Jen Bilik, Founder of Knock Knock & CEO of Who's There Group
We aren't doing our usual fancy introduction for Jen - and there's a reason. First off, we want to say how honored and thrilled we are to share Jen's story. If you are not familiar with the gift and publishing company Knock Knock, the team provided some fun journals at our Self-Care: Beyond the Bubble Bath in April, giving our guests the ability to jot down their thoughts and learnings. Now you get to read about the woman behind this inspiring brand filled with aspirational and quirky quotes and how she built an empire out of the love of paper!
We know you as Knock Knock’s Founder and CEO, but who are you, personally?
I’m Jen Bilik, internally dorky and self-questioning, outwardly outgoing and confident, a thin-skinned know-it-all who can dish it out, but who has trouble taking it. I’m impulsive and excitable, both fun and maddening to others in equal measures. I’m enthusiastic and pushy, which makes it possible for me to pull others along on my wild schemes. I have an enormous capacity for managing activity and get more done in a day than most do in a week, something I’ve had to learn is unusual in order to have understanding that others might proceed more slowly. I’m a maker and a crafter who has difficulty with still hands, a reader who has difficulty with a still mind. I’m curious and omnivorous and insatiably hungry in every way, which, like most traits, has both positive and negative manifestations.
The older I get, the more solitude I need, the more I have an equal and opposite reaction to being with people, to being on, requiring a slightly hermitic refractory period. I’m closing in on 50 years old and don’t feel like it, which makes me wonder whether anybody ever feels like it, has felt like it, or whether my generation is somehow different from my parents’, who seemed to age earlier than we are, but who aged more slowly than their own parents.
I’m a late-in-life first-time bride, married just over a year, and it still surprises me – both the comforts and oddities of an institution I envied in others for so long. I desperately wanted to have children, and tried to get pregnant as a single mother by choice, but after the fertility treatments failed and I accepted that I wouldn’t give birth to a biological child, by the time Brian and I came together, we both felt our time to become parents had passed. Now we feel grateful for our freedom and quiet.
I’m an inveterate self-improver who’s come a long way through psychotherapy, executive coaching, spiritual and psychological studies, and anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication, less a seeker than one who wants to conquer her own demons, partly out of interest and partly because feeling bad feels bad.
I lost my mother when I was 21, and my nuclear family fell apart at the same time, and it took me a long while to accept both her loss and the sense of responsibility I felt for the difficulty of her life. I have a deep sadness at my core that I’ve had since childhood, later heightened by my mother’s nine-years-long illness before her death. Yet I’ve also had a sense of freedom my entire adult life, moored to and responsible to no one.
I’ve always had an appetite for adventure and risk – not the physical kind, but the emotional and biographical kind, something that has served me well in business. I feel proud that I’ve created a life in which there’s still lots of room for play.
Why stationery goods?
I’ve always loved paper. I loved drawing on it, writing on it, folding it, even sometimes eating it (though it’s been a while since I ate any). I used to construct handmade books and every party had an elaborate invitation scenario. My mother had a vast collection of rubber stamps, now mine, and she bought greeting cards just because she loved them and might find a use for them one day (I still have many of those, as well). Stationery, gift, and office supply stores have always been my favorites.
With the advent of desktop publishing, I fell in love with graphic design. I started off my career in publishing, in coffee table books, so I was able to learn quite a bit about the entire life cycle of a book development process, including spec’ing out the physical product and seeing it through to print manufacturing. When I started Knock Knock, I specifically wanted to write and design at the same time, to merge the two so that they informed each other as the creation grew, so words and visuals would feel organically cleaved. I had reams of lists of things I wanted to create, well beyond paper, but when I started Knock Knock, printing was what I knew how to do, and it suited my editorial impulses and training. Also, it was more inexpensive to amass inventory in the beginning than non-paper product was. I truly thought that Knock Knock would grow to encompass many other types of products and materials, but it turns out that it’s hard to create many types of things at once in consumer goods unless you’re in a licensing model (i.e., licensing your creations and ideas to others). Different manufacturers, different sales reps and buyers, different tradeshows, different channels of distribution.
That said, we are far more than just stationery goods! We create and sell all kinds of gifts and publish books, and we now have in our family two additional brands, Emily McDowell Studio and People, Places & Things (formerly Sisters of Los Angeles), with additional piecetypes and focuses, so we will keep trying to do more and more and more!
What is the most rewarding moments of being an entrepreneur? What about the real ugly parts?
I’ve been most rewarded as an entrepreneur when I feel the team is happy and firing on all cylinders. Assembling the right team and leading them well is one of the very hardest things to get right, and I’ve made a lot of mistakes in the realm of managing people – it was something I didn’t take to as naturally as I’d hoped, so I had to do a lot of work in that area. Being able to give bonuses is immensely pleasing.
Certainly seeing our product in stores is very rewarding, especially a big nice display. I’ve had a few magnum opuses out there, which have gotten not only press attention but even kudos from academia, and as a kind of a lapsed academic, that makes me feel like we’re getting the smarts part of our products right. There have been some incredible moments of being seen and recognized.
The ugly parts are ugly, for sure. Huge mistakes made, money lost, bridges burned, feeling like a failure. Fraudulent manufacturing brokers. Bad judgment calls. Financial emergencies that I could have averted. Hiring the wrong people, learning the right people are leaving for some reason. But the ugliest parts for me overall are when I feel ugly – when I feel like my soul is dark and I’m messing up and people feel mistreated and perhaps I’ve led them off a cliff. The ugliest stuff for me is for sure my own shortcomings – and entrepreneurship is a certain mirror of one’s own shortcomings.
There are struggles and roadblocks in every success story. Can you share those with our community and how you overcame them?
At about year seven or eight, I experienced a big shift – the realization that whatever happened, we’d figure it out and get through it. Prior to that I thought each big shock was going to be the end of us. Of course, even successful businesses can have door-shuttering events, but for the most part, it’s been a huge change to gain the confidence that we’ll figure it out, whatever comes. And I’m lucky to have a crackerjack executive team working with me. It might hurt a lot, but we’ll get through it. The truism that what comes along next is always better absolutely holds for us.
My biggest setback was realizing that a manufacturing broker who’d become a mentor and close friend had been stealing from us for four years, around 2006. I’d made several key mistakes, including having all my eggs in one basket – meaning we had no other manufacturing sources. So we had to keep working with him even after we learned what he’d been doing. It’s a long story, but suffice it to say it took a year or two off my life, was a huge betrayal, and represented a series of very poor judgments on my part. However, moving away from him resulted in a far better cost of goods and greater profit margin, and the diversification.
Having key people leave has been another struggle, and there’s always the fear that others will leave in the wake of an important colleague making a new life decision.
Managing our finances as we grow bigger and more complicated has been a recent issue, and we’re still digging out of a snafu in order to get to the next level with accounting and finance, my greatest shortcoming in terms of understanding how a departmental discipline works.
I’ve been lucky to have emergency financial support from family at critical junctures, something most entrepreneurs don’t have, which has helped us to weather crises. I like to be candid about that because not all people face all the same difficulties. Mind you, we are profitable and successful on our own, but there have been crises and growth moments where we needed a loan or a boost.
A lot of the overcoming has come from personal self-improvement, so that I could be a better leader. Hiring the right people, both in-house and consultants, is key, and I’ve become much better at it, to the point where those people now hire the right people. Growing a non-single-point-failure organization is a big part of preventing disaster.
The best advice you were given in your lifetime?
Oy vey, there have been so very many – I’ve been lucky on that front. My mother’s dying words, when I was 21, were “Don’t smoke” (I smoked then) and “Don’t be so hard on yourself.” I only achieved the latter one (and then only sometimes) recently – in no small part because the being hard on myself doesn’t help to solve problems at hand, and can be kind of narcissistic.
There’s a delicate balance between being hard enough on yourself to perform at a high level versus wallowing in self-recrimination.
A few that have come together recently are “Keep saying yes until it’s time to say no” (i.e., don’t flog an idea to death when you could just take the next step, knowing something could fail, and you’ll know when it’s time to say no when it’s time to say no) and “Know whether to focus on the what vs. the how.”
People get very caught up in the tactics of a proposal before we’ve decided what we’re doing. Decide the what (and the why) first, and then delve into the how. You may not be able to pull off the what, but chewing on both is a recipe for doing nothing. You need goals and strategy before you get into tactics.
If you didn’t build your own brand, what field would you be in and have you ever wondered “what if”?
I was a book editor before I started Knock Knock, and it’s not unlikely that I would otherwise have stayed in that field, or returned to it. I also would probably have written some of the books that I wrote for the Knock Knock brand, and developed into a bit of an author. Sometimes I fantasize about being an office manager who shows up for work at 9am and clocks out at 5pm, leaving it all the work behind at the office at the end of the day. Architectural model maker was a fantasy for a while. Now I want to buy a big piece of land and create a dog sanctuary. We shall see!
What is next for you on a personal level and for the brand?
For the brand, we are working to be the three brands that we became on January first, to figure out how we can work both together and independently, synergistically and autonomously. All our jobs have changed as we’ve taken on these new responsibilities at this new level. (In small business, every few years you’re a new company – and at the beginning, it’s every 6 months then every year, especially if you’re growing fast.) We are working intently on various aspects of marketing, especially digital and social and charitable work, excited to make some new inroads there. And we’re shoring up our foundation for this next phase of growth, which entails lots of hiring – which, as it happens, is not so easy.
On a personal level, I’m looking forward to having an undramatic year, as the last three years have been pretty intense. My husband and I just bought a house, so we want to enjoy it. The office moved after being in our original location, adding units as needed, for our first sixteen years, and we’re still settling in. I want to get much better at Iyengar yoga and guitar, as well as practice the piano more and do more craft projects. Being limber and strong, with callouses and X-Acto knife cuts on my fingers, will no doubt make me a better person and happier CEO!
To find more goods than paper, you can Knock Knock here on instagram. Want to stalk, we mean, get to know more about Jen, you can give her a follow @jenbilik. To view Knock Knock's popular stationaries, you can find them at www.knockknockstuff.com
Interviewed by thecnnekt