Graphic design graduate serves worldwide markets through successful business
With more than 15 distributors worldwide in countries like Spain, Mexico, Australia and Italy and upwards of 1,300 customer accounts, alumna Stephanie (Hunt) Smokovich’s small scrapbooking manufacturing business is taking the industry by storm. Based out of Wauwatosa, Wis., and going on its sixth year of operation, Bella Blvd LLC is becoming a leader in the craft and hobby industry, creating colorful print and pattern products for crafters around the world.
“Scrapbooking is about documenting your story,” said Smokovich, a 2006 Stritch graduate whose passion for scrapbooking and art began when she was a young girl.
Despite this long-time passion, Smokovich’s story of becoming a successful small business owner didn’t begin in an art studio, but instead it began on the court. As a student at Wisconsin Lutheran High School, Smokovich played on the girls’ basketball team and caught the attention of Rich Panella, Stritch’s head women’s basketball coach at the time.
“Coach Panella recruited me to play basketball for Stritch,” said Smokovich on how she first came to look at the campus. “I looked at different colleges – as far away and as big as Arizona State University – but I always kept coming back to Stritch.
When she suffered a recurring knee injury during her senior season at Wisconsin Lutheran, Smokovich knew her future as an athlete would be limited. But Coach Panella assured her she could still play for Stritch.
“I felt a great sense of community and compassion at Stritch,” said Smokovich of her decision to enroll. “And I knew I could pursue passions beyond basketball.”
Once on campus, Smokovich quickly found a second home within the studios of the Joan Steele Stein Center for Communication Studies/Fine Arts.
“In high school, my ‘bubble’ was sports,” Smokovich said. “And, in college, that shifted to art.”
She immediately took advantage of the small classes and connected one on one with her professors.
“When I think of Stritch, I think of Peter Galante and those relationships I formed with professors and classmates,” Smokovich said. “I would not have had a coach like Peter in the field I wanted to work in if it wasn’t for Stritch."
Galante and others challenged Smokovich, a graphic design major, to explore her artistic interests and introduced her to various options, including study abroad programs.
“I had the opportunity to study abroad in Italy for a semester, based in Florence,” Smokovich said. “I am Italian and my Italian heritage is a very important aspect of my life, so that experience allowed me to discover and learn about incredible art while at the same time learning so much more about my own culture.”
The study abroad experience also taught Smokovich a lot about her own willpower and courage. Traveling overseas, knowing not a single soul, and being able to learn and navigate an entirely different culture and language, her semester in Italy marked one of her first big risks in life.
By her junior year, Smokovich knew what career she wanted to pursue.
“I wanted to work for a textile company or Hallmark – something in those industries,” said Smokovich who was working at a scrapbooking store at the time.
Starting at the age of 15, Smokovich worked at a local ma and pop scrapbooking store, selling paper, stickers, and various embellishments. The store reminded her of her childhood passions.
“Ever since I was young, I loved scrapbooking and drawing,” Smokovich said. “Working at the store was great because it introduced me to the industry of something I had always been interested in.”
During her junior year at Stritch, Smokovich quit her job at the store to take an internship at Stritch doing creative design work for the undergraduate admissions department.
“I was able to create pieces that are still a part of my portfolio today,” Smokovich said of the internship.
She used those pieces and real-world work experience to launch her career in the graphic design field. Her senior year, she found an open position at an industry-leading scrapbooking manufacturing company located in Dallas, Texas. She interviewed and was offered the job, moving shortly after graduating from Stritch in December 2006. Similar to her study-abroad experience, she took a risk and left for Dallas knowing no one and having to build roots in completely new and unfamiliar surroundings.
“Professionally, I learned a lot and really fast,” Smokovich said. “I was part of a six-member art team and had numerous opportunities to learn and take on responsibilities that I would have not normally had elsewhere."
In 2008, after 18 months and numerous transitions at the company, Smokovich decided to return home to Wisconsin and pursue her dream of founding a scrapbooking manufacturing business. She started Bella Blvd in an upstairs room in her parents’ New Berlin home with only a name and an idea.
The name Bella originates from her Italian heritage, with both her grandparents and parents having been born in Italy.
“I am one of three daughters and my grandmother would always call us ‘bella.’ So that is where the name derives, in honor of my grandparents,” Smokovich said. “I really wanted the visual aspect of the company’s logo to be a street sign, thus the BLVD was added."
She based the idea and concept on her own experience working for that small scrapbooking store, on what she learned about the manufacturing process at the Dallas company and on her own sheer talent and skill set in developing fun, bright, catchy designs.
“I am a right-brain person,” Smokovich said. “I had all of the creative aspects figured out but I needed to learn the business side of the house."
She found an investor but he wanted to see a business plan. Through the help of her uncle and a friend who worked in accounting, Smokovich got a crash course in business development 101.
“With the help of these talented financial advisors, over time I learned to read financial documents and create forecasting documents in sales and budgets,” Smokovich said.
In the first year, as the only employee, Smokovich was able to start small with little to no overhead. As she began developing product lines and meeting industry professionals at trade shows, Smokovich began selling product and building a customer base while launching the company’s online site.
“The biggest risk in this business is that I have to purchase all of my products before I sell one piece,” Smokovich said. “The goal is to order enough to meet the demand and not be stuck with tons of product left over."
After just one year, Bella Blvd superseded Smokovich’s goals, doubling the sales targets and initial forecasts. Smokovich quickly outgrew her parents’ home and permanently moved the company to a studio and warehouse space in Wauwatosa, slowly adding staff. As president and creative director, Smokovich handles all of the creative design aspects of the business, from designing all of the pieces Bella sells to the marketing and website development.
“Although I am the only product designer, I also get to do all of the other creative pieces, such as product catalogs, direct mail marketing and our website and blog,” Smokovich said. “I use that Stritch liberal arts background every day!"
As an established brand in the craft and hobby industry, Smokovich is consistently creating new product lines for Bella. Twice a year she creates new lines of product with designs and complementary pieces to those designs. Those pieces are then sent to design team members all over the United States who produce samples using the new products. Those samples and the new lines are taken to order-writing trade shows where distributors and buyers order product.
“We have shows twice a year,” Smokovich said. “That is our only opportunity to showcase new product and sell it while having face time with customers and distributors."
What keeps Bella thriving is Smokovich’s commitment to her customers and her staff. Aside from the liberal arts core, one facet of her Stritch education that Smokovich uses every day is the sense of community she builds within her business.
“I want Bella Blvd to be a family environment and that is how I engage and interact with my employees, whether they are interns, long-term employees or members on one of our design teams all over the country,” Smokovich said.
One of Smokovich’s goals is to create more personal relationships with the end-consumer through avenues such as the Bella Workshops she teaches. She realizes that, for a small business like Bella, satisfied customers are their best marketing tool.
“This industry is made up of 95% women,” Smokovich said. “The goal is to get them talking about Bella products and sharing it with family and friends."
Approaching its six-year anniversary this July, Smokovich is proud of the fact that Bella Blvd survived against the odds in an industry in which companies traditionally have a tougher time getting started and staying afloat.
“Scrapbooking is a hobby and, if you lose that disposable income, hobbies are some of the first expenses people eliminate,” Smokovich said. “The industry has changed and we have been able to successfully adapt and navigate those changes. I have been able to compete with some of the big guns in this industry – me, a small shop in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. That still both amazes me and keeps me motivated.”
For a small business owner, Smokovich has mastered the art of risk taking, knowing when and how to grow Bella.
“I feel fortunate to be in a situation where I am the one who controls how big and fast Bella grows,” Smokovich said. “I would love to continue maintaining the growth, which has been consistent at about 20% each year. I don’t want to build something that we cannot sustain.”
While the scrapbooking paper is the mainstay of Bella’s business, Smokovich is looking to grow the company by tapping into other industries. The future of Bella Blvd has unlimited opportunities from partnering with other manufactures, to distributing products through larger and additional international distributors.
“For example, I don’t do fabric, but I can work with companies that can take my paper designs and turn them into fabrics,” Smokovich said.
The most rewarding aspect of her work is being able to have her “brand” and artistry on so many products that have a lifelong shelf life.
“I may sell Bella in 10 years, but 30 years from now, a woman may pull out a scrapbook she made for her daughter’s Girl Scout troop and it will be filled with my products and designs,” Smokovich said. “I feel very lucky that my art can live on in that sense."
Her advice for current college students is to make an effort to meet people in the field in which they want to end up working someday.
“If you are an English major, go to a book signing of your favorite author. If you are an art student, go attend events such as the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design’s portfolio show to see what others in your field are doing,” Smokovich said. “Go and find what it is that is your inspiration.”
You can learn more about Bella Blvd by visiting the company website here or following the company’s blog here.