How it all started

Going from working a lot on things I didn’t like to working a little less on things that are really fun.

I keep getting asked how I got into lettering and how I went about making a job out of my newfound hobby. I am not a “born entrepreneur”, in fact I have never been attracted to self-employment, yet this is where I ended up – thanks to your support. So now it is time to give back a little, I think. I detta och nästa nyhetsbrev kommer jag berätta hur jag gått till väga och vad lärt mig av resan hittills.

First: It is not obvious to me to do this. The thing is, I find it much more comfortable and fun to talk about general literary matters or, for that matter, about more burning issues such as politics, feminism, our work-yourself-to-grave culture and society’s view of women’s appearance than it is to talk about myself. I think there are so many more important, inspiring and fun things to talk about than how I feel and what I do. But I also know that I myself would have needed to hear someone else’s story for inspiration and perhaps encouragement when I was about to embark on an area that had no roads at all on my map, so here we go.

But let’s take it from the top

Nothing I do today has really been a logical step for me. I am 49 years old today. A typical big sister with all that entails – ambition, demands and a rather wonky self-esteem. I’ve worked with all sorts of things in my life – yoga, trotting horses, high school teacher, salesman, coach, copywriter, marketing and a lot of other more or less obscure things, but since I turned 12, I haven’t worked on expressing myself creatively, it was mostly excel sheets and meetings with guys in suits in recent years. In 2016, I found a brush pen given to me by my husband.

Even though the Pentel Colorbrush is kind of the most difficult brush pen of all, I got stuck after googling YouTube clips that explained to me what kind of pen it was and what it would be used for. I hadn’t even heard of lettering before, practiced and practiced and thought it was so FUN. My first hobby since I stopped horseriding when I was 19, and when I ran into a bout of depression a bit later, drawing became my anchor. I hadn’t drawn since I was a child, but now I was sitting there, 30 years later, and was completely taken by how much fun it was.


I started my IG account (first called Kaosyoga, remember?) and I loved the community, I learned so much from others, got great cheers and lots of inspiration to continue. Instagram became my shop window on the digital shopping street, an occasional inquiry found its way in, and I started wondering if I could stay in this fun world instead of putting on my jacket and lipstick and going back to the managerial job when the sick leave was over (I wasn’t healthy, but the sick leave ended, so, yes…). Was it possible, with a still rather burnt-out brain, without any training or work experience in lettering, design or self-employment at all, to make a living from scribbling letters?

And, please note that I didn’t stand alone in the storm like a bloody WonderWoman. My husband has run his own business for the 20 years we’ve been together, and without him this would never have worked as well as it did. Without his 120% support and knowledge in finance, web, print, IT, logistics and business development, it would have been much more difficult.

Lesson: Get help from people you know! You are not supposed to know everything yourself, my God, nobody does. The trick is to surround yourself with friends who support you and celebrate your ideas and successes, and people who can help you in areas where you are not king. A one-man business is really a collective. Is there no one in your circle of acquaintances who has the skills you need? Ask around or find them yourself. Contact them and ask them to buy you lunch or breakfast (everyone has to eat anyway?) in exchange for questions and refueling.

I’m not a natural at lettering or drawing, and as I said, I hadn’t touched a marker since I was a child, but I found that I could practice. And exercising was so damn fun, my brain also felt very good from drawing, it was the best rehab for me – would I really throw all that away? Nope. So instead of going back to work, I resigned and threw myself out. It would work.

I had to start quite cautiously as my brain was still a bit mushy, but thanks to the start-up grant and low overheads (I worked from home and didn’t have to rent premises or buy lots of expensive machinery), I didn’t have to make much money in the beginning. I trained and trained, learned new things, and started to understand how everything was connected. I learned about how to create a consistent style, how different pens and paper fibers work, what to bring with you when you are a beginner and what pitfalls to avoid. I read as much as my brain could handle, but couldn’t find a good book in Swedish, so I simply emailed Norstedts publlishing house (because they have the nicest publishing house in Stockholm, so they were the first to pop into my head) and told them I wanted to write a book about Lettering in Swedish. The stars had lined up nicely for Mrs. Hellström, because the editor I contacted was at a trade fair in London at the time and had just heard about the new phenomenon of lettering, which had barely arrived in Sweden at the time, so I got it on the first try, thanks to the stars.

Lesson: Dare to sell! Whatever your idea or product, you need to let people know about it. Find your target audience and email or call. Many people will say no, it’s an obvious part of the deal, but most likely you will get a yes sooner or later too. A job that you would never have got if it wasn’t for your initiative.

Writing a book is like giving birth.

Writing a book is hard and takes time, not unlike childbirth. It’s not just about the rather monotonous writing process (the labor pains), but all the 700 shortcuts that follow (pushing), planning for photo shoots (getting stitched up) and drawing everything that needs to be photographed or scanned (peeing with these fresh wounds and stitches). Immediately afterwards you think NEVER AGAIN but then a couple of years go by and then maybe you do something similar again and then, when you are in the middle of labor, EVERYTHING COMES BACK TO YOU and you ask why am I doing this to myself, dear God, WHY?

But honestly: It takes TIME, and my brain was still not quite up to normal speed. Without the grant, it would have been hopeless to do it in the beginning, before I had any other further income.

A dedicated platform

As I said, Instagram was a great showcase for me, but I also needed my own platform, which I controlled. So in parallel with the writing, Krille and I created a website and a webshop – another big project, but a necessary one. Ouch, my brain. I had an idea that I would sell a lot of prints and cards and tees with my letters on them in the shop. Since I used a lot of pens and paper myself, I wanted to sell some of it as well – it’s nice to have your own stock.

The book was completed, as was the website, and I published it in conjunction with the book launch. I was so excited to finally get to drive. So, let’s go!


The book turned out fine.

The website turned out great.

The book sold well.

My prints sold… not well at all.

So there I was with a slightly dropped chin and a cold anxious hand around my fluttering heart at the very beginning of my entrepreneurship without much income. It was not at all how I had imagined it, instead of a flying start and success, it was more of a slow trudge forward. It was barely at cruising speed, and I was honestly surprised. I had had such a good run with grants, book contracts and Instagram followers, wouldn’t it continue? No, it would not. But the saving grace was that commissions started trickling in – packaging design for a granola line, a Norwegian book title, hand-drawn skirts to be used for a trade show. I didn’t own an iPad at the time, so I drew everything by hand and scanned it to get it digitally. It took TIME. Sometimes I re-drew the same thing 700 times, it felt like, before everything was in place, but on the other hand I got a lot of styles and letterforms worked into my hand that way. Not being able to run cmd-Z when things go wrong is a useful lesson.

I had also started my first workshops, and it was so much FUN, suddenly I remembered why I had liked to work as a teacher, and listen: Suddenly my lack of education and experience became an advantage: I could relate 100% with my participants who were in the same situation as I was a year or two ago, and they could also relax a bit more. Lots of education and status can scare people.

Lesson: Get more legs to stand on if you can. With some pulling in less, others could be used to pull in a little more. Maybe you can find a nice mix of passive income, i.e. products or services that “sell themselves” without generating a lot of work for you? You can then combine them with other types of jobs that are fun, creatively challenging and require more manual effort on your part.

So, to summarize so far:

  • You don’t need to know everything to start. Entrepreneurship itself is a learning journey.
  • Surround yourself with the right people. Some you need for their skills, others for their moral support.
  • If you can, get different business lines, or at least different types of products. Depending on a single market or target group is risky business and unless you like stomach aches, I recommend thinking in the plural here.
  • Selling may sound scary, but if you can’t tell people that you exist and what you can do, it will be difficult. And hey, don’t think about it in a telemarketing (ish) way – instead, it’s about helping people, finding good and fun collaborations that benefit you both. No hat in hand here.

Where is the customer?

I also analyzed the situation: The reason why so few people wanted to buy things with my letters on them was twofold: First, I was targeting an audience – my IG followers – who wanted to draw their own letters. Of course. The target group that wanted limited edition prints and ironic greeting cards was partly elsewhere. On the one hand, my products were not very good, I hadn’t gotten good enough yet. Composition, layout, color theory, digitization – there is a lot to learn for a lady who has mostly worked Excel spreas sheets her adult life.

Lesson: Where are your customers? The whole idea of working as a self-employed person with what you are passionate about is that you should work with the things that YOU are passionate about doing, otherwise you might as well stay in your boring job that does not match your ambitions and values at all. But that makes it all the more important to think about where your customers are, find them and let them know what you have to offer.

Being small is pretty big

What worked well, however, was the sale of pens and paper. So I increased the supply, looked around all the retailers and negotiated and worked to get the best possible supply. Most big chains are locked into certain brands and retailers are locked in by licensing agreements, but I, as a small, independent operator, was able to put together my very own range, based on which pens and papers I thought were absolutely best to use myself, allowing me to create kits that were completely unique and not available anywhere else. Suddenly, I had a slight advantage over the big companies!

Lesson learned: Find your USP (unique selling point). What can YOU offer that no one else can – or in a way or method that not many others have? You don’t have to look at your competitors, that usually doesn’t lead to more creativity, but find YOUR thing. Find a strength in being a small business owner – your flexibility, your personal brand, your hand-painted products – no one can copy it. THAT is your strength.

Exercise sheets were the next logical step, to complement the workshops. Although I’ve traveled around a bit – I’ve had workshops in Germany, Finland and Saudi Arabia, for example – I obviously couldn’t reach a large part of my target audience with online courses. Selling digital products is incredibly easy when you have customers all over the world. And speaking of the world – in the beginning I had free shipping on everything because I had the idea that it shouldn’t matter where in the world you live, a pen shouldn’t be more expensive because of that, and the idea was nice. But also quite unsustainable when I checked the economic analysis.

Analyze more

Analysis, yes. What I lack in creative experience and know-how, I have in the “drier” parts. I am no stranger to strategy documents, target group analysis and follow-up, structuring the working day and calculations of product margins. It sounds boring, and of course I did everything very briefly and lightly, as I didn’t have a listed company, but when it comes to entrepreneurship it’s incredibly useful, and it’s definitely one of the reasons why, five years later, I can still make a living from my letters. And it IS actually quite fun! Seeing the whole picture, tweaking a little here and a little there and then seeing how the outcome is affected.

Lesson: If you ever start your own business and find that you instinctively shy away from such things, take the bull by the horns. Make friends with the economic surveys, they are not dangerous. They are a tool that can help you keep doing what you are doing, and give you control. And that kind of control is a nice pillow to sleep on.


A less pleasant one, however, was the pandemic. In one fell swoop, many of the assignments I had, creating a new graphic identity or a mural or making a new logo, all came to a screeching halt. And workshops were out of the question. All in all, a large part of my turnover disappeared, leaving me with very little. Too little. And I became quite… paralyzed. I can see it now, ordinary Lise would have just rolled up her sleeves and seen it as a challenge that I would have loved to find a solution to, but the feeling of being truly on the edge was incredibly uncomfortable, and if there’s one thing that doesn’t promote creativity and problem-solving, it’s anxiety and worry.


I barely got by thanks to borrowed money and government support. And now that we are starting to come out of the shit, I can see it with a bit more distance. I can see how not only my creativity and ability to see solutions, but my whole way of working, changed. I became more fragmented and stressed, making it even more difficult to get an overview and focus on doing the right things, which of course became a negative spiral. And it was probably my way of working that had the greatest impact on the outcome, not the pandemic itself.

Lesson: Don’t fall for the myth of the starving artist who only works when they feel like it but never really takes time off. Self-employment does not have to be like that, quite the contrary. Working structured in a creative industry is very important, it gives you much more focus, stability and therefore creativity – and most importantly, more free time.

Creating such a structure requires an in-depth look, I feel, and so I’ve written a separate post about it, which you can read more about here.

Here and now

But back to the present: Ink & Lise AB is still alive, and there’s probably not a day that goes by that I don’t appreciate all that it entails. Being able to go for long walks in daylight every day, working out at the gym when it’s least crowded, being at home when the kids come home from school, deciding what I’m going to work on and turning down collaboration with people I don’t think are nice is pretty awesome. I can choose to work as sustainably as possible and everything I do is based on my vision – that I want to make the world a little better while I’m here. Having that foundation to stand on and be guided by makes it feel incredibly fun and meaningful. It’s amazing, to be honest.

Having always seen self-employment as an endless grind, with long hours and stomach ulcers as a reward, I had completely missed how incredibly FUN and inspiring it is 92% of the time.

You and me

And, most importantly, I have you. It’s simple math: if you didn’t shop, support and help me, I wouldn’t be here. During the pandemic, my shop was almost the only thing that kept me alive – so when I say it’s thanks to you that I’m still here, I’m not lying. I often think that there are so many platitudes flying around on social media, but surprisingly many of them are true. For a small business owner, every single customer, every pen sold, IS important. I am not Amazon. When Amazon sells a book or two, it’s a tiny, tiny part of their totality. I am just Lise, who has my office in our black house on Marmorgatan (that’s my adress, translates to Marble St in case you’re wondering) in Varberg. In our mailbox, which is hanging on three quarters because of some misguided soccer shot, there are old flyers left in it that I haven’t taken in and every time I see them I think I should put up a new “no advertising here, please” sign because the old one disappeared in the collision with the soccer ball but it hasn’t happened yet. When I draw, I sit and look out into our tiny garden, Stefan is snoring at my feet and I’ve had oatmeal with banana and cinnamon for breakfast. I am not a big corporate machine. It’s just me, Lise, with about the same fun, boring and difficult things to juggle in life as you have.

And when I sell a book, unlike Jeff Bezos, I get genuinely happy. I write on it, wrap it in tissue paper and pack it in, add a little note, print an address label, put it in the car and take it to the post office. Likewise, when I get a nice email from someone, when someone borrows my books from the library, or orders an exercise sheet from me, it means that I get a warm feeling in my stomach and that I have a slightly better chance of continuing to do what I do. That’s how it works. You and I are a bit connected, whether you think about it or not. You mean more to me than you think. And I am so very happy about that.

So, to summarize everything:

  • You don’t have to be good enough to start, nor do you have to know exactly where you want to go. So many talented artists sit and wait because they feel they are not good enough, and it’s a bloody waste. Instead, see entrepreneurship as an education in itself. Jump. In the worst case scenario, you will have to construct the wings on the way down, I think. You will make it, believe me.
  • Network with other entrepreneurs. You are not competitors, you are colleagues! The more people working in your industry, the better for you, especially if it’s a slightly smaller niche. This means more potential customers hear about it and the benefits it can bring. It makes your own sales talk 70% easier.
  • Small business may not be for everyone, but it is for more people than you might think.
  • Take the time to learn how to create a good work structure to get a lot done without being stressed and, above all, to have more time off. Don’t fall for the myth that you always have to work so damn much. But think about whether you are working on the right things and in the right way. And if you find it difficult: check out my post on this very topic.