Iconic Tour

How two friends are making a fortune and attracting celebs with luxury stationery

Chelsea Shukov and Jamie Grobecker, founders of Sugar Paper
Source: Sugar Paper

Chelsea Shukov and Jamie Grobecker have a passion for creating personal stationery that makes a deep, lasting impression. It works: Their company, Sugar Paper — a name that resonates sweet and simple — has a distinctive style that has caught the attention of celebrities like Jennifer Garner, Gwyneth Paltrow, Zac Efron and Reese Witherspoon. It's also won them an exclusive holiday collection at Target.

Launched in 2003, Sugar Paper is now carried in more than 800 stores worldwide, including Harrods, proving that the art of handwritten notes is still very much alive in the digital age. In fact, according to Global Industry Analysts, the global market for stationery products is expected to exceed $234 billion by 2024, with millennials outnumbering boomers when it comes to buying personal stationery and notebooks.

"Everybody told us, in this age of email, 'How is this going to prosper?' And especially in 2003, it was really the surge of the internet. Most people were saying, 'You're going in the wrong direction. This isn't going to work.' But what we found was the opposite. What we make is valued more in the digital age," said Shukov, who claims that Sugar Paper's luxury feel is what draws clients and drives revenue.

Numbers tell the story: Company-wide revenue has more than doubled over the last five years, and online sales continue to experience double-digit growth rates since the launch of their online site, with 2017 expected to be 25 percent higher than the prior year. The company now has 40 employees and just opened its second brick-and-mortar store, in Newport Beach, California, which exceeded financial projections within the first 90 days.

'An accidental business'

Perhaps the sweetest thing about Sugar Paper is that Shukov and Grobecker, both graphic designers and former UCLA roommates, never meant to turn their passion for creating letterpress stationery into a thriving business. "It was just a hobby. We started making letterpress stationery out of our apartment for friends," said Shukov, adding that suddenly they were getting requests for more.

"I actually attribute it to women. Because women know women who know women. We were making social stationery for my sister and her best friend. But when you send social stationery in the mail, it goes out to 100 homes, and the people who were receiving it started calling us and asking us for more," said Shukov.

"When you receive a handwritten thank-you in the mail or when you have a wedding invitation on double-thick paper with envelope liners, it really stands out much more than it maybe did 10 years ago. So it was really an accidental business, but it started to pay our bills," said Grobecker.

What started off in 2003 as a small retail store in Santa Monica, California, showcasing high-end letterpress stationery has now expanded to include notebooks, notepads, calendars, phone cases, pens, candles, gift wrap, desk essentials and much more.

Yet while their collection has transformed into an elaborate offering, their success is based on simplicity: "We take something very simple, and we elevate it, so whenever you look at Sugar Paper, you can immediately recognize it. It's usually just one or two colors," said Grobecker.

Sugar Paper prides itself on its simple, fresh approach to style.
Source: Sugar Paper

The term sugar paper originally comes from the paper used to store sugar; it is also another term for construction paper. But for Shukov and Grobecker the name for their company sprang purely from emotion. "We were going back and forth with names, and the one thing that every name had in common was that it was sweet in some way, so the name sugar came up," said Shukov. "It gives you an image in your head of something yummy and delicious, and that's kind of what we make: This yummy paper product that lots of women love."

From boutique to big-box presence

In 2015 retail giant Target reached out to the luxury stationer and proposed a partnership, in which Sugar Paper would provide an exclusive collection of planners and holiday-themed trim and wrap. A positive response from consumers prompted Target to expand the Sugar Paper collection in its stores to include an assortment of office essentials. Since then, Sugar Paper has featured an original collection each holiday season at the big box store.

Sugar Paper gift wrap made exclusively for the 2017 Target holiday collection. Source: Sugar Paper

The Sugar Paper founders join other influencers and celebrities at Target, including Fixer Upper stars Chip and Joanna Gaines, who recently launched Hearth & Hand, a collection of home goods and gifts with a modern farmhouse vibe created exclusively for Target in collaboration with the stars' Magnolia brand.

Exclusive collections co-created with influencers and celebrities is a way to stand out from other retailers, who are struggling to woo shoppers and compete with online giant Amazon. "In a retail environment where differentiation has never been more important, we're doubling down and introducing more than a dozen new brands to provide guests with even more reasons to choose Target," Mark Tritton, executive vice president and chief merchandising officer for Target said in a recent statement.

More from iCONIC:
Samuel Adams' Jim Koch's secret behind his $200 bottle of beer
Now you really can vacation while everyone thinks you're at work
Tony Robbins: This is the secret to happiness in one word