I had covered the apartment walls with sketches and watercolors.
There was an image I made that day of an imaginary booth I had sketched and painted in. It was full of products we wished we could make and was exceptionally decorated—complete with mannequins, drapery and displays. I was excited, and I was 25. My mom, Gina Katkin, came home from her desk job that day in 2003 to my inspiration wall, and we evaluated the sketches. The night before, my mother had shared with me a vision she desired to bring something fresh and new to the wholesale gift and publishing market; something inspirational and different. She had a strong feeling about it and while she wasn’t exactly sure what to make, she felt we could work together using my artwork. She left for her desk job that morning, and I launched into action and started mocking up what we could create together if given the opportunity.
I had a strong painting and art journaling passion in those years and had a library of mixed media artwork tucked into my handmade books. No one had seen any of it before. It was raw and unrefined but vivid and interesting. My mother and I mulled over the booth paintings, the product ideas, her wholesale vision and my sketchbooks. We thought, “OK! So we don’t have any money yet for this. What’s the cheapest thing in these pictures for us to make so that we can get started?” A small loan from my grandmother (who had to have been quite underwhelmed by our business plan) sent us to the printer, and we printed our first run, comprised of 20 greeting cards featuring my artwork. We piled up 20,000 cards in the two-bedroom apartment my mother and I shared. With little planning, I dropped off a full set of cards to favorite shops across Los Angeles. I had a car with no AC, and the heat in the LA summer was unbearable. I arrived sweaty and crumpled but eager to share our work. I delivered a stack to each business and to our surprise, the phone started ringing the next day.
We are grateful to say that the phones at PAPAYA have been ringing ever since, for the past 16 years. In those early days, we lived and worked in a tiny apartment with my toddler son. We hand glittered cards and made the dining table our shipping station. I worked around the clock to refine my graphic design skills, and my mother worked a full-time job to support us all while doing production work at night with me. We shared business responsibilities, talked about money habits, Quickbooks and workflow.
We had to learn to not just see each other as mother and daughter but as partners. And, that took some time and some awareness to slowly slip into a new dynamic together. As the daughter, that was harder for me initially. I laugh now looking back. I would cry every time my mom would call me out on my spending or correct my paperwork! We had to find places where we each excelled in the business and where we didn’t in order to bolster those traits so that we could become a good team. And, we did. Within two years, we were both full-time with PAPAYA and growing quickly.
We left LA in search of a garage we could afford! We grew from the dining table to the garage…garage to mini-warehouse, then two mini-warehouses, and eventually, we bought our company office and distribution center. We went from 20 greeting cards to hundreds of diverse and active product offerings at a time, cycling new artworks and experimenting with manufacturing each season.
Our love of the industry led us on an inside-out journey and eventually from wholesaling our goods to boutiques to actually opening our own shop. We opened our two-story flagship boutique, PAPAYA Living, in the heart of Ashland, Oregon, where our brand is based. Several years later, we opened a second boutique concept, Jupiter Row mercantile. And in 2019, we launched Fireweed which is a celebration of pressed flowers and the botanical matrix.
The boutiques are a natural extension of our love for beauty and the three-dimensional expression of our aesthetic.
Over the years, we managed to do many things we didn’t know how to do. Throughout it all, when we found we had a goal we didn’t know how to accomplish, we would simply take it one step at a time. Business is really just a series of questions that you answer one by one. Some questions are easier to solve than others, and some require lots of trial and error. Those questions and resolutions add up to a wealth of vast information and knowledge specialized for your particular business. And, our business has always been a little pretty, a little gritty and a lot of love. This is the method we have stuck to in our brand, and we still work this way when we want to solve new problems, make something we’ve never made before or explore fresh ideas.
Having a passion-based, creative business is a dream come true. Working as a mother-daughter team allowed our very unusual business to thrive. My mother had raised me under her entrepreneurial wings; first as an artist making Batik and stained glass when I was a baby, to eventually maturing to own and operate a thriving boutique and fitness center in Alaska for nearly 20 years. And while she insists on being behind the scenes and out of the public eye, her moxie and Viking-level willingness to work hard and make a gamble, along with her experience of running a real business, have been invaluable.
I came with an unyielding creative outflow, an obsessively creative mind and plenty of ignorance to keep me happy as pie. Together, we were able to fortify our individual attributes and find ways to complement each other while uplifting the business. We have varied our skills, knowledge and wheelhouse over the years to maintain the lasting brand that we have.
The first fast years of having a new business are so much fun. There’s so much momentum and confirmation flowing that it’s a rush. But, the work of maintaining and keeping your vision alive requires a whole different kind of energy and maturity that requires tending. I am honored to be making this long soulful journey with my incredible business partner and mother, Gina. It is our combined journey that makes the brand so special to us because it is exactly that. It is us.
A passion-based creative business is the marathon of a lifetime — a privilege and honor that requires not only a love of what you do but an unwavering expression of who you really are.