Touring Sugar Paper LA

Building a company of your own takes a lot of trial, error, and risk. Where do you begin? How do you price your products? What does it take to keep going? As Sugar Paper Los Angeles co-founders Chelsea Shukov, 36, and Jamie Grobecker, 34, explain it, “You grow, you learn, you stumble, and you figure it out… and then you learn the next thing.” From their time together at UCLA to their small social stationery jobs for friends after college, Chelsea and Jamie have worked off each other’s creative, hard-working nature. Their shared passion has served as a foundation to build a career around stylish, sophisticated stationery. Between the online shop and single retail location in Santa Monica, you can find everything from notesets, notebooks, and thank you notes to calendars, coasters, and letterpress prints.

Developing their skills along the way, Chelsea and Jamie have found balance between staying involved with the art direction at Sugar Paper while growing their list of clientele and collaborations. “We both have a very strong work ethic and we are both very honest people. Those two things are critical.” As the company has doubled in size over the last year, so have the demands and the opportunities—and it seems like things are only going to get better. We are so excited to introduce you to these two college friends turned successful business partners, who took on the art of letterpress printing and created the brand they are proud to call their own.

Full Name: Chelsea Shukov
Age: 36
Current Title/Company: Founder + Creative Director, Sugar Paper Los Angeles
Year you founded the company: 2003
Educational background: Bachelor of Arts, UCLA

Full Name: Jamie Grobecker
Age: 34
Current Title/Company: Founder + Creative Director, Sugar Paper Los Angeles
Year you founded the company: 2003
Educational background: Bachelor of Arts, UCLA

What was your first job out of college and how did you land that position?
Chelsea: My first job out of college was working as the 2nd Assistant to a hugely powerful Hollywood producer. I landed that job through connections, as seems to happen in this town.

Jamie: My first job out of college was working as a personal assistant to the wife of a studio head.

How did your past work experiences and education prepare you to launch Sugar Paper?
Being the low man on the totem pole teaches you a lot. It teaches you how you want to be treated. It also teaches you a sense of immediacy. When your entire job is to serve the needs of powerful people, you learn quickly that any request needs to be handled immediately and professionally.

Tell us about how your business partnership began. Were you friends before beginning Sugar Paper? What advice do you have for those considering embarking on a business partnership?
Jamie and I met in college and going into business together was the furthest thing from our minds during our time at UCLA. Our business partnership happened soon after college, organically. I started dabbling in paper and Jamie was my closest friend at the time. We would do small social stationery jobs for close friends. Before we knew it, we both had an education in social stationery. She was the only other person who knew how to operate the letterpress that I owned and once it became clear that a career in paper was possible, we were already partners in a sense.

I think we got lucky because our partnership truly works. We are fiercely loyal to each other because we both feel that having a partner allows us to have a multi-faceted life.

So many people warned us about going into business with a friend, but somehow, it works for us. We both have a very strong work ethic and we are both very honest people. Those two things are critical.

Pricing products and services is one of the most mystical tasks when it comes to starting your own business. How did you settle on what was fair when you were first starting out? At what point (if ever) did you decide it was time to increase your rates?
Oh, man! We gave away the farm when we first began. We had no idea how to price our products so we just assigned a price that felt fair. As most artists do, we hadn’t accounted for our overhead properly and we had completely ignored our time.

We now know what it costs to make what we make… and what we need to charge to turn a profit. Our products tend to be pricey, but that’s specifically because they’re mostly made by hand and we know what it costs to make them.

What’s your advice to budding entrepreneurs when it comes to handling “difficult” clients?
The client is ALWAYS right. It may sound cliché, but it’s true. It’s important to have clearly defined boundaries so you can follow your own rules, but at the end of the day, if the client isn’t happy, the client isn’t happy. For more on this, read Seth Godin. We’re kind of obsessed…

How did you handle the financial burden of starting your own business? Did you have day jobs to provide steady income when you first began, or did you dive in full-time right away? What advice do you have for others who would like to take the leap into starting their own business but aren’t sure how to handle the financial aspects?
We had a tiny bit of seed money from our families. It wasn’t a lot and we had to stretch every dollar. We had jobs very early on, but it proved impossible to grow the business wisely while not focusing completely on it. We have both sacrificed financially for the business over the years.

What was the first position you hired on when you expanded your team? At what point did you know you were ready to hire on extra help?
We hired Ashley from Tennessee! She was the most fitting shop girl we had ever seen, with her darling Southern accent and her pink polo shirts.

We hire on a “need-to” basis. It becomes clear when you need help.

Did you ever struggle with handing over the reigns to other designers? How did you go about finding other designers who share your vision for Sugar Paper?
No, we have never struggled with that. Jamie and I are very involved in the art direction of everything we make. Plus, Erika, our head designer, has been with us for eight years. We all learned our skills together and have collectively shaped the brand.

Any young designer who works with us learns the brand over time. We have a very clear brand identity and we work hard to remain true to it.

At what point did you begin to sell Sugar Paper in other stores around the country? Tell us a bit about that process. What does an aspiring designer need to know about getting their products into other retailers?
We launched the wholesale line in 2011. We had been making products for our own retail stores for years, but that year we made a choice to launch the line officially. We took the line to the Stationery Show in NY. We weren’t sure how it would be received, but we ended up having an incredible show. That show truly launched Sugar Paper.

Sugar Paper is regularly featured in publications including Martha Stewart Weddings, VOGUE, InStyle, Lucky and Vanity Fair. Tell us about managing the press, marketing and spreading the word about Sugar Paper. How did you know where to begin?
Press is good, it’s important. It gets your name out there and tells your story. Our first bit of press came from a celebrity who ordered custom stationery and had it photographed for InStyle Magazine. It added instant credibility to the brand.

Tell us about a difficult challenge you’ve had to overcome since the launch of your business.
Growth is hard. Launching the wholesale line has been a huge learning curve for us. Figuring out how to manage an exploding press schedule is quite a feat. In the past year, we doubled the size of our staff and together created a distribution model. It’s been hard but our staff is awesome! We hire really smart, hard working people and we work it out together . . . that’s our way.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in building your own company?
Running a company is not easy but, if you love what you do, you keep going. You grow, you learn, you stumble, and you figure it out . . . and then you learn the next thing.

Best moment of your career thus far?
Right now. We have a new studio, our products are being shipped worldwide, we’re partnering with terrific companies to design stationery collections . . . It’s all very exciting.

What advice would you give to your 23 year-old-self?
Keep going. It gets better.