Elizabeth Rees is no stranger to paper and ink. After growing up around her family's printing business, she launched Chasing Paper, her own wallpaper company. We sat down with Elizabeth to learn the story behind her startup -- and what it took to get it off of the ground.
What was your entrepreneur moment -- when did you know you wanted your own business, and and when did you know it would be a good decision?
There were so many small moments over the course of my life that made the transition into entrepreneurship easier. I have an adventurous and curious spirit -- I traveled all over Asia for six months by myself on a shoestring, moved to Paris for graduate school without knowing a soul -- certainly not risk-averse. The idea for Chasing Paper rolled around in my head for a year; I strategized and brainstormed over dinners with friends and family, but in the end it was someone close to me saying, "You would be insane not to try it." And looking back, that was true. I was fresh out of graduate school, and I was third generation in my family's printing business (where we manufacture Chasing Paper), meaning I had the infrastructure and know-how to produce. The writing was on the wall, literally. Since I was young, I have always been fiercely independent, and carving out my own piece in the world has been the single most rewarding thing I have ever experienced.
The funny thing about success is that everyone articulates it differently, and it always seems to be changing. In many ways, Chasing Paper has exceeded so many of my expectations in terms of reach and collaborating with so many of my design heroes. I have moments almost every day that make me feel that I am exactly where I am meant to be. It could be a customer e-mail telling me about how they used the paper in their nursery, a great DIY project, or giving some feedback. I love hearing from my customers, good, bad and ugly. I am still learning and growing, and it is very much dependent on customer experience.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you started?
That things take time. We hear a lot about the companies that have overnight success but less about the ones that grow slowly and organically over time. It's certainly not as sexy, but it's the heartbeat of so many fantastic companies. Persistence is something that was ingrained in me from an early age; my Midwestern work ethic is the greatest gift. Patience and persistence have built my business. In the early days I would want results immediately, but now I am able to see that the slow burn is something to be really proud of.
Do you have a great piece of equipment that you couldn't live without?
My MacBook Air runs my business. I am constantly running all over the city to meetings and am constantly editing pictures and tweaking the website in coffee shops. I use Shopify for my backend, and it's also an amazing tool. I have been with them from the start, and they have also grown so much. They make it so easy to learn more about your customers and to be nimble based on what you learn. They also have great customer service and have walked me through so many things when I am in a complete panic.
Instagram has also been such an amazing tool for my business. Not only is it a perfect medium to showcase my wallpaper, but it's a great way to create communities -- I have actually met quite a few folks through Instagram that have been incredible business relationships for me.
What was your biggest surprise when you started your business (good or bad)?
It's been surprising to really learn firsthand about today's consumer. What they expect, what matters to them, what doesn't. Customer experience is so important that it means you have to be on your game at all times. That also means being able to have a thick skin, which took me some time if I am honest. Not everyone is going to be happy all the time, and it's my job to be able to turn those moments into a dialogue and learn from it. That is a work in progress but something I try to be very aware of.
Do you have a mentor?
I have a few. That has been important for me to have a variety of individuals that I can go to about different issues. A mix of men and women, varying ages and expertise. For me, it's critical to have a sounding board of voices that have different experiences and perspectives. It allows me to still be able to take advice and apply it in a way that I feel is right for me and my business.
Who is your entrepreneur "hero"?
Katia Beauchamp of Birchbox. She is a powerhouse. So incredibly smart and savvy but also down-to-earth and relatable. Birchbox truly understands their customer in a way that anticipates needs and shopping trends. It has been so fun to watch her grow Birchbox, and I can't wait to see what's next!
What's the hardest part about being an entrepreneur/starting your own business?
To stay in your own lane. It's so easy to get distracted by what other people are doing or what others tell you should be doing. Comparison can kill your business. You also cannot do everything so it's so important to stay focused and set realistic goals. Understanding what the goal of a project, collaboration, or collection is from the start is critical so that I am able to measure its success correctly.
Do you miss anything from your pre-entrepreneur life?
I miss the office dynamic at times. Entrepreneurship can sometimes be a bit lonely. That said, I also enjoy the freedom of getting to work in a way that is conducive to my own productivity. It also pushes me to actively create a community of people I can go to brainstorm, vent, or collaborate.
What's the first thing you do in the morning?
I wake up at 7 a.m. and check my phone. I am quite honestly not proud of that, but its the reality. I typically spend one hour checking e-mail, Instagram, and my schedule for the day. This is also when I make my to-do list. I am old-school and write it down -- it helps me to knock things out and keep my day somewhat focused.
What's the one characteristic someone needs for success?
Be brave. I think so often, women especially wait for the perfect moment to start businesses. Being prepared is critical, but there is always going to be some level of risk and unknown. You have to jump in knowing that the first year will be tough.
What's the story behind the name Chasing Paper?
I wrote it down one day, in a long list of potential names, and I kept coming back to it.
How did you fund your business when you first started? Did you have a business plan?
Due to the fact that I print all orders on-demand, I hold no inventory. This coupled with the ability to manufacture through my family's business meant startup costs were low – around $5,000 to build the website, creating designs, and doing a photo shoot so that we didn't have to Photoshop anything. That was a big differentiator. It was the industry standard to Photoshop the wallpaper into environment, but to me, that felt strange. Showing Chasing Paper in a real-life scene or project in natural light allows the customer to shop but also to be inspired. It has been a brand characteristic that I believe sets Chasing Paper apart.
Do you attend any conferences or retreats geared toward entrepreneurs?
Not before I launched, but have attended a few since I have been in business. The best one I have been to is Nearly Impossible. It's geared to folks with businesses that make physical products, which meant all the speakers and panelists were speaking to me directly. It felt very personal and really pushed me outside of my bubble.