Q&A with Renee Redman
In 1994, The Stationery Studio began as a home business for its entrepreneurial founder Renee Redman. Her home was filled with personalized stationery, invitations and gift ideas for local shoppers whom she met with by appointment. Over time, she developed a small website, TheStationeryStudio.com, which has evolved over the past 23 years to be one of the largest premier personalized stationery and gift businesses in the country, currently offering more than 15,000 personalized items. Recently they achieved 1 million orders to social, corporate and celebrity customers.
Can you tell our readers about your background?
In the 1980s, I started in Chicago television production and then moved into the area of public relations, helping clients generate publicity and media coverage. When my children were young, I created some invitations and stationery and was encouraged to expand. With the added perk of having my kids at home with me, I shifted gears by starting my own home business selling personalized invitations, gifts and stationery. I was able to create my own unique style with this business that provided me flexibility and independence. I never imagined that it would grow to the size that it has and continue to achieve greater growth.
What inspired you to start your business?
I was looking for an opportunity to contribute to the family economically, be engaged in satisfying work, and be able to spend time with my children at home when they were very young. Once I realized that there was a market for personalized items, I wanted to capitalize on that opportunity. One thing kept leading to another. From selling in my home to selling at friend’s homes, then to holiday boutiques, I eventually started a small website built on a commercial platform. Once the business outgrew the tools available on our then-platform, we moved forward and developed a custom-built application to handle our growing needs. We are many iterations into our expanded capabilities and continue to grow. We now showcase more than 15,000 unique products.
Where is your business based?
Our office is in Buffalo Grove, Illinois. We are 100% web-based with a full staff of customer service support, a team of full-time graphic artists, and a staff of dedicated professionals who manage the products and website growth.
How did you start your business? What were the first steps you took?
After many years of meeting with customers face to face, I needed to find a way to expand my customer base and be able to showcase the growing product list. Web-based platforms were still new, but we thought it would offer us a new tool to reach customers.
A web-based platform offered us versatility that printed catalogs didn’t. Websites were just becoming popular at the time and we first used a pre-packaged website tool, built, at the time, as a summer project by our 15-year old nephew. We spent many months taking photographs and scanning them and then one-by-one uploaded the images onto the website. Nothing was quick back then. There were no digital cameras and technology was very slow. To this day, we have not stopped building our technology but everything moves much more quickly.
What has been the most effective way of raising awareness for your business?
Initially, I followed the Tupperware model, meaning bringing my items to friend’s homes where they invited a group of friends to view and purchase. Also, I was sure to give everyone a magnet with my contact information on it which lead to repeated sales in the future. Once we went online with our first small website, we advertised on Yahoo which was affordable, easy and effective.
Today, we have a complex advertising strategy which includes Google, Yahoo, Bing and more. We have a mailing list of around 200,000 to whom we send out regular email promotions. We have a Facebook presence with over 25,000 followers. We utilize Instagram, twitter, snapchat, YouTube and Google+. We also work with many high-profile bloggers to review our products which have been especially effective. Additionally, we’ve enjoyed a nice amount of major media coverage over the years including The Today Show, on Martha Stewart Weddings, HGTV magazine, "O" The Oprah Magazine, Bustle.com, The Wall Street Journal, In Style, Real Simple, and other highly-acclaimed media outlets.
What have been your biggest challenges and how did you overcome them?
Technology constantly changes. Keeping up with that is a challenge. While we are one of the largest personalized stationery and gift websites in the country, our competition has resources we don’t have.
In addition, the area of SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is ever-changing and we have to ensure we are managing this effectively through organic and paid advertising. Advertising online has become more difficult year after year. With many thousands of keywords for a large website like ours, we work hard to maintain top positions. As well, the cost of online search engine advertising continues to increase, affecting our acquisition cost.
Another challenge for our business is that communication styles have changed from printed notes and invitations to less formal, electronic communication. Recently, however, we have seen a reemergence by millennials who are showing they appreciate personalized products.
How do you stay focused?
Making time before work hours helps me tremendously. I make sure to take time to go to the gym which helps me stay strong and clear my mind. Sometimes that’s the hardest part of the day – as getting up in the 5’oclock hour isn’t always fun, especially on a bitterly cold day. I’ve also made an enormous effort to overhaul my diet and work hard to incorporate a healthy lifestyle. I’ve also recently started doing yoga for relaxation. All this helps balance the stress of running a website 24/7.
How do you differentiate your business from the competition?
Being in business for 23 years, we’ve grown a truly dedicated customer base who eagerly recommend us. Our website is a one-stop location for personalized products. We are a wonderful resource for many types of personalized gifts, invitations, holiday cards and party supplies. Furthermore, we’ve developed a staff whom, many of them, around 10+ years. Their wealth of experience with personalized products is very deep and they are the heart of our business. They treat each order with care.
What has been your most effective marketing strategy to grow your business?
With so many social media outlets today there have to be multiple strategies. We have an in-house public relations manager who has secured many placements in major magazines, newspapers and television shows around the country. Plus, we work with many high-profile bloggers to have them review our products. In addition, we combine online remarketing strategies with online advertising. Finally, this year we started our Tastemakers program where lifestyle experts review some of our products and post their images and reviews on their channels.
What's your best piece of advice for aspiring and new entrepreneurs?
Keep going no matter how hard things get. Focus on your successes, even if they are small, not your failures. If you fail at something, figure out a new way to do manage that task and try again. Just keep going. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. The normal person would not tolerate the unique challenges involved in being an entrepreneur. An entrepreneur creates their own path and there will be good days and bad days, but just keep moving forward.
What's your favorite app, blog, and book? Why?
My favorite app is Zappos. Ok, I love shoes. They do it well. I love the way they utilize animation. My favorite blog is Cookie + Kate. I just found out about it this year – they feature healthy eating ideas and recipes. Their lifestyle suggestions are very motivating. My new favorite book is Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. We were in South Africa this year and his writing style brings the country to life. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
What's your favorite business tool or resource? Why?
Google trends is pretty amazing and we check it often. It’s an online search tool where we can see how often a keyword is searched. Often, we refer to it when determining the spelling or phrasing for a product or category (i.e. Hanukkah or Chanukah; Condolence cards or Sympathy cards; Holiday Photo Cards or Christmas Photo Cards, etc.) and we also refer to it to see when search terms start peaking. We want to be sure we are advertising holiday and events at the right time of year. We wouldn’t want to spend money advertising Valentine’s day in December if we knew customers begin searching for their gifts in January, would we?
Who is your business role model? Why?
Oprah Winfrey is inspiring to me. She is a true success story. From very humble beginnings she started her journey as a news reader and reporter She moved to Chicago in the late 1980’s to host a WLS-TV talk show, which would eventually become the highest rated television program of its kind. She had a knack for building her own brand. She took a leap and separated from the ABC network and built her OWN TV studio in Chicago and nationally syndicated her program. She employed many talented people, built a network, created a magazine, starred in films in her spare time, and became a tremendous influencer and philanthropist.
What do you have planned for the next six months?
We are in the middle of developing a refresh of our website in order to become more mobile friendly. This will also modernize our ordering tools and overall look. It’s a long-term project and we are in the middle of the development but it should be public in Spring 2018.
How can our readers connect with you?
Readers can reach me at Renee@TheStationeryStudio.com
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