How building a beautiful brand helped Papersmiths launch five locations

How building a beautiful brand helped Papersmiths launch five locations
Chris Goodfellow
Chris GoodfellowInkwell

Posted: Thu 6th Jun 2019

The story of stationery brand Papersmiths is part of the Making Tax Digital Hub sponsored by Xero.

Papersmiths' founders met in a Wetherspoon pub after leaving university. They had just graduated and moved back in with their parents. The chance meeting led them to rent space for a design studio that developed into a stationery chain with 28 staff across five locations.  
Co-founder Sidonie Warren remembers the different roles she played in the business, from delivering design work and selling products to negotiating finance. The passion for design is apparent throughout the whole journey, tying together the brand and its mission.

From design studio to High Street business

Papersmiths started as a graphic design studio in 2011, doing projects for local businesses in Dorset. 
"We had just finished uni, moved home and didn't know what to do with our lives. We decided to rent some space," Warren said. "I had no idea this is where I would be in eight years time." 
The first big step change was the decision to move to Bristol. The pair rented space on a High Street and people kept coming in and asking to buy their prints. They decided to spend about £500 on stock to make a little extra money. 
She remembers having to wrangle design clients who were visiting for meetings and would start shopping, and trying to balance the demands of the two sides of the business. 
"It was a rectangular space. We built the counter down the middle and had graphic design on one side and the shop on the other. We'd be in sales mode or be super stretched doing design work and be rubbish sales people. It was a really fun atmosphere. Our friends came in and did exhibitions. We had parties and things," she said.  
At that point, the co-founders were doing everything from admin and sales, to delivering client work. The business began to take off and they moved to a bigger space. The next step was to hire sales people and then a store manager, so they could spend more time on strategy.

Building a team of stationery lovers

Every year, the team sits down to reflect on what they had achieved and plan the next 12 months. Warren kept allocating budget to new team members who could bring in different skills. That included someone to help with operations and a marketing expert who specialised in ecommerce.  
While they have developed a rigmarole to their planning process, Warren stressed the need for small businesses to be agile and take advantage of opportunities.  
"That's the thing for a small, young business," she said. "You can be agile and make decisions quite quickly. If you don't do that things can escalate in the wrong direction."

Opening the first location outside of Bristol

As you might expect from a retailer born out of a design studio, the brand is incredibly visually appealing. Papersmiths' Shoreditch location in London was the company's first outside of Bristol. The site in Boxpark is a giant pink box made with over 6,000 tiles.  
"It was a design icon," said Warren. "We had good design press and lots of people going in to Instagram it."

The Bristol location had built up a community and the Papersmiths team worked hard to create a team and shop design that reflected Shoreditch and have taken that approach to each of the new cities they expanded to.  
Papersmiths in Boxpark, Shoreditch, London

Learning about finances

Warren said finances were the most important thing about business.  
"I've learnt so much," she said. "When we were starting out it felt very overwhelming. We were dealing with numbers and profit and loss accounts. Xero simplifies something that seems quite daunting and when we got an accountant you could plug them right into it." 
Today, the focus is on gross profit margins, which Warren sees as the clearest way to improve the profitability of the business. She added that getting a one to two per cent discount from a supplier can make more impact than cutting costs.   
"It's this constant balancing act of having an eye on the bigger picture as well as getting into the stores and breaking down each detail. It's important to look at the numbers and drill into them - what's driving profitability?" she said.

Building an Instagram account with 45,000 followers

Papersmiths' social following is impressive with 45,900 on Instagram. When you visit the business' Instagram account you get a feel for how precise and thoughtful the branding is. How did they start building a following? 
"Right from the beginning, when we got our Instagram account, it was very authentic, it was our voice. It was always about what's happening, what we are interested in. There's never been this forced salesy approach. Just talking about what feels true to you and never copying other people. I can't stand that. It's much better to speak from your own voice," Warren said.

View this post on Instagram

Here's Susann's Posca process for your #showyourworking fix 🦊 📸 : @susannhoffmann_illustration

A post shared by Papersmiths (@paper_smiths) on May 13, 2019 at 8:50am PDT

The visual nature of the brand has helped them get PR too. Warren tried paying a friend to write press releases and doing it in-house, but most of the coverage has come from journalists loving their shops and products and approaching them directly.

The role of networking and mentors

Warren recommends finding someone outside of the business that you can discuss your challenges with and building a good support network. 
"If you're running a business like mine there's a lot of management involved. It's important to take a step back and think about what you want to do in the next five or ten years and work on that vision, not just the day-to-day," she said. 
This has included various accountants and people in the industry. The key is to be open and honest about what the business is going through and to not shy away from it, Warren advised.

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Chris Goodfellow
Chris GoodfellowInkwell
Chris has over a decade of experience writing about small businesses and startups. He runs Inkwell, a content agency that helps companies that sell to small business owners grow their audiences through content marketing. You can find him on Twitter at @CPGoodfellow.

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