By Keith Loria
Stephen Fraser understands it pays to listen to your wife. During a late-night conversation about two years ago, his wife Kim, a sewing enthusiast, uttered words that would change their lives forever: "You know what would be really cool? If I could print my own fabric."
At that time, Stephen was working as an internet marketing consultant and had just left a job with Lulu.com, a print on-demand book publishing company.
"I didn't know anything about fabric or sewing but I knew something about the way the internet could function as a front-end for digital manufacturing,"he explains. "I looked around and there was no way to print your own fabric and there was no reason why you couldn't do it. No one had put the idea together with the internet just yet."
He took the innovative idea to his former boss Gart Davis. Over coffee, the two entrepreneurs decided to test the waters on offering print-on-demand fabric. They created a generic marketing survey to measure a demand for the service and the response was overwhelming.
"Over the summer of 2008 we rolled out a website, which didn't do much more than allow you to upload a design and place it in a shopping cart,"he says. "It was by invitation only, comprised of the list of e-mail addresses we had collected from the survey."
The first few hundreds of orders were shipped from the Frasers' kitchen table, but word spread quickly and soon Spoonflower was a hot topic of sewing circles, websites and fashion blogs all over the Internet. In just a few short months, the waiting list grew to more than 10,000 orders and it was time for the business to become a lot more sophisticated.
Expanding from the kitchen
In October 2008, Spoonflower moved its headquarters to an old sock mill in downtown Mebane, NC, and built its staff up to nine workers.
"We have five textile printers now and have about 50,000 people using the site,"Fraser says. "We also opened the site up so anyone can register."
The overall process has improved as well. After a user uploads a digital design, the first step is to choose the layout for the design (options are to tile it to fill the area of fabric, stagger the repeat horizontally or vertically, mirror it or center it.)
"You then choose the fabric you want - we offer five currently and are about to add two more - and the amount of fabric you require," Fraser says. "It can be as small as an 8-inch by 8-inch swatch, which is $5, or you can order two [yards], or 50 [yards] or 100 yards [ranging in price from $18 to $32 per yard]. Whatever you need."
All orders are printed and shipped within seven business days and the company hopes to decrease this timeframe as it acquires additional printers.
The company prints using pigments, which are more economical and much more eco-friendly than the dyes typically used to print fabrics, and also can be used on untreated fabrics, which are simply run through a heater after printing to set.
The use of pigments allowed Spoonflower to make its product affordable to "regular"people, says Fraser, but its use does require sacrifice in the form of color range, which is not as wide as that of dyes.
That said, its customers are quite delighted with the results, and Fraser also notes that the newest generation of pigment colors is "fabulous" and far superior to what was previously available.
At any rate, he notes, "It doesn't matter what we think. It matters what [the customers] think. If it makes them happy, and it does, it's a product worth selling."
Customers drive the site
Fraser and Davis share a business philosophy that "you should always try to see what you are doing through the eyes of the customer and never lose site of what's important to them."
"We exist only to the extent that we can serve the needs and enthusiasms of people using our service," Fraser says. "Our business is 100 percent internet based and 100 percent of marketing is from word of mouth. What we worry about is how to make the site easier to use so more people can use the service. The more we can do, the more accessible it will be."
Catering to the enthusiasts using the site is a big reason that more than 50 percent of Spoonflower users have come back to order more.
Constant software improvements have allowed the company's offerings to become more sophisticated, user-friendly and even social. Clients can now share and comment on each other's designs, for example.
In October, the company opened up a marketplace where fabric designers can sell their original designs. Earnings from the sale of those designs can accrue in an account to use for future Spoonflower purchases, or can be forwarded to a PayPal account.
"If you upload a design, you now have the option to make it available to other people and as the designer, will earn 10 percent of the retail cost," Fraser says. Commissions are tracked in the designer's account.
"When someone buys your fabric, you get a notification that a user has bought your design and you can send a thank you note, which is pretty cool. There's no fabric store in the world where you can walk in, buy something and send a thank you note to the designer."
The site also offers weekly design competitions. Winning designs are determined by community vote, and the victor earns the title of "Fabric of the Week," which can be featured in the marketplace.
While Fraser has seen some odd designs run through the printers he understands that it's the opportunity for originality that makes Spoonflower special to its customers.
Some of his favorite applications to come out of the service include dolls (you can get about 12 dolls from one yard of fabric, he says), "cute little pug dogs" (pugnotes.com) and unconventional teddy bears (tedde.com). "You can create whatever you want, which is the beauty of this," he says.
Keith Loria is a freelance writer from New York who specializes in business and entertainment writing.
Need for Sewing Lessons
Without any sewing skills, Fraser has been unable to convert his own designs into apparel. Fabric he printed for some boxer shorts thus remains unused.
Although he's never seen the show, many of Fraser's customers are fans. He wonders if there's a possibility for future collaboration with the popular reality TV program.
Spoonflower is the name of an endangered wild flower native to North Carolina, which grows along edges of swamps. "We felt it was well suited to a company about creativity and self expression," Fraser says.
Working With Your Spouse
"It's gone surprisingly well. She really is a model customer so we built the company around her. We're doing something she is fully engaged in and she plays a crucial role in the company."
Keeping Things Loose
As partners, Davis and Fraser don't believe in micromanaging and have an informal management style, working on laptops alongside "crafter in chief" Kim Fraser, who explains words such as "selvage" and "linen" to the self-proclaimed internet geeks.