Pink, blue and yellow frosted doughnuts fill the baker’s racks at Twee Inc. in South Philadelphia. The sweet-looking treats look good enough to eat, even though they smell like paint and chalk. These doughnuts are for play.
They are the first homemade sidewalk chalk product designed by Kate Leibrand MFA ’14. Now her company has 10 different hand-painted and fun shapes, including sushi, cupcakes, ice cream cones, unicorn horns and planets.
Since its launch, Twee has blown up like dough in hot oil. Leibrand’s colorful chalk items are sold in Bloomingdales, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom, as well as in 350 smaller stores across the United States. The fancy chalk is also sold internationally in Australia, United Arab Emirates, Ukraine, Canada and Mexico. Prices range from $10 for a four-inch doughnut to $40 for a nine-piece solar system set featuring layers of colors.
“I started it as a side hustle on Etsy,” said Leibrand, who was a preschool teacher at the time. “I was just trying to make some extra money, and then when opportunities started coming up for it to actually become a real business, a profitable business, there were many leaps of faith that I had to take.” One of those leaps happened to be starting a company with no prior business experience.
MAKING THE DOUGHNUTS
Two years ago, Leibrand was teaching youngsters how to make their own play dough and slime, at Moonstone Preschool in Philadelphia.
“I found a recipe to make our own chalk and I tried to do it in class with them, and it went terribly,” Leibrand said. “But I saw the potential because it was a liquid mixture and we could pour it into any kind of mold. Ideas just kind of spun off from there.”
For her senior thesis at Moore, Leibrand worked with silicone and pouring molds. She now 3D prints her own silicone molds for new chalk shapes. The Moonstone preschoolers still serve as her focus group, and they don’t stint in their opinions.
“They can be pretty brutal,” she said, chuckling.
Figuring out profit margins and production costs was difficult for a teacher with an art degree. Leibrand counts on her business-major boyfriend to help with that, and she gets full-time support from her partner and co-owner Margaux DelCollo, a Moonstone parent who also pitches in to help package the products.
“We’ve relied on the goodness of other people helping us out and giving us advice and working through things with us,” she said, folks she describes as brand warriors. They include DelCollo’s husband, Josh Gilman; Leibrand’s father, Bob; and her boyfriend, Michael Galanek, who love spreading the word about Twee and helping when they can. Paid employees include Leibrand’s mother, Lisa, who hand paints the chalk; Brigid Squilla, director of operations, who also handles shipping; and four other women who assist in making and packaging the chalks. Leibrand’s sister, Carrie, designed the corporate logo and labels, and she works as a contract employee for Twee.
The growth of the company was so rapid that within two years Leibrand gave up her teaching job to lead Twee full time. She has collaborated with companies like Audi, producing a chalk version of its R8 sports car, and has made the Mo Willems characters Elephant and Piggie for Disney.
“We have new designs coming out every six months,” she said, “and we are diversifying our product, so it may not be all chalk in the next year.”
Leibrand said her success comes from believing in herself. That’s her advice for artists who want to start a business.
“Have more confidence in yourself and your ideas,” she said. “I know a lot of people who have really great ideas, but they have to have confidence in themselves. The worst thing that can happen if you try it is it won’t work out, and then you just move on to the next thing.”