How Papa Llama is Mixing Old-fashioned Tools With Modern Marketing to Create a Colorful and Quirky Business

Today we meet Risa Iwasaki Culbertson, owner of the stationary line Papa Llama. Papa Llama is a 2-woman show out of San Francisco that creates greeting cards, wearables, art prints, stickers, and more, and does it the old-fashioned way—on a 1949 letterpress machine named Barbara. As an artist with an interest in business, Risa has to wear a variety of hats in the business, from creative to online tutorials to figuring out what sorts of organizational systems work best for her. What kind of challenges does an artist face when creating a business from their creativity? What advice does Risa have for those looking to follow in her footsteps? Let’s find out!

Hello! Perhaps you could introduce yourself?

Hello! I’m Risa Iwasaki Culbertson (Instagram: @risa_iwasaki_culbertson), owner of the stationery line, Papa Llama, illustrator, and multi-media artist in San Francisco, CA. We’re a 2-woman show here at Papa Llama and from start to finish, you can see my handy work in every single card. From copy to illustrations, my line is a personal manifestation of my love of connection through correspondence.

I’m lucky to call this my full-time job, but dividing my time with my art and illustration jobs can be a bit tricky at times. During my career, I really had to learn what it means to have a creative business and what I need to do to ensure I have healthy and sustainable habits for my creative self.

Ever since I was a kid I was making and sharing my art. I fell in love with small business and ended up getting a business degree! My first love was sewing, and I had my hand in a couple of other businesses with that until I found the love that got Papa Llama started… printmaking. Without knowing a single thing about printmaking or letterpress, I went on an adventure for more knowledge and found myself surrounded by an amazing community and beautiful, antique, and very heavy machinery. It was through printmaking that I found my strength as an illustrator and artist.

Tell us more about your business.

Papa Llama started off as a letterpress greeting card line where from start to finish we did everything in-house on our 1949 letterpress machine named Barbara. It all started with a linoleum block from the craft store, my mom’s woodworking tools from the ‘70s, and a friend’s over excessive use of the phrase, “Awesome Sauce” which inspired my first linocut design. Completely new to the whole process, I had interest from a local shop to carry my cards and it took off from there. A lot has changed since, but they’re still 100% designed by me and still made locally, with the help of my printer. Jill is my right-hand lady who keeps me on track and makes sure nothing slips through the cracks. I work with an amazing team of sales reps (who are much more extroverted than I am) who have become family to me during the 8 years I’ve been in business. Together, we’re a small but mighty team!

What are you working on at the moment? What are the future plans?

I’m currently working on illustrating a kid’s book, shopping some concepts for a new gallery show, and designing cards for the next season. It’s been fun stretching my creative muscles in this way and really speaks to my love of multi-media art.

My main goals are to make more art and bring it to more people in the hope of making someone smile. From tutorials on Creative Bug and my YouTube channel (@Risa Rainbow), bringing full color and strong illustrative style to Papa Llama, and creating whimsical art.

Papa Llama

What are your biggest challenges? What motivates you?

My main challenge would have to be juggling all aspects of the business while juggling the needs of all the things I offer under my creative umbrella. Sometimes, it can feel like jumping into turbulent waters and trying to sort out which way is up! It can get overwhelming and I use to get burnt out quite a bit before really tuning into what sorts of organizational systems work best for me (I’m a Virgo, I love lists!).

Papa Llama

What kind of marketing initiatives are the most effective for your business in terms of driving more sales?

For as introverted as I can be, I love the community interactions that come from having a business. My connections with retailers and customers are super playful and social media platforms like Instagram have made it really fun for me to “hang out” with everyone.

What is the best business advice you can share with others?

Starting a business can be really scary, even after planning and research. Once I took the leap I was really surprised how quickly I learned and adapted. There is a big element of trusting yourself and trusting that whatever comes your way, you will not only be able to get through it but you’ll come out with confidence from the lessons learned. They build upon themselves and those are things that may be hard to anticipate.

I always encourage my interns, who mostly come from art backgrounds, to take a business course. There are great resources from the Small Business Association and SCORE, as well as local organizations with great workshops. Take a business class, even if it sounds scary or boring. If you’re more business inclined, I recommend taking an art class! There is so much to learn from both of those worlds that can really help shift your perspective on how to problem solve and find inspiration.

Could you recommend any books, movies, podcasts, learning materials?

I love podcasts! There are so many good ones out there. I would recommend finding one that has to do with the field you’re interested in or are a part of. For me, in the stationery world, my go-to podcast is Proof to Product which has given me such good insight on challenges other people in my industry are facing as well as hearing a ton of inspiring stories.

Papa Llama

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Meet the people behind ecommerce businesses. Inspiring interviews, actionable advice, valuable viewpoints.