I never did ask Heather Lins if she buys lottery tickets. If I was her, I might. Lins is pretty good at winning things.
Her latest — and surely biggest — win will take Lins and her husband, Mike Sturm, to New York City later this week, where she will collect a 2014 Martha Stewart American Made Award, one of 10 out of 3,200 entrants. Among her prizes: $10,000 cash.
Lins, 41, is a design entrepreneur who operates her business, Heather Lins Home, out of an upstairs studio in the Madison home she shares with Sturm and their 4-year-old twins. She began the business making and selling home textiles, but won the Stewart award for a line of easy, poke-and-stitch embroidery calendars that can be made by just about anyone.
The Stewart award may be Lins’ highest-profile win, but it has company. A decade ago, she and Sturm entered a competition to design new bus shelters for State Street. It drew entries from across the country, including some prominent architectural firms.
“We were the dark horse,” Lins recalled recently, but they won.
It gave her the confidence a few years later to enter a contest that would give each of three winners a booth (estimated value: $20,000) at the prestigious New York International Gift Fair (currently known as New York Now). It was a contest for designers who had been in business less than a year. Lins entered her home textile designs in part because she thought it would help her get them out of her sketch book and into the real world. When she won, she had samples, but no actual product line or marketing kit. It was a bit of a scramble to get everything together and fly to New York for the show in August 2008, but Lins made it happen.
If there’s a theme here, it might be a willingness to take a chance, trust your talent, and try. You can’t win something if you don’t enter.
Lins is a Richland Center native and attended the two-year UW-Richland before coming to UW-Madison. She’d worked on the Richland campus paper, enjoyed writing, and, especially, design and paste-up. By the time Lins got to Madison, she knew she wanted to focus on graphic design.
Lins graduated in December 1995 with an art degree and a graphic design concentration. A series of limited-term positions helped her hone her skills. Lins calls it her “young artist as a state worker” phase. One gig with the Memorial Union led to Lins designing a T-shirt to promote the Union Terrace. She featured the Terrace’s famous chairs in a comic-book style romance. They called it, “The Union Terrace — A Love Story.”
In 2000, Lins took a full-time position with Firepower Design in Madison. She was still with Firepower when she and Mike entered the State Street bus shelter design competition. (Today, Sturm is a landscape architect with the Madison Parks Department; he wasn’t with the city when they did their bus shelter design.)
Where the old shelters had been large, brick and bulky, Heather and Mike presented a more nimble, transparent design with a curved, asymmetrical roof. They did a presentation, complete with model. A 14-member jury selected their design as the winner.
Incongruous as it may seem, her bus shelter success gave Lins the confidence to think about a home textile design business. She’d always loved fabrics, paging through so-called “shelter” magazines. When she won the booth space at the big New York gift fair in summer 2008, Lins took pillows and a series of table linens, place mats and napkins to exhibit. She spent long days in the booth that week, making valuable contacts. Her work was selected for Domino and Better Homes and Gardens magazines. Stores around the country agreed to carry her home accessories.
Lins’ twins were born in 2010. Working from home became even more desirable. She wanted something, too, that might prove easier than home textiles, and settled on paper, calendars and stationery. She sold them retail through her website, heatherlinshome.com, with good success.
The breakthrough, though, came in 2012, when Lins was thinking about a Zodiac-themed calendar, and a phrase grabbed her and wouldn’t let go: stitch the stars. A few sketches followed. In the end, it became a calendar kit with glow-in-the-dark printing and embroidery floss. It was both easy and engaging, a new design every month, customers creating their own art. Grandparents bought them for themselves and their grandchildren. Lins offered different takes on the craft calendars in 2013 and 2014, and has a fourth for 2015. The kits cost $25. Lins has sent them around the world, to Japan, Singapore, Qatar.
She entered the Martha Stewart contest this past summer, answering a series of questions about her business and sending photos of the calendars. She knew it was a long shot, but she got a follow up note, and then another. Finally, a phone call. She was a winner.
Along with the cash prize, there’s the opportunity to be featured in Martha Stewart Living magazine, and an expenses paid New York trip, Friday-Saturday, for the Martha Stewart American Made Summit.
Lins figures to be pretty busy, but she still might take a minute and buy a lottery ticket.