In our Nifty 50 spotlight, we feature Abound brands who are ready for retail. This week we sat down with John Knauss, founder of Schooled by Paper. Schooled by Paper sells custom fashion bags and accessories made of paper-leather, is based all over the world since John is a nomadic bootstrapper, and has been in business for two years.
Robin: Why did you decide to start Schooled by Paper? Why this business and not a different one?
John: My professional background is as an artist, actor, and educator. So it’s not surprising that I would eventually launch a brand including elements of artistic expression, community, and education at its core.
It was early 2017 when I listened to Seth Godin’s audiobook Linchpin and was inspired to manufacture something I could say was uniquely mine. So for about a month and a half, I went idea hunting. I carried a notebook, and would sketch original ideas as they came. How could we make a better umbrella for couples? How could we waste less pens at school? How could we make a subway car interactive or comfortable?
With two notebooks filled, I began prototyping several ideas: a range of stylized hydroponic planters, a modular messenger bag system, and what would later become the DrawBag. This process was completely bound up in a certain trust, I would say, that has carried the brand through to this moment.
I haven’t always operated in life with this kind of trust, but it is something that has grown stronger over the years. Committing to starting Schooled by Paper has deepened a sense that this is a real secret to life hidden in plain view.
When you trust intuitively in something you love, you cannot be sure of its success or failure, at least in conventional terms of success. In the current state of business, this ultimately means financial success.
I don’t mean to get too far afield here, but we live at the tail end of an age where we are potentially awake and grappling with the fact that we have been sold false dreams for a century now. I think Mad Men was a series that highlighted this tension. And those dreams have been insidiously injected into all available ad space of society, including education and popular entertainment.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of our age is all the human innovation wasted and destruction caused because we have been socialized to be individual consumers and not connected innovators. To be creative in this way is to trust our intuition and our interdependence with all other things, which brings genuine happiness, because it is who we truly are. And it’s only through this kind of orientation, globally, that we will have a future together, given the state in which we now find the planet.
I think this is something that all creatives intuitively know, but I’m trying to encourage it in the brand. You may be able to see that message subtly in the DIY fashion products we make, in the global community we embrace, and in the kind of marketing and messaging we do.
By the way, I’m optimistic about our future.
R: How did you make your first Schooled by Paper prototype? What changes have you made to your product since then?
J: The first prototype made in our partner factory eventually became the Signature DrawBag. It was a simple paper backpack with a paper pouch built into the shoulder strap to hold a Sharpie-type marker.
We produced three different versions of this prototype for an early Kickstarter video, each with a different colorful print on the surface: Sign Me, Draw On This Bag, and Write Here, Write Now. The purpose of the pouch and the prints were to encourage writing and drawing on the bag at an event like graduation. Sort of like a wearable yearbook.
But long before going to factory, I was making prototype bags at home.
In 2015 I met a terrific Chinese bag designer who grew to be a good friend. Her name is Gigi Mei. She literally took me by the hand to the fabric and hardware markets in the Sanyuanli area of Guangzhou to source materials. This was before the DrawBag, when I was working on the modular messenger bag I mentioned earlier.
Late nights after teaching at school, I would be up at my kitchen table, listening to Odesza and Nas, butchering designer bags to see how they were made, and then hand-sewing and super-gluing parts together to make my own Franken-bag prototypes.
I remember the moment of ripping the seams out of a Calvin Klein backpack, realizing I was making that transition from consumer to creator in sacrificing a bag I really liked to figure it out better!
The first Schooled by Paper products were DrawBags, and they went through just a few changes in size, colors, and material before full production. There was also the addition of recycled plastic hardware and natural cotton.
And we produced a three-pack of permanent markers in a paper pouch for retail display, as well as a drawstring giftbag for mailings. The original DrawBag has been followed up with a number of products that were built upon what we learned from that first production run of 1,000.
R: How do you make your product? Yourself? A manufacturer? What’s your process like?
J: We partner in manufacturing with a terrific factory in Xiamen, run by a few women who are very supportive of the arts. They have their own design team and actually run a retreat in the mountains for foreign and Chinese artists during the year. Although I design most of the current product line myself, I do often ask them for design solutions when I’m stumped on the finer points.
They’re quite diligent in their sourcing, and are always looking for new and innovative materials. So they were already working with kraft paper, Tyvek, and cork back in 2017 when we met. They’ve been great partners and extremely supportive of my earliest wacky ideas.
We’ve also had conversations about art, children, the future of education in China, politics, and climate change over dinner. I’m really happy to be working with them, and I should give a shout-out to my first partner, Pavle who first met them at the Canton Fair in Guangzhou.
In terms of design process, I do trust my intuition and notebook method mentioned earlier. The universe seems to be an endless source of new ideas if you are simply willing to trust it. And once you begin working within a particular form such as an acoustic guitar, pastries, or paper handbags, you just can’t help but get better over time, especially if you love it.
I have at least as many designs in the notebook or prototype stage as are currently produced, and some of them are pretty wildly different and unique in terms of design and application. I can’t take a lot of credit for these, they just simply seem to be a result of being in that flow.
As I approached my senior year art exhibition in undergrad, I received one good bit of advice from a brilliant professor of mine named Jeff Thompson. He told me, “Just make a bunch of stuff you like, and when the time comes for the show, pick the ones you like best.”
I try not to overthink things. Although I can talk a lot when I get excited.
R: How did you decide to become a nomadic bootstrapper?
J: Nothing is ever that planned for me, at least not consciously. I’ve rather just simply trusted that intuitive guide in my life, which has taken me all over the world doing things I’ve enjoyed. I’m certainly not unique in that, as I have so many remarkable people doing the same in those same travels.
I believe there’s a balance in life between taking on no responsibilities and taking on too many. In the optimal flow of tension and release, you can be fully creative. And I’ve been able to do that as an artist, actor and director, writer, educator, and now brand owner over the course of my life so far.
In 2008 I was managing a black-box theatre and dance studio a block from Times Square, but we shut down partly in response to the financial crisis. I took a break and went to Busan, South Korea to visit a friend and ended up loving the life there. So I stayed for one year.
At the end, I was offered a position as Head of Creative Arts at a large independent school in Sydney, so off I went. I also was dating an Aussie girl at the time, so that helped inspire my move.
After four years there I got a bit bored, and was also going through some significant change I guess you would say in my spiritual longings, so I sold everything, and hopped on my bike for southeast Asia. China was sometime after that sojourn, in response to the offer to build the new drama program at an international school in Guangzhou.
So everything for me is about loving engagement, flow, and a willingness to get myself into new situations. Sometimes I pull back on that flow into more comfort, sometimes amp it up for more discomfort, but I’m always working on myself to become more who I truly am, if that makes sense. “Nomadic bootstrapping” is no kind of end for me.
I have no idea really what lies beyond, although I have hints in dreams and premonitions at times. And I don’t see it as some kind of ideal goal to “escape” a 9-5 career, although I know that’s such a message right now. The game for me is more about, again, becoming who I truly am. Which in the end means I am more fully part of the entire human community and beyond.
But to work on becoming more integrated with the whole, we have the lens of the individual self as a vehicle for transformation. So I trust the journey, give into it, and see what we create.
R: What’s your day to day like? Do you have any favorite and least favorite parts?
J: Because I’m bootstrapping the brand, I’ve also been working in Arts education part-time to fund growth. Working with students also has the benefit of helping me see where I’m getting stiff in my thinking. And it provides a good testing platform for new products, like the LunchKraft lunchbox!
But a lot of my days are spent on my MacBook Air, iPad Pro, or iPhone handling the jazz of the business. It helps to be a designer as well as a writer, and an actor/schmoozer, because when I have the time I can design our product packaging or write social media posts and interact with collaborators myself.
At this stage I have more time than funding, so that works out well. I have a nice elevated bar in my kitchen, so I’m often working there on my laptop, with YouTube streaming (thanks to my VPN), a hot Americano, and my affectionate street cat Soozie nuzzling in and blocking my screen.
R: What was your initial investment? How did you get the money?
J: My original Schooled by Paper investment was around $12,000 in savings to manufacture the original DrawBag line and marker pens, launch a WordPress e-commerce/content website, handle fulfillment, and all the incidentals of business formation, trademarks, domains, lab tests, designs, etc.
I should also mention my investment in our global artist network at this point, as that was something important right from the beginning. Whether it was offering free samples for artists to test out, run workshops with, or resell, I shipped a fair amount of our first run DrawBags around the world in the early days.
Many of these artists have since then become steadfast supporters and partners, and I’ve been able to hire them to produce designs, photos, and videos for various projects, including the LunchKraft Lunchbox “World Artist Series.”
R: Where was the first place you sold your product?
J: My first sales were unsurprisingly to friends and to those seeing it on social media. But our brand website launched at the same time as the first products, so these were trickling in at the same time. And I do mean trickling.
Oh, and Seth Godin actually bought one in the first month, I had thanked him a short email for the inspiration in Linchpin and he responded with one of our first online sales. That was cool.
R: Where do you sell your product now?
J: Current sales apart from the brand website or through personal relations are almost non-existent. In the first few months after launch, Uncommon Goods contacted me and we began distributing the Classic DrawBag through them.
And while acting in a Shakespeare festival outside of Chicago last summer, I walked into a toy shop named “Moore Toys & Gifts” and sold five DrawBags to the owner, Diane Moore, who was really cool to chat with.
Those five bags sold out and also managed to be seen by someone from Chicago Parent magazine, which then featured the Schooled by Paper DrawBag in a holiday article for unique Christmas gifts. So, we have one niche retail shop that hit a home run in its first swing, but that’s about all!
I’m hoping that Nifty 50 and our partnership with Abound will turn out to be a fruitful pairing at this stage, like port and bleu cheese.
R: Where would you love to sell your products in the future?
J: The easy answer would be some place like American Apparel, but I’m also really interested in nooks like comic book shops and quirky bookstores where otaku congregate. And I’d love to see the LunchKraft Lunchbox in art museum’s gift shops. Heck, maybe we’ll get one or two hanging in the museum itself one day!
And I would love to be able to feature the artists who are brand partners and collaborators in these settings by having their screen printed designs available, along with their individual stories for people to be inspired by.
Some of these artists are early in their career, but I see no reason why they won’t become quite well-known in time. Several have already been keen inspirations to me, like Maria Uve in Spain, Ivan Fans in Russia, and Sirock and El Mordi in Mexico. El Mordi did a LunchKraft print as well an illustrated children’s book I wrote. These are all really incredible people.
I’ll go on a bit of a non-US retail tangent for a moment here:
I visited Bali for the first time a year ago, and I now have a dream to open a little shop there in the future. I actually already work with a number of artists in Bali. A few months ago they ran a workshop for tourists using Schooled by Paper products as canvases.
Oh, and I have a very dope paper yoga mat bag that belongs in that shop. One of the Balinese artists I work with, Swoof One, did a screen print for that bag. And I want local and foreign artists to hang out in the shop and do custom bags for tourists, run DIY art workshops, and other events. That model, of course, could be in any US city open for something like that.
I also have a design in the works for an upscale paper-leather women’s handbag that would pour its proceeds back into a Cambodian charity for abused and/or trafficked women. I’d like to see that bag going toe to toe with the Guccis and Coaches in a little shop in Manhattan, and helping to rearrange people’s sense of value and beauty.
I’d also like to see our products sold more directly in bulk to working artists both in the US and around the world. The next wave released in September includes the DIY laptop/tablet Sleeve and the Paper Clutch, both which were designed with such artists in mind.
Somewhat simpler in terms of manufacture, these products can be custom painted and then resold for profit by the artists themselves. This kind of model is also at the heart of the brand: “Made FOR artists, made BY artists.”
R: What’s your marketing like? Is social media an important part of Schooled by Paper? If so, how?
J: Marketing? What marketing? I may have actually spent more money on cat products than marketing this year.
This is largely due to limitations of budget, but also because I’ve been working on quality of connections in our first year rather than the number of connections or overall reach. The substance and legitimacy of something like followers on Instagram is much more important to me than generic numbers, as well as their genuine love and support for the brand as it grows.
Some users of our products are artists with over 400K followers on IG. Many have provided beautiful images and video of their work on our bags as well as writing glowing reviews on the website. And I think it will be micro-influencers, word-of-mouth, and creative events and advertising that will always be at the core of our marketing.
I should also add that our growing network of artists around the world are able freelance partners in marketing content. Not only are they talented artists in a variety of media (including video), but they also know the brand well, and can add significant variety and innovation when they do produce content. That, honestly, is more valuable to me than an in-house marketing and design department on its own.
R: What are some of the most frustrating challenges and/or moments you’ve had with Schooled by Paper?
J: Any journey into uncharted territory should be an emotional rollercoaster. Otherwise, it ain’t really uncharted, you’re just enjoying an ego trip of self-confidence. And that emotional rollercoaster is actually a hidden blessing. It’s the invitation to transform through discomfort, rather than stagnate in comfort.
I knew nothing about trademarks, sourcing, compliance, or incoterms when I began my journey with Schooled by Paper two years ago. And at times that brought up frustration, exhaustion, guilt, all the usual suspects related to thinking I needed to be somewhere other than where I was, which was in process. And in process means to embrace the emotions! Not to try and eliminate them. And to really love yourself as well, and not think you should be anything other than what you are, and where you are.
If you have fully trusted in your brand or business (in the intuitive way I mentioned earlier), you are aligned with something much larger than little, ego “you.” And that something is never wrong in where it is guiding you overall.
I know that’s going to rock a few canoes because language breaks down sometimes in a layered conversation like this. But you can never be in the wrong place in that journey. You can only hinder progress by resisting. But even resisting is okay, because that’s part of your progress as well! You can never get away from you, that’s an illusion in your mind.
Alan Watts put it well when he said,
There’s no way of improving oneself. That’s the worst thing an American audience can hear. Every kind of culture in this country is dedicated to self-improvement. But what happens if you know, beyond any shadow of doubt, that there is nothing you can do to be better? Well, it’s kind of a relief, isn’t it?
Or if that doesn’t work for you… try the word grace.
So just relax and enjoy the rollercoaster. That’s why we went to Six Flags in the first place anyway, right?
We are so funny in that we want so many things in life, and once we get them, we complain about having them. I think that’s a key into the fact that what we really enjoy is process and not product. Journey and not destination. Tension rather than a flatline.
To me, product and destination are illusions. McGuffins. No one cares about the actual object called the Infinity Stone, we just want to see the Avengers go on a roller coaster ride that ends well. And that’s also why branding that is essentially genuine, passionate, other-serving, and story-based is going to win in the end, because the truth is that we as humans want and need this so much more than the physical product. The McGuffin. That’s a little secret into life as well!
And yes, I’m optimistic about the end of the rollercoaster ride.
R: What are some of your greatest achievements and victories you’ve had with Schooled by Paper?
J: I can say that I’m incredibly warmed when people share their artwork on a Schooled by Paper product and I realize that their beautiful and unique expression wouldn’t exist had I not been willing to bring about a new kind of wearable canvas for them to work with.
And the thought that a customizable lunchbox made from sustainable materials might help inspire a child to remain expressive, weirdly unique, and a force for caring for our planet inspires me to continue creating.
But maybe ask me again in twenty years.
It’s very cool to be aware there’s really no one else really doing what you are in the same way. But it’s not really a sense of pride, it’s more like a feeling of the jibblies when sneaking into a Masonic lodge at midnight. I did that once in college, BTW.
R: What advice have you learned with Schooled by Paper that you would give to people who want to sell a product?
J: If someone has read this far, and still wants my advice on how to sell a product, I would tell them not to. Because the only response I’m offering is the same as Max Fischer from Rushmore:
“I guess you’ve just gotta find something you love to do and then… do it for the rest of your life.”
And if it just so happens that someone is willing to pay for what you love to do in this wacky age of free market capitalism, then do it. With no sense of urgency at all.
R: Is there any business advice or quotes you’ve heard that you think about often?
J: Stop wasting your money on marketing schemes/
And pretty packages pushing dreams to the fiends/
A dope MC is a dope MC/
with or without a record deal all can see.
R: What’s your favorite thing about owning Schooled by Paper?
J: It’s that a brand is a mic on a larger stage, and I get to spit my own lyrics. The refrain is always the same, though, and I hope it’s a message that’s going to inspire others.
And if I could really say one thing in closing to those who are aspiring to small business or brand ownership, it would be: don’t believe the hype.
Everyone seems to be crowing about enlightenment and entrepreneurship in recent years. Forex, bitcoin, flipping houses, drop shipping, digital nomadism, it’s always changing forms, but the message is still the same: escape your 9 to 5 job and find your true self. That’s the motivation: you and your happiness. And supposedly you are going to escape your current discontent and find it somewhere else.
But I think that equation is backwards. You’re trying to spin the record player around the record.
If you are successfully going to provide content, products, or a service in the years ahead, it’s going to be because what you provide is coming from a place of personal, unique creativity and empathetic connection to others and their needs that is ultimately transcendent.
And once you know what it is that you uniquely can provide, you don’t need anyone’s confirmation or permission to start your brand or business. No guru necessary. Just some reps and teachers to help with the processes of business you are unfamiliar with.
And you don’t need someone to tell you how to find yourself or what it is that you could provide as a business. You are always there! Just trust your intuition and fall in love again. It’s who you are, and what you have to give in this lifetime. We need it.