Backstory

Backstory: Chelleline crafting a company from handmade greeting cards

cjurney@newsobserver.comJuly 14, 2014 

Michelle Lin displays her cards in her home office. She hopes to expand her online sales.

CORINNE JURNEY — cjurney@newsobserver.com

  • Advice from Michelle Lin

    • Make a list of the positive comments you receive to keep from becoming discouraged when things get tough.

    • Building a small business while working a regular job or going to school is an ideal way to minimize risk while testing a company’s viability.

— Michelle Lin likes to work with her hands.

The former law school student, inspired by a blog about crafting greeting cards, founded Chelleline Cards, a Raleigh-based company that produces handmade greeting cards designed from bits of paper she cuts into shapes, assembles and glues together.

In summer 2007, while preparing to attend Fordham University School of Law in New York, Lin was itching to work with her hands again. She had made cards as a kid, so in her downtime she created four cards influenced by her childhood, including “Eat Dessert First” and “Little Red Riding Hood,” which are still sold today.

Encouraged by friends, Lin set up shop on Etsy.com, an online store that sells one-of-a-kind gifts, crafts and knickknacks made by artisans around the world. While in law school, she displayed her work at craft fairs and called New York retailers in an effort to get her products into stores.

“I would make cards whenever inspiration struck and list them on Etsy, and I participated in craft fairs because it was fun and got me away from the law school world,” Lin said.

In 2008, Brooklyn-based paper boutique Lion In The Sun started selling her cards, and other stores soon followed.

When she graduated from law school in 2011, Lin and her husband, Dmitry Gimon, moved to Montreal, a place where she wasn’t licensed to practice law. So she turned Chelleline Cards into a full-time venture.

By calling stores, showing shop owners her cards and using a sales representative, Lin got her cards into 20 stores across Canada, along with Accipiter in Raleigh’s Cameron Village and This & That Gift Gallery in Carrboro.

Lin made the cards completely by hand for four years. In 2011, she began using an automatic cutting machine that she now uses for most pieces. She continues to hand cut a few cards and still assembles most of them by hand. Those that feature calligraphy, which she learned while a student at Ligon Middle School, are printed.

“On Etsy, people call a lot of designs handmade but they’re really being printed and most of the handmade process is taken out of the equation,” Lin said.

In June 2011, Lin decided to expand the business with two new lines, one created by Gimon and another created by her mother, Emily, who had worked as an art teacher in Taiwan.

The postcard line, Chelleline Voyages, features Gimon’s photos of places that include Raleigh and Durham. Lin is in the process of expanding that line into places such as San Francisco and Chicago. Lin also hopes to use Gimon’s images on other products, such as calendars, mugs and magnets.

“I saw potential in their work and I wanted their talent to be recognized and appreciated,” Lin said.

In 2013, the couple moved to Cary and then to Raleigh, where Lin set up shop in a home office.

The business began to plateau in 2013, as Lin sold 3,000 postcards and 4,000 greeting cards, only a slight increase from her 2012 sales. She began following up on craft fair connections, calling stores and promoting her Etsy site. Ninety percent of the company’s revenue comes from brick-and-mortar retailers.

“We’re all trying to get the attention of the small, independent boutiques, because those tend to be the customers who are most interested in our work,” Lin said.

In February, Lin teamed up with friend and Paris-based designer Pauline Rousseau to start a fourth line of cards, Les Cartes de Pauline.

Lin’s products range from $1.50 to $6 and are sold online and in more than 40 stores in the U.S., Canada and Russia. She aims to have Chelleline cards, some of which have a Raleigh theme, carried in more stores in the Triangle, across the country and around the world. She is also working to establish a more consistent revenue stream from online sales.

But in the meantime, Lin continues to do what she loves – creating cards by hand.

“I know sometimes people pay more attention to the message inside but I hope they also appreciate and notice the artwork,” Lin said.

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