Many children who grow up in a family business have two choices — join it or do something else. Elizabeth Rees of New York has found middle ground.
The 30-year-old grew up watching her dad and grandmother run Kubin-Nicholson, a Milwaukee printing business, established in 1926, that specializes in large-format prints, such as billboards, bus-stop posters and building wraps. “I found it all neat and cool,” she says, but she was never inspired to stay in Wisconsin and run the presses.
Instead, Rees studied journalism, worked for National Geographic and took time to travel the world. But in her late 20s, after receiving a master’s in global communications, she decided to dip her toe into the family business, helping Kubin-Nicholson with sales and digital marketing from New York.
Around that time, a friend in the city happened to be changing offices and needed help transforming the look of her sterile space. “I created these fun wraps in hot pink,” Rees says, and she printed them at Kubin-Nicholson on the same presses that normally print giant wrap-around ads for buses. When adhered to support poles in the friend’s office, “it made the space more inviting and warmer,” she says. “I found that to be really exciting and fun.”
And it got Rees thinking. “Going to people’s apartments in New York, a lot of times there’s tall ceilings, there’s big white walls,” she says. “Young people can’t necessarily afford art. But people want to customize their space.”
Last year, after about eight months researching paper and adhesives, and learning more about the printing process at her family’s facility, Rees launched Chasing Paper, a company that makes removable wallpaper. She’s the majority owner and the company operates independently — but her grandmother, parents and siblings are all shareholders. “I was really excited about the expansion into things that I felt more drawn to, like design and decor,” Rees says.
The peel-and-stick paper comes in 2-feet-by-4-feet panels, as opposed to rolls, and is generally priced at $30. It’s suitable for renters, who often are prohibited from painting or wallpapering, as well as for design neophytes, Rees says.
Customers order on the Chasing Paper website, and Kubin-Nicholson prints the panels on demand. “We started with very little start-up capital,” says Rees, who runs the company from her West Village apartment and a co-working space. “I have no inventory.”
In its first year, Chasing Paper took in $100,000 in annual revenue, a figure that Rees hopes to grow to $2.5 million in five years. She recently struck a deal to sell an exclusive line with West Elm. Another partnership is in the works with Urban Outfitters, she says. The stores buy the panels at wholesale prices, and sell them under the Chasing Paper brand. After months of meetings, Rees says she “cried in joy on the street” when she finally struck the deal with West Elm.
She has been spreading the word out about her brand by sending handwritten notes, with samples, to design bloggers and magazine editors. “It was kind of my Midwestern touch,” she says. One influential site, DesignSponge, featured Chasing Paper soon after its launch. In September 2013, Rees appeared on “Bethenny,” the talk show formerly hosted by Bethenny Frankel, which Rees estimated brought about 20,000 visitors to her site. (She uses Shopify, an e-commerce platform, to track and analyze sales, margins and customer location.)
While her company operates apart from the family business, Rees says her most important resource is her father, who serves as an adviser. “My dad is a total entrepreneur,” she says. “He’s always drilling me about numbers.”
So far, she is the only one of three siblings to have a professional interest in the family’s line of work — although she recently brought on her 27-year-old sister, Annie, to handle Chasing Paper’s editorial direction.
“It’s the best of both worlds,” she says. “I’ve carved out a little bit of my own space, and that allows there to be breathing room between what my dad is doing, what my grandmother is doing, and what I’m doing.”