Name: Allison De Meulder
Location: Tampa, Florida, U.S.
Reason for starting: I was so sure of what I wanted to do even as a kid; be an entertainment lawyer. I graduated college a semester early and found myself moving back to South Florida to work in a law firm as a file clerk. I was grateful that a family friend helped me secure the job. Somehow I completely became turned off by the field of law due to a lack of creativity for me and found myself breathless because I was somehow free (from what exactly I don’t know, maybe free from the life I created in my head) perhaps to wander about.
I went on to earn my MBA and then have two positions in marketing. Both times I was laid off. After the second layoff, I decided I wanted to start a business and wanted one with low barriers to entry. I stumbled upon the stationery industry and found it a viable option because all I had to do was buy a laptop and a few books. I almost feel like the industry found me.
How do you define success? Yes, money is a large part of success, but it can also be defined by a happy staff that operates a well-oiled machine. I love to walk around our studio and production areas, to see everything moving around smoothly. Also the testimonials that we get from our clients and stores that we are in, is invaluable. I relish every email we get that praises our efforts. The fact that I get to do what I love obsessively everyday, is one of the greatest definers of success for me.
Biggest Success: In my opinion, my company’s biggest success after 15 years in the stationery business (retail and e-commerce) was to move into the wholesale market. In one year we were placed in 350 stores (not including the hundreds of Paper Sources, Sure La Tables and Francesca’s). Museums, bookstores, boutiques, paper stores, kitchen stores and home decor stores were eager to take us in. We also changed our aesthetic for the wholesale line and went out of our comfort zone to start designing snarky with a preppy feel. We had to learn the wholesale business quickly, for finding suppliers, sales rep groups and showrooms. We had to learn to create catalogs and packaging, all while producing these goods in our studio. We also became printers and purchased a 17 foot printer, learning everything from the ground up. I am so proud of what we accomplished this first year, which was actually 2014 till now.
What is your top challenge and how have you addressed it? One of the top challenges we have faced are competitors of ours being bought by or invested in by larger companies with deeper pockets. Those deeper pockets allow for more advertising and marketing dollars. When we faced the recession and had a round of layoffs, certainly having extra cash to fall back on would have been preferred. Because our business pockets are not as deep and secure as competitors who entered the industry after us, we were required to stretch our dollars and be extremely creative to keep the business running. Competing in a space with heavy hitters has its challenges, so we decided to take a more boutique approach. Our service, in my opinion has always been top notch, but we kicked it up a notch to make our company stand out.
The long hours in the first decade of my business were excessive at times, the talks over dinner while the kids listened were numerous and the anxiety attacks were grueling; these were all bi-products of my love, my passion, and my obsessiveness with the business (I know it sounds like a twisted love affair). No matter how successful we were at times, insecurities were always present. We knew we could fulfill our end of the job, but how could we ever be assured that the customers would keep coming. And there were times when the customers were cut off, like when our site was hacked on two major occasions, shutting down operations over two weeks each time, when we would lose search engine rankings, when heavy hitters with deep pockets entered the industry, and when the recession kicked in. Each time I was hoping there was that life vest that I could grab, but each time it seemed like I had to swim farther to reach it. Out of necessity, I have become a better trained swimmer through the years. So there are many ways that the business affected me emotionally.
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Who is your most important role model? My husband is my most important role model and I am lucky enough to work with him. He keeps me on track on days when I’ve been derailed, in line when I’m too scatterbrained, and calm when I am anxious. He truly is my voice of reason. We definitely compliment each other; he is pensive and serene, whereas I am somewhat opposite. He works with numbers and sells, and I work with the creatives and manage. It’s a very complimentary situation and we try to stay out of each other’s way, but once in awhile it’s nice to get the other’s perspective. I look up to him because he teaches me to see the big picture rather than focus on tiny details all the time.
Edited by The Story Exchange