Notely · Jenice Smith

Jenica created a stunning sustainable stationery company. Notely gives you the perfect blank canvas to draw, dream and jot. Designed, printed and bound in Brisbane, Australia.

March 17, 2021
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  • Notely
  • Founder - Jenica Smith
  • Based in Brisbane, Australia
  • Started in 2014
  • 1 founder, 1 employee, few freelancers

Founderoo caught up with Jenica to hear the story of her business, creating stunning stationery made in Australia.

This is a lovely story of how creativity and passion can create beautiful and simple products.

Jenica, what's your backstory?

My high school art teacher recommended a new pilot program the school was offering, and I landed in a traineeship with a leading advertising agency. 

Going there each week opened my eyes to people making a living through being creative. It was busy, chaotic, fun and creative people doing cool stuff — that’s when I knew it was the path for me.  

I went on to study Creative Industries at QUT here in Brisbane, then worked in advertising in marketing agencies for around ten years before deciding to go back to Uni to do my Masters in Digital Design. 

About ten years ago, I worked as the sole designer in an agency and began to feel really disconnected from the wider creative industry. I started writing a blog called Design Montage.

I interviewed fellow creatives from across Australia, which quickly flourished into a humming online hub of creatives with me sharing their story (similar to what we’re doing now!) 

The blog began to outgrow what I could cope with while working full time, and it started to get this life of its own, but I still wasn’t yet able to properly monetise it. This was before the rise of Instagram and more influencer culture on social media that we have today.

Although I’ve since taken the blog down, you can see some of the videos we created for Design Montage and the side project Creative Fuel here.

This video was very popular with 37K views.

During this time, I was also burning out mentally and physically from running the blog, working full time, and finishing my masters. 

I started to pull back from the blog and think about the idea, “what if I could collaborate with the creatives I’ve met through my blog but create something tactile that we’re all proud of?” 

Getting away from the computer trying to reassess, I started journaling again. I began to fall in love with writing, and loved the experience of handwriting in a journal. 

I began researching where and how stationery products were made and saw a gap in the market for beautifully designed but eco-friendly and Australian made notebooks and journals.

Tell us what your company does?

At Notely we make simple, sustainable stationery, to help you do your best work! 

Our notebooks, journals, cards and totes are designed in Brisbane and printed here with environmentally conscious paper and minimal wastage.

We collaborate with local Australian artists, illustrators and designers to give them a platform to share their artwork and tell their story and give back to environmental causes that we care about.

How did you come up with the idea?

Talking to creatives I’d met through the Design Montage community about what they loved about the site—it all kept coming back to the fact that it helped them launch or catapult their creative career. 

So I began to think about how I could continue to do this for upcoming artists while also creating a tangible product (to sell) that we were both really proud of? 

Also, being a graphic designer for so many years, I loved paper and designing around the colours or texture of paper, so I began mocking up notebooks with potential names and designs.

How did you come up with the name of the business?

I had a rough list of names that I kept talking about and showing to a few friends. We all decided that “Notely” was the strongest, and I couldn’t believe that the domain name was available!

How did you go about building the business?

For about 4 months I played around with prototypes of the notebooks, colours, and paper samples. I did lots of research and started talking to a couple of artists about commissions for the first collection.

I held a mini focus group with friends to show them the mockups, explain the concept and get some feedback. This was good confirmation that I was onto something, and it had merit to pursue.

The rest of it didn’t seem like work at all! Being a graphic and digital designer, creating the brand, getting the website up and designing the products was all play really. 

It got REAL and a bit scary when I had to push GO on the first run of products – all funded by my savings to get it off the ground.

What did you need to do for the launch?

Looking back, I’d say I was naive about launching a business in general. I could design ALL the things and felt that was all that was needed.

It was a week or so before the launch that I started social media posts to talk about the range “coming soon”. Then I launched! 

It wasn’t until a while later I realised I needed to push traffic to the site and work “on the business”-a very different headspace to designing pretty notebooks!

How have you grown the business?

Honestly, Notely has grown slowly over the years. We aren’t one of those incredible startup’s exploding in sales all over the press. 

Being a creative thinker meant I spent way too much time thinking about designs, social content and ideas for the product range, and not the bottom line of actually making money. 

I still wasn’t even profitable for a while, and my design work helped fund each collection. 

A big turning point was hiring my good friend from school, Tessa, to help manage and run the wholesale part of the business. 

Tessa helps bring a fresh perspective to the team and a good sounding board for making decisions. Tessa’s very organised, and her productive brain helps keep my creative brain in check! 

In the early days, I did so many local maker markets to get exposure and get the brand out there. Doing a couple of trade shows helped kick off and grow our stockists base across Australia and New Zealand.

What have been some of your biggest failures along the way?

I was not looking at the numbers. For too long, I focused on all the fun, creative parts of the business. These days it’s 20% creative and 80% running the business. 

About two years ago, I implemented an inventory system and I could start to see which products were performing better than others. Putting on my “business hat” I began to make better decisions and know where to spend my time. 

I’m also constantly learning, whether it’s through online resources, podcasts or books. I feel there’s always so much to learn when you’re in business.

What’s your biggest selling product?

Our long term best seller is our 200-page Botanical Journal featuring a lush watercolour design by children’s book illustrator Sophie Gilmore. 

More recently, our new Cup Notes range has been our growing next best sellers. The covers are made from recycling takeaway coffee cups, and each pair of notebooks saves one coffee cup from landfill. 

These are available in lined, dot grid or blank, and the 380gsm cover is toothy, feels divine and our Notely community LOVES the Mustard and Olive set!

What day to day digital tools do you use?

We moved to Shopify for our online store in late 2020, and I wish we’d done it sooner. 

For five years prior, we used Woocommerce, and Shopify is far superior. For managing our inventory and invoices, I use the Trade Gecko (now Quickbooks Commerce) dashboard daily, and our stockists can log in and place orders, which links to Quickbooks for our accountant. 

Tessa and I chat regularly on Slack, Asana, and we use Mailchimp for email comms but are in the process of moving to Klaviyo, as well as Google Analytics and Instagram

What book has been a great inspiration to you as a founder?

The 5am Club – Robin Sharma. This book has really changed my routine in the last 12 months. Learning to “own your morning” is the best way to set yourself up for a great day ahead. 

Creatively, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron has been life-changing. The work I did in my design career was always to a client’s brief or someone else’s requirements. Through the “morning pages” of regularly writing down the chatter in your brain, you begin to find your true self.

I know this sounds wishy-washy, but SO many of the creatives I interviewed for my blog all those years ago quoted this book as changing their life. And it did for me. 

For so long, I was a “shadow artist”, too afraid to step out into the limelight and find my creative self. It allowed me to find my voice and grow the confidence to include my designs into the Notely range — amongst all of the stunning artists I revered so much. 

Also, Deep Work by Cal Newport made me reassess how many tabs I had open at all times! Closing everything down and having a single focus has massively increased my effectiveness by doing “deep work”

Anything you read, watch or listen to that help's you run your business?

The mentoring of Jo Hook has also been incredibly life-changing for Notely and my creative journey. Jo’s based in Melbourne and consults with a range of creatives and businesses across Australia. She’s helped and still working on helping me to find the balance between work and life when both are so very intertwined.   

For podcasts, I love the interviews with other founders in ecommerce by Brissie local Nathan Bush – Add to Cart.

And I love How I Built This by Guy Raz, Shopify Masters, and the Design Better podcast. 

What are the biggest pieces of advice you’d give to other founders?

Know your numbers from day one. I fought this for so long by thinking the fallacy that “I’m the creative person… not the numbers person!” 

If not, find someone who is! I recommend building a team around you with skills in areas you’re not good at, so you each complement each other and bring different opinions to the table. 

What keeps you up at night regarding your business?

Finding the cash to put into another collection of the product was hard in the early days. There never seemed to be enough momentum or profitability to do that frequently enough. 

Cashflow worries are still at the back of my mind, but I try to have more of a buffer these days. 

Frequently I have to sit down and go through all expenses and work out where the leaks are. It’s too easy to get complacent in a small business and have money going here, there and everywhere without fully assessing if it’s needed.

Currently, I’m trying to streamline processes and offload some things from my plate. Trying to identify those things and how to do it is what’s keeping me up at night!

What's the biggest surprise you've had as a founder

It makes my heart sing that our Notely community supports our brand by gifting or purchasing our notebooks and journals. And it’s even better waking up to messages of people using their Notely's in all kinds of locations. 

Having friends send me photos of Notely’s they’ve spotted in stores around Australia is just wonderful.

Have you ever felt like quitting, if so why?

I’ve gone through periods of burnout and exhaustion a couple of times, where I could barely do the minimum required for the business. It kind of plodded along until I got back on my feet again. 

Taking time out and mental space from the business allowed me to refocus and then get back at it. 

Nowadays, I’m better at picking up the signs of it much earlier, whether I start to feel more and more tired or can’t make decisions. 

For nearly 15 months now, I’ve done yoga every day in some form, whether it’s bedtime to wind down my brain or in the morning to kick start the day. 

I’m also trying to meditate to calm my mind and journal regularly.  Regardless of how busy I am, blocking time for yoga and other exercise has kept me more level headed for the long term.

What quote(s) do you live by?

“Everything you've ever wanted is sitting on the other side of fear”
- George Addair
“Progress, not perfection, is what we should be asking of ourselves.”
– Julia Cameron, The Artist's Way

In a few words what does it mean to be the founder of a business?


Where can people find out more about your business?

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