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Sunday, June 08, 2008

How-to: Start a stationery line

So all the images from my booth at that National Stationery Show are currently hostage on a mini disk the size of the tab you pull off a soda can. Carina and I found ourselves comically entangled between this and the series of slots on my laptop and the tiny disk was the wrong size each time. Drat technology! It reminded me of the time my dad told me the story about how one of his customers folded up a large floppy disk and inserted it into the [new] smaller slot. These days a large floppy works better as a fly swatter and a Mini-Cooper could fit inside the trunk of the average 70s family sedan. There are a few photos from my camera phone including this self portrait of me trying to be all NY serious in black sunglasses and a trenchcoat. I digress...

Back to the point. While hostage negotiations continue with the camera memory stick I thought I would address an issue that came up a lot during show-- what does it take to start a stationery line? Designers and students and artists were bursting from the isles with questions. New exhibitors showed up in force and many of them were fresh in the business and were depending on the contacts they made at the show to push them into the next phase. (The National Stationery Show [NSS] even organized a first-time exhibitor mentor program this year.)

From the design stages, to sample production, to sales, there sure are a lot of details. Once this train leaves the station it does not stop. I arrived at the NSS with questions to be answered, new envelope vendors to track down, reps to meet, and a hopeful disposition that by the end of the show the kindness of stangers would alleviate some of the struggles I face as my business grows and I amass more questions, new needs, and ever looming challenges.

The National Stationery show is like walking into a gianormous mall occupied with closet-sized freestanding stores filled with every single possible stationery item you might ever want. It is a sea of people and product and you can never see from one side to the other. Now imagine that the mall is at capacity and every tiny store is vying for the the attentions of a throng of buyers who are there to visually take-in, digest, and make decisions in a short amount of time (often in only one day). Packed with every product available you can quickly see that it could not be easy for buyers to determine their wants/needs months from now--yet they have to--and oftentimes commit. (Photo is of the awesome Ugly Dolls booth at the show.)

Where to even begin? I realize as I type this that there are going to have to be many postings in order to be comprehensive on the subject. So stick with me if you were one of those folks walking the show this year or even if you just think about it sometimes while you sip your coffee. This is a big industry and I can only account for my little piece and will do my best to point in the direction of other resources. I too am always in a process of education and evolvement. Shout out to my friend Ryan (see photo) for helping me lay the floor in my booth and keeping me in good conversation, art, and a few libations.

PART 1 - Information is key
My first suggestion is to go to as many tradeshows, craft-shows and the like that you can and decide what directions you are interested in. Go on the Internet and bookmark bookmark bookmark. Put together an idea file for your doodles and an inspirational file of industry notes--examples of lines you covet and companies you respect, printouts, etc. Define why you like these lines and companies and why you have chosen them -- do not decide to be like them, just define what they are doing impressively. For example, let's say you love letterpress and really want to start a letterpress-centric line. This file should not only include letterpress companies-- it should include other types of companies that have quality product, packaging, marketing, lettering, labeling, what-have-you. If you like it enough that it has made it into the file then there is a reason. Identify what it is.

Figure out exactly what you want out of this. Do you really want to run your own business and be responsible for so many things or do you want to develop products and put those responsibilities into the hands (and the bank accounts) of others? This is not an easy business. It is a competitive business. This is my perspective as a wholesaler who sells only to stores (business-to-business) and without a lot of experience in the craft festival circuit where items are sold directly to the individuals who will enjoy them. So eventually these postings will wander from the art and production side to a sales side that is skewed towards participation in trade shows and the use of sales reps.

One thing you will have to get accustomed to if you are serious is spreadsheets. Some day soon you too will find yourself staring at a series of numbers that represent how many single cards you have to sell each month to equal the total from all the other boxes that represent materials, labor, overhead, and if you are lucky, owner's take. Of course this is gross simplification of how many boxes there are on that spreadsheet, which is actually about a million different spreadsheets... I took some business classes at night. I still have nightmares about spreadsheets and insurance. You will too.

So start wandering around and checking things out. Here are some links to get started with your files. None of these links are endorsements, just good jumping off points. On the show websites you can see photos, links to exhibitor websites, do searches and more.

A few of the larger tradeshows:

The Supply Side (find paper, envelope and packaging suppliers here)


Copyright 2009 Jennifer Erts unless another artist credited. Do not copy, reproduce, reuse, modify any of the content or images from this site without permission.