By Katie Eubanks
Kristen Ley returns to her first love
For career day in kindergarten, Jackson native Kristen Ley dressed up as an artist.
At age 17, she designed her own greeting card.
At age 22, she co-founded a design and branding studio in Charleston, South Carolina.
And at age 26, she founded Thimblepress, a Jackson-based company specializing in gift and party products designed and developed by Kristen.
“It was like a domino (effect),” she said. “I’ve known I wanted to be an artist my entire life. And that’s something my parents also encouraged in me.”
You’ve probably seen Kristen’s colorful Thimblepress creations without realizing it: Push-Pop Confetti. A tea towel sold by Anthropologie. Greeting cards at Hallmark, Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters.
Oh, and Kristen is only 34. At this point (at least in this writer’s opinion), she could become the next Tory Burch or Vera Bradley — only cooler.
Instead, she’s been downsizing. Not because business is bad — on the contrary. But because she wants to get back to why she started it.
From a ‘thimble’ to a full cup
In 2010, Kristen was living in Charleston when she felt God calling her back to Jackson. So she moved home. Then she bought an antique letterpress for $800.
“This lady was selling her whole shop. She had higher offers, but she called me and said she’d take mine.”
In 2011, Kristen took a marketing job at Jackson Academy, her alma mater. Meanwhile, she was planting seeds for her new business — and watering them like crazy.
“I worked from 8 to 4 (at JA) and then worked on Thimblepress from 5 to 12 (midnight). I was just kind of throwing stuff out there and seeing what stuck. There was no real strategy yet.”
(The name Thimblepress, however, did contain some strategy. Kristen collected thimbles when she was young. “I liked combining two words to create a new word, just to make it unique and fun and make it pop up in search engine terms,” she said. A friend suggested “Thimblepress,” and “it made sense because I was doing a lot of textiles at the time.”)
“I was going every single weekend to set up a booth. I did the Stray at Home (Art and Music) Festival (in Jackson), craft shows (in) Columbia, South Carolina; Atlanta, Birmingham, Austin, Chicago, Los Angeles … I was busting it.”
She eventually grew more comfortable with the letterpress, thanks to a lesson from master printer Ed Inman. She started making greeting cards and art prints.
After a string of successes at craft shows, she established Thimblepress as a wholesaler to retail stores. Then after much prayer, she signed a lease for her own retail space in downtown Jackson.
In spring 2013, Kristen’s mom and aunt were praying about whether Kristen should leave JA. The school was looking for a marketing director.
Kristen decided to interview for the position. She prayed for God to “blow doors open and slam them closed,” depending on where He wanted her.
She didn’t get the job. But at the National Stationery Show in New York, Thimblepress won Best New Product for a U.S. map art print featuring the 50 state flowers.
Kristen quit JA and started working full-time at Thimblepress, which by now she considered her life’s purpose. God had blown open the door, and she didn’t just walk through it — she sprinted.
Blessings and brokenness
In October, Kristen spoke at a women’s retreat. One of the Scriptures she read was Jesus telling His disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25).
She has had to learn that the hard way.
“Anything can be made an idol in our life. … I believe the devil knew exactly how to pull me from God. I’ve always been super determined and strong-willed, strongheaded,” she said.
When Thimblepress started picking up steam between 2013 and 2015, “things were coming at me so fast. Dramatic things, amazing things. And I was like, ‘There’s no doubt this is the Lord. ….’ And I think a lot of it was. But I think some of it was also the devil,” she said.
“I was still in prayer. I was still in the Word. But it was kind of like really a struggle.”
By 2016, Thimblepress was in 1,500 retail stores and Kristen was working on her fifth collaboration with Hallmark.
In November 2015, Kristen got an email from Target. She thought it was spam. By April 2017, Thimblepress was in every Target store in the country.
“I thought, ‘This is God — He is keeping me busy.’
“It’s hard for me to say no… So I was saying yes to almost every opportunity, (and) slowly my soul began to deteriorate,” she said.
“I stopped being in the Word. I stopped praying. I stopped going to church.
“I used to run six miles a day. I stopped taking care of myself. … It became about, who can I be in this world? How can I stand out in this world? Because that’s how God’s using me. That’s how He’s going to show His love, through my accomplishments.”
After Thimblepress launched in Target stores, “I was so busy that I didn’t even take time to really celebrate it (in my head). I was like, ‘What’s next?’”
For several months, God tried to get Kristen’s attention in small ways. Then in May 2017, He allowed her world to crumble around her so loudly — in her work and in her life — that there was no denying He was doing something. He was fighting for her soul. But it felt like He was against her.
“He broke my bones. And I was so angry. It took me a long time to admit that.”
After several months of praying frustrated prayers and yelling at God from the roof of her apartment, she finally surrendered her will for His in October 2017. As much as she could at the time, anyway.
“It was a (progressive) development of true surrender.”
She started giving herself small goals for her relationship with God. She committed to reading a daily devotional, reading whatever Scripture it referenced and praying. She wrote her prayers in longhand, as a journal. She started realizing that God had been trying to get her attention for a year and a half.
Instead of yelling at God, she was now yelling at Satan — the one who had stolen so much of her time, energy and heart — in her apartment: “Get out of my home. Get out of this space. Get out of my life. You are NOT. WELCOME. Remove yourself.”
She’s well aware that she sounded crazy to any neighbors who heard.
One of Kristen’s journaled prayers from that time reads, “I’m really struggling today God. I feel like I can’t be everything to everyone. I want to live a happy life, and I feel like I am drowning. Tell me what to do.”
Well, He did.
The laundry list
In November 2017, Kristen was again writing out her prayers when God interrupted her.
“He interrupted me with a list, this laundry list of things He wanted me to do in my business. I was writing things down and my hand was shaking … I know it was from God because (these were things) I would never write down.
“He was asking me to lay off my entire team. At one point in the height of Thimblepress, I had to manage 20 people. … that was debilitating.”
Little by little, she began letting employees go. She knew God wanted her to do it all at once, but it broke her heart.
“(I thought), I’m their livelihood. I’m their job. If I take this away from them, they will hate me,” she said. But ultimately she realized that God would provide for each and every person she laid off.
Also on God’s laundry list: Cutting ties with all Thimblepress sales reps across the country — more than 80 people. And, He told Kristen to downsize the business physically.
“I got rid of an entire building that I was occupying. He was saying to me, ‘Remember why you started. Why did you start? It was because of Me. I brought all that (success) to you, not you.’”
On Feb. 28, Kristen finally laid off her last remaining team member. And at the end of December, she’ll close the Jackson retail shop (because very little of her customer traffic happens there). Don’t worry — you can still buy Thimblepress products at Thimblepress.com and more than a thousand retail stores across the country and abroad. And the business is still growing.
The future of Thimblepress — and what might have been
Kristen knows that if God hadn’t turned her around, “scenario B” would’ve played out.
“I believe we are all built searching for something, which is God. … So eventually, because I was no longer in relationship with Him, I was going to start searching. What would that have looked like?
“Would it have looked like materialism? ‘I’ve got to have all the things.’ Would it have looked like sexual immorality?” she said. “Yeah, it could’ve. And it could’ve even looked so bad as my mouth (becoming) a mouth for the (devil). And Lord was like, ‘You’ve got a big mouth, and I’m not about to let you use it for him.’”
Instead, now she is using her mouth — and her business and marketing savvy — to help other female entrepreneurs. In addition to mentoring individual clients, she is holding workshops at what started as the Thimblepress store. Handfuls of women gather around Kristen’s dining table with notebooks, laptops and food to learn from her experiences as a business owner.
She plans to offer free office hours for female entrepreneurs in that same former shop space starting early next year.
She encourages these women and all believers to ask themselves: “Who is initiating what you are doing and the decisions you are making?”
But more than anything, she wants believers to know God loves them.
“If you feel defeated, God is here to give you grace. He already paid the price for our sins. You have and will always be forgiven,” she said.
As God has used Kristen’s natural desire to teach and encourage others, she no longer sees Thimblepress as her one purpose. At His direction, she is shrinking the company “down to the best of the best,” she said. What’s more, she’s using Thimblepress more intentionally to bring Jesus to the next generation of women.
“I have partnerships coming out in January that I never could have imagined. Half of the stuff coming out in January is faith-based. (I used to say,) ‘But I want to make cool products.’ But they can be cool, and faith-based, and people don’t realize it until it hits them. It can be seamless.
“This year I came out with a hat that said ‘influencer’ on it. But it had, like, a double meaning – as in, not a social media influencer. I’m an influencer for Christ.”
So what’s her next dream?
“My dream right now is to float and just let God work.”