Mica May made her world a more beautiful place by simply putting pen to paper. Now, the May Designs founder tells Austin Woman why life is too short for ugly notebooks and how she finds time to enjoy work, cherish her family and create beauty in everyday moments.
It’s a gorgeous, sun-filled spring day in Austin and May Designs Founder Mica May and I are walking through historic Clarksville. The nearby quaint, teal-accented bungalow that serves as her company’s headquarters bustles constantly with activity, so she takes these walking meetings frequently. We’re on the subject of individual strengths, and May asks if I’ve heard of StrengthsFinder, an assessment (and a best-selling book) that helps people identify their unique mix of talents. As May rattles off her top five strengths—future-oriented, ideation, strategic, focus and command—I can’t help but notice how they seem to line up with her life’s trajectory so far.
May identified her love for marketing and design at an early age.
“My parents asked me, ‘What would be your dream job?’ I loved getting my nails done. At the time, OPI was really pretty forward-thinking with their marketing. They would do these collections with names like Paris, and the names of the colors would be something like Louvre Me, Louvre Me Not,” May says. “As soon as they launched a collection, they hosted these giant themed parties based on the color collection. I said, ‘That is my dream job. I want to come up with the colors, name the colors and host the events.’ ”
May enrolled at Texas A&M University, which, at the time, didn’t have many design classes or an advertising program. To earn college credit for the skills she wanted to learn, she petitioned the university for permission to write some of her own coursework.
“I wanted to learn everything there was to know about ad agencies,” May says. “So, I asked, ‘If I write Ad Agencies 101, will you give me credit for three hours?’ I ended up writing about 21 hours of my own curriculum.”
After graduating, May sold nearly all her possessions and bought a one-way ticket to New York City, hoping to land a job at an advertising agency. When she couldn’t find an agency job, her interest in event planning led her to a position at The Bowery Mission, a homeless shelter that provides food, medical services and employment assistance to homeless men and women. May’s official job was to plan charity events to raise money for the shelter, but when she noticed the event materials were a little lackluster, she took it upon herself to redesign them.
“Their materials weren’t great, and I couldn’t sell a $20,000 ticket to something if they were ugly,” May says. “Everything needed to reflect their heart, mission and brand. So I kind of gradually redid all their stuff, quietly.”
Meanwhile, May’s soon-to-be husband, Jonathan, was living in Washington, D.C. The pair met in college and had continued to keep in touch, even when they moved to different cities. “One day, he called me up out of the blue and said, ‘Hey, I want you to think about being my wife.’ And I said, ‘OK!’ We had not dated at all, but we were good friends,” May says. “I knew he was the person I always wanted to be with. If I had a hard day or a great day, he was the person I wanted to call and share it with.”
The newlyweds moved to Dallas, and May continued to work for The Bowery Mission long distance. Eventually, she took on more clients and started her own design firm. During this time, she began making notebooks for herself with customized inside pages and covers, which she hand-cut and stapled together.
“I couldn’t find any cute notebooks, so I was just making prettier ones for myself,” May says. “I love to create and problem-solve.”
Some of May’s design clients took notice of the notebooks she was always carrying with her and began asking if they could buy some that were branded with the logos she designed for them. She suspected she had hit on a good business idea and decided to test the waters with some of the women she knew through her local chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners.
“I thought, ‘If I can get 10 women to buy 100 of these notebooks with their logo on them, I’m on to something.’ I asked them for five minutes of their time, whipped up some mock-ups and drove them over to their place,” she says. “And they all said yes!”
Soon, May’s friends wanted notebooks, but with cute patterns instead of business logos on them, so May quickly made some patterns and put her notebooks up for sale on a website so anyone could order them.
“It got to the point where I didn’t know the people who were putting in orders,” May says. “It was addicting, not knowing who was buying my stuff.”
May’s next steps were to attend the Clampitt Paper School to learn how to improve the quality of her notebooks, then, to hit up The National Stationery Show to get noticed by both prospective retailers and the press. She landed a four-minute spot on Good Morning America. They told her to prepare for a few thousand orders. Instead, she received 33,000 orders in the span of just eight hours.
“I had to figure out how to produce all of those,” May remembers. “I started calling every web developer and engineer I knew. I was waking them up in the middle of the night. I called this one guy at 2 a.m. and gave him my spiel about how I needed SVG to convert to PDFs, and asked him, ‘Can you do this?’ He said yes, and now he’s my business partner.”
May and her new business partner, Jason Ford, were able to create a fully automated production process, which means when someone places an order on the May Designs website, it gets sent straight to the printer, then shipped directly to the customer. Everything is made completely on-demand, which also means there’s no inventory to keep up with, and new designs are available literally the moment they go live on the website.
“We’re able to innovate quickly; we don’t have to wait eight months and try to predict the trends,” May says. “When the Pantone color of the year was announced, within one day, we had a collection ready. We upload the patterns ourselves to our website, and they’re instantly available for purchase.”
May Designs currently offers notebooks, stationery sets, cards and photobooks, which are all customizable. There are more than 200 different notebook cover designs available to choose from and customers can make their own by adding lettering. (Names and quotes are popular choices.) Each notebook’s inside pages can be blank or lined, or customers can choose pages designed for a specific purpose, like a pregnancy diary, adult coloring book or kids’ handwriting practice.
“We lead our customers down this little trail of magic on our website,” May says. “They go through and decide on a pattern, choose a monogram or a quote, pick out their inside pages. … And when they get it, they feel like they’ve created something. Our products are really high quality and we equip them with beautiful designs, but they still have such a choice as they’re making something. I think that’s what’s so fun about our process.”
As May Designs grew, May focused on another important task: starting a family. She and Jonathan now have three children: Jackson, Madelyn and Harper. Jackson, the oldest, was born with Down syndrome.
“As soon as he was born, all of my hopes and dreams for him were put on pause,” May says. “I got this index card of every potential obstacle he was going to have to overcome: It’s going to take awhile for him to walk and talk, potty training is going to be kind of a beatdown, he may have a heart condition. But my mom didn’t get that card for me. She didn’t get a card that said, ‘Mica’s going to suck at math and not make the cheerleading squad.’ There are so many things I have completely failed at in life, yet she didn’t know there were so many amazing things for me around the corner. I am so excited to look at Jackson as his whole being. He brings so much joy to our family and everyone he meets.”
Knowing early childhood intervention would be beneficial for Jackson, May enrolled him at the Rise School of Houston when he was 18 months old. Rise Schools focus on providing high-quality, individualized early childhood education for both special-needs children and their typically developing peers. Jackson is now 7 years old and goes to kindergarten at a traditional elementary school.
“Early childhood intervention is crucial for a lot of these guys so they can integrate into a typical education system. The Rise School’s purpose is to integrate special-needs kids with typical kids in an educational setting where they can have physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, play therapy and music therapy,” May says. “It was a hope and dream of ours to have Jackson fully included in a typical kindergarten setting. All the one-on-one care the Rise School provided is 100 percent the reason he’s able to be in a typical kindergarten setting right now.”
On Jackson’s first day at the Rise School, May was drawn to a huge painting on display in the lobby that was created by the kids. Immediately, she asked if she could take some pictures of the canvas so she could make the painting into a special notebook collection and give the proceeds to the Rise School. That first Rise Art Collection was such a hit that May threw a painting party for the kids to create more designs and then auctioned off the canvas to raise money for the school. One hundred percent of the proceeds from the Rise Art Collection now benefit a variety of organizations that support special education and early childhood intervention for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. May plans to release new Rise Art Collection designs in October in honor of Down Syndrome Awareness Month.
“With some love, care and intentionality with education, people with Down syndrome can flourish and thrive,” May says. “They can work, get married and live independently. The earlier you can start with education and therapies, the more success they’re going to have.”
While work-life balance is a challenge for most entrepreneurs, May seems to take it all in stride. It’s not without practice, though. May and her husband had to work out their own system as May Designs was beginning to take off.
“When I only had a couple of employees and three babies and my husband was still working full time, we asked ourselves, ‘How are we going to get through a single day?’ ” May recalls. “So, I wrote down literally every single thing that had to happen on each day of the week—get the kids dressed, take them to school—and put a name by it. I asked myself, ‘Am I emotionally connected to this task? Someone needs to drop Madelyn off at art class at 3 on Wednesday. Do I care if that’s me? Nope, but I want to pick her up because she’s excited to show me what she did, and I can stay and chat with her art teacher at the end of class.’ I think that helped us a ton.”
After realizing typical 9-to-5 hours didn’t work for her schedule, May adjusted her working hours to give her more time with her kids and husband, opting to leave the office in the early afternoon and pick back up on work in the early evening, when the kids are in bed for the night.
“Half the time, I feel like work is my vacation and life is harder,” May says. “I used to leave [the office]at 4:30 or 5:30, and by the time I got home, I barely saw my kids. I wasn’t getting downstairs or eating or spending any time with my husband until 9. So, what I’ve done is try and leave at 3, spend some time with my kids and then get them to bed by 7 or 7:30. Then I have my entire evening back. I have a lot of guilt doing that as a CEO. Even though we’re always saying, ‘Work your own schedule, find the schedule that works for you,’ it is hard to actually do it. Something about working my own hours makes me feel like I’m getting special treatment. I feel like I always have to say, ‘I’m on my phone. Call me or email me if you need anything.’ I want everyone to make sure they can depend on me, but also feel like I have the freedom to leave.”
After a long string of busy days at home or after she’s been traveling, May avoids burnout by doing some of the things she’s written down on the “joy and self-care” page in her notebook. One of the things she enjoys most of all is having one-on-one time with each of her kids.
“Usually, on a Saturday, I’ll take Madelyn to get nails done with me, make a special Target run or go get ice cream,” May says. “There’s a little swing down the block from our house under this gorgeous oak tree, and I’ll grab just one of them and take them down there. I do something with each of the kids once a week. Just getting some eye contact with them goes so far, and when I’m not doing anything except asking them how their day was and how they are, it makes their love tank so full.”
As for what the future holds, May’s next big goal is to expand May Designs from paper into a lifestyle brand and offer customizable fashion and homedécor items. To her, it’s just another way to add some sparkle to the everyday things.
“My original tagline was ‘Life is too short for ugly notebooks.’ I think that everyday moments should be lovely,” May says. “When you’re writing down a grocery list, planning a vacation, all of that can feel mundane. I’m on a mission to make sure the tiny tasks that fill your day give you joy.”
A Page From Her Book: Mica May’s Balancing Tricks
Determine who does what, and get help doing the rest.
“I made a list of all the things that need to be done each day, down to specific things like wake kids up, get them dressed, make their breakfast, pack their lunch, take them to school, etc., and wrote my name by things I was emotionally excited to do,” May says. “My husband did the same thing. Then, we were able to clearly see the gaps and identify exactly what we needed help with.”
Get on a simple, routine dinner schedule.
“My creative energy goes either to work or my kids, so there doesn’t seem to be a ton left for food, but I still want to eat fresh and healthy dinners,” May says. “Years ago, I got into the habit of going to the grocery store on Mondays after I picked the kids up from school, and we would get fresh salmon, a fresh green and a grain. We have similar themes for each day of the week. We almost always order pizza for the kids on Wednesdays because we all have afternoon activities that run until late, and Thursdays, we pick up food or pack a picnic to eat after soccer practice.”
Create your own email-management system.
“Emails can get a little crazy, so I developed my own little system that works for me: pass, purge or pin,” May says. “If it’s something that needs to be done but I personally don’t have to take care of it, I respond and cc the appropriate person on my team, make an intro and pass it off. I purge random spam, email solicits and marketing emails. Gmail has a pin feature that I use to flag emails I know will take longer than 30 seconds to respond to, so they don’t get lost in a sea of more recent emails. Then, in the evenings or a few times a week, I only look at the pins part of my emails and just crank through them all at once.”
Spend time doing the things that only you can do.
“For so long, May Designs was a one-woman gig. I was designing patterns, creating and fixing my website, packaging and shipping out all the orders and everything in between,” May says. “As the company grew, I began to hire for help with things that were not in my natural skill set. It’s been helpful for me to ask myself every day, ‘What is on my list today that is something that only I can work on?’ Then I do those things first.”
A Page From Her Book: Mica May’s Joy and Self-care Tips
- “ Sit in the sun. Take a walk or sit outside, even for a few moments. A good dose of vitamin D goes a long way for the soul.”
- “Go for a drive. Cruise by myself with my windows down, music blaring, alone!”
- “Eye contact and intentional one-on-one time with each of my kids.”
- “ Make plans. Host a last-minute dinner party or schedule a day trip. A full calendar makes me feel happy.”
- “ Find some water: a lake, ocean, stream, anything! And then just sit.”
- “ Enjoy the view. Go somewhere where I can get up high and get a new perspective. When I do that, the things I thought were so huge suddenly feel so small.”
- “ Get moving. I like to ride our bucket bike with all three kids in it to school. It’s quite the workout! Walk to lunch from my office instead of drive. Have an extralong dance party at home with the kids.”
- “ Go out for a date night with my husband. No agenda, just us. It’s easy to fill up all our moments with to-dos and chatting about our schedule.”
- “ Find a new artist or album to put on repeat.”
- “ Get my nails done. A fresh manicure cures all ills.”