Knock knock jokes are clever call and responses, a reflective funny wordplay that requires group participation. They can be recess zingers or raunchy water cooler laughs. The comic device has a universal appeal ingrained in the form: they are jokes that require a personal connection in order to be successful.
Jen Bilik has done that. She didn’t do this by telling jokes but by relating to people, sharing her own awkward and sometimes silly experiences to illustrate that they are normal. Our own oddities are not unique to us: we all share a similar level of dorkiness. Bilik did this through products to express her own inadequacies. She used them to cope with herself–and ended up making a multi-million dollar lifestyle brand based in Venice: Knock Knock.
Bilik is unsurprisingly a quick witted woman. She sits behind a homey desk as a skylight fixes a few rays of sun on her. She speaks so fast that she has to take a brief pause in order to reboot herself. She’s very caring and kind and serves as Knock Knock’s owner and creative force, which all is in addition to serving as their attentive den mother.
“I grew up in Berkeley,” she says with a mention that she’ll be driving back soon for her twenty fifth high school reunion. She leans into her desk, raising an eyebrow: “I’m old.”
“Berkeley was a great place to grow up. There was a really unique balance of funky, intellectualism in people who were all driven. There is an excellent culture with exposure to art, different careers, and new ways of thinking.”
“One thing that really feeds into what I do now is that my family were people who made things. This was partly out of necessity, partly out of desire. My mother was a quilter and I grew up sewing. I could sew before I could write! I always loved working with materials and with my hands and, with my dad, we’d always build our own bookshelves. I always painted my own room. We gardened and we cooked. Again, many were out of necessity because we didn’t have the LA lifestyle of things like housekeepers and handymen, which–I must say–I very much enjoy now.”
She attended University of Michigan where she studied English and Film. Upon finishing, she moved to Manhattan as she always thought she would live there. “I grew up visiting and was always completely exhilarated by New York City. I knew I would move there after college even though I had no idea where I would go to college. I always knew that from when I was very little.”
“I wanted to get into newspaper, magazine, or book publishing, depending on which job I was offered first. That turned out to be an editorial assistant position at Rizzoli, working on coffee table books,” she explains. “It was just as desktop publishing was coming into being, a really exciting time, technically, and also in terms of graphic design. This new software–Quark–had just burst into the world. In order to make any text or copy changes in files, I had to learn Quark.”
“At the same time, it seemed that we were always on ridiculous deadlines. I often found myself sitting with a book’s graphic designer, being there until two in the morning on deadlines so that I could massage text length as they designed. It was a lot of sitting and watching and seeing how they approached design. Why did they put these words over there? Why did they use only a little bit of color? How is a master page set up? It was an amazing education in graphic design.”
“I loved doing the coffee table books because they are these multi-contributor projects,” she says. “I didn’t know that project management was a thing and that you had to do for the rest of your life, if you are going to be any success of any kind. Unless you are a completely brilliant doer, you are going to have to be a project manager and producer.”
As you can imagine, this love of–and ease at dealing with–management paired with incredible creativity was what would lead Jen to succeed. The success came parallel to her career as she pursued many interests on her own. “At the same time I was working, I was going to art galleries and museums–all of these visual senses were being awakened. I stole a copy of Quark from work, which you could do then because there was no Internet. I started playing around at home and realized that what I liked doing was writing and designing at the same time.
Jen made handmade books and, with Quark, increasingly sophisticated items. She was also working with friends who were actors and artists making programs, invitations, and more for them. It was something she really enjoyed–but she never considered to be anything serious. “I always thought of visual activities as completely a hobby, not as something that would interest me or that I could conceivable do professionally. I was always more of a writer and wordsmith.”
After three years at Rizzoli, having risen to be an editor, Jen decided to move on and go freelance as she found the upper-level jobs to be terribly administrative. “I decided to go freelance as an editor so that I could do the stuff that I really enjoyed, because by the time I was an editor, I was farming all of it out. And working ninety hours a week for three years was exhausting! I sensed that I had my own thing to do but I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know what it would be or what form it would take but I thought I would have some space and time to explore and discover that.”
For the next six years–a period Jen dreadfully refers to as “The Abyss”–while doing freelance editing jobs to pay the bills she searched for what she wanted to do. “I did a lot of theater programs and tried to produce a movie and wrote this, that, and the other. I kept feeling like I was a quitter: it was hard to know if I was a quitter or if it was the right time to move on to the next thing. In the meantime, I decided to design my own holiday card and actually have it offset printed; I had learned quite a bit about paper manufacturing from working for the managing editor at Rizzoli and was excited to try it on my own.”
Ah, yes: the initial kernel of Knock Knock. Jen’s extracurricular design and paper goods were what pushed her to where she is now–and it all started with a card. “I created a card I called The January Card because I never managed to get the card out in November or December. This was my way of justifying an inadequacy, which actually is a lot of what Knock Knock started out being. I think that’s a voice that resonates with people. Who is it that gets all of these things done all time? It’s not me. I got a lot of great feedback and a lot of people told me I should sell it. My thought was, why would I ever want to be a business person? That sounds like the worst thing—to distribute and manufacture.”
Within this Abyss, she began to question her relationship with New York as well. “I was in New York for a total of six years. The first four, I never thought I would live anywhere else. Then, over the latter two–which were the two years of in New York I was working freelance–I became surprised that I was sick of living in New York. I had been engaging a lot less with the institutions in New York. I wasn’t in an office, I was going out less, and I had this insight as I was trying to find my own thing that New York was too noisy to find it. There was too much competing for my attention: New York is about input, not output.”
“I had been visiting Los Angeles a lot too,” she continues. She was in LA in part because she was working on a book about the Chateau Marmont. “As you know, if you grow up in Northern California, Southern California is the devil. I totally thought LA culture was an oxymoron. One of my theories on it is that LA is an insider’s city: you have to know where to go. It’s too big, too sprawling, and a lot of the interesting things aren’t necessarily identifiable when you are driving by. New York is a walking city that is very dense, very compact, and you can totally see where to go and what to do. I can’t imagine Los Angeles for someone isn’t visiting friends. They’ll go to Grauman’s, The Getty, and the beach. I see them in Venice Beach all the time, walking along looking shell-shocked.”
“I started thinking that I wanted to leave New York. It was between the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and possibly another country. As far as going to another country or traveling, though, I decided I wanted to put down roots somewhere and find my own thing. At the time, I felt people in the Bay Area were a little complacent because of their quality of life. It becomes this idea that you have your Patagonia, you have your latte, you have your Sierra Club bumper sticker: what more do you need? In LA, I feel that there is actually something to rebel against, which is the Hollywood/movie/TV infrastructure. I feel like sometimes you need a dark side in order to have an interesting cultural current. There is more kinetic energy here and people are here to do something.”
“I felt that I couldn’t hear myself think in New York. That was the big impetus: I came to Los Angeles to hear myself think.”
She moved here fourteen years ago and settled in Beachwood Canyon. Not after long, she found her corner of Los Angeles: Venice. “It’s totally the Berkeley of Los Angeles. I’ve always found the Berkeley wherever I am. I like that it’s the temperature is cooler, I like being by the water, and I also like the walkability and sense of community you have.”
“I was still doing book editing when I moved to LA but I decided my thing was definitely going to be this project that I started in collge, a memoir of my experiences in high school done as an illustrated, annotated yearbook. It would bring together the writing and the visuals, which is what I most wanted to do. I worked on that in a pretty focused way for a couple of years, first while I was still editing and eventually full-time. I ended up procrastinating wildly. It was the albatross around my neck. I couldn’t put myself in my chair and write. It’s the great Dorothy Parker quote: ‘I don’t like writing, I like having written.’”
In her procrastination, she continued to make things that were tiny Knock Knock efforts. “Instead of writing the book, I ended up doing a lot of projects that would eventually become Knock Knock. They were what I call constructive procrastination, things that were productive but not what I was supposed to be doing. One of the things I did was make this poster titled How To Find True Love. It was a flow chart that I sent out for Valentine’s Day (. . . which was because I didn’t send out a Christmas or a January card).”
She sent the poster to five hundred people: friends, family, clients, people she met–and they all said she should sell them. “People thought I was crazy. I spent my own money to print something in an era before infographics. The Internet was still very young and there was no Etsy. Some people didn’t get it and thought I was weird . . . I’m sure they won’t be the last person to think that, either! It was really obsessive. It was an OCD flowchart that testified to the voices in my brain that keep me up at night. It’s interesting because this is everywhere now. Everyone does infographics and everyone is TMIing.”
Over time, an idea for a creative company began to form that felt like it would be less about making and selling widgets and more about the creativity, united under the umbrella of a sensibility rather than product type. With money from selling the apartment she owned in New York, she started Knock Knock. “Once I decided I was going to do this, the floodgates opened. All of the creative constipation from The Class of ’87 was gone and ideas came pouring in. I created a spreadsheet of hundreds of product ideas on Excel that we still have. From that, we narrowed it down to fourteen products that looked like a full line, which included the True Love poster and the Personal Library Kit (which we still carry but have since refreshed) and something called the Wishing Kit. We created this keepsake catalogue that I knew would be luscious and that people would want to look at.”
She made a brand that she dictated and guided without any clients or commentators attempting to influence her. The name–like the concept–was born from constructive procrastination and a need to share fun. “I liked the childlike quality of “Knock Knock” and how it elicits a response,” she says, explaining how it specifically came from plastic letters spelling out those words that she’d glued to the front of her orange front door in yet another fit of procrastination. “I liked that it suggested humor and had a surreal quality as it didn’t relate at all to what we would do. I knew it would make a good logo because it was two repeating words and K is an interesting letterform. It was an immediate reaction and there was no questioning it.”
She sent catalogues to stores in September of 2002 and learned a lot, including that you put wholesale–not retail–prices on products for buyers and that purchasing for holiday season begins (and ends) well before September. She still won over great supporters, though. “We got our first order from Kate’s Paperie, which is a big store in New York that only recently closed, in addition to Alphabets and Mxyplyzyk. They all became longtime Knock Knock customers. I was told right away I needed sales reps and we started distribution that way. Our first professional hire was a director of sales, who got us represented all across the country. It also quickly became clear that in order for the product to be affordable we had manufacture it overseas.”
Jen creative-directed the brand’s marketing and products with graphic designers she hired, but Jen herself was definitely the brand and the reason why it ended up booming. In a way, Los Angeles had a small hand in forming Knock Knock as well. “A lot of our humor is based on social observations, the way we are, the way we are today. I feel that if we were in another place–like New York or the Bay Area–we’d be constrained by overly definable identities. In Los Angeles, it is more diffuse and more malleable. I feel like you have a lot of different social encounters and see a lot of different people here. We observe the city from a pretty irreverent identity that is not in sync with mainstream LA. We have something to rebel against.”
“There aren’t very many places like us in Los Angeles—non-moving image, wordsmith, non-client-services-marketing places,” she continues. “When we find great people, they really want to be here. It’s like finding your crowd. In New York or San Francisco, everyone may be our crowd. Here, there’s a sense of being not in the majority and having to find your people. There’s a feeling that we are doing something different in Los Angeles from a publishing point of view and from a certain type of writing and humor point of view. That makes for a strong company culture.”
Jen and Knock Knock are entering in new directions. They celebrate their tenth birthday in November and they have big things planned for the future. “If we really want to move the needle with the company’s growth, we need to add new divisions and diversify product categories,” she says alluding to the Clump-o-Lumps, a new line of stuffed animals the brand has launched. “We want to do more divisions, more product areas. We have spent the first ten years developing and executing things internally, which has given us a tight, cohesive brand, but now we’re ready to start looking out to the world, adopting a bit of a publishing model. We want to work with people within the Knock Knock sensibility. We’re working with more freelancers, in both editorial and design. It has become more of a dialogue of fresh thought coming in and going out. That’s exciting for all of the in-house creative folks. We want to broaden Knock Knock to include more voices but maintain our sensibility.”
“We also have to leave LA,” Jen says seriously. She takes a beat and then bursts into laughter. “I’m just kidding: we love it here! And we love this space, too.”
For more on Jen and Knock Knock, be sure to check out Knock Knock’s website, Twitter, and Facebook. You should also check out their blog, which Jen frequently contributes to most notably in her monthly Head Honcho Hello. They are also doing a lot of celebrating fot their tenth birthday: be on the lookout for lots of festivities!