Tony Short is a man on a mission. I first heard of him about a year ago when he got in touch to tell me about StudioAlt, a company set up to sell analogue tools to digital workers, a fantastic and slightly evangelical mission. Since then Tony has started at least two new companies, Pocket Notebooks, which brings often hard to find notebooks to Europe as well as offering a subscription service, and Hobonichi Accessories, which sells exactly what you’d expect from the name. He also recently started work for The Pen Shop. Tony is rather busy and more than a little passionate about stationery.
Pocket Notebooks are a sponsor of Pens! Paper! Pencils! but this interview is not part of that sponsorship. I hope you’ll agree that this is a very interesting interview indeed.
Where did your love of stationery come from?
My earliest memories and where I likely developed a passion for stationery was my fixation for erasers, most likely the novelty type. I remember going to the local general store that would sell anything from electronics to household goods along with a small selection of stationery supplies.
It quickly escalated from a few safari shaped rubbers to a desk full of erasers, pencils and paper clips.
I was also a dab hand at making my own paper, or at least taking perfectly formed paper, placing them on a tray full of water to turn into slurry with the big idea of recycling the paper! Paper was always my thing and would spend hours making things such as class registers or them little cardboard pockets you would find at the front of a library book.
What made you decide this was something you could build a business around?
I started StudioAlt in December 2013 with the aim of selling analog tools to those involved in Digital and Technology. Within a few months the range expanded to include Leuchtturm Whitelines notebooks and UI Stencils and Sketchpads. The more I learnt about these stationery products the more headstrong I was with the direction I wanted to take StudioAlt. Also, the more I learnt about different products and brands the more I become disillusioned with the availability of these sought after products within the UK. I took it upon myself to secure well known brands without the inflated shipping and custom charges.
We’ve now became known for building great relationships with International brands such as Field Notes, Hobonichi and Word. along with being the first to bring in new brands including UI Stencils, Mountain Goat, WritePads and Story Supplies.
What have been the greatest challenges you’ve faced, getting started?
We import products primarily from North America and Japan which introduces a number of challenges including logistics and language.
Communication is an issue, whilst their English is much better than my Japanese, the time difference can cause frustrations. It can typically be 48 hours between email exchanges due to time zones which slows down the ordering process and momentum.
When the products do arrive in the UK you then have the challenge of going through and clearing Customs along with paying the typical large fees associated with import taxes.
On average it takes two weeks for the products to arrive in the UK so it’s important to optimise our restocking lead time. In the earlier days this was a huge learning curve as we often delayed the ordering of stock which inevitably resulted in not being able to sell any products, something I recall only too well in our first run up to Christmas.
With all that said it is nothing but a pleasure working with our International Suppliers, who are very active and supportive to help us advocate their products here in the UK and Europe.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to do something similar?
I often hear from those wanting to start their own online store but get overwhelmed and too bogged down on how to deliver their full vision. My advice is always to choose to do one thing only and do it to the best of your abilities.
We started with one product to make sure the barrier to entry was very minimum. Within a few months we had sold our product to some of the biggest companies in the world including Apple, Google and Amazon, which then allowed us to expand our produce range and scope.
This laser like focus allows you to build something with purpose and value along with quickly getting you in the habit of executing a vision.
Once you are have mastered taking action and executing your vision you should simply aim to repeat this behaviour on a daily basis. Those who follow me on Twitter know I live by the mentality of No Zero Days, which essentially means do something every day, even if it’s just one thing, that is going to grow your business.
What are your favourite stationery products and how do you use them day-to-day?
Aha, a top 3 opportunity. Don’t temp me….
- I’m a mechanical pencil type of guy and love my Rotring. I did have a 600 but unfortunately the nib bent whilst in my pocket. I’ve gone for the Rotring Tikky which is a lot cheaper but still very effective. Hopefully my wife will read this post and treat me to a new 600!
- A Pocket Notebook. As you could imagine I use quite a lot of notebooks and at least like to try every notebook we offer. I have a few favourites including the Field Notes Pitch Black, any Word. and one our most recent editions and my current notebook of choice which is a WritePads.
- A new addition since the end of 2015 is my Hobonichi. For being so little they do pack a punch especially their quality and quantity of Tomoe River paper. They have thought about and included a lot of detail which fascinates me, it’s the exact level of detail and added value that I believe has made the product the success it is.
How are you using your Hobonichi?
I have settled on a system that combines both analog with digital. It’s a three pronged approach that starts with my pocket notebook which I generally use as bullet journal / brain dump. The notebooks are used for all aspects of my life including Work, Business and Home.
The second step is to make sure certain notes from my notebook feed into a wider strategy. This is where I switch from analog to digital and introduce a Trello board, which is an online collaboration tool. These are generally items that need to be actioned by the Business and helps me share these tasks with other members of the StudioAlt team.
The third and final step arrives because I’m very poor at either scheduling a task or reminding myself about a task. I’ve tried so many digital solutions but I find nothing works better that committing this down in writing. Using my Hobonichi Techo I write down future events and scheduled tasks in appropriate dates and will make sure I’m checking it everyday so I don’t forget to do things. I do feel I’m just scratching the surface to how else I can use my Hobo especially since launching Hobonichi Accessories and having discussions with fellow users on how they use their’s.
What are the most exciting things happening in the UK, stationery-wise?
The Stationery Community! The Community is awesome, very thoughtful, welcoming, caring and sharing. I’m part of other online communities and must say the stationery group of people are the most generous and supportive I’ve experienced. For example, a month doesn’t go by when don’t receive post in the mail with a little notebook, pencil and note with well wishes.
There is also no animosity in the Community, everybody is supportive of each other. Just the other day we received an InCoWriMo letter from the team at Bureau Direct wishing us well and all the best. I’m pretty sure there are no other sectors or communities that a competing retailer would send well wishes in the post?
Now I wish I could say the most exciting stationery thing happening is range of exciting UK brands and whilst we are seeing more physical presence with stores such as Kikki-K, Smiggle and Paperchase, I’m not seeing or hearing of many new brands emerging. This frustrates me as I’d love nothing more than seeing new stationery brands and products emerging from the UK. I’m a sucker for scratching my own itch so don’t be surprised if you see a stationery product of some sorts coming out of a StudioAlt branded company.
What’s next for you and your companies?
StudioAlt has a clear vision of becoming the UK’s leading value added stationery distributor by sourcing, manufacturing and curating world wide stationery brands. You’ll never find us wanting to compete with the great and well established sites such as Bureau Direct, CultPens or Fred Aldous. Instead we aim to build meaningful relationships with our Customers and Communities by establishing smaller, niche and more focused stores. We have a roadmap of other products we’d like to import, or create ourselves, all at the same time of making sure we are continuously adding value to the Stationery Community.
Thank you so much to Tony for taking the time to answer my questions!