Dianne Harrison was out jogging in 2009 when she came up with an idea for a business.
The country was eking its way out of a recession. All around her, people were dealing with what seemed like a never-ending cycle of bad news.
But the greeting card industry had yet to catch up. Where, she wondered, were the cards and gift wrap bearing hopeful messages that African Americans, Latinos and people of other cultures could relate to? What could she send to a friend who was battling cancer or had just been laid off?
“For people who are losing homes, losing jobs, losing all kinds of things, you don’t want to say, ‘Have a good day’ with a card with a smiley on it,” Harrison, 56, said. “You want to be able to send something that recognizes the gravity of the situation but you want it to be uplifting as well.”
The stay-at-home mom partnered with a friend, Cynthia M. Clarke, 58, to create Copiosity, a Silver Spring-based business that specializes in offbeat wrapping paper and cards. Six years in, the company’s products have landed in Whole Foods Markets, CVS stores and most recently, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which sells a line of wrapping paper called “tapestries” in its gift shop.
But the path to success has been a gradual one, fueled by small spurts of investments and incremental growth. The company, which expects to make about $100,000 this year, has yet to turn a profit. Harrison and Clarke remain its only employees.
Copiosity is at a crossroads as Harrison and Clarke wait to hear back from a number of national chains, including Walmart, Lowe’s and Giant Foods, about whether they will stock the company’s products. It is a crucial time for the fledgling business, said Bruce Gitlin, a retired executive who works with Harrison and Clarke as part of the nonprofit Score Association, which provides mentoring for entrepreneurs.
“They’re on the runway, their wheels are up and they’re close to serious takeoff velocity,” said Gitlin, a longtime Xerox executive and former chief executive of the technology firm ContentGuard. “But they’re not that far off the ground yet. They’re at a critical stage where they’ve got to gain altitude and expand the business.”
The key, Gitlin said, is to secure large-scale national deals. In a business like theirs, the more volume, the better.
At the beginning, for example, when Harrison and Clarke were ordering 1,000 rolls of wrapping paper at a time, they paid $1.20 per roll. Today, they pay about 80 cents apiece, with plans to sell about 60,000 rolls this holiday season. If they could scale up to about 400,000 rolls, that cost would drop to 30 cents per roll.
Harrison and Clarke got started by pooling their savings, borrowing from family and friends, and running up credit card bills. It took $50,000 to create their first line of prototypes. They spent months researching the market and testing ideas.
“They had an idea, but the challenge was, how do you turn that idea into a business?” Gitlin said. “Does it make sense to do this? Will people want to buy your products? It took awhile to get going.”
They incorporated Copiosity in April 2010. Two-and-a-half years later, they got their break when Whole Foods Markets agreed to stock wrapping paper and gift cards at a dozen area stores.
They decided to start where there was the most demand: holiday gift wrap. But instead of traditional Christmas patterns, they came up with whimsical prints such as “cracked candy canes,” as well as Kwanzaa-inspired designs in black, purple and gold.
That first holiday season, they sold $12,000 worth of wrapping paper in three weeks.
“We went about it in a very methodical way, developing our product, testing it for years,” Harrison said. “We’re both over 50, so we don’t have room for major mistakes. We’ve got to get this right the first time.”
Today, their products are sold at 25 Whole Foods stores. The State Department and the Navy have placed orders for gift wrap. Among the company’s best sellers is Nifty Wrap, a line of wrapping paper that comes with decorative stickers and stick-on googly eyes and feathers. Rolls of gift wrap typically sell for $5 to $7, while handmade cards cost $3.50 to $12 apiece.
“Typically, most designs you find in other wrapping paper are tired, boring prints that you see every year,” said Bill Gwynn, a buyer for Whole Foods’ Mid-Atlantic Region. “The designs on Copiosity’s wrapping papers feature fun, playful prints that really set them apart.”
The company is testing a line of bereavement cards for children and young adults, and it has a line of 30-day journals to help people reflect on big life changes. Among its wrapping papers are prints featuring piñatas and African textiles, as well as a contemporary Hanukkah line laden with silver-and-blue stripes and polka dots. A line of color-it-yourself cards includes greetings such as “Feliz Navidad” and “Happy Kwanzaa.”
Harrison and Clarke often collaborate with retailers for new products. The duo, who work out of the Pyramid Atlantic Art Center in Hyattsville, say it takes about six months to create each new design. It can take another year to 18 months for products to hit shelves.
In the case of Walmart, for example, meetings began more than two years ago. Harrison and Clarke flew to the company’s Arkansas headquarters in July to present their products to buyers. They’ll meet again in October to make a final decision on products and designs.
If Walmart decides that it would like to stock the company’s wrapping paper, Harrison and Clarke will design packaging that works for the store’s shelves. From there, it will take another year to manufacture the items and send them across the country, in time for next holiday season.
“It’s a process,” Clarke said, adding that each retailer asks for specific tweaks based on their needs.
Representatives for the home improvement chain Lowe’s, for example, told the duo to simplify their designs and scale back to two colors. Meanwhile, Ahold — the parent company of Giant Food — asked that they make their products “more ethnic.”
“Our goal was to have broad appeal. Do we let Ahold go or do we try and do a couple of designs that appeal to them?” Harrison said. “That’s the question we have to answer. We haven’t decided yet.”
There will be other questions to consider, too. So far, Harrison and Clarke have focused on selling to national retailers instead of individual consumers. It makes more sense, they say, to chase five- and six-figure deals than to sell wrapping paper by the roll. Eventually, that might change, which means they will have to figure out where to store excess inventory and how to ship items across the country.
If it all works out — if they score a couple of big contracts and get in at Walmart — Harrison says the company could rack up $5 million in annual revenue by 2018.
But after a seven-year slog to get their business off the ground, Clarke says she knows to be patient. “We spent our first three-and-a-half years doing nothing but researching the market,” she said. “We don’t have a problem taking our time.”