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Business Observer Friday, Jul. 1, 2016 1 year ago

Paper power

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A paper-based business, founded five years ago by a resolute entrepreneur, defies the digital age.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Emily Ley's budding gifts and accessories business, built around stylish paper-based planners and calendars, nearly collapsed before it completed its first order.

That was back in 2011. Her company had taken close to 500 pre-orders of the debut Emily Ley Simplified Planner, a spiral bound, personalized datebook that retailed for more than $50 each. Customers, mostly women and lots of moms, eagerly awaited a late December delivery so they could put ink to their plans for the next year. But shipping was delayed until February due to a manufacturing error. Angry emails filled Ley's inbox.

“I was mortified,” says Ley. “I thought my life was over.”

Ley, instead, embraced the mistake. She refunded every customer one-twelfth of the cost for the month lost. She mailed a hand-written apology letter to each person, in a package that included a handcrafted lollipop she bought from Etsy, in flavors such as watermelon citrus. She ended the note with this line: “I hope this makes your wait a little sweeter.”

That was an early tipping point in Emily Ley Paper & Gifts, now a thriving six-employee, Tampa-based company that sells everything from journals and datebooks to art prints and desk accessories. The flagship product is a daily planner, in a variety of prints and colors, which sells for $58 each. Products are sold online, at EmilyLey.com, and in more than 600 small boutiques and retail stores. Sales have doubled each year since 2011. Ley declines to disclose specific annual sales figures.

More tipping points: Ley, 33, was one of four women recently featured in a Forbes story on female entrepreneurs, and a six-page spread on the business is scheduled for an upcoming Family Circle magazine issue. The company won the National Stationery Show's Best New Product award last year for the Simplified Planner, and Stationery Trends Magazine named Ley a 2015 Top 10 Designer to Watch.

Ley also recently wrote a book about making intentional choices in things that matter — her company's mission. The book, “Grace Not Perfection: Embracing Simplicity, Celebrating Joy,” will be released by HarperCollins this fall.

The demand for printed products to plan a day, a week or a life is strong, Ley says, even in the digital age, and the company has several new products coming out later this year. Part of the demand, Ley believes, comes from a backlash to mobile device obsession. The company's brand and message, of simplicity over the chase for more, also resonates with customers. Says Ley: “Women are thirsty for this message.”

A Pensacola native and onetime ballet dancer, Ley was set on a nonprofit career. She had worked in that area, in fundraising development at USF. “I was going to climb the ladder,” she says. “I had all the skirt suits.”

Ley gave that up in 2008 to chase her dream of running her own business. She started small, designing monograms on Etsy she sold for $5. By 2011, after the first of what's now three children were born, Ley had moved on to planners. The company's growth since that first shipping delay mistake, she says, has been shaped by other painful on-the-job lessons learned. But she doesn't regret her career choice.

“I love being an entrepreneur,” says Ley. “I love the chase. I love the adventure.”


Mistakes made right

Emily Ley has turned several mistakes into key lessons learned at her Tampa-based lifestyle brand company, Emily Ley Paper & Gifts. The list includes:

Stick to the core: The company's niche is with customers who value paper over a phone in planning. So getting into technology, with a Smartphone calendar app that cost at least $30,000 to develop, was a misstep. It was buggy, and didn't match the customer's paper experience. “The app wasn't our best move,” Ley says. “We didn't know what we were getting ourselves into.”

Study hard: One of the first printing runs for planners the company made was full of production errors. That was a $6,000 mistake Ley says she “schlepped to the curb” in recycle bins. She has since invested more time analyzing printing partners and other vendors.

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