Linda Thalmann is a rare example of someone who loves paperwork. Well, not like bookkeeping and filing, but actually working with paper material. She is the founder and sole proprietor of PaperPhine, an online shop selling handmade paper yarn and thread, as well as crafts and jewellery she makes with this unique material. It’s something of a DIY niche product that she has cornered and – somewhat surprising to her friends and colleagues – has made quite a decent living doing so. More importantly, she has discovered the secrets to balancing work and free time.
Linda Thalmann in her natural working habitat. Photo credit: Linda ThalmannIt seems appropriate that books are the main sources of inspiration and motivation for someone as obsessed with paper as Linda Thalmann is. “My mom bought me a DIY paper-crafts book when I was 8 or 9. From then on I started experimenting with paper, mostly playing with recycled paper” in her hometown of Pasching, near Linz. “I find it fascinating what you can do with paper. People never believe that such a weak material can actually be strong enough to build a house, make carpets. It’s easy to get and there are so many possibilities.”
PaperPhine’s colourful paper yarns. Photo credit: Linda ThalmannNowadays, the books that inspire and motivate her are those about entrepreneurship, which her boyfriend, a software engineer, encourages her to read. She cites titles such as The $100 Startup, The Four-Hour Workweek, and Pricing on Purpose as being essential to her business development. “When I left university I had no idea about how to write an invoice. They make you study art and design but teach nothing about business. But when you have to, you learn quite quickly. The most important thing is to first write the invoice and then do the work.”
Thalmann believes that there are good designers and there are good businesswomen, but it’s quite rare to see them combined. Her role model is graphic designer and Swiss Miss design-blogger, Tina Roth Eisenberg, who moved from Switzerland to New York City with her family. “Her theory is to have many side projects which eventually become a main business. She’s not even taking on any customers anymore but just doing what she wants, and she still earns money.”
Success is about time
Paperrope for gift wrapping. Photo credit: Linda ThalmannIf this is how one defines success, then Thalmann, now 29 years old, has already achieved it. What she wants most is time. Time to travel, to make art, and just to think. With her boyfriend, she has travelled around the world for 12 of the last 24 months, to South America, USA, Canada, Indonesia and Thailand. “People think that we are only on holidays, but we’re able to work online while traveling. Travel gives me the time to think about what to do next. I get inspired by design and products. I fell in love with extreme colour combinations in Brazil – so non-European – I want to integrate this into my baskets and jewellery. Perfect for summer!”
Selling her paper yarn helps to achieve her goal of doing “whatever I want to do and not spend too much time on things I don’t want to do. I took a lot of decisions to sacrifice money for freedom. I avoid things that are too time-consuming. Stay a bit smaller, earn a bit less money, have more time for other things. In the long-term, it probably pays off.”
For now, that means not spending so much time on making the finished products, which is the most time-consuming,yet only a small portion of her sales. The paper yarn, which she dyes and winds by hand onto vintage wooden braiding bobbins salvaged from abandoned textile mills, is sold online both wholesale and retail, mostly to paper, craft and design shops around the world.
More yarn. Photo credit: Linda ThalmannAfter studying textile design in Linz, she started a second Masters program in Art History in Salzburg, but at some point lost her motivation for studying. To raise some money, she started selling her supplies and some art projects leftover from her previous studies on Dawanda, the German Etsy, and much to her surprise, it worked! She started to think this could turn into a business, and so she reinvested her initial profits into creating her own online shop, producing printed marketing materials and improving the product photography. “When you’re online, it doesn’t cost so much. Overhead costs are small, relative to a retail store.”
Linda Thalmann and a tower of paper yarns. Photo credit: Michael BernsteinEven without active marketing, her products were discovered by the DIY community through Dawanda, Etsy and various blogs, and the resulting demand was both surprising and somewhat daunting to Thalmann. When she received her first wholesale order for 10.000 units, she almost panicked but soon realised that, with help from some subcontracted students, she could fulfil the order. At least for the DIY market, speed is secondary to quality so she can relax about satisfying the growing demand. That this market is also willing to pay a premium for her goods also helps. “At first I was too inexpensive and found that customers won’t value a product if it’s too cheap. They think it’s mass-produced.”
The DIY market has boomed in recent years “partially because of the economic crisis, but also because there is so much technological stuff in our lives that people want to get hands-on with making physical things,” Thalmann believes and she has profited from its growth. “People want to try this new material.” She also notes similarities between the DIY movement and open-source technology. She openly shares her trade secrets on her blog without worrying about being copied. “You give itout and it’s coming back. You should not be afraid of giving away information for free because people always come back for more supplies.”
Inspired by the above-referenced book, she wants “to spend four hours a week on PaperPhine and the rest on what I want. Though I do like some aspects like developing new products,” such as a line of interior-design products and DIY kits, “this also takes a lot of energy away from traveling and working on my art” (yes, she’s an exhibiting artist in her spare time). “When you’re running your own business it’s difficult to tune it out.”
Besides growth possibly endangering her current ideal work-life balance, there is a certain point when one can get too big for DIY and damage the credibility of being “handmade.” She believes “there are firms that market themselves as DIY but are actually mass-producing in Asia.”
Scalability is a problem for any DIY business, but especially for PaperPhine. Machines just don’t like the material, which is too stiff and inflexible to be wound and woven using traditional textile equipment. Also, the supply of vintage wood bobbins is finite, despite the closing of so many European and American textile mills in recent decades.
A peek into the PaperPhine workshop. Photo credit: Linda ThalmannShe realises that increased growth of her business requires more hands and more space. Moving from sole proprietorship to a full-fledged corporation is expensive (at least in Austria) and time-consuming, but may become necessary in order to acquire a bigger workshop and to bring on employees. She is contemplating outsourcing some work to mildly handicapped people through Wien Work. “I want to keep production in Austria. The ‘Made in Europe’ label means a lot to my customers.”
“If there are two paths to choose from, one requiring getting bigger at the expense of balance, the other doing less and having more time, I will always choose the option that gives more time. On the other hand, if I can get to a certain size that allows me to take on more help, I might be able to preserve the balance. I’m not sure if the growth will continue, but now I have a solid customer base and nobody else is doing what I’m doing, so it’s OK for now.”