I started my company, How to Live, in 1992. I was 34, and I was a single mom. My son was three and looking up to me as if I should be standing for something. I think there’s too much fighting AGAINST in the world. I wanted to stand FOR something positive. So, I wrote down what I loved and what mattered to me about the place I lived—a list that went from the quirky to the sublime. Then I doodled on it in happy colors. And that doodly list became a design.
This first design was called “How to Live on an Island.” I put the design on t-shirts and sold them at craft shows from Shelter Island to Chincoteague. Then I had black and white cards printed of that design and hand-painted each one, shrink-wrapped them with Saran Wrap and an iron on my kitchen table, tied them with string and glued on a shell. And I began driving around and selling them to stores. All the “How to Start a Stationery Business” books I read said that I needed to have at least fifteen card designs and a marketing plan to even THINK about starting a business. I knew I didn’t have that, but I did have my son’s Crayola paints (in the small circular tins) and a little kid depending on me, and a great deal of personal stubbornness to compensate for my lack of fifteen card designs. And so, How to Live began…
I am neither a salesperson nor a business person. I had a little bit of experience and training in this and that, like most people. I knew I had a good idea when I did the island design. But, honestly, a lot of people have good ideas. I believe that an idea is just a door. You have to open that door and walk through it and then keep walking. I mean, on and on…and on Most people give up at the doorway. They read the book about how you need fifteen designs or a business card or a degree or a studio to work in, and then they get stopped in their tracks. Or else their fear starts telling them they’re not qualified or talented or just plain good enough. Or life just deflects them. All these things are real, and all these things have happened and continue to happen to me. I have fears and insecurities that haunt me every day. I can procrastinate with the best of you.
But I am like a dog. And this saves me. If I do something good, I give myself a reward. If I write a page, I get a cookie (sometimes metaphorical, sometimes not). I’ve trained myself to take action, complete tasks and get rewarded. “Treat yourself like a dog,” I tell people who want to start a business. Don’t worry about having courage or strength or fighting your fears. Don’t think about the big picture. Just action-cookie, action-cookie… And your life will move forward.
I’ve been doing this a long time now. How to Live is a design business with hundreds of products. It’s also a wholesale business with accounts all over the U.S. and in Australia, England and the Caribbean. We also have two retail stores on Long Beach Island, NJ. Now, we’re excited about having a web business. I’ve written and illustrated twenty-four books which have sold over a million copies. Still, I don’t think I know what I’m doing. Still, I don’t think I have a “real” business. Still, I question my talents daily. It’s OK. I just keep walking, doggedly, trying to figure out how to live.