When delivering a message is as easy as a click of the mouse, the thought of sending snail mail holiday cards doesn't even cross some people's minds.
But for Bradenton illustrator Shannon Kirsten Couch, cards are a big business.
Last year, Couch, 32, designed a set of Christmas card illustrations that she licensed to greeting card giant Hallmark Cards. The cards were sold at Hallmark stores as well as at CVS, Walgreens, Publix and other stores and will be re-released this summer.
It was a big-name company to add to Couch's list of clients. The project also gave Couch major national exposure — her name appeared on the back of each card, crediting her as the artist.
“I don't think I thought I would have a stationery business, but I wanted to do something creative,” she says. Growing up in Bradenton, Couch says she often was busy working on art projects with her mom, a mosaic artist. After graduating from Bradenton Christian School, she got an undergraduate degree in psychology from Palm Beach Atlantic University in 2007 and a degree in fashion design from The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale in 2009.
“I didn't really pursue art until the Art Institute,” Couch says. There, she did a lot of illustration through the fashion design program, and decided she liked that aspect of it better.
Couch did freelance graphic design work after she graduated. That same year, she opened an online store on e-commerce website Etsy that focuses on handmade and vintage items. She sells her colorful floral watercolor designs as greeting cards, art prints, notepads and other paper items through the site, which is responsible for many of her sales. Her first Etsy products were custom wedding invitations, products that are still a staple in her business.
Couch also takes wholesale orders through Etsy and through her website, ShannonKirstenStudio.com. And Couch's products are sold in more than 50 stores in the U.S. and Canada, including a handful of boutiques in Southwest Florida. She declines to disclose revenue figures.
The host of national clients that have licensed Couch's designs also includes Saks Fifth Avenue and Trader Joe's. Saks commissioned Couch to create watercolor floral designs for the company's website and Trader Joe's used her designs for a greeting card. Plus, this past holiday season, Nordstrom placed a wholesale order for hundreds of rolls of wrapping paper with her designs to sell in seasonal pop-up shops in larger stores and cities.
Couch's clients have discovered her work in a variety of ways — through style shoots on wedding websites, magazine features in Vogue and Harper's Bazaar about weddings that used her invitations and Couch's own social media accounts. She focuses on Instagram, which she says is the source of many of her larger clients, along with Pinterest and Facebook. “It's important to keep posting and putting out new work,” Couch says.
Another key marketing effort is attending tradeshows like the National Stationery Show and NY Now in New York City. There, Couch sets up a booth to display her products. Buyers from small retail stores and large companies visit the booths looking for potential products to order. While the shows are expensive, Couch says there is a great return on investment because of all the opportunities she picks up.
When she's not showcasing her products, Couch can be found at her downtown Bradenton studio, where she spends mornings answering client emails, blogging, reviewing orders and preparing orders for shipping. In the afternoon, she paints. “I try to spend a couple hours painting every day,” she says. “Now that I have retailers, I have to keep it fresh all the time.”
Couch's plan for growth includes two strategies — expanding beyond paper to create designs for other items, such as clothing and home products, and continuing to look for more licensing opportunities. “There are so many possibilities, and so many things I would love to do,” she says.