At the recent IMI Technology Showcase in Charlotte North Carolina I had the pleasure of listening to Stephen Fraser, one of the founders of Spoonflower, a business run out of Durham, North Carolina talk about his story about building Spoonflower, an online community and printing business based upon printed textiles. It is now a hugely successful business, but Stephen gave a refreshingly frank and honest presentation about how he and his co-founders built the business from scratch without any printing knowledge whatsoever. With a strong background in online media, marketing and development– the founders had previously been involved in the successful launch of Lulu.com which is an online publishing portal. It helps writers realise their dream of publishing a book and then allows them a platform and a community of people who may buy that book. To some extent, Spoonflower is similar in that it enables textile designers, or indeed those who would like to become designers to realise their designs to production, and then use the site to sell them.
No apprenticeship. It was in at the deep end.
Despite Spoonflower’s considerable online experience and marketing skills, Stephen freely admitted that they did not have printing competence during the launch phase. Stephen honestly explained he had to learn the hard way, by doing, under pressure. Digital print technology might make it easier than say trying to run a Gravure printer, but nonetheless, it must have at times been quite stressful to say the least! And the success of the Spoonflower concept and the online platform meant that someone had to learn very quickly how to print onto textile, as the concept was to prove very popular indeed.
“We set about establishing the online and community aspects of Spoonflower. My wife, herself a sewist and fabric lover, inspired the idea. I then connected with a friend and former colleague from Lulu.com who could write computer code — and who had lots of business experience — and the idea began to come to life. My role was to connect with customers and to make the printing happen. During the early days I was forced to learn how to run (and, shortly afterward, to repair) printers. During that first year or so, the two founders’ families had no income whatsoever.”
During those early stages, in January 2009, Spoonflower gained the attention of the NY Times as the trend towards self-expression and personalised textiles was truly gaining traction. Whilst this sounds like a dream come true, in actuality the feature on Spoonflower resulted in a lot of stress for the business as the early stages of digital textile printers could not cope with the amount of orders this led to. Back then, they had Mutoh’s that had been converted to run textiles by Yuhan Kimberley, which were the only machines that seemed to work. The added attention and orders that Spoonflower received from the NY Times feature nearly crippled the business!! Nobody talks about managing success, but this was a case of concept and timing being very successful whilst the technology didn’t quite provide the capacity and quality necessary to fulfil the backlog of orders. It was chicken and egg – the challenge that many small businesses face. Usually though, ‘under-capacity’ isn’t one of them!
With the changes in how we interface and communicate it is clear that new markets and models form, and exciting things can happen with those willing to try something new and take a risk.
Fast forward to 2014, they now have 100 employees and over 100,000 people use their website every week, they have a staggering 3 million designs in their database with print production running 7 days a week and 24 hours a day. On a single day recently they had an amazing $250,000 of orders placed. To cope with this demand they have 30 Mutoh’s running as well as a new Kornit Allegro. As they expand production capacity, they are also experimenting with printers from the MS JP Series.
So how did they manage such success and growth?
Stephen explains, “We tapped into a creative community through our online approach. We didn’t go broke because we were prepared to not earn for a long time and we didn’t invest anything at all in traditional marketing. Our customers like to discover new things; they like to share ideas and express themselves. We were able to provide a platform the gives our community access to possibilities and connections with other like-minded people. Spoonflower really is the beneficiary of that sharing and we grow because of the goodwill of the community, which includes a truly international community of talented designers.”
To engage and challenge this community, each week Spoonflower runs a design of the week and they get a kind of ‘American Idol’ approach to awarding the winner. Spoonflower also works with fashion students to encourage and support new talent.
“Spoonflower is about art and increasing people’s choices. If you like zombies, then you can find hundreds of fabric designs with a zombie theme” says Stephen, proving that Spoonflower really taps into the ‘Long Tail’ of demand that is being accessed online. "No other fabric store on earth can give you that."
He continues, “Our success is attributable to people’s desire to make things. To try, fail, and then try again. This process is part of their drive to express themselves. The DIY culture is driven by problem solving, and the desire to get the next best thing. Like us, our designers follow a path of experimentation, failure, perseverance, and success , an approach that requires a combination of fearlessness and foolishness. In that sense, our vision for Spoonflower and the spirit of our design community are inextricably linked.”
When I joined FESPA back in 2006 when I joined FESPA, I was surprised by the poor amount of focus and connectivity that print generally has to the online world. Some printers don’t even have a website, and the ones that do can be extremely lacklustre. Spoonflower truly turns the print business model on its head. The Spoonflower community drives the website, which in turn drives the business and that drives the print technology. And not the other way around, which is pretty untypical of any traditional print production business.
Spoonflower is an inspiring story. It didn’t just happen for them, they had to go through a considerable amount of hard work, heartache, head scratching and challenge. But they have succeeded nonetheless by doing something entirely different but are ultimately a company a print production business. This is a great story told by a modest and self-effacing story teller, proving also that success doesn’t have to breed arrogance.
Well done Spoonflower…