas.”
How often do you travel to attend a trade show?
Last year I took four trips, which is pretty light. I should be doing more. But it was like moving heaven and earth to make those happen. I went to two quilt markets—one in Salt Lake City and one in Houston. I flew to New York twice, once for a pop-up shop event and one for The National Stationary Show. Two of the trade shows were back-to-back so I was gone for two and a half weeks. I flew straight from New York to Salt Lake City.
I have three kids and my husband works in Oklahoma, so we had nine different people helping us juggle child care. It was so hard that this year I’m hardly doing any traveling.
It may hurt me from a business standpoint, but you can only give so much at times. There’s timing to think about. I have small children. I have to balance the need to grow with the need to nurture my family. So I’m not going to New York for the stationary show, but I’m going to try to do a different one in August that might be better timing.
I could be at a trade show in Atlanta right now, but how would I go—my husband is a professor, right? Last year his classes ended and the next day we were on a plane to New York. I feel kind of crippled because of that. There’s not a lot of wiggle room in our schedule.
How has Gingiber changed and grown over the years? Have there been any challenges?
When you own a small business, it’s like putting out one fire after another all the time. You have something that succeeds one year, and then the next year it doesn’t do as well, so you have to try to grow another part of your business.
When I first got started, I was on Etsy, which is “the handmade marketplace,” or used to be. It was smaller then. Because I had some press, I was selling a lot with hardly any effort. So I had no idea that most people who run a small business need a marketing budget. And a lot more people started selling. It became harder to be seen. Our sales were declining and we needed to grow a different arm of the business to avoid sinking.
That’s when we started focusing on wholesale, which is a whole different beast. We sell our products at 50% off to retail stores and then they sell it to their customers. For wholesale, we don’t get sales all the time, just a couple times a month maybe. We have to produce everything up front in bulk and then hope it sells well.
When you split your energy too many different places, it’s hard to do any of them well—that’s one of my big challenges. Last year, I had this super idea to open a brick and mortar store. I had a studio with a storefront, so I thought I’d open it up for people to come buy my products, no big deal.
It was fun, but it took a lot of energy. I put a lot of time and money into it, and then six months later my landlord sold the building to an investor and I had to close it down.
I was sad, but the truth is I was exhausted. I was doing wholesale, direct customer, and art licensing, and also running the brick and mortar myself because I didn’t want to hire an employee.
I wanted to make it as profitable as possible, so I had my kids up there with me, and I was always saying, “Quiet! Here’s a customer! Shhh!” I realized that because I’m the heart of the business, I can’t be doing every part of it. We had decided to someone when our landlord let us know that the building was selling, and I decided it was a blessing in disguise.
In the past, I’d had an opportunity to let something go in the business, but I don’t like giving up. I don’t know if it was pride or what, but I was like, “No! I can do this!” And it ended up backfiring.
This time when the opportunity came I took it. Maybe someday when my kids are older and not home with me as much I’ll open a store again. Maybe I’ll do it better. But right now, even without it, I still have a gazillion things to do. How would I have gotten through the holiday season with my brick and mortar open? I wouldn’t be here today with you, I’d be in my bed with a blanket over my head recovering.
Your business depends so much on your creativity. How do you balance that with the routine tasks you have to do as a business owner?
Last year was a big learning year for us. Things didn’t go as smoothly as I like. The first quarter of last year, sales were really low and we sunk a lot into a brick and mortar that ended up not taking off. We were a team of three at that time: myself, a remote wholesale manager, and my shipping assistant, who had another part time job, too.
When we had to move out of the building, we got a smaller building, which was more affordable. We used the money we saved in rent to hire two new employees. So now I have someone who handles customer service, and someone who handles assembly.
Before I was physically assembling all our products—I was creating it, I was assembling it, I was photographing it, I was marketing it. It was just too much.
I had to change some things or I wasn’t going to last. I hired two new employees and got someone to photograph our products for catalogs, which has helped the products sell better because they look prettier. I can wing about anything, but sometimes you can’t do it all yourself.
Sometimes spending money can feel like such a loss as a small business owner, but really I’m probably selling ten times more little notebooks than I would have sold photographing them myself. The woman I hired really knows how to elevate products and make people say, “Ooo, I want it.”
We’re still developing some systems, but bringing on some help has been great. I’m paying taxes on my employees, and there’s liability insurance, but if I hadn’t hired more people, I wouldn’t have any time to create new work. And I need that, because I’m the only artist in the business.
That’s how I’ve been trying to handle the work stress, but then there’s also the balance of having kids. My kids aren’t in daycare full time now. I have one who’s in second grade, one in preschool, and a two-year-old. And then a new adorable puppy!
My two-year-old is in child care three days a week, so I get 15 hours a week of no kids. It’s hard to run a full-time business on 15 hours. So I stay up late to work when I can. I fall asleep often with my computer on my lap. I try to squeeze time in on the weekends.
Yesterday, school was cancelled in Springdale, so my two daughters were home. I can’t bring my son to the studio because he’s bound to pull the metal shelves that hold the products over on himself. But my girls are old enough they can come with me and draw and have fun. For four hours yesterday, I was like, “Aw, this is the life! I’m a working artist and my daughters are here with me. It’s amazing!”
But that’s not typical. I got home and the dog had pooped and peed everywhere and my son was mad, because he’s two. I felt all the stress of it all: I needed to answer emails, I needed to make dinner (which ended up being macaroni and cheese again).
I love my kids but I’m not ever going to have the perfect house or most organized home. It’s kind of organized chaos. My kids are smart, they’re healthy, but we’re not the tidiest. You have to let something go. I’m not going to make gourmet meals, but my kids are nourished. They’re fine.
Do you feel pressure to present yourself online as the perfect mom, the perfect businesswoman, the perfect creator?
Well, I am all of those things. On Instagram. Ha!
I do feel a lot of pressure. I have friends with gorgeous, immaculate houses. They may not be huge, but they’re perfectly styled in every photograph. I don’t have that in my home, so I just don’t show it. Because it’s not real! But I wish I did. I wish I had organic meals from Whole Foods, but I’m not going to take my three kids into Whole Foods to buy groceries, because that’s craziness right now.
I do try to talk openly about my business and my struggles on social media. I try to be transparent. If I have a success in one area, I like to tell what was actually happening. When people see a picture on Instagram or Facebook, they want it to be pretty, they want to like it and feel inspired. But they don’t necessarily want to hear, “Oh my gosh, today was so bad. One of my wholesale reps dropped me today and I don’t know what I’m going to do if I don’t make up that income.” Or, “I ordered 5,000 of these cards and they’re printed on the wrong card stock and they’re just sitting in my studio” “My assistant had sugery, so she’s out, and my sister is moving . . .” Over Christmas, all those things happened! All at once! But no one wants to hear that.
There’s a balance: I’ve got to keep the ship afloat, I want to be real, but I also don’t want to whine. How am I going to present myself in a way that sells my product, makes me likable, but is also true? I don’t know if it really exists, but I’m certainly trying to find that balance.
I was really honest about my dog Rosie peeing all over the place recently. I had a picture of me holding the dog in a mirror, and I look really ridiculous. I was “dazed, confused, covered in urine,” and people on Instagram loved it. I looked ridiculous in my really dirty bathroom. And then I got 500 tips on how to potty train my puppy. It was a win-win.
I protect a lot of my private life, especially with my kids. I mean, I have a nursery decor business. I started the business for my kids. I like my kids, but sometimes they bug me, like any mom. I want to include them in my story, because they’re a part of my story, but I also don’t want to exploit them. I have an eight year old. When she was four, it was easier to share about her life, but as she gets older, it’s her story, right? My kids are their own little people with their own lives.
Also, since I have a nursery decor business, people expect me to have the most beautiful kids’ rooms. Two of them are really cute, but they’re always covered in stuff. And we have an electrical issue at our house so lightbulbs burn out within a week. So most of the time our kids don’t have overhead lights, we have lamps. So can be like, “Hey, Instagram, look at my dark, messy, children’s rooms. It’s so inspiring!”
You mean your home isn’t like a Land of Nod catalog?
It’s not! Even though I make all this Land of Nod stuff! No. But it does smell like dog poop. But you can’t share that through Instagram.
So when you sit down to make illustrations, how do you choose what to draw? How do you decide what actually goes on products?
As a kid, if there was a napkin and a pen, I had it covered in puppy dogs. I was always drawing. I had a little leather portfolio I took everywhere. It was how my parents kept me quiet.
When I started, it made sense just to do cute animals. But then I got bored with plain animals, so I started playing with the surface of the fur as like a place to put patterns and play with color. So it wasn’t just a straight up fox, it was a fox with triangles all over him and juxtaposing colors. I liked it and thought it was fun.
I always try to find something I haven’t done before, and I try to find a way to make it visually interesting. Our tagline is “sweet enough for kids, but smart enough for adults.” When I draw something, I want it to be not just cute, but interesting enough that a parent would enjoy looking at it, too. That’s how I think about anything I do.
Since I have kids, and kids are part of my target market, I look at what they’re interested in. My daughter Lucy was really into llamas recently, and I don’t know where that came from. So I drew my own llama, and posted a snapshot of a sketch on Instagram and people went bonkers for it. So I said, “You know what, there’s something to this!” I put that llama on a tea towel, a greeting card, and enamel pins. And they’re selling really well.
So you use social media for more than just marketing?
Social media is good for watching trends. Since I’m selling my products, I try to stay on to of things like what color palettes are working now that weren’t a few years ago. Two years ago neon was really in. But neon’s not my jam, so I couldn’t find a way to integrate it organically into what I do. And I think that’s ok.
And there’s the tricky part where I look around, and I can tell I’ve influenced some trends. I know I have because there have been some big companies knocking off my designs. You know they’re looking. I have a lawyer now that helps me with that. We’re in the middle of three different litigations right now, trying to take care of some of my designs that have been put on other products without my permission.
One really good thing about social media is the direct feedback. Last year I did a sketchbook project where I sketched every day for 100 days, and I was posting the sketches. Some got a lot of positive reactions while others didn’t. It really helped me put my finger on the pulse of what my audience is into and what might sell well. I got almost three collections out of that project, and it was just an accident.
So I make some decisions based off of that, and also sometimes I just do what I like. I’ve already created 2018 calendars for Gingiber, and one is out of the box from what I’ve done in the past. Sometimes I can get bored just doing the same things over and over again. So I’m trying to play with a different color palette that’s a little more vibrant.
How long does it take to get something from a sketch book to a product?
For greeting cards, if I already know what I want in my head, I draw it, scan it, digitally color it and create a pattern for the back. I send it to the printer, get it back and package it. It will probably take three weeks.
The other day I did a custom backpack for a retailer and we turned it around in three days. They said, “Hey, our anniversary is coming up. Can you make a shitzu with a pink crayon on top of it?” I said, “No problem.”
Something like calendars will take longer. I’m make 12 original illustrations, I lay them out in Adobe Illustrator, with the actual calendar layout. I make proofs, then send them to an offset printer. It can take two or three months. It depends on how busy the printer is.
I just have to have the time set aside to be creative. That’s the tricky part. I have to protect that time, otherwise my work will suffer. And if a fun opportunity like the backpack pops up, I won’t have any room on my schedule for it.
Now that I have a bigger team, I can have more of that creative time.
What’s next? Is there something big you’re tackling?
I really want to make baby blankets with my pattern repeats on them. I have a lot of colleagues who have done that really well recently, so I want to find a way to make mine unique and different so it doesn’t seem like I’m regurgitating what’s already out there.
I need to find a manufacturer who can source the swaddling material for me, and who can screen print all over, 36 by 36 inches, which is huge. It’s a repeat, so it needs to be edge to edge. I know I can do it easily overseas. It’s harder to find information sometimes here locally.
Gingiber stationary is for moms who come looking for products for their kids. They buy baby stuff for their nursery, then they get themselves a calendar or notebooks because they like our artwork. Right now we’re trying to bridge that gap. What product we can create that will be transitional so they can continue to buy from us as their kids get older?
I want to make some actually toys that kids can actually play with. I’d like to make some high quality wooden puzzles and blocks and things like that. Maybe kids’ sketchbooks, with color-coordinating pencils with them. That’s something I might get for my kids.
I can dream up a million products, but we have a limited budget, so we have to be strategic about what we make. I also need to know my audience. Am I going to put $2000 into producing this big project that no one will buy?
I’m a creative, right? I’ve really been trying to hone in on how to run a small business. Here’s something great about NWA: There’s this scale-up program that the small business association has funded. They’ve found companies like mine: we’re not new, but we’re not millionaires, and they’ve brought these people together for a 16-week course where we’re learning how to better run our businesses. I’m in the middle right now, and it has me thinking about not just going with my gut, which is what I typically do. I get excited about something so I make it.
So instead now I’m thinking about research. Let’s do AB testing and think about our market. Let’s make sure new products will sell. That’s not as fun to think about! But I’m learning that I have to do that.
I’ll give you an example of something that kind of failed. Two years ago, we launched baby onesies and toddler shirts, because we kept getting all this feedback from people: “I just want baby clothes with your stuff on it.” So we made a bunch. And we had the hardest time selling it.
We didn’t just do this naively, we sent out a huge survey to everyone on our mailing list, and it was very open-ended. We asked, “What products would you like to see Gingiber develop? What’s your favorite category?” We were trying not to guide the conversation. I’m not kidding: 60% of the people who responded wanted baby clothes and onesies. So we thought, “There it is, that’s what we need to do.”
It didn’t even occur to us that maybe the people who responded bought from us when they had babies, but don’t have babies anymore. It was great feedback that they would have liked to see baby clothes when their babies were babies, but maybe the next time if we do more baby clothes, we need to think about how we launch it. We can’t just tell our existing customers. How are we going to reach the moms that are having babies RIGHT NOW?
We got great feedback, but at the wrong time.
These are the fun things about running a business that you learn the hard way. We’re still sitting on 150 onesies, which is not so many anymore. We’ll move them eventually. It’s interesting, though, that just because people say, “I want this,” doesn’t mean they’ll actually buy it.