This month, Papermash turned 10 years old! I've been reflecting on what's happened over the last decade, what's worked and what hasn't. For the most part, many things I wrote in this 5 year blog post are still true, but here's the story of my journey so far.
2009 – In 2009 I launched Papermash, through my Tea for Joy blog (RIP.) I sourced almost of my initial stock through avid reading of interiors blogs I had discovered during a three-month stay in New York. This opened up a whole new design world to me. I'd like to say the business idea was really well thought through, but really I'd just seen some nice things you couldn't get in the UK, and stationery was a low-cost financial investment.
In those days Oh Joy had her own product range, before she switched to licensing deals with companies like Walmart, and I also loved some simple letterpress from Simplesong design, before she closed that business down and rebranded. Letterpress stationery was a completely new concept to me and didn't really exist in the UK - and was what I mostly sold in that first year (including tooth fairy kits and wine gift tags) and some beautiful Korean tape whose brand I wish I remembered as they had pretty designs in great quality! That year I also had a mention in Daily Candy, a daily lifestyle email, which was the biggest press impact I’ve ever had, with £1000 of sales in a few hours (that’s a lot for a stationery shop with only a small range.) When the internet was less saturated and there were fewer online shops, mentions definitely had more impact. Daily Candy closed down a few years ago.
2010 – I continued to discover new products and designers via design blogs, including what was very unique at the time; striped bakers twine and striped paper straws, which I specifically remember spotting on the Creature Comforts blog. Who knew they were so tricky to find? I was one of the first people in the UK to stock them and used to sell them every single day. This instilled in me the power of SEO – I ranked first on Google for them and I couldn’t keep them in stock. In more recent years, I dropped the ranking (still on the first page) and I almost never sold any, even with the upsurge in interest around sustainability (the straws were biodegradable.) I just donated the remaining stock to a local community café as I decided not to continue with them and just wanted to clear the space!
I also discovered something very unusual in 2010, again on Creature Comforts – washi tape, which was made from Japanese rice paper. I was one of the first people to stock it in the UK, and still now I recommend the quality of the original Japanese brands such as MT tape, rather than other brands who've tried to jump on the bandwagon. It might sound obvious but MT tape just sticks really well!
In 2010, through the same blogs, I discovered a new brand called Rifle Paper Co whose range was full-colour printed, even though the on-trend stationery of the moment was letterpress. Their style has been much imitated and it’s been interesting to watch their product lines diversify. They only sold cards and prints in those days but obviously realised this is isn’t the key to a multi-million dollar business! I had their heart print featured in Elle Decoration which was a real introduction of the brand to the UK.
My friends and I often discuss the early glory days of blogging - this is before 'influencer' was even a word (and it's a word I hate) - when a mention on a big American interiors blog would guarantee lots of traffic and sales. Papermash had some coverage on big US websites such as Apartment Therapy, A Cup of Jo, and Design Sponge. Most of my favourite blogs have closed down and I haven't seen their talent for styling and curation replicated.
2011 – I stocked lots of quirky Korean stationery from Katy and June – these were still some of my favourite product ranges. Katy and June were two young Korean girls importing stationery to their garage – I was really sorry when they closed down a few years later, as they were really efficient to work with.
2013 – I have always loved the idea of celebration, so I extended the range mainly because I came across some very stylish party goods from a French brand as well as some Liberty print ranges from Meri Meri. This was a pink party shoot I commissioned Charlotte Love to do – I still think these are great shots. I mostly discontinued party goods in 2017 (we still have a small range of garlands and small decorative items) because it was hard to make it profitable – there’s a limit to how much people are willing to spend on paper cups and plates and they always had to be posted in large paper boxes – boxes are not free, despite people loving to complain about postage and packaging, and lots of my suppliers were selling directly from their own websites so there wasn’t much advantage to selling it on my website.
2014 – Rifle Paper Co expanded their range to sell calendars, starting with just a couple of styles, but they obviously realised they were on to a good thing as in the next few years they expanded the number of designs significantly, to include planners, appointment calendars, and desk calendars, which I love stocking each year. I've always loved interiors, and (in theory) being very organised - so the idea of making your workspace pretty with a planner or calendar fits in well with my ethos.
My friend Sian says she thinks I started my business so I could be creative - and I’ve always enjoyed styling photo shoots, so I've tried to do this as much as possible. I've lost the impetus for this a bit but hope to step this up in 2020. In reality, I'm quite last minute so if I've given you a gift it might well have been wrapped in two minutes in a pretty paper bag - but I do love a gift wrapping shoot! You can see some of my gift wrapping ideas here. As an homage to my love of gift wrap I always make sure I stock a good range of washi tape.
Over the years, I've put myself out there by hosting a few crafternoons and workshops (the last in 2016!) and organising Blognic (a picnic for bloggers) every few years. I like networking and have made some great contacts and friends this way.
Events are a lot of work though and my favourite task is analysing information behind the scenes! You’ll often see me working on a spreadsheet when I should be working on my social media feed. I’ve never been too bothered about the changes platforms like Instagram have made – I’ve always thought Facebook is a business and so they are in the business of making themselves money, not me – so I’m working on making my website as user-friendly and accessible in its own right - and stocking the most profitable items. In the last few years, I have not diversified the product range as much as I'd have liked, but have worked on the user experience, with a new website 3 years ago, and focusing on selling items people are searching for. I'm not sure how a business can succeed without good search engine rankings.
In 2020, Papermash will be launching its own range of stationery, which has been in the works for many years, but restricted by time and working capital. I've always loved supporting independent designers and artists and we did collaborate with a few illustrators to design our own prints in the early years. Those particular experiences weren't an issue but sometimes I've found creative people are not quite as organised as I'd like and I don't always have the patience. I have some illustrators lined up to work with and if you've got any suggestions of new illustrators who you think would fit with my brand (and who understand the concept of a brief and a deadline!), I'd love to hear about them.
Being self-employed and running a small business is very challenging. Over the last few years there has been increasing competition on all websites, with some shops clearly running loss-leader campaigns which I can’t afford or don't want to do - for example, postage is not free. Some of my suppliers and ex-suppliers run quite aggressive marketing campaigns to lure people to their own websites which I understand but find frustrating. Other competitors have huge marketing budgets I could never rustle up (and it's very easy to waste a lot on marketing without a guaranteed return) - and since anyone can open an online shop at a low set-up cost these days, everything has become more difficult – achieving press, a Google presence, any kind of USP. Since washi tape, straws and bakers twine have become ubiqitous - you can find all those things on Ebay - it has been harder to stand out. There are other challenges too, like the US exchange rate and more people using digital diaries.
I have been lucky to have pre-existing relationships and lots of lovely repeat customers. I had some inside information about the sales of another new-ish stationer with a large marketing budget (I mean hundreds of thousands) and I know the potential for selling stationery is still huge!
I have been lucky that I do have some part-time help with Papermash and also I wouldn't have gotten this far without the help and advice of my friends Sian of Sian Zeng wallpapers, and Margarita of Chocolate Creative. Having good friends in a similar industry and selling on the same platforms has been invaluable. Even though our product ranges are very different, we've all been in business around the same amount of time and noticed similar changes in e-commerce. Even though Marga has now relocated to Gran Canaria, I still Facetime her often to discuss our favourite topic of SEO!
If you have purchased from Papermash over the years, thank you! As a mostly one-person operation, I see every order come in. I recognise all the names of my repeat customers and very much appreciate their custom, and those who take the time to leave reviews.
Will Papermash still be here in 10 years time? Who knows. For me it's very much tied in with having a flexible lifestyle (I'm writing this blog post in a coffee shop at 7am) but with that comes its own stress and limitations. I moved house to reduce my outgoings. Last year I took a part-time job in a think tank which has been fun in terms of getting dressed and out of the house and stretching my brain in a different way - oh, and having a pension.
I like having my own business but I'm not quite sure I'd say I'm living the dream. But am I happy with my lot? Yes.