I would inspire a movement of interconnections. When people see how their lives are directly affected by the action or inaction of others and vice versa, I believe that there is hope for a better world. Our society has developed a “not my problem” attitude. In the words of Denis Leary, “I didn’t break it, it was this way when I found it.” Whether this relates to caring for the environment, improving social programs to lift up those in poverty or directly combating racism and white supremacy, the vast majority of our world chooses to stand back and watch instead of taking action.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Janna Willoughby-Lohr, of Papercraft Miracles. While in college in 2003, Janna came up with the idea of a business that made handmade paper and books that ALSO made people feel special. This was around the time that social media and e-books became popular, and much of the world started going online. Many people told her she was completely insane to start a stationery business at that time. They told her “Everything is moving online!” and “Everything is gonna be on LiveJournal!” (Actual quote from a nay-sayer). But Janna knew that her dream was real. She knew that the tactile feeling of the written word has an impact on the reader. She knew that messages conveyed with the physical act of writing letters and journaling would never go away. Somehow, she knew that people would come back to the paper and pen, but in a much more meaningful way. Now that the world has adopted online connection, people are figurately (and maybe even literally) starving for ways to connect physically. Janna believes that people need this type of connection to thrive, and that’s why Papercraft Miracles has been so successful in creating meaningful paper gifts (that are also biodegradable and made from truly sustainable products).
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit better. Can you tell us your ‘backstory’?
I always knew that I wanted to make art, but I didn’t want to be a starving artist, so I created my own major in college bringing business and art together. It was during that time that I learned to make paper and books, and I came up with the idea for my company. It was hard to jump right out of college into being a full-time artist, even though I was technically prepared to do it. The renaissance in Buffalo wasn’t quite happening yet and I didn’t have the social connections to really make it work. I ended up working as an assistant manager at a gas station for 5 years, then working as a photo editor for an online jewelry company for 5 more years after that, and just making and selling art in my free time. It did feel, at times, like I would never actually get to the point where I could do what I love full-time, but I kept at it anyway.
And though it felt like I was wasting my time doing something that wasn’t my passion, I learned a lot about running a business during those 10 years that I wouldn’t have learned if I didn’t spend them helping run someone else’s business. I learned about management at the gas station, running reports, doing inventory, managing employees and such. At the jewelry company, I learned how to take and edit photos to sell products online and that experience has proved very valuable in creating a successful business for myself. So, you never know what you might be learning today that could help you in the future.
The most prolific time in my life for learning to create through struggle came while I was a junior at Warren Wilson College. My mom died on Friday the 13th and then 4 months later (on what would have been her 55th birthday) my dorm burnt to the ground with all of my stuff in it. Poof! Toast! Everything. Yes. Everything. I lost all of my journals from my whole life, all of my artwork and supplies, and everything my mom had given me in the last 5 years of her life. And then they cut my financial aid because I couldn’t put my mom on the FAFSA. Almost overnight I went from being a carefree kid to a totally unprepared adult. I had inherited a house that needed a ton of work that I couldn’t afford, and I had a year and a half left of school that I couldn’t afford. I kept thinking…where’s the cancer and the bus that’s coming to hit me…cause I’m ready.
Three days after the fire, I was sitting with my roommate and I just looked at her and said, “Dude…all our s**t burnt up.” And we immediately started laughing, like that roll on the ground because life is so effing absurd kind of laughing. It was all funny. It had to be funny or I was not going to survive. The next day I began to create again. My whole life I had kept journals and written poetry and made art to try to capture who I was inside. When all of it was gone, I suddenly realized that I had no idea who I was, and I had to start over again. I had always been afraid of losing my things and after it actually happened, I saw that it was the most freeing thing to get a chance to create a whole new life for myself from scratch. It was right after that when I really started to focus on creating my business because I knew that life was short, and I didn’t want to end up like my mom who loved to create but never found a way to make a living doing what she loved. That’s why I picked the name Papercraft Miracles. This business saved me when I literally had nothing. It is and has always been my miracle; the sparkle in the darkness. I create because I can, because I’m able. Not because anyone is going to make me.
I somehow managed to continue school and keep my house from falling down and I graduated on time with a 3.94 GPA. No clue how I did any of that. The whole time was a blur. After graduation, I bought a small papermaking kit and a big cutting mat from Michael’s Arts & Crafts, set up a table in my attic bedroom and got to work creating some inventory. I knew the basics of starting a business, but I really wasn’t prepared yet. I also still had a house that needed lots of work that I couldn’t afford, and I ended up taking the job at the gas station because I really needed steady paychecks and health insurance. I worked my crappy job with a smile, all while wearing a button on my uniform that said, “Damn straight I’m a college grad. Paper or plastic?” I got promoted quickly and got good enough at my job to negotiate a schedule that would allow me to have my evenings free to do poetry readings and play music out around town and I slowly built up my social network.
The more places I went, the more people I met, the more people I told about my little business making books, the more doubt I heard from people. I even had a guy working the counter at Barnes & Noble question why I was buying a copy of the unabridged version of the Oxford English Dictionary. “Why would you buy a dictionary? Don’t you have the internet?” From the guy WORKING at the bookstore. I told him, “You can’t just flip the pages of the internet looking for words. You have to know what you want to look up.” He stared at me. “And when the world ends, I can burn this s**t to stay warm.” He stared at me some more. But I was not deterred. I kept telling more people about my dream of making paper and books that make people happy.
I started having friends old enough to get married and have kids, so I started making their guest books and invitations as my gifts to them because I was too broke to buy stuff off their registries and I knew I could make something they wouldn’t forget. And it worked. People at their weddings saw the things that I had made, and word started getting around that I was creating some cool stuff.
I had a friend offer to help me open up a venue for poetry, music, and art, and I jumped at the chance. We named it Bon Vivant (loosely translated as an appreciation for the good things in life). I was in business! I now had a place to foster creation in my community and I was so excited! I worked so many late nights getting it ready and setting up events and the creativity was just pouring out of my veins. We opened on the first day of the Infringement Festival 2008 and we were booked solid for months.
At the same time, I had an offer to become a teaching-artist and to teach poetry to middle school kids. I had a problem with saying no to opportunities, so I stretched myself very thin. I was never home and hardly ever got more than 4 hours of sleep. Right in the middle of all of that, my brother was diagnosed with leukemia. He found out on a Friday, started treatment on Monday. By Wednesday he was in a medically induced coma because he couldn’t breathe without a ventilator. I was already beyond overscheduled and all of a sudden, I was spending every free second I had in the waiting room at Roswell waiting to see if he would come out of his coma. And then the city zoning board shut my venue down. You know the cancer and the bus coming to hit me I talked about earlier? It was here.
Two weeks later, my brother died. Feeling really lost and searching for something distracting I retreated to the darkness and spent my free time on MySpace, listening to music by people I knew. An IM pops up from Bryan Lohr, the man that had provided furniture for my arts venue. “Hey, how are you?” I unloaded, “I’m not good. My brother died last week. Not sure what to do now.” He wrote back, “I just got laid off, so I have lots of free time if you want to hang out.” So, we made plans to play Scrabble. Within a few weeks we were creating plans for our future. When I told him about my paper and book business and he said, “That’s cool.” No judging. No pessimism about the digital future. Just support. And he’s believed in me ever since.
In the next decade, we joined a band together, I got a new job at the jewelry company, we got married, sold my house and bought a different building. This new one had space for us to live, a room to play music together, space for each of us to have a studio and a space for me to make paper for real. We had our first son in 2015 and shortly after that I quit my jobby-job to run Papercraft Miracles full time and stay home with our kids. We now have two little boys and my studio has grown into a 2-story solar-powered workshop with a fully functional papermaking studio in the basement. All because we took a chance on creating something. We trusted that we could create a life together that would allow both of us to keep creating successfully. We’re 10 years into our 15-year plan and things are moving right along in that direction. The goal is to get to the point where he can quit his jobby-job too, so he can also pursue art full-time.
Quitting my job to stay home with my kids and run my own business was simultaneously the easiest decision and the hardest transition I’ve ever had to make though. I had to adjust my perspective on my business which had always been my fun side-gig where if I made money, cool. If not, I made art and that was also cool. Now it was my career and I had to get serious about it. But I kept creating, I kept asking for help. I kept telling people about my dream. And here we are, 2.5 years later, and people are finally starting to see that I wasn’t crazy to want to make paper all those years ago. I was just ahead of my time…seeing the future? Maybe. Believing in myself. Fo’ sho.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes! I just started a new podcast called “Reach the Stars Podcast.” It is a collection of conversations with cool people who do cool things. Each week we’ll bring inspiring stories of persistence, passion and purpose. I have dreamed of having a show of my own for years and because of my lack of connection during the pandemic, I knew that now was the right time to dive in. I know that my own story of overcoming tragedy and continuing to pursue what I love in the face of struggle has helped to inspire others over the years. I also know that one of my biggest assets in my life are the amazing people I know and love. I find so much inspiration in sharing stories with other people and this show is my way of spreading that excitement on a wider scale. As I say in the trailer for the show: “A single interaction has the power to change your life forever. This is a place for the stories of those moments — stories of pursuing dreams, of overcoming tragedy and failure, of coming back to life after so much of what feels like dying, of continuing on with only a vision as a map. This is the place where those moments live on. Come sit by the fire. Look up at the stars…and be forever changed too.” Check it out at www.papercraftmiracles.com/reachthestarspodcast (and on all major podcast platforms).
In your opinion, what do you think makes your company or organization stand out from the crowd?
Papercraft Miracles was founded on my love of connecting with people and sharing stories, and making those stories come to life in tangible ways. Our ability to create handmade paper art that conveys a sentiment that is often so hard to capture is what makes us different. We make meaningful and unique gifts that make a moment unforgettable.
Ok, thank you for that. I’d like to jump to the main focus of this interview. Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us? What was your idea? What was the reaction of the naysayers? And how did you overcome that?
There’s something about handling paper that sends me to the moon and brings me back to earth at the same time. In the 18 years since I came up with the idea to start a business making paper and books that make people happy, I have heard a whole lot of “That is CRAZY!” from a whole lot of people. When I first started out, social media didn’t yet exist and neither did e-commerce, but the world was becoming more and more digital every day. I told people that I wanted to make handmade stationery and journals and my classmates said, “Psssh! No one is going to write in a paper book again! Everyone is going to be on LiveJournal!” And that was the trend for several years as the world of e-vites and e-books came to life. But I just kept on working toward my dream of having this company because I knew that the physicality of writing on paper had a different feel than typing on a screen. I knew that there was nothing that could take the place of that feeling. As the world of social media and smartphones exploded a few years later, I noticed people becoming more and more disconnected from each other. And with this separation came a deep sadness and a constant need to boost our moods with “likes” and intangible attempts at connection. It didn’t happen all at once, but at some point, around 2016, people started to trend back towards appreciation of physical connection. It started to be “cool” to have a unique planner or a journal in your bag. People started to realize how special a real handwritten letter can make you feel when it shows up in your mailbox when so much of their communication was so impersonal. And then the world of weddings took a giant swing back towards fancy paper invitations instead of e-vites. And here I was, still promoting the power of paper to change people’s perspectives on life just like I had quietly been doing for years. None of the negative things anyone ever said to me about creating a business making paper and books ever deterred me from my passion. I knew that nothing could replace the way handling paper makes me feel.
In the end, how were all the naysayers proven wrong? 🙂
LiveJournal is history and I’m still making paper, and I will keep doing this work for the rest of my life. Connecting people is going to get more and more important as the effects of our lifestyles on the earth keep pushing people apart.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I couldn’t be where I am right now without my husband, Bryan. He integrated my dream into our reality and has always been supportive of me pursuing my passions. We purchased a building that used to be a department store in the 1890s. We converted part of the building into my storefront and papermaking studio and we live above it with our two boys. Whether it was flying to Indiana and driving a truck back full of equipment I bought or putting our kids to bed alone night after night while I am working on growing this business, he’s been there for me. I can’t lie and say it’s all been easy on him or on our relationship, but he knew from day one how important it was to me to share my love of creating with the world. I am so grateful that he agreed to come along for the ride.
It must not have been easy to ignore all the naysayers. Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share the story with us?
My childhood was really different from a lot of people’s experiences because my parents were still married to other people when I was born. A situation that could have been disastrous for me, turned out to be an extraordinary way to grow up. Shortly after I was born, both my biological parents got divorced but didn’t get together with each other. My mother’s husband signed his name on my birth certificate and legally became my father anyway. Two years later, my birth father got remarried and he and his wife came back into my life. I had five parents throughout my life, all of whom had been divorced at least once, so I got to learn so much about just how different people can be. Not to mention that I lived with three separate families throughout the course of a week. Monday through Friday with my mom and my older brother, Friday night and Saturday with my legal dad and his family, and Saturday night and Sunday with my biological father and his family. I grew up with seven brothers and sisters but I’m technically an only child and somehow, I ended up being the oldest at one house, the middle child at another and the baby at the other. All of these experiences, living, learning and growing with so many different people, has essentially given me three lives in one. I learned how to adapt to changing situations, how to make a place for myself and also how to be really independent. I have always been the link that ties all of my families together, kind of like a lone traveler going between separate worlds.
Based on your experience, can you share 5 strategies that people can use to harness the sense of tenacity and do what naysayers think is impossible? (Please share a story or an example for each)
First, would definitely be something that my mom told me when I was being bullied at school by kids who were making up stories about me. She told me to remember that people are entitled to their own opinions, but they’re also entitled to be wrong. As long as you believe in your dream and you know what you’re doing is right, it doesn’t matter what anyone else says.
Second, remember why you want to do the impossible in the first place. Is it to help people solve problems? To fix something that desperately needs fixing that no one else seems to be able to fix? Keep your focus on the reasons you do what you do, and the naysayers will just fade into the background. Every single thing that has ever been accomplished in human history started as something that someone said was impossible. And now look, we fly around on airplanes with tiny computers in our pockets every day.
Third, there are plenty of people who will consistently find reasons that something won’t work without putting any effort into figuring out how it could work. People who aren’t willing to do the work aren’t worth your time or energy. As they say on one of my favorite podcasts, Being Boss, “Do the work!” and you’ll be the one on top. Focus that energy on finding ways that things can work and filtering out all the rest. Negativity is even more contagious than positivity and it can be hard not to get sucked into the downward spiral of it. Surround yourself with other “possible people” — others who believe, who have goals and want more out of this life. They will boost your mood, help you brainstorm, and will buy you a drink when the haters get you down.
Fourth, being a female entrepreneur inherently comes with a lot of naysaying, especially from men. I have repeatedly had male business owners tell me that it isn’t possible to make a profit in my business, but the only years I didn’t make a profit are the years I invested my earnings back into my business, so it could grow without taking loans or selling off pieces of my company in exchange for financing. In the face of this kind of blatant discrimination and stereotyping of my abilities, I simply prove them the hell wrong. When they say I’ll never make a profit, I tell them I already did at 22.
Fifth, and probably most importantly, be your own biggest fan. If you don’t wholeheartedly believe that what you’re working towards is possible, then no one else will either. Make vision boards with everything that you are working to achieve and hang them where you can see them every day. Tape little notes on your bathroom mirror that say, “YOU’RE KILLIN’ IT!” Be consistent about praising yourself and your accomplishments to yourself and also to others. It is strange that in our society, men are praised for being confident but for women, it’s a detriment. But I say, buck that trend, and be proud of what you’re doing. Your excitement will be infectious and other people will happily jump on board once they get a taste of what confidence feels like. Tell yourself (and everyone else, for that matter), “I’m not conceited. I’m convinced.” It makes all the difference in the world.
And always remember, “Haters gonna hate. Potaters gonna potate.” Laughing at them is way more fun than crying.
What is your favorite quote or personal philosophy that relates to the concept of resilience?
I know that my love for creating comes from my mother. She was such a creative person. But my drive to work hard and push myself also comes from her influence. I remember on the first day of kindergarten, they wanted me to color in a dinosaur. By this point, I was already writing poems and learning cursive, so dino coloring? Hella boring. I came home and said, “Mama! Kindergarten is BORING!” I’ll never forget her response, she said “If you’re bored, you’re not trying hard enough.” That made me stop right in my tracks. She followed up with, “Do it because you CAN, and not because anyone is going to make you.” This advice has stuck with me and I think daily about what things I can do in this world because I am ABLE to not because I’m forced to. I believe that this one little phrase drives my creative entrepreneurial energy. I don’t need a boss telling me what to do, I just tackle what I’m able to do each day because I can. I know it sounds hokey to have a “can-do” spirit but I sure as hell do because you have to create despite the struggles of life.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would inspire a movement of interconnectedness. When people see how their lives are directly affected by the action or inaction of others and vice versa, I believe that there is hope for a better world. Our society has developed a “not my problem” attitude. In the words of Denis Leary, “I didn’t break it, it was this way when I found it.” Whether this relates to caring for the environment, improving social programs to lift up those in poverty or directly combating racism and white supremacy, the vast majority of our world chooses to stand back and watch instead of taking action.
That is one thing that I think the global pandemic has helped to bring to light, just how much we all depend on each other to keep this society going. We are literally seeing with our own eyes how our actions can either protect others from spreading this virus, or our inaction can fuel the fire across the globe.
For the first time in my life, I saw people being willing to sacrifice their livelihoods, their homes, their businesses, their mental and physical health and more, for the sake of those who are older, sicker and weaker. I’ve never seen anything that looked more like love than that. I saw neighbors reaching out to tape gift cards for groceries on the front doors of those who couldn’t afford food. I saw groups on Facebook springing up to share resources with those who needed them. I saw the artists and crafters working night and day with blisters on their fingers to make masks when our society failed to provide us with the things we needed to survive. Watching people come together in that way gave me hope that we could learn to see how we are all interconnected. When one of us is harmed, we all bleed.
I wrote a little poem about this idea and would love to share it with you:
Things in the forest
have a certain way
of growing together
so they depend
on each other
We should all live
in the forest do —
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