There’s no denying it — this year’s been a rough one. We’ve all found ways to deal with the stress, from quarantine baking (and eating) to endless internet scrolling.
Kasee Bailey — Austin-based reader, writer, pop-culture fan, creator, and mom of four kids under age four (yes, you read that right) — found her 2020 happy place in reconnecting with the pieces of culture she loves most.
“In a really difficult year, it’s brought me a lot of joy and comfort to just get lost in something that makes me happy, rather than doom scrolling through social media,” she says.
Bailey gets to reread, rewatch, and rediscover the things she loves and call it work: Alongside freelance writing and chasing her two sets of twins, she runs Longhand Pencils, an online store offering up hand-stamped pencils that celebrate all things pop culture.
“Longhand Pencils grew out of a love for writing and for the things that connect us,” Bailey says. “If a whimsical pencil adorned with the lyrics of your favorite song or a quote from your favorite movie can encourage you to sit down, mute the endless notifications and siren calls of your inbox, then I’ve done something right.”
In a world that’s getting more and more digital, Longhand Pencils invites us to stop the scrolling and write something by hand, from a love letter to a grocery list.
“It’s a practice that is so beneficial for our mental, emotional, and physical well-being,” Bailey says. “So much of our diets are digital, so I wanted to create something fun and whimsical that could help people unplug and connect better with themselves and others.”
A year in, Bailey’s seen Longhand Pencils grow from its first customer — her mom — to dozens of pencil sets in the shop, collaborations with artists and authors, and a burgeoning following among the “bookstagram” crowd. Bailey also writes for the DreamHost blog and now uses the tips and tricks she curates for website owners to build her own brand. She’s evermore impressed with the tools DreamHost offers to help Longhand Pencils grow, keeping the technical side afloat and commerce simple so she can focus on her passion.
“Maybe pencils are so last century,” Bailey says. “But to me, they’re inspiration. They’re connection. They’re improved well-being. That passion ignites me.”
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Mounting an Analog Revolution
Bailey believes in a return to the unplugged, to be present apart from tech — in an analog revolution of sorts. Her passion for pencils is a big part of that.
“I believe that a pencil is timeless,” she says. “It represents connection with ourselves and others, a mindfulness that is so needed in our day and age. Call it analog or call it old-fashioned, but getting back to the good ol’ days of No. 2s and loose-leaf can help us access benefits absent in the clacking of keys, strings of abbreviated, emoji-laden messages, or the blinding light of screens.”
Before she became a pencil-pushing, writing-by-hand revolutionary, she was (and still is) a reader and a writer. Crafting words has been shaping force from childhood to college and career.
“As a kid, I filled collage-covered notebooks with details of my days, dreams, and the lessons I learned,” Bailey says. “Now, I scribble out stories and wishes, love and thank you notes, by hand, aiming to connect deeper with myself and the people around me.”
After earning a degree in journalism and working in communications, Bailey became a mom and found herself needing a flexible gig that fit both her skillset and her busy lifestyle. Freelance writing fit the bill.
“Not only did it allow me to stay at home with my children, but it helped me keep a foot in the door to my professional career,” Bailey says. “Starting a business inspired by writing and its tools has really been a natural outgrowth.”
Longhand Pencils is an easy marriage of her love for writing and a passion for pop culture — she’s a self-proclaimed “natural fangirl,” happily obsessing over stories she loves. Bailey is not the first to create foil-stamped pencils, but she wanted to make them herself, curating quotes from books, movies, TV shows, songs, and events that speak to her.
So she invested in her own hot foil stamping machine (it’s pretty fancy — check out her unboxing video) to make pencils celebrating her favorite things. It took months to master the intricacies of the machine, but once she got it down, she built a website and started selling.
“Combining pop culture and pencils is a dream,” Bailey says. “It’s such a special way for me to pay homage to the things I care about and connect with others.”
Crafting By Hand
Each pencil set, hand stamped at home with gold foil, is a labor of love.
Some include only one to three pencils, like her tribute to the Oxford comma or Leslie Knope’s favorite holiday. These shorter sets may only take 30 minutes to an hour. Longer sets — a 12-pencil Hamilton lyric collection, for example, and eight for Harry Styles — can take a few hours to complete.
“There was quite a learning curve when I first started using the machine,” Bailey says. “I’ve really had to discover all the various techniques for clean stamping, like adjusting screws, balancing the amount of pressure, and other minute details.” You can see her stamping in action on Longhand Pencil’s YouTube channel.
Bailey’s happy to spend the hours working by hand, making something for others to use by hand. She passes the time listening to music, watching shows, and listening to audiobooks — you know, research.
“I’m always engaging with something,” she says. “Most recently, I’ve been re-listening to the Boyfriend Material audiobook, the American Girls Podcast, and Broadway soundtracks.”
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Drawing from pop culture and current events gives Bailey a natural audience for her stamped pencils: fellow fans.
“Because my pencils are pop culture-focused, people like to geek out with me over whichever movie or show or book I’ve based the set on,” Bailey says. “I’ve loved getting to connect with different communities of fans, as well as other paper people who love stationery and office supplies as much as I do.”
Anything can inspire a set, from a vice-presidential debate to a K-pop band. Some of her favorites to make have been homages to Golden Girls, Schitt’s Creek, Hamilton, and You’ve Got Mail — though, she adds, these have been the hardest to choose quotes for. One of the first she’s made is another favorite, a set honoring YA author Sarah Dessen.
“Her books meant so much to me growing up and have really impacted me as a writer,” Bailey says. “I loved paying homage to her in that way.”
Longhand Pencils has recently found a strong audience in “bookstagram” — a corner of the internet for readers and book lovers — especially YA romance fans. “I love that,” says Bailey, who is slowly but surely working on her own teen novel. “These are my people.”
Her book-based sets are top sellers: She has a set honoring LGBTQ romances by Rainbow Rowell and others, classics like Anne of Green Gables, and a collaboration with author duo Christina Lauren. One of the most popular pencil sets lists favorite tried-and-true romance tropes — a huge hit in Romance Land-ia.
“Everyone has been so kind about my pencils, and I love seeing people enjoy them,” Bailey says. “Sometimes I’ll get people commenting things like, ‘Oh, why didn’t you include this quote?’ or ‘You missed my favorite line!’ which is hard because truly, the hardest part for me is picking which phrases to include in a set. I’m sometimes limited by the length or complexity of a quote, and having to narrow down a movie or show into only a handful of pencil quotes is so difficult. I just try to do my best and make each set a fun representation of whatever inspires it.”
Collaborating and Connecting
Building and running a brand-new small business is no easy feat, as Bailey quickly discovered.
“There is so much to running a small business — the biggest being that you have to wear all the hats, especially at the beginning,” she says. “You’re the marketing team, the salespeople, the accountants, the maker. So you have to really be passionate about it and celebrate the small wins to keep going.”
To stay positive, she’s adopted the learn-on-the-fly mentality of “start before you’re ready,” throwing herself into the work and giving herself grace when she makes mistakes.
When Longhand Pencils first launched, Bailey spent hours messaging social media influencers, asking them to share her products, and put lots of money into advertising. She’s since figured out more effective marketing techniques that fit her niche.
“I listen more to my customers and what they want, and I embrace the social media platforms in the ways that they’re most successful — connecting with bookstagrammers on Instagram, authors on Twitter, and fandoms on Tumblr, etc.,” Bailey says. “I try to work with other people as much as I can so that by collaborating, we can leverage the power of our joint communities. Even online, word of mouth is a big deal!”
Collaborations have become a big part of Bailey’s work in promoting the business. She’s worked with designers, artists, makers, and others to create new products for her shop and offer giveaways. With her growing bookstagram following, she’s started working more with authors to share sets connected to their books — and she pulls out her own writer’s hat with a series of interviews on the Longhand Pencil blog, which she uses to introduce authors and amplify the work of other creators.
“I’m really proud of what I’ve built in a year,” Bailey says. “I have grown my business in big ways over a short span of time, and have watched myself grow and learn immensely. I successfully opened my store for wholesale, hand-stamped more than four thousand pencils in a three-day period for a business, and have networked with some incredible entrepreneurs and creatives. I’ve expanded my product line, built and connected with a customer base, and found something that combines my passions. I love what I do and can make money from it, so I’m really proud of being able to accomplish that, even though I knew next to nothing when I started.”
Drinking the Kool-Aid
“I’ve been writing for DreamHost for a couple of years and using their hosting services on my personal website; I’ve always been really impressed with their services, support, and base of knowledge that they share with the tech world,” Bailey says. “So when I created my business, it was a no-brainer to host that site with DreamHost, too.”
Bailey appreciates that DreamHost services can scale and grow with her business. She started with a basic shared hosting package, upgrading to DreamPress as Longhand Pencils gained traction.
“I love the staging services, so I can test out new elements on a practice site before I push it live,” she says. “Also, on my business birthday, I was prepping for a sale, and my site was experiencing some downtime. I reached out to DreamHost support and immediately got to chat with someone who helped me work through the issue and get my site back up and running.”
The bread and butter of any e-commerce site is making it easy for customers to find and buy your products. Bailey was familiar with WordPress but new to selling online and found it simple to integrate WooCommerce into her site and create an easy shopping and checkout process.
“I’ve really worked hard to make my website functional and attractive,” Bailey says. “It’s taken some time to get right (these things do!), but I am really pleased with how it’s come together. I love that it’s easy to navigate and that it’s fun to explore. I want anyone who visits it to find something they love, and not have any frustrating barriers to shopping — like slow load time or confusing navigation.”
DreamHost, she says, takes some of the burdens off her full plate as a small business owner, offering technical support and simplifying the e-commerce side of things. “I can focus on the parts of business I am most passionate about and not have to sweat the tech tasks that can be really complicated and time-consuming.”
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Shopping Small, Dreaming Big
Bailey and other creators are gearing up for the holiday shopping season. In a year that’s been tough, to say the least, spirits are down, and handcrafted gifts can go a long way in supporting a friend — and a maker.
“It’s been such a difficult year for small businesses,” Bailey says. “People have less money to spend, and the economic environment is less than ideal. It is as important as ever to shop small and support the real people behind the businesses in our communities.”
Dollars matter, she adds, and where we put them shows what we value. Instead of giving more of yours to big box stores, consider investing in creativity. “Plus, who wants a boring run-of-the-mill gift for the holidays? Shopping small means unique, creative gift-giving that will make you a family favorite!”
As the year finally winds down, Bailey is focused as ever on growing Longhand Pencils, on wrangling her little twins — with all she has going on professionally, she considers parenting her full-time job — and working through her TBR stack.
“I’ve been reading a lot of romance books this year, because 2020,” she says. “It’s been a wonderful escape. I’ve also been working to read a lot more from women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ authors.”
Amid guilty-pleasure streaming and rewatching this year’s Emma remake and Hamilton on Disney+, Bailey celebrates her business’s first birthday by looking to 2021 with no limits.
“This past year, I’ve learned to dream big. So many really amazing things have happened for my business — things that I never could have imagined when I started. So in the coming months and years, I don’t want to limit myself. I want to dream big — exciting collaborations, new products, and LOTS more pencils!”