I Crumpled My Paper, Now What?
Tidbits from an Entrepreneur Still in Training
By: Allison De Meulder
Genre: Business, Entrepreneurship, Women
Publication date: March 9, 2016
At age 23, Allison De Meulder started an online business in a time when ecommerce was a relatively unknown term. Sixteen years later, she reflects back on how she grew the business and how the business turned her into an adult.
This book tells Allison's story. It is not meant to give advice, but rather to inspire women. She wants to show women that they can have a successful business, be a wife and a mother, all at the same time. Allison has done it all, from hiring her husband to work with her, bringing the kids to the office on holidays instead of brunching with bunnies, to providing jobs and opportunities and inspiring a corporate culture filled with creativity, comradery and lots of sugar, chick flicks and crafting. Allison did it by choosing the right (and wrong) people for her team, making mistakes at every turn, taking risks and bring an introvert. It sounds exhausting and it was, but Allison is still standing tall.
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LOOK FIRST OR LEAP FIRST?
I would like to say that mistakes I made along the way I can count on one hand, but that's definitely not true. Whether you are a perfectionist or not, it's hard for entrepreneurs to admit they make mistakes. I want to be at the helm and in control, hoping that every "yes" and every "no" I say is undoubtedly the right choice. However, everyone makes mistakes, and putting my pride aside, I will tell you about some of the ones I have made along the way:
Not Having a Mentor: Someone Who Could Give Me Bear Hugs
I probably didn't look hard enough, but I have to be honest, I was always hoping that a long term mentor would just fall at my doorstep and be there for me throughout the years. I have been in peer groups and met great people, but none that I would call a long term mentor. I think this is essential, and even though I have been doing this for sixteen years, I still hope to find a mentor. They do not necessarily need to be in my industry (although that would be a bonus), they just need to be someone who is trustworthy, a sounding board, and understands the journey of an entrepreneur. If you are one of those, feel free to look me up!
Not Knowing How to Handle Growing Too Big: A Balloon Hurts When It Pops In Your Face
I have known a few entrepreneurs who can attest to this one. Growing is amazing, but the pains are achy and gnawing. Typically people think growth means money and yes that's part of it, but there are so many decisions to make and actions to take when growth happens. The most important question to ask yourself when growing is: how will you sustain this growth? When we grew for the first time, we did not think about the balloon pop, but now we know and are so much more prepared. Do not move to a bigger office unless you are busting at the seams. For every dollar spent related to growth, ask yourself if it is a dollar well spent and will it help you to continue to grow or does it just feel good (i.e. office upgrades, fancy bonuses, additional hires). It was easy to get caught up in wanting to spend money that we earned for niceties. So, consider how these dollars spent would be affected should a "pop" occur.
Negotiate Harder: Don't Be a Wimp
There were many times we could have negotiated on prices and stood on firmer ground. My husband and I are not very aggressive and dealing with negotiation and confrontation is certainly not one of our stronger suits. Someone very smart once told me, Allison, everything is negotiable. As time goes on, I can see that more and more. Especially after we bought our first office building and realized that we could have negotiated a better price. That is just one example. So we keep reminding ourselves to push a little harder and establish our ground before caving too quickly.
Fire Sooner: Breaking Up Is Hard to Do, But Hearts Have to Be Broken Sometimes
Firing is one of my least favorite parts of my job description. However, it is par of my job that I will never be rid of, so I just have to deal with it. I have held onto the wrong employees too long for a laundry list of reasons. One of the biggest reasons was fear. What I learned is that fear will hold you back, fear will encompass you and prohibit you from moving ahead. Even worse, fear will infect an organization. A fearless leader at the helm can prevent fear from taking over.
Performance Reviews Are Overrated: Don't Get Your Papers in a Bunch
Let me start by saying I do believe in performance reviews. But reviews should not be a substitution for feedback (constructive criticism and positive reinforcement) on a regular basis. We started out doing performance reviews four times a year, and then a few years later changed it to twice a year, and two years ago we moved to annually. I felt comfortable with this because 1) I honest abhor writing reviews and so do my managers, 2) half of the items mentioned happened months ago, 3) who really remembers everything someone did over a six-month time period, 4) the employees seemed underwhelmed by the process. We base our performance reviews off our employees' job description and let them know how they are doing in each aspect. These reviews are certainly formalities.
We have found that the most effective review tactics happen outside of the formal review and are where 1) we catch the employee doing something fabulous and we praise them right away, 2) we observe the employee doing something not quite stellar and we tell them immediately. If I wait too long, the employee is usually confused and can't even recall the incident; meanwhile, I had been stewing over the incident for weeks or even months. In the past, we waited too long to give feedback. That was our mistake, but now we know better. Don't wait for the formal review to make something known because by then it's too late. I also recognize that the review process and its effectiveness will vary by organization.
I've spoken about mistakes I have made and risks I have taken, but at some point I need to talk about the greatest decisions I have made in business in recent years.
Defending My Place on the Internet Because We Are Here to Stay
I have had to defend myself from day one to friends and family for being an internet company. Now that I have done the retail store thing too, I can say in all honesty: the internet has a reach that we could never achieve with our local store. Even though the internet is saturated with paper players like us, I wouldn't leave the space. We've built up a community of customers and being a working mom, I relish convenience and know others do too.
Not Taking Crap from Anyone Because I'm Better than That
I'm just not doing it, not taking crap from anyone. I don't have the time or patience for nonsense, gossip, or drama and that's the way I run my ship: simple, straightforward, and without falter.
I know business owners who have gotten caught up on small details, employee issues, and petty competitiveness. After so long of being on my own, I do not subscribe to anything that will bring us down. Not taking crap also means not being afraid to say "no."
An Intense Hiring Practice I Will Always Defend
When I talk to business folk about our hiring process, they often have one of two reactions (sometimes both): 1) I love your hiring ideas; they really make sense, 2) I can't believe you really go through all of that trouble. Our hiring process is one of the aspects of the business I am most proud of, and that is because it works, and this is how it goes:
The initial phone interview lets us hear the candidate's enthusiasm and what their verbal communication skills are like. This is especially important when hiring for our customer service team.
Note to candidate: Wake up at least 30 minutes prior to your phone interview. It is not professional to be woken up from us calling you or to be yawning incessantly. (I have had my fair share of waking up candidates at 10am.)
Meeting face-to-face with managers, not only in the potential employee's department, but in other departments, is imperative (we meet two to three times in person). We expect that candidates will bring a copy of their resume with them, and if they are a graphic designer, that they will bring their portfolio.
An application packet (for example, tests for graphic designers, grammar tests for invitation consultants) is quite useful. Sadly, we have had applicants cheat on the graphic design test before. They are obviously immediately disqualified. The application packet also has them writing down references and information about previous positions. For example, can we contact your previous employer?
Note to candidate: Do not write on the application, see resume. We know we can see your resume, but on the application we would like you to fill out all areas. Don't take shortcuts during the application process.
Reference, credit, and criminal checks (I have spoken in detail about this because it is a hot topic) are gems for character evaluation.
Our hiring process is long and in-depth and I stand behind it.
Keeping the Value of Our Product Because We Are Worth It
It's easy to want to compete with bigger companies who can offer similar products as us at much lower prices, simply because they can. We are not the cheapest, nor the most expensive, of our competitors, so we sit nice and pretty in the middle. Around the holidays in our industry, things tend to get ugly, with one company discounting deeper than the next. Their promotion can be construed as obnoxious (for example, offering 60% off holiday cards either means you just jacked up your prices to compensate or you are not making that much on an order). Besides offering a fantastic product, we are also offering our services should a customer need our assistance. We've learned through the years that devaluing our products with low prices is not the right route for us. We have placed ourselves in the marked mid-priced and with boutique service and that is where we will stay.
Controversial At Best: The Customer Is Not Always Right (but they pay the bills)
My controversial statement is: the customer is not always right. Once I admitted it, I felt like I could move forward and deal with the stress from customers better. It is no secret that working with customers and clients is challenging. Some can even be dishonest, unreasonable, and petty. But at the end of the day, they pay our bills, so who am I to complain. No matter how complicated or heated a situation gets, I will never personally disrespect a customer or allow my team to. Even though I was not a previous hot head with customers who stretched the truth in my early twenties, I have fully evolved in maturity and understanding.
Since we speak with most of our customers over the phone, via email, or online chat, we lack that face-to-face interaction. So our verbal intonation for the phone and word choice for emails has to be professional and understanding. To be honest, a lot can get lost in translation when you cannot see someone's facial expressions or body language. We have become an impersonal society, where texting and comments on social media have replaced everyday interactions. So we have to do everything on our end as a business to make sure that each interaction with our customers is professional and enjoyable.
My customer service team members have been yelled at, some even brought to tears, hung up on, and threatened. We talk about maintaining our composure even in the hardest of situations. We don't always know what prompts the customers to lash out - for all we know it could have been a breakup, they missed the train, a pipe burst, really anything. So as long as I know, in the back of my head, the customer is not always right (please know most of the time they are), I feel like I can assist any situations.
Being able to assess your own mistakes and triumphs can only bring you closer to clarity, acceptance, success, and happiness as an entrepreneur.
About the author:
Successful entrepreneur, creative genius, passionate leader. They may seem like buzzwords, but nonetheless they describe Allison De Meulder. In 1999 she launched InvitationConsultants.com, one of the first online retailers of personalized invitations and announcements. In 1999, she was a true pioneer. In 2015, she remains at the helm of one of the biggest online invitation companies that has survived the dot come bust and the wave of consolidation in the industry. The company is still privately owned and never accepted any capital or debt. Their products have been featured on Good Morning America, the Today Show, Women's Day and numerous other publications.
In December of 2013, she successfully launched the wholesale line Matrick & Eve, a strong brand of paper and gifts sold in brick and mortar stores. She saw an opportunity in the market for creative, fun and unique products. The line features greeting cards, coasters, notepads, stationary, and more. All of the products are designed, printed and packaged in-house at the Matrick & Eve studio, proudly made in the USA. In one year, the line went from zero to over three hundred stores, including museums, boutiques, home decor shops, bookstores, and stationary and gift stores, and is still growing strong. This spring Matrick & Eve can be found in such stores around the country as Sur La Table, Francesca's and Paper Source.
Allison's main focus is to maintain a company culture steeped in creativity, teamwork, service and out-of-the-box thinking. Fun is always present at the office and can be seen at their craft days, sketching afternoons and monthly luncheons which usually involve movie trivia. Allison has grown her company to be a unique place of opportunity for designers as well as those creative minded individuals who want to be in an innovative and challenging environment where things are always changing and growth is not a noun but a state of mind.
Born in New York City and raised in Miami Beach, Allison dreamed of becoming an entrepreneur lawyer. She majored in business because she thought it would be a good foundation for law. She studied at Boston University's School of Management before finishing her degree at the University of Tampa. To her surprise she fell in love with everything business and took a different path. She then earned her MBA. Allison's work experience includes marketing communications and public relations. She considers her areas of expertise to be: organizational management, product development, creative direction and change management.
Allison enjoys sharing her passion for business and creativity through public speaking and writing.
She enjoys spending her free time traveling with her family, watching chick flicks, listening to '80s music, collecting interior design books, walking, writing, reading, dreaming of new products, touring universities and working on interior design projects that focus on rustic chic and modern vintage decor. She and her husband have three children and four chickens.