Karrie Dean’s entrepreneur story actually begins with being laid off from Barkley in 2009. But if you ask her about it, she doesn’t seem bitter. In fact, she’s nothing but positive.
She has two kids and a company that rose from the ashes of her corporate career, and is so busy that she’s actively seeking a personal assistant to help her manage it all.
Dean is the creative behind Happy Habitat, a line of eco-friendly blankets and throws that stand out for for bold patterns and vibrant colors. Her line started with an inventory of only four blankets—not because those were the only ones she’d designed, but because those were all she could afford to have fabricated while collecting unemployment.
How did you decide what to do after being laid off?
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I knew that I cared about design and art, and art in your home and your surroundings. But I didn’t know what to do with it. I started a blog, mostly just for me to catalog my thoughts kind of. And it’s funny to look back on those early things, because they all led to where I ended up landing, which was pattern trends, thoughts on pattern and pattern color, basically.
So once you identified that you were interested in patterns and colors, how did you settle on blankets?
I started putting pattern on stationery and just mixing things up, and it never felt quite right. It always felt cheap and not interesting and… So I dug further for something that would be a long standing product, and something I wanted, and even though I didn’t have money, I was looking at throws. I thought of that as an accessory, but something that still, you open it up and it’s big and it’s pretty and you can put something on it, and it can be art kind of.
How did you initially get Happy Habitat off the ground?
So I borrowed my neighbor’s camera, because I didn’t have a camera, and I went out to Loose Park with my mom, and I just took pictures wherever I could find. I spent some money to attach an online store to my blog. It was like $9 a month, and it was a gamble. Like I said, I was collecting unemployment, so I don’t have money to be spending.
What’s the day-to-day of running a blanket line look like?
My sister fulfills orders, so I don’t do that anymore, which has freed up some time that I thought would be to design more products, but actually I feel like I just fill out forms and do spreadsheets all day. It’s not as fun as it sounds.
I go places and take pictures, or I’ll hire someone to take pictures, but usually I’ll do it myself, because I think it’s fun.
I still keep in touch with all the stores initially, because I like to keep those contacts, so it’s questions and answers about stores. I always have a list of places I would like to be in, so I’ll reach out and do that.
When you identify a new store you want to be in, how does that interaction go?
It’s usually something like, “Hi, this is what I make, and I’d like to see it in your store.” That always surprised me, early on — that press, stores, markets, everything, that people need you as much as you need them. They need a story, they need products. And I think people are afraid to ask or something. For some reason, I have no shame in being shut down, business-wise.
Initially you were selling your products via flash sales online, but then you stopped. Why?
It cheapened my product. I didn’t like that. I felt like I was kind of selling out. So I stopped doing that. And also, at the time, I had started selling to some stores, and stores don’t like seeing your product sold for cheaper online, and drastically cheaper… and I was like, well what’s more important? Making fast money or maintaining these wonderful relationships with these people that are like you or me owning a store? They’re not big corporations. They’re small, they’re struggling just like I am. And that’s who I wanted to support, and that was really important to me. So, I stopped working in flash sales.
What advice would you give to anyone who wants to get a creative business up and running?
I think you need to recognize what your weaknesses are, maybe, and get help for those things. And the other thing I think is hugely important is that when people start a business and they have this dreamy vision of, “I’m going to be a business owner,” is that it’s really hard work. And it’s gross work. It’s not glamorous work. It’s sitting trying to figure out a formula in a spreadsheet for three hours, and it’s doing really tedious things, sitting down at a computer, or actually backbreaking, folding 50 throws. Folding 50 throws takes for-freaking-ever, and it’s not fun. It’s annoying, and it’s sweaty, hard work. I think people think, “Oh, just hire somebody to do all that and just orchestrate and puppet from up here,” and it’s not like that.
Happy Habitat by Karrie Dean
Available at happyhabitat.net and at area retailers including Coveted Home, The Middle KC, Made in KC, Plus Modern Design, Urban Provisions, West Elm, Westside Storey and The Little House.