by Natalie Walters on September 16, 2015
Karen Larkin worked for years in the secure world of corporate accounting before turning in her two weeks to pursue the creative, yet risky world of homemade goods – specifically, pillow covers.
“I bought $500 in fabric at the end of 2011,” Larkin said. “I wanted to take that order back right away. I thought, ‘Can I cancel that?'”
But Larkin didn’t cancel the order and a few days after putting her first pillow covers up for sale on Etsy , she had to place a second order for fabric. And so ElemenOPillows – now in the top 10 bestsellers for Home & Living on Etsy – was born.
Growing up with sewing
Larkin was just 7 years old when she first started creating clothing and home decor on her little pink sewing machine for a much smaller – literally – demographic: Barbies and baby dolls. "There’s a lot to be said for having a childhood of limited means, as mine was. It can make you into a very resourceful person.” Larkin said.
Karen first started sewing clothes for Barbie dolls at age 7 on this little pink sewing machine.
Leaving the corporate world for the first time
After graduating cum laude from The Ohio State University with an accounting degree, Larkin married her high school sweetheart, Chris, and entered into the corporate world of tall buildings, dress codes and unforgiving schedules. While she did enjoy the accounting work, Larkin longed for a more flexible and creative career.
This seed of an idea sat in her mind for years, but really blossomed after the birth of her three sons. Larkin said she related to Diane Keaton’s character J.C. Wiatt in the comedy film Baby Boom (1987) when Wiatt turns down a prestigious job as a management consultant to run a baby food business that allows her to spend more time with her adopted daughter and her love interest.
Larkin decided to trade in her heels for boots and cater to her local demographic – the freezing residents of Wisconsin (where she & her family were living at the time)– by selling handmade snowmen sweatshirts she had designed. She sold thousands of them. “They were kind of a big thing,” Larkin said. “Now, they're what we call ugly sweaters."
She enjoyed working with her hands and running her own business, but once her three children were grown, Larkin decided to return to accounting – but just for a short time.
Leaving the corporate world for good
Larkin only needed a year back in the rigid business world to be certain that she wanted to run her own business again. She was itching to use her sewing skills but had run out of home projects a few years earlier. So she decided to help others improve their own homes with interchangeable pillow covers made with beautiful fabrics. “I said, ‘Ok, I’m going to do something here. I’m going to take a risk,'” Larkin said.
That night Larkin picked out $500 in fabric online, clicked “complete order” and immediately regretted her purchase. “I panicked, and I said, ‘OK Karen, well you better make them sell!,” Larkin said. “So, I started selling them on Etsy. And I winged it every step of the way.”
Larkin said she really does mean that – that she winged everything.
The pillow covers started selling right away, and Larkin had to place a new order of fabric a few days later. In between late nights to finish the sewing, Wal-Mart runs to pick up envelopes and stickers and extra minutes spent writing handwritten notes for each of the orders, Larkin began to sketch out a logo and potential name.
One night when she was brainstorming name ideas, she thought back fondly on her days spent driving her youngest son, Jake, around Wisconsin to deliver snowmen sweatshirts after the first time she left the corporate world. One moment in particular made her laugh: Jake was contentedly singing the ABCs when he popped his thumb out of his mouth and said, “Mommy, whatsa elemeno anyways?”
“That night while brainstorming business names, I said to myself "ElemenOPillows"---that's it!”" Larkin said.
The employment situation
At the start, Larkin’s sole help came from her husband, Chris, who made and continues to make all of her postal runs, as well as lugging around hundreds of heavy bolts of fabric and cutting them into pieces that are easier for her to manage.
However, Larkin said she was still overwhelmed by the workload that came with the unexpected success of ElemenOPillows so she started asking her best friend from high school, Luann, to help her. Now Luann, also an empty nester, comes over every Monday for their “Funday Mondays” filled with work and laughter. And Larkin pays her.
In addition, one night Larkin was praying for a way to help her mom, Nancy, out financially and otherwise. The very next morning her mom called and said, “Can I help you sew?”
“I didn’t know you even knew HOW to sew!” Larkin said.
“Of course I do,” Nancy said.
“How soon can you be here?” Larkin said.
“I can be there in 10 minutes,” Nancy said.
Ever since then, Larkin has asked her mom to help every Thursday for a half day and, over the course of three years, her mom hasn't missed a single Thursday.
Larkin said this time spent with her best friend, her mom and a Spotify playlist is a blessing, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s time that I spend with her and my best friend that we would never spend together otherwise in such a busy world,” Larkin said. “We use it as therapy all around. . . there’s not a Monday Luann is here or a Thursday my mom is here that we don’t cover what seems like every topic under the sun, and we laugh and we cry and we celebrate almost every single time.”
Maintaining a 5-star small business
From one employee to three employees, from handwritten “I hope you love this” notes to printed “I hope you love this” notes, from Wal-Mart trips to buy envelopes and stamps to having U-Line automatically deliver packaging supplies every 6-8 weeks, from the kitchen counter to a converted home office, “ElemenO” has evolved and continues to evolve.
ElemenOPillows continues to receive almost unbelievably positive reviews that have led to over 6,000 almost exclusively 5-star reviews on her Etsy page.
While the reviews rave about five things – the fun variety, good quality, affordable prices, fast delivery and customer service – Larkin said she mainly attributes the reviews to that last one: customer service.
“I work my tail off for those reviews,” Larkin said. “I think most people probably see that and say, ‘She must alter or doctor those.’ I do not. I have no control over those except for giving my customers really great service and a really great product.”
Larkin said great customer service comes down to treating each customer how she would want to be treated, which includes receiving a high quality product that looks like the picture they see online.
Wait, President Obama used ElemenOPillows?
Yes. In fact, Larkin said that the lady who hosts President Obama and his family for their vacations to Hawaii placed one of the first orders to ElemenOPillows in late 2011.
The lady messaged Larkin and said, “I’m going to need my pillow cover really quickly.”
Larkin thought, ‘Who doesn’t need them quickly? Everyone says that.’
A few days later the lady emailed Larkin and said, “When I say quickly, I mean really quickly.”
Larkin replied back saying, “OK, I'm on it. I promise.”
The lady emailed her one last time to say, “I have a VIP coming to my home around Christmastime. I’m not supposed to tell you this, but the VIP is the president.”
Larkin quickly replied back saying, “Of course!” and stayed up half the night to get the 50-something pillow covers order out the door the next day.
Advice to her past self:
1. “Get some help early instead of spending all of those really, really late nights trying to get orders filled.”
2. “Set aside a work space early on.”
3. “Start sooner.”
Larkin said she especially needed that last piece of advice because she has found so much enjoyment in her work and hopes that other people will keep looking for the right career path if they aren’t happy on their current path.
“Every single thing has been wonderful about it,” Larkin said. “I literally have no complaints and that’s a really good thing to be able to say, isn’t it?”