How I Started A Re-Usable Paper Business
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Caylee, and I’m the founder of two businesses by night/weekend and a Product Design Manager at Facebook by day.
My primary business, Swipies, is a reusable paper company. Swipies are essentially portable, flexible whiteboards that don't smudge because they use wet-erase markers (instead of dry erase.) I sell Swipies in kits through my Shopify store (shipped to 42 states and 30 countries so far!), and I sell custom-branded Swipies to companies like Airbnb (see below), General Assembly, Moz, and Indeed.
I’ve had my share of $10,000 and $500 months, but my revenue averages around $2,000 per month. I spend between an hour (minimum for fulfillment) and 20 hours a week working on Swipies and my other business, The Spreadsheet Shop.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I’ve been a designer for almost 15 years, and I’ve had an entrepreneurial itch for just as long. Being a designer has given me the advantage of spinning up websites, logos, and products (physical and digital) quickly. My first entrepreneurial pursuit was opening a design studio in the food and beverage industry about 10 years ago. During that time, I also helped open a restaurant, which is among the scrappiest types of businesses you can run. Aside from the restaurateur stint, those 5 years were spent doing the mostly digital design but I had an itch to create something physical.
Learning new skills is one of the greatest gifts my endeavors have given me
With that in the back of my mind, I stumbled upon the idea for Swipies when I received lamination samples for a project I was doing. The sheets were big, clean, and smooth and I really wanted to write on them. I ordered wet-erase pens from Amazon (recalling the joy of writing on overhead projectors as a kid) and within a few weeks, my team and I were using them for everything — note-taking, illustration, list-making — and we’d even cut them down to a variety of convenient sizes for different uses.
Fast forward a year, and I was starting my first job in tech. I was doing a lot of app design, so I printed phone frames onto paper with “Swipies” scribbled in the corner. My husband coined the name because of the common “swipe” gesture used on apps, as well as the “wiping” required to clean Swipies. I made a few copies and took them to work, and my coworkers started asking for their own copies. I ran out every time I made more, but I wasn’t happy with the quality. I wanted a sleek product that was also fully waterproof, but I hated the lamination lip that traditional laminating got me. So I started talking to some manufacturers.
Fast forward another year, and I had my first order of 200 Swipies in hand.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
First, I couldn’t get anyone to take the project on, partially because I wanted to start with a small order, and partially because my ask was surprisingly difficult. I found one lone manufacturer that’d help me, but it took us a long time to get Swipies right. I wanted the product to be fully waterproof which required us to use expensive, special-order materials.
From there, we had issues with bubbling, smearing, and warping. Finally, we found the right mix of products and processes, and it was onto the design of the sheets. I wanted a pattern that could fit a variety of needs. I played with lines, a standard grid, a crosshair grid, a dot grid, and even plain/blank. I surveyed a few potential users and landed on the dot grid for my first run. I added a simple outline to make the product feel intentional and complete, and I used super minimal branding so the focus was on writing and drawing without distractions. I also (very intentionally) kept one side of the sheets blank, because I personally love to draw and write without restrictions. Each sheet gives the user two options: the dot grid, and the blank side.
After the design and production were done, I pulled together the first version of the packaging, which left a lot to be desired. In true scrappy fashion, I used neon yellow stickers from Uline that I laser-printed at home to make the labels. I bought 1000 of them for $12. Looking back, it wasn’t the best design decision I’ve ever made, but I was able to start the business all up (domain, web hosting, materials) for under $800. It’s been self-funded since.
Describe the process of launching the business.
When I was first launching Swipies, I was interviewing for a job at Etsy, so I decided to build my initial store with them to test the product. I coded a super simple HTML/CSS landing page that directed people to Etsy store.
I took my own product photos on an elementary school basketball court in the lower east side of Manhattan. I sat in the now-shuttered Spitzer’s Corner bar and hit the launch button, super excited to see what would happen. It’s hard to beat that incredible feeling of excitement when you launch something totally new.
Despite my desire to make everything perfect before letting the world see it, it’s not necessary. Get your product out there and start getting feedback
During this phase, I just made it work and got it out there as fast as I could. Since I was already active on social media, I hyped up the launch to my friends and started to see sales come in pretty quickly. I had an email list of people interested before I had received my first shipment, and a good percentage of them bought when I launched.
My first shipment of Letter-sized Swipies was billed on November 3rd, 2015 for $550, and by November 16th I was placing a $1600 order, which included a restock of my Letter Swipies, 2 new sizes, and 200 custom units for my first B2B client, Spec.fm.
This was the first hint that something doesn’t need to be perfect for people to be interested and supportive, but to this day it’s a lesson I struggle to absorb.
Since the initial launch, I’ve introduced more products based on customer demand. The simple addition of some cleaning accessories lead me to build my best selling kit, “The Full Starter Kit.” After many requests for list-sized Swipies, I introduced a tall, skinny lined version. My customers really wanted it to be magnetic, but when cost and design were prohibitive, I decided to create some complementary magnets to go with the list Swipies. I researched common use cases for list-writing and mapped 5 emoji designs to those uses (an avocado for groceries and meal planning, a clipboard for all things work, and the bicep/muscle emoji - with a Swipies tattoo of course - for workout plans, honey-do lists, physical labor projects) and hired a local designer to custom-illustrate them.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Many of my early sales spikes came from mentions on Twitter, YouTube videos, and popular blogs. $200 from a tweet here, $600 from a blog mention there.
When I first launched Swipies, a woman in the personal planner community found the product, cut it down to the size of her planner, and talked about it on her YouTube channel. Even a chopped up version of my product drove a ton of sales; so much that I ended up introducing that size in my next run. I highly recommend taking advantage of the opportunity to tailor to communities that show interest in your product. I also found success in doing podcast ads within niche communities (for me, UX designers). I was able to work out revenue share deals that made it easier to dabble in advertising without cost risk.
For many years, reputation and word of mouth were my biggest drivers. As of lately, I’m experimenting with ads and seeing some success there. I’ve been able to save money and iterate on the ads frequently by shooting my own videos.
What’s weird (and dumb of me) is that I’ve never sent a Swipies marketing email, and I’m horrible at creating native social content. I’d love to (and plan to) do both of these things (and more), but I’m spread thin with everything I’m involved in. I’ve been super lucky to have had growth through word of mouth and ad hoc marketing efforts over the years but am finally starting to lean into maximizing that with intentional marketing efforts.
Good ideas are everywhere and don’t have much value compared to execution
On the B2B side, I’ve built out a workflow for Custom Swipies that allows me to scale myself out of investing too much in each project. I’ve created extensive sales materials and scalable pricing tables that allow me to quickly price any custom project at any margin, both of which allow me to do mass outreach without custom-bidding each opportunity.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
I currently fulfill Swipies from home, and I invest my profits into inventory so I can keep lowering my cost. Before the ad spends, I’m at about 70% gross margin. I’ve been running ads for only a few months, and my CAC via ads is only a couple dollars less than my average order value, so there’s plenty of work to be done there. I get a few sales a month from Amazon and Etsy, but the majority of my business is done through Shopify. Custom Swipies are generally direct through word of mouth, but I’ve received several inquiries through my ads so I’m curious about targeting B2B customers, like employees who buy swag. I’m also starting to get listed in some swag catalogs, which may quickly scale my B2B business. I don’t sell to any brick and mortar and am not listed on other websites, but I regularly do conference swag and plan to do more outreach there this year. Plenty of avenues to further expand down!
Generally speaking, there’s so much I’d like to do. I’d love to spend more time selling Swipies to distributors, other retailers, and businesses and conferences — essentially, getting the product out in bulk. My B2B game is strong — I am able to price, design, and manage production in a few hour's time, and my average custom order is $1,900. I’d love to do more of this work and to look at ad targeting specifically to swag decision-makers.
I’d especially like to build a more branded organic social experience, and build more community around the passions that lead me to start my businesses. I’d love to find opportunities to work with schools at all levels, but especially with college bookstores.
I’d like to use Amazon more effectively (but Seller Central is truly the worst). I’d also really like to become more eco-friendly as a company. Because Swipies are reusable, they can offset single-use paper waste. But, the production of plastic is harmful to the environment, too. I’d like to find ways to generally offset my production, do a study on how many Swipies uses offset the plastic production in terms of paper saved, and even look into creating a more green product from the ground up, with a biodegradable “plastic.”
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
As a side hustle, where I’m not trying to make my entire income from the business, learning new skills is one of the greatest gifts my endeavors have given me. I highly encourage others to take the time to learn to do things themselves when starting out. Writing code, learning to optimize ad campaigns, negotiating, selling, shooting video, sourcing materials, working with manufacturers. I’m not sure where all of this will lead me, but I’m a significantly more savvy business person across my businesses and day job because of my entrepreneurial experiences.
I’ve also learned that despite my desire to make everything perfect before letting the world see it, it’s not necessary. People want to support other people, so even exposing your work to friends and family is a great start. Get your product out there and start getting feedback.
Finally, my husband often reminds me to “sharpen the saw.” If I don’t get enough sleep or breaks or exercise or food or water, I won’t be my best self nor do my best work. I’ve burned the candle at both ends for most of my life, but I’ve learned to be more balanced over the past couple of years. Long walks through parks, weekends away, social outings with friends, 8 hours of sleep, and plenty of TV on the couch — these might not happen every day, but definitely a couple of times a month each.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
If I could, I would watch new episodes of Shark Tankand listen to new episodes of How I Built This every day. I also think The Lean Startup had a lot of influence over me in my early days as a software designer, and it has bled into how I think about running my own businesses. I work super iteratively in everything I do entrepreneurially.
Something I’ve found to be super useful lately is multitasking when it comes to self-care. Working out is incredibly helpful for creating mental clarity, but I feel I never have enough time to do as much working out (or reading) as I’d like. So as of late, I’ve been reading business books on my Kindle while on the elliptical, and I feel super energized and motivated after.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
A few random tidbits:
- Anything besides direct sales to your website is expensive. Get aggressive with lowering your costs and protecting your margin so you can work with retailers, partners, and distributors.
- You can start and scale a business without much upfront investment, and you can also avoid wasting money by going a bit slower and learning along the way.
- Hire help where you don’t have a desire to go deep with learning to do it yourself.
- Good ideas are everywhere and don’t have much value compared to execution. I love to daydream as much as the next person, but I also enjoy sitting down and doing the work. I can’t tell you how many people seek advice but won’t share their specific idea because they’re afraid it’ll get stolen. Stop that. Roadshow your idea. Get feedback, take the ideas others give you. Execute faster than anyone else. Just get to work.
- Send samples to opinionated or influential people in the space you’re working in. Worst case, you hear nothing. Best case, you get a free plug and some sales. The middle ground, you get some feedback. Get your product out there as much as you can.
- Do not trust the United States Postal Service to get anything anywhere in any specific time frame. 😅
- Don’t be stubborn. I designed and coded an entire website myself, hoping I could hook it up to Shopify later. I really wanted a beautifully branded experience, and I wanted to learn to write code on a bigger scale. But I had to delete everything — literally everything — to move to a legit platform (Shopify) to scale the business. That was a big waste.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
I’m not officially, but I am curious about a virtual assistant. Email me if that’s you!
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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