I’m super excited to feature another entrepreneur here for you. I met Abbey of 6.25 Paper Studio years ago when I had my wedding invitations studio in Long Beach, Paper Cut Industries. We met on Twitter & when she had a trip out in California, we met for lunch. It was great + it always was such a great time to remember the support we had for one another in our businesses. It’s so awesome to see how Abbey’s business has grown to include a storefront and employees.
Let’s get to it.
How did you become interested in starting your own business?
Owning my own business was always in the books for me. I grew up with a family of entrepreneurs; my father, who took over his father’s seed farming corporation and has modernized and grown it exponentially, my mother, who was a self-taught artist and now travels around the world teaching and selling her craft, a grandfather who started the farming corporation and another set of grandparents that started an auto parts distributing company during the start of Vietnam war.
So, when I had my first few jobs with little flexibility, strict PTO and all the political bullshit, I knew I would have to find another way. I also understood and respected the fact that you can’t really begin to succeed on your own until you have a focus and passion. Design was my trade. Printed, not web, was my focus – and after working for a publishing company where I helped build a B2B Stationery magazine, I found my passion!
The full circle here is that growing up I always had an affinity for stationery, but didn’t realize it till years later. When I was little, I was an AVID note-writer, and would snag cards from my moms card pile to keep because I thought they were too pretty or funny to ever use (which I still have by the way!) When I was in kindergarten, I was sent to the principles office because I was selling little handmade paper Christmas trees to other students. I was definitely meant to create paper goods!
What is your business + how do you get paid?
We have a handful of income avenues in our business – sometimes you just have to hustle to make it work:) Our main business is the retail store in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan. I opened a 350 sq/ft space in Fall of 2011, and since then have grown/moved a couple times into a 1500 sq/ft space. Our traffic has slowly increased over the past four years and, with a shift in more downtown dwellers, we continue to gain more and more regular customers.
Before opening the store, my business was focused on custom wedding invitations. I have continued this service, and still work with a decent amount of custom clients per year, expanding into party invites and holiday cards.
At the store we host classes, something we started to push just over a year ago. Our classes are casual and either include a group of fun crafts to make or a specific skill like calligraphy or embroidery. This addition has brought in a ton of new customers and helped create a community around our brand.
Lastly, our primary focus these days is our wholesale line. We have our own line of greetings and gifts which are sold throughout the US in over 70 other stores. Growing this side of the business is our main focus as it is the most scalable – and fun!
What are some great tools or classes you took to prepare you for being an entrepreneur?
Growing up with my entrepreneurial parents was the most valuable preparation.
I never had professional instruction on starting a business, but I have always been very aware and perceptive about the business side of companies I’ve worked for, along with the management style of past owners and managers. I’ve fine-tuned (and always trying to improve) my management approach after working for both very difficult and very amazing people.
I don’t necessarily have a single mentor, but I do have connections now that I can call upon when I hit a roadblock.
I have also read some great books on building culture and inspiring teams creatively. Recently I read, and would suggest, Creativity, Inc. and The Virgin Way.
What kinds of growth patterns do you see for your business/industry?
Some people say print is dead – but so far, we’re growing! I believe print is changing and people’s shopping goals are hugely changing. The millennial and the ****generation after millennials*** are guided by quality, connection and experience. Important to them is not a good deal on a cute purse, but instead an evening with a friend, learning how to make a cute purse. The quality of a product and a personal connection to how it’s made or who makes it is what’s driving sales with the younger crowd. Many of the small brick-n-mortar shops that have sadly failed over the last few years did not embrace this new outlook. I take great pride in all the products we carry in the store. Getting to know the vendors and understanding their inspiration for the product is one of my most favorites parts of this business! When I can pass that excitement on to a customer – my job becomes full circle and I feel like I’m doing a good thing by providing a quality product that serves both customer and vendor.
Sorry – I derailed here! Anyways, the industry of gift retail is changing and I see it taking a shift back towards the small, locally-owned shops (brick or online) — the places that truly feel like community (again, local or online community) and not just the quick, impersonal big box experience.
From your experience, what personal attributes do you think are essential for success?
This is easy to recognize for me personally but difficult to teach or learn. Growing up around entrepreneurs, I acquired a motivated personality (likely both biologically and through osmosis).
Entrepreneurial traits that allow me to move forward are:
1. Enjoying the struggle: The pains of starting or running a business run deep. There’s a constant uncertainty, risks, long working hours, ups and downs, mistakes, roadblocks, etc. And you’re working on something that you may be passionate about but truly have no idea whether it will be successful or not. You have to enjoy this part to get through it – I love it. Sometimes I hate how much I love it!
2. Commitment: You can be passionate about something but not committed to making it a reality. In order to start or move a business forward, you have to be committed to doing so even in rough times.
3. Flexibility: This is key for entrepreneurs and managers alike. You have to be aware that anything can happen, any day, any time. Shit will blow up and everyone looks at you to fix it. You must always remain flexible and ready to take control and be patient.
4. Grace: In the same sense, the best managers and entrepreneurs have grace for staff mistakes, unavoidable errors and especially their own mistakes. If I beat myself up every time I screwed up, I’d have nothing left in me to give. You can’t focus on negativity if you want to grow. Do your best to fix it and move on.
5. Always and forever [be] inspired: It is because of your passion that this thing is happening. Your passion made this product, your passion got you this meeting, your passion created a job that another person is willing to dedicate much of their time to. YOU have to continue inspiring people and processes. There is a distorted view that we become entrepreneurs so that we can just cash out in the end or sit back and watch it all “run itself.” The best leaders lead the best companies by continuing to inspire through their honest passion.
What does success mean to you?
Success for me personally is all about happiness. Obviously a bit of that has to do with financial security and a comfort of living. But, ultimately I want to look back on my life (however long or short it may be) and know that every single day I worked toward my passion and made the best decisions for my staff, customers, industry and myself – while focusing on enjoying every bit of the journey. YOLO, right?
Success in a company can be measured by employee satisfaction. If your staff is able to be paid a good wage, enjoys their job, takes pride in what is being produced, and helps to grow a fun, happy culture – then you’re doing something right:)
What skills are needed for being an entrepreneur?
I believe it’s more about the attributes in [the above question]. You can learn skills as you go, or hire professionals to balance where you fail. But what’s really needed is the motivation and passion.
What are some habits to seem to make up a typical work day for you?
I don’t ever seem to have a typical work day, but one of my best work habits is to go into a new environment when I need to do some deep creating or critical thinking. I find that life can be so cluttered, and I need to get away from it all to clear my mind. My favorite place to work is on an airplane. There’s no phone, Facebook or email distractions, no minute tasks to take care of, I can’t get up and walk around, and usually no one to talk to.
I haven’t quite mastered this yet, but one of my biggest career goals is to do a working vacation at least once a year where I go away to a relaxing environment and just go heads down, deep into design. New environments highly inspire me.
What are some particularly difficult parts of being an entrepreneur that frustrate you? How do you deal with them?
Slack from other people. I’m so very happy in what I do and where I am. I’ve come a long way and things are going well for my age and the age of our company, but there have been people in my life who measure success financially. Because they can’t see through the finances, they consider me and my business a failure. I can’t change their minds, so I ignore them and keep on moving forward.
The other difficult part is that it can be pretty lonely, especially when you get started. You may not have a staff when you start. Then when you do have a staff, there are just certain things you can’t talk to them about. I highly suggest joining entrepreneur groups like Tuesday Mornings or just connecting with other entrepreneurs (not even in your industry) so you have someone to call up when going through those struggles.
How has the importance of having a business plan or business strategy been to your business? How often have you used these tools?
I wrote a business plan in the very beginning of starting out on my own because everyone told me to do so. I spent a lot of time theorizing what would happen next and what my goals where. I don’t want to discourage this approach, but I don’t feel like it ever helped me move forward. I understand that when your company grows to a certain level, you must implement strategy. Maybe I’m just not built that way, and some entrepreneurs need more of a guideline to motivate growth.
What are your thoughts on the importance of marketing?
I hate today’s marketing! I’ll say it! I hate being bound by the instant needs from customers on social media – the idea that I have to be available all the time and that I have to post to this or that every day or ten times a day! The fact that if I don’t answer an email on the same day (even a weekend) I’ll start getting calls or follow up emails the next day. Ugh – marketing is exhausting these days. How I yearn for old skool print ads and commercial pitches!
But that’s not the case, you have to play the game. Social marketing has created a 24/7 work week, and there’s really no way around it. It’s important, so do it – and hopefully it will change with the next generation.
Marketing that I do enjoy – preparing pretty packages for possible wholesale clients, writing personal notes, putting together an annual catalog and doing trade shows where I get to meet customers and other vendors in person!! Oh I really should have been doing this 60 years ago:)
How much involvement do you have in the financial end of your business or do you turn it over to a professional?
I had a pretty huge learning curve here. I haven’t been able to completely hire this out, so I learned how to do invoicing, payment processing then payroll and all the taxes that go into having a staff and a retail business. Thankfully, I have a fantastic CPA who handles my yearly taxes and was willing to walk me through the process of year-round taxes, payroll, etc.
How do you plan for retirement or do you have an exit strategy?
I have no plan or particular goals. I enjoy not exactly knowing and just letting this business roll as it will along with the changes in the industry, economy and my passion. My lack of long-term goal-setting drives everyone around me nutty, but why would I spend time trying to figure out the future when it’s practically impossible!?
When did you decide you needed to add staff to your team? How many are on your team now?
The point actually came when we welcomed our adopted 3-year-old daughter home, so my push was personal. It was only four months after we opened the retail store that she came home and I had to find employees to run the store so I could be home with her. It was a whirlwind, but ended up being excellent timing – and 4 years later, my first employee is still holding strong with me:)
I have four part-time girls. They each have very different schedules that balance perfectly for our retail needs.
What efforts have you put into branding + how have they helped your business?
I struggled immensely through branding in the beginning of this company (and often still do!) mostly because I couldn’t stick to one thing. It’s not just the look and feel of your brand, but it’s also about how your products relate to each other, the look and feel of those products, the look and feel of your social media and especially the way your compose your voice in marketing.
I had a big debate with an employee recently about using emoji’s on Instagram. I understand they’re trendy and often fun to use, but I don’t think they add to our brand and aesthetically I’m finding them quite overused, tired and ugly. I won’t allow them! It’s difficult to not just buy into what’s hot, but you must stick to your brand and consider two main questions:
1. Does this decision add and relate to our brand; and 2. Will it be timeless – in other words, will I regret this ad or blog post in 5 years. Ultimately, I always say go with your gut.
What were some of your initial investments to help your business launch?
To be honest, I’ve had a few too many poor investments in the beginning. Thankfully, nothing too horrible to sink us, and lots of great lessons over the years. The decision to do trade shows was a good decision. Unfortunately, it took three shows, and a lot of money to get to the point where it started to pay off.
The best investment you can make is time. Starting a business is a LOT of work, and it should be. The time you put in to learn and grow and give a lot of elbow grease is motivated by that passion and adrenaline. If you’re not willing to work extra hard, extra long (especially at the beginning), you just may not want it bad enough.
What is some advice you have for creative entrepreneurs thinking about starting their first business?
All of the above! Plus, if you have a spouse, talk (ahead of time) through the struggles that will come. He/she will need to be your biggest and most understanding support. If you want this, you will likely have to give up some other creature comforts in life, both financially and personally. Talk with your spouse about how much time this will take on a daily basis and how long it may take for you to start to turn a profit or make a salary. Talk about where you want to go with this business… could it require a move in the future? a lot of travel? a masters degree? As much as this will be YOUR business, your spouse and you have your own “business” that is life-long and in many ways, you’ll be in this together. I would also suggest some career/marriage counseling as you go along to keep you both in check with each others needs and goals.
Abbey Fowler is the owner of 6.25 Paper Studio
located in Grand Rapids Michigan.