Entrepreneurship Was In The Cards

    GRAND RAPIDS  — Don Kallil, president of Design Design, knew at age 10 that he wanted to start his own business. The hard part would be figuring out what kind.

    After earning a business and marketing degree and finishing up stints as a sales rep and a stockbroker, Kallil realized he still wanted to be an entrepreneur. And two ideas — bakery and greeting card company — nagged at him.

    Kallil worked in a bakery while at Michigan State University, and he received hand-made cards from the woman who would become his wife while she was living in another state.

    “I told her she could make the cards and I could sell them. She said, ‘We’ll starve!’” Kallil said of his wife, Jennifer. “She thought the only reason I liked them was because they were from her, so we decided to look elsewhere.”

    Meanwhile, Kallil worked at T.G.I.Friday’s, saving his money to start his own greeting card company. His father gave him a gift of $10,000 and co-signed a loan for $40,000 to start his business.

    But Kallil didn’t want to take the $10,000 as a gift and promised to return double the amount in five years.

    While waiting tables at Friday’s, a discussion with a customer led to Kallil’s introduction to a Kalamazoo artist who would become his partner.

    A second artist to come on board was a childhood friend of Kallil’s wife, who would also hand-make clever greeting cards. Together with the two artists, Kallil started Design Design out of his apartment in Chicago.

    With 72 greeting card designs, Kallil and his wife made their first trip across country to show their wares at a trade show in California. There, they met a group that agreed to represent Design Design.

    That relationship would foster a national presence for the fledgling firm.

    Shortly after the successful trip to California, the couple moved to Grand Rapids. One day while shopping, Kallil discovered what he thought was a very funny greeting card. But it was oversized, had trouble fitting into the rack and was made of crude paper. It wasn’t even in full color. Kallil decided to give the artist a call.

    That spur-of-the-moment call was responsible for a large amount of Design Design’s success. The artist, Leslie Murray, creator of Murray’s Law, now generates artwork and cartoons that are developed into magnetic notepads, invitations, sticky notepads, T-shirts, buttons, photo albums and writing journals.

    “It is our largest licensed, single property and is sold in 10,000 retail stores. We have about 700 products with her name on it and I consider the day I saw that card one of my luckiest days,” said Kallil. “She (Murray) always tells me that the day I called her was her luckiest day, but I count that day as one of my luckiest, also.”

    The company now distributes products to nearly 14,000 independent retail stores and works with 100 freelance artists. Since 1987, Design Design has grown from nine employees to 65 and is now housed in a facility on LaGrave Avenue.

    “I know we have been around for many years, but it kind of feels like we are just getting going,” said Kallil. “I give a lot of the credit for the success of this company to the people who work here. They are honest, passionate, hardworking, good people and I feel that the sky’s the limit. I definitely don’t see any end in sight.

    “I am enjoying everyday and love coming to work every day. I’m not going to retire, so I look forward to coming in and working with these people every day and growing this business to really see what it can do.”

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