Starting a Custom Stationery Business

Interview with Hamilton Chan, CEO of

Taking over the family business is sometimes fraught with peril. Hamilton Chan did just that, and expanded his family's business onto the Internet. In this interview, he relates his tips for making both the family and the business run smoothly.

Interview with Hamilton Chan, CEO of

Tell me about your current business. What are you doing exactly? is an online stationery site offering printed personalized greeting cards that can be customized using our proprietary online design tools.

When did you start the business?

March of 2009, at the height of the current recession.

What were you doing before this, and is this your first business?

My career started off working as an investment banker at JP Morgan, then working as a corporate attorney and a studio executive at MGM, before joining my family's commercial printing company, known as Charlie Chan Printing. Seven years into running Charlie Chan Printing here in LA, I realized it was time for us to make a name for ourselves online, and that is how Paperspring was born.

How did you come up with your business idea?

From 2000 to 2010, many online printers sprouted up. I noticed that most of these online printing companies were started by people with no experience or history in the printing field, and they were outperforming centuries-old printers. I wanted an expert printer like us to elevate the quality of print available to customers and to merge my strongest career interests: technology and high quality printing.

Have you hired additional staff? What is your greatest human resources challenge?

We have hired numerous personnel to get Paperspring up and running. The greatest challenge in running any business is finding the right people. It is a rare blend to find people who are passionate for their career, passionate about team work, nice to work with, and extremely capable. Until you find those people, you are simply compromising on your product or service and buying time until you can leverage an incredible staff to lift an incredible business.

Do you own a business with family members? What do you think are the benefits and challenges to running a family owned business?

Our original business, Charlie Chan Printing, is a family business. The success of a family business can often mirror the success of the family itself. The more communicative and tight-knit a family is, the more each family member sees eye-to-eye, the more powerful the team. Overall, family businesses are cauldrons of emotion, and running a family business is the epitome of a double-edged sword, in my opinion. You can't choose your family, but you can often choose whether to be in the family business. Choose wisely!

Green business is all the rage right now. Has it really been practical for you as an entrepreneur to incorporate green business practices?

Being green is woven into the fabric of our brand. Especially because we deliver a physical product - paper - it is important for our customers to understand the environmental sustainability of our business process. We are an FSC-certified company (certified by the Forest Stewardship Council), and all of our matte cards are printed on 100% post-consumer waste recycled cardstock. Being green isn't difficult. It is more expensive, but the benefits to the environment and to your business cannot be denied.

What have you done that has been very effective in helping to grow the business?

The most important thing for any business is to develop noticeable differentiation from the competition, and to align a singular point of differentiation throughout the organization, so that your customers know what you stand for. At Paperspring, we want to deliver the most incredible customer experience possible. This means providing Four Seasons-type service for something that may appear as banal as ordering stationery. We believe that the customer is royalty in today's environment, yet human nature frequently takes over in customer service interactions, yielding frustration and bitterness with many companies (especially large ones). At Paperspring, we want everyone at our company to understand that the customer experience is special and must be upheld at all times. This has brought back repeat business (which should be measured and rewarded), and been the key to growing our revenues month after month.

What advice would you give to somebody else who wanted to start a similar business?

Customer acquisition is very expensive in the online space, so it's important to start off with adequate funding to weather you through the initial and extended drought. Internet retail is more challenging (but hopefully more rewarding, in the long run) than brick-and-mortar retail because you have to pay specifically for traffic, and customers may shop you to death. First mover advantage and clear points of differentiation are a must.

Excellent points, Hamilton. Best of luck, and thanks for talking with us.

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