Creative Collaborations: How to Craft the Perfect Product Partnership
This past holiday season, Emily Grey teamed up with Spoonflower and artist Alison Citron Hazinski of One and Only Paper to launch a social good home decor collection at her shop The Flourish Market in Raleigh, North Carolina. The collection, designed by Alison, printed and sewn by Spoonflower, and sold by Emily is a great example of how Spoonflower products can be a part of broader collaborations in the creative retail community.
After a fun and enlightening conversation between Emily and Alison on Instagram Live in December, we wanted to record more of their words of wisdom with this interview that will be a part of both our Small Business Handbook and Seller Handbook series.
Join Emily (also known as Em) and Alison (oneandonlypaper on Spoonflower) as they talk more specifics about their recent collaboration, share some communication best practices, give tips about pitching your work to a retailer, and tackle the popular question about how to find a balance between a creative’s artistic side and business side.
Top Tips from Two Creative Entrepreneurs
How did this collaboration with Spoonflower come about?
Em: I was working in my shop on our busiest weekend of the year and Jessica Lesesky, Spoonflower’s Chief Revenue Officer, and long-time customer of our shop walked through our doors and gave me the most encouraging masked COVID “hello.”
As we quickly caught up and I asked her how things were going at Spoonflower, she tossed out the idea that we should chat in the future about teaming up together for a collaboration collection as she thought our customers would love to be able to shop home products.
I didn’t realize that Spoonflower had such an extensive collection of home decor product offerings, and Jessica was correct—our customers had been begging us to find fun pieces to bring a bit of joy into their homes.
This was an easy and ecstatic “yes!” from me because Spoonflower is one of the most globally admired brands when it comes to social responsibility and commitment to the greater good.
How did you two partner together for this project?
Em: Alison was my first email after Jessica walked out of my shop. I had thought of her as soon as Jessica had mentioned the idea of doing a collaboration collection because there was a cheetah design of hers that was already a best seller in our shop on wrapping paper and stickers.
Looking back at the email I sent to Alison, I now chuckle because I did not know the “lingo” on how and what to request of her, but it was enough for her to get started. I linked to a few of her designs as inspiration and told her my thoughts on the meaning behind the collection.
She really took my request and ran with it. She sent back an immediate “Yes, I’m in” email and told me when she would have design options ready for my review. It was so exciting to receive her email with all of her design options and colorways. She gave me more than double the options I had requested which gave me the flexibility to then take to Instagram stories with polls so our customers could get a few sneak peeks, and help us narrow down the final color combinations.
Photo Credit: Adelyn Boling Photography
Alison: Partnering with Em was a dream! She made the process so easy, and seamless. When Em contacted me to discuss a potential partnership, she included inspiration photos of my own work, which helped me quickly get on board with her vision for this project. It was an ideal collaboration – everyone was doing what they do best, and trusting the other people involved, and it produced some great work!
Em: The Spoonflower team was also amazing at suggesting the types of fabrics that would work with the different designs and products. I knew nothing about different fabric types, but when the team suggested Belgian Linen and Celosia Velvet for the pillows and Linen Cotton Canvas for the tea towels and cocktail napkins I said “Sounds like a plan!”
I didn’t have to know and understand the intricate details; I only needed to know that I trusted my partners. I know that a common fear that prevents people from stepping into collaboration opportunities is the fear of sounding dumb and not knowing the exact steps to follow in the process. That is the beauty of collaboration – everyone gets to learn from each other and celebrate one another’s skillset and magic.
Alison, how did you approach the art and design for this project after Em contacted you?
Alison: We started the project with the cheetah pattern in hand, and I used that as the jumping-off point for the other patterns in the collection. I wanted everything to be able to exist in the same room together, so I came up with a slightly larger scale floral pattern that incorporated some of my watercolor paintings alongside my digital art. Since those two patterns had a lot of color and texture going on, I wanted the third pattern to be a little more subtle and neutral. I tried a lot of different gesture drawings until I landed on the wiggle pattern – it just felt right because it followed the organic forms established in the first two patterns, but it also introduced a little symmetry and structure to the collection.
After I had the basic patterns established, I created a ton of different colorways for Emily to select from. Since everything looks so different on a screen vs in print, I knew it would be important for her to see it all in the samples, and be able to make her picks from there.
Photo Credit: Adelyn Boling Photography
Em, How do you find potential artists to collaborate with? What do you look for?
Em: Anytime I’m doing a collaboration, it is most important to me to work with someone – or a brand – who shares the same ethics and values, and who has integrity. I also look for people who are fun to work with!
I cannot think of a time when I have “found an artist.” A collaboration usually results from when we’ve “found each other.” This has happened in the past by us being introduced by mutual friends who have said “You should meet __________; you’d love them!” It’s also happened pre-COVID by being in the same room as someone, and now it’s been happening in virtual rooms via Zoom. My advice is to make intentional choices to put yourself into community, and great things will follow!
What are some tips you can give artists to help them get noticed by a retailer?
Alison: Don’t be afraid to reach out and make connections with retailers! It’s way easier to be noticed when you’re asking them to notice you. I keep a list of retailers I’d love to work with, and when I feel like I have products or designs that would be the right fit for them, I tell them about it!
Photo Credit: Adelyn Boling Photography
Em: I’ll give my secret tip for those who are looking to get their products onto store shelves: go beyond the pitch email. I receive hundreds of pitch emails a week from designers and brands, and it’s hard to get noticed through email. I recommend sending snail mail that I like to call a “pitch package” in which you include 3-5 of your products you think would be best sellers for them, along with a handwritten note. In the handwritten note, you want to “show them you know them.” Do your research, and start your letter with something you love about their shop, and make sure your words are authentic. You’ll want to end your note with easy step-by-step instructions outlining the process to place their first order with you.
In my five and a half years of running my business, I have only had three brands send me samples via mail. THREE! While I know this will cost upwards of $30 – $50 for each package, if you land the account, you can most likely count on $1,000+ in orders in a year. The return on investment is worth it!
I’ll end with this: PITCH US. If you truly believe that your products will be a good fit for our store, please pitch us! I know that pitching yourself and asking for the sale can feel weird and icky sometimes, but I want you to hear this – we need YOU to be successful. If we don’t have new and exciting products to offer our customers, we will not be successful as a business. Your success is our success. Consider it a beautiful ecosystem of support!
What are some important things you’ve learned along the way to best communicate with your collaborators?
Alison – I’ve found that taking the time upfront to make sure everyone is on the same page, visually, is key in having collaborations run smoothly, and happy clients! Sending over reference or inspiration images (ideally from your own body of work) helps make sure we’re all envisioning the same thing. I also try to be clear about what the process looks like from my end – if I’m working with people who aren’t artists and designers, I need to keep them up to speed on where we are in the process, and what specifically I need from them in order to keep things moving forward. So if I’m sending a sketch over, I’ll call out that it’s really easy to make changes at this point in time, but once we commit it to paint, we have less wiggle room, because that’s probably not something the person on the other end of the email would know.
I think good communication is one of the most important skills you can have to make a collaboration go well. Beyond delivering great work, it’s just as important to be easy to work with, and to give your clients or collaborators the best experience you can. Often, that just means thinking about what it would take to make it easy for your client to say yes, anticipating and preemptively addressing questions or roadblocks when you can, and going the extra mile whenever possible.
Photo Credit: Adelyn Boling Photography
Em: Alison nailed this – communication is key! I can offer up an additional tip when it comes to communication: make sure everyone is also on the page from the start about what each of your marketing efforts will look like when it comes to launching your collaboration. Although I have never experienced this personally, I have heard from so many business owners that their collaboration partners have been wonderful to work with – but then they drop the ball when it comes to marketing. You want to make sure that expectations are clearly articulated and that no one is making assumptions on how much effort each partner will put towards promoting your collection. Each person should feel comfortable with the marketing efforts being agreed upon, and writing them out into a project plan is helpful.
When expectations are not clearly communicated and agreed upon, this results in disappointment and resentment. If you get in front of these sometimes tough and awkward conversations, you’ll be best positioned for a successful collaboration – both personally and professionally!
Alison, what tips can you give to artists trying to find their visual voice, while also balancing designing for products, running a business, etc.?
Alison: This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot, especially as I’ve transitioned from working one on one with clients to translate their vision to trusting my own vision for where I want my company and my art to go.
I think to first find your visual voice, it is really important to hone your taste. Document or save the things you are drawn to, and ask yourself, what are the common threads running through these items? Study the artists you love, and follow your curiosity – the more aware you are of different movements and visual trends, the more it can inform your work vs influencing your work.
I also recommend keeping parts of your art practice separate from your business. Giving yourself the space and freedom to experiment or follow your interests outside of what you think might sell is so helpful, especially since that part of art and creativity is usually pretty removed from the day to day of running a business.
Finally, I think it’s important to build up a reference library composed of your own work and photos. Iterating on past work, and only using reference that you yourself have created will help you more quickly refine your visual voice. When I’m creating work, I try to block out as much external noise as I can, and trust that my skills and taste will guide me into the direction I’d like to take.
Alison Citron Hazinski started her career and business as a graphic designer, first creating websites and branding for small businesses, and then focusing on wedding invitations. As her business One and Only Paper grew, so did the demand for her art, leading her to create a fulfilling art practice that became a staple of her designs. In early 2020, she left the wedding industry to pursue creating art full time. She currently live in downtown Raleigh with her husband and dog.
With a past career on Wall Street as a Vice President of Communications and Change Management, Emily Grey brings her ‘win them over’ know-how, delightful enthusiasm, and every day wit to encourage women to use their influence for good. She is a speaker, small business coach, and impact entrepreneur with a special focus on helping makers and brand owners land their products on store shelves.
Five years ago, Emily founded her brick + mortar and online boutique, The Flourish Market, building it to a million-dollar business in less than 3 years with zero paid advertising or loans. She is also the Founder of The Locality, a co-working space + incubator program for 60 female entrepreneurs in Downtown Raleigh, NC. Pre COVID, you would find her speaking on national stages for Brendon Burchard, at Alt Summit, and leading maker retreats, but she now enjoys speaking and training via Zoom alongside her new pandemic puppy Henry.
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