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Introducing: Atlas & I
As part of our continued eFrame introducing series we had the pleasure of visiting Wimbledon to meet Sophie Kirkpatrick, the founder of bespoke gifting company Atlas and I. Listen to the podcast below to discover more about them, their story, and how we play a part in making things possible.
The idea for a bespoke gifting company based on vintage maps
Over the last ten years I’ve collected loads of different maps that I amassed from places I’ve lived or countries I’ve been fortunate to visit so I had this draw full of classic maps. When it all began I had a full time job working the standard 9-5 for an events company where I wasn’t using my creativity. Therefore, I used to get home and start using my hands and create artworks using old maps.
I put together a number of artworks which I sold at a local fair and I started making money, I soon realised that people wanted to buy these pictures and discovered this could actually be a realistic business opportunity.
The majority of the maps I collected were from places I visited, whilst some of them were from wrapping paper I gathered from paper chase and Liberty London. They were just really beautiful old maps which had been reproduced onto sheets of paper, this made it very easy to cut them into different shapes! I then started linking up the shapes I was cutting with hobbies and activities people could relate to.
There was a lot of deer where my mum lives back home so I began cutting out the shapes of a stags head using maps of home and linking up that interest, this really gave it sentimental value. She loved the gift and it’s still on the wall today. We actually have a collection of images which we have kept, for instance a very simple sailing boat over a map of the Isle of Wight remains one of our best sellers today. All be it we have refined the design over the last six years or so.
The transition to full time
I lived with two friends of mine, and one of them arranged this fair in central London called spirit of summer. At the last minute one of the exhibitors dropped out and she knew I had this artwork of prints I had collected. She said I would be doing her a huge favour if I took the spot for the four-day fair. I was absolutely terrified, I did not know how I was going to do it, or how it was going to look, but I said yes because you never say no when you are just starting up in business, you have to say yes to every opportunity. I worked 24 hours a day and got very little sleep, I made a slightly bigger collection which would work well for that location and people in central London because a lot of my maps were outside of the Capital.
I received plenty of orders and got spotted by Not On The Highstreet who we still sell with today. The lesson I learnt was simple, say yes to everything… Even if you don’t have a clue what you’re going to do.
I continued with my full-time job after the fair and did the business part time for two years before one of my prints got spotted by Ikea! They decided to produce a range of posters which I received royalties for, and this enabled me to quit my job. My first royalty cheque from Ikea meant I could pay my rent and be comfortable for a couple of months, even if I didn’t sell anything from Atlas and I! In my mind I still had this kind of back up from Ikea and this enabled me to go for it on my own. I have now been full time for four and a half years. I have no idea where the time goes…
The one thing that really surprised me when I could dedicate more time to the business was how quickly it grew naturally. I thought that fairs were a really good way of getting out there to new customers so I signed up to quite a few and saved up the money I made in order to purchase a new stand for my collection! By doing this and spreading the word via business cards and fairs it just grew organically. Again it comes to back to that key bit of advice, say yes to everything, even if you don’t know where its going to lead you that’s kind of scary but also kind of exciting and I’ve definitely had quite a few amazing opportunities arise from taking such chances when they come along.
Challenges faced in modern business
Because of the personalised aspect of the business and the fact that everything is made to order. We haven’t quite been able to crack the wholesale and trade side of things yet. When people see these vintage maps they really want it to be specific and personal to where they live. It’s definitely valuable to speak with the consumers about what they want as we wouldn’t have half the products we sell today without being able to talk to people about what they want.
We also do a lot of online feedback as well, so if somebody receives their order they will receive an email asking whether there is anything else they would like from our range which we don’t currently offer. For instance, the trays we provide are one of the products which have developed through customer feedback and just asking loads of questions. If we get asked to create a new product we will look into how it can be done and how we can fulfill this request one at a time.
This is definitely one of the hurdles eFrame helped us overcome… finding products which can be manufactured one at a time and remain bespoke to each individual. For example, it’s not a product like cushions where there is a minimum order of 200, our customers don’t need 200 maps printed of their postcode, so this is something we were continually finding quite tricky.
That’s one of the things we’ve had to overcome and we make a couple of things in house as it’s the only way we can make that one off special product. We have a lot of repeat customers and I think that’s because we offer a service specifically for someone in mind which you can’t find anywhere else. People realise they have found something really great and occasionally we will do 4-5 orders for a customer a year because they might meet us at fair or see the whole range and look to tick off their entire gift list. We find they keep coming back to us because we provide that real customer service and a highly personalised gift.
Scaling a personalised business is difficult, as stated its not the case of being able to order 200 units at once and sell a static product online. Its about creating each and every gift one at a time, and with it being a gift the amount of orders fluctuate throughout the year, so we can be quite quiet through some quarters, but come Christmas we scale up ten times the numbers we get at other times of the year!
This presents a challenge on how to manage the business and questions about how we grow the team around these busy times. I also think the new website has made a huge difference to the business; you can now go online and view all of our map archives online, whereas before every customer would have to email us to see a preview of their map. There would typically be 3-4 emails between us and the customer, this took a lot of time before an individual even orders and there was always the chance they might not want it, but our conversion rate was very high because of this extra level of customer service we offered. Consumers appreciated that we had gone the extra mile for them. But now with the website going live it’s much easier to have that flexibility for them to preview their map at any time of the day. You can always pick up a phone and speak to us though, we are happy to talk with any interested party, but the website gives people that extra flexibility.
This was especially important on Black Friday last year where we took a quantity of orders we could never have taken without that automation on the website. Its good because people know the lead time will be slightly more during these busy times, but with eFrame and the amazing service they offer we can turn a print around within 5-6 days. Around Christmas time it tends to take a little more time, but as long as you let the customer know its normally ok. Most people prefer the product to be ready once it’s perfect, and we will only send a product out once it achieves perfection. The customer should always be updated, its why customer service and communication is so important.
Making it in business
When you run a small business the one thing you need to be is resilient, if you take every speed bump personally you won’t get very far. You will always have third parties you rely on and sometimes they can let you down… As a small business you cannot do absolutely everything. For instance, if there is a problem with a package being delivered by Royal Mail and we do everything to get the delivery there on time, there is nothing we can do, it’s an external fault and something out of our control.
This is why its important to have a valuable partner like eFrame. it means our brand and business isn’t sacrificed through expanding and growing. That’s the hardest thing, this reliance on others to ensure your business isn’t let down and hoping they don’t let you down.
Heroes growing up
I’ve always been creative and always made stuff, I’ve always been fascinated by artists and designers. One of my main heroes is Thomas Heatherwick, he’s a designer who created the Olympic Torch in 2012 amongst other things, and he always thinks outside the box. One of the most valuable things I learnt was the following “just because it is, doesn’t mean it has to be.” This comes down to creatives challenging the norms and they are disrupting an industry or changing something. For instance, some people think that personalisation entails just initials on the cover of a book. This is not true, you can make the book from scratch along with a cover which is a map of your choice.
This kind of thing hasn’t been seen before. That’s what we are great at, it’s about disrupting the personal gifting industry. This is why people like Thomas Heatherwick are so important, they look at something like the Olympic Torch and actually create this special piece, he just looks at something very normal and makes beautiful, functional pieces where the thought behind it is so complex, yet they seem so simple.
Away from Atlas and I
My personal and business life are really entwined, the great thing about owning a company is being able to enjoy flexibility, sometimes I can be at my desk from 7:30am, but if I decide I want to go on a bike ride or a run I can leave at 3, having that freedom is amazing. For me my switch off time is exercise, I love a bit of cycling and I use my bike a lot to get to the office. I’m not an indoor girl, I love being outside and at the countryside.
During the weekends I love long walks and actually quite a lot of our products are reflected in that. Not really on purpose, but I can see the connection between being outside on walks, and the connection of looking at a map to work out where we are going, whether this be with an old school map, or google maps. It’s important to always find inspiration, you can sit at your desk all day but inspiration mostly arrives when you aren’t in the office.
Most recently a friend asked on social media does anyone want to go and talk at my kids’ school to talk about careers. I thought that could be fun and a little different so I went to give a talk and I loved it! It was so rewarding, and the kids were really engaging. The first group were 5-8 years old and the second group was 8-11 and they were so receptive. As soon as I held my phone up with the map on the back they were like WOW!
The children came up to me afterwards asking if they could work for us and it sparked the idea that we should offer some kind of work experience in the future, obviously a little older than 8 years old!. A lot of our customers will have children that age and as a supporter of our brand it would be great to let them come in and see how a small business works. They could come in for a week to get involved with packaging, the marketing and general admin. It was this talk that gave me the idea of work experience, and had I been sitting at my desk doing normal emails that morning it would never have occurred, that’s why getting out of the office is so important.
Whilst I do get inspired riding my bike around Wimbledon, a lot of the time it’s when I visit central London and see what the different type of brands are doing. For example, I recently saw an advert on the tube which was an organisation reducing their plastic consumption, which is something we are also keen to do. I took a picture of the ad and we now have an upcoming collaboration with this brand.
A typical day in the office
I love waking up, having a cup of tea and laying in bed looking at my emails. It’s actually quite sad but it’s a pleasure! It just eases me into to the day and by the time I get to the studio I know exactly what I need to do for that particular day. I do that for about 40 minutes and then head down here fresh faced where Ella joins me at 9 to chat about what we are going to do for the day and discuss what’s due to go out.
We will see if anything has to go to different manufacturers and we have a lot of customer enquires which Ella looks after. Ella oversees the customer happiness channels and helps them find the product or map they are looking for. Ella will process the days orders, whilst I’m mainly involved with the marketing, thinking about what kind of new collaborations we can have. We do paid social campaigns which I plan whilst you always have to look a couple of months in advance, we are currently looking at Father’s Day which is weeks away but we need to plan whether we do a collab with another brand and what products we are going to offer.
A lot of our customers are women buying for their partners, Weddings are obviously quite popular as well. As our offering is personalised, the buyer has to consider all kinds of elements such as the location they love. Because it’s a personalised price point it’s not a product you can just pay a tenner for, it is something where a lot of thought goes into it, so siblings may club together or couples will buy together for loved ones.
eFrame and Atlas
We are a personalised gift brand and we have over 85 different products so trying to do all 85 well is an impossible task without growing the team hugely and having a huge amount of space. We did use to frame in house but then we got to certain point where the quality of the framing wasn’t up to scratch or the standard I wanted. Furthermore, if things got broken in the post it was our fault, the quality of the service also wasn’t up to scratch.
When I discovered eFrame we spoke about the service they could offer. During the quieter times they are on hand to fulfil our orders but for me it’s during the busier times of year they prove invaluable! We wouldn’t be able to fulfil 80 odd orders a week if we did it in house without having to buy the machinery and invest hugely in that side of the company. We would also need a framing expert who might not have as much to do during the quiet quarters. With eFrame taking this stress away and fulfilling the orders on our behalf we have that level of quality we need and it’s not something we could fulfil in-house now.
It gives us a lot more flexibility, if we did the frames in-house we wouldn’t be able to offer as many options, or do all the sizes our consumers require. We couldn’t offer the same quality, we have actually just developed box frame prints, I went to visit eFrame to discuss the different options and the different price points and how that would match our prints to ensure we have something really amazing, if we did that in house we would probably be years behind.
What to expect in the future
For us it’s all about offering a product which hasn’t been seen before, we are constantly working on new products to offer a different choice and experience for customers. We are always working on our online presence to ensure its as smooth as possible. We want to offer a lot more choice to our customers, particularly those based in international locations. We are always looking for maps of New York, Amsterdam and other iconic places and this is the direction Atlas will be going in. On a vintage map everywhere looks great. With vintage maps part of the beauty is that they were hand-drawn back in the day, the typography is amazing, the fonts are unique, and the colours look incredible.
Advice for aspiring business owners
I think my main strength is being so inquisitive and asking so many questions and always saying yes. I also make sure I attend any professional talks, if you only take one bit of info from a talk that can be useful later down the lie, you just never know. At school and university I did so much work experience, these skills are now helping me on a quarterly basis.
Learning is one thing that you will never stop doing as a business owner, you will be finding new things to learn all the time. Always be inquisitive and find out about every type of business out there. Its great to share business space, you can see things which can be applied to your business in a different way. Always share that knowledge as well allowing others to grow.