When Anna and Nathan Bond got married in 2008, Anna, a graphic designer, illustrated the wedding invitations with her quirky drawings. They were such a hit that she and her husband launched Rifle Paper a year later. What started as an online store with a few dozen stationery products now sells iPhone covers, wallpaper, and, beginning next spring, clothing and bags, to more than 4,000 stores globally. "We got started in stationery, but we've always viewed Rifle as a lifestyle brand," Nathan explains. That's a tall order. But the Bonds' solid feel for Rifle's visual identity, their rigorous focus on margins, and their global strategy have contributed to the company's dramatic growth.
Brand before you expand
Anna's bold, colorful illustrations are at the center of Rifle Paper's business. "I love purposeful imperfection," Anna says, describing the look that has become Rifle's signature style. The Bonds always knew these whimsical designs could work well beyond paper. But rather than immediately putting the illustrations on a wide variety of products, they focused their energy and time on establishing a strong visual brand identity and building consumer loyalty with a small collection of 50 mostly paper products, sold online. When they felt the market was eager for their designs on other items, they made their move into new product categories, like iPhone covers, launched in 2013. "Once we established the look, we pushed the parameters," Nathan says.
"When we're looking to develop a product, we'll pick a retail price range before we know anything about the production costs," Nathan says. They generally target the upper-middle range of the proposed product's overall category, with an eye toward how that price would fit with the prices of the other items in their collection. It also must project a brand image that says "nice and not cheap," says Nathan. The Bonds then calculate production and market variables, including profit margin, inventory costs, and turnaround time, to ensure profitability. If the margins aren't right, they won't go ahead with the product. The only exception: a $145 wooden recipe box that made financial sense initially but became less profitable over time. They turn a profit on the box if it's sold direct online, but not wholesale.
Go global early
One of the reasons the Bonds are so interested in maximizing profit margins is that they are building a global business. Part of the process involves working with international distributors, which sell Rifle Paper products in 36 countries. This channel demands heavy discounts. "They pay to import your goods, market your products, and pay their reps in each individual country, which adds up," Nathan says. But working with these distributors is worth it, he says, because Rifle Paper is creating a worldwide following. "Counting on a U.S. market to be 100 percent of your sales is risky," Nathan says. "We want to be as diversified as possible, so if our economy softens, then we have a strong customer base in, for instance, Sweden and Japan."