Owen de Lancie & Emily Warkentin: Founders, Point Two Design

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Owen de Lancie and Emily Warkentin graduated from the University of British Columbia's School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. After quitting their jobs at architecture and urban planning firms they started Point Two Design in 2014. They started out selling in local artisanal markets and have since sold over 30,000 maps globally.

How did you get into the industry?

We originally met in Architecture school in Vancouver Canada. We had been in a small 24 person intensive design studio for 2 years together in which we worked on both architecture and urban planning projects. When we graduated we both went off to work at different Architecture and urban planning firms in Vancouver. I (Owen) had been doing a bunch of GIS (Global Information Systems) work for an urban planning office in town. I was tasked with collecting raw municipal mapping data to compile into workable plan drawings. Most of GIS work is of a science and data aesthetic, i.e. interesting and informative but not very pretty. We both loved maps and in my spare time I had started to create some more aesthetically pleasing versions of the maps I was creating in the office.

We went to a local printing store near us and I had printed a few of my designs out and put them up in our apartment in some cheap Ikea frames. There they sat for a couple of years. But as more friends and family saw the maps there were more requests for printing versions out for themselves.

Emily worked as a creative director at a marketing agency and made and sold soap at weekend craft fairs. The joke in Vancouver is that because rent accounts for roughly half of one’s income, everyone in the city has side a hustle. Although that’s not much of a joke I guess.

I had been attending these events, helping Emily set up and take down her market table and on occasion sticking around with her at the shows. One day it occurred to us, having talked to a vendor selling handmade greeting cards, that maybe we should start selling our maps at these fairs.

Our first fair was in a hipster neighborhood in Vancouver and it went better than we ever could have planned for. By midday we had sold out and rushed to the print shop for another batch of map prints. We were met with a line up of map seekers, cash in hand, upon our return. We sold out again before the end of the day and even sold off a print that we had used to make a makeshift sign saying: “Will be back soon with more maps.” To this day I think about where that map is and if it’s still up in someone’s house.

From that day forward we started to take the idea of maps as art much more seriously and are now full-time mapping designers selling data as art internationally online and at over 100 brick and mortar retail vendors in Canada and the USA.

Any emerging industry trends?

Our focus has always been bootstrapping. New projects and upgrades are funded solely through profit earned. Part of the key to this model is insisting on never holding stock nor printing more than we needed for each order. Today the industry calls this “print on demand” but even 5 years ago this term was largely unheard of in print design and manufacturing or in the e-commerce space.

The print-on-demand e-commerce model has become easier than ever. This is great news for us, but we recognize that because it has become increasingly easy to open up an online store selling printed t-shirts, art prints and almost anything else you could think of, the market is in danger of becoming oversaturated with mediocrely designed goods. Print on demand seems to be the latest version of drop shipping from Alibaba. We never wanted to compromise the quality of our prints and had to find vendors in both Canada and the USA who we trusted to print our maps to our standards, package them and ship them out as orders came in.

One aspect about print on demand that we’re excited about is that because this industry is growing, we’re seeing an increase in the quality and number of the items we could print on. We’re excited to see more laser cutting and 3D printing join the scene. As fulfillment and manufacturing of these items are primarily in the US, there is also the potential for the addition of jobs locally in an industry hit hard by asian markets while at the same time  helping the environment by reducing waste in excess manufacturing and product loss through warehousing damage and obsolescence.

Any industry opportunities or challenges?

One of the key links in our on demand printing chain is fulfillment logistics. Shipping has always been an integral part of any internet based retail business and the expectation from the consumers increase as more and more of us shop online more frequently. Amazon and large e-commerce companies like it have created an unsustainable expectation for “free-shipping” where by Amazon takes a large cut in their profits to offer free shipping with the advantage of knowing smaller online competitors cannot compete and will eventually leave the market.  

Fed-Ex recently announced its plan to service the underserved part of the market which is small- to medium-sized online sellers unsuccessfully looking for competitive shipping prices by offering specialized fulfilment centers to these underserved business owners like us. This could alleviate some of the problems created through a lack of even distribution. However, action on that announcement seems to have stalled and no other company has stepped up to the challenge.

Someone in the logistics industry who can solve the problem of fixed costs to variable costs in shipping will be king and will have given a fighting chance to our societies growing number of small e-commerce businesses.

Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?

We started this business for our love of maps and data and this passion was aided by our skills with our conceptual, architectural training as well as the tools of the trade. Data and information has become one of the more important, if not the most important part of our modern world. Never before has information been so easily accessible.

We largely see data as something boring. However, we see just the opposite: data is what makes our world astonishing. When you see an amazing geological pattern in one of our satellite photographs or an explosion of green and blue color from a miles long plankton bloom in the ocean no one looks at that and says, “well that’s boring”. We are taught that beauty is subjective but the data art we are capturing is objectively beautiful.

We challenge the question: “what makes for beautiful art?” We purposefully use our talents and skills as designers to give as un-manipulated a view of data as we can so that everyone, no matter where you are from or what your background, can say “WOW that’s gorgeous! I have never seen fifteen square kilometers of tulips in bloom!”

Data is limitless and geographic data no different. We want to continue creating data art which either tells a story about their owner, where they are from or where they are going, or captures the objective beauty of our universe in a perspective rarely seen.

What's next for the Business in the near future?

Now that our system for automation and partnership with trusted printers has been cemented we are in a place where we can shift our focus back to the reason why we started this business: we love to design everyday objects that bring story and meaning into a space. Over the past two years we’ve honed our skills of finding the right software to automate different parts of the business to increase efficiency and quality of service and marketing our work in the e-commerce space. We’re excited to get back to creativity and design and have a few exciting product launches and artist partnerships planned to launch this year.

Emily and I plan to continue to travel as much as we can to soak up as much information and inspiration as possible. We have hard-drives full of projects to finish. Some good and some maybe not so good but we have a lot of work to pull from and now the fun work begins.

We recently established a partnership with The Planetary Society (one of the largest science based membership organizations in the world) with our newest brand My Orbiter - Earth Photography. The Planetary Society’s foundation of space exploration and science education parallels much of our own ethos and we are excited to see where this partnership can take us.

Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?

One of our key factors for success in the beginning was splitting our business into two parts; Wholesale and Online retail. Becoming successful with an online store is extremely challenging and can take a long time. With our wholesale business the ball was much more in our court. We wore the hat of salesmen and artists and cold called, emailed and walked into independent retail outlets across the country showing off our map prints.

We found immediate success from this project bringing revenue into the business right away but also acting as free marketing for our online brand. Many people find it too difficult emotionally to be that salesman for fear of rejection. It’s no different than the dating scene. But, once you get passed your fear and start landing some sales you find that you have validated yourself and your business in such a way to propel you forward into bigger success.

Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?)

Scaling, Scaling, Scaling… To this day we concentrate on finding ways to methodically scale our business vertically. We’ve faced trials and tribulations that comes with rapid growth, hiring, and marketing efforts. We found ourselves managers caught within our own cycle of customer service, order fulfilment and bookkeeping.

There is a concept in business of cultivation and innovation, you must cultivate what you already have but never rely on your old ideas. Innovation must always be an equal part of your work or you will ultimately become irrelevant. To be truly successful, long term, you must balance the two equally. For some time we had been focusing so heavily on growth off the back of a single idea that we started to lag behind innovating new ones that capture people’s attention.

As previously mentioned we are now more than ever determined to focus more on innovation and go back to what it is we do best and create. As long as you are putting your heart into your work and are focused on quality, growth will continue to happen and trying to force it too quickly does no-one any good.

Ideal experience for a customer/client?

Art is a very difficult industry. In most cases customers have two options: you can spend a lot of money hiring an artist to create beautiful and meaningful custom art or you can go to a box store and buy generic art, the kind you see in motels and hotels across the country.

There are not many options in-between. Our data art is that bridge as it both says something meaningful about its owner, can be customized, and does not cost a fortune.

Many of our customers have written to us how much our maps remind them of a place they love. The maps they’ve hung up evoke memories of important moments in life. As a smell takes you back to relive a moment in your past, our map art tells a story unique to each one of our customers and nothing makes us happier to hear.

How do you motivate others?

Emily and I have always been strong advocates for financial ethical responsibility. We believe that people should be paid fairly for the work they do. All of our subcontractors and artist partners know that when it comes to prices and payments we are all working as a team for the success of the business and must all feel good about the income we are making. When you have a team that trusts you to be fair, the quality of the work propels the business forward.

This goes to our clients in wholesale as well. We sell exclusively to independent retailers across the country. We work with them to make sure they are getting what they need to be successful in their market. We do not make deals with large corporate retailers not only because we believe they will become irrelevant in the economy soon but mostly because we believe in the independent makers and retailers who play fair and support the community of people like us and so we return that support.

We also like to support new artists and help them get their work into the e-commerce space and so we have a few artist partnerships planned for this year.

Career advice to those in your industry?

Ask many questions, never let one or even a few rejections stop you and always be persistent.

My grandfather created a family motto/poem years ago. And it goes like this…

“Press on! - Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men (and women) with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education alone will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistent and determination alone are omnipotent.”

It has been hanging on the wall above my desk for over a decade…