If sugar, spice and everything nice were the motto of a stationery company, I’m pretty sure it would look like Sugar Paper. The brand is preppy and polished to the core, yet without pretense. Products range from stately letter-pressed monogrammed note cards to a pastel pink and gold polka dot phone case to a brass “snail mail” letter opener in the shape of a snail.
The business was born when college pals Chelsea Shukov and Jamie Grobecker started designing custom letterpress cards after graduation as a hobby. Over time, their designs became popular and the co-founders opened a retail shop neighboring Beverly Hills in Brentwood, CA.
Now their designs are carried in 1 500+ shops around the world. Past Sugar Paper partnerships include Target and J.Crew, and they currently have a pop-up shop running throughout the holidays in Harrods, London’s famous luxury shopping destination.
They’ve come a long way in 13 years — as Co-Creative Directors Shukov and Grobecker have a 35-person team and operate a production studio outside of Los Angeles where all of their letterpress products are made by hand. With no outside funding, the cofounders have grown profits significantly in the past year. They project 2016 net profits to be more than ten times that of 2015, and online sales to date are nearly double that of 2015.
Shukov and I indulged in the scrumptious breakfast at Farmshop, a bustling Brentwood establishment where she ran into not one but two friends (clearly, it was the place to be on a weekday morning). We talked about a surprise phone call from J.Crew CEO Mickey Drexler, receiving criticism and her pact with cofounder Grobecker.
Julie Sygiel: You have a shop here in Brentwood and also sell in shops around the country. Why did you decide to expand into wholesale?
Chelsea Shukov: My son was born in 2010 and now I had this tiny human to care for, so I wanted the work that I was doing to easily scale. Our first trade show went bananas and all of a sudden we had to figure out how to run a wholesale business.
We had a retail store at that point and a lot of women would look at our custom work and then say, “Do you have a set of pre-made ‘thank you’ cards that look like this?” For five years we would just say, “No.” Finally one day one of our pressmen said, “We should just start saying, ‘Yes.’” Now we’re currently running five business models: retail, partnerships, online, wholesale and custom. We had 10 years of trying new things, and now I have really strong opinions about our models that are rooted in customer experience versus, “Well, the data says” or “This book I read said this.”
Sygiel: That resonates with me. In the beginning of starting Dear Kate, I would meet with someone to get marketing advice and be totally into their ideas, and then just three days later someone else would give me the opposite advice and I would think, “Wait, that’s what we should do!” I felt like I didn’t have a backbone or a point of view when vetting suggestions, but after seven years now I do.
Shukov: The same thing happens to me. I’ll sit with someone and all of a sudden feel like I’ve gone through a blender and I’m not as confident anymore about what I thought I knew. I have to remind myself often that I am the expert in this business. I’m not the expert in all businesses, but I’m really good at this one.
Sygiel: Over the last 13 years, what has been the hardest thing to figure out or overcome?
Shukov: There have been moments of heartbreak. One time Mickey Drexler [the CEO of J.Crew] called me out of the blue. I picked up my phone and he said, “I’m sitting with your client Amanda Ross and I’m holding her business card and it’s the most beautiful business card I’ve seen in my life. Are you the best stationery company in the world?” And I said, “Umm, well, uhhh.” And he said, “Well, I’m actually looking for the best stationery company in the world, so your answer should have been, ‘Yes,’ but send me a package anyway.” I hung up the phone feeling like I really did the “girl” thing. I couldn’t just say, “Yes, I am,” because at the time I’m not sure I believed it. A few weeks later Jenna Lyons from J.Crew called me saying, “Got the package. It’s not quite what we’re looking for.” It was that moment when you’re told you’re not good enough and I felt like everything I had worked for wasn’t ever going to be on that level. That type of stuff fuels me, though, so I figured out what about our line wasn’t the best in the world to me, not to Mickey, not to Jenna, but what about it wasn’t good enough to me. We changed the line and five years later, we have a partnership with J.Crew.
Sygiel: I’ve personally been thinking a lot about criticism. Multiple people I’ve interviewed have talked about how they thrive on criticism. But I don’t thrive on it. I want a compliment sandwich when someone’s giving me feedback.
Shukov: I want that too, but there’s a difference between a generous critic, as Seth Godin describes, someone who is trying to help you, versus someone trying to tear you down. Jamie and I decided that in every design review we want criticism first. We tell our team, “Don’t come in here and tell us how beautiful that design is because it’s actually not helpful. Tell us the one thing as a group that you think is not great.” Ultimately the work becomes better because of their criticism.
I was talking with someone the other day about the idea of growth and she said, “Well, what do you want to be?” And I said, “I want to be the best stationery company in the world.” She was like, “That’s a bold statement. But there’s no such thing, nobody’s going to win that award. So what does that mean for you?” I think that defining your own vision for success is actually really important for founders because if you don’t define it for yourself, you could be on a never-ending quest that will make you crazy.
I’m still working on what it means to me to be the best stationery company, but our focus truly is on making fine stationery and putting something into the world that isn’t about us. It’s about the person who receives a note on our paper handwritten by her mom that’s going to get tucked away in a book because it’s so beautiful and the sentiment is so real and the handwriting is her mom’s. And it wasn’t just scribbled on a post-it. That’s what we’re trying to achieve.
Sygiel: So now what is your role on a day-to-day basis? You and Jamie are both creative directors?
Shukov: Yes, we actually sit in the same room. Any call she’s on, I’m hearing 50% of that call and vice-versa. One of our rules is that we both have to love a design in order for it to be approved.
Sygiel: I think that’s really rare and admirable to be able to work with the same person for so many years.
Shukov: Totally. There has to be a lot of trust and respect. You can disagree but it needs to stay above board. We agreed on the biggest rule about seven years ago. A lot of times when we go to cocktail parties, people will try to stir up stuff between us individually. I’ll say, “I’m really tired because we’ve been traveling and the catalog is due.” The first question is often, “Well, what’s Jamie doing?” as if I’m tired because she has not done something to help. We both noticed this pattern, so we had a long conversation about how we’re going to have each other’s back. When this goes down, whether it’s a parent or an investor or a collaboration partner, that is a line you don’t cross. This person is sacred and it works.
By Julie Sygiel for www.forbes.com