Blue Eyed Sun

Blue Eyed Sun - gorgeous greetings cards

Ten Key Lessons Learned from the Ladder Club

10 Lessons from The Ladder Club

It’s been twenty years since industry friends Jakki Brown and the late Lynn Tait held the first Ladder Club seminar in Leigh on Sea to help new publishers avoid rookie errors that had previously led to the demise of so many start ups in our industry.

Starting any business is tough and there are always risks. The pair felt that much of the heartache and loss of financial investments that goes with business failure could be avoided with a little heart felt, loving guidance from those of us that have already been there and done it.

I’ve been privileged to have been a keynote speaker at the Ladder Club for three quarters of its existence, so I thought it would be nice to share ten key lessons I’ve learned at the event over the years.

1. The Ladder Club supports Successes

The Ladder Club has had some fantastic success stories with Alumni including the likes of Paper Salad, Wrendale Design, Red Back Cards and rising star Megan Claire as well as a host of exciting and innovative publishers that have brightened up the offering available to card buyers globally. Ask most up and coming talents in our industry how they’ve managed it and invariably they will share the importance of the Ladder Club or the Greeting card Association and the supportive ethos behind them.

2. The Ladder Club reduces Failures

The successes are still outweighed by those Ladder Club alumni that don’t make it. It’s easy to see how the statistics for 80% of UK businesses failing in the first five years still hold true. I myself am so grateful to be in business with Blue Eyed Sun after 18 years as it’s no easy feat to survive and thrive in a highly competitive market like ours. There are a host of reasons for companies not surviving or continuing, but without the Ladder Club this number would surely have been greater still.

3. We all Start Small

We all start small. Even the biggest companies in our industry came from humble beginnings. Woodmansterne started their card business with a tiny range of stained glass window images and have ballooned into a £14m business. The Art File launched on a 1mx1m stand at Spring Fair in 1998. Our first stand was a 2m x 2m at Top Drawer in May 2000.

All retailers start small too, I remember selling to a single Scribbler store on the Kings Road back in 2000 before John and Jenny expanded their empire (originally from a market stall) to 34 shops.

Getting started is key, what happens after that is down to focus, hard work and luck.

4. Acorns can grow into Oaks

Bill Gates famously said that “most people overestimate what they can do in a year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.” Timothy Melgund shared with us at the Ladder Club this year that he thought that they’d take Paperchase to 25 stores and he’s astonished that they now have 257 outlets. After the many years I’ve been at trade shows it is remarkable to see the massive transformation of so many businesses. The sky really is the limit. I myself can’t quite believe how far Blue Eyed Sun has come and that we’ve been honoured by the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

5. We all Make Mistakes

We’ve all made mistakes. Ged Mace from the Art File showed us an image of the collections he first launched, half of which were long rectangular designs that didn’t fit in most card displays. One of the best bits of advice people pick up at the seminars is on card sizing both in relation to both card rack space and stock envelope availability. We’ve all had typo errors. Despite checks in-house, with our production team and with our sales agents “ Happy Mohers Day” still slipped through our net one year. Watch out for poor font choices too. The most famous example of which was the ‘special aunt’ card with an incomplete ‘a’ that (at a glance) changed the meaning completely. The lesson: be prepared to make mistakes, lean from them and move on quickly.

6. There are still Opportunities

There is no formula for the perfect card, other than staying different and being fresh and original. Which is easier said than done. What works one year, may not work as well the next. The market is more diverse in it’s range of designs and looks than ever. More and more retailers want to be different from one another and are demanding original content from card publishers to help them achieve this. White label work is growing and sub brands are popping up left right and centre. That there is no formula is what is exciting for new publishers. At the same time, it’s also what is so challenging, with everyone (new and experienced) competing to stay relevant.

7. The Link Effect

The whole supply chain is important. You hear and see this time and time again at the Ladder Club. The seminar has had fantastic support from GF Smith, Enveco, Sherwood Press and the Imaging Centre over the years. All of it helpful advice rather than hard selling. Retailers acknowledge the value of great card suppliers with wonderful designs and good service. Many of the publishers who speak also recognise how vital good relationships with suppliers are to our success. We are only as strong as our weakest link.

8. We have to take care of our Resources

‘Single-use’ is the word of the year for 2018. The ‘Blue Planet effect’ that I spoke about at Autumn Fair is having a massive impact on how we shop at the moment. Generally speaking our industry has been very conscientious. FSC stock is the norm, as is recycling and the fundraising each year with Christmas card charity packs. Despite the fact that most cello-bags are made with quality recyclable polypropylene, recycling facilities fo not facilitate them being recycled easily. Cello-bags are undoubtedly in the firing line and there is still confusion about what alternatives are best and the viability of compostable options. As one delegate said at the seminar this year, “you can’t be a start up and accept single-use plastics on your cards.” Sometimes we learn from our delegates and for me this is a clear signal of things to come. Expect to see less spot UV, more compostable bags and more naked cards becoming the norm in the very near future.

9. The Internet has more to Offer

Whilst the internet represents a significant threat and opportunity for retailers, it still appears that the majority of the card buying public prefer to shop in store for cards. Most of the main publishers and retailers have not been able to significantly grow their sales online. Moonpig has trail-blazed personalised online card buying. Companies like Thortful are in hot pursuit with a focus more on selling cards online with some personalisation on the inside. Both still make up a small percentage of the overall market with strong ambitions to change this. Most of my young team seem to buy their cards online, but the jury is still out for small and personal purchases like cards swinging fully online.

10. Social Media is a Must

The real triumph for publishers making the most of the internet has been on social media. Companies like Dean Morris and Ohh Deer have generated massive social media followings and opened up significant B2C web-sales with up to one third of their trade being direct to the public. Growing your brand via social and then translating this into sales further down the line is a strong strategy. Our industry has yet to fully harness the potential of influencers, but there are some great Ladder Club stories of celebrities buying cards and prints from designer-makers on internet marketplaces like Etsy and Not on the High Street and then sharing photos of them online which in turn boost sales, PR and website hits.

The Future

The Ladder Club has had a wonderful influence on our industry over the years and continues to grow from strength to strength. We have had some incredible speakers give up their time and energy to put back into the industry that has treated them so well. Next year the seminar will evolve yet again and I am excited to see what new designers the future has to offer us. One thing is for sure, there is no shortage of new talent looking to grow our greeting card business.

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