How I created a successful brand in an industry I knew nothing about
Carl Pappenheim started Spineless Classics after struggling to find his mum a good Christmas present. Six years on, he's the owner of a £1m+ business
Name: Carl Pappenheim
Company: Spineless Publishing
Company description: We print entire books as wall art. In legible four-point text, most novels will fit into a standard poster size print, leaving enough room for the words to be shaped into an attractive design.
Started in: 2010
Describe your start-up barrier:
Knowing nothing about an industry might seem to be an obstacle but tearing into the unknown with the right attitude can yield rewards.
Instead of playing by an established rulebook, I learnt on the job and created new opportunities as a result.
What were the practical steps you took to set up the business despite having little industry experience?
I had no shame: Listening to paranoia and shrinking from big customers or publishing houses on the belief that “I wasn't big enough to be taken seriously” would have been a mistake. The worst thing that customers or publishers could say was no. Sure, some people won't get out of bed unless you have a five figure advance or a sheaf of EU product certifications, but there is always someone who'll talk to you. You can build on the deals with people who are talking to you to get in with the people who won't
Thinking outside the box: Spineless Classics generally didn't do well in bookshops in the early days, despite it being an “obvious” fit. By targeting shops who didn't sell books, or even wall art, we found ourselves looking doubly unique to eager customers.
It's a team effort: Nothing surprises shops more than you taking an interest in whether they managed to sell your goods. Feedback from stores that weren't doing well helped us to develop point-of-sale material that we might never have thought of. Thinking that money in your pocket is the goal is flawed; the relationships are two-way and long-term.
Take an interest in your mistakes: We've made mistakes in the past with bookkeeping and stock control but by eagerly seeking these mistakes out and admitting to them before the customer even realises there's a problem, we were able to foster a trusting relationship with customers. This also taught us a lot about our own processes.
Do it yourself: If you don't spend the odd afternoon in the warehouse or speak directly with your employees you won't catch problems. Staff who honestly feel empowered to tell you about problems will also feel confident about you working around them.
What was the outcome?
Spineless has grown rapidly and is now an established brand in both retail and publishing circles.
It's very satisfying to hear people rave about our products when we're at shows. “Have you seen us before?” “Oh yes, I have two already!” is my favourite response, and a reasonably frequent exchange.
What three key questions should aspiring business owners ask themselves before entering the “unknown”?
- Is what I'm doing fulfilling its potential?
- Have I missed benefits of a subtle change in direction?
- What is happening right now that could happen better, and do I know about it?
What one piece of advice do you think budding entrepreneurs should take on board?
Be neither too proud to learn, nor too humble to be bold.
Is there anything you would do differently?
It's hard to know what would have worked better. Given the information I had at the time, I feel I made solid decisions.