Kalyn Johnson Chandler is one incredible woman with deeps roots stemming from her maternal grandmother: Mrs. Effie Hayes. Kalyn is the founder and creative director behind the stationery and desk accessory brand, Effie’s Paper Stationery & Whatnot.
This once competitive figure skater and practicing corporate attorney, turned stationery extraordinaire, has some wise advice on figuring out what to do when you realize you’re unhappy in your career, and recognizing when you need to pivot in life and in business.
After practicing law for years at one of Manhattan’s biggest corporate law firms, Kalyn decided to quit. She didn’t know exactly what she would do. She just knew she was unhappy and needed to figure out what would make her happy.
She tried her hand at styling, and it worked for a while. She had a good book of clients at CNN who had also transitioned out of corporate law, but into television. Even so, styling just didn’t hit the spot. It wasn’t until she joined a national women’s organization, received a gift bag filled with beautiful stationery and what not, and had its contents sprawled out across her desk (with her wedding stationery mixed in the bunch), that she had her aha moment.
She looked down at her wedding stationery. She recalled art directing and collaborating on the stationery suite with her graphic designer. And nostalgic memories of her grandmother, who worked at a greeting card company when Kalyn was younger, came flooding back: a wicked thank you note, red lipstick, and a handkerchief. That’s what her grandmother imprinted on her. It was clear: she needed to open her own stationary company, and the name would be Effie’s Paper.
Her journey isn’t a fairytale, however. Three years in she was on the brink of letting her business go after she realized people just weren’t writing thank you notes and letters like they had in the past. Her website had been hacked and it crashed right at the beginning of her busiest time of year. She was going away on vacation, and had no back up. Not sure if she wanted to even keep the business, she decided to shutter it and went away on her planned vacation.
She came back with a new perspective to save it, and the rest is history. Her story is about working through the struggle, and taking in both the positive and negative experiences that shape who we are and using them to fuel us in life. Her story inspires you to reinvent yourself, your life, and your career (and make it work) when you don’t see a way.
More importantly, the underbelly of her story suggests how to dig yourself out of despair when you feel you want to give up. It reminds us to remember why we began something in the first place, and that everything – life – won’t always be easy or perfect, but when you approach it from a new perspective, it makes life that much easier.
It’s about stepping away to gain the perspective you need to come up with fresh ideas and creative solutions that solve the problems and challenges that hold you back. Her story gives us the answers and the courage we yearn for when deciding whether to let go of something we absolutely love, or keep going (and how to keep going)…
Watch a snippet and read the entire interview below.
AP: Tell me about Effie’s Paper. How did this idea come to fruition?
Kalyn: Effie’s Paper is a modern stationary company. We create and sell all sorts of paper products, fun coffee mugs, notepads, desk accessories, you name it. Anything you can think of to make your desk look pretty.
AP: Your products have these witty and inspiring one-liners. What’s the story behind that?
Kalyn: I really believe in creating motivational, inspirational products. I would say some of my biggest inspirations are my nieces – I have three nieces and two goddaughters. And we’re all kind of living our lives online at this point in time, and I wanted to create products, and have a company that I would be proud for my nieces to purchase from and anything that we put online, any content, for them to see and feel good about. Combined with the fact that we’re just living in a time when we could all use a little bit of uplifting. And since I have this platform, I figured, why not use it for good.
AP: How have your products and your brand inspired people?
Kalyn: I think they make people happy. They make people feel good. Our girl power mugs: “Get Sh*t Done”, “Tell ‘Em Boy Bye”… It’s all about poking fun at, being a little cheeky, but there’s a message in there that can make you feel good. Lots of people buy our products to give as gifts because they want to make their friends smile and make people happy.
AP: Who is Effie?
Kalyn: Lots of people ask me, “Who is Effie?”, and that’s a fair question. Effie was my maternal grandmother and she, believe it or not, worked at a greeting card company when my sister and I were little. And so, she always had stationary for and us, and she believed in writing a wicked thank you note, wearing red lipstick, and always carrying a handkerchief. Those were the three things she imprinted on us, and I took that to heart. So I’ve always loved stationary, and when I thought about having a stationary company the name that came to me immediately was “Effie’s Paper.” And I think she would be tickled pink to know that, although she’s not here anymore, her legacy lives on.
AP: How did you take that leap from corporate to start your own stationery company? When did you decide, and know you would be okay?
Kalyn: When I decided to leave the practice of law, I didn’t necessarily know what I was going to do. I can’t say that I would advise that for everyone. I had a really supportive then boyfriend (now spouse), who had the same job and saw how unhappy I was, and so he really encouraged me to leave the practice of law and figure out what I wanted to do.
When I left, I probably took about six months after I made the decision to leave, and socked away money. And then when I finally left, I took about three or four months off, and I just…lived. I saw movies and I saw friends, and was just a normal human being in a way that is kind of hard to be when you work at a big corporate law firm in Manhattan. Because you work all the time, and you have to be available to the clients. That said, while I was practicing those last six months, I started to style for some friends who were segueing from the practice of law and into the television world.
I was always the friend who had people calling me up and saying, “Hey I’m going to this event. I need something to wear. Can you come shopping with me? Or, “I’m in the dressing room and here’s this outfit. What do you think?” So that was something I loved to do, and it kind of made sense to make a segue and help people who worked in environments that I knew: corporate world, doctor, lawyer.
But as much as I love fashion and style, what I learned quickly is that being a stylist is not just about clothes. I mean it is, but it’s dealing with people and their body conscious issues and it is schlepping clothes and it is making appointments. I had a good book of clients. I worked with a number of people at CNN. Things were growing and the business was doing well, but I just wasn’t that happy. Long story short, I joined a national organization. And when I was inducted into the organization all of the inductees received gifts from the other ladies in the chapter.
“I had my aha moment and said, ‘You know what? I need to own a stationary company. Because if I’m feeling this way, other people have to be feeling this way as well.’ And that was it.”
I came home, and I had all of this stuff. You name it, I had it. A couple of days later, I was sitting down writing thank you notes. I had personalized stationary, and I had my wedding stationary, and I had stationary that had a “K” on it. I had stationary from this organization, and the only stationary I loved, was the stationary that came from my wedding.
My wedding stationary was something I had art directed – we hired a graphic designer and I art directed her. I figured out how to get what was in my head to her so she could get my wedding invitation suite to look exactly the way I wanted them to, and literally in that moment, I looked up and saw that was the only thing I liked. I had my aha moment and said, “You know what? I need to own a stationary company. Because if I’m feeling this way, other people have to be feeling this way as well.” And that was it.
AP: So you initially started with stationary. When did you decide to introduce more products?
Kalyn: I named the company Effie’s Paper Stationary & Whatnot because I always intended to bring more product into the fold, but I started off with personalized stationary because that’s what I loved and felt was missing in the marketplace. Not that there wasn’t personalized stationary, but I wasn’t finding personalized stationary that spoke to me, that had more of an urban edge or flare to it.
But about three years in, what became blatantly clear to me was people just were not writing thank you notes, or writing letters in the way that they once had. With the infiltration of smart phones and text messaging and emails, it just wasn’t the same. I hit a low moment. A lot of things happened: My website crashed because it was hacked, and just lots of things were going on that weren’t feeling good to me about the business.
I was getting ready to go on a long vacation that had been planned for over a year, and I didn’t have somebody who could watch the shop while I was away. This was just before Thanksgiving, which is my most profitable time. I was stressed out, and I was trying to figure out what to do and how to manage it. But I knew I didn’t want to go on this trip worried about this business I wasn’t sure I didn’t want to have anymore.
So I decided to shutter it. I put a pop up on the website that said: “Gone for the holidays. We’ll be back the second week of December. Any orders placed between now and then, will ensure arrive before Christmas.” And I went on my vacation. I had an amazing time, and I did not think about this business.
Then I got back. I filled the orders that needed to be filled. And just kind of had another aha moment where I was walking down the street, going to get coffee, which is basically what I do every morning, and I thought, “You know, the only way I’m going to be able to scale this business is if I bring some ‘what not’ in. I named the company ‘Whatnot’, and I don’t have any ‘what not.’ Let me think about the ‘what not’ that I buy impulsively.”
I’m addicted to lattes. I love coffee mugs. I love witty sayings. I am a sucker for Target – that dollar isle where they’ve got all the cute folders and notepads, and so literally I kind of just started forming a new idea and decided, you know what, this is my pivot. And with that I pivoted. I hired a new web designer, and built a new website. And while the site was being built I was creating new product.
“I kind of just started forming a new idea and decided, you know what, this is my pivot.”
AP: What was that mental process like? What were you saying to yourself? You said you went away on vacation, not even thinking about or wanting the business. Outside of walking down the street and having the “what not” epiphany, how did you make the pivot?
Kalyn: I think it is very easy to get caught up in your business. Because it’s yours. It is your baby. And you think about it 24/7. Even when you think you aren’t thinking about it, you’re thinking about it. You wake up in the middle of the night, and you have an idea – oh, let me write it down, where’s my phone.
But I really turned it off. And I think just having the luxury of not thinking about my business for about six weeks all in, gave me the clarity I needed to think about it in a way that made sense, or to think about it logically: “Stationary isn’t selling. What are you going to do? You are either going to shut down and just focus on graphic design, or you have to figure out how to make this business run.” And so that was probably in my subconscious all along, but I think getting back to New York, and getting back to my routine, it hit me like that. I mean, there was no magic sauce. I didn’t hire a consultant or business coach. I thought about it, but did not.
“Stationary isn’t selling. What are you going to do? You are either going to shut down and just focus on graphic design, or you have to figure out how to make this business run.”
AP: Yeah, I don’t believe in business coaches.
Kalyn: Yeah, I’m very skeptical of them. You’re paying them to figure out how to scale your business. Be that as it may, it really was just, “You know what? This is what I’m going to do now.” I also took some time and really looked at who my competitors were, and what they were doing, and most of the women who had been in the stationary space when I started out were no longer in the space. And so that was a confirming, validating “okay, I need to pivot if I’m going to continue to do this.”
So I spent a lot of time online looking at what seem to be selling, and thinking about what would work for me, and how I would make it my own. I still wanted my brand to have that bit of an edge. I mean, clearly I’m not the edgiest person out there by any stretch of the imagination, but I wanted my brand to be reflective of me, and my target, and what she’s looking for and what she likes.
I thought about things that resonated with me, because I am my target on some level, but I also had to think about what was going to sell to folks who aren’t just like me. I wanted to be as inclusive as possible. And our woman, our target, ranges from the age of 18 to about 45. That’s a pretty big range, which means I needed to come up with products that were going to hit somewhere within that spectrum.
AP: Did you ever have a plan B? Or did you make up your mind early on and say to yourself: “This is going to work.” Did you ever think of going back to practice law?
Kalyn: No (laughs), but that doesn’t mean that might not ever happen.
AP: Are you happy you pivoted and are you happy with where you are now?
Kalyn: Yes, it was the right decision. Because really what I wanted to do, and I think any business owner is striving for this, was to be able to scale. I made that pivot with the new website by about June or July of 2015. Christmas of 2015 was our first time with these new products, and we didn’t have nearly as much as we do now. But this past Christmas, 2016, we had the full compliment, and we did well. We did really well.
We have the ceramic mugs. The lapel pins. We’ve got the diamond topped pins… We’re building out slowly. I’m listening to what customers are asking for and also looking at what people are purchasing, and making our decisions about what we’re going to introduce next. One of the things people have been asking for is a planner. When you go to my website, it kind of makes sense because we sell stuff for your desk. So stay tuned.
AP: Looking back on your life, is there one thing you would change or do differently?
Kalyn: I used to figure skate. I figure skated competitively from probably the age of 10 to 15, and I ended up quitting because it became a very emotional experience for me and my family, and my coach.
At the time I was figure skating, there were very few African Americans who were skating, and I would skate at these competitions and perform flawlessly. If it placed, I got third place. I never got first place. And we kind of fell into this routine where I’d get off the ice, people would tell me how fantastic I was, the results would post, and I got third. And I was just a mess. I was just inconsolable, and there was nothing that anybody could explain to tell me why I didn’t place, other than my skin was darker than everyone else’s skin.
“I wish I’d had a little more fortitude, but it certainly made me a stronger person.”
My mom finally sat me down and said, “I personally can’t take this anymore. It’s too hard. This is the world we live in. This is the situation. So you either continue to skate and go to these competitions and accept that you might not win – even though you deserve to win – or you need to quit. Because we’re spending a lot of money on this, and you’re unhappy. This is something you used to love to do.”
So looking back, I understand exactly why my mom did what she did and said what she said. I wish I’d had a little more fortitude, but it certainly made me a stronger person. It’s still a sport I love. I love to watch and I love to skate still. I don’t do it nearly as much, but if there were one thing I would change, I think that would be it.
AP: What advice would you give someone in a similar situation?
Kalyn: Well my niece is 10, and she’s a competitive gymnast. And it’s been really amazing to watch because she’s having a similar experience in that there aren’t a lot of girls who look like her (more than when I was skating, but still, there aren’t a lot).
“My advice would be to stand your ground, and do what’s best for you. And what’s best for you may not be what was best for me, but you need to do what is best for you.”
But she’s winning everything, and it just warms my heart. She works really hard. And she is determined and she is dogged. I think the difference is that when she was born, we had a black president. And so her outlook on life, and her perspective is very different. So my advice would be to stand your ground, and do what’s best for you. And what’s best for you may not be what was best for me, but you need to do what is best for you.
AP: What’s one negative and one positive experience that defines you, and how do you use that energy in your everyday life?
Kalyn: Well I described one negative experience: the competitive skating world, and choosing to leave it definitely helped shape and define me.
AP: How so?
Kalyn: I think to compete competitively in an individual sport takes a lot of discipline. It takes nerves of steal. You can have all the support from your family and friends and coaches. But, when you get on that bench, or that balance beam, or you step onto that ice, and that music starts to play: it’s just you.
And if you can skate a flawless program and practice that’s great. But nobody cares, I mean people care obviously, but you have to be able to put your money where your mouth is. You have to be able to go out there and perform. And although the experience was bitter sweet for me, it really taught me, you have only you to rely on. Your parents love you. Your friends and family can cheer you on and be your cheerleaders, but at the end of the day, you’re out there on the ice by yourself. So that’s definitely played a defining role in my life.
A positive experience that defines me is: having come from a family that really loves me. My grandmother and I had a really special bond that I thought everybody with their grandparents. And my grandfather, I’m very lucky. He’s still alive – he’s 94. His mind is sharp as a tack, although his body is beginning to fail him.
But my grandparents were just amazing. And my grandmother in particular, we spent so much time with them. Not because my parents weren’t able to take care of us or didn’t want to be with us, but because my grandparents wanted to be with us. And they lived down the street, so it just kind of made sense to spend time with your family.
My grandmother used to say to me, “You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone”, and I was like “Oh lady, whatever! You’re just trying to get my sympathy!” (laughs). But the little things she would say to me that were encouraging and positive and loving, and she fussed a lot, and you know, she would “get on my nerves.”
Like for Christmas, I remember when I had just started practicing law, and I was living in Chicago (and my sister was also living in Chicago). We were coming home, and she insisted that we all stay at her house. Now my grandparents have a small house and we’re all grown ups at this point. So I’m like, “Really?!” But she was just like, “I just want everybody in my family under one roof so we can all wake up together on Christmas day.”
And I was mad about it. I wanted to go out with my friends and not be worried about what time I got home, but I really appreciate that, and I think those sorts of experiences have shaped me and have made me want to be that way for the young girls in my life. I’ve been really lucky in that I’ve had some amazing young ladies work with me in this business, and I do what I can to make certain they know I appreciate them, that their work is valued, and that whatever it is they do while they’re with me, or if they leave to move on to something else, that I am supportive of them, and encouraging. Because we all need that.
AP: How important is perspective in our lives?
Kalyn: Perspective is everything. It is all about your perspective. It is a glass half empty or a glass half full. And running your own business – you can look at it anyway you want to, but I have learned that looking at things, at my business, as a glass half full makes life a whole lot easier.
“Perspective is everything. It is all about your perspective. It is a glass half empty or a glass half full.”
AP: What does living your life from an Amazing Perspective look like and mean to you?
Kalyn: It’s easy to get bogged down. It’s easy to not be able to see the forest for the trees because you’re so caught up in what you’re trying to do. So for me I really try to step away from my business every day, so I can live my life and enjoy my life, and enjoy my spouse and our friends and our family. And that’s been a challenge for me because it is all consuming. So I do try to do what I can, when I can to live an amazing life.