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!