Art teacher Kate Leibrand never could have predicted that her colorful homemade chalk — created for her preschoolers and molded into whimsical shapes like doughnuts and sushi, sized for children’s hands — would become an international sales phenomena.
But her miniature “delicacies” are now sold in Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Barneys, and 350 other U.S. stores, as well as in the United Arab Emirates, Australia, Bermuda, Ukraine, and Canada. And she’s been in business less than two years.
Leibrand, 29, who teaches at Moonstone Preschool in Bella Vista, wanted her students to learn how to make chalk in late 2016 when she mixed her first batch in the kitchen of her one-bedroom apartment in Fairmount. Both she and her students found the mixture too runny when they tried it. For the next three months, Leibrand perfected the recipe by using biodegradable materials, nontoxic substances, and mineral compounds.
“If kids are playing outside, and the chalk washes down the drains, I didn’t want it to harm sea creatures,” says Leibrand, an arts graduate of Elizabethtown College who has her master’s from Moore College of Art.
For fun, she molded the chalk into doughnut shapes, which made for easier handling by the kids.
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Moonstone parents loved it and their kids clamored for more colors and shapes. So Leibrand added bright gems, sushi, and unicorn horns to her product line. When she decided to sell her wares on Etsy, the artsy e-commerce site, she wondered what to name her fledgling company.
She recalled the time in grad school when a Moore professor derisively referred to one of Leibrand’s artworks as “twee,” a British-ism for “too cute.” At the time, she was offended that her piece was not being taken seriously.
Now, though? As Leibrand looked at her line of chalk, she embraced its cuteness. And thus was born “TWEE: Handmade, Small Batch Sidewalk Chalk.”
After selling the chalk for eight months on Etsy, Leibrand had 40 wholesale accounts — and TWEE had outgrown her apartment. That’s when Moonstone parent Margaux Del Collo invited her to move operations into her garage near the Italian Market.
Del Collo, 41, a marketing whiz who had promoted New York City Fashion Week for seven years, persuaded Leibrand to partner with her so she could market Twee. Over the next 10 months, Leibrand expanded the line, adding numbers and ABCs. Meanwhile, Del Collo developed the company website — tweemade.com — and a marketing strategy.
The latter targeted “all the stylish cities,” including Philadelphia, New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and San Francisco. She researched premier stores and boutiques in each and reached out to their buyers. She also pitched TWEE to the holiday gift guide in Rachael Ray Every Day magazine and to the Wall Street Journal, which both featured TWEE in their publications last year.
“It didn’t take long” to get momentum going, says Del Collo. Philly’s Born Yesterday and Momo’s Treehouse boutiques “came on board right away.”
The speed of growth astounded Leibrand.
“It was surprising and exciting,” she says. “I just started it as a side hustle to make a little money, but from the first year to the second, the business grew 1,000 percent. Then, it started taking off.”
(When asked about annual sales, she says coyly, “We’re not at a billion dollars yet.”)
By May 2018, chalks were being sold on TWEE’s website and shipped to 150 companies, from small, independent retailers to Nordstrom and other high-end stores. And TWEE once again needed more space.
Fortuitously, a parent named David Krupnick had just visited Moonstone to check out the preschool for his little boy. He left his business card, which indicated that he ran 1241 Carpenter St., a converted 19th century factory that houses artist studios and businesses. So Del Collo and Leibrand’s boyfriend, Michael Galanek, dropped by to meet Krupnick and his father, Steven, the owner of 1241.
David Krupnick apologetically shared the company’s business policy: “We only rent to people we know.”
Del Collo looked so crestfallen, that the elder Krupnick turned to his son and said, “I like the looks of them. Let’s just show them the space.”
“It was bigger than we had hoped for,” recalled Del Collo. “I said ‘We’ll take it. Can I leave a deposit?’ ”
“Do you have a dollar?” asked David Krupnick. “I’ll take a dollar.”
TWEE moved in and by January needed to both expand into additional space at 1241 and increase its paid staff from two to nine: three full-time, five part-time and one intern.
“We’re doing all the things that large retailers do,” said Del Collo.
To what does Leibrand credit the repeated expansion?
“Brand warriors. A lot of helpful people who don’t ask for a lot in return and just believe in the business,” she said. The warriors include Brigid Squilla, director of TWEE operations, who oversees shipping, which includes Leibrand’s parents, Lisa and Bob Leibrand; her boyfriend, Michael Galanek; and Del Collo’s husband, Josh Gilman. All are unpaid.
Now, the company adds two new products twice a year. This spring, chalk cupcakes and miniature planets joined the current product list of unicorn horns, narwhal tusks, pizza, sushi, gems, and doughnuts.
Pint-size TWEE consumers offer product ideas regularly. They show up after school at TWEE’s studio, watch Leibrand work, and make suggestions. Del Collo’s son, Max, 5, wants his little yellow stuffed duck to be immortalized in chalk.
“They come for snacks, and stay for critiques,” says Del Collo. “They are quick to tell us what they think, like, ‘It’s a stupid idea.’ "
Wisely, Leibrand — who still works part-time at Moonstone, where it all began — listens to her customers.