biz ladiesLife & Business

Biz Ladies Profile: Chelsea Shukov & Jamie Grobecker of Sugar Paper

by Stephanie

Biz Ladies Profile: Sugar Paper
With a penchant for the well-crafted and designed, Chelsea and Jamie decided it was time to put their own designer tastes on paper – literally. The duo launched their Sugar Paper brand in 2003 and have been creating exquisite paper products since, including new digital versions of their work on Paperless Post. Today Chelsea shares a bit about their journey from idea to business, and the valuable tips, tricks and life lessons they learned along the way. –Stephanie

photos courtesy of Sugar Paper 

Read the full interview after the jump…

  Biz Ladies Profile: Sugar Paper

Why did you decide to start your own business?

Sugar Paper began in 2003 with a love of letterpress and an appreciation for simple, tasteful design.

Jamie and I both have an appreciation for fine stationery but, at the time, we felt that there was a hole in the market for classic, understated design. The high-end options felt dated and we wanted to put a fresh spin on the time-honored tradition of the handwritten note. We started Sugar Paper to create a line that combined fine materials with classic typefaces yet had a more current feel.

When you first decided to start your own business, how did you define what your business would be?

We chose to focus on high quality social stationery. Our best work comes when we focus on the small details that make a piece of stationery exquisite. It’s what we do best. We have a mantra at Sugar Paper, “Love is in the details.”

The heart of our company is in the making, but the channels of distribution have changed since we first opened shop in 2003. When we began, we had one retail store and a loyal following of local clients. We now also sell online, through exclusive collaborations with large retailers, and wholesale through our boutique retail partners.

Biz Ladies Profile: Sugar Paper

What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?

Keep going. Owning and operating a business is tricky. Just when you feel like you have it down, you find a new challenge to overcome. We have learned to accept this over the years and when things get tough, we try to remind ourselves that Rome wasn’t built in a day and that the best thing to do is to keep going.

We have a letterpress print that we created that says, “Keep going.” I give it to all of my entrepreneurial friends.

What was the most difficult part of starting your business?

We had very little money when we began. We borrowed money from our families and had to be very conservative with our budget. In the beginning, neither of us were paid and that went on for quite awhile, as we chose instead to reinvest and grow. We laugh about it now because the tiny budget we had wasn’t really appropriate for what we were trying to do, but we are hard workers who tend to be hopefully optimistic!

We functioned on the belief that we could make it happen, and so we rolled up our sleeves and made it happen. We designed and printed all of the products, we worked the store, handled customer service, did the books, etc. We put in really long hours.

Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?

We’ve had to learn how to manage people and how to lead a team. It’s a daily challenge to make sure everyone’s needs are met. We have to be much more efficient with our time and trust that the people we have hired are good at what they do. We’re not micromanagers because we hire incredible people. Jamie and I used to do everything ourselves but it’s impossible to do that now. The process of letting go and allowing people to help you is tough but completely worthwhile.

Biz Ladies Profile: Sugar Paper

Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences?

I can’t. Not because we haven’t had them… we’ve had plenty! But our failures have become opportunities of growth for us.

For example, five years ago we were contacted by Mickey Drexler at J.Crew about doing some items for them. Nothing ever came of it and I was heartbroken. Since then, we have learned so much about working with large retailers. That knowledge has carried over to the current successes we’re having now. That growth was necessary for us as a company, so to call it a failure would be inaccurate.

This year we launched a line of paper goods for J.Crew Weddings and will be carried in J.Crew stores nationwide.

Can you name your greatest success in your business experiences?

Collaborating with people and companies that we’ve long admired is a dream come true. The first time we took a celebrity order was a big day in the company’s history. Most recently, it’s been the experience of collaborating with companies such as J.Crew, Target and now Paperless Post.

What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?

Anything by Seth Godin. He’s a hero of mine. Two of my favorites are “Purple Cow” and “Tribes.”

I also highly recommend “The E Myth” for anyone just starting out and “Hug Your Customers” is a great one for anyone who cares about providing high quality customer service.

In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?

Lifestyle. People who own businesses tend to work more than most people I know.
Money. Unless you have an instant hit on your hands, money is a big consideration for the first several years.
Joy. Only do it if you love it. It makes all the difference.

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Comments

  • I see examples like this story quite frequently in Design Sponge, and they mystify me. As a professional designer/historian who runs a landscape architecture office, I can’t imagine how these women and others like them make a living from this enterprise. Here’s the story I’ve made up in my head: they have husbands with high-paying jobs who support them while they take letterpress classes. However, they feel they should do something more, so they decide to start a business, but the only need they can perceive is for more contemporary “social” stationary. This says to me that they are wealthy and out of touch with the world. If you continue to promote people who produce what appears to be useless stuff, at least tell the real story about how they can afford to do this, that is, what’s the back story?

    • Laura,

      I’m shocked that any professional would leave a comment that assumes so little of other women.

      Your imagined story of their beginnings are one of the many reasons we do choose to profile people who’ve been able to make a living in fields that may seem difficult. Not only is their work not useless, it’s quite profitable as a field. In the most recent report released by the National Stationery Show, companies in stationery industry gross anywhere from $60k a year to $8 million a year. Clearly smaller businesses aren’t going to start at that huge range, but you don’t have to look further than women like these or one of the industry leaders, Anna Bond, to see what potential stationery has to be a hugely viable and thriving business.

      I will always continue to promote people, and women in particular, that choose to find a way to do what they love as a business (and produce work of quality) over people who choose to assume the worst of people. If you doubt the hard work that goes into starting a business of this nature, I suggest you read Anna Bond’s Biz Ladies profile. She is a very successful stationer who has built her business (like these women) without the help of some wealthy benefactor or husband as your comment would suggest this field demands.

      Grace

  • Unlike the earlier poster, I think this profile is pretty honest about how long, and how much hard work it takes to build a viable business. I’m a Sugar Paper fan and loved hearing the inside scoop on how they built their business.

  • I have a question for Chelsea and Jamie- Did you have a printing press when you first started? As a woman who is starting a photography and stationary/design business with two friends, we would love to have a press!
    Thanks!
    Amy

    ps- You go Grace!

  • Parts of both Laura’s comment above and Grace’s response resonated with me. I love reading the Biz Ladies column, and often looked to it for inspiration and practical advice. I have long dreamed of being a self-employed business owner. (I am a business owner and artist, but not only self-employed…yet!). I often find inspiration seeing that women like me have created successful, profitable businesses from their passions. And not only have they succeeded, but that they all say that they have had stumbles along the way and have learned from those lessons and moved forward with determination and flexibility. Business is such a different animal from making art (or designing) that I love to see women who are successful at both — I grew up thinking people could be good at one or the other, and it’s taken me a long time to realize often the biggest hurdles are the internal ones we take for granted.

    That said, a bit of what Laura said resonated with me. As someone with no partner, who works a full-time job to pay for rent and cat food, who devotes pre-work mornings, evenings and weekends to build a business, I often wonder how these women do it. It’s true that in many of the interviews, there’s mention of a husband/boyfriend/girlfriend/partner. And I do catch myself saying “Oh, that’s how she can do it and still pay rent and look so fantastic and put together in those photos.” My reality is that there are only so many hours in the day, and something invariably can’t get done. I usually choose to work on my business or make art, and then try to quiet the voice that says a successful woman could do that and have a house that looks as lovely as the photos I see here. Or that successful women can work full-time for someone else, work not-quite full-time trying to get a business going, still clean and fold all her clothes, cook the delectable food everyone’s pinning rather than microwaved chicken fingers and peanut butter sandwiches, and maintain a house that’s full of clean surfaces and fresh flowers (that the cats don’t immediately eat and then throw up). While I know that’s not the truth (oh god, please tell me it’s not the truth…) it’s easy to fall into the trap of being frustrated and wondering what is different about myself.

    And one of the most obvious differences is that the biz ladies interviews don’t often talk about the financial struggles of getting a business off the ground, the nitty-gritty “I chose to give up ____ to get my business off the ground.” It’s easy to pin the difference on one thing I see popping up often in the columns, which is outside financial support (partner/family). I always find a HUGE amount of inspiration from stories that include those struggles — I remember reading somewhere that ReadyMade magazine was started with “funding” from several credit cards. I really enjoyed the After The Jump with Phin and Phebes because they talked about a lot of the practical challenges with starting a business and (maybe because there is more time in a podcast than space for writing in a post) I felt like I could identify with them more.

    Anyway, I’m very thankful for the inspiration and connection that Design*Sponge gives me every day. I’ve been reading for almost all of your 10 years, and have found a lot of inspiration from your success and growth and the sharing of your struggles and overcoming challenges, Grace. Thanks for creating something that is a great part of my day!

    • Sara

      Thanks so much for your feedback. I know exactly what you mean about the difficulty of doing thing on your own. There is of course (most times) an added benefit of having someone else in your life who can help with paying bills or being a support system. That said, I don’t think all partners are supportive (many are not) of new businesses and not all partners bring extra money to the table. We’ve featured many Biz Ladies who support their husbands or who have husbands who make less than they do, so I just want to clarify that not all partners make “dream jobs” possible. But I agree that having a supportive partner is always a help.

      I hear your request for more details about what people give up or sacrificed to get their business off the ground. I’m going to have Stephanie work that into our interviews as a standard question- I think that would be a great thing for people to talk about in more detail. Thanks so much for that point and request.

      One small note- in pretty much every radio show I’ve ever done, I try to drill home that the idea of “having it all” is an illusion. It’s impossible. A lot of these women in this column look amazing and pulled together, etc. But that’s not the full picture. Anyone being profiled for a piece would put their best foot forward and look their best for a profile photo, so just because we don’t show everyone frazzled at their desk at midnight doesn’t mean those moments don’t happen. In the same way that people clean up their homes for a Sneak Peek, people “clean up” their offices and themselves when we ask for a photo. I just didn’t think that should be held against people as proof that they’re getting help other people don’t have.

      Grace

  • I’ve been the owner/creator of a greeting card company (Quiplip cards) for the last 12 years. It took me over 2 years to make a profit. I worked as a freelance copywriter and dug into my savings to keep it going. I’ve made a good living, but not without a lot of blood, sweat and paper cuts. Almost everything I make goes back into the business. I’ve had to be writer, designer, lawyer, sales person, print manager, SEO dudette, social media something-or-other, trade show expert, operations manager, mother, partner, professional juggler all day, every day to keep the ship afloat. I work with 1000’s of great stores from Paper Source to Urban Outfitters to The Museum of Contemporary Art and everyone in-between. It’s been an amazing (roller coaster) ride, but it’s still hard to find time to take a pee.
    My hat goes off to anyone who can run a successful brick-and-mortar store. They are becoming more extinct than the unicorn. I congratulate anyone who can “keep going” in this business and encourage anyone to set their entrepreneurial spirit free…but know, it may cost you a limb or two.

  • Shocked that there are still women in this day in age who think the only way to do this is by having a man foot the bill. I read recently somewhere that they did the letterpress machine at night because they kept day jobs. Regardless, Laura did not read it all that carefully as they are creating things for people who like me, shop at Target. I applaud you Grace for continuing to support women in business and encouraging those who so easily judge, to look at the whole picture.

  • Yes, we did have a press when we began. We started off with a C+P Tabletop press (purchased on eBay), but quickly outgrew it. We still have it. I will never part with that press…

    I think learning to use a tabletop press is a great way to learn the art, but it’s tricky to run a letterpress business with one. We moved on to hand-fed Chandler + Price and Kluge presses. We now also run Heidelbergs.

    We never took classes as one reader suggests. At the time we began, letterpress classes weren’t offered the way they are now. Jamie and I taught ourselves and, in turn, taught our pressmen.

    It’s tricky to sum up the last decade in a brief interview, but I will be the first to tell you that many a tear has been shed over this business… and the hard work and commitment has been overwhelming at times.

    I agree that glossy PR shots and freshly cleaned work-spaces make it all appear easy, but that is simply not true. There have been (and there continue to be) many sacrifices made financially and to our personal lives to “keep going.” Having it all is an illusion, but nothing worth doing is easy.

  • Great interview of two very inspiring women. I love their work, and am very honored to have my cards sold in their shop!

    I am also a stationer and self-taught letterpress printer who started my business, Parrott Design Studio, in 2007 while still working a full-time marketing and event planning job. I started my business with a single tax return check, was not married or engaged, but had a (non-financially) supportive boyfriend who encouraged me to follow my dream.

    It took three years of working my day job from 9 – 5, then my biz from 6 – 2 am to finally quit my day job in 2010. It took another three years to launch my line at the National Stationery Show and finally hire two assistants in 2013. My emotionally supportive boyfriend became my husband and to this day, does not provide any financial backing for my company and we split all the household bills equally.

    As this interview suggests, and any business owner will attest, it can take years of 12+ hour days to get your dreams off the ground, you have to stick with it, and LOVE what you are doing. As Chelsea and Jamie said, “Keep Going.”

    And really, so what if a woman does have the financial support of a family member or husband to get her ideas off the ground? She may have struggled a little less than the rest of us did in the beginning, but does it make her business any less real than those of us who started with an idea and a few dollars in our pocket? Does she not work just as hard as we do to keep her business and dreams alive? Who are we to judge?

  • Love this article! I’m reading the E-Myth right now and it’s FANTASTIC!!! No doubt why you hired help, I’m sure:) I’m learning that as well with my currently very small business.

    I really like the point about failures and constant obstacles. I feel like owning your own business consistently pushes you out of your comfort zone in a way that forces you to grow as a person.

    Congratulations to your successes and cheers to many more, Sugar Paper!

  • Loved this interview – I adore paper goods, cards, notebooks, stationery and letter writing! Congrats on the success and all the hard work paying off – keep going ladies, its so great to see people doing something they love!!

  • As I write this, I sit at a desk in a mortgage office working as a processor. A complete 180 from where I was ten years ago, at the peak of my stationery business, working 80% designing handmade custom wedding invitations and 20% with silkscreened notecards. I was also at the end of my rope in a 10 year business without a business partner. Though I was married and my husband was the silent support type, I was painfully overextended and in desperate need of assistance. And though the business was extremely profitable, I put down half our down payment on a home, I decided to shutter the business after a decade following a discussion with a successful florist who told me that working at your own business is so draining she will often swap years off with her business partner. Sans partner, I didn’t have the luxury. Buried in creative exhaustion, I was at a significant turning point in my life and not only did I shut the business down, I literally left the life I knew and started over, sans husband.

    Looking at the gorgeous photos of studios and artists, I know what goes into the business is more than just beautifully applied make-up and the most perfectly framed photograph. It’s all sweat and tears, painful loneliness, jealous friends, insecurities and sleepless nights. It’s also the most rewarding thing I ever did – put myself and my art out there for critique, rejection and appreciation. It made me a better person to take something from an idea to a success and then have the patience to close it all down.

    I still get requests for invitations and on occasion I will fulfill an order, but each time I realize that it took a very special version of me to do the work with the kind of dedication and patience required and each time I try to remind my future self that I am no longer that person. Instead, I encourage my sister-in-law at her child’s clothing startup, BunBun and Monkey, and try to educate her husband to have faith and patience. Our mother was an artist entrepreneur, so I know where I got the bug. I also don’t think that the bug is entirely gone…I envision a retirement return to my creative business.

    What others do not realize is that the hours required to start a business are ALL OF THEM. All day, all night. If you are not actually working on it, you’re thinking about it, talking about it, worrying about it. You are never apart from the business because it is a part of you.

  • Chelsea, you and your business+art inspire me. I love sugar paper. I treasure the announcements we worked on together so many years ago now (2003 and 2005). I am so happy for your successes, and I applaud your dedication, love and hard work.

  • Chelsea, I am so proud of you and happy for your success. I feel bad I missed seeing you and Jennifer and your families this last holiday season but, your Grandmother was not well and I felt it best to spend time with her. Thankfully she is doing much better now. Hopefully we can all get together soon.

    Love Uncle Charlie

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