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Founder, Owner and Overall head Honcho
Knock Knock was founded on New Year’s Day in 2002 by Jen Bilik with the mission of creating interesting, smart, well-designed gifts and stationery products. Describing her company culture as irreverent, Knock Knock’s products probably won’t be found in most traditional card stores. Jenn’s company has been profiled by the Wall Street Journal, HOW Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Lucky, New York Magazine, The Washington Post, Metropolitan Home, Real Simple, as a “Best of Los Angeles” in Los Angeles Magazine, and even by Hustler, right under an unflattering picture of Larry Flynt. With an average wholesale price point of $3.66, Knock Knock earned $6.2 million in 2008, with projections of $7.1 million this year.
Raised in Berkley, California Jenn Bilik knew that writing and creating were two of her strengths. After all, she grew up quilting with her mom and still loves any how-to television shows. Following her graduation from the University of Michigan, Jen headed to New York City and worked as a film development intern, apprentice film editor, architectural draftsperson, tutor, babysitter and newspaper proofreader before finally accepting a salaried job in publishing. Jenn gained first-hand experience with illustration sources, four-color printing, authors and copy editing.
Jenn also enjoyed a series of desk side internships with some great graphic designers, even learning Quark to enter the book file changes herself. After leaving the world of corporate publishing for freelance, Jenn edited several books and co-authored two.
During her freelance stretch, Jenn created what would become Knock Knock’s best-selling card, “The January Card.” It gave justification for those who didn’t get their holiday cards out in December. Encouraged by those who told her to sell it as well as the reaction of people who saw her creations, Jenn forged ahead.
Jenn envisioned a company that was a studio of creativity that wasn’t confined to any specific category. She wanted her business to have a unique voice and personality that “may not fly in a chain store,” and not “please the lowest common denominator.” Although she never aspired to be an entrepreneur, Jenn felt strongly that this was something she had to do.
Eventually, Jenn sold her New York City apartment and moved back to the west coast, landing in Los Angeles. In January 2002 she founded Knock Knock and created an initial list of 13 products that included cards, a Personal Library Kit and a keepsake catalog. The Personal Library Kit is for those who lend books, but never get them back. The kit contains self-adhesive pockets and checkout cards (á la the library), a date stamp, note pad and pencil. When Jenn launched the Personal Library Kit, the press paid attention.
In the fall of 2002 Jenn gained momentum. She began making sales calls, hired a sales rep and a sales director. Knock Knock began scoring placement in retail stores across the country. With items designed for annoying people, coworkers, family members, friends and lovers, Knock Knock was gaining a diverse following. According to Jenn, “Our customers comprise the impish, the dapper, the droll, the young-at-heart, those who prefer the humor of the truth to false feel-good affirmations.” Her top selling items include the Things You Do That Really Piss Me Off pad, Insults and Comebacks for All Occasions book, The Bitch Kit and The Complete Manual of Things That Might Kill You. Basically, Knock Knock takes everything irritating about life and presents it in a convenient kit, amusing book or notebook.
When Kate’s Papery, Jenn’s favorite New York City store, placed a $1,000 order Jenn admits it blew her mind. She also had a goal of being in the Los Angeles MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) Store, which came to fruition. Jenn “was so proud to be in a museum store!” and says it’s validating when a stranger purchases her items and pays retail. Jenn admits she secretly thinks her grandmother is buying everything.
Jenn can attest from first-hand experience that being an entrepreneur is an exercise in resilience. Early on, Jenn discovered that a close friend who was functioning as a manufacturing broker was stealing from Knock Knock. The individual was inflating the cost of goods and pocketing the difference. Although Jenn felt betrayed, she realized that there had been no checks and balances in place. Although she could have pursued legal action against the former friend, it would have cost upwards of $250,000, and the company money was already gone. It was a huge lesson for the company, one that caused Jenn to move to independent sourcing of manufacturers and made the organization even stronger.
Today, with twenty employees working for her, Jenn doesn’t have an ultimate vision for Knock Knock, she has what she refers to as alternate visions. She wants Knock Knock to thrive without her, and live beyond her. Jenn also wants to continue pushing the creative boundaries and eventually not be working 60 to 80 hour weeks.
What we learned from Jenn: “Ego is annoying. I love a robust debate. I also love a good idea, whoever it comes from. It doesn’t matter who gets credit. Letting ego get involved is a big waste of time.”
“I’d love to be able to manufacture domestically, and we tried that initially, but we lost money. There was no way to be competitive without having our production in China. I was speaking at an art school and a student said, ‘Manufacturing in China is bad. It’s exploitative.’ My response to comments like this is, ‘That $9.00 Old Navy shirt you’re wearing – how do you think it got to be that inexpensive?’ Domestic manufacturing is definitely an ideal but consumers have to be willing to pay two to three times more.”
More Than a Feeling
“Being an entrepreneur is the most stimulating, rewarding, exhilarating, terrifying and acutely stressful experience ever. It will completely take over your life for five to seven years, so forget about having personal time. It’s amazing and life-changing, but there is definitely a cost.”
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