Wit and Insight with Mike and Melanie, Co-Founders
Mike Sayre and Melanie Bridges originally met at Hallmark, where they had worked together for a few years on multiple innovation projects. After they realized their visions and skill sets matched up, they combined their powers and began creating shiny new products. By Stephanie Summers
Name your greatest success.
MS: The fact that we still exist.
MB: I think there are little things that always make me really happy. It’s when our customers engage with us and when something that we’ve made makes them happy and they share it. Like, I might see one of our t-shirts in a magazine, and I’m just like “what the crap!” That just blows my mind a little bit. There are so many companies to choose from, and this is weird, but sometimes we’re just like “why do people like our stuff?” (They both laugh)
MS: Yeah there’s a weird disconnect. I mean, it is gratifying and weird at the same time that other people know who we are and like our products. But looking at the data, we’ve got like 1,000 stores, so we know someone definitely likes our products! By the same token, out in the world… I was in the Atlanta airport and I saw someone wearing one of our shirts, and I’m like trying to very subtly take a picture of them while they’re in the security line. It’s just so weird to be immersed in the world of sales reps and “on paper” success that when we see it in the real world it is easy to forget that people actually like our stuff. It’s nice to see that people care that much about what we do, like when people tag us on Instagram.
What is your go-to when you need inspiration?
MB: When I’m in a rut, I would want to do something that doesn’t require creative-thinking power. Back when we had shipping here, I would just go over there and help bubble wrap glasses, or something else repetitive. I need that break for my brain, I think, to give myself time away from the creative problem solving. Some people I know tend to want to do more creative things on top of what they’re doing, to continue the creative mindset. I’m totally the opposite of that, I need to do mindless things to take a break.
MS: My work area and everything is a disaster, so I tend to organize. If I have a break to take away from creative work, I might clean everything up. Right now we’re renovating and trying to figure out where everything goes … maybe to put off product design? (laughs)
MB: Back when we were starting out, we used to go to antique shops and look at stuff
MS: I don’t really watch anything new, unless I can binge watch it (except I’m always working) I’ll put on things I’ve seen before so I doesn’t have to pay attention. I like podcasts, and I’ve found some that are comedy-based.
MB: I will watch Netflix ‘all day long’ while working on stuff - CSI, Law & Order, those kinds of shows
Tell me about the evolution of your product design.
MS: We started the vending machines just screwing around. We put them in coffee shops, retails stores etc. and they did really well. We always knew we wanted to do something beyond that. We didn’t know what that would turn out to be.
MB: I don’t remember ever talking about it. I think we had similar visions, but it wasn’t like we ever sat down and wrote a business plan, or said exactly what we were gonna do.
MS: There was a niche in the marketplace for things that we wished existed.
MB: We thought we’d start with greeting cards. There are preconceived notions in society of how and when to buy cards- for instance guys buying cards on Valentine’s day. We found that nobody really catered to a masculine audience.
MS: It’s like it’s obligatory, on holidays.
MB: We find it is much more fun to get something unexpected. Everyone expects to get birthday cards, which just go into a box or the trash, unfortunately. When you get something out of the blue it means more.
MS: And that’s what we were trying to do with our cards, because we don’t make cards for major holidays. We put them out there for people to discover them and think “Oh, I’m gonna find a reason to send this.” Maybe it is kind of cocky on our part to think of it that way.
MB: I don’t think about it that way.
MS: Well, neither did I until this second! We also show them at trade shows and sell them in boutiques. In the beginning, it was a hard sell. We had the vending machines, and we knew we could not scale them, nor were they easily portable. We had to figure out a way to do it (provide cards on a larger scale) where the cards could be displayed full face and that you could go through them quickly. We wanted to maintain that same aspect. When we first went to trade shows, it was very odd to watch some of the store owners as they looked at our cards on display.
MB: Yeah they wouldn’t read the inside! Basically what was being displayed for boutiques was letterpress cards with blank insides cello-wrapped so that they could go on a wall.
MS: Nobody really put copy on the inside, so people were so trained to only read the front. We display our cards so that they’re open, and that people can read the inside. When they got to our cards, they would go through each one, and close it so they could read the front.
MB: We were just thinking how it didn’t even make sense to only read the front.
MS: Yeah they would chuckle at the front of the card, but there aren’t any jokes on the front, so I don’t even know what they were doing. So eventually people have started responding on a consumer level. Stores have started to get more comfortable with this alternate format, because of the positive consumer response.
MB: People really love the voice and the personality in the cards, so we thought “why don’t we just start making T shirts?” It is just an extension of expression, when people can express themselves through shirts.
MS: We definitely now have product ADD. We just kinda do everything that comes to mind.
MB: I like vintage barware and glassware, so we thought we’d do some gold foil and glassware. Now you can tell we love vintage things and are inspired by them, but we still want them to look modern and fresh.
MS: We try to ride the line between novelty and fine china. There’s kind of a whole in the market for stylish well designed items that have personality.
Is there a quote or saying that has been inspirational for you?
MS: There is an advertising book I found in college called A Smile in the Mind by Beryl McAlhone, that is really dated now, but has example of clever advertising through history. I do often think about it. I don’t expect people to laugh out loud at what we make, but I do at least want them to laugh on the inside. Having that extra little bit left to the imagination. The thing about most products now is that there’s nothing left for interpretation, things are very spelled out for people. Like “here’s the joke, did ya get it? We will make sure you get it”. We like to think that people are smart, and will respond to the cleverness in our products.
MB: Not all people get our products…
MS: Oh, I’ll be the first one to admit that we make some things that people definitely don’t get.
MB: But we like that when they do it is a special moment.
What first called you to the field of graphic design?
MB: When I was a kid I wanted to be a lawyer. I actually took a couple of law classes in college just to see if that was something I would want. I did fine in the classes, but I was not passionate about it. As I was growing up, my dad was someone who absolutely loved what he did, and that was very aspirational for me. I wanted to be able to go to work and, most of the time, love what I was doing, and feel proud of the work. I didn’t go directly into design at first. I thought I wanted to go and be a ceramicist. When I finally found out what design was, I was just like “Yes. This is me, this is perfect. I love type and art together.” So it was a good path.
MS: Well, I had never thought of it as a profession. I always liked packaging when I was growing up, but didn’t realize who would be designing all that stuff. I never really thought about it. I don’t think I knew what I wanted to be. When I was a tiny kid, a “kid” kid, I wanted to be a veterinarian, because I love animals. I know, we have a lot of animals mounted on the walls. We didn’t kill them I promise. We rescued them!
MB: That’s John, and that’s Ted. (laughs). John is the deer. We take John to all of our trade shows, and put him on display. He’s been to New York a few times.
MS: So when I was a “kid” kid, I think I wanted to be a vet because I loved animals, but then I thought it would be really sad for a person that loved animals, and so I wouldn’t be good at that at all. Then I’m pretty sure for the next fifteen years I didn’t think about it at all. I knew I liked building things and making things. My dad wanted me to be an engineer, he was an electrical engineer. I decided really late my senior year that I was gonna go to art school, and be a computer animator. So I put together a portfolio of stuff, and I went to an art school in Columbus, Ohio. Halfway through my first year I discovered design and advertising. I was always super critical of advertising growing up. I used to make fun of it and always thought I could do it better. So I majored in advertising with a minor in copywriting. I did some advertising for a couple years after school, and hated that, and that’s when I ended up going to Hallmark.
When you were starting Easy, Tiger, what would you say was the best piece of advice you were given?
MB: I wouldn’t say that this is a piece of advice, but the people that would say, “You can’t do that” were very motivational. That kind of negative talk starts a fire inside of me that makes me want to prove everybody wrong. There were a lot of naysayers that would tell us what products weren’t going to work. So I wanted to show them that we’d make it word, or somehow prove them wrong. The people that want to see you fail really get me going.
MS: Sometimes it can just be a competitive marketplace.
MB: Some people have told us in the past that the vending machine idea was not do-able.
MS: I always say, do what you feel is right. If you feel strongly about doing something, good! Just because it hasn’t been done in the marketplace doesn’t mean that’s a reason not to do it. I think people thought we were crazy when we started selling liquor bags. Instead of a gift bag for a wine bottle… we thought it was clever to make a play on a brown paper bag. People wondered why consumers would buy that, but it has turned out to be one of our most popular formats. You just can’t get discouraged by the pre-existing notions of what you should be doing in the marketplace. Like our cards. Because they were in the vending machine, we packaged the envelope so that it was folded around the card. There’s a big crease in the middle of the envelope.
MB: Oh and so many people hate that. They would tell us “No one is ever going to send a card in something like that, if the envelope doesn’t fit the card perfectly.”
MS: Store owners would tell us that since the envelope didn’t fit the standard mailing size. However, we’ve never had a complaint from the consumer that’s buying them.
MB: So it’s important not to listen to those kinds of things.
MS: The positives in my mind outweigh the negatives that people are saying. Also we probably aren’t exactly the kind of people that seek out advice, so that’s why we don’t have a simple answer. We’re very much “we’ll figure it out” kind of people. We also don’t know alot of people that are in a similar position as us. We’re in the middle of establishing processes. What’s best for our business is not going to be what’s best for someone else’s business.
Any words of wisdom for design students?
MB: Really pay attention to typography.
MS: People who can work with type are going to be 100 times more successful. You could be the best designer in the world, but if you don’t understand type, forget about it.
MS: I wouldn’t claim that I have the best color knowledge, but it is important. Also to pay attention to file preparation, and getting those details right. I don’t think employers can get enough of detail oriented people. Alot of people that come out of school don’t understand fully what it takes to have proper file managment
MB: When I was in school they were certainly not teaching proper file management.
MS: My files looked like a nightmare until the very end. I went to a very conceptual fine arts school, and I’m appreciative that I did that, but in my first job out of school at an ad agency I was doing mindless file prep work and getting catalogs ready so I was able to learn that there.
MB: I would also say not to be scared to take your portfolio to get reviewed by those in the industry. You can ask people just to meet with you and give you feedback on your portfolio. Even if they’re not hiring, you can always ask for a portfolio review from companies. I did that alot when I got out of school. It not only helps you talk about your work more, but it puts you in a situation where you’re uncomfortable. It is really important to practice how you talk about yourself and your work in an interview. So even if there is not job opening, it’s always helpful to get a review.
So just go to someone you don’t know?
MB: Yes. I called all of the ad agencies that I could. I remember calling Sullivan, Higdon & Sink and Design Ranch. I just called them up and said “Hi. You may not have any jobs available, but I am just fresh out of school and I would love to get my portfolio in front of you and see what your thoughts are."
MS: And that includes us, we would be fine with reviewing someone’s work if they brought it to us. I think most people would take that as a compliment that their opinion was sought out.
You just can't get discouraged by the pre-existing notions of what you should be doing in the marketplace.
Easy, Tiger: A History
"We started with vending machines. Old, gross ones, to be specific. We saved a few from the scrap heap, resurrected them by hand, and used them to deliver our first cards to coffee shops around Kansas City. (We still do that, in fact.) But Easy, Tiger turned into so much more. Now we're not just about cards: Easy, Tiger is about fun. The kind of fun they write books about. Then burn. You can find us in an old warehouse in Kansas City, MO, that we've filled with stuff we love - like taxidermy, a Pachinko machine, and trophies. Lots and lots of trophies."
Looking for more? You can find Easy, Tiger here.