If the phrase “best-laid plans” means something has gone awry or not come to fruition, then “best ‘Ley’d’ plans” would certainly be the antonym because Emily Ley has built an entire brand on planning things out and bringing them to fruition.
Sitting next to her in Starbucks, you’d never know the down-to-earth Mom of three is the visionary leader of a multi-million dollar company and a nine-time bestselling author. It should come as no surprise that she appears like any other Mom juggling the demands of early and middle childhood. It was Emily’s desire to be a mother that served as the catalyst for creating her business in the first place.
But before that, nearly twenty years ago, the Tate High School and University of West Florida graduate started her career selling advertising for Pensacola Magazine. She earned degrees in English and Creative Writing and a Master’s Degree in Public Administration. Following her job in sales, she burst into the nonprofit sector in her twenties as Executive Director of Ballet Pensacola, before working at Covenant Hospice.
She was young and ambitious, leading a nonprofit tasked with big results on a shoestring budget. Without funds for a team of creative ad professionals, Emily became a master at Microsoft Publisher to create professional marketing and communication pieces. She didn’t know it at the time, but it was the beginning of Emily using a little to build a lot.
After her marriage to Pensacola native, Bryan Ley, the pair moved to Tampa. For the first time, Emily was away from family and friends. A two-hour daily commute to her job at the University of South Florida gave Emily plenty of time to think about the life she had and the one she hoped for.
She longed to be a mother and knew that her current work schedule wouldn’t give her the harmonious balance she desired. During Emily’s childhood, her mother worked as a teacher allowing her to be available when school was not in session. Emily wanted the same level of flexibility.
It was 2008 and the sales platform Etsy was relatively new. Etsy is a global online marketplace that allows crafters, artisans, and entrepreneurs a place to showcase and sell their products. One of Emily’s friends made and sold aprons on the site and another friend used the service for her photography business.
Inspired by them and building on her non-profit experience and making her own wedding invitations, she started Emily Ley Paper. She primarily sold her products by word of mouth and social media. But a failed trip to the store created an epiphany that would soon change the trajectory of her paper business and her entire family’s life.
She was now a new mom and Emily Ley Paper was growing. Desperate to keep her days and tasks better organized, she went to Target in search of a planner. She was frustrated with the options and left empty-handed on a mission to come up with something better.
While some may love a planner with boxes to check, Emily wanted something different. So, with nothing more than a sharpie, a binder, and paper, she sketched a layout of the planner she wanted, somewhat similar to the others, but…simplified.
She designed a sample using Publisher and offered it to her social media followers, who quickly placed orders. Simplified by Emily Ley, was born. Because she was printing a low quantity, she printed them through a friend, but they were not ready until February…a month after they were needed.
Instead of calling it quits, Emily responded with authenticity and a sincere apology, refunding 1/12th of the planner price, and including a gourmet lollipop with a hand-written note.
Emily sent the planner, the lollipops, the “I hope this lollipop made the wait a little sweeter,”
notes, and held her breath. The Simplified followers responded in a supportive way still present in the community today: with grace.
Posts of the lollipops and winning customer service strategy were shared all over social media. What seemed disastrous gave the newly minted planner entrepreneur some valuable lessons in business.
She would not give up, but she would do better the second go-round. She researched printers and found one that would accept the small order of 1,100. With renewed hope for the second printing, the Leys fronted thousands of dollars and waited. But with language barriers and misunderstandings about publishing, pallets of 1,100 misprints were delivered to her Tampa driveway.
Once again, lessons were learned and dollars lost, but she still didn’t quit. Her drive and determination synergized into the creation of a planner that won “Best New Product” at the New York Stationary Show. One year later, the company was in Forbes Magazine, then went wholesale and launched products in 800 retail stores.
Behind the scenes, Emily was a mother of one and giving herself IVF shots. With successful treatment, the couple gave birth to twins, creating the Ley party of 5. With only 2 or 3 extra people helping the business and a whirlwind of growth, burnout was nipping at Emily’s heels.
Unable to burn every candle at both ends, one had to be blown out and in 2017, the Leys knew something had to give. They made the strategic decision to shut down their wholesale program, which meant losing 40% of their revenue.
With better margins on the retail side, they shifted their focus to making deals with big box stores like Office Depot, Wal-Mart, and Target. These deals doubled their sales and replaced the lost revenue. With licenses for artwork arranged with ACCO, Mead, At-A-Glance, and Trapper Keeper, more affordable lines with the same style and sensibility are available to a wider audience.
Simplified by Emily Ley continues to help market those products and produces their original signature products which feature high-end planners made with luxurious paper, gold details, and rich colorful prints with names like Happy Stripe, Midnight Chinoiserie, and Blush Magnolia.
Having built a bigger table for people of all backgrounds, I would venture to say that the biggest success of Simplified by Emily Ley isn’t in its products, but rather in the community she’s created. When her first printing failed, she was transparent and honest. When it happened again, she led with more honesty.
Emily wasn’t an untouchable designer in a faraway office. She was much like the women buying her products and in her groups online: a mother with fertility struggles, an overwhelmed and hopeful entrepreneur, a young woman trying to be the best mother possible without letting go of her own dreams.
Hers was just the voice big-five publisher HarperCollins values. Unbeknownst to Emily, the publishing great was reading what Emily was writing and was ready to deliver her message to the world. The e-mail Emily received from them in a preschool parking lot, “We want you to write a book,” was the first date of a relationship that continues to this day.
No stranger to perseverance, Emily would put the children to bed, then drive down to Starbucks and write for 2 hours every night for the next 8 weeks following that e-mail. After 8 weeks, Emily didn’t know it, but she was holding the draft of a future best-seller, “Grace Not Perfection.”
“It’s a dream you don’t say out loud,” Emily admitted of her former long-held wish to be an author. She knew if she ever got the chance, she would want to help other women with the wearying burden of perfectionism, something she wrestled with in her own life.
As she and the editor went through each word and line of “Grace Not Perfection, Embracing Simplicity, Celebrating Joy,” Emily was encouraged to remember the myriad of backgrounds and circumstances of every woman in her audience.
“I still take those thoughts and guidance from her [the editor] into the other books I write,” Emily shares, continuing to say, “That was a really cool experience as a writer to write something so that any woman who reads my books feel like I understand them or ‘she gets me’.”
She remembers putting dinner on the table when the publisher called to say that “Grace Not Perfection” was outperforming on pre-orders. Now it’s a best-seller in the hundreds of thousands.
Although she says, “all her best stories,” were poured into her first book, she quickly did it again and again. She has since written more books, journals, devotionals, and now a children’s book.
“It requires a lot of discipline,” she admits of the trait required to balance the life of an entrepreneur, author, wife, and mother. While Emily obviously embodies leadership and discipline, she is quick to praise and credit the team of people that keep the Simplified brand and business maximized.
“A team of other women who shine in their roles have allowed me to step back. I cast the vision, give final approval, and am the face [of the brand]. But I work with people that have taken it to places I never could have on my own,” Emily asserts. It was also the springboard for her husband, Bryan, to build the business that handles Simplified’s fulfillment. He is an entrepreneur in his own right with involvement in 9 other companies.
The company now gives back through the “Simplified Social Good” national program to help women and girls in need. Profits from their recent warehouse sale benefitted local domestic violence resource, FavorHouse.
But don’t let her “stepping back,” mislead you. Emily’s planner remains full. Encouraged by stories from women inspired by her writing and the community she created, her heart’s desire is to be a connection between people.
She’s recently started a Substack enabling her to send newsletters directly to subscribers and makes regular appearances and contributions in the online community, “Simplified Sisterhood.”
“I really want to elevate the voices of women who are doing good things and am now looking at life through a bigger perspective, through the lens of a legacy,” she says.
Although many of Simplified’s employees live elsewhere and work remotely, the pair that met at Darryl’s as teenagers returned to Pensacola several years ago to be near family, because “We love it here.”
Sometimes people who create multi-million dollar companies from scratch seem mysterious and maybe a little unexplainable, like they’re holding some complicated secret that the rest of us will never understand.
But friend and nearby neighbor Jen Kinsella, says of Emily, “There are lots of words for that beautiful soul, but mostly: compassionate, empathetic, determined, and positive.”
Well, that doesn’t sound difficult or impossible to understand at all.
I think the dictionary has a word for that…ah yes…Simplified.
Visit her website here: https://www.emilyley.com/