Posted on April 18 2018
Today, we sit down with one of our fave girls - Vicky Simmons - award-winning art director and founder of innovative card company Mean Mail, to learn more about how she got started in advertising, what it took to get Mean Mail off the ground and into shops such as Liberty's, and what advice she has for others looking to turn their side project into a creative and conscious business. Here's her story:
Nenwham: What were you like as a kid?
Simmons: Curious (nosey) and always drawing. I never wanted to grow up.
Newnham: And when and how did you take the path which led to you being an art director?
Simmons: I blame my parents. I grew up in a house filled with books and colouring materials (both my parents studied illustration). At school, I loved English and Art - my Art teacher really pushed and challenged me - I sometimes struggled with her but ultimately it helped improve my work.
I knew from about the age of eighteen that I wanted to work in advertising as I loved the turnover of ideas and really enjoyed the book - A Smile In The Mind by David Stewart and Beryl McAlhone. It’s a bit old now but definitely inspired my career direction. I’m fascinated by the way we communicate. When I started university I remember the course director saying "Good design should be able to be understood by everybody" so I always strive to achieve this within my work.
Newnham: How did you come up with the idea for Mean Mail and what was the first thing you did to make it a reality? What advice do you have for others looking to do the same thing?
Simmons: The idea for Mean Mail came from not being able to find cards that were suitable for my relationship. One of the first cards I wrote was ‘I’d like to keep this when we split up.’
The first thing I did to make it a reality was research. I checked the market size to see whether it was worth entering. The greetings card market is pretty huge (especially in the UK) but slowly declining - people are buying fewer and fewer cards each year. It’s an incredibly saturated market so if you’re going to enter, you need to do something that hasn’t been done before. It’s important to find your point of difference and make sure everything stems from that. I don’t see the point of setting up another business that’s an iteration of someone else’s idea or copying someone else’s style.
Recently I’ve got into the habit of checking every new design on Google. I have a card that says ‘I tolerate you’ - loads of people have done cards with that phrase on - I’m not interested in producing what everyone else has done already so it’s being discontinued.
Another element I feel strongly about is that we live in a world with an over supply of stuff. If you’re going to make a product, it's important make sure your production line is transparent or traceable from start to finish. When I started out I was using plastic cellos (bags greeting cards come in), under the assumption they are recyclable. I’ve since discovered conflicting advice on them - so I’ve taken the decision to go for ones made of plant starch that are fully compostable. They’re almost three times the price of regular cellos but completely worth it. With wholesale orders I haven’t bought one new cardboard box to send them in - all of the packaging is reused from stock deliveries.
One thing I’ve spent on is the product photography. If you’re building an e-comm business you need to make your photos great. I’ve saved on some overheads that are unnecessary for the time being - such as a permanent office space, a full time PR company and marketing budget. Cutting back on these allowed me to keep my burn rate small and slow. Also I’m self-funding the business via freelance work until it’s fully financially viable rather than accepting funding or a bank loan.
Newnham: Can you talk us through the process of setting up your business – some highs and lows?
Simmons: I did a talk with Lara Chapple from WolfPie Creative recently and she said running your own business was like ‘champagne and razor blades’ - the highs are definitely higher but when things go wrong, it can feel awful.
Liberty being one of our first stockists was a total dream come true. If I’m in town I sometimes pop in and watch people laugh at the cards. I’m such a lurker. We got stocked in Colette just before it closed which was another pinch-me moment.
A couple of months back Mean Mail was commissioned to design a card, wrapping paper and tote for the launch of Nike AF1Velvet. That was lots of fun to create, I was hand-marbling giant sheets of paper in my bath late into the night. I know it’s a cliche but every time someone places an order, it’s a highlight. Especially when they write a little message at checkout.
It definitely hasn’t been a smooth ride though. At Christmas so many customer orders went missing or were delayed for weeks. For most people it’s their first experience ordering from you so it’s tough to come back from. At one point £500 worth of stock went missing but finally turned up due to a missed warehouse delivery slot.
I once read that Holly Tucker (the founder of Holly & Co. and Not On The High Street) has a bell in her office that she rings every time something good happens. I don’t have a bell (as it would mainly just be my cats listening) but I do write down when good things happen (no matter how big or small) on a post-it and stick it to the back of my living room door. It’s always open, so no one ever sees it. If I’m having an unproductive day, I’ll close the door and read some of them to cheer me up.
Newnham: How did you get your cards into Liberty?
Simmons: I sent them a card inviting them to the launch of Mean Mail - they couldn’t make it but asked for the line sheet. The main goal for Mean Mail in 2018 is growth. Our focus is on increasing the number of cards we sell each week and expanding our stockists. We’ve just partnered with a distributor in Australia and New Zealand which we’re really excited about. We’ve got plans this year to diversify our product offering too.
Newnham: Where do you get inspiration from?
Simmons: The cards are inspired by conversations with friends (and strangers!)
I collect books (more art / factual than novels) and love nothing more than trawling round my local charity shops in search of interesting new reads. One of my favourite books came in a giant cigarette box and is all about cigarette packaging. It’s called No Smoking. I also love the work of Miranda July and have quite a few of her books. One of my favourites is ‘Learning to Love You More’ that she created with Harrell Fletcher.
Newnham: What’s your favourite quote and why?
Simmons: It’s got to be the inspiration behind Mean Mail - "True friends stab you in the front" - Oscar Wilde. I always appreciate honesty - sometimes it hurts but ultimately it helps.
Business wise - my favourite quote (and it’s a total cheese fest) is - You can build your own dream or help build someone else’s. I loved working for other companies (and still freelance) but, ultimately, all my energies were going into making work that might get killed before it’s even made. My side projects were an indication to me that I need to keep creating. Mean Mail is the side project that wouldn’t go away.
Newnham: What advice – if any- would you offer a younger Vicky, just starting Mean Mail?
Simmons: Stay uncomfortable. It’s tough to adhere to, but ultimately it helps in the long run. In that sense I’d also say - start before you’re ready. When I started Mean Mail I wasn’t ready but I still wish I’d started sooner. Just go for it!