A noteworthy e-commerce achievement

The founder of premium stationery and pens supplier Creoly, Adam Bowen, tells Emily Moore his success story

Creoly. Adam Bowen Picture: JON GUEGAN. (31930388)
Creoly. Adam Bowen Picture: JON GUEGAN. (31930388)

WHEN Adam Bowen returned to Jersey after seven years in Bournemouth, he was, by his own admission, ‘slightly lost’.

Having founded a web design agency in the UK after graduating from Bournemouth Arts Institute with a degree in graphic design, he knew that he wanted to work for himself and that he saw his future in e-commerce, but he was not quite sure how to progress.

‘I didn’t particularly enjoy my course, so, during my spare time, I taught myself the technicalities of web design and web development, knowing that, as soon as I graduated, I wanted to launch my own business,’ he recalled. ‘On my last day at university, I partnered with another guy on the course and we set up the agency, specialising in content-managed websites.’

While this experience affirmed Adam’s wish to work for himself, it also triggered a desire to enter the world of commerce.

‘I was buying layout pads from Behance, a company later bought by Adobe, and this gave me an interest in buying and selling products online,’ he explained. ‘When I came back to Jersey a couple of years later, I spoke to Morten Alexandersson, who was a friend from school and explained my ideas but said I wasn’t really sure where to start. He had founded de Crescent (now Onogo) and gave me a space in his warehouse to work from.’

He also invested in the business, enabling Adam to launch Creoly.

‘I started with about £6,000 and 20 lines – including the Behance layout pads – in a freezing-cold warehouse on the Esplanade,’ he chuckled.

And while the limited funds may have slowed the business’s initial growth, Adam is in no doubt that starting small had its benefits.

‘While it may have been a bit of a slow burner, I don’t think we would have achieved what we have if we’d had more capital at the beginning,’ he reflected. ‘We have only ever put an extra £10–15,000 into the business, so, every year, we have been recycling that investment. Every penny has always been really important, as we could only ever buy as much stock as we had money for but, gradually, we gained momentum and, last year, our turnover was £2.5 million.’

With money being tight in the early days, Adam attributes much of the company’s success to the relationships built with suppliers.

‘When we launched Creoly, many of the brands we were approaching were quite well established in retail and were not necessarily that interested in working with someone they had never heard of,’ he recalled. ‘We had to work really hard on building those relationships, something which remains critical to the business today. The better those relationships are, the further you can push those credit limits.’

Also critical to Creoly’s success was the decision to become an Amazon business.

‘My first plan was to sell the items through our own website but that was a struggle because we didn’t have the marketing budget to acquire new customers, and the product margins are not great on competitive lines that other people are selling,’ he explained.

‘Onogo was already trading on Amazon and, thanks to Morten’s insight, I quickly realised that was the platform for Creoly. With Amazon, the marketplace exists and the customer base is already being handled for you. You just have to manage the supply-chain processes and the products.’

While remaining with Amazon, Adam has evolved the range of products offered.

‘In the early days, the focus was very much on accessories for design-led creative professionals but I had more of a connection with stationery,’ he said.

While continuing to source products from established brands such as Lamy, Kaweco and Filofax, the company has recently developed its own-brand items.

‘I realised that, to maintain the growth we had seen each year, we needed to look at launching our own label, offering a range of products with a higher margin,’ said Adam. ‘We currently have a range of notebooks and pen cases under this label, and are planning to extend this range further.’

And, given the role of the Behance notebook in Creoly’s journey, it is perhaps unsurprising that this provided the starting point for the own-brand range.

‘The Behance notebook is a trendy item for designers and has a high price point,’ explained Adam. ‘By selling that, we saw the potential to offer something similar at a mid-end price point. From there, we worked backwards, coming up with a suitable selling price and then sourcing the best possible materials and finishes within that budget. That notebook is now our top-selling line in terms of profitability.’

Another area into which the company is diversifying is corporate personalised stationery.

‘This is a new area for us but, having spoken to a number of Island-based firms, we see tremendous potential for customised stationery,’ he said. ‘Most companies are currently sourcing items from UK suppliers. However, as businesses focus on sustainability and reducing their carbon footprint, the provenance of their stationery, and the materials used in its production, are becoming increasingly important.

‘A lot of notebooks either contain plastic or inks made from chemicals. However, we work with a partner whose products are either 100% recyclable or made entirely from recycled products, and whose ink is soy-based. This represents a really exciting opportunity for us to provide sustainable promotional materials which businesses can give to their staff and clients with a clear conscience.’

As an e-commerce business, Creoly – which ships 60% of all orders to America – has not been immune from the global impact of stock and logistics issues.

‘Covid was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster for us,’ said Adam. ‘In the early months, our sales fell by 50% as people stopped buying anything apart from toilet paper and pasta. For a small business with limited cash reserves, that made things difficult but, as the dust settled – and people realised that toilet paper was still available – sales started picking up again.’

And, as the orders resumed, the team noticed a change in people’s buying habits.

‘There was a big increase in accessories and home-office items,’ reflected Adam. ‘And there was also a huge demand for Posca paint markers, as there was a craze for painting on everything from trainers to pebbles. Unfortunately, Posca couldn’t manufacture enough of these markers to keep up with demand.’

But Posca was not the only company struggling with production levels.

‘Throughout Covid, there was a supply-and-demand issue, as many manufacturers closed down their factories,’ explained Adam. ‘We quickly saw that the winners in the third and fourth quarters of the year would be those with the stock, so, whereas we usually hold enough stock for 30 days’ business, we converted all of our cash reserves into stock so that we had enough for four or five months’ trade. That turned out to be a smart move, as we made the most of the Christmas quarter.

‘Now, the problems with stock have changed and are caused predominantly by a shortage of raw materials, which means that all the factories are now fighting for the same products. As an example, Kaweco pens are made from brass and the manufacturers can’t get hold of any brass.’

While Adam says that such issues are only affecting Creoly ‘in a small way’, one area which is having a much larger impact is shipping.

‘All of our stock comes into the Island and the orders are fulfilled locally,’ said Adam. ‘Everything sent using Jersey Post goes to their conveyancing partner in the UK, where the items are then sent to their final destination in the hold of various passenger planes. Of course, with nearly all planes being grounded during the pandemic – and airlines still not operating full schedules – the surcharges were astronomical, and remain very high.’

With Creoly’s biggest market being America, followed by Germany, France, Canada, the UK and Japan, the complexity of fulfilling orders is significant.

‘E-commerce is very fast-paced. In our eight years of trade, we have dealt with different sales channels, tax changes and supply-chain variations,’ said Adam. ‘Before Brexit, US President Donald Trump changed the country’s postal tariffs, so postage rates to America jumped by 140%. Accordingly, another key focus for us in the first quarter of next year is to see if our suppliers can send goods directly to warehouses in the US for us.

‘That is also key if we want to continue growing our revenue in America, as companies such as Walmart are now catching up with Amazon over there. However, to sell through Walmart, we need a US business entity.’

In the meantime, though, the eight-strong team, based in St Peter, is gearing up for the traditional fourth-quarter sales peak.

‘Sales have now resumed their normal pattern following Covid, so we are expecting to see a high volume of gifting orders over the next few weeks,’ said Adam. ‘After that, we will return our focus to growing both the corporate and retail arms of the business.’

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