Erin Condren brings her paper-planning empire to Austin.
Selling $40 million a year in paper planners and stationery is the most obvious characteristic that sets Erin Condren apart from Austin’s proliferation of online startups. A dedication to being largely manufactured in the United States is another. Most of what makes Condren’s company different, though, is its purpose. While many modern companies sell products to do things faster and easier, Condren is in the business of encouraging her customers to slow down enough to embrace the experience. A visual reminder of this ethos can be found at the California-based company’s new 120,000-square-foot Austin outpost. Inside the massive production facility, where employees print and assemble hundreds of daily orders to be shipped throughout the world, hangs a huge, white banner emblazoned with colorful dots and letters that spell “enjoy.”
“The community is using the LifePlanner for more than just scheduling everyday; they’re celebrating every day,” says Condren (who also serves as the company’s Chief Style Officer) of her brand’s signature product. “It’s helping them be more successful and more organized and happier. I just want them to enjoy the process.”
Erin Condren offers a variety of products, from notebooks and journals to desk pads and even pajamas. But the LifePlanner Stylized Organizer, which Condren herself envisioned a decade ago, has been and remains what the company is known for. It sold 1,000 planners the first year they were offered and has since sold more than a million. Unlike most planners, the Life Planner is fully customizable, down to the cover, layout and colors. While Condren attributes the planner’s popularity to this aspect, she also realizes there’s something more at play.
It was an interesting test to see if my stuff could sell not personalized,” she says. “We did a 30-store test with Staples less than two years ago, and now it’s in approximately 700 stores. So, it’s working.”
Surprising many who are strangers to the #PlannerAddict trend, which has almost 1.8 million Instagram posts, the LifePlanner claims a devoted cult following. YouTube has almost 120,000 videos of the product and the internet is rife with reviews from countless bloggers, many of whom set aside time each day to adorn the planner’s inside pages with colorful highlights, stickers, drawings and photos. While most praise the customization, they speak more enthusiastically about how the planner and its accessories allow the user to make planning—and life, in general—more fun.
Take Devin Elmenhorst, for example. This Mustang, Okla., mom and solutions consultant for Dell uses the LifePlanner to take notes during meetings, to keep track of her sons’ activities and to record memories.
“It’s not like any other planner,” Elmenhorst says. “I know that there is an iCalendar, but I like to write. I think it’s a creative outlet for a lot of people.
To understand the business’ success, one must take a look at the creative and determined trajectory of its founder. Condren started in the apparel industry in a swimwear showroom that she describes as beautiful and sexy.
“I was just bored to death,” she says. “I wanted to know how it was made. So, when I didn’t have appointments, I’d go to the factory and watch the patterns being made, the fabric being purchased, and I loved that.”
Condren eventually moved into the private-label industry, designing and manufacturing domestically for big brands like Nike and Adidas, and then teamed up with her brother on an original line of pants. They obtained orders from all Nordstrom stores, but when 9/11 happened, the economy became unstable and all their orders were canceled. Condren had recently become a mother, so she decided to prioritize her newborn preemie twins. Though fulfilling, this new job didn’t exactly satisfy her professionally or creatively, and her growing family was in need of a double income.
“I had been working 14-hour days in a factory all my working life, and suddenly, I’m home with babies that are napping every two hours. I was pulling my hair out!” Condren says. “As much as the doctors say, ‘When the babies nap, you nap,’ I was like, ‘Uhhh, no. I’m going to get on my computer and start creating.’ But I was always mindful of profitability. It wasn’t a hobby; it was a necessity.”
Condren created her own birth announcements for the twins and then started turning her sketches and doodles into cards. Every night after she put her kids to bed, she’d brew a pot of coffee and feed her ink jet photo printer sheet after sheet of the thickest paper stock the machine could pull. When her husband got home at about midnight from the restaurant he had just opened, he’d load the boxes of paper into her car and then Condren would take the paper to get cut.
“We were so exhausted,” she recalls. “We always laugh about those early years. I don’t know how I did it. It was a lot of hard work around the clock.”
Many of the friends and family who received Condren’s cards asked her to make their holiday cards and birth announcements, as well as stationery and stickers. Recipients of those customers’ cards saw Condren’s email address on the back, and the demand spread. It wasn’t long until she launched a website, in 2005, which increased her reach. About this time, when her ink jet printers were overflowing into her garage, Condren met her future business partner, Al Marco, a leader in the fine-arts printing industry, who gave her the sage advice to hire a full-time employee and publicist, even if it meant taking out a home-equity line of credit. Just a few months after sending the first round of media kits, The Ellen DeGeneres Show invited Condren to be part of the program’s 12 Days of Giveaways, which Condren describes as “an unbelievable opportunity that forever changed my business.”
The next year, Condren and Marco Fine Arts forged a partnership, and Condren moved her design studio and production operation into Marco’s digital-printing facility in El Segundo, Calif., to be followed by a larger facility in Hawthorne, Calif. In the coming years, the company would be covered by mainstream media outlets, such as the Rachael Ray Show, Family Circle magazine and the Today Show, and its business would double each year.
“[Working with Erin] has been an amazing journey with many twists and turns, filled with so many wonderful experiences, good and challenging, but always positive,” Marco says. “She has ambition and focus to be the best she can be, as well as a true passion for her products, people and her community.”
While Condren has continued focusing on the design, creative and marketing aspects of the business, Marco takes on strategic planning, such as the decisions to open a second production facility and to land it in Austin. Condren says while the business-friendly nature of Texas and Austin was a big part of the move, Marco’s choice came down to Austin’s charm.
“He loved Austin,” she says. “He loved it for his family. He loved it for his kids.”
Marco, who recently relocated from California, notes that Austin’s more central location would improve distribution throughout the country, and he also echoes Condren’s sentiment for the state’s capital.
“We felt that Austin was the city for the Erin Condren brand,” he says. “It’s an exciting city that’s full of life, growing and finding its way and in a very similar situation [that]parallels our company in regards to how we’re growing and all the excitement and challenges that come with it.”
The facility, located in North Austin, now accommodates more than 150 employees, including a customer-service team, as well as the manufacturing team that prints and assembles a majority of Erin Condren products. Though being largely made in the U.S.A. increases retail prices (Life- Planners start at $55.), Condren says she is passionate that the company makes what it can at home.
As the brand continues to expand and evolve (Its first brick-and-mortar store will open in early 2017 at Domain Northside.), a certain aspect of its founder’s life will likely remain constant: loyal fans’ interest in Condren herself. Last November, at the Texas Conference for Women in Austin, dozens of fans stopped by the Erin Condren booth throughout the day to meet and take selfies with Condren, who smiled big behind the smartphone and took time to chat. Elmenhorst, the mom from Oklahoma, posted her photo with Condren to Instragram with the caption: “She is inspirational, empowering, motivational and so sweet, with a great heart!” That so many women see her as a role model, Condren says, has been the most unexpected experience of her career journey.
“I don’t see myself as a celebrity,” she says. “But being among the shoppers who truly get joy from the products and hearing about how it’s changed their lives makes everything worth it. It’s the connection with the women. We are all in this together.”
CALM BEFORE THE STORM: ERIN CONDREN’S MORNING ROUTINE
“I love to wake up to the sun rising and almost always rise just minutes before my alarm sounds at 6 a.m. In my family of four, the day is always action packed, so our mornings together are very precious to me. I have the coffee timed to brew before I’m awake, as it is a must to start the morning with a cup of joe. I typically skim through emails before jumping in the shower. While my husband is cooking, I can answer important emails and prepare notes or to-do lists for the day. The four of us eat together and talk through the daily calendar of events so we are all on the same page—literally! We couldn’t function without our Erin Condren Oh, What a Week! Schedule Pad. On my days to drive the carpool, I drop my kids off at school before heading into the office, which is only 15 minutes away. I’m so grateful to not have a long commute that is typical in Los Angeles.”
DAILY SCREENPLAY: HOW ERIN CONDREN STAYS ORGANIZED
“I am an absolute planner. Am I completely organized? No. I used to be a perfectionist, and that’s not fun. So, I’ve let a lot go. But I think because I’ve planned out a lot, I can be super spontaneous. I started writing my own daily ‘screenplay,’ and it’s incredible how much more I can accomplish when I follow the ‘script.’ I use my LifePlanner to log appointments and to-do lists, and then I typically have a chronological list on a notepad (or on a snap-in dashboard in my planner) broken into ‘before work’ and ‘after work’ sections that keeps me on track. Sometimes the list looks overwhelming, but it is so gratifying to cross off each task and start over with a new plan for the next day.”
FINANCIAL FINESSE: ERIN CONDREN’S TIPS FOR BUDGETING AND SMART ENTREPRENEURSHIP
1. “Embrace fiscal responsibility. People say, ‘You’re so lucky. Did you know the business was going to explode?’ I don’t credit anything to luck. Timing is something, hard work is a lot and understanding that every penny counts. So, I was always very conservative with inventory, as I saw others get buried by it.”
2. “Educate yourself. Understand profit margins, what a cost sheet looks like, what costs of goods sold are and what price you need to sell something at.”
3. “Take risks occasionally. It was stressful using a credit card for some of my early business purchases, but when we launched the website, it was incredible how it spread. And when I bought more printers for my home operation, everything became more streamlined and the collection started to expand.”
4. “Partner smart. Al Marco, my business partner, really hammered in the fiscal responsibility as well. He said, ‘If this brand is going to make it, we’re going to do it slow and we’re going to do it right.’ I’m grateful to have Al and a finance team that has a long-term vision that keeps the company healthy and debt-free.”
Top left to right:
Acrylic tray with liner. “I love to change out the tray liners with each holiday and season and use for entertaining in our home.”
LifePlanner Stylized Organizer. “A must to keep my busy life organized and on track.”
Bottom left to right:
Compliment cards. “You never know when someone needs a pick-me-up, words of encouragement or a reason to smile. I love putting these in my kids’ backpacks as surprises, leaving them behind at restaurants or scattering them around the office.”
Carryall clutch. “The only way I can zip around and move at the speed I like and keep everything contained and in order.”
Personalized stationery. “I try as much as possible to always send a hand-written thank you card or a thinking-of-you or get-well-soon message.”