I recently did a guest post on the Rochester Brainery Blog about some of my favorite local suppliers and printers. Over the years, I’ve gotten quite a few emails from other creatives and entrepreneurs asking for advice on finding manufacturing partners, printers, and supplies, and heck, I’ve sent out tons of emails asking the same thing, and I wanted to share what I’ve learned.
Let me first say that I’m no expert, and I’ve definitely made a lot of mistakes along the way, but I want to share what has worked for me. This blog post isn’t going to tell you what printer to call, or who my favorite manufacturers are (*scroll to the bottom to see why), but hopefully you’ll walk away with some tools to use the next time you find yourself in need. Let me also say that this post isn’t directed at anyone. I applaud initiative, and I love seeing entrepreneurs start on their journey (more on that soon), and asking for help is HUGE, you’re not in this alone! If you’ve emailed me saying “hey where do you print your planners”, don’t feel that this is towards you because it’s happened multiple times, and I don’t hold that against you, or remember. I’m writing this to help you find your answers, by asking the right questions. And don’t worry, I was in your shoes too, and I’m still no expert. I feel fortunate to have a really wonderful network of people I’ve met over time that support and help each other regularly. I also spent hours emailing different companies, and learned what worked best for me, even after multiple failed attempts.This post is long, so grab some coffee, and start taking notes (okay fine, just pin this for later when you need it).
When it comes to supplies, I find that trying a ton of different tools is key. When I started learning modern calligraphy, I spent hours googling different nibs, inks, and I tested to find what worked best for my hand. The same goes for pens – so many people exclusively use Tombow Dual Brush Pens, but I prefer a plain old fine tip (Microns) so I can really draw the letters to life through my sketches. I’ve found a lot of people are sharing their favorite pens/papers etc on their blog, or tagging the brands on instagram. Some of these links may be affiliate links, but I like to think that if there’s an affiliate link, it’s because they truly believe in the product and want to share it.
DO YOUR RESEARCH
Here’s the situation: you’re a creative, and you have an idea for a custom daily journal you want to create with personalized pages, you want to make 50 copies, it’s going to be full color and, hard cover, gold foil, with a ribbon, and you have someone who is going to design it for you.
Start by researching, exhaust google until you literally can’t think of more things to search. This should take hours, days, and might be an ongoing process that spans years! One manufacturer definitely doesn’t fit all! Make a google doc with your findings. If you’re going to reach out to someone, they want to know you’ve done their research, and aren’t trying to copy something they’ve slaved over (can you blame them!?).
Finding the right paper for my cards took MONTHS of emailing different companies, getting samples, testing them on my printers, seeing how they folded, testing pens, etc. If I had just emailed another stationery line saying “what paper do you use” I may not have found the PERFECT paper for myself, and I certainly wouldn’t have earned their respect. Those hours of research taught me SO many things. I learned what type of pens work best on which papers, what type of texture I wanted, I explored recycled papers, and of course, the million options of white available! This research helped me shape MY product, and my brand. What works for my friends brand, isn’t the right paper for mine. For example, I love papers with a little grit, they’re recycled, and they’re not bright white, but for my line, they didn’t work, I like an uncoated, bright white paper for my brand, and I REALLY cared about how my pen felt on it. Bottom line, start by doing your own research… as if I needed an excuse to buy lots of paper! If you’ve sent a generic email to someone like that, and they didn’t respond, it’s not personal, but they might keep that information proprietary, and that’s A.O.K., it’s not to be rude! They don’t have enough information to reply to you, and just because it worked for them doesn’t mean it’ll work for you, really!
Here’s an example of an awesome email looking for printing advice: “cool i like your cards, where do you print them and what paper”, part of me feels like those HOURS of work I spent finding the perfect paper are discounted, and my time isn’t valued. When I get an email that says “Hi, My name is Blah Blah, and I run a greeting card company called “Blah Blah’s Cards” (with a URL). I really love your work and wanted to see if you had some advice. I’ve been using XYZ paper for months and recently ran into a snag, printing full bleed looks terrible because it’s inconsistent with the texture, and my new line has multiple full bleed illustrations (picture attached of the inconsistency)! Do you have any suggestions? I understand if this information is proprietary and you don’t want to share. I have your “ABC” card and thought the paper was really beautiful. I’ve also reached out to paper manufactures “X, Y and Z” and have sample packs coming for me to test.
When I get this email, and check out their site, I’m probably like “holy shit this person is awesome, add to cart $$$”. Then I can reply and ask them some questions, and make a suggestion (if I have one). If they reference something specific on Instagram, I go and check the post they were talking about (maybe they commented on it or liked it, or maybe they’re full of crap). Not only have I discovered a new product, but I’ve made a new virtual friend!
Honestly, I’ve found most of my referrals come from friends. I’ve made industry friends (not by asking them to divulge their manufacturers) but by genuinely liking their work, interacting with them online, or meeting them in person (if you’re not already doing this, you better start!). Then, when an issue came up for one of us (“help! My order from XYZ just came in and it’s terrible!”) we can bounce ideas, and offer suggestions. When you’ve got a relationship, people are MORE than happy to give you recommendations, help you, and watch your business flourish. For example: my friend recently had some MAJOR issues with her pins. She makes the damn cutest enamel pins, and her manufacturer kept delaying her order and she had some pretty annoyed customers because, these pins are to die for. Immediately, I reached out to another good friend, told her the situation, asked her if she had a suggestion, and then did my own google research, and sent her a list of 5 pin manufacturers that she might want to email. I don’t know if any of those led to a solution for her, but she values that I spent time helping her, and I know she’s returned the favor (one hundred fold).
SOLUTIONS (sort of)
*You may have gotten to the bottom of this post feeling annoyed that I didn’t list any manufacturers. You might feel like this isn’t helpful…. I know, you came here looking for links to the best printer around, but honestly I don’t know who that is. Without knowing your project, I have NO idea what to tell you. Send me an email with your details, show you’ve done your research, and I may be able to point you in the right direction (plus, am I really the right one to give you advice? Do you actually OWN my products?). If you’re asking about planners, my response will probably be “talk to Heather she’s amazing”. If you’re trying to make your own version of the Rule The World Planner, I’d really think long and hard before emailing someone with a competing product, are you trying to copy them? But if you’re making a book or product that serves a different purpose, I’d love to hear it (and design it too!) I have plenty of planner friends, and we all make our books very differently (some in China, some in the US, some are done on their dining room table by hand), and have helped each other out in times of need, but our relationships and email threads began after our products were established, and we felt genuine appreciation for the community. However SO many things go into that, and I want to list a few, and this is ONLY a start!
- Are you printing over 5000? If not, get ready to shell out a TON of money (okay if you’re ordering such a large quantity it’ll still cost a lot, but under 5000 means your price per book is going to be really high). Quantity plays SUCH A BIG ROLE in this process, that honestly without knowing this, it’s basically a shot in the dark.
- Have you tried printing and binding yourself? That’s a great way to start. I don’t own my own binding machine anymore, so I don’t know which is the best one for you (again, are you doing a saddle stitch, a wire-o, etc?) but have you met my friend google?
- Are you doing personalization?
- Do you care if your book/project is made in the US?
- Is your project realistic? Can you sell 5000 copies and how?
- Are you selling wholesale? And can you afford to sell wholesale?
- Do you know the industry demand/market/competitive pricing?
- Is it customized on the inside and outside?
- Are you looking for something green?
- Is your product going to add value/is it different from what’s out there? This isn’t exactly printer related, but I’ve found more and more planners popping up daily, and often makes me want to retire the RTW Planner, but I still love it, so it lives on for now! Make sure your product is original, and adds value, no matter what you do!
OFFER SOMETHING IN RETURN
You know what’s the cherry on top? When someone offers to buy you coffee for your time, or send you something. Actually, don’t offer it, just do it. I got some advice from a friend once, and BOOM gift card. Their advice was so full of value, I didn’t feel right not sending something. I do offer service where people PAY me to give them advice, or design their products, so just ASK if that’s a service that’s offered before you ask for advice. A lot of entrepreneurs (again I’m no expert) do coaching sessions, or are happy to talk to you, but their time is valuable (and so is yours, and they could be saving you a lot of it!).
MY MAJOR FLOP
I’ve alluded to it before, but I had a major meltdown a few years ago when I thought I found my perfect printer, and it ended in literal blood sweat and tears. I got my “proof” back, and it was HORRIFIC. I had invested thousands of dollars, and the company printed without my approval. The cover material was something I wasn’t proud of, and they weren’t willing to compromise. That year, I spent three months UNBINDING (which is painful, bloody, and very time consuming) over 1000 planners. I purchased NEW covers from another printer (with a MAJOR RUSH), got a binding machine, and REBOUND each and every planner. When this happened – I talked with two other people who make their own planners, and they helped! Our products are so different, and their help and experience was incredible, and feeling like I had support was great too. Looking back, it helped me make a BETTER product the following year, and I feel like I got some guns from it, plus I sat in front of the TV while doing it.
Bottom line: do your research, and know that EVERY project is unique, there’s no “one printer fits all” solution, and trial and error makes for a much better product. Also, manners, and The Office are amazing.