With Christmas and Hanukkah converging on Dec. 25 this year, Elise Okrend hopes families will send out greeting cards celebrating both holidays. If they do, it could prove to be a banner year for MixedBlessing, her Raleigh (N.C.)-based company that specializes in interfaith and multicultural holiday cards.
Founded in 1988 by Okrend and her husband, Philip, MixedBlessing has endured criticism from religious leaders and skepticism from others about the staying power of its niche market. Okrend, who is already busy gearing up for the 2005 holiday season, took time out recently to speak with Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.
Q: How did MixedBlessing get started?
A: I was working in printing and design in Manhattan, and my husband was an attorney. I've always been a creative type, and I had a neat idea for a holiday card one year. I realized we know a lot of people who are in relationships where one person is Jewish and one isn't.
I felt there was a need for a card we could send to them both, so I came up with a graphic design of a Star of David merging with a Christmas tree. I showed it to my husband, and he was really enthusiastic and thought I had hit on a great concept.
Q: Are you in a mixed marriage yourselves?
A: Everybody assumes we are, but no, we're both Jewish. Our idea is just to make families who are of different religious backgrounds feel good about celebrating the holidays together. We try to think of the warmest and most delicate, lighthearted ways to combine the two holidays.
Q: What was the reaction when you first put the designs out?
A: We had to persuade retailers that this wasn't just a fad -- it was really a niche market that would last over the years. We got a lot of press because the idea was new, and that brought out some religious organizations saying they didn't like our concept. They were worried about the holidays being combined and felt it wasn't right. But, actually, their condemning the cards stirred up more publicity, which got us more customers and showed people we were here!
Q: When did you realize you had a viable small business on your hands?
A: Our first holiday season, we came up with six designs, and my husband threw them into the back of his car and drove around New York City trying to sell them to corner card shops. That went well, so we came up with the name and incorporated. But we ran the company for several years on the side while we both worked our regular jobs. We'd come home from work and process orders on our dining room table at night.
After about five years, we began to make sales to some department stores. That's when we realized we couldn't handle everything ourselves, and also when we saw that the business could support us. So we quit our outside jobs to focus on it full-time. My husband now does life coaching, so he's involved in the company about half time.
Q: You decided that rather than lease office space and hire employees, you'd contract all that work out. Why?
A: I didn't want to set up my own operation to do all the collating, illustrating, and shipping in house, and I didn't want to have to deal with employees. So I set things up so that when I get an order, I enter it into the system, and it's out the door. I still do all the designs and creative work myself, so I wear many hats.
What really helped us early on was attending industry trade shows, like the National Stationery Show every year to display our line, get exposure, and find vendors.
Q: How do you deal with the cash flow and other challenges of running a seasonal business?
A: It's something you learn to manage. The first few months of the year are spent on product development, getting the cards designed, illustrated, and printed, preparing our catalog, doing sales and marketing, and working on our Web site.
The main thrust of the business starts right now, in August and September, when the shipments are being made to the larger stores. The imprinting and personalization, plus the direct sales, take place between now and the end of the year.
Making revenues last through the off season has been a personal challenge. It's a matter of good budgeting, because we know how much we're going to make in a given year, and we just have to live off that. With the holiday line, we're able to pre-sell, so I have a pretty decent idea of what quantity I'm going to have in my inventory before I go to print.
Of course, the stores pay after the fact, and that requires some juggling on our part. But everybody who orders personally from us comes in with a check or credit card over the Internet, so that's been very helpful.
Q: When did you set up your Web site?
A: The site is about six years old. It's interesting, because our original concept was just to sell through retailers, and the direct sales were not something I really thought was going to happen. But in the last few years, that's where we've seen our strongest growth. Especially now, with the small card stores having a rough time competing with larger retailers, our direct sales are becoming more and more important.