Paper Dreams: How the Support of My Family Business Helped Me Start My Evergreen Company
Elizabeth Rees, Chasing Paper
June 13, 2016
My family runs a successful 80-year-old company. But when I wanted to jumpstart my own dreams, I was able to use their support system to build my own Evergreen company.
In the Evergreen community we talk about Pragmatic Innovation — embracing growth by taking calculated risks. That’s exactly what I did three years ago when I founded Chasing Paper, a removable-wallpaper company. It’s a forward-thinking, New York-based design company, but its roots stretch deep into the Midwest. I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where my family runs Kubin Nicholson, a large-format printing company founded in 1926. Though the paper business is in my blood, for most of my life I was always more passionate about striking out on my own.
For three and a half years I worked at National Geographic in New York, building corporate partnerships. At the time, I honestly had no interest in working in the family business.
But in 2010, my father asked me if I would help him usher the company into the 21st century. I somewhat reluctantly agreed and set up my own satellite office in Manhattan.
I tasked myself with building Kubin Nicholson’s website and helping with marketing content, things the company had never really had before. At the same time, I started learning about the business in a way I hadn’t as a kid — and I actually found it to be fascinating. I was riveted by all sorts of granular details, like what materials they were using for printing and how they created billboards. Within a couple years, I brought in National Geographic as a Kubin Nicholson client, and I started looking around for some other fun opportunities.
A friend, Katia Beauchamp, co-founder and CEO of Birchbox, asked me to help create some birch tree wraps (made from Kubin Nicholson paper) for the support beams in her office. It was just a one-off project, but it turned out to be so exciting. The paper beams were aesthetically transformative, and they created a lot of buzz. Plus, they weren’t permanent, which is important when you’re in a rental office space.
Flying on this success, I looked into removable wallpaper. I found some very expensive options and some low-end wall decals. But there was nothing in the middle. No one was creating well-designed, on-trend removables that felt like traditional wallpaper. The lightbulb flicked on.
I launched Chasing Paper with a small amount of capital, one photo shoot and a website. I wanted to make sure I was moving forward but limiting my risk as much as possible, so I decided to place Chasing Paper under the umbrella of Kubin Nicholson. Think of it the way West Elm is part of Williams-Sonoma but also stands as its own company. The family business helped me establish Chasing Paper, although we manage our own profit and loss.
Three years later, we’re tracking to grow sales 15 percent beyond our projections. Chasing Paper has been written up in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Martha Stewart Living. We have an exclusive collection with West Elm and another with Bloomingdale’s. I work with the top materials designers and have even staged photo spreads in Real Simple and Better Homes and Gardens. The right people are paying attention.
Chasing Paper produces 100 percent of its prints through Kubin Nicholson. I liaison for Kubin Nicholson, and I’m still on their board. We have a lot of crossover with people and ideas. There is a Kubin Nicholson production manager who works on Chasing Paper about 30 percent of her time. And while I’ve learned so much about the paper industry from my father and grandmother, I like to think they are learning from me as well. They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but Chasing Paper has certainly given Kubin Nicholson a lot to consider in the world of e-commerce and technology. In fact, after Chasing Paper set up a digital sales portal, Kubin Nicholson followed suit.
It is so exciting and fun to be contributing to the family business while still carving out my own space. With family dynamics in an Evergreen business, the trick is finding something you’re passionate about. I feel so fortunate that this cool business venture is steeped in my family’s history.
Elizabeth Rees is the Founder of Chasing Paper.