When my friend Shannon Mahoney opened her brick and mortar floral shop storefront earlier this year, she asked me (a) if I had nice handwriting and (b) if I would write on a chalkboard that would hang above her stunning flower display. I said (a) yes and (b) yes. As it turns out, a piece of chalk is not at all like a pen and a gigantic chalkboard is not even a little bit like a piece of paper. It looked like I was channeling my inner five year old so I’m half surprised I didn’t reverse some of the letters. But, she was gracious enough to say she loved it and left it up…le sigh. When I look at chalk art now, I am completely baffled by the skill it takes to write even a single letter. Chalk art wonder woman Valerie McKeehan of Lily & Val can do a lot more than write a letter or two and has a crazy impressive inventory to prove it. Her collection, filled with everything from chalk art cards and prints to signs and stickers, has attracted the likes of Good Housekeeping, The Knot and Martha Stewart because, hello — it’s pretty darn lovely.
NAME Valerie McKeehan
LOCATION Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
EDUCATIONAL BACKGROUND Bachelor’s Degree; Marketing
COMPANY Lily & Val
Tell me a little bit about Lily & Val and how you first got started. Lily & Val is a sweet little online boutique born out of my love for chalk art, simple pleasures, and nostalgia. For as long as I can remember I’ve loved to create. Although I never pursued any formal drawing or art training, creativity was a big part of my childhood and always encouraged. I graduated from college with a degree in marketing and pursued a career in advertising, but it wasn’t until the spring of 2012 when I discovered my true passion – drawing and illustrating in chalk. My first piece of chalkboard art was created for my own home. Shortly after my husband and I got married, I drew a “McKeehan’s Coffee Shop” themed piece to hang in our kitchen. I immensely enjoyed creating it and after hearing such a great response from friends and family, I opened my quirky Etsy shop a few months later.
Where do you find your inspiration? How has it changed since launching your company? My inspiration comes from many different places. The vibe of a restaurant, artwork on the wall of a coffee shop, a floral pattern on a vintage dress – these things have all inspired me at one point. I am also particularly inspired by vintage signs and lettering. For example, one of my most popular pieces was inspired by the artwork on vintage hot cocoa tins. Sometimes the quote in my mind will automatically dictate the design. I can literally envision the drawn words and illustrations. I strive to create a cozy, nostalgic vibe in my pieces so I am naturally drawn to elements that conjure these feelings – coffee, tea, cooking, sweet sentiments, etc. My inspiration has not changed much since launching my company even though the products I offer have changed. My goal has always been to create designs that promote warmth and love.
What does your typical workday look like? Tell me about your design process. I feel so fortunate that I am able to create and draw nearly everyday. This is thanks to my wonderful team and vendors that help me everyday. My design process typically starts with a pencil sketch. Although I don’t like to get too detailed in my sketch since elements and details arise during the process of putting chalk to slate. I never really know how the dustiness will shape the pieces, but it is this variety that produces drawings with character. The imperfections make the designs real and authentic. Once I am happy with the chalk drawing, I photograph the artwork and bring it into Photoshop for minor editing and adding color. I use this digital file to create the products in my shop.
Your husband (and expert desk maker) recently joined Lily & Val (woot!) as its wholesale & business manager. As partners in life & business, have you set any rules pertaining to shop talk? Thankfully, my husband and I work really well together! We have the same drive and vision, which helps us keep focused on what’s important. We don’t have any specific rules, however, we have very distinct and separate roles in the company day-to-day. We talk about the big picture and make joint decisions, but we each have our duties and responsibilities to accomplish. This has been an extremely important factor in balancing our work and personal lives.
At what point did you decide to go into wholesale? How has that decision influenced your business & work schedule? I began wholesaling about a year into business. I received wholesale requests for the hand painted signs I offered in the beginning of Lily & Val, but it was not possible for me at that time. Once I made the decision to scale the business by offering printed goods, I was able to move in the direction of wholesale. This decision has influenced my business a great deal. The growth of wholesale was the deciding factor for my husband joining Lily & Val full-time. We love our wholesale customers and are incredibly grateful for them!
You have been featured in numerous publications including Good Housekeeping & The Knot. When you first launched, how did you get the word out about your business? How have you handled marketing since? I have been so fortunate in that I didn’t actively pursue marketing my business when I first started. Within a week of launching my Etsy store, I was featured in one of the “Etsy Finds” emails. This was immensely helpful in kickstarting my little shop. Since then, I rely very heavily on social media and networks that I have built. It takes time, but the connections developed via these portals are incredibly valuable. I love that social media is so personal and allows me to connect with an amazing community of people.
Let’s go back back in time a few years. What advice would give yourself on the topic of entrepreneurship? I would say to myself, “you are capable.” I think many times we incorrectly label ourselves and say things like “I’m not a business person” or “I can’t do that” (whatever that may be). I know I was and still am sometimes guilty of this. The truth is, we are more capable than we imagine.
Fast-forward five years. Where do hope to see Lily & Val? In 5 years I see myself continuing to grow the Lily & Val brand. I’m not sure what that will look like exactly as far as design and product, but I will remain true to the brand, which is rooted in simple pleasures, comfort, and whimsy. I plan to start a family in the future and am excited to embark on that incredible journey.
Guilty pleasure? Watching the Bachelor/Bachelorette
Last book you read? Girl Boss by Sophia Amoruso
Cake or pie? Pie
Favorite corner of the world? Nantucket Island
Words to live by? Work hard and be kind.