“You know when your grandparents say, ‘I remember when TV’s were (in) black and white!’—I feel a bit like that when it comes to blogs.” Joy Cho began blogging in 2005 while working as a freelance graphic designer, originally as way to gather inspiration. She has since developed her platform into the design empire, Oh Joy!, collaborating with the likes of Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters, and most recently, Target. If you don’t follow her already, I highly recommend checking out her Instagram—she wins at social media. I spoke with Joy about how success breeds more responsibility, her advice on pitching to brands, and why running a business sets a good example for her daughters.
“When I started, blogs weren’t really a thing. It wasn’t until around 2007 or so that ‘bloggers’ became a term. Back then, if you did have a blog, that was your only real social media outlet. That was where everybody went to catch up on what you were doing, to read, to watch, to get inspired. Now there are so many other channels that people use to consume information, so it’s been interesting to witness that shift. If I were to start blogging now, I would approach it so differently. The landscape changes every two years or so, and you have to adjust the way you approach business. You have to constantly evolve with it, which at times can be overwhelming. The biggest tip I have around social media for small businesses is to start with a of couple of channels where your content really thrives, and invest your time in those. Unless you’re a large company with a team of people dedicated to social, it’s impossible to focus on all channels at once.
Social media means we now see everyone’s version of a reality show. It can help you feel like you’re connected to a person or a brand, but you’re not always seeing the whole picture. It’s the moments a person or brand chooses to show that dictates their version of their ‘reality show’. Particularly with video becoming a more popular tool, and how quickly we find out about everything, it can seem like success happens over night. But most people who have been building small businesses have been doing it a lot longer than people realize. Our teams are usually smaller than most people expect. It’s a ton of work and late hours. It’s not all the glamour that everybody sees. There is that fun stuff too, but people need to keep in mind that nothing just falls into your lap.
People who’ve achieved their dreams have most likely run after them. They’ve also experienced lots of challenges.
When you own your own business and something goes wrong, it’s hard not to take it home with you. I’m a very emotional, sensitive person so everything bothers me for a certain period of time, but over the years I’ve learned to not let things get to me as much. I need a moment to get upset about it, to process it, and then I’m able to move on. My husband is really good at reminding me that there are certain things that we have no control over. If it’s truly something you can’t do anything about, then there’s no benefit in getting worked up about it. If it’s something you can change, then you should take action, but if it’s something completely outside of your control, then you have to let it go.
I think that with growth and achievement comes a lot of responsibility. The more goals you tick off, the more goals you keep adding. If your company grows, you need more employees, you need more studio space—you have to be able to keep up with growth. The more people you have employed, the greater your responsibility becomes in terms of making sure your business continues to grow. It’s not all about just you anymore. People might think, ‘You’ve collaborated with big companies like Target—you must have reached all of your dreams.’ Those collaborations are obviously wonderful and have been big goals of mine, but at the same time I’m always thinking about what’s next and how we can do more.
If anything, my stress level just rises, but for reasons I’m very grateful for!
But by no means do you worry less as you grow. We’re looking for a new studio space now, and I want double the space which means double the rent. That’s super scary. But what I’ve learned from the last two times that I signed on for more space is that you end up being able to do more, your team flourishes, and you accomplish more. It pushes you to keep producing good work—it keeps the hustle going. Hustle is such a positive word for me, because it’s the notion that you’re continuing to move and grow for the sake of wanting to do more. But you also hustle because you have to in order to keep the business afloat.
Most of the big projects we’ve had—the large brand collaborations—we’ve pitched for. Pitching is about convincing a brand as to how you can bring value to them. You need to do your research, know what they’re about, and really think about whether you’re a good fit. I think a lot of people think they’re a good match for a brand collaboration because they want to be. But you have to take a step back—even asking somebody else who can give you an honest opinion as to whether they think the pairing makes sense. If the answer is yes, then you need to convince the brand why that is, and make sure that your aesthetic doesn’t conflict with anything else that they’re doing. A brand doesn’t need to work with someone if they’re already creating something similar themselves. You need to bring something new to the table which compliments what they already have going on without overlapping it. You then need to figure out who to contact, which usually involves a bit of e-mailing and calling around. Once you have that email address, I think it’s a good idea to get a sense of whether they’re interested first. If they are, I’d usually put together some sort of mockup of what my ideas are for that company, and include that in the pitch presentation I send over. The last major key is social media. You need to be able to say how you can help market a product (or whatever it is you’re doing) to potential readers or fans. These days, social media and your ability to market is super important. Even if a brand has millions of followers on social media, your following is still important, because it shows that you can reach a new audience. Those are the main pieces when it comes to pitching to a brand. If you can come to somebody with that information pretty early on, and give them a very clear picture, then you’re setting yourself up for a good conversation starter.
When I was working by myself, trying to grow and gain clients and pay my bills, I would say yes to work that I might not have done before but that I knew I could do. Something I’ve learned from that process is that you can’t be scared of saying yes to things that you don’t 100 percent know how to do. I know myself well enough to know that I will figure it out. When I come up with certain ideas that I’ve never done before or don’t have experience in, I decide that I’m going to make it happen somehow.
If you’re too worried about everything being just right or knowing exactly how to handle it, then you will never take on anything new.
No one is ever 100% prepared for every situation. I think you need to know how you respond to that kind of pressure—I don’t necessarily enjoy it, but I know I can handle it—and that’s been beneficial in the long run for both me and my business. It’s taken a long time, but I’m now at a point where I know the Oh Joy brand really well, and rarely question it. I know whether something is right or wrong in terms of when we’re designing, creating, shooting, all that stuff. One thing I’ve had to get better at is patience. A lot of things that we work on are sometimes a year in advance, and it’s hard to not share those exciting projects. That goes for everyday things too—I’ll have an idea for something, or want something to happen immediately, but there will often be obstacles or steps we need to take for that thing to come to fruition. Patience is something I will probably always struggle with!
I find that when it comes to finding your own voice or aesthetic, it’s about what you can do naturally and easily. There are a lot of design styles I like, but I don’t necessarily make them a part of my brand’s style because they’re not natural for me—like drawing a certain way, for example. I think defining your aesthetic comes with time, experience, and prior jobs—seeing what you enjoy and what you don’t enjoy. Every past job I’ve had, even when working for someone else, has helped me hone in on crafting my own style. When you get to the stage of starting a business or project, and have to create something on your own, that’s the big test. The first time I created and manufactured a product for my own brand (not for a company I was working for)—it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever designed. It was the first time that nobody was limiting me to what I could do. Now, having done multiple products, you start to see what works and also what sells. You have to find that middle ground between what you want to design and what people want to buy.
In terms of having a family while growing a business, I think there was a time where women had to choose one or the other. But things have changed—particularly because the internet allows you to reach customers and clients in ways you couldn’t prior. I think it’s a lot easier and more enjoyable now to have both a career and a family. It’s still hard and it’s going to be hard no matter what choice you make in that area of your life—whether self-employed, stay-at-home parent or going to a 9-5 office job. You need to figure out what makes sense for you and your family’s life. Most of my friends in LA have businesses and are parents as well, so there are various versions of how people make that work. Some keep normal office hours, and they create those hours based on what’s best for their family. When they’re at home, they’re at home, and when they’re at work, they’re at work. Some people prefer to work from home which makes their schedule more flexible for the kids. There are a ton of different iterations in between. As someone who is self-employed, I think we have the ability these days to create how we make all parts of our lives come together. When I had my first daughter, I transitioned back into work very slowly over the course of a year and a half. I started off part-time then gradually moved into full-time. I was working a ton of hours, and my part-time was really more like full-time as I had to catch up while she was sleeping. When my second baby came around, I had a much larger business, an office, several employees, and was finishing a book. Multiple things were happening, and within a couple of weeks after she was born, I had to ease back into work. Now I have set office hours to help structure my work day. Typically I’m in the office from 8:30am—4pm. I drop off my eldest daughter in the morning for school, come into work, then leave around 4pm to pick her up and get back home to my youngest daughter. It’s my choice to get home early so I have that time with the kids before dinner and bed, then I’ll work after they go to sleep. One day a week (which is my favorite), I work from home so I can spend some extra time with my youngest.
For anyone out there trying to navigate their own path in life—and this might sound obvious—but you need to trust your gut. Personally, there’s a feeling I get when I see something I want, or know when something’s right, like butterflies. There is no good time for change, and no perfect time for anything—starting a business, having a baby, moving. Most of us will never feel 100 percent financially secure, will never feel grown up enough to take care of a child before we have one—we’ll never feel 100 percent sure about those fears
You have to feel comfortable starting, even if all the little parts aren’t there, and know that you’ll figure the rest out.
It’s about trusting your instincts, and knowing that it’s OK to have those butterflies in your stomach. They keep you on your toes.”
Interviewed by Amy Woodside, September 2016