It's hard enough to be a full-time mom with a four-year-old; it's even harder to try and build a business from the ground up all by yourself. But that's what Trisha Howander, owner of Mitani Designs, has done. Her whimsical bedding and illustrations grace the rooms of many infants and toddlers in Vancouver and beyond - selling online and at prestigious stores like The Cross in Yaletown.
The Vancouverite sat down with Trisha to get a glimpse into this mompreneur's crazy world of building and expanding a home-based business while juggling an energetic four-year-old. One thing's for sure - she can't wait until her toddler goes to school so Trisha can dedicate more time to building her business.
How did you get started with Mitani Designs?
I studied interior design in college. When I graduated, my first job - for the first seven years - was working for a children’s furniture store in Toronto doing interior design for children’s rooms and nurseries. I felt like I was really good at it. I loved it and it was fun and people were having fun with it. I was creating whimsical spaces for kids and I’d source fabrics for bedding, draperies and furniture. I’d even have custom furniture made so I had a really great time doing that. The store expanded and the company offered me a position to start the store in Vancouver.
I just fell in love with Vancouver and with the man who would eventually become my husband - he delivered furniture for the store. I then got hired as a showroom manager at Crown Wallpaper and Fabrics and met more of the design community in Vancouver - interior designers and architects working on residential and commercial projects.
Eventually, however, I felt like I was falling too much into a sales position and losing my creativity, which I really wanted to focus on. I felt like I was losing touch with myself. After I got pregnant and went on maternity leave, I decided to start working on my own business and going back to my original passion that I fell in love with so long ago which was doing kids rooms. So I created this plan to start my own line of kids decor. It was a fairly successful first year after my daughter was born but I’m burning myself out a little bit.
I used to source my fabrics from wholesalers in the US, from small companies. I made my own bedding, doing all the sewing myself but then I would see these fabrics in other things - in tea towels and leggings and t-shirts - I felt I wasn’t unique enough. So a couple years later I decided to develop my own line of fabrics as well. I really wanted to stand apart - to have my own look and my own vision/identity with Mitani. It took about a year to create the line. In Spring 2014, I launched the Mitani Exclusive Collection, which is printed on premium organic sateen so it’s a bit more of a luxury feel than what I originally started with, which was more casual but still keeping with the certified organic cottons, keeping everything locally made.
So why kids’ rooms as opposed to any other rooms in the house?
It’s just what I fell into after school, working for that company and falling in love with it. I just didn’t want to do any other areas. I dabbled in it a little bit - living rooms and doing some decorating - I preferred that over the design. I wasn’t really great at AutoCAD, I didn’t really love the architectural side of things. I liked pretty things, I like to touch the fabrics and the wallpapers - it was just fun and I had so much experience with it, it became fairly easy.
Do you see yourself possibly expanding into other home decor?
Yeah, I do. The plan was to start off with the baby line, Mitani Baby. It’s going into pre-teen, young adult line. So growing over the years to eventually get into adults bedding and whole home.
So talk to me about the difficulty of trying to raise a child (4 ½ year old daughter) and doing this business by yourself.
It’s definitely a lot more challenging than I ever imagined it would be. Because I’ve taken on the marketing and the websites - (mitanidesigns.com and Etsy store) as well as other websites that I sell my product to, that I also have to maintain. Other shops and my retailers, I’m my own sales rep, I do everything myself and the accounting - I’m not a great numbers person! It’s taking on so many different roles, it’s really exhausting. But ultimately it comes down to working whenever I have any spare time at all. I’m with my daughter full time - she’s not in school right now.
Do you see yourself achieving any work-life balance in the near future?
Yes - once she starts to get onto a schedule and is old enough to go to school, I’ll be able to work more when she’s at school. I definitely plan on growing at that point. But right now it’s almost really part-time hours with a full-time business.
So what’s been the most popular product that people gravitate to, since you started this business?
Crib sheets and bedding. There are so many plan crib sheets and crib bedding out there these days. Toddler bedding - is also hard to find in order to fit these odd toddler-size beds. They don’t really make them. I do a lot of custom work with people when it comes to odd sizes: full bedding, from duvet covers to sheets and pillows.
The market is starting to really grow and explode and there are a lot of companies out there offering home decor for kids - what is the key to your success? Why are people coming to buy your stuff designs as opposed to going to the competition? What are you offering that people are looking for?
I think a big part of it is the idea of supporting small businesses, supporting local, that from a North American trend - there’s a big backlash that’s anti-Walmart, anti-mass-production that’s happening. And if people can afford it, they have that option then they would prefer to support small, home-based and mom-based businesses because they’re families as well and maybe someday they might have their own business. That’s how I feel when I shop. I would rather support a mom who’s trying to support her own family as opposed to a bigger businesses like Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware.
The unique patterns - they’re all designed in-house by myself, and are very unique. There isn’t anything else out there like mine. I try to keep the patterns very modern and something that would grow with the child so it’s not baby-ish and not child-ish so the child can’t grow with them through the years. People really appreciate the softness and quality as well.
When you’re sourcing for fabric suppliers and other things, are you sourcing locally or are you going out of the country? Are you finding it challenging to keep things made locally or are you lucky in that respect?
The hardest thing is definitely fabric printing, which is very difficult to find in Canada. To print wide with bedding fabric is really tough. I’m not finding a lot of suppliers - I’ve spoken to other small businesses that just cannot find Canadian printers. So printing, I have to source from the U.S., I don’t source any of my fabric overseas yet - but I may have to at some point given the weakness of the Canadian dollar against the U.S. I’d rather not, but that’s just the reality of business, but keeping the manufacturing 100% local. Not having that done overseas - want to support local workers. Even things like my packaging is a big one - my labels are all printed locally. My little twill labels is an organic cotton printed by a small mom-based company in the US. My art prints are printed locally - so I try and keep all my products done as locally as possible.
So do you find the local designer community to be very small and tight-knit - do you have a support group of mompreneurs or small business folk who you rely on or who you rely on yourself?
Yeah - it’s kind of great to get to know some of these people. Since I’ve started there’s been all these new companies popping up - particularly when it comes to childrens clothing (legging, etc.). There are a couple of small businesses I’m quite close with just to chat about business and support each other and talk about our challenges. So it’s really fantastic to meet the Vancouver-based companies and to help them get through some of the initial struggles that I went through in the beginning. Numpfer is a big one, Sarah Numpfer is wonderful. Jenny at Little Citizens, she does leggings. There’s a few good people out there that you can really rely on - they support you.
What does Mitani Designs look like in five years?
Definitely growing - being able to warehouse product. I would like to have it not in my living room! I am building a studio, so I’d like to warehouse product there. I’d like to have people working for me in Squamish doing my manufacturing there so I don’t have to drive so far like I do now to Coquitlam, where my sewing is being done. I’d like to have full-time sewers there. I’d like to have further stock, like to find ways to make things more affordable for people. If I can make more product at one time instead of piece-by-piece. And just to have a wider reach of the product. Right now, being so local and only reaching Vancouver, I’d like to be in more retail stores. I currently sell mostly online.