2014 marks two and a half years that Mochimochi Land has been my full time job. (It was my almost-full time job for four and a half years before that.) I don’t normally talk shop here, but since it’s a new year and maybe some of you are thinking about starting new projects, I thought I’d begin a weekly series of posts about being a designer and running a small business. Today, my story of how I got started.
One of the best things about my job is that I get to do so many different things: I design patterns, of course, but I also work a lot with images (photography and graphics), I write, I teach, I make art, I give presentations, and I pack and ship online and wholesale orders. Pretty much none of this is related to what I studied in college—my major was media studies and Japanese—so if you had told my just-graduated 22-year-old self that I would be doing all of these things as a job ten years later, I would have said you had the wrong person.
After college (and an extra year studying in Japan), I moved to NYC with John, and my first (and only) “real” job was at an art agency and gallery. My work mostly consisted of coordinating projects by email and looking at contracts, but being around art was something new and inspiring for me. After a year or so I decided that I was ready to do something else, but I didn’t have anything specific in mind. I did have a knitting hobby, which had started in college and had grown more intense thanks to my mother-in-law, Bonney. I had also just designed my first toy in 2007, blobby creatures for my coworkers.
When I made these guys, I didn’t instantly think “THIS will be my new job,” but I did think “This is awesome and I can’t wait to design all sorts of toys!” I had a new passion, and after talking about it with John, I decided to take a few months just to knit toys and blog about them, and see where that might lead, whether to a different idea, a new career direction, or just some time for reflection before looking for a new job. It was a big help, of course, that I had a supportive husband and the financial flexibility to leave my full-time job. When I gave my two weeks’ notice in early 2008, my boss suggested a part-time arrangement instead, which turned out to give me a nice balance of freedom with my new project and a little stability with my office job.
The first place I shared photos of my toys was Flickr—I remember putting a photo of the Uh-Ohs (one of my first designs) in a knitting group, and before long I was seeing comments from people asking for a pattern. When I replied that I’d never written a pattern before, I received offers to test from these helpful strangers. That’s how I got my first testers, who helped me figure out how to write and format a pattern. (One of those testers was Angela Tong, who is now a designer and teacher in her own right.)
I still remember the brainstorming session that John and I had when we were trying to come up with a website name. Eventually I suggested something with the word “mochi.” Why? Because it was one of my favorite Japanese foods; because it’s soft and squishy, like a toy; and because I wanted to make toys inspired by minimalist Japanese character design, so a fun Japanese word seemed fitting to me. Mochi.com was taken, and so was mochimochi.com. So the “land” in Mochimochi Land was just a matter of URL necessity at first, but as my designs grew in number, it seemed natural that they should exist in their own imaginary land. (And at some point people started referring to my creatures as “mochimochis” and as “mochis,” which was also not intentional from the beginning, but a happy development that I embraced.)
Aside from Flickr, I had some early online press from Craft magazine that brought people to my website. But my audience really grew in 2009 after I signed up for Ravelry, which was still pretty new at the time, and exploding in popularity. Seeing all the excitement for Ravelry as an online meeting place for knitters, it was beginning to dawn on me that there was actually a market for digital patterns, and it might be bigger than I’d thought.
At this point you’ve probably figured out that I never wrote a business plan. My plan was just to start really small, publishing a few patterns as I went, and see what happened. It helped that there is little overhead in basic pattern making: I just needed the knitting supplies, a camera, and a computer. As time went by, I gradually added other dimensions to my business, like teaching and taking wholesale orders for kits.
As I’ve grown my design business, I’ve also taken on big knitting projects that aren’t directly related, like art installations and eventually also animations. These projects didn’t fit anywhere into a profit-making plan, but as a self-employed, self-directed person, I’ve wanted to continue to challenge my creativity, keeping my curiosity alive while I turned my hobby into my job.
If there’s something to take away from my “how I got started” story, I think it’s that there’s no secret formula to starting a small business, and it’s OK not to have it all figured out right at the beginning. But it does help to have a close-to-obsessive passion about something, an inclination for working independently, and the willingness and resources to invest a few years in it before you can make it your main income.
If you have any business or designing questions, or a suggestion of something else I should talk about that relates to these topics, or if you have your own story to share, I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
One of the things that I like about January (and there aren’t that many) is the way that I feel more open to inspiration and new ideas at the beginning of the year. It’s a time to try new things, or at least to think about trying new things! My new thing is pottery: I took a short wheel class in December, and I’m going to continue with another class that starts soon. I’m a complete beginner—and I have the lopsided bowls to prove it—but I’m inspired to continue when I see things like this.
These are porcelain pieces by Korean artist YOMSNIL, whom I discovered thanks to Pictoplasma. I just adore the expression and life that the artist achieves with simple vessel shapes. I think that playing with clay myself a bit recently makes me appreciate how he worked with the soft material, making characters emerge from it with gentle poking and carving.
Even if I never make anything this cool myself with clay, it feels good to work with a new material—it’s like my hands are learning a new language. See more on YOMSNIL’s website.
It’s still well below zero here today, but I’m coping with coffee, knitting, and focusing on happy, inspiring images. Like these adorable starry wedding photos from Teresa, who knitted 88 Lucky Stars as favors for her and her fiancé’s guests.
I was especially excited to see these photos in the Flickr group because I too made knitted wedding favors when John and I got married in 2006. (But they weren’t nearly this cute, or this much work!) I’m so tickled when people make mochis a part of their happy day.
And wow, how awesome is that dress!?
I’m really rooting for this adorable couple. They’re off to a great start! The beautiful photos are by Jessica Shilling Photography.
It’s -15 degrees in Chicago today! This is not even acceptable to tiny snowmen.
Stay warm, everyone! (It’s a good day for knitting…)
It was great to hear about people’s favorite knitting projects from 2013 in the comments on my kitschy Christmas dog post from earlier this week. You were a busy bunch last year!
And the randomly-selected winner of the kitschy Christmas dog from 1940s Japan is… Commenter #19, Anita!
My favourite project this year was my Sixareen cape by Kate Davies, my first fair isle project.
Congrats, Anita! I just emailed you for your address.
The rest of you deserve a little something for the new year too, so how about a discount on ALL of the PDF patterns in the Mochimochi Shop?
Happy 2014, everyone! Let’s make it a year full of inspiration, art, and love.
You can’t keep me away from NYC for long—the mochis and I are headed back this month for Vogue Knitting LIVE in Times Square!
Instead of showing one of my knitted sculptures or scenes this year, I’ll be showing some of my stop-motion animations in the marketplace’s art gallery (which I’ve heard will be on two floors this year—yay fiber art!).
I’ll also have all my books available for sale and signing, as well as a special discount on kits. Please stop by and say hi if you’ll be there!
PLUS! There will be a tiny snowman scavenger hunt in the marketplace on Sunday the 19th. 10 people who find a tiny snowman will win a copy of my new book, Huge & Huggable Mochimochi!
PLUS! I’ll be leading a free workshop on designing your own knitted toy on Sunday at 11am.
PLUS! I’ll be on an artist panel (moderated by Debbie Stoller) at 2pm on Sunday too!
I can’t wait for all the VK LIVE fun. See you soon, NYC!
It’s been another super year here in Mochimochi Land. 2013 was our seventh year, if you can believe it—that’s a lot of mochis!
Let’s wrap up 2013 with a quick look at some favorite happens on the blog.
**Favorite New Pattern**
I’m a little bit in love with these guys, but it might just be the puns they inspire in me.
**Favorite New Contraption**
This thing saved my sanity this year. Instead of spending hours winding the bobbins for my tiny kits, I can spend minutes! My dad is the best.
**Favorite Tiny Mochi**
This little guy was praised by poets! I haven’t written pattern for him yet, but I’m hoping to do so in 2014.
**Favorite Funny Mochi Scene**
The most original way I’ve seen zombies defeated!
**Favorite Crazy Fun Projects**
I had TWO favorite crazy fun projects this year.
Because of course it’s a good idea to knit things on top of delicate twigs and ship them all to Germany for a show! (As ill-advised as this all seemed at times, it actually turned out great!)
The coolest project to wrap up 2013 with!
**Favorite Knitting Debate**
It’s the ultimate question that divides knitters these days. (As it turns out, everybody thinks they’re a little silly but ultimately harmless.)
**Favorite Mochimochi Mods**
This young knitter started with some shapes from Teeny-Tiny Mochimochi and took them in an awesome direction!
**Favorite Animated GIF**
This year I started making some longer stop-motion animations, but the looped action of a GIF remains of of my favorites forms of expression.
**Favorite Personal Project**
A little kitty for my niece!
I love having a niece to knit things for! Apparently the kitty (now named Nickus) gets to go on many adventures with Nora.
**Favorite Random Cute Things**
I just sent one of my last boxes out to the winner of the 2013 Mochimochi Photo Contest.
I was inspired by many kinds of art this year, but this short animation really stands out to me.
Those were just a few of my favorite things from 2013. Oh, and I didn’t even mention my new book, which was one of the most exciting things to happen this year!
But what keeps Mochimochi Land going and growing is the participation of all of you, in the form of your comments and emails, your photos of mochis that you’ve knit, and the way that so many of you have shown up at events and said hi in person! If anything, I want to foster more community here in 2014, and I hope to have more projects that we can all participate in.
Thank you for a wonderful year, everyone! Let’s make 2014 magical together!
I hope everyone is enjoying the holidays! I’ve been taking some much-needed time away from my computer and spending it instead with family, food, and furry creatures.
Speaking of which, it’s almost the last day of the year, and I’m finding myself with not one but TWO kitschy Christmas dogs from 1940s Japan.
One of these guys is destined to become a late Christmas present for someone I know, but one of them could be yours! I’d love to hear about your favorite thing that you knitted this year. Tell us about your favorite 2013 knitting project by leaving a comment, and I’ll randomly pick a winner on January 3rd.
If I can manage to sit in front of my computer for long enough, I’ll share my favorite project of 2013 tomorrow!