We had the good fortune of connecting with Janna Willoughby-Lohr and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Janna, we’d love to hear more about how you thought about starting your own business?
I always wanted to be an artist but I didn’t want to be a starving artist. When I went away to college, intending to major in creative writing, I ended up signing up for a slew of creative art and alternative art classes. I talked with my advisor at the end of my freshman year and said, “Here’s all the classes I took, what major am I working towards??” And he said, “Those are all electives…so…nothing.” Luckily, he also asked me what I wanted to do when I got out of college. I told him that I wanted to be an artist but I didn’t want to be broke. “How do I do THAT??” I asked him. “You should do that…as your major.” So I created my own Integrative Studies major combining entrepreneurial business and creative art, with a focus on paper and book arts.
I wanted to not only support myself by doing something that I loved, but I also wanted to make a difference in the world with my work. People definitely thought I was nuts, starting a stationery & book business right at the cusp of e-vites and the birth of social media, but I knew that a handwritten letter has the power to change someone’s life in the way that an email never could. You never know how a moment of feeling connected could be the moment that changes someone’s perspective on life, how a single moment, a single burst of connection can give someone the reason to keep going when they didn’t think they could. In the same way that a special letter can have a butterfly effect on someone’s life forever, I believe that a handcrafted custom gift can do even more. It can help people to grieve, to celebrate and to overcome hardship. It can help people communicate and connect in tangible ways when they otherwise don’t know what to say. That mission to connect people and affect positive change in the world is the reason behind starting my company.
My senior thesis project was to create a business plan, a website, a catalog and work samples.. So by the time I graduated in 2004, I had everything I needed to start my business. I did it as a fun side gig for 9 years before making it my official side-hustle and another 3 years before going full-time after my first son was born in 2015. My business has grown and evolved so much in the past 20 years but the underlying mission is still very present in everything we do. We make tangible miracles that help people feel connected to each other.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
In essence, I make magical things out of paper that make people happy. My main focuses are handmade paper and book arts but I also make a lot of paper flowers, plantable seed bombs in different shapes and other interactive art installations. Most paper artists focus on one area (papermaking, book arts, paper cutting or paper sculpture), but I love to combine all my areas of expertise into different projects that work together to create a bigger concept or idea.
I love making art that helps people to connect, either with themselves or with others, in tangible ways. Whether that is confronting some repressed trauma to bring it to the light and help to heal it, or to get people to start communicating about something where they previously didn’t have the words. Most of the work I have been doing for the last decade has been commercial work and custom projects for other businesses and clients, but my real art love is interactive gallery work.
When I make gallery work, I typically have some kind of underlying political or social issue that I am working to shed light on. For example, I made an interactive artist’s book that makes the viewer think about a woman being taken advantage of and left for dead, but in the end, it’s only about a shopping cart that has been tipped over and left on the side of the road. It gives the viewer a glimpse into their feelings about women being abused and the societal pressures to not get involved in other people’s business, but then snaps the viewer back into reality with the fact that they just got angry about an inanimate object. My hope, with work like this, is that every person who has experienced it will think about stepping in to help women in need whenever they see shopping carts tipped over. They’ve been tricked into rehumanizing their fellow humans.
Professionally, it has been a long winding road that started while I was in college. I created my own major to learn how to make money with art because all the art majors had no business classes and it is so common for artists to graduate with an art degree and to never be able to make a living with their art. I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do, but I knew that I wanted to use all my different creative outlets in my career. During my junior year, I experienced a series of traumatic events–first the sudden loss of my mother and then four months later (on her birthday), my dorm burned to the ground with all my stuff in it, while I was in it. Poof. That’s it. Nothing left. Seriously. And then they cut all my financial aid. I know…really. It was a banner year. I felt like someone was making a tragic movie about my life and I was waiting for the cancer and the bus that was coming to hit me.
After the fire, while struggling to cope with the loss of my mother (and the stress of inheriting her house that was falling apart 800 miles away) and the trauma of watching my whole life burn to the ground before my eyes, I was still trying to figure out how exactly I was going to make a living as an artist or if it was even possible. I started making artist’s books about my experiences to help myself to heal from all the trauma I was facing. And I began to share those books with my friends and professors and their reactions were really surprising to me. Sharing the books was more like “Show & Tell” because the form, the design, the materials, the words and the images all worked together to create a deeper conceptual experience of the story. I would “show” my stories to people and they would start crying and thanking me for helping to heal things they didn’t even know were broken…and that was my lightbulb moment. No matter what I did with my career, I wanted to do that forever…to affect change in the way that people experience the world. I decided to call my business Papercraft Miracles because it was the miracle that saved me when I literally had nothing.
After graduating, I spent several years doing custom orders and small commercial projects on the side while going out to perform poetry and music in the evenings and working my regular day-job as an assistant manager of a gas station during the day. To say I was living “that hustle life” was an understatement. I slept about 4 hours a night and said yes to everything that might help launch my creative career and was constantly exhausted. But I loved it. I loved wringing out every creative drop I had and then getting onto a stage and somehow wringing out more.
During that time, my older brother died suddenly from leukemia, I was still struggling to take care of the house I had inherited during college, a big creative project of mine totally blew up in my face and I was dealing with major heartbreak. I kept myself as busy as I could to avoid confronting any of this and was at the point of going out to buy new underwear because I didn’t have time to do laundry. Right at the peak point of all of this happening, I met my husband, Bryan aka Brrrn. He came in, pretty much as a stranger, and became this beacon of steady light, guiding me out of this very dark time where I was questioning everything I thought I knew about my life. Being an artist and a musician himself, he understood the dedication to creative outlets and we joined forces as this unstoppable team. We were married in 2011 and we have worked together to build a life that supports all of our creative dreams together. In 2013, we purchased a building that used to be a department store in the 1890s, specifically because it had the perfect space for me to build a papermaking studio like I had dreamed of in college, even though I didn’t have any equipment to put in it.
After I had my first son in 2015, I quit my day job to stay home with him and work on growing my company and two months later, I found someone selling an entire studio full of handmade papermaking equipment…talk about serendipity. I bought it all and my husband installed it and then I handed him our son, and said, “Take this baby! I’m going to make paper.” And that was where everything finally started coming together for my business.
In 2018, after the birth of my second son, I won a small business grant that allowed me to hire my first employee and I expanded my studio to include one of the storefront spaces in our building, in addition to the papermaking studio in the basement. That grant was really the springboard for all the successes I have had since then because it allowed me to focus on working ON my business, not just IN my business. In 2019, I was awarded 40 Under 40 for Stationery & Gifts from Stationery Trends magazine, solidifying my place in my industry.
When the pandemic started, I had mainly been doing custom projects for weddings and events and I fully expected my company to go under. But with the help of business coaching programs and virtual networking events, I was able to pivot the focus of my business back to its roots–helping people to connect when times are hard. During this time when so many people were separated from their friends and family, we offered a truly personal way for people to connect with each other in tangible ways, and my company actually grew…a lot. We tripled our revenue in 2020 and scored some pretty high-profile jobs including Twitter and Capital One. Also in 2020, I started a show called Reach the Stars Podcast. It is a collection of conversations with cool people who do cool things–inspiring stories of persistence, passion and purpose.
In mid-January 2021, I received a call from another company asking if it would be possible to create half a million of our plantable seed bombs in two months. I said, “Define possible.” You have to know that when I received that phone call, I only had two part-time assistants who each worked 10 hours a week, which was pretty good for a little work-at-home-mom business but was nowhere near the labor force I would need to complete this immense project. I somehow landed that job anyway and within a matter of a few weeks, I had expanded to our other storefront space, ordered all new equipment and materials and had brought on 70 temporary employees to work non-stop on making seed bombs from Feb-March. It was an exhausting marathon of work but was an amazing experience that I am so grateful to have had. We managed to complete it and shipped 500,000 handmade plantable seed bombs to be included in piñatas for Lowe’s Spring Garden Giveaway event. Knowing that I could scale up that quickly to take on a job of that magnitude gave me so much confidence that I am on the right track with my business.
Later in 2021, I was selected to appear on a crafting competition TV show called Meet Your Makers Showdown where I traveled to Hollywood to compete with the top 4 papercrafters in the US. The show is currently streaming on discovery+. Since then, I have been ultimately focused on training my staff to create more things, putting processes in place to make it easier to take on larger jobs and increasing brand awareness. Oh yeah, and I had another baby…so there’s that. I’ve gotten pretty good at juggling motherhood and entrepreneurship by this point but I’ve been working a little less and I’m back to having a playpen in my studio.
None of my journey has been easy, some of it has been downright heartbreaking, but when Monday morning comes around I wake up and say, “I GET to go to work today.” and to me, I’m living the dream.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
Buffalo, NY is famous for two things…snow and chicken wings. But there is so much more to my city than that. Our food is so stellar, way beyond wings (which are not called Buffalo wings here, they’re just wings and you better not put ranch on them. Blue cheese, baby. Blue cheese.), but our arts community is so vibrant as well and not a lot of people know that.
If someone were visiting here for a week in the summer, I would make sure they got some real Buffalo-style pizza from Imperial, take in some Shakespeare in the Park and then over to get a drink and hear live music at Nietzsche’s in Allentown.
A lot of improvement and revitalization has happened in Buffalo in the past 15 years, so much so, that even I cannot keep up with the hottest new spots for fancy dining and escape rooms, but there are some major staples that you just have to see here. The Albright Knox is a world-class art gallery, and while currently under reconstruction, even the shows they put together at their satellite locations are breathtaking. You would have to get some handcrafted kombucha on tap at Barrel & Brine on Chandler Street and maybe go throw some axes at Hatchets & Hops.
A day at the waterfront is definitely in order now that we finally got it together to develop it properly and all in one day you can do an outdoor yoga class, tour a submarine, ride a historic carousel and watch the sunset over the water.
A visit to Buffalo isn’t complete without a trip to Misuta Chows where you need to take a photo in the famous pink staircase and taking in a show at Sheas because that theater is simply a stunning piece of historical architecture.
Make sure to get in a walk around Delaware Park at Hoyt Lake and the Japanese Gardens, sushi from Sun Restaurant on Niagara and get a cocktail like “The Raven” at Revolution Gallery on Hertel (or a “Nevermore” if you are more a fan of mocktails).
You should go to the Pure Ink Poetry Slam while getting dinner at The Gypsy Parlor on Grant St and while you’re over there go buy some used books at Rust Belt Books.
Since it would kind of be sacrilege to visit Western New York and not go see Niagara Falls, definitely plan a day to do that cause it’s cool and bring spare clothes and make sure to go through the Cave of the Winds because it’s worth getting wet.
Tifft Farms is a great easy outdoor adventure but make sure you get down to Chestnut Ridge and do the hike down to the Eternal Flame. It’s super cool and you can’t see something like that just anywhere.
And go get Wet Shoes at Amy’s Place. You won’t regret it.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
My husband. Hands down. I couldn’t be living the life I have now without his love and support for what I do, without him being the amazing partner and father that he is. I owe it all to him.
Other: Contact us at email@example.com or call 855-4PAPER5 (855-472-4375)
Ing Photography, City Lights Photography, Papercraft Miracles