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'Terrible business idea' at top of worldwide Etsy sales

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Marie Strinden checks out one of her best-seller items at her downtown Grand Forks business, Relax Event Studio and Fighting Sawks. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 2

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — "This is a terrible business idea."

Marie Strinden Jensen has heard the harsh words more than once about her Fighting Sawks storefront in downtown Grand Forks.

This isn't New York City, they might say. Or, Grand Forks isn't big enough to support a store that sells just socks.

But what the naysayers likely don't know is that the 34-year-old entrepreneur sells far more than socks and, in some ways, Grand Forks is much bigger than New York City. And bigger than Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. Not to mention, Sydney and Stockholm. And London, Dublin and Munich.

A large world map hangs prominently inside Jensen's combined Relax Event Studio and Sawks storefront at 106 N. Third St.

It is speckled, and in some parts almost solid, with colored pins in red, blue, black and white.

Jensen explains her "intern" mother, aka Cheryl Strinden, started the map project to represent the company's sales and reach. A humble Jensen says the scattered jumbo-sized blue pins represent higher sales, but she can't be sure of her mother's methods or the sales threshold.

The former state legislator and past executive director of the North Valley Arts Council might not need to know every detail, but she does know this: She opened her studio in 2014 and in just three years, the event planning and custom-design paperie business has shot to the top of global sales for Etsy, an ecommerce website where shoppers can find handmade, vintage and one-of-a-kind custom gifts.

"The shorthand is anything you can put on paper, we can do," Jensen said.

And because customers asked, that anything happens to include personalized wedding party socks, wrapped with the buyer's choice of a laughable label or sincere message.

With an office desktop, high-quality printers and a staff of just four, Jensen has designed for more than 20,000 weddings worldwide.

Misguided sentiments aside, most naysayers would be happy to walk in those shoes — or socks.

An idea with legs

"People just didn't understand our business model," Jensen says. "Since we had the Etsy store, we were engaging with people from all over the world, but we weren't engaging as much with the community. So, the retail store has given us opportunities to interact with the community more.

"It's the fun part. We get to delight people. It's just really fun to show off our socks and all the funny sayings (rather than) keeping them hidden for only online sales."

The comical socks, which go beyond weddings, are a customer favorite — so much so, Jensen keeps thousands of pairs in stock. There are argyle styles in every shade, mustachioed socks, tuxedoed socks, socks for nerds, and socks with chomping sharks and superheroes. The store carries cute baby socks and fun compression socks, too.

Like everything she sells, the gift labels can say whatever the customer wants. Popular among brides: "In case of Cold Feet ... I can't wait to marry you. Love, ... ." Or for groomsmen gifts: "Thanks for standing with me on such an important day."

Though they might be the first thing local customers see, socks are only a fraction of the business. Jensen offers custom paperie of all kinds with countless templates to get people started. There are gift wine labels such as the one made popular by the "married with children" set. It reads: "Our children might be the reason you drink. So enjoy one on us." Of course, it includes a picture of the darlings.

There are entire suites for weddings — candle wraps, invites, programs, meal cards and even "Do Not Disturb" door hangers for party favors.

A happy place

Jensen says she didn't always imagine she'd be running her own successful business.

A 2005 graduate of New York University, she earned her bachelor of fine arts degree in theater and even worked for a time as a professional actor.

"That wasn't making me happy, so I moved to the production side of things, and that's where I really started event management," she said. "I've always made decisions about my next steps based on what would make me happy, and that led me here, which is a great place to be.

"I maybe had a job I didn't really like but that's where I learned graphic design. I had another job that wasn't perfect, but that's where I met (husband) Nick. I've kept the positive things with me and shed the negative."

That's good advice for anyone thinking about starting a new business, she said.

Roll with it

Sometimes you just have to roll with it. Her studio took some surprise turns from the start. The original business plan called for event management — planning big and small to-do's for corporations, weddings and other family events.

She was planning her own wedding at the time and posted some of her designs to Etsy.

"Somewhat unexpectedly, the shop just exploded," she said. "That's nice, but we really weren't expecting it. So, the business flipped. Instead of doing a lot of event management and a little bit of Etsy, we were doing a lot of Etsy and a little bit of event management."

No matter the focus, Jensen believes excellent customer service, quality products and anything-goes customization make her business stand out.

And one of the most rewarding parts of her job has been building a team that believes the same.

Though she admits the job can be challenging, she says it's helpful to set some limits.

"I've never been great at work/life balance. You can ask my husband about that, but I really love what I do," she says. "Working with weddings and brides can be really challenging. I don't think I could work on so many weddings if I didn't have a wonderful marriage. I love welcoming people to the club."