Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi there! My name is Markus Hartel and I started Raghaus Studios, a boutique letterpress print shop and graphic design studio five years ago after moving to a new domicile with nothing but a dream, no customers, and little cash in my pocket.
Photo by Oren R. Cohen
My current business is two-fold – I create custom stationery for clients and I also design & make comps (prototypes) of products and packaging, as I immensely enjoy the process of thinking, tinkering and making things with all sorts of cool equipment, ranging from turn-of-the-century presses to current digital machinery.
I custom make small edition artist’s books, custom wedding invitation suites, personal stationery like notecards, business stationery, and business cards. Micro-batches are my specialty, as I value quality over quantity.
The Raghaus product line includes irreverent beverage coasters, fun comment cards, rad stash boxes and the latest addition to my portfolio are motivational candles.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
The printing and creative industry have been my home for my entire professional life, for 32 years by now. I apprenticed to become a typesetter in 1987 and I owned a commercial printing business in the mid-90ies in Germany, where I was born and spent the first 30 years of my life. The operation went bust in 2001 for various reasons and I set sail for New York City, where I made a living in the creative/digital realm and where I also made myself a name as a street photographer.
After a decade or so, I grew tired of the hostile environment and I wanted to move to a small town and do something with printing again. But, I wanted to go back full circle and work with my hands and letterpress printing naturally sprung to mind. I bought a hand-cranked 1905 proof press at a studio in Brooklyn and moved to the City of Newburgh in the Hudson Valley, an hour north of New York City.
Miraculously, I found a pair of mid-century German Heidelberg letterpress machines for sale by their original owner in Newburgh, and I knew I had struck pure gold. I built my studio around these machines in an old warehouse and by now the place is pretty much a summation of my entire creative life.
One of my first letterpress print projects was FUCK beverage coasters that I left at local bars. People found these hilarious and I started selling the coasters locally and I also started an Etsy store – one holiday season these coasters went viral on BuzzFeed and I sold a bunch of them online. “Well, I’ll be damned if I can’t make a living doing this”, or so I thought. I added products to my line and also rented a little storefront, next to going to fairs and events as a vendor.
In the meantime a lot of people noticed the quality of my work and started hiring me for various graphic design and letterpress projects, hence my business being two-fold at this point in time.
All in, I probably spent around 100k in equipment, inventory and supplies – and every dime I made went back into the studio. I can honestly say that after three years, things started to run smoothly enough that I was able to get a good night’s sleep without too many worries about my well-being, or the future of my fledgling business.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
I’m a control freak and I make everything myself, in-house and I pretty much only buy the raw materials needed to make my products. I absolutely try to stay away from plastic, and all of my products are somewhat eco-friendly by nature and virtue.
One great example of product development is my printed candles. My wife gifted me a candle for my birthday last year and this candle had a motivational quote and a picture printed directly onto the wax. My mind immediately sprung into creative overdrive and I was on a quest of finding out how it was made… Well, I wasn’t able to find much about the process at all, as it seems to be pretty rare and I started experimenting with all sorts of ways – some of which worked OK, and some of which turned out to be a serious fire hazard.
Ideas are dime a dozen and it really comes down to execution.
There are videos online on how to melt a parchment paper print onto a candle, which is not a good idea by any stretch of the imagination. Do NOT try this at home!
After a lot of trial-and-error and sleepless nights, I ended up investing in a pretty fancy piece of technology that allows me to print on all sorts of things, which in itself has been a great addition to my custom work. I ended up partnering with a local candle maker and we are collaborating on a custom printed candle that’ll go on sale as you are reading this!
Describe the process of launching the business.
I can’t say this enough & based on previous experience: The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that one cannot underestimate organic growth and a great reputation by word-of-mouth, which is what’s happening to my current business due to a certain quality over quantity factor.
My first printing business in Germany two decades ago exploded quickly because I got lucky very early on with a big business-to-business contract which enabled me to grow a substantial operation overnight.
Organic growth is a LOT harder, and this time around, it’s very different – Raghaus is entirely bootstrapped and I also racked up a good amount of credit card debt, but in the end I’m running a very calculated risk and I know that I always have a leg to stand on by doing custom work, as new customers by now find me by recommendation.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
I have done my fair share of experimenting, fine-tuning and pivoting and there’s still so much more work to be done at all times. Sometimes I wish I could just clone myself! That said, improving on current strategies vs. reinventing the wheel has worked out best so far and Google seriously is my best friend in terms of business growth and strategy. Recently Google “My Business” has directed a lot of local traffic my way.
Instagram also is a great way of keeping people up to speed, since a lot of my work is driven visually! When I post on Instagram frequently, profile views and messages shoot up instantly.
Inspiration is everywhere – look at things, anything really and sees how you can improve on it.
I have tried various outlets for different products and Etsy used to work pretty well with minimal effort – I think that it has grown into a very widespread marketplace and the initial artisan appeal is mostly gone, at least from my point of view. One thing I absolutely love about Etsy is the simplicity and elegance of the interface. It’s a total no-brainer and a great experience to post a new product. Etsy search is lacking big time and I‘ve had much better luck with an organic search on my own website with WordPress and WooCommerce.
Amazon Handmade has tried to jump on the Etsy bandwagon, and in my experience, it just does not work for my niche. I think amazon works for products that are price-driven and for the convenience factor.
I had very good luck selling my products like beverage coasters, comment cards and t-shirts in person at markets and fairs and growing this part of the business is still on my radar. In fact, I have been thinking about offering a mini-franchise program for quite some time.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Raghaus is in a healthy, steady growing place and I have learned to pace myself and not to panic when things are a little slower – the Universe has your back. These days, I do a lot more face-to-face business with customers and the website as a sales vehicle is always a work in progress.
The next steps in terms of growth are certainly going more into the product portfolio, as I have a ton of inventory and plenty of ideas for things to make.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
In many ways, the current iteration of my business has been a very interesting study of myself, and I have fine-tuned my work a lot through observation and introspection.
One of the biggest assets I have learned to appreciate is saying “NO” to certain projects. I’m a specialist with a perfectionist streak and quality beats quantity in my shop every single time and I will simply not compete on something I don’t enjoy doing, because in the end, I will only resent myself for doing it. It was very hard at first, but saying no has made my work so much more enjoyable!
Being in such a tiny niche of the market, I have learned to make my website work for me with targeted pages for specific customers and products. For example, I used to offer a specific niche print service and I didn’t enjoy the process, or it didn’t make sense for the business and I ended up killing the page – the inquiries pretty much stopped overnight. At first, it was a gut-wrenching decision to make, and it turns out that I enjoy my work much more for turning something down.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I started my first online shop on Etsy and have since built the Raghaus website on WordPress with WooCommerce – the whole thing runs on Amazon Lightsail, which is a fantastic platform with superior performance, compared to any other web hosting I have used in the past.
I love MightyText, which allows me to send text messages from my Mac via Android phone. Text messaging has become my second biggest customer communication platform besides email.
Dropbox is pretty crucial in my work with customers and I also use a 5-disk Synology disk station for local storage.
One other thing that’s crucial to my functioning is a piece of technology that I DON’T use when I’m not working – I have turned off all alerts & notifications on my smartphone and check messages only when I need to, or when I’m working at the studio.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
As a visual person with a technological mind, I can pretty much draw inspiration from anywhere, let it be the TV remote or the arrangement of buttons on a toaster oven. I always look at the world and its products with a critical eye. What can be improved, or what’s particularly great about design, and I draw my conclusions from there.
Being an avid reader, there’s an endless list of titles… I recently enjoyed The Elon Musk biography and I’m currently reading Make Elephants Fly: The Process of Radical Innovation, and I have a few email subscriptions Design Luck by Zat Rana comes to mind, or Brain Pickings Weekly. I also meditate every morning before I go to work...
The only place I can listen to podcasts is in the car and I almost always listen to Talking to Ourselves, which are pretty cool & multi-faceted interviews with advertising executives and creatives.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Ideas are a dime a dozen and it really comes down to execution. Follow your gut and do something you love – your time is valuable and you’ll definitely never feel like you are working when you are enjoying what you are doing. My days are jam-packed with activity and I oftentimes wonder where my time went… Most of the time I can’t wait to get back to the studio to experiment, explore and create.
Inspiration is everywhere – look at things, anything really and sees how you can improve on it. We have so many tools at our disposal to make up something on a whim, it’s a pretty amazing time to be alive.
Don’t be afraid to pivot, change your point of view, try new things, or try a different approach. Our minds are very powerful and pre-programmed for survival, and sometimes it works best to leave your ego at the door and embrace failure because, in the end, they are only lessons to improve on. I think that’s the bare essence of a start-up and the entrepreneurial mind.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
One thing I knew early on, and that’s probably valuable advice to other small business owners “Hire for your weaknesses” and my number one weak spot would be sales-oriented – marketing, online marketing comes to mind first, and I can always use help in the production department at the studio.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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