It all started with a wedding invitation. Hand written in ink, in her signature loose lettering style, it looked personal, totally different to the kind we’re all accustomed to, and soon to be everywhere you looked. It was probably the savviest decision Teri Muncey ever made, to leave the greetings card company she’d worked for years to go out on her own. Uninspired and jaded by how prescriptive and watered down her designs had become, she began freelance illustrating and designing for clients while playing with her style and trying to really figure out what her voice was and how she’d distinguish herself from the pack. Very quickly, she decided on wedding stationary as her focus and quickly quit her job. An Etsy shop came first, and now she works with everyone from Not On The High Street to West Elm, and has a string of custom bookings thanks to her blog, The Lovely Drawer and Pinterest-board ready Instagram feed.
Teri’s work is instantly recognisable and it’s the bold lettering that’s at the heart of everything she does. Early on, she knew that these designs could work well beyond paper, but rather than simply putting her letters on a wide variety of products, she focused on weddings first, putting all of her time and effort into establishing a strong visual identity with her loyal fan base before branching out. Now, her typography is available on prints, wall art and everyday stationary essentials. And she couldn’t have timed it better. Her business took off right as Pinterest and design blogs were gaining in momentum and let’s face it, stationary as a whole taps into the kind of beautiful flower arrangements meets marble kitchen tops and green smoothie lifestyle that we all secretly aspire too.
Painting and creating is at the heart of what she does but sustaining (and growing) her business is at the heart of what she does. From learning how to price your products in a way that doesn’t run yourself into the ground, to why it’s important to remember that we can’t be superwoman all of the time, here Teri shares her professional journey and the lessons she’s learned along the way.
I’ve always known I wanted to be a designer and picked subjects accordingly. At university level I need to hone in on what kind of design I wanted to pursue and after almost applying for fashion design and then graphic design, I eventually settled on Printed Textiles and Surface Pattern Design at Leeds College of Art & Design. It sounds like a very specific course but it was actually just print for any application you wanted. It was a way of using my drawing skills and love of colour. I liked the idea of putting my designs on items like wallpaper, fabrics and fashion, rather than just stopping at the drawing and painting stage. I found this course really useful in terms of the skills I learnt but struggled with the long, open ended, self-governed briefs. By the end of it, I craved getting into the industry to have more of a focus and purpose for my work. Don’t get me wrong, my course was useful but in many ways I don’t think you need a degree to do what I now do. Some related training is essential but the main way to get work in an in-house position or as a freelancer is the strength of your portfolio. Shorter, more focused courses along with time dedicated to building up a strong body of work would probably be better and far less expensive.
I’ve always loved typography, whether that’s fonts or hand lettering. I spent all my childhood and teenage years endlessly drawing but I found it very hard to simply leave a drawing as it was without adding some form of lettering. I used to create this with pens and pencils and later on developed a looser, more spontaneous style with paint and ink. A big inspiration for incorporating lettering into designs during my time at uni was Eduardo Recife. I think that definitely came out in the work I produced.
A really handy opportunity that uni did provide was a card and gift-wrap competition in collaboration with Hallmark Cards. I’d always loved making cards for friends and so was really eager to win. Amazingly I did and was given a paid placement with them in the summer holidays. It cemented my interest in the industry and so that was the focus of my final collection and those were the companies I targeted for more placements and freelance work when I graduated. I worked for three different companies a couple of times each for 2 weeks at a time, which gave me a lot of insight into the industry, made me more confident in learning new skills and helped bump up my portfolio alongside the work I was doing myself. Unfortunately I graduated in the year the financial crisis hit and so none of the places where I was doing my placements were hiring. I had however sent a load of promo packs out to related companies and had a few interviews. Six months later I was considering moving to Huddersfield or Stockholm for children’s wear design jobs but a greetings card publisher in London got in touch. I interviewed and got the job. They openly said the experience I had made me a more appealing candidate so that would be my top tip for people in a similar position.
I made sure to work on freelance projects before leaving my job to go freelance full time. I would work every evening and weekend and nearly always did some work on my lunch breaks too. I never expected to be doing freelance work but that’s what my blog ended up bringing my way. I loved doing it but found it hard to know how much to commit to. Eventually I knew something had to change so I started working four days with my company in order to pursue freelance on the fifth day of the week. That was a much-needed bit of relief, although I longed to do more. By the time I did take the plunge, I was so uninspired in my job and was just feeling a bit jaded by how prescriptive things had become. When I was able to be creative, it ended up being watered down so much for the mass market that I felt really demoralized – such is the nature of the industry. My job was becoming less and less compatible with freelance to the point where I felt I had to make a choice and despite never having wanted to be a small business owner, I suddenly felt like I’d regret not giving it a go. I even thought I was crazy at the time, along with many other people, but I felt convinced and ready to work hard. My husband and I had a decent amount of savings behind us at that point to cover the inevitable shortfall at the beginning. I wouldn’t have done it otherwise, particularly not while paying rent in London.
To even consider going freelance, you have to be so committed to working hard. If you know that you’re the kind of person that lacks motivation and self-discipline, then it may not be the best fit. If you’re planning to work in a similar industry as me, I think it’s a good idea to start out by doing some freelance projects or starting an Etsy shop alongside your job to test the waters and build up a portfolio. It may sound overwhelming but it’ll make a difference. My blog has probably brought me 80% of my work over the years so if you’re interested in starting one I would definitely champion that. It’s basically a frequently updating portfolio and it’s great for potential clients to see you’re active with your design work. If that sounds like a heavy task then do the same on a micro scale by starting an Instagram account for your business. That’s a great way of getting noticed and giving a window into your process. Savings was a massive help in going freelance. It gave me the time to lay foundations and build up collections and even though it didn’t stop me freaking out, it did mean we made ends meet at the beginning. One of the hardest things to get used to was constant self-promotion, but it’s part of the territory. If you don’t shout about your products, no one will ever know about them.
I wanted to move away from greetings cards when I made the jump to launching my own business so my old contacts weren’t massively useful. I did sign up for an illustration agency I used with my previous job to bring some work in but that was all. My clients either found me through my blog, Instagram or my Etsy shop page. I did some guest blog posts and submissions for a few magazines to try and get my name out there a bit but it’s been quite organic. With so many fingers in different pies there was a point where I decided I wanted to make wedding stationery a main focus. In doing this, approaching wedding magazines, doing a few wedding fairs and pushing my ranges on social media, I did notice considerable growth in this area. Right now I do branding design, teaching, illustration, sponsored blog posts, styling and sell prints in my online shops but my main focus is still wedding stationery. It helps to decide that sort of decision and then be deliberate about where you go from there.
My creative process starts with getting inspiration from my surroundings – which isn’t hard in London – and perhaps re-looking over past pins on my Pinterest boards. I like to do a bit of absorbing and then put that away so I can move forward being inspired rather than ripping off other’s ideas. Design work nearly always starts off by hand on sheets of paper but will always end up on the computer where I’ll digitise it and make it reproducible. I usually photograph my work and then import it to Photoshop to clean it up, adjust the layout, and change any colours. When I’m working on creating something new, I usually pick up my pencil or a paintbrush and burn through sheets and sheets or paper, illustrations, lettering doodles and patterns to get me in the zone. I then go back and sieve out the good stuff that I could take further. If you fancy learning brush lettering or modern calligraphy then Quill London teach both. I just so happen to teach half of the brush lettering classes and they’re great fun. Lots of people have gone on to use the skill in their business and it’s been amazing to watch but you’re also more than allowed to just do it for fun.
It was just little old me when I started and it’s just little old me now. Having said that, my husband has been a massive help with various admin tasks, advice and managing and designing my website. He’s a bit like an unpaid employee (lucky him). More recently, I’ve also outsourced some of my accounting and cleaning to focus on more creative things. I’ve talked about getting help but it’s a bit trickier with the flux nature of commission work. I think it also depends what kind of business you want to be. I think it’s amazing that others grow their businesses into huge teams across the world but right now I’m happy to keep things just that little bit smaller. I don’t love the pressure of managing people or being responsible for their income even though I realise for many, it can take the pressure off a lot.
I found it incredibly hard to deal with the uncertainty of starting a new business. I didn’t realise how much of my identity and worth was tied up in being an earner. There was so much groundwork to do in the beginning that was unpaid but I had to do it with the view of it leading to earning me money in the future. Thankfully it’s paid off but in the darker moments it’s been my Christian faith that’s helped me to lift my burden as I believe God is the ultimate provider, not me. I also found it hard to go from a job where I had a specific job title to having about ten job roles. I had to do everything and figure out how to do each of them along the way, which was hugely overwhelming. It’s really scary but I have never regretted taking a risk and I have to remember that. It usually works out even if it’s not in the way I’d imagine. Where things are scary they are also exciting and usually means your opened up to a whole new array of possibilities. I think it helped to not be afraid to ask for help and to create comprehensive lists in my planner. I plan each day out at the end of the day to make sure I’m on top of things and to give my days structure. I do keep an eye on the competition but probably increasingly less. It’s important to have an idea of what’s going on and popular in the industry but I think I do best when I’m formulating my own ideas and not becoming too tied to looking around at what everyone else is doing.
I started feeling positive when I was earning enough to top up our budget with my husband’s earnings after six months. It was small but a good sign. Then, I was encouraged to see it keep growing until six months later (a year after beginning my venture) I managed to earn more than my previous jobs monthly wage! That made me feel like I hadn’t been crazy to begin with. Since then, I think it was a massive moment at Christmas to track how much my blog had grown in a year and to take note that I was often having to turn work down as I had too much.
In the beginning, I set my prices by researching my market place and looking at others making and designing similar things to me. Although it’s important to consider those things, I realised that I hadn’t really taken all of my costs into consideration and I was undercharging. Last Christmas I nearly drove myself into the ground with how hard I worked. I realised something was wrong with that, especially as it was not sustainable so I decided to almost double my prices overnight, which was a bit scary. It quickly became less scary when I realised I would only need half the amount of orders to make the same amount of money. That’s also half the amount of effort!
To run a small business you must have people to support you and ideally someone close to you to help give you perspective. I’ve found on a general level, creative meet ups with other small business owner and bloggers has been really helpful and many of those people I’ve met almost feel like colleagues now. They’ve been big encouragements and great sounding boards but the real star of the show is my husband, who continually told me not to feel guilty for taking the crazy leap. He helped me to see straight when everything got on top of me and told me off when I was being a terrible, slave driver boss. My natural tendency is definitely to overwork and to a certain extent long hours are part of the job when you begin but I think I’d work 24/7 if my husband wasn’t around and I was living on my own. If you can have someone make you accountable on that issue then do, otherwise you’ll burn out and forget that your life isn’t just work.
There are so many amazing opportunities that have come my way. First off I’m just so happy to have a sustainable business. I’m not the kind of person who generally takes risks so I’m still slightly baffled that I even made the jump. A massive mark was when West Elm’s global blog got in touch to collaborate with me and I’ve since led a campaign with them and 11 other bloggers which I never thought I’d do. I think having my wedding stationery featured in Vogue Wedding was a massive smiley moment. Working with the Etsy UK team as a blogger, designer and teacher has been a big highlight. Oh and winning a blog award was a bit of a milestone back in October!
The best piece of advice I never got but wish I’d had is not to be a mean boss. Treat yourself how you’d hope to treat your employees. I don’t have any employees but I know I wouldn’t expect half as much from them as I expect from myself. I need to remember I’m not superwoman.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Teri was shot in the home she shares with her husband in London by Naomi Mdudu.