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Jessica Hische on opening physical stores, separating social media pages, and communicating multiple passions

Creative Business
min read
In this article

Jessica is a lettering artist working in branding, film and television, book design, and advertising. She's also a New York Times best-selling children's book author and illustrator and has recently opened two physical stores in Oakland, Jessica Hische & Friends, and Drawling. 

In this episode, you'll learn how to know when it's a good time to open a physical store, the process behind opening physical stores as an artist and insights into branding a physical store, as well as why it can help to start separating your social media pages for your projects.

Jessica also shares insights on how to communicate all of your passions clearly as a creative and how hearing from you should be a joy to your audience and so much more!

Welcome to the show, Jessica. I'm so excited to have you here! The people in the introduction have heard a little bit about what you do and all the amazing creative things that you have going on, but I would love to talk to you today about what you have been up to recently and how you have got there.

So in 2023, you opened both Jessica Hische & Friends and Drawling, two physical shops. So I would love to know, in the beginning, where did the idea to open a shop come from? Tell me about that. 

It goes way back actually! When I lived in New York, which was between very early 2007 and 2012-ish, with a few years of bi-coastalness thrown in there at the end, I had a studio in a place called The Pencil Factory, which was in Greenpoint. This building was like an old Eberhard Faber pencil factory. And in it, they had divided it into these studios where there were an overwhelming amount of illustrators in the building.

When I first moved to New York I was 22 or 23 and I had this dream. “What if we together, all of us, went in on making a physical store?!” We all made our own art… but wouldn't it be great if we had a place where people could come and see it? It would be this real-world connection to our work. By the time I left New York, I was 28 and I felt like this store was a dream, but not something that I was ready for.

However, when I moved to California, I was looking for a studio space (which can be hard there). But the space I ended up finding on Craigslist was a storefront space and I took it! I had that storefront studio for eight years when I lived in San Francisco. We privacy filmed up the front for me and my studio mate, Eric, and we thought “What if we had the front of our studio be a store and the back of it be where we work?” But even just seeing the disruption that would happen from people casually visiting us, I was like, “Okay it doesn't totally work to be like open air working in the back of your store because people want to just talk to you!”.

So again, it was something that I wanted to keep as an option, but not something that felt like it made sense right then. 

After that, I moved over to Oakland and it was the same thing. I was looking for a similar space, but maybe something that was a little bit bigger so that I could do something to separate the make space from the retail spot eventually.

At first I was going to rent, but then I did all the math and talked to a financial planner and asked her if it made sense for me to buy a studio, especially if I think I'm going to be there for 15 years. She was immediately like, “Absolutely it does!”. So I ended up buying my studio, which was two live/work tiny apartment places, each of them about 700 square feet.

The upstairs is my studio, the downstairs is separated in two with my workshop and then the storefront, which I wanted to eventually open. The seed of all of this started a long time ago, but then this building made it into something that felt like it was definitely going to happen.

I moved into this space two months before the pandemic lockdown, which was probably not the right time. However, as things started opening up I felt like, “This is the time I'm going to do it! I'm going to be in one place for a while. I want to have a more physical connection to my local community.” The timing just felt so right.

This is amazing! I love how those two things came together to make it happen at the right time for you! What then?

Next, I started doing the build-out for JH&F (about eight months before it opened), slowly designing the space, ordering things a little bit at a time, and just feeling into it, whilst also trying to come up with a name for it too. Originally I had worked with a naming agency because we were going to do something on tradesies. I really liked what they came up with, but then it turned out that this fancy printer in New Jersey was really close to one of the names. And I was like, even though it's a different thing, I don't want to step on anybody's toes. 

So I went back to the drawing board. And I had this idea for a name “Drawling”, which just kept coming up. (The name was based on the fact that I went to college in Philly and I'm a deeply nostalgic person and have very nostalgic ties to my early maker life in Philadelphia!) I went pretty far along with it and ended up trademarking the name, whilst I was still developing the store and figuring out the layout of it. 

But then I put all of my prints up on the wall and was like, wait a second… It would be strange to go into a shop where all of the artwork was by one artist. This store has to be called something with my name in it.

I although I had invested all of this time and money, made branding, paid for the trademarking of not only the word Drawling but also a secondary mark that I did and also a tagline – probably a $10,000 investment – I just knew I could come back to it & do something with it in the future. 

Something else that came up along the way was when I was building the store out here was that I originally had a section of kids' stuff, but I soon realised that the vibe really changes in a store as soon as you do that. 

If you go into a shop and there's not a very clear vision about what the store is meant to be, it's disorienting and you don't really know what you're supposed to get there.

So all of a sudden I realised this wasn’t where the kid’s stuff was meant to be, this was meant to be the fancy grownup store and Drawling was meant to be the kid store”. It was like a light bulb went off!

I knew that there were a bunch of openings in Temescal Alley after the pandemic, so I reached out to one of the other retailers there that I know being like, “Hey, I want to chat because I'm thinking about reaching out to the landlord. What do you think?” And she was like, “You have to do it!”, then immediately put me in touch with the landlord. 

My idea was to initially just do some “investigation” first and maybe in six months or so down the track I would then open the store. I went into that conversation with the landlord knowing that if the rent was $2,500 or less per month, that it would be tempting to just go for it because if I could open in three or four months, I could burn through that amount of money and not feel awful. I certainly couldn’t spend like $10,000 on rent for nothing, but I could spend maybe like $6,000-$7,000 and not feel truly bad about it.

It ended up being $1,800 a month and I was just like, “Oh, shoot. I think I might have to do this!” The space that I got was really reasonable, especially compared to other, larger spaces in the area. So I thought “Okay I'm just going to get it and then I'm going to figure this out and try to open it as soon as I can”, thinking that I would open in like January or something. But then, with not only friends that have done retail stuff, but then also like a little bit of pressure from the landlord to open sooner, I basically rushed it together. I opened my first shop at the end of September and opened my second shop at the end of November, meaning they were both open for the holidays and it was completely chaotic. But it was good.

It had a good opening and I was able to make back some of the money that I had invested in it, not all of it, but enough to make me not feel bad. And so that's where I'm at. Now it's just in this nice cruise control mode where I'm certainly trying to mix it up in the stores and stay on top of inventory and things like that. But it's not a scramble right now, which is nice.

That is amazing! 

But yeah, I guess it all happened because I had invested in the name Drawling, and the brand, and I was like “I’ve got to do something with this!” 

I was going to say, you had to scramble to put it all together, but at least you had all the branding done!

It's similar to a lot of stuff that we do as creatives. 

When you learn how to do something that's really hard for the first time, you're like, “I need to figure out how to use these skills again, because I feel like now I have a master's degree in doing that thing.

So it just made sense, because it's all part of the same ecosystem in terms of the point of sale, backend, and all that kind of stuff. It's not really two stores, it's one store split between two locations. The only thing that makes it two stores is that the inventory is quite different between the two and that I have to staff two different places. The staffing thing is definitely interesting. But otherwise, it's really just like having one store with a lot of staff!

Yes! I was interested in the staffing. And also, there are so many things to think about when you have a store. Going from being a creative, which is generally something that we are doing on our own; I mean… you might collaborate with people, you might have a manager, or there might be a little bit of collaboration going on, but when you open a physical store, you probably can't be in there full-time because you have other things to do, right?

A lot of people are [in there full-time] though! A lot of people are in their stores full time because they use it as like an office.

So what most people who set up their own retail stores do is make it like an extension of their office where, when they're not busy, they're in there working on their other thing.  That way, anything that your store makes is just a bonus on top of what you would be making anyway, instead of it necessarily being like its own separate business. 

That's the one thing that's a little tricky with not working out of your own space. Whilst I could work downstairs in the store all the time, I want to have a more ergonomic environment for working in my big comfortable office. So for me, it makes so much more sense for me to pay someone a retail rate to be in the store, rather than me.

Such a good point! Also, I’m curious about the social media side of things because you now have social media pages for each of those shops, plus I know you’ve also started a new social media page for your new book, and your own work, obviously. 

Tell me how that works – are you doing all of that? How are you managing all of that? Tell me about all of that!

I am doing all of it. Part of that is because I haven't invested in it as I should haha! If I really want the stores to be very successful, I should be doing a lot more social media for them and reminding people of the stuff that's there, however, it's a little tricky because both of the stores are brick-and-mortar only.

Most of the time if you see a shop doing a ton of social media they probably also do online sales. So when I do a ton of social media for the shops, I tend to get a lot of DM’s being like, “Do you ship to me?” (which I don’t do). At the moment the main reason why I do social media for the shops is just to remind people that they're open, posting maybe once or twice a week. Whereas if it had an online sale component, I would be obviously be posting a lot more. 

Part of the reason for having them all be separate though is that I run into this issue with my personal account where if people see me doing too many different things, they forget what I actually do for my job and I still notice that now too with the stores. 

In January, both of the shops (if you add them together) just broke even. In February they made a little bit of profit, but the profit that they made is like half of my day rate. So it's not something that I'm like, “Oh, I'm pivoting to a new career in retail.” It's definitely an add-on. 

And so part of having separate social media accounts is also to let most of the posting of the stores happen in a separate channel from my channel which is my primary work, which is being a for-hire lettering artist.

That was one of my questions to ask you actually! 

Now that you are adding these things and adding new books etc, how do you communicate all the things that you do have going on from your shops to your products, to your books, your fonts, your client work, your speaking, all of that? What's your approach to communicating all of that? 

I think it's nice to have different channels for the different things that you do and talk about.

Because of that, I wouldn't make my whole Instagram account be me sharing tips and tricks because that would instantly make people think that's what I'm doing for my career. I also wouldn't make posts on my main channel about speaking too much because people would be like, “Oh, that's what she's doing now.” 

So that’s why for my new kid's book, I made a separate Instagram account for it. I know I'm going to have to post about it, but I don't want it to take over my Instagram feed because I'm not posting that much about client stuff. I wish I could post constantly about client stuff, but a lot of my client stuff I don't have permission to post about right away, or there might be an official strategy for rolling it. 

I have a ton of followers on my main channel, so I will cross-post from the other one to be like, “Hey over here! There's this information about a thing!” because otherwise then I'm not actually accessing my full audience.

I’ve also been trying to re-enliven my newsletter because it's such a good direct way of talking to people and giving them a longer form story of what's going on because, as we know, algorithms are really unpredictable online! You just don't know what people are seeing. I’ve found that the algorithm tends to favour certain kinds of posts, and then it really changes the narrative about what people perceive me as. 

You can't trust the algorithm to portray you as you want to be portrayed. So splintering things off and having different channels can be really helpful for making sure that the narrative about who you are and what you do is true to what you're actually doing and interested in.

I love that approach, I think that’s smart and I think you're right about the email newsletters! I'm such an email newsletter nerd, and I think if you're not utilising it, you're missing out.

With the algorithm, you're just at their whims of what they show people. But with email newsletters, it's going directly to their inbox and they're 100% going to get it. It's up to them whether they open it. But you know for a fact that it's going to be delivered to their inbox, no matter what. 

There are different rules of engagement for every platform, and you have to ask yourself, how would you want to be engaged with?

I actually moved my email newsletter to a different platform because I was paying so much money for MailChimp and I really only send them out three or four times a year. And the reason why I don’t email all that often is simply because every now and then I'll join someone's Patreon and then I start getting weekly newsletters from these people, which immediately makes me feel like I want to unfollow them. It’s just too much communication. 

I want it to be a joy to hear from me, not a burden.

I don't want to bombard people. I feel that way about social media, I feel that way about newsletters, and I always try to keep that in mind whenever I'm posting or sharing.

YES! Such a good way to think about it… wanting to be a joy to hear from. I love that!

Okay, so my last question for you Jessica is the question that I ask everybody, which is - what is the biggest lesson that you have learned or piece of advice that you want to share with the audience about branding your passion?

I get really philosophical about this because when it comes to my feelings about your personal brand, I dive super deep into spiritual stuff where I just have no idea what happens at the end of this life. I mean… it'd be super cool if we all ended up in some happy place or whatever…

I know that if nothing happens, the only thing that you have is the impression that you've left in the world. If there's no way to live on because it doesn't exist, you will live on by the things that you've created and the things that you say about yourself or, post about yourself or create.

I think that's why I approach all this stuff trying to be as genuine and true to myself as possible – which, by the way, not everyone does that because they're able to really compartmentalise who they are from who their work is and they don't need those two things to be aligned all the time. And that's fine. It's a completely fine approach – But I think for me I do.

I think if someone was trying to get to know who I am as a person in the future, what evidence would they be looking at? I always want that evidence to be a reflection of my truth.

So I'm very curatorial about what gets said. My brand is like me. I want people to know me. If people unearth projects that I've made or things that I've written or posts that I've done, I want them to feel like they're getting a sense of who I really am.

You’ve got to do whatever feels the most true to yourself and what you want. If you're someone who wants to keep yourself to yourself, like you don’t want the world to know everything about you, then that's totally valid as well! But I just think of it as...

“If people meet me, does their expectation of me align with the real me?” I want it to, and that's how I approach it.

Such a great way to approach it. And I think that's the way, that when you get to whatever the end looks like, you'll be able to look back and feel comfortable and happy with how you did that. You won't feel any type of uncomfortable way about how you showed up. You'll feel like, “No, that was me. And that was GREAT!”

I’d love to add… I have three kids, who I feel know me very well. And I know that when they're older they'll probably be like, “What was mum like in her twenties and thirties?” and be looking at that. So I want it to be real. I don't want them to have to sift through it and look at it through a lens of “Oh she was doing this because she needed to get work” or “She was doing this because that's what people expected of her.”

I want my kids to always feel like they can be true to themselves.

It's also the ultimate self-defence mechanism too! You go out into the world and as long as you're true to yourself, if people don't like you, you're just like that's on you. That's who I am. Not everybody has to be friends.

Exactly! Wow, thank you so much, Jessica. This has been amazing. I have learned so much already about opening shops and the journey about it and your book and how you approach everything. Thank you so, so much.  I know everybody else listening is just going to learn so much, so I appreciate it massively!

Do you want to tell people what you have going on and where they can find you? 

You can find me on the Internet! If you look me up on Instagram, I'm @jessicahische on Instagram. In my bio there's a link to subscribe to my newsletter and all that kind of stuff.

Plus I have a new kid's book that's coming out in October 2024 called “My First Book of Fancy Letters” which is available for pre-order. I will love you forever if you do that. 

So that's my main thing and then I’m just plugging along with my normal client work, doing logos, doing film stuff, doing book covers too!

Amazing. So exciting. So many good things! Also, if you are in Oakland, you can visit both of the shops and see all of Jessica's amazing work.
So that's it. Thank you so much Jessica! 

Thank you for having me!

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March 27, 2024

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