Redefining Success: Stationery, Struggle, Sustainability

by wek on May 11, 2012

Friends, please allow me to be completely transparent. This may be a long post, but hopefully it will be educational–at the very least, read it to learn from my mistakes.

Almost a decade ago, I set out to build a dream, a stationery company–a stationery brand. Having worked at a stationery store since I was fifteen, I looked up to and admired the likes of Julia D. Azar, Anna Griffin, the ladies at Inviting Company, Kit McDonald from Odd Balls, and many other talented designers that set out to influence the imprintable stationery world.

At first, we were just a blank stock invitation company–I didn’t even want to do note cards. I preached that our focus was on the K.I.S.S. method (Keep It Simple, Silly). But requests from the retailers came flooding in, so note cards we did. Pretty soon the note cards were more than half of our sales–and sales were good. We acquired Hicks Paper Goods, which strengthened our invitation imprintable selection, and so I thought, why not go even bigger? Let’s do personalized as well! In 2006, we rolled out our personalized albums at the National Stationery Show, and sales sky-rocketed.

The next year was almost as profitable. On a personal note, I got engaged the summer of 2007 and we were married in February 2008. By the end of 2008, I was pregnant with our first child, and that fact combined with the early rumblings of recession, we decided to move to Oklahoma City in early 2009, and position my income as the bread-winning income for the family. Little did we know how long this darn recession was going to last. But how long the recession lasted wasn’t supposed to matter–after all, the invitation business was recession proof–people would always have parties, right?

Well, if the imprintable invitation business was supposed to be recession-proof, it wasn’t technology-proof. From 2008 to present, I wish I had a dollar for every retailer that told me they were tired of TinyPrints and Shutterfly taking all their business. To those that I had a chance to discuss the subject with in-person, I explained that it wasn’t just TinyPrints and Shutterfly–it was small, boutique, Etsy shop owners, and local photographers who required clients to order their holiday photo cards directly from them (nothing against Etsy shop owners and photographers!). It was a shift in desktop printing improvements, and the power of “on-demand” printing, which eliminated the need for costly investments in long-run prints and demanded high inventory volumes. And on-demand printing changed the design landscape, forcing a shorter design lifecycle on each design, and diminishing the value of each work, forcing artists to have to create more and more designs in order to keep up.

So we listened to the retailers, and we tried to offer an alternative. Taking our focus off our core blank stock business, which I believed was dying, we set out to create a revolutionary new concept, that would marry the needs of both brick-and-mortar retailers with the desires of traditional, imprintable designers: a website that would allow designers to upload their designs, allow us as a printer and fulfillment company to produce them, and allow brick and mortar retailers the convenience of not having to constantly update thousands of products and various brands on their site. If this project took off, it would more than replace the income from our blank stock business, and it would solve a huge industry problem.

But, the best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry, right?

I’m not going to get into what we did wrong. To be frank, I’m not ready to blog about it. (If you want to want to know more, I’m happy to share one-on-one, but publishing my faults to the internets takes more courage than I can summon up right now). At some point in time, I will share these insights, but the wounds are still pretty fresh at the moment.

The bottom line is…

Sometimes, in business, efforts become unsustainable. The cost becomes more than the gain. The risk is no longer worth the reward. And if you get to that point, you have to be smart enough to know when to call it quits, rather than keep careening off a cliff and dying a horrific death on the rocks below.

Last fall, we reached that point. As Verne Harnish would say, I had some sad choices to make. Not difficult choices. Sad choices. One by one, I was forced let a talented group of people go. I watched our payables rise, and our receivables stretch out. As we headed into the holiday season, I hoped things would get better with an upturn in holiday sales. But the reality was, in the middle of the holiday season, tempers flare easily, patience-spans are short, and workdays are unbearably long (18 hours of people screaming at you makes for an incredibly long workday).

And then, I found out I was unexpectedly pregnant with our third child.

I’ve never had mommy guilt. My first “child” was a business, born almost a decade ago. My second child, really our first-born son, has had incredibly loving childcare since the day he was born, and our second son has fit into the family groove more easily than we could ever have dreamed. But with the news of our third on the way, a new dose of reality hit me: that was too many kids. Too many babies. Too many precious, wonderful little children. And this gawking, pubescent pre-teen called a company was going to have to do some fast growing up, because I was no longer going to have the time and attention to give him.

Decision time. Sad, hard, difficult, awful decision time.

The end result? Some good things. Some still not-so-good things. The imprintable industry is no longer sustainable (let’s face it–technology isn’t going to slow down, and the internet is not going to go away), and frankly, I feel like I messed up big time on the personalized operations process. The challenges have been, and sometimes still feel, daunting. There are times when I find myself exhausted from apologizing.

But I had, and continue to have. two choices: let the battle beat me down, or try to find the will to navigate it.

This week has been a crazy week. Progress was made with the launch of a new strategic effort to support personalized dealers. The decision to make this move has required relinquishment of control (can you hear my inner entrepreneur cringe?), but the final result is going to be much better for personalized dealers. I’m sad to say that English Paper Company has nothing to do with personalized orders any more, but, in all honesty, I’ve always loved seeing a delighted retailer. And if removing EPC from that equation produces more sustainable results for retailers, that’s going to delight them. I can handle that.

If you have more questions, I’ll be in booth 1532 at the National Stationery Show with the new team.

Lastly, you might be wondering what this means for me. I’ll try to continue to keep you udpated via this blog. I’m still not completely sure where this journey is taking me, but one thing I believe absolutely: when there are doors closing, it almost always means there are other doors opening. For now:

  • Continued Support for Personalized Dealers: I’ll be working with the new personalized fulfillment company to help them integrate personalized dealers into the new process, and also be helping them partner with designers who want to take their products wholesale. I’m working on a blog post that talks more about this, and will debut in the coming weeks.
  • Helping Stationers Grow: I’ll be working with stationery and personalization designers to help them build their stationery, gift product, and invitation brands into nationally-recognized brands that can be found in brick and mortar stationery stores in almost every state. In addition to the wholesale side of things, I’ll be working with retail stationers to help them build their own internal, direct-to-consumer brands, offering print production techniques and wisdom, and pairing traditional retailers with designers that successfully can represent their brand.
  • Workshops: I’ll continue to host Stationery Academy, where you are WELCOME to pick my brain about all things stationery, good and bad. If you want to see totally transparent Whitney, it’s at Stationery Academy. I’m happy to pass the hard lessons along, and offer encouragement and insight that I’ve gained along my journey. Believe me, I want someone to get something from all these mistakes I’ve made!
  • Most Important: I’ll be being a mom. Unapologetically and profitably. (Even though the profit on that isn’t financial.)

Can I tell you something? It’s going to be hard to push “publish” on this post. I know that not everyone is going to agree with my decisions, that not everyone will like the outcomes, and that I’m risking the wrath of, well, everyone. But I feel the need to be transparent. This is so hard. I can’t see around the next bend in the road right now. Each daily step is requiring a massive amount of faith.

I’m encouraged by the quote above. Joyce Meyer is right: a #2 pencil and a dream can take you anywhere. Note to self: just remember to hang on for the ride.

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