You know, Anne Shirley Cuthbert was really on to something when she mused on the realities of kindred spirits and bosom friends. Truly, in life, there are individuals with whom we feel connected — in a kind of beautiful, soul-connecting unison. Even virtually, Sara McNally, owner of letterpress stationery company Constellation & Co, feels to me like a dear kindred spirit. We both share a deep love for stationary, snail mail, and Seattle, as well as a belief in the magnificent power of words and a desire for meaningful connection. Tucked into a gorgeous studio in the historic Fishermen’s Terminal, Constellation & Co creates beautiful paper products with meaningful messages. A powerhouse female entrepreneur, Sara is my hero in every way — the kind of woman who exudes strength, knowledge, grace, and zeal for life. I have been infinitely inspired by her well-rounded wisdom, joyful perspective, and passionate determination. In this week’s Talking Shop, Sara tells us about creating from experience, bringing an ancient letterpress back to life, embracing passion projects, and realizing the blessing of “beautiful plan Bs.”
Tell us about your journey to Constellation & Co. How did you get your start?
I graduated from Ringling College of Art & Design with a graphic design degree in 2009. While dating my husband and daydreaming about our future, we chose the name Constellation & Co. for our maybe we’ll do this someday company. We’re both space nerds and loved the idea of individual stars coming together to create something bigger than themselves. It’s always been a big part of how I see the company, and what I’m able to do as part of it, versus what I can accomplish on my own. After college, I struggled to find a job due to the recession. I eventually got bored and frustrated enough to start my “someday” company at 22 years old. I like to call Constellation & Co. “my beautiful Plan B.”
Tell us about buying and refurbishing your first letterpress.
My mentor had heard about a press for sale and connected me with the woman who was looking to sell. It was a Chandler & Price platen press from the 1920s. The press had been dropped off a moving truck at one point, and had been sitting dormant next to a washing machine in a garage ever since. It was in several pieces and covered in rust. It was totally a bad idea to buy a press that wasn’t in working condition, but I did it anyway. I spent full 8+ hour work days scrubbing rust, oiling parts, Googling diagrams, and pouring over letterpress forums to figure out how to bring it back to life. With some elbow grease, help from my mentor, and many hours of work, eventually she was up and running. Her name is Josephine the Printing Machine, and I doubt I’ll ever be able to part with her.
Walk us through your process of designing and creating cards.
I’m always writing cards, even when I’m not intending to. I keep a messy notebook/journal/sketchbook and write down anything and everything that strikes my fancy. I document my life, scribble down scraps of ideas, and get big feelings out of my body and onto the page. Every few weeks, I go back and read what I’ve written and pull out the words and ideas that are worth pursuing. I refine the words as needed, weave them into a typographic design in Adobe Illustrator, and order photopolymer printing plates that can be used on our antique presses.
Why are you an advocate for snail mail?
I’ve loved snail mail since I was a little girl. That affection was what drove me to apply my ideas to greeting cards in the first place. I’ve always loved writing, and I’ve always kept and cherished the letters I receive. Snail mail represents real connections with people, near or far. It takes time and effort, which makes the receiver feel valued and special. Writing letters gets us off our phones and computers, and out of our heads. Investing in snail mail has been an antidote for me in seasons of sadness. It brings real joy to me and others. I can’t help but advocate for more of it!
What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned while running your own business?
I’ve learned to be aware of how other people in my industry are doing things, but not to keep that knowledge from doing things that are different but that are working for me. I’ve learned that my ideas of success change over time, and that it’s an okay thing to change my mind and make changes in my business. I’ve learned that change is always coming whether I want it or not! I’ve learned to ask for the things I want and be proactive instead of waiting for opportunities to fall in my lap. I’ve learned that struggling doesn’t make me a failure, and that below the surface, everyone else is struggling too.
How have you seen yourself — and your business — grow since your journey started?
I’m much more patient than when I started, but still not nearly patient enough. I’ve found my voice and grown much more confident in who I am as a writer, designer, and business owner. I’ve grown from someone who hides behind my business to someone who uses my business to amplify my voice. I’ve stopped trying to be everything for everyone, but instead have been on the lookout for true kindred spirits.
Why is Seattle your ideal location for Constellation & Co.?
I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I get sad every time we leave, and feel joy every time we arrive home. Seattle is ideal for C&Co because it’s ideal for me. I need water, mountains, seasons, and city like I need air to breathe.
Describe a day in your life.
Every day is different, but they all start with coffee and end with singing songs to my kiddo for bedtime and washing my face. Part of why I love my job is that every day is unique and I can be as flexible as I need or want to be. I split my time between working on location and working from home with my 4-year-old son. I wear pajamas all day at least once a week. I’d love to be a person with an impressive CEO routine, but I’ve always thrived on variety. I definitely make plans for my days, weeks, and months, but they’re flexible. If I wake up and feel like writing all day, I do it. If it’s a particularly nice day, I clear my to-do list and take my kid outside. My life is beautiful and messy, and I’m learning to appreciate it more and more each day.
What has been your proudest accomplishment?
A few proud moments:
Winning a Best New Product Award at the National Stationery Show
Having my work published in a couple of books
Opening our brick & mortar shop
Finishing the writing of my first book (still working on the rest of that process!)
Hearing my son tell me “I like you just the way you are”
What inspires you? What inspires your cards?
Life inspires me, in all its beauty and ugliness, and in all its joy and pain. While I try to keep things professional & discrete, I can’t really separate my work life from my personal life. If I write cards about infertility, it’s because I’m going through infertility. If I’m writing about grief, it’s because I’m experiencing grief. I write from experience. I’m typically not as well-spoken as my cards are in the moment, but I try to gather up all the wisdom I can from what life has sent my way.
Tell us about your passion project Snail Mail Superstar.
Snail Mail Superstar is about fun and connection. It started as a way for me to try something that was totally out of my comfort zone, and learn some new skills. Making videos about my work and life has helped me to see things differently. It’s easy to get distracted from the magical moments of our life in the rhythm of the day-to-day. Capturing my life on camera and sharing it has helped me to see all there is to love about my life. As kids, we constantly talk about the things we love – our favorite color, favorite food, favorite sport, etc. As adults, we don’t make time to get excited about things we enjoy. Snail Mail Superstar has been a joy because it’s helped me dive into things I enjoy. It’s also brought so many delightful people and so much beautiful snail mail my way!
How do you avoid burnout?
No one avoids burnout. We all get there. It’s about what you do once you’ve arrived there. I often get stuck in a rut and believe that things have to be exactly as they are. The reality is, if I’m unhappy, unfilled, or feeling burnt out, I can make changes. They don’t even have to be major changes! Just taking a walk around the block without my phone can be enough to snap me out of my funk. Burnout isn’t the end of the story, it’s an opportunity to make small and large changes and regain control of the narrative.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Don’t be afraid to ask for help and don’t be afraid to admit you can’t do everything on your own. But also give things a Google and try things out before you give up.
Make mistakes and learn from them. (You will anyway, but if you put it on your to-do list you’ll feel better about it.)
Seek out community with an abundance mindset and run far away from people with a scarcity mindset.
Be SO patient. Don’t compare yourself and your business to others.
Set goals and write them down. Check back in periodically, and celebrate when you meet them. No one will celebrate them for you, it’s worth taking the time to do it.
I love this blog post you wrote about patience and celebration. How can creatives stay motivated when their goals seem unattainable?
If your goals seem unattainable, set more goals. Set so many goals, you’re bound to attain a few. Set goals for your day, your week, and your year. Set goals for personal growth, and celebrate those the biggest. Business wins will come and go, but if you’re growing along the way? *Chef’s kiss* That’s the good stuff.
The Fun Qs:
Favorite meal in Seattle?
The Tacos Chukis from Tacos Chukis are possibly my favorite meal ever.
Latest Netflix/Hulu binge?
I just caught up on Jane the Virgin and boy howdy do I love those strong ladies!
What one book do you always recommend to friends?
Lately, I’ve been talking about Michelle Obama’s book Becoming to everyone who will listen.
Recipe for the perfect snail mail correspondence?
A fountain pen, a cup of coffee, a quiet place to write, a witty card, and a wax seal to finish it off.
What are your favorite out-of-office activities?
Drinking coffee while walking outside and listening to a podcast!
Sara McNally is the owner of Constellation & Co, a letterpress stationery company and brick & mortar gift shop located in the Seattle Fishermen’s Terminal. When Sara’s not working at the shop, she’s sending snail mail to her loved ones, buying copious amounts of fountain pens and wax seals, and spending time with her husband and son. Follow her on Instagram and subscribe to her YouTube channel.