Aggressive marketing isn't exactly a hallmark of the typography industry, but that is exactly what enabled Julie Brumlick to transform her small shop, Scarlett Letters Inc., into what is now one of the top 10 typography companies in New York City.
Brumlick had labored for 10 years in relative obscurity out of a small office in Greenwich Village, setting type for trade journals. When her lease was up in 1980, Brumlick needed money to move and to purchase some sophisticated new typesetting equipment, so she went into partnership with Herman Mariee, owner of a Dutch graphic arts company, who was looking for an entree into the U.S. market. With Mariee's investment and her own funds, Brumlick spent close to $1 million moving to more spacious quarters, buying new equipment, and beefing up her operation to go after the most lucrative segment of the typesetting industry -- advertising agencies and glossy magazines that pay top dollar for overnight jobs.
But changing the face of her business wasn't as easy as Brumlick had anticipated. Between renovating the company's new offices and getting the bugs out of the new equipment, she all but closed down Scarlett Letters for nearly a year. "We weren't completely out of service," she says, "but we weren't able to produce even as well as we did at the old plant. We now had all this enormous overhead, and we had less production capacity than before. It was a mess." The company had lost $300,000 by the end of the year.
To recoup her losses, Brumlick had to get her foot in the door of the advertising agencies and magazines she had targeted as clients -- new territory for her. "Instead of having hundreds of little nameless shops as competition, I was going up against 25 or 30 well-known, well-financed, long-established shops. I had to make a more professional impact quickly." And since the established art directors already had long-standing relationships with Scarlett Letters' competitors, Brumlick knew she would have only limited success if she tried to interfere with those loyalties.
After ads in trade journals brought little response, Brumlick decided to use direct mail -- virtually unheard on in the typesetting business -- to go after younger art directors." They're the go-getters," Brumlick explains. "They have modern taste, and as they move up the ladder, they'd take us with them. It was our investment in the future." She began sending a series of imaginative, new-wave postcards, promising a free croissant with every morning delivery, to more than 6,000 potential clients. "We went from a shop doing a few hundred thousand dollars to a shop doing more than a million dollars within a year after we started doing the direct mail," she says.
But it wasn't just the direct mail that earned Brumlick such clients as Vanity Fair, Vogue, Time, and Essence. As an artist herself, she had a natural rapport with her clients and capitalized on this. The oft-described "Cyndi Lauper of the typesetting industry" spends a good portion of her day in her chauffeur-driven, confetti-colored, vintage Jaguar, making cold calls to follow up on her mailings. "Most other shops my size [$2 million in revenues in 1984] have salespeople. I don't. I see accounts every day. Most other type-shop owners rarely see their accounts." Scarlett Letters is so dependent on Brumlick's one-on-one relationship with clients that the company's sales drop when she is out of town.
Brumlick is fiercely proprietary about Scarlett Letters, and is in the process of buying back Mariee's share. "We have different interests," she says. "The typesetting industry is changing, and we're going to have to go in some different direction." Brumlick won't say what that direction is, but, as is her style, she is constantly looking ahead. In anticipation of more advanced links between computer graphics and typesetting, Brumlick is teaching art students to work on "digital paint boxes," specialized computers that can paint colored pictures. When the students graduate, she is hoping they will use Scarlett Letters for typesetting. "I've always been interested in what was about to happen," says Brumlick, "because that's how you take over markets . . . by being there in the beginning."
DONNA FENN | Inc.com Contributing Editor
Donna Fenn is the author of Upstarts! How GenY Entrepreneurs Are Rocking the World of Business and 8 Ways You Can Profit From Their Success, an exploration of the ways Gen Y is changing the entrepreneurial landscape.