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Behind the Little Lantern Shop

Over the summer, Ken 3D printed a mini lantern for my birthday.

I went to Wellesley College for undergrad. Wellesley is a women’s college in Massachusetts where distinctive lanterns light up the campus paths on curled posts. To students and alums, these lanterns are almost a symbol of the college. Ken designed a mini replica for me to open on my birthday, since my main gift was going to be an (unwrappable) day of fun in Amsterdam.

But while he saw it as mostly a placeholder, it enchanted me — and much of the rest of the Wellesley alum community. I posted a picture in a Facebook group, and it blew up with comments of people asking if we’d sell them. We decided, sure; we’d print a few before I flew home to see my parents.

We got 220 orders. We had printed four lanterns to sell. Cue the purchase of another 3D printer.

My motivation for selling the lanterns was never financial — actually, we did the math a few months later and realized that we had been selling them at a loss, once we accounted for our own time. But I was really excited to be making something that made people happy. To me, the product wasn’t just about the lantern, but about the whole customer experience. I had built a little order-tracking website and printed custom stickers for the mailing envelopes. I wanted people to open their packages and feel something; like a little taste of Wellesley community.

Ken and I ended up reinvesting the summer lantern money into new designs and an Etsy shop (and, yes, another 3D printer. We now have 3 🙃), and I poured a lot of my time into building up the customer experience. I want to share a little about that with you today. But I also want to talk about my ‘side project philosophy,’ which I learned from Ken: focusing on the fun and letting small joys lead you through a project.

Making the brand experience for the Little Lantern Shop

I’ve always loved branding, as corporate and soulless as that sounds. It’s really fun for me to create a visual language that communicates a project’s message or feeling to a user. I do all my own branding for web projects (like this blog), and also do some freelance branding for others. So when it came time to take the lantern project to a full-blown Etsy shop, I was excited to do that for this, too.

First things first: I needed a name and logo. I wanted the shop to be Wellesley-focused, and I also knew that part of the charm of the shop was that it was a one-woman (well, one-woman-and-spouse) show, run by an alum. So I came up with ‘the Little Lantern Shop’ — a play on the fact that we create mini lanterns, but are also a small-scale project.

The logo is a Wellesley lantern with two hands holding the name, as though it was made as a fold-and-cut project. Here’s how the logo looks on the thank-you cards I include with each order.

Stamps and stickers

The logo makes an appearance in lots of places, from the stickers that close packages and envelopes:

…to stamps on the backs of envelopes or the inside of the package lid:

Small touches

I also wanted other parts of the branding to “feel” like Wellesley. For example, Wellesley has four class colors. Each graduating class has one of these colors, and they repeat on a loop. As a member of the class of 2016, my class color is red, as was that of the class of 2012 before me and 2020 after me. I can’t speak for all Wellesley alums, but I at least feel a strong connection to my class color. Our orientation and senior weeks painted the campus in red, and I would always wear red clothes to big Wellesley events (and red lipstick — one of the reasons I think red is one of the better class colors to have!).

To make the packaging evoke this same feeling college class pride, I came up with the idea to offer class color packaging for ornament orders, with colored paper crinkle and a class-color sticker that you could specify upon ordering. If you didn’t provide a class color, I’d give you one at random. Here’s an example of a package a mom ordered for her daughter, who was a member of a green class.

And here’s a red class package.

Even the stickers on the outside of the ornament boxes got this class color treatment (with a Christmassy vibe, since they were for ornaments).

Some thoughts on side projects

This project ended up becoming a success, at least in my mind. I saw moms ordering packages for their daughters, former roommates sending each other gifts for Christmas, and friend groups getting ornaments for each other. I had lots of customers comment specifically on the packaging and customer service. But if I had jumped in with the intention to make a successful Etsy shop (with cards and stamps and stickers, oh my) from the beginning, I don’t think I would have gotten to the same end result. The long to-do list would have overwhelmed me.

What led me instead was a focus on small steps and satisfying my creative itches. This is something I’ve learned from Ken: focusing on small, achievable pieces that feel fun.

I have a tendency to take on massive projects and then feel dwarfed by them. This time, we took our time, taking space between the summer lanterns and the winter launch of the Etsy shop. If I felt excited to make postcards to include in the orders, or had the itch to find the best boxes for shipping, I’d do it. Towards the end, when I had a bunch of the ‘customer experience’ pieces in place but needed to sort out shipping and administrative components, it felt easier to do because I already had so much prepared. And now, as I continue to add new products to the shop (see postcard sets below), it feels easier too, because so much of the shop and my production line are already sorted out.

I know this probably isn’t the most exciting thing in the world to read about, especially if you’re not an Etsy seller or Wellesley alum yourself, but I wanted to take a moment to share. This has been a really rewarding project for me this winter, and ended up being a great distraction from some unexpected stressors that came up after Christmas. If you have any questions about how I did any of these things, or want to share about your best experiences with other Etsy shops, I’d love to hear them! Please leave a comment below!

Sara Laughed

I'm Sara, a writer, programmer, and American in the Netherlands. This blog is about my life, discoveries, and mistakes. Follow along, and thank you for stopping by!

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