How We Created A Planning Diary Making $160K In 6 Months
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hey, we’re Tom and Alex—Co Founders of Saint Belford.
Our mission is to empower others to keep self-care on top of their to-do list so that they can design, build and live a life that genuinely fulfills them, without compromising their wellbeing in the process.
We create physical diaries (called Curation) that focus on self-care and personal growth for people who want to prioritise their wellbeing and live life on their terms. We’ve incorporated over a dozen lifestyle tools into one A5 sized planner—things like goal-setting worksheets, habit intention worksheets, habit tracking tools, weekly meal planner, annual bucket list, weekly challenges, pre-week planner to properly map out your week, daily self-care planner… the list goes on—and that’s what sets us apart.
Our customers are predominantly women like Alex who have either experienced some level of burnout or they recognise the need to slow down and recharge amid the chaos of modern society. These women are searching for more than a diary or planner. They are searching for something to keep them grounded, to help them prioritise their wellbeing and create space for the things that light them up.
Much to everyone’s surprise, we turned a profit in our first year achieving a revenue of 43k. In our second year, we almost quadrupled this amount, turning over 160k in less than six months.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
There were 3 reasons that lead us down the path of running our own business.
In short, it was a happy accident.
1 - Experiencing burnout
My experience with burnout and mental health issues was probably the primary catalyst for starting Saint Belford. I was taking on far too much, hustling far too aggressively and everything eventually caught up with me.
I knew this was a widespread issue and I wanted to provide an alternative to the hustle hard mentality that most of us naturally learn towards. I wanted to truly empower others to put themselves first, prioritise their wellbeing and create time and space for the things were truly important to them.
2 - There was nothing like it out there
I’ve always been a fan of putting pen to paper, but I couldn’t find a planner that would help me stay organised and grounded with self-care as the primary focus. We saw this as an opportunity to not only create the perfect planner for me, but also spread the message of self-care. It was Tom’s idea to launch this business.
Before burning out, I had ZERO desire to start a business. Having seen the ugly side of owning your own business (my parents were small business owners), I always craved the security of a full time job.
Tom: It was actually Alex’s idea. She just wasn’t serious about it and said it as a joke that she should create the perfect planner since she couldn’t find one that suited her. At the time, I was listening to loads of business podcasts and became very interested in business and marketing, but didn’t know what I wanted to do with what I had learned. After a week or so, that idea popped into my head again and that’s when I said “we should do this.”
3 - We were at a career crossroads
We were both at a crossroads in our careers. Neither of our jobs were fulfilling us. Tom was working as an Apple technician and I was an Account Manager at a digital marketing agency. We felt that at the age of 26, with no mortgage or major commitments, we had nothing much to lose. If it didn’t pan out, it would still be worth the adventure and lessons learned.
Fortunately, I had a background in marketing and Tom is a fast learner, so we didn’t have to outsource a large chunk of our startup fund. We didn’t do much testing to validate the idea. The most we did was send out a survey to our network to gauge what they liked and didn’t like about their current planners, what features they wanted and what type of goals they typically pursued.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Finding a printer
The first step was finding a local printer in Australia. We reached out to 36 printers and received 6 replies. Finding a printer was A LOT harder than we anticipated because we didn’t know anything about book specs and therefore could only request a quote based on layman knowledge of notebooks. Our first quote request was something like this:
1000 x A5 high end hardcover PU leather diaries ft. gold foil on the front, back and spine.
I also included several photos to illustrate my vision and used the feedback from printers to refine my brief.
We eventually found a local printer who could meet our requirements. Even though our print job was outsourced to Taiwan (they were quite transparent about this), choosing a local printer meant we didn’t have to deal with freight, customs and language barriers in an industry we knew nothing about.
Getting schooled on book making
We didn’t have a clue how books were made, let alone how to choose the right type of binding, grade of paper, ribbons and hardcover material. Our printer was a big help in this department because he was able to educate us on the process and guide us every step of the way.
There were definitely more pros than cons to having a middle man in the first year. The only con was that our printing-related requests were filtered, which meant that our requests were passed on to the manufacturer at the discretion of our printer.
In our first year, we made our decisions based on high-res photos, which is such a contrast to the way we do things now. Because we’re dealing directly with our manufacturer now, we can request physical samples of PU leather and make the decision based on touch and feel.
Brainstorming diary features
The search for a printer took weeks. During that time, we brainstormed exactly what we wanted to include in our planner. We looked at what was available online and in stores. We looked at apps we used. We asked ourselves what we wanted in a diary. We surveyed our network and asked them what they wanted.
At this stage, we knew we wanted to create more than a diary—something truly unique* that was centred around health and wellness. We came up with dozens of ideas. It was just a matter of figuring out the *best, most practical features to include in what we called “Curation” because it was exactly that—a curation of lifestyle planning tools.
Turning our vision into a digital reality
We put together a brief detailing what we envisioned for each feature and we worked closely with our designer to bring our first edition of Curation to life.
We were really blessed in the design department because when we pitched our idea to our friend (who happens to be a designer) she was 100% on board and excited to bring our vision to life (at mates rates). Even though we were living miles apart and the time difference posed a few challenges (she was in France and we were in Australia), the design process was an absolute dream, thanks to the wonders of Skype, Facebook Messenger, Google Docs and Email.
Sorting out packaging problems
Our diaries were shipped to customers in 100% recyclable cardboard book wraps (unbranded). We still use the same packaging today. In our first year, we didn’t want to use unnecessary plastic, so we didn’t bother investing in individual opp/poly bags UNTIL we learned that a few of our diaries arrived with water damage. Eager to avoid another soggy diary experience, we quickly changed our minds about the need for plastic protective material.
Describe the process of launching the business.
From inception to launch
We came up with the idea of Curation in late February 2017 which meant we had a deadline to meet if we wanted to launch a 2018 edition. We had about 8 months to design, produce and market the first edition before launching in October. This timeline worked in our favour because it didn’t leave room for procrastination or perfectionism.
We had to “move fast and break things” and foster an attitude of “done is better than perfect.”
We later learned that most diary companies launch around late August, early September, so we were actually late to the party. That was the first lesson we learned.
Creating our website
We picked a theme that was roughly $100 and did everything ourselves, right down to the photos. It makes us cringe a little when we look back at them now because the photos were so amateur, but you’ve got to start somewhere!
Keeping the costs down
Our goal was to be profitable in the first year, so we were very careful about where we allocated our funds.
In our first year, we relied heavily on micro influencers and SEO to put us on the map. We sent over a dozen copies to lifestyle bloggers and health coaches in the wellness space with a few thousand followers behind them. The idea was for them to share it on their story if they liked our product and/or write a review on their blog. It was a cost effective way for us to reach a larger audience, increase visibility and build brand credibility, since we were the new kids on the block.
This worked quite well. The best, most profitable “shares” were from fatmumslim.com.au, afternoonpickmeup.com.au and rachaelkable.com because they included us in their “best diaries for 2018” roundup.
We used my background and knowledge in SEO to our advantage. Tom’s interest in marketing and his desire to self-educate also kept our marketing costs down. In total, we invested 15k of our life savings into launching this business. We didn’t want to take out any loans or get ourselves into debt because we were simply testing an idea.
Launching to the public
We didn’t build hype or a brand following before we launched, so it wasn’t some big, epic launch. We posted on our personal Facebook accounts and that got the ball rolling. Our friends and family were instrumental in spreading the word about our brand. Our first few customers were friends/family but by the 5th or 6th day, we were selling to random people, and that was when it finally felt real.
Lessons from our experience
- Build a following before you launch.
- Leverage your connections and don’t be afraid to ask for help. “Mates rates” can really help keep costs down in the first year. You’ll be surprised by how generous people are with their time and advice when you’re a startup.
- Don’t be afraid to share your product with family and friends. They will be your biggest supporters in the beginning.
- Have a deadline and stick to it. Having a deadline worked in our favour because it didn’t leave room for procrastination or perfectionism.
- Join entrepreneurial/ecommerce Facebook groups. They can be a great resource and place to ask questions.
- Be prepared to pivot. In our first year, SEO worked a charm. In our second year, it didn’t work as well as we’d hoped, so we had to adapt our marketing strategy and learn how to market our products on Instagram and Facebook.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
We’ve tried so many different types of marketing in a bid to attract and retain customers. These are our biggest takeaways.
Don’t just be a brand. Show that you’re human so that customers have someone they can connect with.
Instagram and Facebook ads for the win
This worked a treat for attracting new customers and increasing traffic/sales. We used professional imagery and targeted people just like Alex. We know that the majority of our customers don’t convert immediately because it’s something they’ll research for weeks.
The goal of the ad is to generate awareness and either get them to sign up to our VIP list (email list) or follow us on Instagram where we can nurture them until they are ready to purchase. Once they land on our website, we can also retarget them at a later date.
We also use Instagram for social proof. When customers share our products on their story or message us telling us how much they love what we’ve created, we will always repost it.
Show that you’re human
Don’t just be a brand. Show that you’re human so that customers have someone they can connect with. We do this via Instagram stories. Customers love seeing what goes on behind the scenes. They want to put a face and a voice to the brand.
Clarify and communicate your brand message clearly
Donald Miller’s Storybrand Framework has transformed the way we communicate our brand message and market our products. I highly recommend listening to his audiobook “Building a StoryBrand” and implementing his principles. The audiobook will teach you how to write incredible website/marketing copy and nurture your email subscribers. Our YoY conversion rate increased from 3% to 3.8% thanks to these principles.
Incentivise email sign ups
We decided to give away a free copy of our planner every month to someone on our email list. Once we implemented an email opt-in with “Sign up for your chance to win a FREE copy of Curation 2019”, we went from having 600 email subscribers to nearly 5000 in just a few months, and they were quality subscribers. Our email conversion rate was 7.64% last year.
Collaborate with like-minded brands
We did giveaways with brands in the health and wellness space to reach new customers. One particular giveaway with Pana Chocolate (raw organic chocolate) helped us build our Instagram following by the thousands, just in time for Black Friday/Cyber Monday. We didn’t strategically plan for this to happen, but it certainly taught us that timing the giveaway is important.
Produce valuable content
This has been a huge part of our retention strategy. We seek out people in the health and wellness space to guest post on our blog. We produce FREE eBooks in the off-season. We just spent 3 months writing our last eBook which is all about building new habits that stick.
We’re not just in the business of selling planners—we’re constantly searching for new ways to empower our audience and add value.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We saw phenomenal revenue growth in our second year of business—47k to over 160k in revenue through our Shopify store.
We’ve been travelling around Asia working on the 2020 diary collection which will be released in September. We’re so grateful we get to do this.
In terms of the future, we’re still trying to figure out what direction we want to take the business in. There are pros and cons to having a seasonal business. The pro being that we’ve been able to travel and work remotely in the off-season. The con being that we’re only generating revenue in September-February.
Tom and I have finally settled into our roles. Being life and business partners is tricky but having roles in the business has helped us navigate this territory. Tom is in charge of business/marketing strategy and the techy side of things. I’m in charge of supplier and customer relationships, product development and content creation.
We do have plans to expand our range next year. There are a few ideas in the pipeline, but we want to keep it a surprise for our audience.
Ultimately, our goal is to continue creating lifestyle tools that focus on self-care and personal growth, whether that’s in the form of eBooks or adding to our physical collection.
We are also really passionate about mental health which is why we donate a percentage of our profits to Beyond Blue and R U OK? every year. This will always be a core part of our business.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
The biggest challenge was finding a supplier who understood our needs and could deliver on their promises. We actually flew to China to meet with our supplier this year. Sitting down face to face, explaining our concerns and visiting the factory where our diaries are currently being produced has filled us with a lot more confidence.
Before manufacturing your product, figure out what a defective product looks like. For us, it’s scratches, missing pages, unseared ribbons, etc. Once you know what a defect looks like, communicate this to your supplier and agree on an accepted defect rate. Every factory will have a defect rate, so don’t be fooled by a company telling you that they don’t have one.
It’s impossible to produce 100% perfect products on a mass scale. It’s good practice to establish a written agreement of the product specs and criteria. We use Alibaba to process all transactions because it protects us in the off chance the supplier doesn’t meet the agreed criteria.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We try to keep it as simple as possible. It’s easy to get bogged down with the latest apps, but one thing we’ve noticed is keeping it simple helps with our website speed and overall sanity. Sumo and Kaviyo are definitely our favourites, and when I say we, I mean Tom because he’s the tech nerd in this duo!
- Shopify: affordable and super easy to use.
- Sumo: collecting emails is a breeze with Sumo. The pop-ups are incredibly easy to design and customer support is amazing.
- Klaviyo: we just recently switched from MailChimp toKlaviyo and it has allowed us to step up our email marketing game. The built-in flows and email automation possibilities are truly next level.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
This taught us the power of small habits, when compounded over time. It also helped us build the discipline we needed to create a sustainable business.
Tom has listened to almost every episode. Tim manages to extract amazing insights from his guests which can be distilled down into principles anyone can use.
Noah Kagan podcast/YouTube channel
These are all bite sized, completely actionable tips and advice for small businesses.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Make sure your preparation doesn’t turn into procrastination.
Done is better than perfect. Our first year was a test. Did we produce the perfect product? Not at all. BUT we used our customer feedback and everything we had learned in our first year to create something we were genuinely proud of in the second year.
Don’t be afraid to “move fast and break things.”
Learn from your mistakes. When you view your mistakes as an opportunity to learn and improve, you can recover faster. Don’t dwell on it. Own it and use it to your advantage.
Ask for help!!
People are more than happy to help you. You’ve just got to ask.
Have a strong WHY.
Make sure you’re genuinely passionate about your product/service. People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.
Don’t forget to look after yourself.
Starting a business is exciting but it’s also overwhelming and exhausting. It’s also easy to neglect your mind and body in favour of getting that important thing done. Just remember this quote by Joyce Sunada “If you don’t take time for your wellness, you’ll be forced to make time for your illness.”
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Saint Belford has provided an update on their business!
Over 2 years ago, we followed up with Saint Belford to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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