Sisters Denise Laborde and Mariana Picans launched their letterpress stationery studio Friendly Fire Paper in 2016. Though they live in different states, their products are designed, packaged, and shipped from their Connecticut studio, where Denise lives.

MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price spoke with the co-founders to learn more about their company and their experience as business owners and entrepreneurs.

NAN PRICE: When and why did you decide to start a business?

DENISE LABORDE: I’ve always worked in advertising or graphic design and I always wanted to start a project with Mariana because she’s very good at copywriting—even though she has a job outside of our business that isn’t copywriting related.

Five years ago, Mariana was taking a sabbatical and moving cities and I was moving from Washington, D.C. to Connecticut. I was ready to venture into entrepreneurship and business ownership, so I convinced her to do this with me.

NAN: Did either of you have any business training? Did you access any business resources or did you just jump in and learn as you go?

DENISE: We haven’t tapped into local resources for business support, but we are part of a national entrepreneur product-based business group. We joined early on, even before we started. So, we do have business support that way.

I was a freelance graphic artist for a long time, so I was familiar with that side of entrepreneurship, which is a whole different beast than what we do now. I also worked as a designer in the memory keeping industry. I was on the product creation side and I attended a lot of wholesale shows in the United States. That gave me a basis for how I wanted us to do this business.

Our model is wholesale, which is kind of backward. As we started the business, we learned that, ideally, you would start with retail, selling at markets and craft fairs and getting to know your audience. Instead, we dove right in directly to wholesale.

MARIANA PICANS: We’ve definitely been learning as we go.

There’s a basic question that’s a good litmus test: What is it that you do? The way you answer that question then informs how you see yourself. If I think about what we do at Friendly Fire, I think of myself as a copywriter and I think of Denise as a graphic designer and a designer.

If we answer the question, instead, as: We own a stationery company, then we’re stepping into an entrepreneurial role. That’s the side we’re both growing in and we’ve had to learn as we go. It’s that unsexy side of the business that isn’t the creative product creation side. It’s diving into profits and losses and looking at the business side of the business.

Now that we have this business and we know that we love what we do, how do we become business owners? That awareness only came through doing the parts we loved and realizing we were leaving the parts that we don’t love as much for later. We’re still figuring out that balance today.

Not every business owner or startup or creator has both skillsets. They may have a business partner who has the one strength and they have the other or they may need to strengthen one skillset over the other. Often Denise and I need to strengthen the business owner side more than the product development creative side.

NAN: How are you marketing and building clientele?

DENISE: The first year we had our product line we exhibited at a stationery show at the Javits Center in New York City and started making relationships with businesses there. Our first few years I also attended some craft fairs and events like that in Connecticut to get to know our direct-to-consumer audience.

Since then, we’ve based our efforts in being in stores rather than at in-person markets. A lot of that had to do with what I knew coming from the memory keeping industry and a lot had to do with the fact that I have a family with three young children and I didn’t envision spending many weekends at a market.

What the pandemic taught us was that it was good to have an online presence. More people were at home and on their computers, so we had a lot of eyes on our website, which increased that audience.

NAN: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in your business owner journey?

MARIANA: Don’t be offput by imposter syndrome portion and just dive into it because you’re going to figure it out along the way. And sometimes what you don’t know motivates you to learn. Being a good student is very important. So is staying open-minded. Don’t be put off by the things you don’t know, because if you really did know everything going in, a lot of people would quit before they started.

DENISE: My biggest lesson is to ask for help. It’s been so helpful for us to ask other business owners about things like minimum order quantities or whether or not we should be charging tax on a specific product.

You learn as you go and you have to have the courage to not know things. For us, it was good not to really know everything entailed. If you wait to know everything, you won’t get started. You can course correct. You can get mentorship. There’s always going to be someone two, five, 10 years ahead of you who can mentor you.

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Photo: Friendly Fire Paper Co-Founders Denise Laborde (left) and Mariana Picans (right). Photo courtesy Norman Oates.