Durham based Spoonflower is a creative digital printing company that makes it possible for anyone to print their own custom designed fabric, gift wrap, decals, and wallpaper. Stephen Fraser, one of the co-founders, shared the story of how the company got it’s start and weathered tough times to become the largest digital textile printer in the world.
The idea for Spoonflower grew out of the frustration of Stephen’s wife, Kim, who could not find the ideal sized polka dot fabric for curtains she wanted to make. The name comes from the white arrow arum flower, commonly known as Spoon Flower, which grows in the Fraser’s backyard.
Stephen and co-founder, Gart Davis, knew nothing about textiles or manufacturing when they started the business six years ago. What they did know was that they could use the internet for the front end of the manufacturing process. Both Gart and Stephen previously worked at Lulu.com, another local company offering online print-on-demand self-publishing.
Stephen and Gart turned to North Carolina State University College of Textiles and [TC]2, to learn about the textile industry and what was needed to print fabric on-demand. Through their research they found that what they needed was a digital printer to be able to print fabric by the yard. Most fabric is mass manufactured using a rotary screen printer, which is the equivalent of an offset printer in the printing industry. Like digital presses for print, a digital printer for textiles allows for smaller print runs. With a digital printer the per unit cost is the same whether you print one yard or a thousand yards. Another plus of digital, on-demand manufacturing produces less waste.
When the company began, they did not have an office or a printer. They pulled money form their savings accounts and hired a web designer to build a basic website. They invited a few people to join the community every week. They printed their first orders at [TC]2 on their test printer. After awhile interest in the concept grew and they rented office space and bought a printer. Their first employee was a Spoonflower blog reader who volunteered her time. She still works there, but now she gets paid!
While they were starting to see success, it was not an ideal situation. They could not continue to pay software developers to work on the website and back end production processes. Gart had spent time as a coder in the past, so he brushed up on his skills and taught himself Ruby on Rails. He built their system to solve a specific problem, and it has contributed to their success.
While Gart was developing the software needed to operate the business, Stephen was learning how to repair ink jet printers. The printing part of the business has not been easy. After awhile the printer stopped working and they needed to find funding to purchase a new one. This was around the time the economy collapsed, so getting a loan was difficult. They received a grant from NCidea.org, a”not-for-profit organization created to serve as a catalyst for young, high-growth, technology companies in North Carolina,” and acquired loans form others, including their ink supplier.
During this time they started getting noticed by online creative communities, and were featured on the NYTimes.com website. The business was gaining interest and attention, but for the first year, they had no income and lived off of loans and credit cards. But a community was forming around Spoonflower. A community of creatives, crafters, and makers who like to share what they make.
Spoonflower didn’t spend money on advertising to bring people to their site, their community was all they needed to attract people to their site. People are excited about the designs the create to print and the things they make with them, and in this increasingly social world, sharing what they create is easy. It’s not just the creators and makers who are sharing, it’s also curators who collect and share the designs and products created with Spoonflower materials.
I loved hearing how Spoonflower has grown because of their community. It is the same way with AIGA Raleigh. I love being a part of this community, contributing to its growth, and seeing it evolve through the efforts of our community. Communities are powerful and generate a huge impact. As Spoonflower can attest to. Their community is 1 million strong and growing. Many members have developed a following and have been recruited to design fabrics for major manufacturers. In fact, every major fabric manufacturer has at least one collection from a designer found on Spoonflower.
When the company moved to Durham, they had 10 employees. In the fours years since they have grown to over 100 employees and operate 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, and they are negotiating to expand their space. Hundreds of thousands of people use the service, there are more than 3 million designs in their shop, and they have changed the fabric industry. Pretty impressive.
But back to this community thing. Because Spoonflower does more than just print textiles. They increase people’s choices and make it accessible for everyone to learn to create repeating patterns and their own custom designs. Sharing is encouraged within the community and their weekly design contest spurs engagement among the community and even inspires people to learn and improve their design skills. This is how the community grows. The Spoonflower community creates a place where people aren’t afraid to try things, to experiment with the available materials and knowledge they have and improvise to learn something new. Which is quite fitting, as that is pretty much the story of how all this started. It’s also the reason we invited Stephen to share the Spoonflower story, as it is something AIGA Raleigh can relate to. It is our community of volunteers sharing their knowledge, trying new things, and collaborating that keeps us growing.
Thanks again to Stephen for sharing the Spoonflowe story. It was inspiring, and I’m thinking I might want to design some giftwarp or fabric, maybe some wallpaper. Who knows?