How the Rifle Paper Co. Founders Turned a Side Hustle Into a Thriving Lifestyle Brand
In the Women Entrepreneur series My First Moves, we talk to founders about that pivotal moment when they decided to turn their business idea into a reality—and the first steps they took to make it happen.
Anna Bond and her husband, Nathan Bond, were 24-year-old newlyweds when they decided to turn Anna’s part-time side hustle—creating hand-painted cards and invitations, primarily for weddings—into a full-blown stationery business. From the apartment above Nathan’s parents’ garage, the couple launched Rifle Paper Co. in 2009. Today, the Winter Park, Fla.-based company is a thriving lifestyle brand that offers far more than stationery, selling home goods, artwork, and accessories to adoring fans across the country. They’ve collaborated with brands including Keds, Paperless Post and Chatbooks withmore than $22 million in revenue. Below, Anna chronicles how she turned a passion into her livelihood and admits that every day is still a learning experience.
Step 1: Learn the industry.
As Anna and Nathan were circling the idea of actually launching a business back in the spring of 2009, she learned that the National Stationery Show -- a trade show where vendors exhibit their products and take orders -- was about to take place in New York. “I had no idea what a trade show was but figured I should probably go,” Anna says. “I just walked the floor to get a sense of what was happening in the industry, but it helped me realize that it’s what I want to do and helped me wrap my head around what would come next.” It also gave her a confidence boost -- the show was packed with plenty of letterpress options but not much in the way of the hand-painted designs Anna specialized in. “Our aesthetic wasn’t represented, so I felt really good about what we had and what we could do.”
Step 2: Make it official.
Anna had already been blogging and sharing her designs online under the name Rifle -- it’s how brides from across the country were finding her and asking Anna to design their weddings invitations. In terms of naming the fledgling company, Rifle Paper Co. was a natural evolution. “We hired an accountant to set us up as a business and got our name registered,” she says. From there, it was time to build a proper website. Anna visited the websites of other brands she admired and noticed the same developer had worked on a number of them; the couple reached out and made the hire. “It was a big decision, choosing between Etsy and building our own site,” she says. “But I wanted to come out strong and look like a real brand. We wanted to do whatever we could to look established.”
Step 3: Pinch pennies.
The website developer and Rifle Paper Co.’s first production run were paid with using money from the wedding invitations Anna had designed earlier that year. She and Nathan were also newlyweds at the time and had gotten good at stretching a dollar. “We lived off of nothing at the time, it was normal to us,” she laughs. “I didn’t have a job, Nathan was in a band, so we lived in Nathan’s parents’ garage apartment, rent-free, and we had a shoebox of gift cards we had received as wedding gifts. We lived on those for a long time.”
Step 4: Trial and (plenty of) error
Finding a printer to actually produce their product turned out to be a larger hassle than the Bonds anticipated. “I had no idea what I was doing,” Anna says. “I just called local printers and asked, ‘Hey, can you make a greeting card?’ Which, you know, what a total nightmare.” They settled on a printer and when they got their first run of cards, the product was all wrong. “They were cracked, folded wrong,” Anna says. “It hadn’t even occurred to me that they would not arrive perfect.” It took two more printers and two more weeks before they ended up with a round of cards they could actually send to customers, but they still had to do heavy damage control to make up for the delay. “We launched our website on November 23, and we did not take into consideration the fact that people would be ordering holiday cards.” Nathan emailed every customer personally to explain the delay, and to the entrepreneurs’ surprise, people were largely understanding. “Only one person canceled their order,” Anna says.
Step 5: Get an expert opinion.
After they survived multiple printer disasters, a friend who worked at Disney at the time suggested the Bonds get a printing rep. “Didn’t know what that was or what it meant,” Anna says, again laughing. “But she connected us to a rep, who helped us find the right printer, and we still work with her today. It’s how we started figuring out production.”
Step 6: Grow carefully and intentionally.
Because Anna had been sharing her designs on her blog well before the company launched, she already had an active fan base when the website finally went live in November of 2009. “People were excited when we launched, and we started getting requests for wholesale orders and partnerships right away, but we held off until we had production figured out.” Nathan, in particular, was focused on making sure they also had their pricing system right. (When Anna was creating wedding invitations, he regularly told her she was charging too little.) When they finally agreed to take on Anthropologie as their first wholesale account, they felt confident about the operation they were building.
Step 7: Keep learning.
Anthropologie was their first and only wholesale account for months, and at the 2010 National Stationery Show -- where, this time, Anna attended as an exhibitor -- they started taking orders from any and all wholesalers. “We still knew nothing,” Anna admits. “People were asking us for line sheets and we were like, ‘Uhhh, we’ll get back to you!’ Even today, something happens almost every week that I dont know about or need to figure out. There are always those moments of uncertainty, the challenges just change as you grow.”