In our brand spotlight, we feature Abound brands who are ready for retail. This week we sat down with PJ McQuade, owner of Castle McQuade. Castle McQuade sells pop culture inspired greetings cards, stickers, magnets, and prints, is based in Brooklyn, New York, and has been in business for nine years.
Robin: Why did you decide to start Castle McQuade? Why this business and not a different one?
PJ: Well, I always had a love and talent for drawing and creating art, so early on in my life I committed to making a living as an artist. It wasn’t easy, I had lots of other odd jobs early on, a bike messenger, waiter, bartender, I worked for a moving company, I was in stage production for a while.
But I chipped away, started promoting myself to art directors, and eventually started getting work as a freelance illustrator for magazines, newspapers, websites and advertising. I did that pretty steadily for about 5 years, still do here and there, but in the midst of that I opened an online store through Etsy and that really took off after a while, so I went all in a few years back.
R: How did you make your first prototype? What changes have you made to your product since then?
PJ: Back in 2010, I opened my Etsy shop, Castle McQuade, and started selling prints of some artwork I had made. Later that year at Christmas, I made a card for family and friends of a tauntaun (the Star Wars creature that Han and Luke ride in the beginning of Empire Strikes Back) holding out its tongue trying to catch a snowflake.
I had a couple dozen printed up, and I had some extras, so I made them available through my shop and they sold out pretty quickly. It got me thinking. So I started making more and more types of cards. Now I have around 100 in total, of all different types, as well as prints, fridge magnets and stickers.
R: How do you make your product? What’s your process like?
PJ: It all starts with an idea and the artwork. I illustrate and design everything myself. I create them by using a combination of traditional mediums (pencil, ink) and digital for additional line work. I go back and forth. For color, I’ve been using an Ipad and Procreate since last summer, I love it. I’ll then complete the design work, the fonts, and bring it all together using Photoshop.
I print all my cards through Over Night Prints. Great company, and made in the USA! I print my stickers and magnets on custom sheets, then hand cut everything myself. I’m fast, can cut a couple hundred stickers during the course of a baseball game, or watching bad tv. My wife helps out during the holiday season, and I’ll hire some help here and there to help fill orders when things get really busy.
R: What type of art background do you have?
Like most artists, I started super early, and was always always drawing. I had really bad eyesight growing up, everything five feet away was really blurry, great near sight though. I managed to somehow hide this fact until 7th grade. I cheated on the elementary school eye tests, memorized the eye chart, sat in the front row in school, I did not want glasses! (Side note: I wear them all the time now, lol.)
So, therefore, my sanctuary became some drawing paper, a pencil, and my imagination. I drew and drew and drew, mostly dinosaurs, and avoided making eye contact with a blurry world. I come from a pretty blue collar background, my Dad was a cop and my Mom was a teacher. They were very supportive, saw that I had talent, very encouraging.
As for formal education, I went to Syracuse University, which has a really great arts program. I learned some good stuff there, but I was unfocused in a sense. I was just restless for the world beyond college. Life is definitely super tumultuous for everybody at that age. Full of emotion, distraction, and “finding yourself,” but it’s true.
It was really tough for me to buckle down for a bunch of reasons. I’d say my main education came afterwards, when I settled down a bit, just grinding away on my own, always creating, making mistakes, but constantly trying to level up, and figure things out.
After many ups and downs and odd jobs, things started to click for me professionally in my early 30s. I was always creating art through my 20s in various ways – comics, abstract expressionism, music, performance, graffiti – but the business side of art is its own animal, one that is scary and tough to figure out, so many questions and doubts.
Formal education is a start, but ultimately, you have to think of art as a lifelong pursuit. So dig in the long haul, don’t burn out, realize that it takes time. It’s up to you to motivate yourself no matter what, to take the steps, to keep learning. Heck, I’m still learning!
R: How do you get your design ideas?
Well, it starts with a deep love for weird geeky pop culture – fantasy, sci-fi, monsters – mostly from when I was a kid in the 80s and 90s, but some things are more current. I stay away from stuff that I’m just lukewarm towards. There’s gotta be personal connection, that’s what makes it all work, helps me really get into the material, create something extra special.
Design wise, I’ll just start working on something, and after much tweaking, the card will start to reveal itself over time. I’ll start by creating what I hope is an eye-catching front image, then work on the inside to create a surprise double whammy effect, so when someone opens it, there’s a special moment. Me imagining that moment is a great motivator.
R: Do you have a favorite piece of artwork in your shop?
I think perhaps my Pennywise from IT Christmas card is pretty good, it gets a great reaction when opened. And my Cast Away Christmas card, just because it’s so random. Oh, and my JAWS Xmas card is a fav too, I like Xmas cards that have a slightly darker humor holiday message. To me, they’re fun! “This Holiday, Swallow You Whole.”
R: What’s your day to day like? Do you have any favorite and least favorite parts?
PJ: I start the day checking the shop, see what orders have come in, do a little housekeeping with that, fill some orders, then I’ll switch to working on whatever creative project I got going on for the rest of the day.
Besides this shop centric artwork, I am working on/developing this whole other side to my portfolio. A couple children’s books and an original, fantastical world. Kind of a Looney Tunes meets The Lord of the Rings meets The Royal Tenenbaums vibe. I’ve been working on it for ages, experimenting on the look of it when I can. I still haven’t nailed it. I have drawers full of stuff. I see it in my head, it’s been a lifelong vision.
One year down the road it’ll come to fruition, I’m just chipping away when I can. My favorite part is creating the artwork, the whole process of it all, seeing something come together is a thrill, and I also love when orders come in!
R: What was your initial investment? How did you get the money?
PJ: Getting a large format quality printer was key. I have a Canon Pro9000 Mark II. Prints 13×19” and holds 8 ink cartridges. I got it for around $250 on Ebay, so it wasn’t a huge investment. I went over to my friend Aaron Meshon’s apartment (he’s an amazing illustrator who I met at a seminar at the Society of Illustrators, he was a keynote speaker, and is now a Gold Medal Winner!) and saw his printer, and the prints he was making, and was floored!
The printer, combined with really good art Fine Art Rag 300 gsm, creates just gorgeous, gallery grade cards. Through the printer I was also able to start printing top notch quality stickers and magnets, which was key to my shop’s success.
R: Where was the first place you sold your product?
PJ: Online, through my Etsy shop, Castle McQuade. Storewise, it was Papel New York on Court Street in Cobble Hill Brooklyn, a card shop I lived near in 2012. I showed the owner a variety of cards, and she bought a few and they were a hit. I sold her bunch of cards and stickers/magnets several times a year after that.
R: Where do you sell your product now?
PJ: A bunch of great independent shops throughout the country, and around the world in fact. I’ve sold wholesale to stores in Canada, the UK, and Australia. And online of course through my store on Etsy and I’m opening another shop separate from Etsy this fall.
R: Where would you love to sell your products in the future?
PJ: Your store! Anywhere they’d be welcome, so get in touch.
R: What’s your marketing like? Is social media an important part of Castle McQuade? If so, how?
PJ: When I finish creating a series of cards and items, I’ll promote them to various like-minded pop culture blogs on the web. I keep a folder during the year, then when the time is right, I’ll send out a brief press release with a link to my shop and a few images.
I started seeing a dramatic increase in traffic to my shop and sales when sites ran a post on my work, here in the states and all over the world. I realized that in this day and age, you can have such a large global audience at your fingertips, it’s kinda amazing the reach one can have. I sold a Valentine’s Day card this past year to a lady on the island of Réunion, that’s off the coast of Madagascar, which is off the coast of Africa!
Social media is, of course, super important. I post semi regularly throughout the year, a mix of process pics and promotion with some personal stuff mixed in, but will ramp up around the Christmas Holidays and Valentine’s Day.
I also started doing paid advertising with a really modest daily budget on Instagram and Facebook to much success. People like/share my posts, and it’s a great multiplier, a little snowball can turn into a giant avalanche of shop traffic eventually with a steady push.
R: What are some of the most frustrating challenges and/or moments you’ve had with Castle McQuade?
PJ: Balancing the business of running my shop, and making artwork. These are two totally different hats but being comfortable wearing both is essential to making it.
R: What are some of your greatest achievements and victories you’ve had with Castle McQuade?
PJ: I get a ton of repeat business, and Castle McQuade has a 5 (out of 5) star rating after over 10,000 reviews. I have customers who have bought from my shop constantly many times over dating back to when I first started in 2010.
I love reading the reviews about how a customer was so excited to get one of my cards to give someone they knew, how they knew that person would love it, and hearing about that friend’s excited reaction, it’s awesome. Some people say my cards are better than the gifts they got!
R: What advice do you have for people who want to sell a product?
PJ: Make something a small group of people will love, over something a large group of people will like.* Then promote the dickens out of it online.
* Though there are plenty of insanely successful products out there to the contrary, lol.
Be amazing at customer service. Be on the ball!
R: Is there any business advice or quotes you’ve heard that you think about often?
PJ: You’ve got to steal time. When I was just starting out, even before I was making money making art, I worked for a moving company. One job, we were moving this writer, John Reed, he’s written a bunch of great books, look him up!
We packed up his place, and were waiting around at a coffee shop near his new place for the moving truck to arrive and I asked him about his creative process, how he found the time to get things done, and he said you’ve got to “steal time.” Brilliant.
Meaning, rarely does life give you uninterrupted chunks of time to get what you want to get done, done. It happens sometimes, but you know what I mean. You have to find those moments, that 20 min in-between all the ruckus, the good and bad that life throws at you, to distract you, and focus, get stuff done, even if its one or two things. Add up those 20 mins over the course of a year, a lifetime, and it’s a lot.
R: What’s your favorite thing about being a business owner?
PJ: When I worked as a freelance illustrator, there was a feast or famine reality to the situation. Either I was too busy, juggling 5 jobs at once or nothing, there wasn’t enough work. I was at the mercy of getting hired all the time by art directors, waiting for an email, a job offer.
Creating this shop has allowed to me to have more control over my own destiny, be proactive. I call the shots, make the deadlines. It’s fantastic. Not without downsides, you’re never really not working. It’s all on you, all the time. But there’s a great freedom to it all and I love it.