When Surya Sajnani and Dave Pinto were expecting their first child in 2002, she painted a mural with black and white zebras on one wall of the nursery. The couple had read that a baby’s eyes are stimulated by repeating patterns of black and white. "It worked out like we had planned. He would actually stare at the zebras," Sajnani recounted of their son, Sid. "Our friends saw this and said ‘You should market that.’ "
These comments played right into the couple’s goal of owning their own business some day.
"When Sid went to bed, we would sit there and scheme about how we could get away from working for other people," Pinto laughed. So the couple, who met in India in 1997 and married in 2000, decided to create and sell boxes of six study cards, each with a black and white picture of an animal with repeating patterns drawn by Sajnani.
They were living in Santa Barbara, Calif., at the time. She was a graphic designer, he a linguistics teacher. After numerous failed attempts to find a U.S. company that would make both the cards and their box, or even reply to inquiries, the couple turned to a printer in Hong Kong who gave them a quote the morning after their first email. Within a few weeks, Pinto and Sajnani paid $3,000 for 1,000 cardboard boxes, each containing six cards featuring simplistic, yet charming, animals.
This was the beginning of Wee Gallery, which is now based in St. Petersburg and has more than 1,000 retailers, including Anthropologie, the Gap and Selfridges, selling a wide selection of products online or in stores. There are blankets, pillows, Christmas stockings, stroller books, growth charts, play mats and more, all featuring more than 100 different Sajnani-designed animals from the farm to the zoo to the jungle.
The name Wee Gallery came from that initial box of flash cards, still one of their top sellers.
"We thought the cards propped up along the side of the crib looked like a little art gallery," Sajnani said. A check found Weegallery.com wasn’t taken and the official name was born.
After sending 40 sample boxes to boutiques and museums, the buyer for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art placed an order. She advised they change their suggested price from $14.95 to $12.95 and the couple agreed.
"We thought, ‘Oh my gosh. We’re in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. We’ve made it,’ " Sajnani recalled with a chuckle.
"We were naive," Pinto added. They moved to St. Petersburg when Pinto took a job with an online faxing company. Sajnani freelanced as a graphic designer, they had another baby, a girl, and continued to grow Wee Gallery.
It was much harder to get into independent boutiques than they expected by sending samples and calling. So the next step in 2007 was spending $5,000 for a 10-foot by 10-foot booth at a trade show where thousands of retailers order their inventory over the course of a few days. They landed 150 clients including Anthropologie and the Gap. Once again, Wee Gallery was on an upswing. Pinto quit his job.
And then the Great Recession hit in 2008. The Gap and Anthropologie didn’t renew their orders. Many of the small boutiques that had finally become customers went out of business. Pinto picked up consulting work and Wee Gallery limped along.
Similac, the formula company, came calling in 2010 and wanted to buy the rights to reproduce Sajnani’s artwork for a marketing campaign related to a new ingredient that promoted babies’ visual development.
The couple said no, but negotiated a deal for Similac to buy 200,000 boxes of cards to send to potential formula buyers. That windfall boosted the company for a while but it didn’t last. Sajnani and Pinto decided to move their Wee Gallery office out of the condo they had bought for a fire sale price at Signature Place in downtown St. Petersburg and lease it to a graphic design company.
But then, another stroke of good luck and good business came their way. High-end juvenile furnishing company Nursery Works, which describes itself as "ultra-chic," requested an exclusive line of bedding from Wee Gallery. This led to a brush with celebrity. Kanye West and Kim Kardashian were shopping in a California boutique and West put baby North down in a crib for a cat nap. The shop owner snapped a photo of the famous little girl sleeping on a sheet designed by Sajnani and posted it on Instagram.
"We don’t know if they actually bought any of our products, but we do know North West slept on our sheet," Sajnani said with a laugh. Yet another surprising turn of events.
"All along the way we thought, ‘This is stupid,’ then we’d think ‘We really have to give this up’ and then something happens and we are like, ‘Maybe we are on the right track,’ " she recounted. "We are creating the life we want. We wanted to be with our kids and have flexible hours."
Pinto proudly shared one more unexpected turn of events in their story, revealing that Sajnani was rejected from art school in India. So she majored in life sciences — because at least she could still create anatomical drawings — but ended up creating artwork that’s beloved by parents and kids around the world.
Wee Gallery moved out of the family garage and back into the Signature office in April. There is a third employee. Sales and product lines are steadily growing. The couple’s vision of their own business on their own terms is happening — in living color as well as black and white.
This story originally appeared in the December issue of Bay magazine.