As her father had a stationery shop, Cynn Chua Sze Sin was drawn to writing supplies during her childhood but it was not until she went abroad that she became a committed enthusiast. “My dad’s shop was the very conventional type, with buku latihan and many types of pens. After secondary school, I went overseas and discovered a very different type of stationery — everything came in nice and modern designs. It was then that I started to collect stationery,” she says.
Although she dreamt of opening a store just like those she saw, she obeyed the wishes of her parents and entered the corporate world upon graduation, handling events and, eventually, corporate accounts servicing.
The odds were in Chua’s favour as she then married into a family that had a printing business. “Because the factory runs 24 hours a day, I would drop by and help around after work or on weekends. I fell in love with printing and binding. I learnt everything I know about printing there,” she says. Chua then took night classes in graphic design and learnt how to use Adobe Illustrator.
She used her new skills to carry out small, personal projects. “I do a lot of things for my children, especially for their birthdays. I would design cute notebooks that I would get my husband to print as door gifts for their friends,” she says.
With encouragement from her husband, Chua worked on realising her dream. She began with research, checking out stationery brands and looking for a gap in the market that she could fill. She realised that she would need someone to help her with branding. “I believe branding is very important because we want to impress that we are really a quality product,” she says.
This was where her schoolmate’s cousin, Tang Pei Ying, came in. “Doing stationery was not in my life plan at all. I initially thought that it was not a very good idea because there were so many stationery brands in the market. You’d have to stand out or try to introduce an innovative idea,” explains Tang, a trained graphic designer with experience in branding and print.
But after she met Chua and visited the factory, Tang felt Chua had a unique selling point and that the business might actually work. Naming their company Summorie — which merges “summarising memories” — Tang and Chua created a range of notebooks and planners that are customisable, allowing customers to choose exactly what they want. Those who buy their signature range of notebooks and planners can customise the colour of the cover, pockets, ribbons and elastic bands. The planners can be in a weekly or monthly format and notebooks can be lined, dotted or blank.
“We also found, after doing market research locally and globally, that there are not many brands doing this kind of customisation, with this kind of binding,” says Tang. As part of their research, the partners attended stationery trade shows in Germany and Hong Kong to check out the competition, cultivate contacts and find suppliers. Eventually, they settled on linen from the Netherlands for the covers, 100gsm acid-free paper from the UK and ribbons and elastic bands from local suppliers.
The Summorie notebook comes complete with the owner’s name stamped on the cover and the last section has some perforated pages. “Personal touch is one of our unique selling points,” says Tang.
After all that, there was still one element Chua and Tang had to tackle. “We wanted the notebooks to open flat, so you’re not wasting a single inch of paper. We did over 100 prototypes just to get the binding right,” Tang adds.
Summorie’s website was launched last October and the duo have since added pocket notebooks with quirky illustrations and unusual Raya money packets. They have also hired an illustrator and currently have an intern to help out.
They have paid particular attention to their packaging as well. “When we researched how to package our products, we found that people usually open the parcel to get their book and then throw away the packaging. It’s always the brown corrugated box, which isn’t cheap either. We wanted to have something that people will keep using. So we spent a little extra on making this,” explains Tang, referring to a sleek box that opens out like a drawer that can be used to store the notebook or other stationery. It is so useful that customers have asked if they can buy it on its own, she says.
Summorie takes up to three days to customise notebooks before shipping them.
Other than learning how to manage their finances, the duo face the challenge of communicating with their craftsmen. “We have rejected a lot of books that don’t pass our quality control. So I need to talk with the suppliers, our partners, on minimising this wastage … Usually, their attitude is ‘it cannot be done’,” explains Chua.
While she handles production, Tang does marketing, a new area for her. “I have to read and study how other brands are doing online. Right now, we are focusing on social media marketing … placing ads on Facebook, which is a new world for me. I have wasted some money on ads that didn’t reach our target audience. I’m still learning,” Tang admits. She strives to create engaging content for their social media pages, to channel traffic towards the Summorie website.
Despite the hurdles, Chua and Tang really believe in their business. They not only have three- and five-year plans but a 10-year one — a testament to their determination and the positive feedback they have received from customers. The partners intend to extend their product line with greeting cards and wrapping paper for festive seasons as well as A4 notebooks. As part of their three-year plan, they hope to open a bricks-and-mortar store.
This article first appeared on July 22, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.