Say ‘Hi.’ Boutique greeting card company debuts in Madison

A dark period in Brenda Chamberlain’s life inspired Dear Bea Design Works, which aims to spread the same kind of cheer she found in handwritten cards and letters from friends.

Sometimes the lowest points in life provide inspiration that can take you to new heights.

Such is the case for Brenda Chamberlain, who recently launched Dear Bea Design Works, a boutique greeting card company based in Madison. The idea for Dear Bea came at a time when she needed it most.

“Life felt like a blur,” says Chamberlain. “The chaos of daily life left me feeling lonely and depressed. I had messages flying at me on my phone, yet I felt out of touch with many of the people most important to me. I came across a box of old cards and notes, filled with kind and thoughtful messages from friends and family. That really got me thinking, and I quickly began exploring the feasibility of a greeting-card business. Not long after, I got an unexpected greeting card in the mail from a dear friend with the sweetest message, and I felt so uplifted. I knew I was on the right track.”

For almost a year, Chamberlain, a former interior designer and nonprofit executive, had been exploring how to create a business that combined her design, business, and community experience in a way that improves the quality of lives. The idea for a greeting-card company came to her in January of this year, and since then things have quickly and naturally fallen into place.

Within a month or two, and with some after-hours help from her Chief Technology Officer (and husband) Rob Chamberlain, Brenda had a business plan, operational infrastructure, and a portfolio of design concepts. It took another four months of building, evaluating, and fine-tuning to get Dear Bea ready to launch.

Chamberlain admits she didn’t know anything about the greeting card industry before she jumped in, but the learning curve hasn’t slowed her down.

The scale of the work is entirely within her control, and because she’s a saver, Chamberlain has been able to launch the business without any external funding. Additionally, the turnaround time on producing the cards is relatively quick since Dear Bea uses a local printer in American Printing Company, so the fledgling company doesn’t have to hold much inventory. That’s given Chamberlain the freedom to plan on reinvesting all profits directly into business growth and development through the end of 2020.

“This is my primary work endeavor,” notes Chamberlain. “Combined with my husband’s business and technology expertise, my unique blend of experiences in design, business management, strategic planning, and community-focused work means we have the perfect foundation on which to grow and make this venture successful.”

Personal touch

The name “Dear Bea” came to Chamberlain naturally along with the business concept.

“My family and many friends have called me Bea since childhood, inspired by my little sister when she was first learning to talk. So, Dear Bea is how many of my own cherished notes have begun.”

Chamberlain spends her days jotting down ideas in sketchbooks and spreadsheets while caring for her three children. Then, like many working moms, she works well into the night to bring her ideas to life.

“I am constantly drawing and writing ideas in sketchbooks,” says Chamberlain. “My design ideas are often inspired by nature and architecture from around the world. The idea of block printing was inspired by my mom, who is a talented woodworker and used to carve some beautiful relief sculptures.

“I get waves when I am feeling especially creative, and then I devote as much time as I can to design work,” Chamberlain continues. “Most of my art begins with block printing, painting, and line drawing that I do by hand. Then I scan it into digital format, where I love to play with pattern and layout to come up with the final designs.”

Chamberlain prints new designs in very small sample batches of just 30 or 50 cards, and sometimes she’s surprised at which ones become her favorites and customer favorites. She reprints the favorites in batches of a few hundred. “I love that as a boutique business with a locally-made product, I can make things in small batches and experiment with my art and ideas.”

Of note, all of Dear Bea’s cards are blank inside, an intentional effort on Chamberlain’s part to provide a beautiful canvas that customers can bring their own voices to.

“I advise customers to embrace the personal touch of a handwritten card,” explains Chamberlain. “Not-so-refined handwriting, a word or two crossed out, several postscripts of things you forgot to mention — no problem! Embracing each other’s imperfections and vulnerabilities are part of what makes a friendship special, and I find it refreshing to occasionally write something that isn’t edited by a computer.

“We try to make our designs as spirited, smart, and chic as our beloved friends who inspired this business to begin with,” adds Chamberlain. “Our customers bring their own words and wit to each card, so we keep our messages simple. There are few things as authentic and meaningful as a hand-written note.”

Chamberlain notes there is no shortage of ways to communicate, and they all have their place. However, her greeting cards still stand out, and they help engage friends and family in an authentic, meaningful way.

“Whether sending or receiving, greeting cards give me a sense of belonging and happiness,” says Chamberlain. “Life keeps us all so busy, and many of my friends live far away, so it’s not easy to meet up for a cup of coffee or a drink. It is great when we can have a good phone call, but it’s hard to catch people and it’s difficult to get away from distractions.

“Hand writing a note requires taking a minute to unplug and reflect on what you want to say. It is almost meditative. On the receiving end, there is nothing like checking the mailbox and finding a card from a caring friend. It makes me feel so happy and valued.”

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