Tricia Driscoll is a former Army Intelligence Officer who now runs and designs Knotty Origami, a jewelry and décor business grounded in knotting, folding and braiding arts. Her work incorporates her Korean heritage as well as the skills she learned in the military. Tricia donates her time and supplies to provide art therapy workshops, as well as five percent of all of her profits to The 296 Project, a local charity that helps veterans and their families, particularly those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Her work has evolved to incorporate decorative knotting and braiding, in addition to the many practical knots she used in the Army. Her eight year-old daughter, Caelyn, designs her very own knotted collection. Tricia’s designs can be found in stores and galleries in Northern Virginia and Northern Ireland, and online at Knotty Origami, LLC ™
Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career?
Yes. Even though I had grown up seeing the imagery of knots all around me in Korea, they always seemed very mystical. When I attended Air Assault School at Fort Campbell, Kentucky as a young Lieutenant in the U.S. Army in 1999, I tied my first tactical knot: a Swiss Seat Rappel Harness. That knot, which we had to do in 30 seconds without looking in order to pass on to the next phase, was the difference between living and dying when we rappelled down towers and out of the helicopter. I was fascinated by the simplicity and the functionality of that knot, and all others that followed. I began making simple paracord bracelets to store the cording neatly, and my interest evolved into other more decorative forms of the knotting craft over years. For the origami that I do each holiday season, I recall my first teacher as a child in Seoul, explaining stories of her escape from North Korea when she was young. Every time I fold a piece of paper, I think of her stories still.
What about this career choice did you find most appealing?
What I love most about the knotting and folding arts is that they are technical and beautiful. The knotting and origami art forms begin with a single piece of rope or cord, or a single plane of paper. From those simplest of beginnings, the pieces are creased, folded, looped, or weaved into works of incredible complexity. Knotted and folded pieces are metaphors for human potential. When we see how sophisticated a piece can become, even though it is singular at the core, it is a reminder of how much we can achieve. We are already multi-faceted and poly-dimensional. Just imagine what that implies for the possibilities of what we can do.
Additionally, the knotting and folding arts are highly practical in ways many people don’t often consider. Many knots don’t just hold symbolic or cultural meanings, they can save your life. Origami techniques have given way to launches of massive folded telescopes into outer space, and the creation of stints that unfold intravenously. I am in love with the idea of Form And Function which is why I have a collection by the same name. In addition to the many purely decorative knots and folds we make, the Form And Function pieces can be cut in emergency situations to yield usable paracord.
What steps did you take to begin your education or training?
The education and training to learn new Knots and Folds has been a lifelong passion. I am an experiential learner, so I spend my free time tinkering. I tend to invest in books, and occasionally review videos, but most of my learning is simply in the DOING while working through mistakes.
I spent several years earning advanced degrees in Management and Business Management, which I feel helped when I decided to launch my business in 2013. There was a baseline understanding of what I would need to set in place. I was thankful that I found a passion that I could build a business around so that I could start using the degrees that I was still paying off.
But, I feel that the one learning experience that has been priceless and integral to hitting the ground running was my three years spent as a blogger. When I launched a blog in 2011, I had no prior knowledge of website development, social media leveraging, promotion, networking, writing for an audience, content creation, or photography basics. Jumping into the blogging world with open eyes and receptive mind, gave me the courage to launch out on my own to build my own website, photography, and customer base. I view that time as a sort of internship.
Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging?
I feel that people were overwhelmingly encouraging and excited to see me start something new. That said, there are so many jewelry businesses in the game that I don’t think anyone would have been disappointed or shocked if I threw in the towel in the earliest stages of business development, either. In the beginning, there is so much to build with little return. I believed that the business could grow, and I was determined to keep at it with a long-term vision. I am thankful for the people who supported the concept from the very first day.
Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt a career change?
I have never doubted my decision to start Knotty Origami. I did change my career in order to pursue Knotty Origami. I spent nine and a half years serving in the U.S. Army as a Military Intelligence Officer. I then worked as a Law Enforcement Intelligence Analyst for a few years before transitioning out of the government work force. I loved my work, but the hours were exceptionally long and I had two very small children. When my husband was transferred, I made the hardest decision of my life to resign. Wow, that was difficult. But, it was the very best decision for me, and my young family, at the time. I spent about six months solely focused on our move and my family, and then branched into blogging about local community and child-centered events. After a few years, I started Knotty Origami and have been running and designing for it ever since.
When did your career reach a tipping point?
In my first career choice as an Army Officer, my husband and I wanted to start a family. He and I were rarely able to see each other because of our deployments and temporary duties. Dual military couples start families every day and do a great job balancing the needs of the Army and their families. But, I thought it was best for us if I looked for civilian work that would give a more stable schedule.
As a civilian analyst, my kids were very young. The work was fulfilling and stimulating, but the hours were very long. I worked in an environment where the work had to be done at the office. There was not a lot of flexibility to bring work home. I did what I could, but when my husband received transfer orders, the timing seemed right for me to resign, with the option of coming back down the road.
With Knotty Origami, I found myself starting to feel overwhelmed with unofficial orders to make origami or knotted items for people. I was spending my own money and gifting the items people asked for. I did it with pure joy that people appreciated my work. The things I was blogging about, people wanted. The things I was making for myself and wearing, people wanted. And, then the lightbulb moment happened that I should start Knotty Origami. Everything came together: my military background, the arts of our cultural backgrounds (my husband is Irish-American and I am half-Korean), my love for the arts, blogging, the desire to work on my own time, and still contribute to the family’s financial security. Knotty Origami was the answer.
I have never looked back. Every agonizing decision about switching career paths was worth the agony. Each experience has solidified that I am on the path that is right for me, and my family.
Can you describe a challenge you had to overcome?
I believe the first two years of working on building opportunities and networks was the hardest time. It took patience to continue through what felt like stagnation, or a lack of initial sales. But, the persistence paid off. Knotty Origami is still growing, with much growing to do, but I am busy every day working on designs, new orders, or preparing for an event. I work with an intern now, and have had to start considering how I will bring on more workers to help keep up with demand. Knotty Origami is no longer strictly e-commerce, but can now be found in several Northern Virginia stores, and even one in Northern Ireland. We’re doing in-home trunk shows, markets and instructional workshops, as well.
The ups and downs of the first couple of years were essential to learning what my place was in the market, and what my business model needed to look like. I never considered quitting, but I can understand why some might consider quitting in the earliest stages, where you are the only one who can see where you and your business are headed, even though the numbers just aren’t there yet.
What single skill has proven to be most useful?
I don’t know if it’s a skill, but I would say that being willing to “Fail Up” is the attribute that has allowed me to step into this career without fear. What I mean by that, is that there is a lot of learning through mistakes along the way. Taking those micro-failures, and viewing them as “points of improvement” for your process, your model, or yourself, is what will propel you forward without becoming paralyzed by setbacks.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
I am most proud that I have controlled my career path at every step and that my business can now help make a difference in the community. I am doing what I love, what I am meant to do, and I am able to do good along with it. We donate five percent of our profits each year to a local non-profit. The first year, we sponsored Voz De Ninos, a Texas Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program for children in foster care. We were only able to give a small amount that year. But, we received a note from the non-profit that told us where the money would go to help a child who had aged out of the system to help get them started on their own. It was a reminder that every bit that a business can help generate helps. The following year, we were able to donate more to Boston Children’s Hospital (from sales of our Awareness Products) and the Transitional Housing BARN, a non-profit that helps house and provide for abused women and families. And, this year, we are on track to donate even more to The 296 Project, a non-profit that provides art therapy workshops and resources to veterans and their families. Many of the people helped by The 296 Project have suffered Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I’ve hosted a free workshop for them and plan to do more. The arts are a fabulous way to help someone’s well-being, and I am thrilled to be a part of that. I am proud of how far Knotty Origami has come, and have great hopes for its future, but I truly hope that we’ll always be able to help impact the community.
Any advice for others entering your profession?
Fail Upward With Vigor. Failure has two sides: the side that feels horrible, and the side full of lessons. The “Lesson Side” is the one that you should pay attention to. You’ll improve every time, and you and your business will be better off because of it.