Inside the Studio: Knock Knock
Talent is only a prerequisite. If we don’t look at your portfolio we’re not going to even consider you. So your talent is proven before you come into the interview. Insane talent is rare, but you know, just talent is not rare and it doesn’t make you that special.
- Jen Bilik, Owner and Founder of Knock Knock
A beautiful Thursday morning in Venice, California - I met up with the rest of the Dieline team at the headquarters of Knock Knock, a publisher of witty gifts, stationery, and design-driven books. They are sold in 6,000 stores across the United States, including such retailers as Barnes & Noble and Urban Outfitters, and also have extensive international distribution. We were first greeted by Knock Knock’s publicist, Arnold Chavez, who gave us a grand tour of the office, before meeting up with Jen Bilik, owner and founder, and Craig Hetzer, publisher, for our interview.
As expected, the highly spirited and lighthearted brand has a workspace that matches its attitude. They are located only a few blocks from Abbot Kinney Blvd., where you can find great shops, art galleries, and restaurants.
The structure of the building lends itself to an open and collaborative workspace. On nice days they often open up the big garage-style doors to let more sunlight in, which is one of the many perks of working in Southern California.
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We head over to the Fourth Space, a recreational area where the team lets off steam, has lunch, hangs out and plays ping-pong (they get competitive around here), and talk to Jen and Craig about the key to Knock Knock’s success as well as the creative and business process behind the scenes.
Andrew: What was the idea behind Knock Knock?
Jen: When I started Knock Knock, I lived right around the corner, just off Abbot Kinney. It was a great little Venice bungalow, which I also used as my office. I was a book editor before I started Knock Knock.
I decided that I wanted to write this book, but I was procrastinating. I was doing a lot of crafty things. So, I had glued these plastic letters on the door to say “Knock Knock” and on the inside it said, “Who’s there?” and I had painted the door orange and the inside white.
So, I was working on this book but I also had an idea of creating a business. I realized that I was more interested in this business idea and kept going back to it, which made me think that maybe I should hold off on the book. I went back to the business idea, but was stuck with the question of what I was going to call it.
One day when I was thinking of a name, the door was open and I kept thinking, “What will I call it? What will I call it?” and then my eyes landed right at the orange door that said “Knock Knock.”
Andrew: It was staring at you the whole time!
Jen: Right. I also knew it would make a good logo, because it was two words repeated. The letterforms are interesting—Ks are interesting letterforms. The words are sort of visual palindromes because they have the Os in the middle and the Ks on either side.
I also liked the call-and-response sense to it. You say “Knock Knock” and the immediate reply is “Who’s there?” It’s an allusion to humor and childhood, and, it is sort of surreal, that it doesn’t connect at all to what we do. I hate businesses that are people’s names. Because I think that it is narcissistic and hard to sell at some point.
(Back, left to right) Craig Hetzer, Ivan Navarro, Andrew Gibbs, Jen Bilik (Front) Paco
Andrew: Are there any products that you haven’t tried your hands on yet? or what are some of the projects you’d want to tackle next?
Jen: Oh my god! So many! Our problem is that sometimes we have too many ideas. It is challenging on a few levels. The biggest is going into new manufacturing areas, which means all new sourcing. And it often means new sales reps and new buyers. So, all of the relationships that you already have may not serve the purpose of getting into the public eye or distributing the way that you need to.
We get a lot of questions about why we’re doing the things we’re doing, especially when they’re different from what we’ve done before. So we’re always looking for a balance of surprise and the familiar. If it’s too surprising or too avant-garde, they don’t get it. If it’s too familiar, then it’s boring.
We also have to think about how much money we want to invest in developing a new category, or if we want to spend that money in a category that is already doing well. It’s a constant push and pull. Our challenge is not coming up with new categories, but how do we time them, how do we give the best possible launch.
Craig: We’re totally Yes Sayers, especially Jen and I. We want to do new things all the time and we have to constantly put our brakes on.
IIt all comes down to company resources. The good thing is we have a lot of people on our team to help us say, yes, but maybe this is going to take three years. Jen and I are usually the ones that don’t want to wait—we want to do it now.
Jen: One of the things we’ve been thinking about a lot is whether we’ve mined the classic aspect of the Knock Knock brand enough. Basically, have we exploited it? I feel like if we’re just reusing the aesthetics of what is on our best-selling pads and we’re just plopping them on sticky notes, that it’s a sell out or, that it’s boring. But, if it works and it sells, then that is going to make it more likely for us to have the capital to take more risks and work on these fun, new projects. We are more thoughtful behind every new launch. We’re not just doing new projects on a whim.
We have to think about it because we have tried new things and it didn’t work. The risk is real. What we’re trying to do so that we’re not always making referendums on whether or not we can do things is to set aside play money to try new things.
One of my original inspirations was Charles and Ray Eames, who were able to cross into so many different categories, and their workspace was more than just a studio that churns out new work—they were able to experiment and do different things.
Tiffanie: Did you have a specific moment, where you realized “I have something here”?
Jen: Well, I would say I had two. One, when it all clicked together and I said “I’m going to actually do this, “I have enough here to start something.” The second was when we realized people liked our product and this could fly. (To Andrew) I’m sure you had both of those moments.
SO, WHAT'S NEW?
More Crap Large Box (New at KnockKnock)
Jen: We launch new products twice a year—spring and fall. In January we start going into the trade-show circuit and that’s where buyers and retailers start to ask us, “What’s new?” and we show them. But the thing is they tend to wait to see if the new line is going to do well, then they jump on it.
Craig: Not a lot of retailers and sellers out there are willing to be in the forefront. They always wait to see if it does well. There are very few that will go for it.
Jen: Another thing they usually ask us is, “What’s funny about it?” and we want people to know that we love things that aren’t funny as well, things that are beautiful—design and art driven. We’re all yearning to do something like that. That’s why we’re working in collaboration with a studio in San Francisco to create more art-driven products. We’re really excited about it.
Craig: It’s an opportunity to go beyond the brand and it’s something we always talk about and try to do. We try to push things within the Knock Knock brand and I think it’s easier to do that with books and journals—where people are used to seeing diversity. Publishers, like Chronicle Books for instance, have a wide range of product that is diverse in its design approach.
What I Love About You Journal
Dream Journal (internal)
Andrew: In your session, Jen, at The Dieline Conference, you mentioned some products that you considered 'failures'. Can you touch upon that topic again for our readers that weren't at the conference?
Jen: Sure, in my presentation one of the products we talked about was Fete-a-Tete, a party kit that included a banner, with phrases ranging from “Congratulations” to “I’m sorry,” etc. The kit also included a wine label with multiple choices to put over the bottle, and two coasters. The intention was that you needed to just add wine for an instant party. We used illustration on the packaging to show what it was, rather than photography. And we loved the name Fete-a-Tete, but nobody got it. We learned that the more alien a concept is, the more you have to be incredibly clear and literal with the naming and presentation. I also talked about the Recovery Kit. That’s an award-winning piece. Sometimes the award-winning ones are usually the ones that totally tank in the marketplace. They are too design-driven and too conceptual.
So, it goes back to what I talk about with churning out new stuff versus rehashing products or design that already works and tacking it onto a new substrate or a new form. We feel like we’re cheating ourselves sometimes when we do that, but that’s what makes money that allows us to play with cool, high-concept ideas.
Another highly anticipated one was when we launched a line of stuff animals, talk about a left turn, right? It’s called
Oh, those are the ones we see around the office?
Yes, that’s it. I taught some classes at Art Center and this guy, Max Knecht was a student there. It was a class on taking your product to market. Students presented what they were working on and I immediately fell in love with this one. I even kept his one sheet.
One day, we were thinking about expanding on our products and I pulled out that one sheet. Everyone fell in love with it and we were so excited about it and really thought that it had a chance. It didn’t work really well with our end consumers. I think the problem may have been that kids weren’t able to figure out how to zip the creatures apart. Also, maybe [the Clump-o-Lump designs] were too big.
I still have faith in that project. It’s not something we look back and think we were wrong about. We still believe in it.
Craig: We would go for it maybe in a different way now.
Jen: I also learned that there are two curses in business: one is failure and one is success. Success is harder to keep up with. There are many opportunities that come around and it’s hard to choose. The easiest days are the days where you can just sit around and learn from it. Success makes it harder.
Andrew: How did you make that shift from being an editor to a business owner?
Jen: Turns out I love business! Who knew? I was such an artist. I actually just started writing something for Inc. Magazine called “Hard Knocks.” Every column is about a major mistake that I made and what I learned from it. People tend to talk very inspirationally about entrepreneurism, but not a lot about mistakes and fuck-ups. There were things nobody ever told me about. I had no idea! So, those are things I’d like to share.
Andrew: How do you come up with the ideas of a product? What is the process like?
Jen: At the beginning, for the first five years, it was myself with a team to help me execute those ideas. Certainly we brainstormed ideas together, but I would say a lot of the concepts originated from me. I also wrote everything for the first five years. Those were the ninety hours a week—I almost died.
Jen Bilik's office
Andrew and Ivan discuss new and exciting projects with Jen Bilik
But one thing I realized was what I call single-point failure, where a machine falls apart without one major component. I learned that in order for the business to be successful and go to the next level, it has to be able to run without me. It has to have enough DNA to run on its own. That was one of the goals in bringing Craig on.
Craig is great in bringing out talents and empowering other people. The real strategy in this is to nurture a company that’s going to have legs. You don’t do it by making people feel like they are just hired hand.
Craig: I don’t believe in one way of generating ideas. I do believe processes are really important, but I think sometimes ideas spring from just an email.
We are also obsessed with writing down ideas. We have spreadsheets and spreadsheets worth of ideas. Let’s say it’s a book about ping-pong balls. We’ll write it down. We always come back to things, especially when they are things that keep churning up to the top of the list. That’s when we begin to poke at those things and see what we can do with it. We’ve also now just started the idea of acquisition, bringing in ideas from outside.
Design and Editorial
Best seat in the house!
Andrew: What do you look for when you’re hiring designers? Do you look for someone with a specific Knock Knock humor and attitude? What are the attributes you look for?
Jen: I’ll answer what we DON’T look for, and Craig can add in what we do, because he’s been hiring them more lately.
Talent is merely a prerequisite. We find that with some of the most talented designers they have this cocky air of, “I’m so talented!” But I’m like, “Yeah, but you’re incompetent.” Talent is only a prerequisite. If we don’t look at your portfolio we’re not going to even consider you. So your talent is proven before you come into the interview. Insane talent is rare, but you know, just talent is not rare and it doesn’t make you that special.
So, what we’re looking for is how are you with working with the team? How are you flexible at taking criticism? How are you with working within a schedule and being accountable? A lot of these soft skills we don’t see coming out of a lot of design schools. They don’t impress that upon their students. They just pump them with entitlement. We are a very anti-ego company. It doesn’t matter who’s responsible for the idea. When you get somebody who says, “Well, now I can’t put that in my portfolio,” well, we don’t care if you can put it in your portfolio. That’s not what we’re designing this for.
Craig: My red flags are usually when anyone says, “my design this, my design that.” Yes, you’ve played an important role in it, but it’s not all about you. I think it’s a real challenge. Talent, you have to have. It’s a given. What we strive for then is to see if you would fit culturally.
One thing that I find a lot of designers that are new to Knock Knock struggle with is working on multiple projects at the same time. They are really used to concentrating on one project, then when that one’s done, they move on to the next one.
We have to train them to work with multiple projects. Each of those has their own schedule and due dates.
Jen: We help them schedule their day and then their week. At that point we’re comfortable giving them a project where we can check in with them every week. If all goes well, they’re then able to handle two or three weeks. Craig and I work on projects that are two or three years in length sometimes. The most important thing is we teach them how much work to do in each phase. Often we’re not looking for a complete finished design, just for you to be able to convey your message, even just in a sketch.
We are also really organized. We have over 200 products that we are trafficking at a time, so organization is really important. We are a lean team for the amount of volume that we do. We’re informal but very efficient and effective
(from left to right) The Bitch Pen, The Procrastination Pen, The WTF Pen, The Get Crap Done Pen
Craig: One thing that I look for in designers is a love of product. That’s a big challenge in today’s electronic world. I want to know if they like working with products. What do they buy? Where do they shop? Do they like holding things? That’s been the biggest challenge—finding those types of designers. I know they are out there, but it seems to be hard to find them in LA. I also like to ask what their favorite swear word is. We really want to make sure they can deal with the type of content we deal with.
Jen: We’re a salty bunch.
Craig: It is fascinating to see how they react to that question.
Ivan: What’s the most common answer?
Craig: Well, the number one answer is fuck, but my favorite response so far is when a candidate answered with the C word. I was like whoa, I didn’t expect that one. We did hire him though.
Andrew: I guess we can end this with, what’s your favorite swear word?
Jen: Lately, I’ve been saying motherfucker a lot. There are so many syllables to emphasize.
About Jen Bilik and Craig Hetzer.
Jen Bilik: The owner and founder of Knock Knock, Jen Bilik has a background in book editing, writing, design, and arts and crafts. For the first five years, Jen wrote, edited, and proofread just about every word on every product Knock Knock released. Since launching the company in 2002 Jen has performed every role and made every mistake—and lived to talk about it.
Craig Hetzer: Craig began his publishing career in the early 1990s at Chronicle Books in San Francisco, CA. He is currently publisher at Knock Knock, an award-winning purveyor of witty books and paper products based in Venice, CA, where he’s been exercising his irreverent sensibility since 2009. He often gets creative inspiration while stuck in traffic or peeling an orange at his desk.