Jen Bilik's company, Knock Knock, makes those truthful, funny little books and notepads you see at places like Urban Outfitters and museum gift shops across the country. Think of them as Post-It's with attitude. We have Bilik to thank for the "Hey Asshole" checklist pad, "the ideal gift for anyone who's ever been pissed at someone." We have her to thank for the fill-in-the-blanks Apology Nifty Note.
Sitting in the company's cheery Venice loft headquarters, an office of employees at her command, Bilik, 44, is proof that humor and an English major aren't always liabilities. They can, in fact, be assets.
In her 20s and 30s, the Berkeley native worked as an editor at coffee table book publisher Rizzoli in New York. She got "a phenomenal education in visuals" watching Rizzoli's graphic designers work. In her spare time, she'd play with the graphics software, designing invitations, holiday cards and posters for her friends. "You should sell these," was always the recipients' response.
But it wasn't until Bilik moved to Los Angeles in 1998 that she really started to make it happen. She drafted a business plan, sold her New York apartment and invested the $750,000 earnings in her fledgling company.
The name "Knock Knock" was an allusion to childhood and humor, and Bilik was intent on making sure it would be no widget factory cranking out one dull thing after another. She wanted funny, weird products that would live or die in the marketplace. She wanted a company defined more by sensibility than by a particular product type.
Knock Knock's debut line launched in June 2002, when Bilik was 32. There were 14 products - a handful of greeting cards and a clever Personal Library Kit, which the company still sells today. Over time, its list has expanded to include stuff like "Don't Stain My Table, Douchebag" doily coasters, a "Bathroom Guest Book" ("Who hasn't had a deep thought on the can?"), and a "Get Crap Done" pen ("Makes other pens look like real slackers").
Her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer when Bilik was in high school, which might be one reason that she's long been interested in "formats where we look like we're happy and having a great time, but there's actually a subtext to it. There's another story going on." Dysfunctional families and workplaces make rich fodder for Knock Knock's editorial team.
The products sell well. Knock Knock's have always been problems of success rather than of failure. Bilik initially was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of tasks to accomplish, by the infinite number of things that can and do go wrong: A manufacturer fails to ship. A business associate rips her off. An employee quits. "Just the constant drumbeat of acidy stress," she recalls. "It felt like getting socked in the stomach every day. This type of entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart."
But it has been worth it. There was nothing on the market like Knock Knock when it first started. The rise of mass retailers had resulted in a mass homogenization of products and a targeting of the lowest common denominator, Bilik explains. "It was pretty bland."
Few and far between were products that had "the courage to offend people." There had to be enough smart, irreverent people to support a small brand, she figured. More than a decade later, she knows she was right. "Now I feel like there's wit and voice everywhere you turn."
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