A Brief History of One Million Pencils
Spending hours sitting as a street fair vendor has given me ample time to craft an origin story for One Million Pencils, and pitching that story over and over again has left even me with a sweetened-condensed vision of my project. Usually the encounter will go something like this:
A street fair-goer will drift by, mistaking my pencils for fancy chopsticks.
When they ask why it is that I do not sell my product in pairs, I will point out that there is an eraser on one end of them, and that the artwork is probably not dishwasher friendly.
We’ll both laugh a little, and they’ll ask me “why pencils?”
And it’s easy for me to explain my romantic view of the simple pencil--how as an artist and writer I use them so often that I cannot imagine life without one. And that there is a tremendous need out there for pencils. My “Tom’s, but for pencils” is how I give back.
But what many business owners will tell you is that these perfect meetings of passion and need are less tidy than they sound. The same holds for One Million Pencils.
At the beginning, I don’t think that I really thought about pencils at all. All of those romantic notions--my respect for a pencil’s elegant utility, the extent it played in shaping me and my education, the recognition that to even own wood and graphite was a privilege… these are all things that I wouldn’t come to realize until a year or later into my project.
What I do remember about those days was how much time I spent drawing. I was into digital art at the time, and it was the only way that I could think to fill my free time. But for the amount of time I spent painting, there was something very dissatisfying about the payoff. I’d post to an online forum and occasionally be able to share with friends, but for the most part it was buried in a digital realm, doing little good for anyone.
In Christmas of 2013, at a family get-together I ended up talking with a family friend who worked for Empower Playgrounds, a Utah-based organization that brings electricity to Ghanaian villages using playground equipment. She mentioned the absolutely bare-bones state of many of the schools there, explaining how many well-intentioned organizations will build schools and move on, but that having a building to learn in is really only the first step in providing a child with a worthwhile education. For her organization the next step was electricity, but there were one hundred other ways to help. And I became aware for the first time of what it looks like to has a cause, and became conscious of a need that I might meet.
My mom, the main proponent for me spending less time on the computer, was actually the first one to suggest that I might do something with this need. I’d recently begun high school, and was restless for a project that I could use my artwork for.
And that was the idea that I went with--to raise funds for school pencils by selling “designer” pencils. I produced the first batch in summer of 2014, made a few local sales, and tried a few times to sell to museums, to little success. So during high school the project remained small and I mostly sold at street fairs, or through etsy and a few local boutiques. Occasionally I would send over a set of pencils with Empower Playgrounds, and that was the extent of my project.
My first breakthrough was pure luck, and wouldn’t come until my senior year. One of my college interviewers happened to have a background in sales, and was taken by my idea. He gave me a recommendation and the personal email of one of the Exploratorium’s buyers. And just like that I had my first big client.
The following summer I began pitching the idea to more museums, and backed by the credibility of the Exploratorium, bigger clients began to take interest in my project. I’m currently finalizing designs and order details with six of these San Francisco clients and am experiencing firsthand what startup owners mean when they speak of how rewarding it can be when a project begins to take off, after years or thinking and trying.
So maybe this post is a bit premature, because I don’t know where One Million Pencils will be by the time that I graduate college. But it’s not too early for me to honestly admit all of the help that I had along the way in this project, and how lucky I was in many cases. Both of my parents have backgrounds in business and were excited to help me in the early stages of my project, and I’ve been fortunate to have the time and resources to develop the skills that I’ve needed.
And now, living in the Bay Area and attending UC Berkeley (is there anywhere more exciting to be?), aware of how much there is that I don’t know, I have the chance to take business classes, and start putting to work all of the ideas and energy that have been in the back of my head for the last five years.
Sometimes I feel that all that I really bring to the table is a sense of design, and I still think that if I created a business with just my artwork that it would never go anywhere. Even when I had a cause, my idea didn’t seem to catch, and I’m humbled to admit all of the luck, and more importantly, connections, that have helped me get my feet off the ground. Someday I hope that I can give back to everyone who has helped me, but for now it’s so exciting just to see how things unfold.