Combine some family creativity with opportunity and you get Kevin & Kaia Creations, a father/daughter Brookings business that specializes in cards and stickers with South Dakota flair.
Art is a relaxing hobby Kevin Smith shares with his teenage daughter, but it became a little more than that when Kaia needed to raise money.
Kevin says their business probably wouldn’t be more than a hobby without a helping hand from a pop-up market and the support of other small local businesses that encouraged them along the way.
Their work is available online at kevinandkaia.com and in local businesses like the South Dakota Art Museum store, Honeycomb Gifts and the Brookings Farmers Market.
It may seem odd to start a stationery business in the electronic age, but the two aren’t afraid to buck a trend.
“That’s something Kaia and I have talked a lot about,” Kevin said. “We feel like if we can encourage people to write a hand-written note, then that’s a good thing.”
As a teacher, he encourages his students to write hand-written thank you notes because “in our digital world, it’s really nice to still get something in the mail and still get something that was hand-written.”
Creativity came first, they both say.
“I’ve just always been creative and creating things,” Kaia said, adding she’s taken art classes through school. Her dad says she watches YouTube videos and reads books to learn and develop her technique.
Kaia has always worked in different mediums, Kevin said.
“She does bracelets and paints. She has watercolors and oil-based paints and markers and just all kinds of different things like that. She’s always, from a very young age, always been really interested in creating things,” Kevin said.
It seems she gets it from him.
“I’ve always been interested in drawing and art,” Kevin said, even back to high school, where “I had great art teachers.”
Kevin grew up in White, moving to Brookings when he was in high school. He went to graduate school and taught high school math in Nebraska.
Kevin’s undergraduate degree is in math; his graduate degrees are in instructional technology. He has no formal art training; the closest thing is he has worked as a web designer.
“To draw on paper is kind of a nice break from being on a device, which is really what my job is, always being on a computer,” Kevin said, adding he teaches math and technology at Dakota State University.
He and wife Sarah moved back to Brookings in 2004 when Sarah took a job as a physician at Avera Medical Clinic. They have an older son, Ian; and Kaia and her twin brother, Nathan, were born in Brookings. Kaia is a freshman in high school now.
They’ve tried to get the rest of the family involved, “but they’re just not as interested in it, I guess,” Kaia said.
Start of a business
About three years ago, they decided to branch out when they were presented with an opportunity to get more exposure for their talents. The Brookings Economic Development Corporation set up a pop-up market for new businesses.
“Kaia’s always been entrepreneurial. When she was really little, she always would have a lemonade stand in the driveway or be selling bracelets in the driveway,” he said. “So a pop-up market seemed like, you know, a good activity for Kaia, a great way for her to learn about … having a business and learn how to communicate with people so I was really glad …. I thought it was a great thing to encourage young people to think about entrepreneurial kind of activities.”
They took the postcards that they had made using photos of places around Brookings, Kevin recalled.
People liked the fact that the postcards had ‘Brookings, South Dakota’ on them and showed local things, Kaia said.
“A lot of people said there weren’t a lot of things like that available for Brookings. We felt like there was a need there,” Kevin said.
But they didn’t act on it right away.
“We kind of took a break for a while,” Kaia said.
Picking up the pace
In the summer of 2019, they picked it back up and expanded their offerings, Kevin said.
“We got into more cards, like greeting cards and stickers and we just continued to grow it,” Kaia said.
“Kaia was saving up for a Washington, D.C., trip. … The eighth-grade class goes to Washington each spring, so last summer, she was on a mission to save money for that trip,” Kevin said.
The COVID-19 pandemic canceled that trip, but the business itself thrived.
“I think the pop-up market sort of was a launching point,” Kevin said, adding they made contacts there. “One was the Found business. They saw the postcards and they said, ‘We really like those; we’d like to have some in our store’ and so we had postcards in the Found location.
“Hitch was another one,” Kevin said. Hitch has since expanded into other businesses, including Honeycomb Gifts. “They were another one that carried our stuff right away, so that kind of told us that the stuff we were making … there was some demand for it.”
He mentioned Kevin and Kaia Creations has done custom projects for local businesses. Kaia did a painting of the front of Kool Beans and “we did a whole bunch of custom thank you cards for them with kind of a coffee-themed design,” Kevin said. Brookings Family Dentistry has dental-themed stickers and Meyer Orthodontics has custom-designed thank you cards by Kevin and Kaia Creations. They’ve also made custom stickers for b.well brookings.
“So those were really fun projects. Those types of things just really encourage us to keep doing what we’re doing, so we appreciate businesses helping each other,” Kevin said.
“I feel like those things kind of launched us into wanting to do a little bit more,” Kevin said. “That also kind of led to wanting to turn this into a business.”
Getting down to business
“It started with postcards … but now I would say our greeting cards and our stickers are the most popular,” Kevin said.
“We go to the Farmers Market here in Brookings – not every week, but as often as we can – and I would say definitely stickers and greeting cards tend to be the best sellers,” Kevin said.
They also go to other markets and sidewalk arts festivals in the area, including Sioux Falls. The website offers subscription options: three cards a month; or three cards, two stickers and one postcard.
“That’s really fun, and we’re getting more and more subscribers all the time,” Kevin said. “People get a few things, a few stationery items, every month. That’s kind of a neat thing to get in the mail.”
His sister, Kim Kendall, manages the subscription service so he and Kaia can concentrate on being creative. They have subscribers in 21 states.
“I just kind of like the creative process. I like to think about new designs we can come up with,” Kevin said. “What are new things we can create and how can we create. That’s what I really enjoy.”
Having the business gives Kaia a chance to reach out.
“I really like meeting people and like talking to them and seeing what people like,” Kaia said.
Kaia’s not sure if she wants to stay small and local or expand the business.
“It’d be great if it was huge and worldwide, but it would also take a lot more time and I feel … that would be hard to make as many, so I feel like that would take away from, like the hand-madeness of it,” Kaia said.
“I think Kaia’s totally spot-on with that. I think that one of the things we like about what we do is making the items,” Kevin said.
He’d like to see the subscription side grow.
“If more people want our items, that’s great; we just want to try to find the right balance of still being able to make things and make sure it’s handcrafted and not move into just mass-producing things,” Kevin said.
Contact Jodelle Greiner at firstname.lastname@example.org.