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From Letterpress hobby to Martha Stewart’s curated spring collection

Starting your own business: Canadian can-do attitude at work
Display table | Dale Egan
Display table | Dale Egan

Children launched, or retirement coming into view? Ever mused about starting your own business? This Oakville woman-owned business built during the pandemic is an inspiring example of how unimagined potential might be unleashed if you just take the chance.

When the pandemic first struck, and the PPE shortage was acute, Dale Egan harnessed her craft-making hobby and her husband Jim, putting her 3-D printer at work making face shield holders.

She and Jim put the word out, some of the closed-down schools came to the table with 3-D printers in various states of working order. Her friends scrounged overhead projector mylar sheets and sewing elastic, and hole-punched them to fit the holders, and they became a small but critical source of much-needed protective equipment.

Of course, the demand was massive, and once industrial-scale sources ramped up, their production was no longer needed. Akin to "knitting for the troops" as our grandparents did, Dale was thankful to be able to do something to help when others were stuck at home, quarantined, and feeling useless in the emergency, frustrated by their only contribution being to avoid being conduits for the deadly virus.

This was one of those cases where a skill or an experience proved useful in a way no one had anticipated. What followed for Dale is a fascinating story of such serendipity, with lessons on self-reinvention that set an example we think will inspire and help anyone thinking of taking a leap into a new phase of life. Dale's story is a down-to-earth example of what astronaut Jeremy Hansen calls the 'Canadian Can Do Attitude.'

Dale with Lanterns | Dale Egan
Dale with Lanterns | Dale Egan

Dale's children were launched, and with the extra time, she had taken up a hobby: printing on an ancient letterpress. She would produce personalized cards, wrapping, napkins and other paper and cardboard items for family occasions or for friends celebrating life events.

To create new letter and picture blocks for the press, she had a 3-D printer (a gift from her engineer husband) and leaning on long neglected and seriously out-of-date math and computer science knowledge (class of 1984 degree), she was designing images.

When she found the delicate details she wanted wouldn’t hold up in the press from the 3-D printer process, she bought a laser cutter to make more robust blocks that would support intricate designs. All of this was giving her lots of interest and pleasure, with no thought of any real commercial objective.

Then her daughter Hanna’s wedding came along, and of course, Dale produced a full suite of paper goods. The wedding dinner was to be outside, and Dale wanted unobtrusive but beautiful lighting for the tables. When her search turned up nothing she liked, she had the idea to cloak glass candle holders in stencilled wooden sleeves, which she would laser cut herself. They were a huge hit at the wedding, providing light and interest without taking over the table. She made 40 lanterns with a classic mid-century vibe.

Wedding over, she took a few over to Maker’s Mojo on Lakeshore Road to ask if they wanted to sell them, and they disappeared from the shelves in no time. Dale began to think about the possibilities and got onto Etsy, the craft maker’s marketplace. Three weeks later, the lockdowns came, and it was all hands on deck from dawn to dusk making face shields.  

"So many skills I had accumulated were suddenly all useful…in ways, I would never have expected," says Dale.

"For my letterpress hobby, precise alignment on the letterpress platen was critical, and that turned out to be exactly the skill I needed to make the 3-D printers produce the shield holders properly. My computer science knowhow, which could have been totally out of date, was weirdly useful in this niche." The same skills were pressed into service in laser cutting her wood lantern wraps.

Dale's Timeline | Dale Egan

While this was going on, Dale’s Lantern Cozies, as she had now branded them, caught the attention of the Etsy creator collaboration program and an influencer, JoJo Fletcher (a bachelorette). This can’t be real, she thought. With 3-D printers working every waking hour and needing constant attention making PPE, Dale and Jim found themselves having to negotiate contracts and source glass and other materials to meet the demand from Etsy.

Studio | Dale Egan
Studio | Dale Egan

"I can’t believe how lucky I am," says Dale. "I am getting to use knowhow I barely remembered I had, and I am learning all kinds of new things, like marketing and distribution channels, but also I keep finding out that people I know have connections that help." 

Reconnecting with an old friend from playing squash, Lantern Cozies provided custom prizes for the Canadian National Championships. That will give her product more exposure, as well as being a good order on its own.

"As a woman who has long been out of the workforce, I can’t emphasize enough how you can underestimate the knowhow and network you have. It might be the friends you have through your children or from a sport or volunteering, but I think a lot of people would be surprised how things can start falling into place when you take the leap into the unknown and start a business."

Lantern Cozies is really starting to snowball now; volumes are growing every month, and in March, the product was chosen by Martha Stewart for her curated Spring Collection. This is leading to orders, of course, but also to more and more interest from small and large retailers who want to stock the product.

One feature of an independent business is that, at a certain point, it takes on a life of its own…if you thought your own business would be freedom, this is when you become its slave until it reaches a critical mass and a more sustainable growth rate that allows it to be more operationalized.

In this, Dale counts herself extra lucky to have the help and support of husband Jim, a retired entrepreneur, whose Lantern Cozies business card says CWB, for Chief Worker Bee. The two of them work side by side and take time out to plan where they can take Lantern Cozies…or where it will take them.

Another lesson from their story is that if Lantern Cozies is rewarding, it will be a pretty karmic outcome given the selfless way the couple devoted themselves and their equipment to helping with the PPE crisis at the outset of the pandemic. "Cast your bread upon the waters…"

Lantern Cozies offers multiple lantern sizes, different wood types and many different designs, and a Cozy Club that can deliver you a new Lantern Cozy every quarter. They are even working on a version for solar-powered lights that people can use on boats, while camping, by the pool, or hanging in a tree. They provide a low-cost point of interest and an enhancement to any décor, indoors or out.

You can follow Dale and Lantern Cozies on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest and order here, or for wholesale orders, here.