Breaking into the Greeting Card Business

I am interested in starting a home business, using my computer, to make note cards from my original watercolor artwork. The cards are 5x7 and blank inside. I am up-to-speed on the legal and business requirements but need advice on how to market my cards. Should I approach greeting card companies [to see which] would be willing to use my ideas and mass-produce them? Try for big box contacts such as Costco (COST) or Wal-Mart (WMT)? Any suggestions would be appreciated. —A.D.G., Irvine, Calif.

Although it sounds like a natural way to monetize your original artwork, selling greeting cards is actually a difficult business to make a go of, experts say. The quality of a homemade card probably won't be high enough to sell, and producing cards professionally—with quality paper, fine inks, professional folding and packaging—is expensive. Then there's the complexity and expense of copyrighting your work and the risk that it will be pirated, no matter what you do.

"Greeting cards command a very low price and have a relatively short life cycle, yet require a fairly high expenditure in advertising and marketing to acquire clients. One would need to sell many greeting cards in order to absorb the required initial marketing, packaging, and advertising expenditures," says Mark Deo, author of The Rules of Attraction and CEO of Torrance (Calif.)-based consulting firm

A further problem is that the emergence of e-mail and text messaging has reduced the market for greeting cards, as it has with other stationery products, says Renate McKnight, business manager for her husband, well-known Connecticut artist Thomas McKnight. "We've done some cards and it was successful in the 1980s, but now people are not spending money on cards," she says. "The business has really changed with the Internet and computer printing. So many companies have gone out of business because they sit with the inventory and there's no remainder market like there is for books."

Start with Web and personal outreach

The best way to test your concept and see what kind of market there might be for your cards is to professionally print up a small selection of designs and take them to a local boutique or card shop. Ask the manager if he or she would carry them for a few months to see how well they sell. Another option would be renting a space at a street fair or flea market for a few weeks and displaying your cards. Ask shoppers for feedback and test several price points. If your cards are so unique and eye-catching that you make a lot of sales, you'll know to move forward with your plans. If not, you won't be out much money and you'll have gained experience. Remember that sales are what count, not nice comments from polite passersby.

If you decide to market your cards widely, start by setting up a Web site to promote and sell them online. Effective use of social media can help you drive traffic to the site and get the word out about your art. Approach gift and art stores, boutiques, bookstores, online retailers, and catalog companies about carrying your line, says Stephanie Chandler, author of Leap! 101 Ways to Grow Your Business. "The big box stores are hard to break into. You could consider working with a distributor, which might help get larger orders. But keep in mind that they will also take a large percentage of the profit," she says.

Contact established greeting card companies to determine if they license outside designs, Deo suggests, but be prepared for rejection. You will probably need to seek out an agent to act as your representative because many card firms shun unsolicited portfolios for fear of copyright lawsuits. Another idea is to approach local nonprofits and specialty associations and ask if they could use your designs on cards they might use as fundraisers or promotional tools, says Janet Attard, president of advice site Sometimes corporations use original artwork on promotional materials or company cards, McKnight says, so that's another avenue to explore—again, via an agent.

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