As a Silicon Valley native, entrepreneur Miriam Brafman grew up surrounded — and fascinated — by startup life. So when she reached adulthood, it was only natural that she would launch a venture herself.
As a designer, she initially considered starting a design business, or perhaps an e-commerce site. But when she looked for a vendor who could provide customized shipping boxes for sending out future products, she came up empty-handed — save for a new business idea.
“Everyone has packaging,” she says, and it seemed “so obvious” to her that a customized shipping-box service would already exist. But it did not, which is how she came to be the founder of Packlane, a Berkeley, Calif., company whose website lets brands of all sizes design and order personalized shipping and mailer boxes, as well as folding cartons.
The company opened in early 2015, but, already, she and her team of 25 employees cater to roughly 11,000 business customers — some of them big names like Google, L’Oreal and Shopify. And though she declined to disclose Packlane’s annual revenue, she said it will exceed $5M in 2017.
Brafman — who is just 26 — struck gold because she believed, along with scores of her clients, that customized packaging plays a key role in “creating a brand experience.”
Filling a Gap in the Marketplace
Brafman started professional life in 2008 as a freelance web developer and designer, and created websites for various clients until 2013. Then, she spent 2 years as an engineer and designer at Berkeley Lab, a national laboratory managed by the University of California at Berkeley.
But feeling unsatisfied with her career direction, she began exploring other professional options, always returning to the idea of entrepreneurship and her passion for graphic design. So when she tried and failed to find customized shipping-box services for her future brand, it seemed she’d hit upon a market need that she could fill.
At that same time, Brafman noticed an uptick in subscription services like Birchbox and Stitch Fix that mail makeup, clothing and more on a monthly basis — a development that solidified her belief in a growing demand for personalized shipping and mailer boxes. “It gave me the confidence to try to build something” catering to customers making both recurring and one-off — or short-run, as it’s known in the industry — orders.
That idea soon became an obsession, she says, occupying every hour she didn’t spend at her day job. As her February, 2015 launch drew closer, she quit her other work to focus on Packlane full time.
She also began forging strategic relationships. “I actually sent a cold email to MOO founder Richard Moross,” whose printing company was an inspiration for her. She had hoped Moross would incubate Packlane. Instead, he became a mentor and connected her to former MOO executives who also advised her along her way. “One of them now works full-time for us as our VP of design,” she says.
When Brafman first launched Packlane, she was flying solo and orders were slow in coming, she says. So she kept costs low by designing Packlane’s website and user interface herself — building features like live previews of boxes or cartons and instant quotes on orders — and working with suppliers who would accommodate delayed payments. Every dollar she earned went back into the company.
But word of mouth helped Packlane build momentum, and within 6 months Brafman needed to hire her first employee to help deal with the influx of customers. As the company’s star rose, profits and growth accelerated. To scale up to handle the expansion, she recently brought on an entire executive team to take care of design, sales and branding.
Satisfying Customers — Hers, and Others
Packlane’s first growth spurt came with a lesson in the importance of customer service.
An opportunity to land new accounts came when trouble struck a competitor. Around the time Packlane launched, another custom shipping-box company also came onto the scene, emerging with more fanfare from a well-known seed accelerator, Y Combinator, she says. However, “a lot of customers were unhappy” with the quality of service they received from that business, she says, “and those disgruntled customers found me.”
That wasn’t the only time she benefited from a similar company’s stumbles, either. Though Brafman wasn’t pursuing outside investment, she was approached by an investor, anyway. “One of our competitors was pitching to them, and while he liked the idea, he didn’t like their team. That’s how [his firm] found us.”
Since Packlane’s initial customer base rested heavily on “a few disgruntled people,” she was “bending over backwards” to appease them. And she discovered she had a knack for customer service, amid real challenges. “We do a custom product, which is tricker from a customer service standpoint,” she explains. “There’s a lot of problem-solving and negotiating. We have to do something a bit more nuanced.”
But she says she considers her customers invaluable, and stoking their enthusiasm has been a key to her success, she says. “Having good customer service made it possible for us to grow the way we have. It was an underestimated component in building [Packlane] — having customers who are really enthusiastic and want to tell everyone they know about your service.”
Going forward, Brafman is fine-tuning Packlane’s products to make sure she keeps those clients happy. The company recently debuted a new option allowing them to upload artwork for the interiors of boxes and cartons. Double-sided printing is a “really exciting feature, and an example of what we have in store for the future.”
As Packlane grows, she plans to offer even more customization and product options, while continually improving her site’s user interface. Brafman says every innovation implemented will be in service to her primary goal to “become the market leader for short-run packaging.”