Company. Thistle & Poppy Industry. Consumer products, retail Key. Company can go in multiple directions for growth.
A picture may be worth a thousand words.
But for Christie Frankenstein, the frame that holds the picture has proved just as valuable.
What started as a way for the professional photographer to differentiate herself from competitors has morphed into a full-time and fast-growing business called Thistle & Poppy.
Frankenstein's custom, magnetic, and easy-to-use picture frames can now be found in about 60 boutiques nationwide, at larger retail chains like Texas's famous Buc-ee's travel stops, and on websites such as the Grommet.
And even more people were introduced to Thistle & Poppy frames when Frankenstein appeared on HSN's “American Dreams” program in early May.
“We're anticipating an influx of website orders [after the show],” she says. “Since the moment HSN showed interest, other people are now showing interest. That's just the way it works. Once you start getting recognized, more people start calling.”
Frankenstein — it's a real last name — now finds herself at the kind of growth moment most entrepreneurs dream of. But that comes with challenges, too, while she works to transition her business from her Ruskin garage and driveway to production space in Bradenton it moved into last November.
“I've learned everything by the seat of my pants,” she says. “I'm still sort of in shock from the overhead difference of going from a home garage to a warehouse. Part of my husband, Jens's, job is to keep me focused and make sure we don't do too much before we can handle it all.”
Idea is born
A graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design with a bachelor's degree in photography, Frankenstein worked as a camera trainer for Sony for several years. After she had her first child, she left the corporate world and opened her own photography business.
She had a lot of competition in that space: “In this world of digital photography, basically everyone under the sun is a photographer,” she says. She didn't want to lowball her prices like other photographers did. Instead, she started to make and sell custom frames for clients.
First she made traditional wood frames with glass fronts and backings. Then she started playing with different shapes. She taught herself on the fly and got a major assist from her software engineer husband, who built her a CNC machine that took the frames she designed on her computer and cut them out from pieces of wood.
But she spent hours in her driveway hand-painting and assembling everything. So the couple began to explore alternatives. The first thing to go was the glass. “We were cutting Plexiglas to go in every frame, and you don't even need glass in frames any more, because digital prints don't fade,” she says.
Some magnets sitting on their workbench led to their next big switch. They created a prototype in minutes by taking a wood base and a decorative trim piece and sticking them together with the magnets. A photo would go between the two and be easy to change out frequently.
“We looked at each other like, wow, has this never been done before?” recalls Frankenstein.
Frankenstein quickly filed for a provisional patent and then started going door-to-door with her second child on her back, demonstrating her frames at boutiques around Tampa. “It was a matter of getting out there and getting people to know about us,” she says.
Last July, she attended wholesale gift, home, and apparel market AmericasMart Atlanta. She and Jens Frankenstein called it a make-it-or-break-it moment for their self-funded startup.
“We said if we don't get the response we're anticipating, then we're closing the doors, because we've already spent too much money on this whole idea,” says Frankenstein. “And then the wholesale market was phenomenal.”
She hit AmericasMart again in January, where she released new frame sizes and picked up even more stores. “When bigger vendors become more interested in us, everybody becomes more interested,” she says. “People start calling and making orders without me even soliciting them.”
One example of that was the Grommet, a website that showcases what it calls “undiscovered products.” It called up Frankenstein and ordered 2,000 frames right around the time Thistle & Poppy was moving into its new Bradenton space.
Frankenstein's HSN appearance comes as a result of her frames being discovered by Tampa's Never Have I Ever blog, which helped bring the product to the attention of the St. Petersburg-based television and online shopping giant. She's already shipped 3,600 pieces to HSN, which will be sold as 900 special packages featuring a base and three coordinating trims. And because the “American Dreams” program features the products' inventors along with HSN hosts, Frankenstein will be able to show off the frames herself, a true benefit in her mind.
“I know my product better than anybody else,” she says. “I've built it and I take a lot of pride in it. There's no better way to sell it than having me right there saying, 'Look at how cool these are.'”
Thistle & Poppy frames come in a variety of sizes, colors, and unique curvy shapes and can be mixed and matched for different looks. Photos can be switched out without having to take the whole frame off the wall.
“These frames are made for you to change your photos,” says Frankenstein. “You're not supposed to stick a photo in there and leave it up for 100 years. You're supposed to change it every time your kid changes or a new life event happens.”
An ability to get hands on with the pieces definitely helps people realize they're not just your average picture frames. “They're easy to sell when you get the person to play with them,” says Mandy Cassiano, owner of Wee Boutique in Apollo Beach, a kids' shop that stocks Thistle & Poppy frames. “It immediately gets people's attention when they can pluck a trim off and start playing with different colors and styles.”
Cassiano's store will double in size this summer, and when it does, she plans on creating an entire wall devoted to Thistle & Poppy frames that will give customers an interactive experience. “Once you get someone to buy one they tend to return,” she says. “They make a great gift for anyone.”
Frame the Future
Frankenstein currently has four employees, and the company produces about 250 frames a day during an eight-hour shift. But any increases in business from the HSN appearance or other sources will necessitate — and hopefully help pay for — additional employees. Frankenstein is looking into the possibility of adding a late shift to increase production.
She's also researching outsourcing possibilities. Right now, everything is cut out, sanded, spray painted, magnetized and packaged at the Bradenton production site. The company now has a professional-grade CNC machine, but many of the other steps are still done by hand. One option would be to ship the bases out for powder coating. “That could save us a lot in time and processing and we could focus on the other pieces,” she says.
“Christie's challenge is getting a handle on production now,” says Bob Theis, a former CEO of a rigging and theatrical equipment manufacturer in Syracuse who now advises Sarasota and Manatee County entrepreneurs through groups such as SCORE and Gulf Coast Community Foundation's Bright Ideas on the Gulf Coast (BIG) initiative. “That's the kind of growing pains any small startup is going to have.”
She's got plenty of things working in her favor though, adds Theis, down to her 15,000 Instagram followers.
Frankenstein recently presented at a BIG pitch practice session and would be interested in finding investors for Thistle & Poppy. “We've got a lot of equipment needs we would like to get to,” she says. The company is still self-funded by her and Jens, though she received a business loan from NorthStar Bank — something that proved no easy feat.
“Finding a bank that was willing to see your potential was hard,” she says. “I talked to about 50 banks before one came along and said 'I see that you've got a really good idea.'”
Frankenstein declined to share sales figures, though she did say she expects to be profitable by the end of this year. The utility patent she's applied for is still going through the approval process, and she's working on finalizing some deals with some large chain retailers.
She's also learned how to capitalize on uniqueness, whether that relates to her product or her unusual last name. The company's “About Us” page on its website features a tongue-in-cheek image of Jens as the green-tinged monster associated with his last name and Christie as his creepy bride.
“The name does help you stick in people's heads,” she says. “And it gives you an easy anecdote. Yes, you are meeting the real bride of Frankenstein. Yes, we are alive. I'm not very serious most of the time, so it's fitting.”