Caroline Weaver is the founder of CW Pencil Enterprise, a curated pencil shop that brings beautiful writing supplies to a whole new level. She founded this business as an online store in 2014, and opened a physical location shortly thereafter. We had the chance to chat with her about starting and maintaining a business, and more than anything else, the importance of trusting your gut. Get out a pencil readers...you'll want to take notes.
I’m curious about what you were doing before this. Can you tell me just briefly the story of your career so far?
I’m pretty young, I’m 26. I went to art school in the UK, not necessarily because I wanted to be an artist but I was interested in that way of learning and that way of looking at the world. So, I did that and then I moved back to New York because I didn’t have a job yet, so my visa was going to expire if I stayed. So I moved to the one place I really wanted to live, which was [New York], and took some odd jobs for a while until I got a job working in corporate retail at a stationary company.
I kind of hit a wall there, I wasn’t happy doing those sorts of things, so I decided to take what I learned from that job and start my own shop, which in the back of my head was something I’d do eventually. I think it’s really important for everybody to have one job that they really hate, because it puts any other job you have before or after that into perspective and makes you understand a bit more about what you do want in a job and what makes a good job.
You launched as an online shop. How did you decide to open a brick-and-mortar one too?
It was definitely the endgame, to have a real store. In New York City, it’s really expensive so I wasn’t willing to commit to a physical store until I knew it could be a thing. And the problem with opening a shop like this was that I couldn’t do any market research, there wasn’t anything like it. And so I just kind of had to go with my gut. I started the online store and it wasn’t wildly successful but it was enough to kind of give me an idea of how broad the audience might be, which ended up being way broader than I ever anticipated and that kind of gave me the confidence to start a store.
You sell things from so many different places! Can you find everything you need from one place or do you have to go case by case to get them all?
I feel like unlike a lot of other stationary shops, we deal with most of our brands individually. It’s not like we have six distributors who distribute different brands. A lot of it is going to other places to actually talk to these people at a trade show, or sending a lot of really obnoxious emails until they finally respond. Some of these companies in Japan and in really far away places [have] websites that aren’t really easy to translate. It’s sometimes not possible to even find an email address that somebody will answer to, so the hunt to get stuff is pretty challenging. But once we’ve gotten there it’s not a problem.
We’re super, super committed to getting the things that are impossible to get. It’s a challenge having such a niche shop and having it not just seem like a novelty. There’s a very fine line there.
How does your work cycle change throughout the year?
That’s something we’re still figuring out, honestly. Summer’s always slow. Back to school time is busy, like between August and early October. Because we’re in New York too and because we’ve had a lot of press in faraway places, we get a lot of tourists. Spring Break time is really, really busy. Holiday time’s a challenge though, making sure the shop is properly staffed and that we are able to fulfill all the online orders we’re getting. Every year we set our shipping cutoff a little bit earlier because we’ve learned there’s always going to be a problem. [For Valentine’s Day] we do bouquets of pencils, which basically means we just keep nice red satin ribbon in our desk and offer to properly bundle everyone’s pencils. We try to make an opportunity out of any sort of holiday or significant event. You kind of have to when you’re trying to maintain a certain level of traffic in your store.
You’ve received quite a bit of press – I first read about you in the New York Times! Was it all word of mouth or did you end up reaching out to different publications to help spread the word? It was kind of a little bit of a snowball effect, one blog post led to an online magazine, which led to a bigger online magazine, which eventually led to the New York Times and from there it just kind of blew up in my face. It was really challenging when it did happen because I didn’t have the staff or the capacity to be able to keep. Now, when we know something’s coming up, we know exactly what to expect.
Everything you sell is beautiful, and it’s also extremely affordable. Is it difficult to support yourselves with such inexpensive products?
We get a lot of people asking us about that, about how can we possibly run a business selling pencils. It’s not as easy as it would be if we were selling higher priced items. We definitely could be charging a lot more for what we sell, but it’s really important to me to keep it accessible. If we start charging like 30% more for these things then this shop is kind of a gimmick. I want people to be repeat customers, I want them to feel like they trust us … and If we’re charging for something that’s actually what it cost.
We’re profitable, I mean we’re not super profitable like we can pay everybody and pay our rent easily, but we’re never going to be like a humongous profitable business just because it’s not the way the model is set up. I’d spent a really long time with a calculator playing out every possible situation. If my rent gets increased, what positions to hire are of the most value and would make the most sense for us to spend our money on? That sort of stuff.
With [our upcoming] move it’s become a little challenging because we’re factoring in growth. We’ve outgrown our shop. We do a subscription service with like 250 people on the waiting list and we can’t fulfill any more because there’s just not space to store all the things we need to do that. I never want to outsource fulfillment like any of those big retail stores do. That defeats the entire purpose of what we do here! Our whole thing is that it’s a personal experience and we make the things that we sell feel really, really special and I never want to outgrow that.
What’s your least and most favorite part of the job?
I love talking to customers. I really, really do. I don’t get a lot of days in the shop anymore, maybe like one a week…and that’s my favorite part, talking to strangers and learning about what they’re interested in. We meet a lot of awesome kids too, which is really fun and really encouraging.
My least favorite part is the stress that comes with all of this stuff. A lot of our customers kind of put this business on a pedestal because we do a good job running it and I think the pressure of that…is a little much sometimes.
How much of your life does this job take up?
It’s definitely more than a full time job. It’s always the priority and if that means I have to sacrifice a day off because I have to be here because we just had an article published and we’re drowning in orders then that’s what I have to do and that’s what I would do.
Every year it feels a little less stressful and a little less tiring and I get a little bit better at leaving it at work. We’re getting there, it’s a process that’s for sure. My life is all about pencils.
So then do you see this as a forever project in a way?
Yeah, kind of. I mean there will come a day when the business can kind of run itself without me. I don’t think I will be doing this for my entire life, I mean maybe I’ll want to open other shops or retire earlier or take on other projects. All the things that I thought would happen in about 10 years of doing this happened in 2. So it’s kind of hard to tell right now, to be honest. Having a shop is really stressful, it’s a lot of work. It really effects what you can and can’t do during holidays and it’s challenging to take vacations and not feel completely stressed out the entire time. If I were to have a family one day, I’d really like to have a job that’s a little less full on. But that’s all stuff for the future. Right now, I love it.
Okay, but what do you do? Please write your answer as if you're explaining it to your ten-year-old self.