Nicole and her adorable company, SowSweet Greetings, is living testimony that with enough gusto, passion and planning even something as simple as a plant pun that would send your dad into a tailspin is enough to make something truly special.

Thank you for having a chat with us. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your artistic journey?

My name is Nicole and I’m the self-proclaimed dad joke queen behind the plantable puns at SowSweet Greetings Inc., where we’ve made it our mission to put smiles on faces and flowers in the ground.

Born and raised in Toronto, ON, Canada - I grew up loving to draw. Ever since I was a little kid my parents would buy me blank notebooks which I’d rapidly fill with doodles, “tattoos”, typography, sketches, you name it. My school notes were always covered in random shapes, lines, and colour - I listened best when my hands were busy. That hasn’t changed to this day, I’m still a big visual learner, leaning into graphic organisers and doodling to help consolidate my understanding of things.

I guess my more formal “artistic journey” started the year after I completed my undergraduate degree - I graduated from the University of Toronto with a major in Human Biology and a double minor in Physiology and Psych (big science nerd over here), with no idea what to do next (as I’m sure many new grads can relate to). I wasn’t detail-oriented enough for a life in research, I wasn’t into the idea of hunkering down for another 4+ years of medical school, and I felt like I hadn’t been exposed to many other careers in the sciences that quite matched my extreme extroverted personality type.

During my soul-searching, I stumbled across a niche Master’s program called Biomedical Communications. It was a two year Masters of Science degree that focused on Medical Illustration - creating visuals to relay complex scientific information. Ever think about where all those images in your science textbooks came from? I hadn’t either.

I was so excited. I had discovered my North Star - I had never considered a field in visual arts before, I had zero formal training to date and always considered it more of a passion than anything that may result in a career for me personally. But here was an opportunity for me to marry my two favourite things: Illustration + Biology, all wrapped up in a neat and tidy two-year program with fairly high odds of employment out of graduation.

It was absolutely too good to be true. My GPA was peanuts compared to the values that were needed to be even remotely considered for what you can probably imagine was a highly competitive program, and they needed me to put together a professional portfolio showcasing my skills across a range of visual art styles (it became quickly evident my doodles were not going to cut it). I held on to hope for my dear life. I took an extra anatomy course to boost my GPA (turns out I would have needed to take about 10 of those to get my GPA within a competitive range), and I signed myself up for a year of Art Fundamentals at Seneca College where I would be sure to come out with a rock-star portfolio that would alleviate any doubt in admissions’ mind if they saw my less-than-competitive GPA. It wasn’t foolproof, but it was a plan.

Flash forward to a year later and I was receiving my second declined application - and I couldn’t blame them. My GPA was still not in the range of acceptable, and my portfolio was mediocre at best - especially considering a great deal of the applicants were coming from a fine arts background. I also started to reconsider my enthusiasm for the job - how much opportunity was there in the medical illustration to work with others, to communicate, network, and connect - things I valued above simply illustrating and designing day in and day out. That got my wheels turning - what could I do moving forward that would be a true combination of my passions: science, visual arts, and spending time with other people?

I sometimes joke about being “art rich” one day, where I can afford to buy a giant painting that I can’t live without from a gallery to display in the foyer of my future home. I’m not quite there yet, so in the meantime, if you can offer me that same design that I’ve fallen in love with on a t-shirt or a postcard for a fraction of the cost, I’m buying it.

Cue teacher’s college! After two years of honing my organisational/public speaking/lesson-planning skills at OISE (University of Toronto) and I finally felt like I found where I belonged. I could create, talk science, and spend virtually all day with others! It was the perfect fit for my personality, an extrovert who loved to create (as you can imagine, marking was the bane of my existence). I decided that I would use education as my portal for creation - I was going to do my best to make science learning fun and accessible for all, via vibrant lesson plans, appealing visuals, and enthusiastic delivery - and I did! I had the opportunity to teach multiple science courses over my fairly interrupted teaching career and took any opportunity I could to squeeze in some great metaphors to make concepts more relatable for students (I continue to work as a substitute to this day).

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What was the seed (pun intended) that started you off on this journey?

As my fellow science teacher geeks can relate, we love a cheesy pun, so I fit right into this community of word-players. My students would groan at the chemistry and biology puns I’d bury in tests and quizzes (I think they secretly loved it). I used to riff with my classmates and friends who enjoyed a good dad joke, sometimes doodling little cartoon drawings to match. It got to a point where I had built up a bit of a collection of these illustrated dad jokes, some that felt too good to go unseen by the masses. Hence SowSweet Greetings Inc. was born. It began as simply a way of getting my puns out into the world in a way that helps, not harms, the environment, and brings opportunity for authentic human connection (getting outside of the digital space). I viewed it as a passion project, and nothing more - it wasn’t until I started to realise just how rare my product was that I began to consider the idea of trying to make it more than a side hustle. It turned out not as many people as I anticipated were familiar with plantable paper, and I knew that the opportunity to be the first one to make a splash in that particular space would be time-sensitive.

I’m guessing sustainability is a big part of why you do what you do. Do you find that trying to be as green as possible makes for interesting constraints on your creativity or is it still an uphill battle to make and create beautiful things that are easy on the environment?

I would say that my creativity comes through the most in the designs printed on every card we make - and the design possibilities are endless! Currently, we have over 150 designs available, and that number is constantly growing as I come up with new doodles, am inspired by new scenarios and settings, and have custom requests from clients. Being green, printing on plantable paper, and being a part of a community of like-minded creators are huge bonuses, helping provide validity to every design choice I make. In terms of sourcing our supplies - from paper to envelopes, sleeves, stickers, packaging, etc. - it has definitely taken some work to ensure the product we are sourcing aligns with our promises: to be 100% Canadian-sourced and produce zero waste. I wouldn’t say though that this poses any particular constraints on creativity, in fact, I’ve experienced the opposite - it has been such a valuable experience understanding where these different supplies come from, learning how they are produced, and building personal connections with conscious Canadian suppliers.

Can you run me through your process of taking a piece from concept to completion?

The creative process for me is always triggered by one of three things: something pops into my brain in a random location (honestly, I draw a lot of inspo from grocery store visits and being outside), someone makes a joke that I find a way to twist into a greeting card illustration, or someone requests a particular theme or design for a particular purpose or event. Regardless of which of the three it is - I write it down (I have puns written all over the place, in my phone, in my agenda, on sticky notes covering my desk, etc.).

Being green, printing on plantable paper, and being a part of a community of like-minded creators are huge bonuses, helping provide validity to every design choice I make.

Depending on the concept, it can take me anywhere between 10 minutes to 1 hour to complete one design. If it’s for a particular client, there can be a lot of back and forth ensuring that they are pleased with the design. I’ll bounce design variations off of my business partner, family, and friends to get outside input (as I’m sure many can understand, it’s very difficult to be your own critic), and when I’ve found a winner, it gets printed! In terms of hardware, I currently use a Wacom tablet to draw and am currently working in Adobe Illustrator.

The printer is a little mobile HP printer that I feed my 8x5” pieces of wildflower seed paper into, fold the card once it’s printed, pair it with a recycled Kraft envelope, pop it in a compostable sleeve, stick a compostable label on it, and off it goes to make someone’s day a little brighter!

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Do you have any tips and tricks you use in your creative process?

As previously stated, constantly asking for feedback! Especially as I am creating a product for others to find value in, I like to get some input on my designs before sending them to print. It’s not always easy to hear people critique your work, but it’s incredibly valuable! Taking feedback constructively with an open mind is something I am always actively working on.

One more thing I would mention is - though inspiration can hit at any moment - I find that my most productive creative sessions are carved out in an intentional way in terms of time and space. If I have drawing to do I will make sure to block off a chunk of time, put on some good music, hydrate, and remove distractions. I personally find that setting the stage for the magic to happen is super important!

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How would you suggest artists go about monetising their work? A lot of young creatives seem to have a hard time finding ways to make money from their gifts, what helped you realise that you could?

This is a great question. I think that it varies widely across art forms. For visual artists, I think that having your artwork available and displayed on a variety of mediums is a great way to monetise, market, and make buying art more accessible for everyone.

I sometimes joke about being “art rich” one day, where I can afford to buy a giant painting that I can’t live without from a gallery to display in the foyer of my future home. I’m not quite there yet, so in the meantime, if you can offer me that same design that I’ve fallen in love with on a t-shirt or a postcard for a fraction of the cost, I’m buying it. My artwork is currently on greeting cards only - but one day soon I hope to be able to branch out into other merchandise such as t-shirts, toques, stickers, etc. The beauty of this strategy is it’s so easily scalable - you take your top popular designs and just pop them onto different mediums.

SowSweet Greetings was a result of me discovering a way to monetise my cheesy jokes and doodles - I don’t know that I would have had the same success had I been to simply offer my designs as prints or digital art.

When you feel overwhelmed, discouraged, or burnt out, what do you do to push through and get things done?

As per my extreme extrovert personality mentioned above, I tap into my social networks of friends and family. I find that spending time with others instantly helps me recharge my battery when I’m feeling any of these ways. Creating lists is also a big thing for me - I struggle a lot with focusing on one task at a time (my business partner can tell you all about this), and I can make myself dizzy sometimes by bouncing back and forth perpetually between half-completed to-do items.

I find that my most productive creative sessions are carved out in an intentional way in terms of time and space.

I try to be super intentional about the way I set up my lists, giving myself a chronological order for the tasks, and making sure that I don’t move on to the next before the prior is completed. I think as an entrepreneur too, it’s so important to be kind to yourself.

You won’t always get through the whole list, but recognizing that progress (no matter how small) is progress is definitely a way of managing the stress of feeling overwhelmed, discouraged, or burnt out.

What do you think is a good way to think about money in the creative field?

This question made me laugh. I don’t know if others can relate, but I personally struggle with the label “artist”. I have always felt this sense of imposter syndrome when that title was applied to me - I’ve never formally studied art outside of one year of college fundamentals and I have so much respect for those who have made it their sole focus in education and career direction. They are fully deserving of the artist title - in my opinion, I’m a glorified doodler with a flair for wordplay.

I’ve always had a difficult time figuring out what to charge people for my creative services outside of SowSweet (I’ve done a bit of freelance graphic design in the way of logos and portraits) - money was always just a bonus for me as I viewed the “job” as basically a hobby that I was being paid to do. With SowSweet, money is the means to me being able to sustain doing what I love.

I supposed my answer to this question then would be - money is more the means to continue to create than the end goal of creating, in my opinion.

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What was your first creative assignment where payment was involved?

I was asked by a friend a few years back if I could create a stylized rendition of a photo of her and her husband on their wedding day as a gift for their one year anniversary. Without making any promises, I promised I would try and if she hated it, she would obviously not owe me any money and was free to seek out another artist.

She had done some research into artists who were offering similar services and we settled on a price that was cheaper than anything she had seen but what still felt fair given my inexperience with this particular task. She ended up loving the final product - and I discovered a new creative side hustle that I enjoyed and could actively promote! It was very exciting, and more validating than I would have expected.

Do you think there is ever a good reason to work for free?

There are a few reasons that I would personally work for free: building an initial portfolio, participating in an exchange of goods (is this considered free though?), or an opportunity for unprecedented media exposure. Otherwise no - your time employing a skill that is unique to you that others are seeking to capitalise on (whether for personal gain or business initiatives) is valuable and deserves to be monetized.

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What would you say are some good resources for figuring out payment structures and pricing?

Market research! Get cosy with your competitors and gather all the intel you can about what they are offering, how they are offering it, and how much they are asking. Google searching, Instagram digging, reaching out and connecting, are all good ways to go about this!

…In my opinion, I’m a glorified doodler with a flair for wordplay.

Going through several grant applications over the past years I have become familiar with a SWOT analysis (SWOT: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunity, Threats) - completing this analysis for your own business and for your top 2-3 competitors can really help in figuring out marketing strategy, product development, payment structures, and pricing. Now to be clear - I’m not advocating for copying and pasting your competitor’s structures as your own and then underselling them by $1.

The creative community is real and everyone in it has a better chance of being able to create a sustainable creative business if we work together as a team. This tool can be used as a great starting point for figuring these things out, and you can still be friends with your competitors! At least that’s my personal take on it.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received with regards to operating a creative business?

Stay organised. As creative brains can relate, this is one of the most difficult things to do when your mind is constantly seeking out new territory and being flooded with fun ideas to implement. Having an organised digital and physical space is game-changing in ensuring the momentum of your business is maintained. Having systems in place - whatever works for you (in our case it’s a lot of Google Sheets and a Trello account) will help you stay on track, keep your to-do lists up to date, and makes future planning so much more doable!

In this same vein, tracking key metrics from a sales and marketing standpoint is also super critical in ensuring that you are not only moving forwards but moving forwards in the RIGHT DIRECTION. Maintaining organisation and staying on top of metrics is a constant work in progress for me.

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Are there any skills you’re trying to learn at the moment? What is your process of learning new techniques?

Right now a massive chunk of my energy is being invested into learning more about marketing - understanding strategy, identifying metrics that matter and analysing these, creating content that aligns with the metrics and maintaining consistency. I don’t know if this is classified as “new skills” but it is definitely a learning curve! I’ve been “reely” trying to be present on Instagram more consistently (see what I did there).

What cool things are you working on right now, and where can we follow your journey?

We are in the process of planning out our first-ever live event, taking place on Sunday, May 29th, 2022! The event (to be named) is a market spotlighting local and sustainable brands from the neighbourhood (Toronto and Hamilton, ON, Canada), providing consumers with a one-stop shop for green living products. We will be hosting a variety of vendors, from natural soy-wax candle makers to eco-friendly bath and body products, to recycled fabric home decor, etc.

The event will be held at Brunswick Bierworks - a local brewery in Toronto’s bumping East end, and feature live music from Toronto artists. We are super excited for this to unfold and are hopeful that we can garner enough attention and traffic to make it a more frequent occurrence - because people deserve to access sustainable products at every turn! You can track our journey via our Instagram page @sowsweetgreetings or check out our website for updates at www.sowsweetgreetings.ca. Thank You so much for following and it’s been “sow” nice chatting!

- Dante Ludolf