On this midsummer, midweek morning, I have news both happy and sad: Our series detailing John’s path through life and art comes to a close today, with the final installment (as of yet, that is) in The Tails of Artiphany. We’ve had such a wonderful response to these minihistories, with great enthusiasm for John’s work and great empathy for his story. Thank you for all your comments and emails. They brighten our inboxes much in the same way we hope this series of posts has brightened yours.
We pick up the narrative today around the time John returned from his experimental trip to Shanghai (the one that, if you are forgetting, involved a questionable cabbie and his questionable coiffure, as well as trade fairs, placemats and a jetlagged artist), in the spangled laneways of Bloomingdale’s Manhattan flagship store. And so we begin Chapter 4,
Despite the hiccups of John’s business trip to Shanghai, he ultimately found a manufacturer to work with, and his placemat designs were produced and shipped. Now, while these were “just placemats” to some, they represented much more to John: They were, at that point, his only product and Bloomingdale’s was, at that point, his only buyer. And it was for this reason that John decided to go to New York to see the placemats with his own two eyes. So there he was, at 59th Street and Third Avenue...
And what he saw made his heart sink. “I couldn’t find the placemats on my own, so I asked one of the clerks,” he recalls. “But they didn’t know what the product was. They’d never heard of it. And that caused some despair.” When John finally was able to find his placemats, they were off to the sidelines, camouflaged in a merchandise jungle, out of view for busy shoppers. How is anyone going to find these here? John asked himself. How is anyone going to know, if even the clerks are clueless of their existence? “I was just starting to sense," John explains, "what it takes to get something seen." He realized then that he had a lot more to learn. Or as he describes, “There was nothing about this game I really understood yet.” Bloomingdale’s never did reorder John’s placemats.
Around the same time, an acquaintance, a buyer for stores, recommended to John that he try a new product idea: How about...playing cards? John took the suggestion to heart and, without bogging himself down by studying other playing card designs, he set out to create something from instinct and his own visual vocabulary. “The creative process for making these cards, it doesn’t have a logical path,” John explains. “I just sat with the idea of ‘a deck of cards’ in my mind for awhile until I came up with this different take on it. I looked at it from my strongest point of view: Which was not as a marketer or a seller-of-things, but as an artist. And I discovered this opportunity, that a deck of cards appeared to be a collection of pictures, already telling a story. But there was one story that could be made explicit, in a different way. That was to take the symbol of the cards and transform it into something else: From a diamond, to a goldfish or a club, to a paw of a dog. Then I just worked at it until I could tell a self-contained story in ten frames. That was my new offering—without even studying the marketplace, I knew it was different, and that it would make my products distinctive.”
John set to work. Soon, he had the designs for two packs of cards with two nearly universally appealing themes: The Pack of Dogs Playing Cards and The Kitten Club Playing Cards.
John then took another trip to China, to get his cards produced—and, to entertain the local waiters: “I was deep in some district in Shanghai. Not the fancy part. And, because I didn’t speak Mandarin, I would go into the restaurant that I liked the best and I would draw pictures of what I wanted to eat. I got very good at drawing pigs, chickens, vegetables.” Returning from this trip, John decided to start selling on a local level. He brought the cards to stores around where he lived, showed small shop owners samples and chatted about the story behind them. One, two, three stores came on board and not long after, more followed. John was energized by this interest, especially after the heartbreak of the placemats, and, upon the suggestion of a friend, was soon frequenting trade shows in New York and beyond.
Operations were expanding, wholesale customers were in the double digits and the studio John had worked in, in San Francisco, for nearly twenty five years was scheduled to be raised to the ground. The signs were all pointing to an expansion, and a change of scene. So, just a few years into running his new business, John packed up his boxes of playing cards and paintings and moved back to where he had grown up, Palo Alto. The move was, among other things, a symbol to John himself that he was entering a new phase of his career. He closed the door to his studio, and set off for the drawing board.
[Aside: Back in the South Bay, John attended a class on entrepreneurship at Stanford that was being taught by a friend. Sitting in the class, surrounded by enthusiastic, young CEO-hopefuls on the edges of their cramped desks, John listened as his friend spoke about the same kinds of challenges John had gone through with only himself as guide, by trial and error. “He summed up my whole experience over the past five years in about ten minutes,” says John. Then he thought, “Well, shit. He’s taken everything I’ve acquired over time, despite making mistakes and having success and keeping an eye on everything going on around me, and summed it up in ten minutes. I wish I could’ve heard that, a while ago.” Perhaps, he thought, the hazards of being an artist in the unwieldy world of business.]
Mermaid Bday from Artiphany Keenan on Vimeo.
At the new headquarters of the business that was becoming Artiphany, John began to expand his collection. First were the Mermaid Queen and Bag of Bones playing cards: both experiments into whimsy, light and dark. Then came greeting cards and animations, in the spirit of the e-card craze that was enchanting email inboxes in the late aughts, if you so recall. As the products grew, so did the need for support, in the form of investors, mostly friends and friends of friends, and a more formalized model for business operations. And yet, though contractors came and went, John remained a one-man-band: creator, founder, advocate of the Artiphany universe.
Now, between then and now, several things occurred which push and prodded the lifelines of Artiphany and John Littleboy: a national economic breakdown, the death of the e-card, the rise of VR and social media, an ever-expanding collection of images and ideas. There were ups and downs, mountains and valleys. But it took another ten years or so—until, in fact, last summer—before something truly unexpected and radical happened that would change, forever, Artiphany’s little corner of the creative world.
You know the story.
It happened on a Sunday. Sunday, June 11th, 2017. John describes that day: “I opened my email on a Sunday in June—when you’re a small business owner, you work every day and a bad habit, which I still have, is to look at my email first thing after I wake up—and there was only this one message, pages and pages of the same message. As I was coming to consciousness, my first thought was that I was spammed or hacked in someway. I finally picked one out to see what it said and saw that it was an order, for playing cards; that all of them were orders for playing cards. And even as I read them, more and more were piling in.”
In shock, John logged into his e-commerce site and watched as the number of visitors on the page changed, multiplied, in front of his eyes. In the space of five minutes, $3,000 worth of orders flooded in. John was pleased, to be sure, but he was also realistic. “Well, it’ll be over pretty soon,” he thought to himself. But this was only just the beginning. The rush went on and on. At the height of it all, Artiphany was making a sale every four to six minutes.
By the time what’s now known in the Artiphany inner circle as the “tsunami period” had trickled off to a manageable stream, everything about the way John had run his business had been thrown on its head. First, there was the sheer volume: Frantically, John had had to place a new order with his playing card manufacturer, for thousands of more units. Then, he reached out to his new customers, apologizing for the inevitable delays, trying to put words to the wonderful chaos that had just engulfed him and his business. There was also the need for more hands, of course, for the packing and the printing; more minds for the planning and the developing. The only thing, in fact, that remained the same throughout, were the designs themselves, and the artist behind them.
One of the sketches for John's book
When you talk to John about this unexpected turn in his life, and the life of his company, you are struck first and foremost by a sense of opportunity. Artiphany is no Amazon, but the boost from last June has freed John’s mind and time enough to give his creativity more room to stretch it’s lanky limbs. Since then, he’s finally had the chance and the revenue to bring more products into the line—mugs, tea towels—and is even working on a children’s book based, in part, on some of his greeting cards. “These kinds of projects would have been difficult for me to do before,” John says, “But now I have the freedom, financial and otherwise, to pursue them.”
And for that, we thank YOU.
I hope you’ve enjoyed The Tails of Artiphany. Feel free to let us know your thoughts (and feelings!) in the comments below, and thank you for taking the time to be on the blog with me today.
Now, get off your computers and tablets and phones and out to the dog park! All of you! Don't make me bark at you!
Love and dog bones,