Featured image: Echo and Teresa Hopkins, co-founders of Ordinary Habit
The great jigsaw puzzle boom of 2020 was the year's most interesting subplot as the pandemic's first stay-at-home orders drove consumers to new sources of entertainment. By the end of March, Google searches for puzzles spiked nearly 700%. One manufacturer saw a 370% increase in North American sales. Puzzles were sometimes as hard to find as toilet paper.
Teresa and Echo Hopkins, a mother-daughter duo, could have never predicted this scenario when they first conceived of Ordinary Habit in 2019. With a line of limited edition puzzles featuring artwork from independent artists, the brand's products arrived in stores and online amid the initial frenzy — and just in time to catch the eyes of tastemakers at The New York Times Style Magazine as part of a popular newsletter. Ordinary Habit rode the wave to end 2020 profitable, and the fledgling business is expanding into other product categories, including matching cards and accessories.
Below, Hello Alice caught up with the co-founders to talk about centering mindfulness, finding a manufacturer, and how to turn a trend into a sustainable business.
A big question from business owners on Hello Alice is how to find a business partner. Of course, you’re a mother-daughter team. Was that always the obvious choice?
Echo Hopkins: We definitely didn’t make the choice lightly, but once we really started working together and thinking through everything, it just seemed so obviously like the perfect fit. It’s so scary imagining doing it with someone who you can't implicitly trust because they aren't family. You kind of have this built-in trust when it is someone who you know, and has known you literally your entire life. So it's nice in that way.
Teresa Hopkins: Yeah, completely. I’ve seen other partnerships fall apart just because you think you know somebody, and then they turn out to be completely different when it comes to business. And it just doesn't work out! So I didn't want that to happen. I was certain that because we have such a solid mother-daughter relationship already that that wasn't going to happen. I really do know her. I mean, I probably know you better than most people, at least, right?
EH: I would say so! I know that we're incredibly lucky to be interested in working together and having it be part of a family business. Not everyone has that opportunity. There are so many things you look for in a business partner as far as their skill set, but the one thing that's most important is trust. It doesn't matter what skills you have; if you don't have trust, then I don't think the company will ever truly succeed.
How do your individual talents factor into how you break down the labor? Who handles what in this partnership?
TH: We really have sorted that out pretty well. I come from a graphic design background, so I do a lot of the pre-production and designing. Echo has the immaculate taste and a degree in art history. So she and I look things over and we decide together.
EH: I'm that person who kind of loves the nitty-gritty of spreadsheets and organizing and making calendars. That was another thing that we talked about when we were starting the company and seeing if we could really work together. There's always going to be some overlap because we both are interested in design and art. And then we can kind of divvy up the other tasks. I think I was really, really adamant when we started that I wanted to have a clear understanding of who would do what because I think I've seen in the past when that isn't defined, it can be what leads to disagreements. For me, it was really important to have that set from the get-go so that we could really just lock into what we were doing and kind of touch base throughout the day.
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Your product hit the shelves in the middle of a huge puzzle boom. How do you go from riding that trend into long-term success?
EH: That's been very much on my mind all the time right now, believe me. It's just been such a crazy thing to launch when we did. We thought we were going to have to kind of convince people that puzzles are something they wanted to do. And then we happen to launch exactly when everyone was already figuring that out on their own! I feel incredibly lucky for that.
As far as the future, we're trying to build an entire ethos around the product. When we decided on the name, Ordinary Habit, it really was stemming from a place where, yes, puzzles are something that you can sit and do in one go for however long it takes, but we were using them as a tool for mindfulness. For my mom, she makes a cup of tea in the morning, and for five to 20 minutes, she'll work on this puzzle. I was finding it helpful during the workday to take kind of a tea time break and get away from my computer and put my phone down and have five minutes to just focus on something else.
The idea of something bigger when it comes to an ordinary habit was really important to us. We launched a second product that's a set of matching cards, and then there are other products coming, too. Even when it came to the name, we didn't really want something that has anything to do with puzzles, because we just see that as our starting point, and really being able to build on this idea of these little habits that bring calm to your day or give you this moment of peace and time away from from the digital world.
It sounds trite to say, but you're selling a lifestyle. Right?
EH: Exactly. These things can be tools. So you know, people go to therapy as a tool or people have different teas they drink. We wanted to find something that was tactile. People have kind of forgotten how to work with their hands and make things, so providing them with with these kinds of products is something that we've enjoyed.
How did you find your manufacturer?
TH: It was really difficult. We really didn't want to do manufacturing in Asia, but we had a lot of trouble since there's only a handful of puzzle manufacturers in the U.S. and none of them were getting my concept. We have a very high-design type of product where everything's thought out between the colors, the paper, the finish, the things that go inside the box. Honestly, these manufacturers were discouraging. They said, 'Nobody will buy that.' And I was like, 'It's not up to you to decide! That's my job is to sell it!' But they all kept stringing me on for months, trying to talk me out of what I wanted to do. So finally, I went to Europe and found a couple manufacturers over there that were willing to listen to what I wanted. And finally we landed on one then.
What do you think made the difference?
TH: The thing that really came home to us is that the people we were working with in Europe were all women. A lot of the men in manufacturing, when you come to them as a woman, they don't give you the time of day. Almost every guy that I talked to did that to me until these women. These women said, 'Yes, we can do it. Here's what we can do.' And they furnished samples right away. Almost within a month, we were ready to roll with them. It didn't even take any time.
Again, this is something I'd love to share with the community on Hello Alice: It’s hard. You have this idea and you know what you want, and when it comes to getting a product manufactured, there's so many things that you have to do. For us, it was this really, really intense process of so many people telling us that it wasn't possible. It just takes one person who's saying, 'Yeah, of course we can do that' to actually make the thing that you've dreamt up come to life.
How did you find the money to start? Was it with savings and funds from friends and family to start?
EH: We had some savings that we put in, and then we had one friend of the family who was willing to add to that for us. And that freedom was something we had kind of researched and talked to a few people about, too. Everyone kind of has different opinions on it, but we knew we were really close to being financially able to launch this. And I think we were hoping — and still are hoping — to kind of keep it keep it close so we can kind of have it be the thing that we envision it as long as we can.
The brand has a very distinct aesthetic. How did you define what Ordinary Habit would look like?
TH: One of the huge parts of wanting to start this company was thinking how amazing would it be if these artists I love would partner with us on a puzzle. I thought it would be really interesting to have puzzles that were a little bit more abstract or without photos so that we'd immediately have a different offering than what was widely available. So, I decided to just kind of reach for the stars and contact the artists that I had in my mind just from following them on Instagram or through friends. After looking at our deck, all of them said yes! It was this kind of amazing experience, especially thinking back through how hard it was to convince the manufacturer to do it.
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What are the biggest challenges other than that manufacturing saga we've already discussed?
TH: I think running e-commerce. I've never actually run it from the background, and we've learned so much. That's probably our number one challenge, just trying to organize logistics and shipping.
EH: I think it's the things we couldn't have predicted, just because this isn't something that we had ever done before. Everything from shipping rates, to box sizes, to all of these things that no one ever talks about. I would love to talk to anyone who needs that information because I feel like we spent months and months now getting to the bottom of things and figuring things out. At first, we were feeling completely clueless.
TH: It's just something we really had to learn along the way. You have a great product. Now, what do you do?
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Where do you guys go to find the answers to those questions you have?
EH: It all definitely starts with the internet. Sometimes you're like, wow, a million other people have had this problem. And then it's really scary when you try to search for something, and there's nothing out there. We've been really lucky to have this network of people in our lives that have been incredibly helpful. If they don't have answers, they can point us in the direction of someone they used to work with, or, you know, someone they did a project with. Still, a lot of it has also been trial and error.
You're a puzzle company, but you've chosen to have a social mission by donating monthly to The Loveland Foundation, a group that brings opportunity and healing to communities of color. Why was that important to include as part of your business?
EH: From the beginning of talking about launching a company, we really wanted to be mindful about giving back in some way. And as we were deciding to launch last summer, it was such a wild time to be figuring everything out. How you can be starting this thing that in some ways seems so silly? It's a puzzle company, and all of this other stuff is going on in the world! It just seemed like the perfect opportunity to give back to a foundation that is really focused on helping with mental health, because that's something that we really are committed to trying to have as part of our brand. For us, doing a puzzle a couple minutes a day, it all kind of comes back to this mindfulness.
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Is there anything you want to say about Ordinary Habit or your last year and a half?
EH: I would just say that this has been an incredible journey — I feel like we all kind of have time dysmorphia. Right now, I can't believe it's only been months that we've been launched. I just feel incredibly lucky in so many capacities.
TH: I'm pleased that the products are being received well, but also that we have a product out there that does help with mindfulness. It's great to know that we sell something that's actually not only pretty, but it's useful. It really does help people in weird, weird little ways. So that's the idea: It's something to help people.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.