by Chris Horst
as originally posted at Christianity Today
Mica May, founder and CEO of May Designs, took in what she just heard. The stern instructions came to her from Tory Johnson, a regular contributor on ABC’s Good Morning America. She needed samples of May’s notebooks for a feature she was hosting on gift ideas.
At the time, May was a staff-of-one, a scrappy entrepreneur working from her home. Thrilled about this opportunity for increased publicity, she shipped off a few of her classic notebook designs.
But then the show aired.
When millions of viewers saw the May Designs notebooks on that Tuesday morning four years ago, her business exploded. In less than ten hours, more than 33,000 new customers ordered May Designs notebooks.
“I thought I was going to die,” May reflected about that crazy day. “I had no idea how I was going to do it. But I knew the customers were counting on me. I had their money and their trust, and I knew I could not let them down.”
May started recruiting staff, kept rolling out new products, and continued to answer phone calls. Over the next few years, May Designs showed up on The Today Show and inElle, People, Glamour, and“Oprah’s Favorite Things” in O Magazine.
Today, her growing company employs 11 people at their sleek headquarters in downtown Austin, Texas. Last year May Designs grossed $4 million and today is on the brink of expanding their product line from notebooks and stationery into fashion and homewares.
“I feel called by God to be an entrepreneur,” May said.
Waging War (on Ugly Stuff)
For May, the idea of creating just another lifestyle brand is uninspiring. For her company, the vision is nothing less than bringing joy to their customers, staff, and community.
“I want to delight our customers with incredible products they really believe in,” May said, “down to even the envelopes, emails, and packaging.”
May started her company because she was frustrated with the dearth of beauty in the notebook aisle. Her frustration extends beyond bland journals, though. She’s tired of the “throwaway shopping culture” in which consumers buy cheap stuff devoid of any enduring meaning or beauty.
“One of the most powerful sources of cultural fragmentation has grown out of the great successes of the Industrial Revolution,” wrote artist Mako Fujimura in his book Culture Care: Reconnecting Beauty to Common Life. “Modern people began to equate progress with efficiency. Despite valiant and ongoing resistance from many quarters—including industry—success for a large part of our culture is now judged by efficient production and mass consumption.”
Even the word consumer is provocative. Consumers are not investors in the items they own. No, for modern Americans, we just consume what we buy. Buy, (ab)use, trash, repeat. It’s amid this voracious shopping landscape that entrepreneurs like May aim to not just sell trendy products, but actually challenge the way men and women think about what they buy and own.
“Mica’s is a typology of entrepreneur that is underappreciated in our Silicon Valley world,” reflected Dave Blanchard, co-founder of Praxis. May Designs is a fellow in the Praxis business accelerator. “Instead of starting with millions in venture capital and plans to take over the world, she started simply with a product she loved that the market around her asked her to make more of.”
May and her team create enduring products that are well-made, priced for the masses, and fun to look at and use. And May infuses her values into her products, offering gratitude journals and meal journals to help drive her customers to imbue meaning in their daily routines.
“I created May Designs because I believe everyday moments should be more lovely,” May said. “Our culture says, ‘Have more, be more, do more.’ It’s a crazy consumption world. That’s what we’re battling as a company.”
May’s view of beauty comes not from a desire to grow a bigger business, but from her convictions about her Creator.
“Isn’t God the most ultimate creator?” May asked. “He wants to delight us. The sunsets, water, movement; I believe all of it has come from God. And God has equipped us to be artists. We’re co-creators with him.”
Paper in a Digital Age
In some ways, a company creating paper notepads is a bit of a modern conundrum. As the world increasingly gravitates digitally, May Designs stands athwart popular culture by encouraging their customers to work offline.
“I’m on my screens all day long,” May said. “But I process, learn, and remember more deeply when I write things down. It’s not as efficient, but in the digital world, we’ve lost something as we’ve moved away from pen and paper.”
While some technologists believe everything everywhere will move digital, there are reasons to believe pen-and-paper isn’t going away quickly.
In the book industry, for example, the number of brick-and-mortar bookstores has increased 21 percent in the United States over the last five years. While e-books are certainly not a fad, printed book sales have remained very resilient.
Similarly, in schools, many teachers and professors are now banning laptops from their classrooms, requiring students take notes by hand. These educators cite a number of recent studies illustrating how students writing their notes by hand learned more deeply and tested better than their digital note-taking peers.
“Like so many others in today’s overly wired society, [students] are perpetually distracted, never fully present,” wrote Stuart Green, a law professor at Rutgers University who recently outlawed laptops in his classroom.
As the world’s interactions increasingly move digital, a wave of educators and entrepreneurs challenge us to not miss the power of working offline. Christians understand the importance of the tactile. In the bread and wine of communion, the mud used in healing, the oil for anointing, and the waters of baptism, Jesus created extraordinary moments with ordinary elements. It's this same conviction undergirding the work of May Designs.
“When you’re interacting with something physical, it’s just a different experience,” she said.
Entrepreneur from Birth
The entrepreneurial itch started early for May. When she was six, she filled notebooks with drawings of dresses and other fashion concepts. At seven, she had launched her own handcrafted perfume business. By middle school, she was running an afterschool childcare center for kids in her apartment complex.
Over the last four years, May Designs has grown well beyond her home office. Today, May takes joy in creating opportunities for the 11 members of her team to use their gifts and abilities in her company.
“I feel like a mother hen,” May said. “These are my people, and I feel really protective of our environment, our finances, and our culture. It’s a huge responsibility.”
She loves the generosity her business success has enabled. Already, her company has given over $80,000 to schools and organizations committed to early childhood intervention for children with special needs like Rise School of Austin, where May’s son, Jackson, is a student.
Stepping into her calling as an entrepreneur and a Christian has not been without its challenges, though.
“It’s challenging,” May said. “When I became a Christian, I felt an internal struggle, because I felt like I should be an overseas missionary, but I didn’t feel at peace about it.”
May felt an often unspoken pressure from the Christian culture around her to pursue a different type of work—to join a nonprofit or go serve overseas. But over time, she began to understand the unique way she was wired was not an accident. She began to feel burdened to serve her neighbors through doing what God designed her to do—create beautiful things and delight her staff, customers, and community.
“This is my calling,” May said. “I can’t believe I’ve been given the opportunity to steward this business and the opportunity to create joy in people’s lives.”
Editor's Note: I first met Mica when she was a fellow at Praxis. If you don't know Praxis, it's an organization very much worth checking out as an accelerator and home for redemptive entrepreneurship. Check out this week's podcast for an interview with it's founder Dave Blanchard. HK