Nathan Bond

Rifle Paper Co.

Nearly Impossible Conference 2014

Brooklyn, NY


Transcript


Hey, how are you guys doing? Good? That’s amazing.I want to say that I am excited to be here and honored that I was invited. We’ve seen some really cool speakers and it’s been really interesting for me. It’s going to be great.

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I am the Director of Business Development and the co-founder at Rifle Paper Company. We started five years ago, my wife and I started the company, our five year anniversary comes up in a couple weeks here, the business not marriage. The business anniversary comes up and a couple weeks so we’re really excited about that. We just made the Inc 500 list, we’re 353rd fastest growing, privately held company in the country apparently-

I’m back. Woah, you guys good? And we’re apparently the 27th fastest growing privately held company making consumer products and services, so that’s also pretty exciting. That’s a little bit about us. A little known fact about me is that before I started Rifle five years ago, I was a recovering band dude.

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That image really smells, I can just smell those people, it’s really terrible. I tell people a lot that once you figure out how to make money as a musician, everything else is so easy to make money doing, it’s like it’s the easiest thing in the world so that’s cool.

This next slide is some products we make. We’re a design and illustration-based brand. We got our start doing greeting cards, now we’re in gift products. We do iPhone cases, we do notepads, we do all sorts of random things.

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We’re continuing to expand our lines. We have over 1,200 skews now and it’s just crazy, I don’t know how we do it. I don’t have anything to do with that part of it. My wife is the creative director, she’s right there. She’s amazing.

I thought it’d be cool today to talk about some things that have really worked for Rifle. They’re not things that I think will work for every business, I want to clarify that I’m not say this is how everything has to happen. One of the things I love about business is there’s a lot of ways to skin a cat and there’s a lot of ways to succeed. These are tenants we’ve really lived by and then we’ll do Q and A afterwards so if you guys have any specific questions, we can do that.

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My first point is listening to the market. What I mean by this is I get a lot of people asking me, especially startups and young, new companies for advice. One of my favorite bits of advice is to say to be flexible. I think it’s important to not box yourself in too early as to what your brand is. When you’re new, you haven’t yet given the customers a chance to evaluate what’s special about you and I think sometimes your customers know more about you than you do, especially in the early stages. I think that if you try too early to decide everything about your brand, you’re not going to make the right decisions. You need to be able to see the opportunities in front of you that you wouldn’t expect to be there and be able to shift.

An example of that for Rifle was when we first started, we were actually a wedding company. We essentially only did wedding invitations, that’s what we were. It worked great, we were having a lot of success, we were getting press in the wedding world, we were getting Martha Stewart Weddings, we were on the wedding blogs, and all seemed to be that that’s what we were going to be. But, we were listening to our customers and it seemed like they wanted a lot of other things, maybe even more than wedding invitations so we decided to create a whole product line.

Now, wedding invitations are about 1% of our business, it’s nothing. We’re happy to have them, we still do them to some extent, but by changing the way we think, by listening to our customers and paying attention to what the market was telling us, we were able to have a lot more success in that area. That’s good, we can move on to the next point.

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Next point is, a great product is the best marketing. It’s really simply here, guys. People like to talk about great products so your best marketing is going to be making the best product you possible can. I bring this up because, again, when we first started we were always asking ourselves the question “what should our marketing budget be?”, “do we need to hire a PR firm?”, “how much should we allocate to these things?” It really became difficult for us to justify putting too many resources into those areas when we still had work to do in making our product better and we still had ideas to make new products and we had limited resources. It was just me and my wife starting out of a garage apartment originally. We needed to maximize what we were spending on and, to be honest with you, marketing was at the bottom of the list. That’s where it ended up being.

That’s not to say marketing’s unimportant, it’s extremely important and we were doing the things that you need to do. We were sending stuff to editors and we were doing things, but it was almost an afterthought. It was more about making the product as phenomenal as it possibly could, making something unique that people wanted. That was always the focus. Next point.

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The next point is, you’re never in always ready. What I mean by that is sometimes the things that make you grow are the things that you’re not yet ready for. You can’t be afraid of failure. One of my favorite quotes, there’s a lot of quotes out there, but one of my favorite quotes is from one of my favorite people, Homer Simpson. He says that the first step towards failing is trying, I think that’s how it goes. That’s clearly true, there’s some great wisdom in that but I think a lot of people use that as an excuse not to try and I know that the people in this room try, that’s for sure, but sometimes you need to go way outside your comfort zone and you need to just go for it.

Sometimes there’s an opportunity just in front of you that, this is the moment that’s going to make you and if you are too afraid because, well, I’m not quite there yet, you may never get there if you keep saying I’m not quite there yet. This is the tenant that Ana and I lived by more that any other tenant when we started the company and I mean that sincerely. We were intense about this. We didn’t know how to do anything, I want to stress that. We knew absolutely how to do nothing. We didn’t have any money, we didn’t have any really good advice, we were just …

I have a story, I remember being at the UPS Store and I broke down crying because I couldn’t ship a package to Canada, that’s how bad it was. It wasn’t good. There was a lot of other things too, it wasn’t just the package but, we got it shipped so it worked out. I actually went back to the office that same day and was lying on the floor, just on my back when Ana walked in on me because I had just had a nervous breakdown. We were trying to ship holiday orders, our site had just launched, Ana walked in and was like “What is wrong with you? Why are you on your back lying on the floor in the middle of this dirty office?” It was terrible.

Point is, I don’t know why I’m talking about that, the point is that sometimes you got to get in over your head in order to rise to the top. I know that that sounds like a really cheesy thing that you’re going to hopefully re-tweet on your Twitter, but it’s true, it really is. Sometimes you need that to motivate you to get it done or to figure it out.

Another thing that I think is important that I hear a lot of people say is that growing too fast can kill your business. I hear that all the time and I don’t know why, it seems like something people generally say, “yeah, they’re growing too fast.” I think that’s also from the same problem, it comes from fear. You shouldn’t fear growth, growth isn’t your problem, it’s how you’re handling your growth. Some companies grow at rates that are unbelieve-, you’d blow your minds. It’s not that that’s the problem, you want to take advantage of the opportunities to grow. You want to look at what’s in front of me and what are my best opportunities to grow? That’s your goal, it should be your goal because that’s where you’re going to find success.

Just to reiterate, opportunities aren’t always there, that’s what is the most important lesson that I have learned in my life, is that opportunities are not always there so you have to know, there’s a timing element to it all. You want to pay attention to these things and see things beneath the surface that aren’t necessarily obvious, they’re not necessarily what you think is right for your brand, but when you dig a little deeper, it might be. I know I’m getting a little esoteric and weird on you, but we’re going to go on to the next point.

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What makes a successful product? This is actually my last point, I’m blasting through these so we can do some good Q and A and also because we’re behind, so I hope this is good. You’re happy? Yeah? Give me a good rating after this on Yelp? All right, good. This is going to be my last point, what makes a successful product? This sounds arrogant, like I know this because obviously no one really knows this fully but there are a couple things that we can point to.

We all want to be successful, everybody here, that’s our goal. But success isn’t a product that someone loves, that’s not enough. You could sell a product that people really love and they want. Maybe you could sell a ton of it, but I still question whether that’s successful if you’re not making money, if you’re not profitable with it. In the same way, you could sell a product and be really profitable with it, but no one likes it so no one wants to buy it and that’s not going to work either. Clearly, in order to have success, you’ve got to have both. You’ve got to have a product that has healthy margins, that makes you money when you sell it, and you’ve got to have a product that people want enough to buy the product.

To me, that’s the simple definition of success. From day one, we’ve been really careful to make sure our margins were right so we could continue to reinvest in more product and better product and continue to improve what we’re doing. I know this sounds really obviously to everybody in this room, you’re like “well, duh we want to make money, that’s why we started a company.” Or maybe not, I don’t know, you tell me. That’s what I would think.

My point is that, the reason I say this is really, this is the main thing I hear when I’m talking to new entrepreneurs, is they tell me that their margins aren’t right. It’s the number one thing I always hear, is that “I’m selling my product, but I’m not making any money” or “our margins aren’t right, we got to get our costs in line.” There’s oftentimes a thought that, sure it’s not there yet, but once I’m selling 5,000 units a month, it’ll be there because my costs will come down and my volume will be higher and I just have to get to that number, 5,000 units a month. The reality is you may never get to 5,000 units a month.

Ana and I, we’re in over 5,000 stores and we have products that don’t sell that good sometimes. You never know what’s going to happen, especially if you’re a newer company. You need to, it’s like you’re going to be treading water. If you’re just selling something and it’s not really making you any money, you’re not making progress. How are are you going to be able to have more capital to reinvest back into your brand? This is something I really believe is a common issue, and especially in the gift industry, the industry we’re in. I think there are other industries where what I’m saying would be a total hearsay. Maybe you’ve got to not make money for 20 years and then it’s okay because your stock price went up. Whatever. That might be true, but in my world, you need to make money when you’re selling something. You just do or you’re going to, and I see a lot of companies where they can’t break through the ceiling, they can’t take that next step because they’re not making enough money to reinvest into making their company better. Maybe that’s like “easier said than done, Nathan. Of course I’d be doing that if I could.” But there really are, sometimes so much they’re underneath the surface. Something that we do all the time, we’re constantly reevaluating every single thing we do. We’re constantly looking at every process when we manufacture, and also internally making sure that everything is the most efficient it can possibly be, for this reason.

Thanks for listening!