Paper Salad on trade exhibitions and why having great product alone doesn’t guarantee success ?

Paper Salad reflect on their very first ever trade exhibition and their subsequent journey to becoming successful greeting card publisher.

The trade mark colourful greeting cards by Paper Salad

As restrictions start to lift we can all look forward to trade shows once again.  Many of us often jokingly moan about either visiting or exhibiting at trade shows, but boy have we missed them.  We’ve missed the fun of catching up with industry friends and colleagues and of course we’ve missed the buzz of being in a hall full of people doing business.  We’ve missed seeing new products being displayed and the launch of new companies. 

The Paper Salad Stand at Spring Fair 2020

Trade shows are the lifeblood of the greeting card industry with many of today’s established publishers having kick started their businesses at a trade show.  Certainly in the pre internet days, it was the only way to find a network of agents and to reach a larger audience of customers, from both home and overseas.  

One such publisher was Paper Salad.  Business partners and fellow creatives, Karen Wilson and Claire Williams launched Paper Salad at Harrogate Home and Gift trade show 16 years ago but their journey began when both were studying for an HND in Surface Pattern Design and Textiles at Stockport College in 1998.  Karen was a mature student and Claire had diverted from a fashion degree course, when she decided that wasn’t for her.  

Claire Williams and Karen Wilson, joint owners of Paper Salad

The course was very industry based, so when the pair graduated in 2000, they were already what you could call ‘very commercial’ designers.  According to Karen it was easy therefore to set up as freelance designers and find agent representation but the difficult part was making a living, for at this time wallpaper and textiles where not in vogue.  However after being spotted by an agent specialising in paper products, whilst exhibiting at Surtex, in New York, the pair spent the next four years continually creating Christmas and birthday designs to be used on wrapping paper and gift bags.  After a  number of their designs were selected by greeting card publishers, the idea was floated that they should consider being publishers and create their own brand, the rest they say is history …

Claire and Karen on the fortuitous trip to New York

I recently caught up with Karen Wilson, to ask her about their very first trade exhibition and subsequent exhibition journey.  I started by asking how long they had been in business before undertaking their first trade show.  It turns out not long at all, Karen explains that they printed their first run of cards in time for the trade show at Harrogate. 

“We invested £10k in printing 32 designs”

We invested £10k in printing 32 designs, remembers Karen. Not being able to secure a small stand they had to take a 5 x 3 spot and so double faced the cards to fill the stand.  

Paper Salad’s first ever trade show stand at Harrogate in 2005

This all sounds like last minute planning but on the contrary, Claire and Karen, who had previously been licensing designs to other publishers, had spent the past two years going to every trade show, researching the market and working on their brand.  Karen, explains that the designing of the cards came last.  She says we knew we could easily do the design bit, it was all the business and marketing side of the industry that we had to research as well as work on our branding.  That early hard work obviously paid off as one of Paper Salad’s strengths is it’s clear individual brand identity.   Despite being a very product lead publisher, Karen and Claire were smart enough to realise the importance of being business savvy and that good product alone does not bring success in this industry.   Many of us who have been in the industry a long time have witnessed plenty of design led, fledgling publishers launch with fantastic product but within two years they are nowhere to be seen again.

Some of the very early Paper Salad cards

Claire and Karen were clearly prepared for their first ever trade show, but I wondered if it lived up to expectations.  “We came away with a full set of agents and sold our first print run within 3 months of the show” recalls Karen. 

The show clearly got them on the road to success, as they managed to turnover £120k in their first year of trading.  

Although that wasn’t without getting into some rather hair raising debt; having secured most of their funding in the form of grants, from the then government Enterprise Scheme and the Bolton Business Venture (both of which were granted on a match fund basis), they were then victims of their own success and struggled with the age old problem of cash flow.  With sales going so well they needed to re-invest in further print runs but with payment terms of 30 days or more, they were often still left waiting for payment from customers.  At one stage, before they finally made their business work, they found themselves with 90k of debt. Thankfully they kept their nerve and their business went from strength to strength.

Since doing their first ever trade show, Karen, a self confessed lover of trade shows, reckons they have exhibited at 60 or more shows.  In the early days they would design, build and set up the stands themselves. Karen recalls they would attach wheels to all the stand fittings, so she and Claire could easily wheel everything into the venues.  For the past six years they have had the luxury of a stand builder and just have to do the “nice bit”, as Karen calls it, of dressing the stand.  

Stand construction in progress

Their stand always looks inviting and eye catching and they keep it fresh by changing the design every year.  Karen and Claire plan it out together and draw inspiration from their own cards for their design.  At their most recent shows (pre-Covid), they were in the enviable position of having licensed their designs to a children’s clothes manufacturer, so were able to secure fabric of their designs to make cushions and lampshades in which to accessorise the stand. 

The finished stand at Spring Fair 2020

Both Claire and Karen have learnt much over the years and have made all the usual mistakes publishers make at shows, like putting up a stand for it only to fall over the night before the show, not taking enough brochures and even forgetting to pack the cards etc. Getting to grips with trade shows does take time, we learn from our mistakes but listening to those who have been there and done it before can perhaps help to eliminate some fundamental errors exhibitors often make.

The Hoopla children’s range

I asked Karen what tips she would pass onto anyone doing their first trade show.  “The main thing you need to ensure is that it is easy to take an order”, she said … “consider putting the card number on the front of each card, so you don’t have to keep turning the card over to see it’s design code.  Also avoid showing cards in cellos, as the lights can reflect off the cello wrap and make it difficult to see the actual cards.”  Karen also confessed that when they did their very first show they hadn’t really thought too much about the process of taking an order, not fully understanding that customers expected 30 day payment terms rather than paying on pro former or even the logistics of getting all the orders out after the show.  She also recalls that they were too quick to appoint agents and should have done more research or taken longer over the decision process.  

Female relation cards from the successful Hunky Dory range

There are no shortcuts to success, Karen admits it has taken them a long time to get to where they are now but not being an overnight success can work in your favour.  It was nine years before Paper Salad managed to get into the multiples but as Karen explains “we had made all our design mistakes by then, knew what sold and what didn’t so once we were in multiples we were confident our cards would sell well.”  Thinking back to that first ever trade show, did she and Claire ever dream they would be where they are now with their business. “No, we never dreamed we would be here but we were ambitious and did hope.  It has taken a long time for us to get to this stage but we are as hungry as ever and enjoying the new opportunities coming our way.” 

Cake celebrating Paper Salad’s 15th Anniversary, complete with Claire and Karen on top!

Paper Salad will be exhibiting at PG Live at the Business Design Centre in London on 27th – 28th July. You can view more of their great product on their website.

For more tips on the dos and don’ts of exhibiting at trade shows why not join the Creative Card Collective Facebook Group, where we have free handy information sheets full of useful advice available to download. See our About page for more information and how to join.

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