Like newspaper publishers and postal services, Mark Gavin holds front-row seats to the carnage facing organizations that make their money by moving around pieces of printed paper. His firm, Mirage Creative Ltd., has been producing elegant, environmentally friendly notebooks under the Ecojot brand for 15 years. But, Gavin says, the past five years have made for some tough sledding, and the market continues to throw out confusing signals. While personal letters and gift cards are rapidly disappearing, Moleskine, the Italian firm that makes a line of high-end retro notebooks, just went public.
To stay “innovative and relevant,” Gavin explains, his $2-million-a-year Toronto company recently began developing a smartphone app—which launches in a few months—that allows users to send electronic copies of their Ecojot notebook entries. “You can take what you’ve written on paper and share it electronically,” Gavin says. The app, in effect, allows notebook lovers to continue scribbling on Ecojot’s stylish products without turning their backs on digital communications.
Mirage has a lot riding on the notion that something as ephemeral as a digital app can stanch the erosion of notebook sales, and not just in Canada but also in the U.S., Mexico, Scandinavia and Australia—all markets in which the company has (and hopes to keep) retail customers.
The 2014 outlook is very different than the one Gavin encountered in 1999, when he took over his brother’s gift business and transformed it into a company that sold paper products that cater to people who covet lovely notebooks. “There is an element of obsession,” Gavin says of his customers.
After gaining some traction with Canadian book and gift retailers, a chance encounter in 2001 with a buyer from Borders, the now-bankrupt U.S. book chain, brought Mirage its first massive foreign order. The buyer, who loved the aesthetics of the Ecojot notebooks, bought thousands of units, and did so at a time when a US$100,000 order translated into C$150,000.
It didn’t take long for the other big book retailers, including Barnes & Noble and Indigo, to notice the notebooks and decide they also should get into that market.
But that initial order, and some of the large ones that followed, meant that Mirage had to transform the Ecojot line from a cottage-type business into a serious operation that could produce large volumes of goods on relatively short notice. While Borders ordered pallets of books on a no-return basis, they nonetheless offered 90-day payment terms. “It was exciting and scary at the same time,” Gavin recalls. “We didn’t know how to produce so much product.”
Once that first big cheque arrived, 90 days after the launch, the payment provided enough capital to ensure that the company has been profitable ever since, says Gavin. “We were able to go into the black for the first time.”
The string of major orders from U.S. and international book chains gave Mirage a lot of momentum in the mid-2000s. But as the global credit crisis hit, customers in some regions began thinking twice about buying these kinds of premium-priced products. Mirage sought to burnish its reputation with customers by offering to donate notebooks to impoverished children in poor countries, but that effort didn’t produce much in the way of a sales bump. More recently, Borders, the original big client, declared bankruptcy—the victim of a sluggish economy and e-commerce.
Gavin’s strategy has been to seek new customers in adjacent markets—he’s had good take-up from a large chain of U.S.-based college bookstores, as well as from a large chain of art-supplies stores in Mexico. To gain a toehold and find new customers in those verticals, Mirage has started attending trade shows geared toward those kinds of retailers.
The upshot is that Mirage has managed to reverse some of the post-recession blows. Target U.S., for example, placed some huge orders for private-label notebooks. “We had a very good year last year,” Gavin says, adding that private-label isn’t where he intends to take the company. Rather, he’s hoping that the forthcoming app, which will be called Ecojot Connect, could mark a turning point for the brand and, indeed, the whole category. “The app represents for me an interesting part of the business,” Gavin muses, “how to marry paper with technology.”