Taylor Mahlke, artist, designer and businesswoman, calls using her creativity to make a living “such a blessing.” But those who have the privilege of knowing Taylor and Justin, the husband and wife team behind the art and card company, Pen+Pillar, know that what the Mahlkes do on a daily basis is the real blessing to those around them.
Since 2015 when the Mahlkes conceived of and started Pen+Pillar, their company has grown, expanded, and created space for art to flourish while also helping local refugee communities. Their High Point-based business donates 10% of all proceeds to World Relief to help with the resettlement of refugees. Today, Justin (the logistics) and Taylor (the artist) work in tandem to create cards, art prints, journals and more that bring beauty and light to people’s homes. Keep reading below to hear from Taylor how this business was first born.
Q. Tell us about your company in about 10 words.
A. We create ethical, sustainable, and functionally beautiful paper goods.
Q. Why was it started and what was the vision?
A. We started in 2015 while we were living in St. Paul, Minnesota. I started Pen+Pillar because Justin actually brought up the idea. We had a car that was old and becoming expensive to fix. All my paycheck was going to fixing the car, and because I worked at an afterschool art studio, the hours were fixed without the option to add more. We originally wanted something that was just an extra income for us, but it became clear over the first few months that we were starting something much bigger. In June 2018, Justin came on board with me.
Q. What do you love about your work?
A. The creativity. I get to create art for a living, which is such a blessing. But we also get to be creative with the growth. We can create our own structure, change directions, and be creative with what we are offering. We also love that it gives us the ability to work with and support our refugee community. This is a cause that is very close to our heart, and High Point is the perfect place for that.
Q. What is one thing people would be interested to learn about Pen+Pillar?
A. We really bootstrapped this business from day one. I don’t have a degree, and my hope was to be able to work in the art field somehow. I worked nonstop for the first few months learning all I could about building a website, figuring out Etsy, how to ship product, how to print my goods, what to price my items at…all the things I suddenly needed to know about building a business. We were living on a tight income, so we used our $50-$75 of leftover money each month to put towards the business. Justin was so supportive. He took extra shifts to make ends meet and kept encouraging me when I felt overwhelmed. We didn’t make a profit until 2 years in, but it’s been worth every second.
Q. What are the highlights of working in High Point?
A. I grew up in High Point, so our network of friends and family is large. It was great to come home to my network, and everyone has been so welcoming to Justin. It’s also been really cool to see High Point grow.
Q. Why did you choose to locate your company in High Point?
A. We decided to move back to High Point to be closer to my family, and because Justin wanted to become a teacher and take advantage of the Lateral Entry Program that NC offers. The cost of living is also much lower, so we could invest more in our business.
Q. How has High Point changed since you started Pen+Pillar?
A. So much! It seems most of the change has happened in the last year or year and a half. We’ve noticed a growth in the amount of small businesses, and we are so happy about the new stadium!
Q. What has been your biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?
A. Growth strategy has been the hardest. Sometimes clear opportunities land in our laps, but most of the time sustainable growth happens when we make strategic and consistent decisions. Knowing what’s the right next step and when to take risks has been difficult, as I imagine it is for most small businesses.
Q. How have the citizens and community of High Point supported you?
A. We have felt so much support from the community. The more we talk to people, the more we realize that High Point is excited about small businesses, and people tell us often what they share about our business with their friends. There is a real sense of loyalty, and we are very grateful.
Q. If you had one piece of advice for someone just starting out in High Point, what would it be?
A. Make connections – don’t isolate. People are willing and eager to see you succeed. And don’t forget to pay it forward!
Q. What are you excited about for High Point’s future?
A. Seeing more small businesses pop up!
Q. How can the HP Discovered audience find you online?
Discovering our High Points (and Prints!),
Photography by ZoZo Photography