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Jen Bilik

Tell me about what inspired you to create your company, Knock Knock—a semi-spanking-new design company with aspirations to greatness.

Knock Knock was the culmination of a lifelong quest to bring my interest in words and writing under the same umbrella as my love for all things visual. (Except video art—I don’t like video art.)

I’ve always been actively engaged in both verbal and visual activities. The writing part off my life played a far more significant role throughout my school and early career years, with the visual arts relegated to hobby status. My mother was a quilter and general craftsperson, and my father was a do-it-himselfer around the house, so I grew up making things with them—whether it was painting my bedroom a new color, building shelves, or sewing a quilt. For recreation, my mother and I enjoyed crafting of various stripes, collected craft materials, and took craft classes together. From this background, I can make almost anything. The one craft I don’t do is knitting, but I intend to rectify that with a class this year.

My activities in the visual arts began to focus on paper and textiles (I’m still a big sewer and embroiderer), and, under the influence of an artist aunt, during college I started to craft handmade books and other paper ephemera, writing and designing at the same time.

After college, I signed on for my first real job, as an editorial assistant at Rizzoli Publishing, which produced gorgeous coffee table books on art, design, and architecture. I first worked for the managing editor, which meant that I had equal hand in editorial work and production, an invaluable education in proofreading and copy editing as well as in printing and binding.

The other huge bonus to working in coffee-table books was the exposure to graphic design. Hitting late-breaking deadlines often meant sitting at the designers’ sides so that I could massage captions and cut or amplify text to fit layouts, so I was fortunate to absorb lots of graphic design knowledge at some of the best elbows in New York City. I also learned Quark, the graphic design program we used at the time.

Once I had the computer skills and editing skills, I began to write and design simultaneously, creating posters, invitations, holiday cards, theater programs, etc. I got many “You should sell that” responses to all the stuff I made, but, aware of the work and investment that goes into creating a manufacturing, sales, and distribution infrastructure, I knew I didn’t want to sell just one or two things. Also, I wasn’t attracted to the idea of creating product for its own sake, given that my interest was more in writing and design.

I decided that I would turn my efforts to writing a book, a project I’d worked on intermittently since college (a memoir of my experience in high school done as an illustrated, annotated yearbook). During the year I devoted to the book, I experienced unprecedented procrastination levels, and instead of writing, began crafting and writing anything and everything except the book. I began taking notes on an idea for a company that could serve as the long yearned-for umbrella for all my pursuits, and as the notes gained momentum and shape, I decided to shelve the book in favor of the company. I had been saying “When I finish the book, this is what I’m going to do,” but finally admitted to myself (not wanting to be a quitter) that I wasn’t writing the book because I was doing all the things that would become Knock Knock. Classic example of looking to see what you love doing rather than what you’re supposed to be doing.

Basically, I conceived Knock Knock as a creative studio wherein there would be no clients, just products that we saw to their highest execution (in our opinion), which would then live or die according to market response. My definition of product was fairly loose, since I wanted to work in many media. I envisioned Knock Knock as a sensibility rather than a product line, and fleshed it all out in a sort of business proposal (with illustrations rather than numbers) before jumping in with both feet.

Phew, that was long. But as you saw in our Philosophy, “Why use fewer words when you could use more?”

I often hear women say that they can’t imagine running their own business because they have no business background. You’re an English literature and film studies major who now runs a pretty successful company. Do you think not having business training has made it more difficult for you to do what you’re doing?

I think any training is helpful, and I had to compensate for my lack of business by reading a lot (I’m big on self-education), learning from others, and making mistake that I knew others had made before (it can be very frustrating reinventing the wheel). However, I wasn’t very interested in business, and I don’t think I would have gotten interested in business without a particular application. Therefore I needed to start a business in order to have an interest in business. Before Knock Knock, my eyes glazed over from anything having to do with business (though I did love learning about business in publishing—I think for me it’s all about the application and context), and now I eat it up.

I think anybody who wants to do anything has to be willing to educate themselves in whatever skills or knowledge they lack. It doesn’t really matter whether that education is on the fly, on the job, from books, from mentors, or in school. One of the problems I see with my arty friends (and I have far more arty friends than business friends) is they deny the fact that they need business know-how, are scared of it, and don’t do what they need to do in order to make their businesses run profitably and efficiently. I’m fortunate in that I’m neither scared to admit that I don’t know (a lot!) nor am I timid about acquiring the knowledge that I need. I’m a big reader—that helps.

In general, I believe that a good education instills critical-thinking skills, and everything you do before the age of twenty-one, or whenever you complete college or what-have-you, is about learning how to learn. The subject doesn’t matter, and indeed sometimes the more vocational majors teach a narrow field of knowledge (which can quickly become obsolete) and don’t end up teaching people how to learn. Once you’ve learned how to learn, you can learn anything, and that’s when you’re ready to learn a career.

What was your greatest challenge to getting your business off the ground and how did you overcome it?

My biggest challenge wasn’t money or product or distribution or getting customers—it was embracing leadership and feeling confident enough to run my own company. Early on I felt I needed others as a crutch, whether it was the first designer I hired (who turned out to be a prima donna who quit after three months, and left me terrified that I couldn’t do it without her), my ex-boyfriend (who I hired to run the business side of things until he dumped me and quit on the same day), a director of operations (who turned out to be a long, sordid, incompetent story), etc. There’s been a chain of people whom I hired to do what I needed to be doing myself, many of whom I treated like friends rather than employees, because I was afraid to be the boss. But I am the boss, and it’s my company, and I have a right to expect competence and hard work. I’ve finally accepted that, personalize the relationships far less, and have a smoothly running office with great, competent, well-meaning, skilled employees, not to mention a few key consultant/advisors who help me do it all. Owning my leadership, not needing to be friends with my employees, and being a good manager have been the biggest challenges by far.

I absolutely love your Company Philosophy statement. Could you please comment on the following parts of it:

“Craft is important for the soul as well as the hands and eyes”
I think it’s really important to make things. I love to work with my hands, and find meditative relief in crafting, especially as an antidote to computer and thinking work. During alpha-wave crafting sessions is often when the best ideas float up to the surface. I also think computers and mental work only satisfy part of our need to be creative and productive, and crafting satisfies much of the other parts. As humans we’ve always made things—until now, when we can get away without making anything.

“Passion, curiosity, and enthusiasm can make anything interesting”
I believe in the adage that there is no boring topic, only a boring writer. By the same token, there is no boring topic, only someone with a closed mind. I think everything is interesting. I love learning how the world works, how toilet paper gets from the factory to the grocery store shelf. If people are open to different topics, and learn from other passionate individuals or writers, anything is interesting. I can’t imagine living without curiosity, and pity those who lack it.

“Smartness is fun”
We are living in an era of dumbed-down, lowest-common-denominator output. To get the biggest audience share is the highest goal of most companies, so the public conversation is homogenized and simplified to the point of complete boredom. To hear a distinctive voice is rare, and the Christian right, many Republicans, and some other special interest groups have made it an act of sedition or sin to offend anybody or express a controversial opinion. I believe that individual voice, intelligence, and opinions are interesting, and I think that intellect and smartness are fun. I don’t feel that Knock Knock products need to appeal to everyone, but I do believe that there’s a dearth of smart fun out there, and that’s what I’m trying to address.

Was starting your own business your biggest life Dare?

No. Starting it was easy. Learning to run it well has been the biggest life dare, and the hardest.

You must be incredibly creative to come up with such great product ideas—have you always been a creative person or did this quality evolve over time? What are some things, ideas, places, people who inspire you to be creative?

I have always been a creative person, most definitely, and I’ve always had a distinctive sense of humor (you know, born of personal pain, etc.). However, it’s taken quite a while to evolve it into a productive, consistent expression, to develop my voice and learn how to best channel it.

Others who have inspired me: my mother, my ex-aunt the artist (there was a painful divorce), Todd Oldham (with whom I wrote a book, an amazing and totally creative human being), Charles and Ray Eames, Tibor Kalman, many of my friends. Places: Berkeley, where I grew up, a very creative and inspiring place, and New York City, where I visited throughout my childhood then lived after college.

What piece of advice would you give other Daring Females who dream of starting their own business?

Maintain your vision and dream, but be objective and shrewd about the marketplace, the originality of your idea(s), and the work you’ll need to do to see your business to reality. If you’re unrealistic about the marketplace and logistics, and turn a blind eye to business realities, your ideas won’t break through. Everybody’s got visions, dreams, and ideas—it’s the execution that’s the hard part. I once saw a personal ad that said “Visionary seeks functionary”—to be successful in starting a business, you need both.

To visit Knock Knock, click here.

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