The Story of Building a School Sticker Business
School Stickers was established in 2000 and in the 19 years since has printed over 2 billion customised products.
Products Designed by Dan King
It all started back in the early 90’s when I completed a chemistry degree thanks to a trusty dictaphone - I taped all my lectures and transcribed them… it took me 400 hours! But I managed a 2i (Hons) - top of the year.
I went on to complete a PGCE in Science at Birmingham University.
and went to teach chemistry at Lordswood Boys’ School…
in a lab that looked a little like this... which would be the scene of the big explosion from an experiment that went wrong.
Whilst a first year NQT (Newly Qualified Teacher) I wrote several revision guides, a chemistry demo book...
and designed a wall sized periodic table… to make it easier to explain the elements and how electrons moved around when reactions happened.
By year 2, now a Year 7 tutor, I noticed all the merit slips that teachers spent hours writing were simply discarded…
I took it upon myself to design and introduce a merit sticker that I could award for good work, the merit was always stuck to the work.
It saved me hours marking and the science department quickly adopted it, even though the rest of the school hated them and questioned their validity.
After my second year teaching I was ready to go and try somehting else…
I left and started a new company - Birmingham Education Consultants…out of my spare room at 104 Ludgate Lofts.
The plan was to sell my revision guides, periodic table, chemistry demo book and
now customised merit stickers to secondary schools... customisation was important because secondary schools like their name on things and they all have different types of awards - MERIT, CREDIT, COMMENDATION…
To make them desirable for the pupils to want to receive, each subject would need their own graphics and a range of images to collect.
The books an Periodic Table were easy to get ready, the stickers not so much…
Firstly I had to find the company that sold the blank stickers and in the yellow pages era… if the company you needed wasn’t in your area - finding them without a name was impossible.
I returned to the printers to get some more stickers printed and whilst the guy was out the back quickly wrote down the name from the sticker box: Bond Labels… which I then had to go to the Library and look through almost every yellow pages to find them.
I had to work out how to design perfect circular text which was pretty tricky - I had to go to PC World and look on the back of all the software boxes and of course the last thing they mention is “Oh yes we do circular text” but eventually I managed to find one that did and it was Corel Draw 10 :-)
I definitely couldn’t use WordArt… which is what I had used to design the Lordswood Boys’ Merit sticker.
Then I needed to work out how to make and off the shelf design package, design and print stickers in a way that a business could function, which at the time was insanely complex and then I had to work out how to print them.
The first Bond Label sticker sheets were a weird size… too small width ways to go through a printers front tray and too wide length ways to go through a printers front tray.
It took me 9 printers all of which I had to return to PC World “sorry can I return this..” I had zero money but finally I bought the £550 HP 440 printer whose front draw could take in the sheets and print black onto the stickers… with the aid of blue tac!
So School Stickers was born…
School Stickers Product and Production Rapidly EVOLVE
But before I even get to the Minolta Printer (2) there are tons of problems to solve!
The printer needs to print TOTALLY straight because circular text looks horrendous if it’s not in the centre of the circle and these printers tended to print the first row okay then go off near the bottom..
added to the the glue in a hot printer means you spend hours with cotton buds and Acetate to remove the glue…
Initial production problems are all resolved by January 2000 I start marketing… at this point I’ve managed to secure a £10,000 loan on my flat and so I have some marketing spend and I’m ready to go…
within in 12 months I’ve sold £5,000 worth of books and £179,000 of stickers!
By year 2 I’m at £240,000 of sales…
To this point I’ve been sending the schools brochures in the mail with the every range of sticker - because it’s a school and there’s really no other way of getting in front of teachers in early 2000’s.
The business is far from profitable either and I’m working like crazy from the 3rd floor of an office with no lift, packing up parcels, carrying boxes of stickers and paper up the stairs, taking all the parcels to the post office, stamping them all… insane amount of physical work - added to the need to print all the orders as well, the glue, the offset printing issue - so I’m designing, packaging, marketing, shipping, invoicing, literally doing everything - really, really exhausting.
The business is brutal the cost of marketing, production and the issue with cashflow and invoicing is weighing heavily on the business, I REALLY nearly give it up until I tried one last time with a flyer…
It’s now May 2003 I think I’ll try one last flyer to the Head of Science to see if they will buy books, periodic table and I include a 1 page A4 sticker flier with just a row of Science merits and I invent Marking stickers to take up the extra space on the mailer…
Boom! The fax starts printing orders start pouring in and more orders arrive in the post… but not many orders for books but you can’t have it all.
They’re choosing both sets of stickers and the response rate is off the charts 8% - with an average order £70.
I immediately create a mailer for The Head of Maths and The Head of English… those very first flier designs remained for the rest of my time at School Stickers - deviating from the design caused the response rate to drop.
pretty soon I’m selling to Drama, History, RE, PE, Geography, Art, Maths, English, Science, CDT, Head of Year… amazing!
By 2005 the company was turning over £1.1m! We had taken delivery of a Xerox 6000 a £70,000 printer - which Xerox delivered up 3 flights of stairs and which couldn’t print straight - so they needed to take it back… whoops
Xerox replace the 6000 (now discontinued) with the Xerox 6060 (looks identical) but is twice the price at £150,000 BUT that could print straight :-) and churned out incredible stickers, printed brilliantly and straight!
We still needed to clean out the glue BUT an A3 sticker sheet was now just 3.75p a sheet printed (included the sheet).. so our gross margins on a set of stickers was 76% - included the sticker sheet, print, packaging from Snopake, padded envelope and postage!
I only had blank stock so we printed to order with no inventory the business run like a dream… we moved offices twice in a year once here…
where I took a call from a teacher asking if we did postcards?
Within 48 hours I had card stock a manual guillotine and she had her order sent out…
I had a mailer designed, sent out and the fax lit up!
There were so many postcard orders - we printed 8,000,000 customised postcards a year - I bought a second Xerox 6060 because the stickers effected the print quality on the card so we had a sticker 6060 and a postcard 6060 - we needed to move offices again - this time I designed it.
I designed the office / production / storage / dispatch spaces to maximise School Stickers work-flow and productivity to drive production to 25,000 orders per year and 90,000,000 customised stickers and 8,000,000 postcards with just 11 members of staff.
We only stocked blank stock, printing to order and with no inventory the business run like a dream and was extremely profitable Net 40% profit…
I wanted to make the stickers and postcards look and feel more like mass produced products so I bought a UV varnisher to add a super gloss finish to the products.
By this time I had also paid into a scheme to make the business carbon neutral and started sourcing only FSC paper.
I had also signed a deal with Disney to design and print customised Disney stickers - the worlds first personalised Disney product - the inner circle having the Disney copyright.
We tried marketing them into UK schools but they didn’t really take-off as hoped because they were considered to be too commercial at that time. US Elementary Schools however loved them.
It’s 2004 and the small team of around 10 staff are designing, printing, chopping up, finishing and packaging over 20,000 orders per year, millions of stickers and postcards… and at that point I wanted to expand into the US… which is easier said than done, for sure. The business grew in 2004 - 2005 from £440,000 to £1.1m!
I approached investors and did several very successful pitches, in that all of them wanted to invest to help launch the business in the US… Bridge’s Ventures I went to an offer sheet and initial legals but seeing that the control of the business would move to Bridge’s I held off and the business growth was such that I could test US market without the need for investment.
I received a B1 Visa from the US embassy and moved to Los Angeles for what turned out the be a year whilst the team at home run the UK business.
I tried lots of different flyer options…
I learnt that you need an East cost mailing house and a West coast mailing house so you can flyer time and cost effectively.
Royal Mail offered a great price to ship orders directly from the UK - allowing for us to seed the business from the UK and if the orders grew large enough we could establish a base there.
On my return to the UK I decided to tackle the design and print issues which as the business went from start-up to scale-up become a more pressing issue.
The problem was that to design each order we needed to use Corel Draw and had to paste the school name and reward type on each sticker design and this was taking a staff of 5 people…
We had tried on numerous occasions to bring in external companies to help solve the design and print problem but it just never worked and it had cost us a lot of money to find that out.
I had, by now, employed Ian who was doing designs for new stickers and flyer designs and mock-ups for a iSticker or MySticker idea that I had where students collected their awards online in a reward wallet
Ian knew John and John was a musician who wanted to get into coding… so I sent John on a course in Manchester - where is was mugged, but he came back ready to code and within months we had a new internal CRM system which logged the new school orders, previously we were using Excel and once logged the ‘system’ would generate an Excel spreadsheet which we could plug into InDesign and that would design the stickers and output a PDF we could print - reducing the design time by 90%…
Sales were soaring past £1.5m… with a 40% net profit and the Bridge’s Ventures offered to buy the business from me for £1.4m - Wow… WOW… SOLD!
I was retained with golden handcuffs as the ‘CEO’ but with a staff of just 11 it’s not really a CEO…
MyStickers had successfully launched and 10,000’s of students were signing up to collect stickers and sales were rocketing to £1.7m… We’re in 90% of secondary schools and around 40% of primary schools, printing 90m customised stickers and 6m customised postcards a year.
I was now reporting to a board of 2 VC’s Anthony and Henry and a fund investor Stephen Garman and had been put forwrd for lots of awards suddenly!
I was in The Sunday Times - How I Made It, was a finalist for Entrepreneur of the Year Awards up against the UK MD of Domino’s and the guys from Hotel Chocolate!
I was featured in Who’s Who of Britains Business Elite - not 100% sure how I ended up in there!
I was Midlands 42 under 42… so I was getting lots of awards for all those stickers I was printing!
The pressure on me was to grow the business but with schools there are only so many stickers they can absorb… that’s when I managed to persuade the board to pursue to start VizWoz.co.uk a way to engage the MyStickers user base.
Once I moved permanently over to VizWoz I become a Non-Exec Director on the board at School Stickers - with a 32% stake which was later diluted in a debt for equity swap - the debt being accrued during the VizWoz build-up prior to it’s investment and being spun-out.
The main error I made at School Stickers was not recognising that MyStickers wasn’t the only future but our ability to print customised products from a CRM / SAAS system.
I should have developed a digital printing business like MoonPigs Cards - we had everything we needed to mass produce, customised cards… to the highest quality and super-glossy… very glossy :-) #hindsight!