How to Quit Your Day Job and Start a Pencil Company
Bright accessories for your home office or work desk just make the day better. If you love outfitting your desk with stylish pens and pencils or celebrated National Pencil Day with your trusty number two (pencil), you might want to consider making your fave writing utensil for a living — really. In the newest profile in our How to Quit Your Day Job series, we chat with Jenna Finwall Ryan, the creator of the Etsy shop LZ Pencils, about her creative pencil biz.
The inspiration for LZ Pencils came from Jenna’s book club. Her book club pick was The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson, and her friends were coming over. She wanted to find the perfect party favors, and scoured Etsy for pencils with quotes from the book. She couldn’t find any. So, she decided to get a pencil printing machine so she could make her own (obviously). That was just the beginning.
Jenna won an eBay auction for a vintage imprinting machine and spend the next year learning how to use it. Her pencil-making hobby was a fun creative outlet for the psychology PhD and aspiring screenwriter. “It was actually at the encouragement of my friends that I decided to open an Etsy shop almost a year later,” says Jenna. In June 2016, LZ Pencils celebrated its one-year anniversary. Along the way, Jenna’s pencils have been featured in Martha Stewart Weddings and BuzzFeed, and they’ve gotten Instagram shout-outs from Mindy Kaling and Ryan Seacrest too.
1. Have a support squad. Initially, Jenna started making pencils to give as gifts to her friends. Now, her friends buy pencil sets from her. “My friends have been instrumental in helping spread the word about my pencils by sharing them on social media or gifting my pencils to their friends and family,” says Jenna. Other times, friends can be a source of inspiration for new ideas. “Sometimes a friend will suggest a theme and we’ll put our heads together to come up with a list of fun phrases that will work great on pencils.”
2. Reach out to tastemakers. Jenna’s big Mindy Kaling moment was a game changer for the small business owner. Jenna took a leap and reached out to her stylist, because Jenna has similar fashion taste to Mindy. “Fortunately, Mindy liked the picture of my pencils I posted on Twitter with quotes from her show, and I was able to forward pencils to her through her stylist,” says Jenna. When Mindy posted a pic of her custom The Mindy Project pencil set on Instagram, Jenna’s LZ Pencils’ Instagram feed was flooded with new followers, and special order requests poured into her shop.
In another savvy move, Jenna had the idea to print a set of pencils with Ryan Seacrest’s catchphrase, “Kieran, dim the lights,” before the series finale of American Idol. She intended to make the set solely for her shop’s Instagram, but suddenly remembered that she actually knew someone who worked on the show. In less than 24 hours, she had the idea, printed the pencils and got them in the hands of Ryan Seacrest (with MAJOR help from her friend). “This is probably the best example of the freedom I have with owning my own pencil imprinting machine and is one of my favorite parts of my business — making pencils for fun and on a complete and utter whim. When you’re your own boss, you can do silly stuff like this as part of your work day without the fear of getting fired,” says Jenna.
3. Give back. Since the start of LZ Pencils, Jenna wanted to find a way to donate pencils to support her love of teaching and writing. She now donates sets to the Los Angeles Youth Network. “They provide educational enrichment to at-risk adolescents. It’s inspiring that something as small as a pencil can help kids through tutoring, journaling or writing,” says Jenna.
4. Learn your trade. Before Jenna embarked on her Etsy adventure, she had never made one single pencil before. But the moment she bought her vintage imprinting machine, it sparked a creative fire in her to learn every aspect of the pencil-making process. “Pencil printing was a major learning curve, but I reveled in the fact that I could print modern phrases like ‘What Would Beyonce Do’ with a machine that was older than Queen Bey herself,” says Jenna. Jenna shares that joining Etsy was “pretty intuitive to use as a buyer and seller,” but that figuring out the packaging and finding the right vendors was tough and time-consuming.
5. Most importantly, have fun. What started out as a fun hobby turned into a profitable small business for the Los Angeles-based screenwriter. “Finding a hobby I enjoy and turning it into a successful small business has done so much for my self-esteem and keeps me connected to my screenwriting dream,” says Jenna. “After 2,000 orders, believe it or not, I still love making pencils.” She especially loves it when a fellow writer orders a pencil set, because it makes her feel a small connection between the writer and what they’ll create with her custom writing instruments.
6. Maintain quality control. When her shop was inundated post-Mindy, Jenna flirted with the idea of outsourcing her pencils. But she realized that, even though outsourcing would free up 75 percent of her workload, she wouldn’t be able to control the final product. It was more important to her that she could focus on the quality of her pencils than the quantity. She even passed on an opportunity to sell her pencils at a major television studio store because she didn’t want to outsource. “I’m a perfectionist almost to a fault, so I wasn’t willing to compromise quality in favor of quantity. That’s why all of my pencils are still handmade by me,” says Jenna.
7. Collaborate with other entrepreneurs. Part of the beauty of working for yourself is chatting with other small business owners and collaborating on mutually beneficial creative endeavors. Plus, Jenna says, “It’s a great way to meet other makers who understand the entrepreneur hustle.” She loves helping other small brands get the word out about their wares. “I’ve had so many people do the same for me, so I’m extremely passionate about paying that forward,” says Jenna.
Perfect Your Skills
1. Personalize Your Own Pencils (Free): We have a few fun tutorials on how to make your own custom writing instruments. Try your hand at making pom pom-topped pens from any freebie pens you get, repurpose old colored pencils into a cute ring or quickly make super cute polka dot pencils with a gold Sharpie.
2. How to Crush It on Instagram Online Class ($29): Just like Jenna, you could turn your Instagram account into an Insta-marketing tool for your creative business. Learn how the in-house photographer for Chronicle Books engages with her Instagram followers (37K followers and growing!).
3. The Art of Selling What You Make ($119): This bootcamp-style course is broken up into three sessions — setting up the foundation for a sustainable business, generating revenue quickly and creating a long-term plan for business success. It’s great for anyone wanting to learn how to turn their passion project into their career.
What’s your dream career? Tweet us @BritandCo to let us know, and we could feature it in the next column!