Wednesday, July 2, 2008

boutique interview: cotton idea studio

Being in the creative business can be tough. Friends in the corporate world sometimes mistake our business for a "hobby" and it is a little more difficult, in general, to be taken seriously on the business front. While those of us in creative industries are lucky to be doing what we love, we are also first and foremost small BUSINESS owners and entrepreneurs. Here is the first in a series of interviews with small "creative business" owners.

Mindy Gayer, owner of Cotton Idea Studio, based in Laguna Beach, California.

Describe your store:
Our shoppe is located in the quaint, seaside town of Laguna Beach, California, along a portion of Pacific Coast Highway that houses many other independent boutiques and art galleries. We are part of a wonderfully artistic community, and feel privileged to be here! Our store size is about 900 sq. feet (thanks to our recent expansion!) When we first opened in July 2007, we had about 400 sq ft.

We carry a variety of letterpress paper goods, including greeting cards, note sets and various accoutrements (journals, coasters, etc), along with fabulous textile goods, ceramics and a small sampling of artwork. In addition to the pre-packaged items we carry, we specialize in custom letterpress goods, including calling cards, social stationery, soirée and wedding invitations, announcements and holiday cards.

What makes your shop different from others?
We focus on carrying the best letterpress goods in the industry, in addition to lovely lifestyle accoutrements. And, because our shoppe is relatively small, it encourages us refine the number of lines we carry and the type of products we offer. It’s also wonderful being the only full-service stationer in town. The response we’ve received from local patrons over the past year has been overwhelming positive. Ultimately, we have been able to bring a new caliber of products to our community, and delight in the opportunity of exposing our clients to an array of extremely talented stationery designers, such as Deluce Design, Egg Press, Mr. Boddington’s Studio, Night Owl Paper Goods, Paper + Cup, Seraph and Snow & Graham, to name a few.

How do you decide what new products to take on?
We have lines that we continue to carry and buy from month after month, simply because they fit our aesthetic to a “T”, and because our clients adore their designs. When considering new lines, however, it’s typically pretty easy to decipher which lines will do well in our shoppe, and which won’t. At times, we purchase new products with very specific clients in mind – those who come in several times a month, and want something fresh and new with each and every visit. In the end, it comes down finding lines that have impeccable, unique designs, clever copywriting, flawless craftsmanship and printing, and reasonable price points. We love discovering a new line, purchasing it for the shoppe, and in the end, finding that the designer is equally as lovely to work with, as his/her products are to sell.

How do you find new, unique products? Do you attend trade shows? Which ones?
Yes, we attend one trade show yearly – the National Stationery Show in New York.
We always discover a handful (or more!) of new designers and products each year at NSS, and love bringing their lines into our shoppe. Outside of trade show discoveries, we find lots of local (and non-local) talent by scouring the web for new designers, reading our favorite blogs on a daily basis, and when we are contacted directly by new companies debuting their lines. All together, it’s a collaboration of many resources that bring our shoppe some of its best products!

Do you work with reps?
We work with local reps occasionally, but not on a regular basis. Often times, we find that neighboring stores in surrounding communities start to carry many of the same lines and goods as one other, particularly when they are purchased from sales reps. While reps do carry a wonderful variety of lines, we tend to work directly with our vendors when placing orders.

What do you look for in a vendor?
I must say, our industry has the most wonderful group of vendors! I can honestly say that I haven’t had one horrible experience with any of the lines I carry…we just love our vendors!

Overall, we look for vendors that are talented, customer-service oriented, communicative, reliable, and continue to deliver the exceptional products that our clients have come to expect.

Do you like when vendors approach you?
We welcome and encourage vendors to approach us, particularly when they have taken the time to research our shoppe and the products that we carry. After doing so, if they feel their products could be a good fit with our clientele and current products offerings, we love to hear from such vendors. Telephone, email and/or mail submissions are ideal, as it allows us the time to review their goods in full and at our convenience, versus unannounced, drop-by visits to the shoppe during business hours.

How do you stay on top of trends?
By staying alert to and aware of the design that surrounds me on a daily basis. Trends can be interpreted in so many ways, and found through numerous sources…in the observation of architecture, storefronts, window displays, home décor, clothing design, event and wedding design, magazines spreads, branding efforts, the use of color. It’s truly everywhere, and the best part about it, is that everyone interprets it in his or her own, unique way…so it has the potential to be translated in fresh, new ways each and every time.

What do you think the hot new colors will be for upcoming seasons?
I think the citrus hues (lime, orange and yellow) we’re seeing a lot of right now, will continue to show up in stationery designs in the upcoming seasons. I also love seeing gray appear in so many design-driven pieces, from paper and textile goods, to clothing and architecture. It’s fresh, contemporary and clean, and translates incredibly well into so many different products. From the lighter cement shades, to the deep charcoal hues – all in all, I love gray and hope that it’s here to stay.

What trend do you currently love? Hope will last? Hope will go away soon?
I think the only trend, or rather “icon,” that I wouldn’t mind seeing exit the market is the ever-popular skull motif. I know it will always have its niche amongst a small following of avid customers, but all in all, I think it’s been done one too many times, and no longer has much impact on new product development.

What’s best part about having a store? Worst?
The highlights of being in this industry and owning a shoppe, would have to include:
--Being surrounded by design on a daily basis.
--Discovering new designers and developing relationships with our vendors – our vendors truly make running this business a joy.
--Helping to preserve the charm of handwritten correspondence.
--Being able to bring the best products, by the most talented designers, all together under one roof.
--Having happy customers. Producing quality, custom letterpress goods for our clients is one of the best parts about this business, because they always walk away happy, with a completely unique and exquisite product in hand.
--Letterpress – it’s absolutely beautiful. As a shoppe owner, I love supporting designers who commit their professional lives to producing such wonderful products by hand.
--Having a client refer a friend to our shoppe – it’s such a wonderful compliment to meet someone that has been referred to us by a client. We’ve met so many wonderful people through our lovely and loyal patrons.

Some difficult aspects of owning a business include:
--Creating boundaries and a healthy separation between one’s personal life and professional/work life.
--Being able to creatively sustain a small, independent business in the midst of a soft and ever-changing economy.
--Staying inspired and continuing to create in the midst of day-to-day tasks that often demand immediate attention or priority (i.e. administrative work, accounting, etc.).
--Managing cash flow, while continuing to keep the store fresh with new merchandise.
--The occasional, unkind customer (which, undoubtedly, we all encounter).

Can you recommend a business book?
I’ve read a handful of great business books, but while I was in the beginning stages of starting Cotton, one of the resources most helpful to me was a website called Nolo. They have page upon page of invaluable information on starting a business, raising capital, ownership structures, human resources, etc. In addition to their website, they also publish a variety of business-related books, all of which can be found here.

How as the economic situation affected your business?
We, along with so many other retailers, certainly feel the affects of the current economic slowdown, but fortunately, we still have our core group of clients coming in on a regular basis. We’ve had a great first year in business, and now look at the current economic state as an opportunity to really refine what products we bring in to the shoppe, and refrain from purchasing new products that may sit on the shelves for too long. Custom goods are still our top sellers, even in the midst of a soft economy.

How are you compensating for a slowdown?
We’re buying less general boxed merchandise, and pushing more of our custom goods, including personal and business stationery, announcements and invitations.

What was biggest obstacle to opening your store? How did you overcome?
Retail space in our community is difficult to come by, particularly when parking is limited and many of the retail buildings are tired and rundown, and require significant tenant improvements. In the end, we compromised by settling for less square footage, and in a quieter end of Laguna Beach. In doing so, it allowed us to occupy a recently renovated building that kept our build-out costs to a minimum, and allowed us to spend a little more on furniture and opening merchandise. Our building also contains quite a bit of parking for customers, which is a rarity in our town…and we even have a lovely view of the ocean from our storefront windows. Ultimately, occupying an unconventional storefront location proved to be a blessing in disguise, as it allows us to maintain the intimacy of a quaint, boutique design studio with limited foot traffic, and in turn, we can focus more of our attention on our customers.

What makes a successful shop?
Keeping the merchandise new and fresh, but consistent, so customers know what to expect each time they make a visit to your shop. Another key component to having a successful shop is to hone in on what you want to specialize in, and then stick with it. The best thing we’ve done is limit the number of non-paper items we stock, so our shelves don’t turn into a hodgepodge of mismatched gift items that become overwhelming to the eye and take away from the focus of our business, which is carrying specialty letterpress paper goods.

Do you plan to launch an online store? If yes, when? If no, reason?
Our online shoppe ( was launched in September 2007, and features many of our favorite in-store products and bestsellers. The majority of our business (80%) comes from our brick & mortar storefront, and the remainder from our online shoppe (20%).

What did you do before store?
As a little girl, many of my afternoons were spent frequenting the local party store near my home, where I spent nearly all of my babysitting earnings on stationery and party supplies. I’ve always loved paper, and over the years, developed a love for design and letterpress.

Upon graduating from college in Boston, I moved home to Orange County and worked for a local advertising design firm, while dabbling in stationery design part-time. After 3 years of working both full-time in advertising, and part-time in my paper endeavor, I finally decided to pursue my dream of opening a design studio and paper boutique. Cotton’s doors opened in July 2007, and thus far, it’s been a wonderful year!

What keeps you up at night re: your business?
Thinking up new designs, product development, to-do’s for the next day – all the usual stuff that consumes your thoughts when running a business…but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love what I do, and having my thoughts consumed by such things on a daily basis isn’t so much of a stress as it is part of thoroughly enjoying my job. Also, being constantly surrounded by design in expected places keeps my mind constantly brewing with new ideas…whether it translates itself into a new typeface or color combination, invitation design, merchandising idea or store display.

You can visit Mindy's shop, Cotton Idea Studio, in Laguna Beach, California, or shop online here.