Among challenges faced by entrepreneurs, that elusive work-life balance is one I hear time and time again.
Drawing the line between life and work is especially difficult for family businesses and those operated out of the home: kitchen tables overrun with production samples, packaging supplies overflowing from closets, after-hours conversations always circling back to the business. It’s a tough habit to break.
For Lichia Liu and her husband Christopher Guest, work-life balance isn’t black and white.
The lines are so blurred, it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. But for them, it works. Their business occupies a 2-story live-work building in an up-and-coming Toronto neighbourhood. Everything happens under on roof.
Gotamago is the brainchild of Lichia—cards, art prints, and accessories featuring her own hand-painted illustrations sold online, through their retail shop, and via wholesale clients. Lichia and Christopher run the business together, with a team of part-time staff.
We visited Lichia and Christopher in the multi-functional space that serves as their HQ, warehouse, retail shop, event space, design studio, and home.
Four years ago, though, Gotamago was just a side gig and the two hadn’t even met.
This is their story.
The Making of an Entrepreneur
As early as she can remember, Lichia was always drawing. It seemed a natural career path for her. When she graduated high school, though, she chose landscape architecture because she decided that it was a good balance between her love of art and a practical career.
In her first role out of school, at a landscape architecture firm, the monotony of the 9-to-5 prompted her to seek creative side-projects.
She started knitting, and screenprinting on her Japanese Gocco machine. (Ultimately, her business name would be inspired by the machine —“Go” for Gocco and “tamago”, the first word Lichia learned in Japanese.)
“My background is Taiwanese, I’m not Japanese, but I did spend a year teaching English in Japan and I feel like I have a pretty strong connection to it. My grandmother also speaks Japanese so I learned it when I was growing up.” – Lichia
She opened an Etsy shop in her time off. Over the next few years, as her career would take her to Japan and Taiwan and then California for grad school, she maintained the Etsy shop as a hobby.
Back in Toronto, she began to experiment with watercolor.
“I started to do a lot of travel sketches, and the more I posted them, the more people encouraged me to post more. I put them on cards and they started to sell. That was when I realized there was something there that people really gravitated to, something that’s hand drawn.” – Lichia
I started to do a lot of travel sketches, and the more I posted them, the more people encouraged me to post more.
The realization coincided with a period in Lichia’s career when she was feeling creatively stifled. She derived satisfaction from the completed projects, but the non-creative administrative elements of the work didn’t inspire her. Her job was demanding, too, leaving little personal time for making art on the side.
“In the end I started questioning whether I had something more in me that was art driven. That if I didn’t pursue it now, I might never have a chance to. There was an aha moment when I was on the train and I just thought, ‘I think I’m ready.’ No more overtime, no more working for somebody else.” – Lichia
I just thought, ‘I think I’m ready.’ No more overtime, no more working for somebody else.
It wasn’t a decision she ended up making lightly, though. The Etsy shop was thriving on its own with very minimal effort, and wholesale orders were already coming in, but she wasn’t a person prone to rash decisions.
“I thought, ‘What if I did put more effort? What would happen?’ I researched, crunched some numbers, and I also had my savings. I’m a pretty logical person too, and so I was balancing all of that and thinking realistically about how long would it take for me to get back to what I was making when I was full time. It was three years incubation, then spreadsheets and calculations, before deciding to leap.” – Lichia
Lichia figured she could fall back on teaching piano, or get a part-time job to help supplement the lean times.
Luckily, she didn’t have to.
Once Lichia threw herself full-time into the business, it bloomed.
She began approaching retail stores to carry her work, and popped up with booths at local fleas and markets. The connections she made helped her earn more wholesale clients, and even some contract illustration for media outlets like the CBC and The Globe and Mail.
Market events segued into a semi-permanent booth space at Arts Market—a group of local shops that rent out space to local artists, makers, and vintage dealers.
It was there that she met Christopher.
It’s here that Christopher interjects, “The part that you’re forgetting is that your condo was overflowing.” When the two met, Lichia’s business was taking off, but she was still managing the whole thing from her studio apartment. “We had to picnic for dinner. Like setting a box down and a tablecloth,” he says.
In the early days, he started helping her with the business, though he was also working full-time as a video editor.
“When you have products, you have inventory, and inventory was a lot of boxes, so it started to take over all my living space. I was using my bed as a table most of the time. The living room floor was covered with boxes. Christopher had his own place back then so he would come over and pick up cards from me to take home to fold, because he was doing labor for me on his time off after work. That was our first few years.” – Lichia
I was using my bed as a table most of the time. The living room floor was covered with boxes.
In late 2013, the business outgrew Etsy, and Lichia set up a new store on Shopify.
“I realized really quickly that Etsy’s not going to be the site to establish a business, especially if I wanted to have more wholesale accounts. Just having a website presence and telling the story on the site is so important for that.” – Lichia
Christopher became more and more involved in the business, helping to build the site, which he says is still a work in progress.
In 2015, Gotamago exhibited at the National Stationery Show in New York. The show resulted in so many orders that the two began to worry—did they have systems in place to handle the orders? How were they going to manage from Lichia’s studio apartment?
“When a company that has a lot of different locations starts ordering in mass quantities, that’s when you really have to start hiring, start systemizing. That was what put us in the mindset of getting all these things automated. We had to figure out how to package everything, how to train people. That was really when it started.” – Lichia
Suddenly Gotamago’s envelope needs leaped from 1,000 to 10,000 and they hired staff to help fulfill orders.
“Having staff come into your living space is not great. The place was so small they’d have to eat their lunch over the sink.” – Christopher
The place was so small they’d have to eat their lunch over the sink.
The New York trip marked an upgrade in their personal relationship, too: they were now engaged. They wanted to buy a new place that would house their future family, and support the space needs of the business.
“We started looking for a place to buy but the market was crazy. We were being outbid by like a 100 to 150 grand over asking. In the last year it’s gone up 33%.” – Christopher
They eventually found a building in the East York area that previously housed a run-down fast food restaurant and upstairs apartments. The neighbourhood, though once a vibrant retail strip in the 1920s, had lost its lustre since the street became a thoroughfare for commuter traffic in the 60s.
Though the building was “gross”, they saw promise in it and the surrounding area—many of the buildings were getting cleaned up.
Gotamago was in a great position to buy off the beaten path: they didn’t rely on foot traffic, as the business was sustaining itself on ecommerce and wholesale. Retail was just the icing.
Gotamago’s New Digs
When they bought the building, Christopher’s role in the business graduated from technical to integral—the space would need a complete overhaul.
“We looked at the cost of renovations, and just the administration, the general contractor part of those costs, was more than I was making. You just need someone around all the time to make sure the contractors are doing the job. To get a general contractor to do it was just astronomical. Because I was freelance, I was able to be a little bit flexible, and at the same time Rogers going through a reorganization, eliminating a lot of the freelancers.” – Christopher
The general contractor part of those costs, was more than I was making.
While the renovations were happening, Lichia kept her apartment, using it as her design studio. Because Christopher was in the new space managing the construction, he became the defacto office manager, and coordinated all of the part time staff. The arrangement, intended to be temporary, freed up Lichia’s time to focus on design.
His strengths became an asset to the business, and he now takes care of the operations, runs the website, and manages the staff full-time—all while the couple is still renovating the space.
Lichia and Christopher were married in their new home in September in the middle of construction, and their brick and mortar shop’s grand opening happened just a month later. The main floor is a fully functioning office, warehouse, and retail store, while their upstairs living space is ever closer to completion.
How to Survive a Work-Live Space
Their arrangement means that the couple are nearly always together and never really have separation from work. How do they do it?
- Establish clear roles: Christopher and Lichia aren’t stepping on each other’s toes—they’ve divvied up the areas of the business according to their strengths, and have outsourced everything else.
“I’ve discovered that I don’t like being a manager. You need specific set of skills. Last year at this time we had one employee and now we have four, five, part timers. It’s getting busier, and the way that I deal with things sometimes is very emotional, and so it’s better for Christopher to deal with it because he has much more experience.” – Lichia
- Carve out personal space: upstairs, in the couple’s bedroom, Lichia has taken over a sunny corner where she can quietly work on her illustration.
- Designate specific areas for work and living: while the couple’s entire existence happens under one roof, upstairs they’ve built a beautiful sanctuary away from their work.
- Build a community: the Gotamago space hosts community events—something they hope to do more—allowing them to interact face-to-face with people other than themselves.
Now that Lichia and Christopher have found their groove and their renovations are coming to a close, they’re focusing on optimizing their operations and building a community.
They’ve started working with a developer to build a wholesale portal, allowing them to manage all of their orders through the same Shopify store.
For the future, they hope that their store inspires a renaissance of the once-thriving retail strip where they’ve decided to build their life.
“It’s introducing us to people, to the makers who are here, as well as bringing the community together, and just making this neighborhood a more creative kind of place.”