Editor’s Note: For those of you wanting to create your own paper goods company, I’m now teaching an online course called Stationery Business 101: Starting Strong.
You often hear business gurus talking about the importance of building a strong brand. They give examples of companies who are doing a great job of it. And many of those brands probably did a great job from day 1. But there are many others who struggled, lost their footing, had a sophomore slump… but were able to sort it out and become even stronger than before. To me, the stories of those who have come back are more inspiring because they are more relatable.
And so, I thought I’d share my journey — the Sycamore Street Press journey — to building a stronger brand. Maybe some of you who are just starting your own creative businesses will find something you can glean from our story. But keep in mind that we’re still working on it. I think we always will be… and I think remembering and taking the time to do so is the key to staying relevant.
Keep reading to see some of my mistakes and how I’ve learned from them…
To be fair, when I first started Sycamore Street Press, I wasn’t planning for it to become the full-time career for both me and Kirk. (I thought it would be more of a side project while we both pursued careers in academia.) It was a year later (Thanksgiving weekend of 2008 to be exact) that Kirk and I had a long heart to heart and discovered that we both wanted to put all our efforts into making SSP succeed.
At that point, I should have taken all the steps in my power to create a really cohesive brand. I should have taken the time and had the courage as the owner and creative director of SSP to figure out what the clear and authentic voice was for SSP and how to make that show in everything we did.
Instead, I basically put it off for over 4 years.
During those 4 years, it’s not that I wasn’t trying. I was. But I was constantly struggling and a bit confused. You see, a few months after starting SSP, a few friends approached me about printing some of their designs on my letterpress and then selling them through Sycamore Street Press. They were/are all super-talented and I knew they’d come up with great designs, so I agreed and we got started. Over the years, I genuinely loved working with all of them and learned a lot from them. Their designs were fantastic and sold well. But their styles are quite different from mine. So we had three distinct lines, each designed by a different designer. It was always difficult for me to try and figure out how to connect these three lines and make it feel like a cohesive brand. I think that overall, with their help, we did a pretty good job. And like I said, all of the lines sold well, and we were able to reach audiences that my designs alone wouldn’t have reached. But still, when you said the name “Sycamore Street Press” there wasn’t one distinctive look that came to mind. And for anyone trying to create a strong brand, you know that’s not a good sign. Maybe it would have worked if I had built up SSP for several years around my aesthetic until we were a cohesive, well-known brand and then invited those same friends to do a guest collection? (Kind of like Rifle Paper Co. has just done with Garance Doré.) But trying to build a business from the ground up based on three distinct aesthetics just wasn’t the best idea.
I think I knew this at some level, but at the same time, I didn’t let myself dig deep and ask the tough questions, because subconsciously, I knew it meant change. Big change. And I was afraid of that. Afraid to let down my friends. Afraid that we would lose customers. Afraid that my designs on their own wouldn’t be enough.
And then, in January of 2013, I read this book. I followed the exercises. And I decided that I would be completely honest and authentic — wherever that took me. When I made that choice, it’s crazy how quickly my vision for SSP became clearer. I saw right away that the SSP brand needed to be more cohesive. And I saw that I would need to fix that so that 1) I could continue to be passionate about what I was doing and 2) SSP could continue to grow and be successful (and therefore keep supporting my family and our employees).
I saw two clear solutions:
Solution #1: I could start inviting more and more contributing designers and make the SSP brand into a whole community of designers/illustrators. That way, the whole aesthetic of the brand becomes about the community. Variety is expected. It’s maybe not as cohesive as a brand with a single designer or design aesthetic, but it makes up for it in terms of sheer volume of contributors. That said, there would still be certain aesthetic threads that hold the community of designers together — a color palette, a medium, a fresh point of view… (These “common aesthetic threads” are things that I had implemented with the three existing SSP lines, but in order to be really successful, I think it needs to be done on a larger scale, with many more designers.) Examples of companies that have successfully navigated this “community of designers” type of brand (each in their own way, of course) are Tattly, Redcap Cards, Poketo, Minted, and Fine Little Day.
But I didn’t see this as a viable solution for my situation for a couple of reasons. First of all, I wanted to spend more time illustrating/designing and less time managing other designers. Second of all, although it can work really well as evidenced by the companies I listed above, it’s more difficult to create a cohesive brand from a community of designers than from one designer. I’m not a branding expert. I was already having a hard time making a cohesive brand out of the three lines/designers SSP had. I knew there was an easier way that would be more instinctive for me and the way I work.
Solution #2: Focus on a single designer/aesthetic and create the brand around that. (Good examples of this approach include Yellow Owl Workshop, Jonathan Adler, Emerson Fry, Herriott Grace, and Little Hip Squeaks.) This meant a more straightforward route to a focused brand and aesthetic, since it would just come down to my own authentic style. It would also mean less time managing and more time designing, since I’d need to phase out the other two lines/designers and focus on my own.
I chose the second solution. And although it was the simpler route and the right one for Sycamore Street Press, it meant having to do some really difficult things. (Which is why this decision was so hard to make.) Things like telling my friends that we were phasing out their existing lines and wouldn’t be working with them in the future. Things like losing 2/3 of our product line in a little over one short year. Things like practically re-building our brand from scratch. To make it more complicated, during this time our two kids (although always amazing and wonderful) were quite a handful: a spirited toddler and a colicky baby.
Let’s just say that 2013 was a bruiser.
Despite the difficulties, it’s all worth it and it’s all working out. We’ve sold through the majority of the two contributor lines. (Those same former SSP contributors — our friends — are working on an exciting new business of their own.) We’re working on filling the holes in our product line, and although we still haven’t quite caught up to the amount of designs we had before, we’re picking up the pace and getting into a groove. As far as re-building the brand — we launched a completely new website and blog design last fall, I’ve had a creative epiphany, and we’ve and focused the Sycamore aesthetic even more. We’ve been delighted (and relieved) that the website and all the designs we’ve launched under the refreshed Sycamore brand have been met with praise and (more tellingly) sales.
(And just in case you were wondering, our toddler has grown into a more independent pre-schooler and our baby has outgrown his colic. They’re both still as amazing and wonderful as ever.)
2014 is looking up.
They say hindsight is 20/20, and it’s not worth beating yourself up over it. I believe that. But I also believe that it’s very helpful to look objectively at past decisions and learn from them. Looking back at the path Sycamore Street Press has taken, I can see that I should have gotten a lot more serious about a focused SSP brand & aesthetic much earlier on. Along with that, I should have listened more to my gut and been really honest and transparent about the direction I wanted SSP to go in.
I can’t change the past. But I can learn from it moving forward. So I’m regularly taking the time to step back and really think about my art and aesthetic, the way we run Sycamore Street Press, the way we connect to our community, etc… I’m asking the hard questions and I’m digging deep. Along with Kirk and the rest of the SSP team, I’m trying my best to build a really honest, authentic, cohesive brand that will stand the test of time. By doing so, we’ll be able to stay passionate about what we are doing, continue to put food on the table for our families, and keep making beautiful products for our customers. I think we’re off to a pretty good (new) start… – Eva
You might also like A New Focus for SSP, National Stationery Show FAQ, Part 1, and Top 5 Legal Concerns for Small Creative Businesses.