Elizabeth Rees and I met at Daily Candy’s Holiday Bazaar Pop-up that was held last November in Soho, NYC. I went to check it out for an array of reasons, and the happy accident was that I met Elizabeth and had the chance to learn about her business, Chasing Paper. She was instantly warm and ever-so friendly, so it didn’t take long to discover that her new business venture was a lovely Chapter Be story that needed to be shared.
Before creating Chasing Paper, Elizabeth worked in the field of communications, and it was through a job that she came up with the idea of developing well-designed removable wallpaper. Chasing Paper is “beautiful, well-designed wallpaper that will stick to nearly any surface…simple to hang and easy to remove.” I am someone that loves a good DIY project, so I was intrigued and instantly loved the idea. Also, I have had to move from apartment to apartment many times, and I know first-hand that it can be challenging to find affordable and non-permanent ways to make your space feel truly like your home.
Elizabeth did not come from an interior design background and is not a designer by trade, so I wanted to learn more about how she took the steps to create a business that clearly had a very heavy design side. Her papers are modern and fresh, but also fun and different. It is hard to pick a favorite. The organizer in me loves the Chalkboard Panel, but the Star Bright in teal and the Pop-A-Wheelie papers have me daydreaming and brainstorming about possible applications. Take a look at the Chasing Paper blog, and you will see what I mean, but to learn more about the motivation, inspiration and reasoning behind creating the company, read on…
How long ago did you start Chasing Paper? Can you talk a little bit about the transition – did you literally just quit your other job and start doing this or were you working while you were starting it up?
I lived and worked in D.C. after I graduated from Indiana University for about 3.5 years, 2006-2009. I worked for National Geographic in the corporate sponsorships department, which basically entailed me finding corporate sponsors for mission programs. My work allowed me to work with many amazing, talented and truly inspiring people. I knew I wanted to go to graduate school. I applied and got in, but I am very much a traveler – it’s my absolute passion. I try to do one big trip a year. I just thought that before grad school I really wanted to go out and see the world. I left D.C., went home to Milwaukee, got all of my shots and then I went to Asia for 6 months. After my travels in Asia, I moved to Europe for my Master’s in Global Communication at the American University of Paris. I was in Paris and London for about 18 months and from there I moved to New York in January 2011.
My dad owns a printing company. I grew up smelling the ink and going to visit my dad at work and watching these humongous presses making this incredible stuff. I also watched the history of it – they used to do it with silk-screening and then it became digital and all of the new technologies have taken it away from the craft of printing a bit. So, I really grew up around that. I came to New York and was working for my dad doing sales. I was introduced to one of the women who run Birchbox. She had me to the office and asked if I could cover some of the poles in the office in birch trees. So, I worked with her graphic designer who drew these free-form birch trees with a hot pink background that were so random and unique. I then worked with a guy at my Dad’s company and we printed it on a bunch of different materials. We did testers to see how it would work. It totally transformed the office – it looked so cool.
After that she said, “You should sell this.” I was like, “Should I?!” I thought, “Huh, maybe there’s something to that.” That was about two years ago and is what sparked my research phase. I went out and bought everything that was in the market and took it to my apartment so I could see what it was made of, how long it would hang for, what it looked like, how did it feel, how did it look in different light? I researched, talked to people, did networking, and although nobody was in this field particularly, I met a lot of people who had started their own thing and could tell me how to do it and what steps to take. I had a few conversations with friends and their responses were, “Just do it!” I kind of had one of those “come to Jesus” talks one night with a close friend. He said if I didn’t do this I was really going to regret it. I knew he was right. The next week I hired someone for a couple thousand dollars to build a website. I wanted to learn the back end so I could do everything myself. I knew nothing about coding or anything like that so I had to build it on a platform that I could understand so that I could tweak it and make changes myself.
So, it is not that wallpaper was a huge passion of yours, it just kind of happened.
Yes! Sometimes I think that those are the best ideas, because it is not something that I over-thought. You do the research and you get into your own head about it, but the best ideas are often the simple ideas. You put your own spin on something simple. I heard this in a speech years ago, but this guy said that the best idea for a business is an idea that is over 100 years old. It’s true for me; wallpaper is over 100 years old. People get it. They may have a few questions with the removable part, but for the most part it is something that people understand and have an opinion about. It already exists. A variation of it is on New York City buses – the advertisements on the sides is actually a peel and stick vinyl. It’s the same technology – but Chasing Paper is printed on a high-quality peel and stick fabric giving it the luxe feel of traditional wallpaper.
Tell us a little bit about Chasing Paper and what makes it different from other interior wallpapers!
Chasing Paper is stylish, removable wallpaper for the urban home. It is different for three reasons. The first is that it is sold in panels versus rolls. This lends itself to how people are using wallpaper in the modern world – people aren’t wallpapering an entire room anymore. Now people want to do smaller projects like an accent wall, a headboard, or a backsplash. To me, I don’t have an abundance of money and want to be able to get something for $30.00 and have it be something that could help change and transform a space. So, there is a project for everyone and can be accessible to everyone – whether it is a big project, a little project, or anything in between.
Second, we use a peel and stick fabric versus a vinyl (which is typical in this space). To me that is a quality thing. If you are going to put something up on your wall, or wherever you are putting it, then you want it to look and feel luxurious, rich, and radiant. Even if you are not going to spend a fortune you still want it to look like a million bucks. That was something that was really important to me in my process of finding the right materials. I think that’s also what sets it apart. When people touch it and feel it and interact with it, they feel it and say, “Oh, wow, this is different.” There is a texture and grain, with other removable wallpapers people see it and think it’s a sticker and this is clearly not.
And third, from a design perspective, I try to keep adding curated designs so they are always changing. The idea is that it is not just from one point of view and when you come back a year later it won’t be the same 20 prints that we are selling before. I think it is important to have movement and change and have things be curated with styles and trends. For example, we have stripes and polka dots and they are very easy. Someone may not have a design background or any idea of how to use a tight print or a large print, so I want there to be something for everyone.
That is really the mission of Chasing Paper. I want a product that everyone can use but also that is accessible, easy to install, and anyone can do it. People always ask me that. They say, “I’m not a crafty person, can I do it?” I say, “Me neither, and I do this all day long.” It really came from a place of need in my own life. It doesn’t come from a place of being a designer my whole life and am now taking this step. It’s from going to my friends’ houses and seeing that they are so creative and their places look amazing. Then I’d come home and my walls were white and boring, but I was nervous to take that step. I didn’t want something that felt too designed or too permanent.
I’d imagine that it takes away some of the anxiety around the permanency of decorating and allows you more freedom to try something out. I think that we want our homes to feel like our oasis, and in some ways even more so in big urban areas.
Yes, it takes away some of the anxiety and if something gets ruined you just take a panel out and redo that piece. It makes it fun, too. I didn’t realize how many people love DIY. I didn’t think of this when I started Chasing Paper but I really embrace this now. I’m not a DIY person. That is not my thing. I don’t have projects for the weekend. Well, now I do more because I’ve gotten into it a little bit but it is insane how creative people are and how much people take pride in doing something themselves. Now that I’ve done installs, I can say that it is the best feeling! It can be really transformative, and it changes the way a space feels. I remember when I put in my first panels. I put in black and white horizontal stripes on one wall in my bedroom. I would be so excited to go home at night because it looked so good. It made my room feel different. I wanted to read in bed. It felt cozy and cool and so designed, and it was literally 4 stripes on a wall. It took me 45 minutes to do, but made me feel totally different about that space.
I think that after 2008, when our economy blew up, people really became more engaged in DIY and that is when it really took off. I can imagine that it is quite fun to see how people reimagine your product.
It’s been great! I had this one blogger, Aunt Peaches, who has this glittery, sparkly blog that is so awesome. She covered her fridge in this retro print that we have. This image got circulated everywhere. I had never thought about that, and it was such a fun and different idea. It gave the kitchen a whole new facelift. People sometimes just need that nugget of inspiration or need to see how it can be used somewhere. Now, in the age of Pinterest, there is so much going on visually that people see it and think, “Oh, I can do that!” Then they do actually do it! They take pictures of it and then they post and share it.
How did you come up with the name Chasing Paper?
I had a Moleskin notebook where I wrote down probably 100 names. They were everything from the Google idea where it’s not even a word to things really geared around paper and wallpaper. I just kept coming back to it. It’s like naming a baby before you have the baby. Everyone has an opinion. So, people would tell me that they liked it or hated it. After I had decided (in my mind) on the name I was out to dinner with friends – I told them and they said, “Oh, do you know that has an urban connotation?” So, I Googled it and found out that the urban connotation means to hustle. I thought, “Wow, I kind of like that!” It’s not the monetary means, but that I’m out there hustling every single day. I’m figuring out how I can make sales and how I can make my brand better and bigger and how to get in front of more people. It is literally a daily hustle. So, after I found out about that double meaning I knew that’s what it was meant to be.
It was a hard decision, but the biggest part of entrepreneurship is making decisions and then doing it. The biggest thing I have learned in the last year is that everyone says, “Oh, I have an idea.” That is what separates the people I know who are doing it from those who are not doing it or are just talking about it. At some point you just have to make the decision, not look back and do it.
So, there are other wallpaper companies that exist out there. How did you not allow those to deter you or debilitate you from starting Chasing Paper?
In the beginning it did. Every single night, for probably the first two months that I started, I would wake up at 2:00 a.m. in a cold sweat, no joke. The other thing is that when people know you are starting a business in a particular area, then everyone sends you everything about that thing, which is super sweet but also overwhelming. People would tell me, “Well, these people are doing this and they are selling it for less than you are, etc.” They would ask me if I’d heard of another company. I would be like, “Of course, I mean they are my competition. I’m not a total idiot, come on!” I think, for me, what I had to do was to just know how my product was different.
A very wise man told me that if there wasn’t competition in your face then there isn’t a need for your business. That became my mantra. If people didn’t understand wallpaper, and I mean in all context, it could be permanent, wall murals, wall stickers, decals, anything like that, if people didn’t get it and I had to be explaining it to them, that would be a nightmare. You don’t want to spend all of your time and money explaining what it is you are trying to do. In that way, competition is good and okay. After you get over the initial hurdle where you are scared of everything, I think you settle into what your brand is and what you represent.
At the end of the day, you are selling your vision, and that is what makes it different. So, if you are doing what everybody else is telling you to do then it doesn’t become your vision anymore. That is when you get away from your brand and things can go wrong.
I think all of that stuff happens so organically, anyway. I’m thirty and I feel like it’s the time in your life when you get ideas or start thinking about going out on your own to do them. I finally feel in the last few months that I understand and allow my brand to be what it is. I see who buys it, and I am in touch with my customers every single day. It keeps me going and I have people at events that come up to me and say things like, “We love you and came here just for you.” It was probably 15 people all weekend but those are my brand ambassadors. Anyone can give you unsolicited advice but someone who has bought the product and then tells you how they use it or what else would make it cool, that is different. You see your brand really coming to life.
What platform did you end up using for your site and would you recommend it to others?
Shopify, and I’m really happy with it. Again, everyone will tell you to use Magento or Square. Just pick one, learn it and stick with it and just be happy with your decision. There are a million options for everything. The website was the hardest thing for me. I got the mock up, and I hated it. I had a total visceral reaction of like, “No!” He said, “Okay, let’s walk through it. What don’t you like?” I couldn’t even figure out what it was I didn’t like. So, I started with knowing I didn’t like a certain color. He made that one change and we would look at it again. I’m surprised he kept me as a client! I felt bad, because I didn’t know I was that particular in my life.
Professionally, I had never had that kind of ownership over something. It took a long time to create, but I didn’t rush it. I wanted it to be right and the day that I launched, I was so proud and happy about how everything looked and its usability. I could run it and deal with the back end. We launched on a Tuesday in March 2013, and it got picked up on Design*Sponge two days later. It’s been very organic. I didn’t hire a PR person or a marketing team. I just let everything come very organically. I reached out to bloggers that I liked, and said I would give them paper for free for a project they would love to do in their house. The content that I got from those bloggers was and continues to be immeasurable.
How do you now decide what bloggers to give paper to – do you have a system for that?
At first it was to everyone, but then I went to 20,000 hits per month. Now, typically it depends on the blogger. If their blog is super aligned with my esthetic, and I like what they are doing then I will do it, but typically it is between 100,000-300,000 hits per month that I go with. It really is more quality versus just quantity, though.
How did you find the designers for the prints of the wallpaper?
I created 20-25 just on my own. I worked with a graphic designer who I would take a picture to, of like maybe a brick wall, and tell them that I liked a certain component and they would create a vector file. Then I would go back and forth a few times choosing colors. Then from that file that is how it is printed. Then I started getting people reaching out who had seen my website and wanted to know if I would be interested in surface design. I didn’t really know how surface design worked. I did my research, my due diligence, and I worked with an attorney because I wanted to be really fair. I didn’t want to own people’s artwork. That felt uncomfortable to me and I’m sure would be uncomfortable to them. We worked out an agreement that I think works really well for everyone. They did something up front just for designing it and paid them for their work and then they get a percentage per 100 panels that they sell.
It keeps a fresh perspective and different point of view on the website. Some stuff, I wouldn’t hang in my house but who cares if I wouldn’t. It can’t be only my esthetic. Also, I worked with an amazing surface designer from Chicago, Jessica Jones, and she had such a following. It was a big deal for me to be able to work with her. It was amazing and exciting. Magazines and press from Chicago saw it, and emailed me about doing something together. It was mutually beneficial on both sides. It is such a dream when people reach out to me to see if I like their work. I also get ideas from customers and people in regard to what they would like to see. I have a list that I keep. If somebody emails me something and it coincides with something that has been asked for a lot then I will go with that.
What has been the biggest learning curve for you and/or struggle?
I think it was just knowing that I could be nimble. I can change and pivot, but I had trouble with that starting out. I think it was knowing what opportunities to pursue. In the beginning I felt like there were so many new ideas and opportunities, and I was trying to do everything. I would get so bogged down in the minutiae of my day and getting the things I needed to get done that sometimes I would just have to step back and find my strategy. Like, where am I trying to go? Am I just trying to just keep sales every month or am I doing things to grow sales?
Also, being online, I get emails from people who want to see it, touch it, and feel it. Retail has been a very obvious thing to me from the first day I started, but I wasn’t ready to go down that road until I knew what the project was and figured out how to price it and all of those different things. So, retail will be the next step, which I am super excited about, but I first needed that road map. I didn’t have it when I started. I had no idea. I could have a lot of sales up front and then it totally tapers off. I just wasn’t sure what I had. That is my biggest goal for this year is to really sit down once a week and go back to that road map and see what I have done this week to get me closer to that.
Have you had a moment at all where you were like, “Just forget it!”
Oh, yeah! How do you ever quit your own job, though?! Does this just go on forever? How do you ever stop? It is the best and worst feeling. I’m not complaining at all because it’s the best thing I have truly done. Your successes are yours, but your failures are also yours. You can’t blame anyone else, and some days you want to! When it’s just you it is a great thing because it makes you really look at yourself and self-reflect and figure out where your flaws and strengths are. I feel very comfortable with myself as a person, and so I know what my strengths are but when you are doing everything, you have to bulk up on the things that you are not strong at doing. You have to, or you will fail.
You did a ton of research, but this still was something new to you, so how did you determine the price for the product – as I imagine that is a tricky thing to decide?
Yeah, price is another big thing. Everyone is going to tell you that it’s too expensive, too cheap, and so on. There is a company called Fancy Hands that was started by Ted Roden while he was working at the New York Times. He started it because he legitimately had no time – he had 2 kids, a brand new baby, and a full-time job and needed someone to help him with getting things done. So it is a company that allows you to hire someone for X amount of hours to be a personal assistant. It’s great for freelancers and for people like me who are starting a company – if you can get a little help and also a little money in your pocket it is awesome.
Anyway, I was talking with Ted, and I was initially worried because I thought, what if I’m asking the wrong price? He said, “Who cares?” He told me I could change my price every single day if I wanted to. Really? Every day? He told me that I could. He said to try free shipping on one day and then the next day try 2 for 1 or the next day try $40 for a panel and then the next day try $10 per panel. He told me that was the thing – I could try anything! It was a good parameter for when you get feeling that you should be doing something a certain way and need to have this much research and this much stuff behind you in order to make a decision. You will never get anything done if that is how you are approaching things. Just go with your gut and be bold. Be willing to pivot if you need to pivot and go with it.
My business has been different in a sense, though, because I don’t have to store anything. Also, I print on demand so I have don’t’ have any true inventory. That sets me apart, far and away. I didn’t have to take any risk in saying that I want 1,000 of this print and then those don’t sell and then what do you do with them? So, my start-up costs were minimal. It was a model that I felt extremely comfortable with. I didn’t have thousands of dollars to throw in. Everyone has a situation that is different, though. It’s mysterious how people do it; you really don’t know. You just know that they are doing it, and so it really doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how they got started. It matters that they are all doing it, doing well, and making money.
So, as far as your career goes, is Chasing Paper the thing that you have loved doing the most?
This is so far and away from anything else. Whether I’m working at home or from a co-working space it is an excitement and a joy – even just the menial stuff. I personally write every single customer that emails me, and will stay up late to ensure that I can write each person back. It means so much to me that they have taken the time to go onto my webpage and fill out a form to contact us. The fact that people would take the time to do that, even if all they are saying is that this is a nice idea, I want to make sure they know that they have been heard.
I recently guest lectured at Parsons to college students, and I was talking to my friend beforehand and she asked me what my secret sauce was and how I did it. I was like, “Well, I’m just Mid-Western!” I’m cheerful on the phone with every editor, I chat with everyone and am extremely friendly. I was telling the college students that this is somewhat of a lost art, as everything is becoming about technology. It doesn’t matter if it is a small blog or The Wall Street Journal – I stop what I am doing and email them back that minute. I never make them wait for anything. You are only as good as your last impression. You make an editors day when you send them an email with everything that they need. They will think you are amazing. Correspondence is just so important. Being able to correspond in a way that is tonal and professional, but also reflective of you and your personality.
That is where your communications background comes in! You really get it, and having that in your back pocket is a great tool to have. You want to be sure that you don’t start playing to what people want or expect, but stay true to who you are throughout the growth of your business. People are buying more than just your product – they are in some sense buying you!
It is true – and the personal touch goes such a long way. It doesn’t matter if it is a customer or an editor of a big magazine. An assistant at Style Watch contacted me for a “what’s hot and what’s not” piece. She told me that she needed this, this, and this, but she said that she wanted me to know that this wasn’t for sure. She was presenting 20 things to the editor and then the editor would make a pick. She said she didn’t want me to get my hopes up. I said, “No problem.” We ended talking for a while and we had this connection. We were chatting like girlfriends. She told me that she was rooting for me to get in. I thanked her and told her she was amazing, and that I would send her paper for her house if she wanted. I just wanted her on my team. I wound up being in it. I think it is those little things.
Well, in the end, I believe that people want to support the person who is creating the product as much as they want the product! If there is a connection there or a good story attached, people feel better about their purchase.
I do, too. The women’s entrepreneur community in this city is incredible. There are so many women doing amazing things and running incredible businesses. Something that comes up often when we are getting together is that when you are in business as a woman that there is the feeling out there that you can’t be cheerful or cute because then you come across as a less credible business woman. I totally think that is silly. Okay, maybe don’t use your sexuality, but I think being friendly and warm is the best way to do business. I don’t think you need to be bitchy or catty.
Don’t mistake my kindness as a weakness. You can be kind and not be weak. I think there are people out there who misconstrue that.
Exactly. There are, but I believe that there are women business owners who are actively working to change people’s perception around that. Me being one!
So, if there were someone sitting at a desk job right now who is miserable and maybe has an idea for a creative product and wants to own their own business, what would your advice to them be?
I think if they have done the research and know there is a need or a niche – a good piece of advice is to determine if there is a hole or gap in the market so that you can provide something that isn’t out there. If you can’t do that (create something completely new) then just make sure you have a different point of view. If you’ve done that, the best thing would be to get a group of family or friends together for dinner and have a brainstorming session. Have them really ask you tough questions and play devil’s advocate. Have it be people who you are receptive to, and if you can get through that and answer the tough questions then you can see if you really do want to do this. You will be able to see if you care enough about it to fight for it and defend it.
Then the next step is to see where you are at financially, but at some point you are just going to have to take the plunge. It’s going to be scary and a big undertaking, but there are small steps you can take. For example, you can start a Shopify account for free. There are a lot of ways to put your toe in the water. You are not going to get a 15,000 sq. foot shop on Bowery right off the bat, but maybe you could do pop-up shop or maybe you work with a friend who already has something started to do a partnership with them for a limited time. Maybe you could do something just for the holiday season. There are a lot of ways now to start it without having to have an entire full-blown investment. There are ways to get your feet wet, test it out, and get feedback. Feedback is priceless.
Having a good idea and a good sense of your branding and taking time to really think about that and what you want – what your mission statement would be, what your branding statement and position would be. I think if I could go back and do things over, I would have taken a little more time to really understand what my brand was and where I wanted it to be and that kind of positioning in my market. But then you are always positioning and pivoting. Really, the best advice is just to be bold and brave and do it. If you have done your due diligence and have a good head on your shoulders and a good support network then you can do it. If someone would have told me even 3 years ago that this is what I would be doing today, I would have thought there is no way. Now I can’t think of my life without doing it.
Notes of Reflection:
- Sometimes a Chapter Be hits you when you least expect it. Elizabeth did not set out to have a Chapter Be, but was open to following an idea that she loved and couldn’t not do. It didn’t happen instantly, and Elizabeth did a fair amount of research – from learning about her competitors, to taking people out to lunch to pick their brains, to studying materials inside-and-out in order to learn how the wallpaper could best be made. The point was that she was open to trying and didn’t shy away from the idea just because she didn’t have a design background. She saw a good idea, and followed it with all her heart and energy.
- Elizabeth used the resources that she had at her disposal to learn all that she could about a business that was pretty new to her – this included the people in her life and her past experiences and knowledge. It is a very good example of the fact that we do not leave our past chapters behind, but carry them with us into the next. Her Master’s in Communications was not for not – she has been able to directly apply that knowledge to her wallpaper business, and has very wisely thought about ways to engage all different kinds of media outlets – from big publications to small blogs. You take your past experiences and knowledge gained into your Chapter Be with you.
- Being kind and friendly go a long way. What initially drew me to Elizabeth was her openness and friendly demeanor. She was more than willing to talk to you and she made you feel heard and listened to – this cannot be underestimated when it comes to having a business that deals with customers. And don’t all businesses have customers?! If I have an interaction with a business owner or maker, who takes the time to listen and share their story and time with me, then I am that much more likely to not just buy their product, but promote it. Your attitude – good or bad – can affect your bottom line. In life and in business.
- Elizabeth has a confidence about her that is admirable. She is kind, yet direct. She knows what she knows and is honest about what she doesn’t know. And – she isn’t shy to ask for help and collaborate with those who have a different skillset then she does. She sees it as an opportunity to grow and compliment both her and her business. It takes a certain level of confidence to be able to take the steps to make your business a reality. As Elizabeth remarked, it is most important to be “bold and brave.”
- Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger
- The Knack: How Street-Smart Entrepreneurs Learn to Handle Whatever Comes Up by Norm Brodsky and Bo Burlingham
- Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann
- She’s Come Undone and We are Water by Wally Lamb
- Shantaram: A Novel by Gregory David Roberts
*Images via Chasing Paper, The Muse, Aunt Peaches and Style Watch