Early on, we were prompted by a number of requests to produce tabletop products like dishes and gravy boats in addition to our greeting cards and picture frames. We negotiated a deal to have that stuff produced for us, but it wasn't a very high-quality program, and the whole thing sort of petered out.

In 1995 a huge, very prestigious tableware company approached us. I was absolutely thrilled. We held creative meetings with its people, and they were excited about any ideas we offered. We signed a contract and drew a bunch of designs. It looked like the license from heaven.

Then the bomb dropped. They called while I was out of town on vacation to tell us that the company was going bankrupt. My partner had to call me with the bad news. Never in our wildest dreams did we imagine it could happen. It was like hearing Tiffany's was going bankrupt. I was so disappointed because we were really counting on that licensing agreement to be our introduction to the home furnishings world -- to get our foot in the door.

What annoyed me the most was that while we were creating the artwork, the manufacturer's people knew all along that it was headed for bankruptcy. Maybe they were in denial.

We learned we shouldn't have put so much trust in the manufacturer's reputation. We hadn't done our homework in terms of financials.

The experience changed the way we handle licensing agreements. We now check companies out backward and forward. We research their distribution: what they sell and where they sell it. And we ask up front if there are any problems we should know about. Since then we've negotiated deals with huge companies, but we never assume, no matter how big the name is, that it will be a guaranteed success. We're more realistic.

The good news is, we are now able to use the artwork. This fall we're producing dishes with Enesco. The experience made us more careful, and now we have signed the best licensing agreements since we've been in business. --Written with Jill Hecht Maxwell

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