This International Women’s Day, we thought we’d ask our Creative Director and TLPS founder Cara to talk us through The Little Paper Shop’s journey so far, and her plans for our future. An inspiring journey – and including some great tips for other aspiring lady business owners building their own companies – we recommend that you grab a cuppa with us and enjoy looking back at how TLPS came to be. We hope you find it inspiring!
“When our lovely marketing manager Chloe suggested I write a piece in honour of International Women’s Day looking back at TLPS’s journey, I firstly said “sounds great!”, and then – “erm, just how much should I share?”. You see, I decided to launch The Little Paper Shop at a really sad time in my life, and makes up an important part of the story – but would others really want to know the reality behind TLPS’s start-up? Chloe has reassured me that she believes that an audience want to know the real people behind a brand, and that a story other women can resonate with is always a powerful one – and one that can hopefully inspire others on their own journeys, however that may look for them.
So here goes…
Excitedly pregnant for this first time in 2013 not long after Mr. Paper Shop and I were married, I decided that I was going to take my side business of selling photo and typography prints at local craft fairs to the next level – and launch a design studio on maternity leave that would allow me the opportunity to earn a living being creative each day whilst able to raise our child alongside. Sadly after a long and difficult pregnancy which resulted in our daughter Alessa Eve being born by Caesarean and passing away not long after in December 2013, I found myself on the maternity leave I had been working towards – but in a completely unexpected situation of our daughter no longer being with us.
Emotionally in a very dark place and wanting nothing to do with Christmas that year (and indeed for years to come if I’m honest!), my body slowly began to recover from all it had endured over those 8 months, and I wondered what I was going to do now – was there any point in launching the business I had planned, or should I just go back to my job as a marketing manager? Knowing I needed something positive to focus on, I decided that I was still going to launch the business I had planned for my daughter, and was determined to make a success of it in Lessie’s honour. I think looking back, this terrible situation I found myself in probably gave me the push to take the leap into being a business owner that actually I might have chickened out on if I was living the life I nearly had. The worst had already happened to me, so what was there to be scared of really going into self-employment? If I could handle planning my daughter’s funeral, I could certainly handle starting again if my business plans failed. In hindsight, it was definitely somewhat of a distraction from how I was feeling at the time, and I wasn’t really ready to cope; but I threw myself into launching TLPS regardless, straight away designing our brand and ensuring that my inspiration was there in all of our visuals – and still is today. Our lovely teal colours are a nod to Alessa’s birthstone: turquoise.
So what was I and TLPS actually selling back then in spring 2014 when I officially launched the business? I continued with my art print designs of course, and had an existing business design client-base from my previous work connections, but I also really wanted to try designing wedding stationery. I’d loved creating all of the designs for our own wedding the previous year, and they’d been complimented by our guests. After photographing weddings for years following my photojournalism days, it seemed a natural progression! And so I set about finding some couples to design for, offering custom designs for free in order to build both a collection of designs and a customer base alongside.
I had no real strategy or plans other than that, and hadn’t even thought about how much to charge over than ensuring I ‘earnt’ some money after all the materials had been bought. Everything was printed, trimmed and put together by myself in my spare room at home – which took FOREVER (!) – and as I didn’t know how to use Illustrator at the time, I carried on designing in Photoshop on my old Dell laptop, where I comfortably knew my way around thanks to my photography experience.
Of course, all of the above meant that I was woefully undercharging these first initial customers and earning little money as a result! In fact, my very first (sweet!) wedding stationery couple actually paid me more after their Big Day, as they too thought I’d not charged them enough for the work I’d done. Hence the first of my big lessons learnt in business:
Always charge for profit – AFTER all of the associated business costs. It’s so important to remember that your time is money too! A common mistake that a lot of us creatives make is to price up the cost of the required project materials only, and then think the rest is profit. Each job also requires hours of admin, marketing, social media time, etc on top of the obvious creative work – and each of these hours costs you in heating, electricity, internet, web hosting, and so on.
To price yourself correctly, you first need to decide how much you wish to earn as a salary in a year, and work it out down to an hourly rate once you have calculated how many hours you’ve decided to work each week and have available in a year (holiday time removed). Remember that you need to include some time for the mundane administrative and business development tasks too on top of the ‘real’ work, so these won’t be classed as billable hours but are very necessary. Next, you must work out the costs of running the business itself: to come to a total figure which you divide by your calculated available annual working hours to finalise an hourly rate cost of the business. Add this to your per hour wanted earnings and boom – this cost is how much you charge by hour, with material costs going on top after. Now you’re earning what you deserve! In our first year I invoiced just £11k – fast forward to today and we’re now a six-figure business with a growing team of 5 super-talented ladies 👍🏼
Systemise! How I wished I’d valued creating systems in my business more when I first started, instead of finding workarounds such as spreadsheets over proper accounting systems in the name of saving money – it’s a false economy! The time wasted trying to keep on top of these inefficient tasks ended up costing more than investing in the systems in the first place, and lots of hours were wasted when I could have been doing more useful things that moved TLPS forward. Some of our favourite business systems today? The team and I couldn’t live without Trello for managing our diary and customer design process, FreeAgent for invoicing and accounts, Shopify for selling our store products online, and Creative Cloud for all of our creative endeavours.
Plan, plan, plan! Stop winging it in your business, and actually spend some time working on a plan for what you want it to achieve. Yes, you have to keep it flexible – life gets in the way of plans after all (a global pandemic anyone?!), and day-to-day business certainly does – but ensuring that you know where you want to go with your business’ future provides a guide for your company that acts as a compass for all of your business decisions. You feel empowered to say no to those things that don’t move the business forward as a result, which is a powerful thing believe me!
Don’t lose sleep over the mistakes – they will happen, we are all human after all and no one is infallible. The important thing is to ‘fess up, decide a clear POA to deal with the problem and rectify it, then ensure that you have learnt from the mistake and implemented a process to ensure it doesn’t happen again – all whilst keeping in communication with the injured party throughout. Believe me when I say that every failure will overshadow the 20-30 successes you’ve no doubt had beforehand and make you feel terrible (you can’t help it, you’re an entrepreneur so super passionate about what you do after all!), so my recommendation is keeping some sort of bank of all of your good feedback received for those difficult days where you need a pick-me-up to help get you through, and remind you of your good work.
Which takes me nicely through to Lesson 5 to finish – don’t forget to look back at how far you’ve come! Remember that your old self used to dream of today’s you – we get so busy in the day-to-day doing that we can often forget to take stock of what we’ve achieved. It’s important to take time to review your business and your growth – both to be proud of your journey, and to provide useful insight into what the business is doing well and where improvements could be made.
Well, we’d love to launch a proper wholesale stationery range of own, and continue to add to this each day. We’re excited to create more amazing branding for inspiring, fabulous businesses. We’ll continue building our talented team; introducing some new wedding stationery designs and more diverse specialist printing services to help us create them. I’d love a classic letterpress one day for example! We want to hit that next big revenue milestone in our sights. Aim for more work / life balance (though I’m definitely still figuring this one out!). Continue to build and engage with our wonderful audience. A facelift for the shop perhaps after this crazy, unprecedented year of weddings?! All whilst remembering TLPS’ ethos of bringing innovative, creative design and beautiful paper-based goods to all – and why I started in the first place. Lessie baby, I hope I’ve done you proud.
If you’re in the thick of building your dream business then please feel free to pop in-store for a chat if needed – I’m always happy to share my experience to those that are earlier on in their journeys and looking for guidance.
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