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Twenty years ago, Heidi Reimer Epp and her mom started a company by hand-making paper in their basement. Today they run a seven-figure business operating out of an 11,000 square foot manufacturing plant of their own. They’ve expanded to 36 countries, and Botanical Paperworks is now a world-leading maker of seed paper – actual, plantable paper that grows into flowers, herbs, or vegetables. Heidi talks about scaling, manufacturing, creating new product lines and finding new markets.

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Episode 4: Botanical Paperworks Transcript

Our interview with Heidi Reimer-Epp, Founder and CEO of Botancial Paperworks.

Nancy: So Heidi, everyone I think loves origin stories, I mean, to hear about that ah-ha moment when you’re looking at something or you’re thinking something or you’re doing something and you go, “This could be a business.” I would love if you would tell your origin story about you, your mom, your wedding.

Heidi: Our story goes way back. My mom was an elementary school teacher and she noticed that the kids in her classroom would take a sheet of paper and scribble something on it and throw it in the garbage, and this was long before there were recycling programs and it really bothered her to see this paper waste, so she looked for something to do with that paper and found an area of crafting called papermaking, hand papermaking, where you could take the discarded paper and turn it into a pulp and then reform it into sheets.

So, she learned how to do hand papermaking and brought it into the classroom setting where she would have the kids make their own sheets of paper and then take the stories and the poems that they had written and write those on the pages and bind it into a book and they had this beautiful keepsake. Years later, she would meet kids at the shopping mall and they would say, “Mrs. Reimer, remember that book that we made? I still have it. I love it.” They loved that, doing that whole thing from start to finish.

Then move ahead a few years to the point where I was getting married and I loved this handmade paper that she would make and I asked her to make the wedding programs for my wedding and she did and they were absolutely gorgeous and everybody at the wedding loved them and said, “Where did you get these?” And I said, “My mom made them.” It started to dawn on us that maybe there was a business idea here. Maybe we could turn these into cards or stationary or something. We had started to see some things in the marketplace and in the card stores that reminded us a little bit of this paper that she was making by hand, so we decided to make a prototype and a set of cards and take it around to some stationery stores where we live.

We decided to go to five of the premiere stationery and gift stores and said that if three out of the five ordered some of these cards and envelopes from us, we would take that as a sign that we were onto a great business idea. And we did our tour and five out of five stores placed orders, so we thought, “Okay, this is a really good sign. We’ve got something here.”

Nancy: I love that, so that was your proof of concept, going into those five stores.

Heidi: Exactly, exactly. Because these were people who knew their stuff, so if they gave us the nod of approval then that meant a lot.

Nancy: That’s great. Well you and your mother wrote books about papermaking, bookbinding. You could’ve stayed major craft queens, writing craft books, going on television shows, going to craft fairs, and had a pretty nice life. But you and/or your mom or together said, “No. We’re going to turn this into a big, capital B, business.” I mean, where did that come from, because really, a lot of craft women out there, craft men too, and not all of them think, “I’m going to turn this into a worldwide business.” Where did that come from?

Heidi: Well that’s a really astute observation, because you’re right. In those early days, we were the experts where it came to hand papermaking, wrote the encyclopedia of papermaking and book binding. We did courses and classes on papermaking and did a lot of writing and development in that area, and we could’ve stayed in that spot for a long time, like you say. First of all, I was never very fond of doing craft shows. So you had to schlep all your stuff to the craft show and set up and be there for the weekend and I just didn’t like the lifestyle.

Nancy: Right, put those little tents up.

Heidi: Yeah. I didn’t like the lifestyle of that. And then there was also the fact that I had gone to business school and so I had a business degree and a degree in marketing and also always had been interested in manufacturing. In fact, when I graduated from business school, I went on to work for an aircraft engine repair and overhaul company, a big, big company, and then on to work at a biotech manufacturing company, and I really fell in love with manufacturing in that higher-volume sense. But I think also it was my own personal aspirations, because when I had been at the biotech company, I was in marketing and I was loving marketing and yet there was something inside of me that said, “I want more,” and I looked around and I thought, “Do I want to be my boss? Do I want to be the director or the vice president of marketing?” I thought, “No, actually, I want to be the president. I want to be the president who has all these experts in different areas, come to him or her and bring all of the different areas together for a strategic, overall, high-level decision.”

So I think that the move from being a craft-based business into manufacturing was also a reflection of my interest as an entrepreneur, and the fact that I wanted to keep growing and I wanted to know these different areas and I wanted the freedom that came from having a bigger company, because when it’s just you and your mom, that’s a 24/7 enterprise, but when we started to build out our team and have people that brought their areas of expertise, then that started to give me more freedom to explore the things I was interested in, the freedom of having a business with more profitability so that we could invest in other ventures and equipment, and the freedom of time and not being bound to this company 24/7.

Nancy: I think that is so interesting. There’s a quote of yours that I wrote down, which seems almost counterintuitive. You said, “Getting larger was a way of ensuring the longevity of the company, and bonus, it freed me from an 80-hour work week.” A lot of women actually stay small. Most women stay small and don’t go big because big seems harder, scarier, just the opposite of freeing one up. So how did you go from you’re making the paper, your mom’s making the paper in the basement, you’re in your home office, and then you go, “We’re going to scale. We’re going to make this big,” which means you have to move out, which means you need a big place, which means you need machines because you’re now going, as you say, into manufacturing. You needed money, didn’t you? How did you go from in your basement to a big warehouse with machines and people?

Heidi: Yes, it definitely took money and it also took the kindness of friends. So in early days, we were able to secure sometimes really low-cost rent because somebody was doing us a favor, and we invested a lot of our own money, all of our own money, in fact. That was a decision that we made early on as we were growing was not to seek outside investment, and I think that also comes back to this question of wanting to be independent and to have the freedom to chart our course and decide where we’re going, so not to be beholden to any outside investors, and recognize that that decision is very individual and it varies from company to company, but we were able to scale by making our own initial investment through a combination of loans and sweat equity and then to keep reinvesting that money into the company as we grew.

Nancy: And if you hadn’t had your own seed money to put in, what would you have done or what would you suggest to other women entrepreneurs out there?

Heidi: I think it’s a great time to be an entrepreneur right now, and specifically a woman-owned business, because there are a lot of programs and resources that you can access. So I’m seeing the banks and local chambers of commerce and different groups that are saying, “We want to support women entrepreneurs,” and there’s funding, there are investors who are interested in that specific segment, and so I would say explore everything. Look at every option and then make the best choice for yourself and for your business.

Nancy: Good advice, and you took a course, didn’t you, in the beginning? I mean, you actually went to a women’s center where they were giving a course on how to start a business. Could you talk about that too, the learning curve, where if you don’t know something, don’t let that stop you but do go learn it?

Heidi: Oh, yeah, that’s the theme of actually starting this business. If you don’t know something, go and learn it. I think it goes back to what you were saying about courage and fear, because there are a lot of unknowns in starting a business, and nobody goes into entrepreneurship knowing everything, and so there’s the fear, but that can also be very motivating to reach out. And so in the case that you’re talking about, I reached out to the Women’s Enterprise Center, which is an organization here in our city that supports women entrepreneurs and they had a course that you could take on creating a business plan. And I did that course. My mom and I did that together and through that, we were able to access supports and knowledge that filled in the gaps for the things that we didn’t know.

But there’s a funny story that goes along with that, because at the end, we had to make a presentation and I remember standing up and saying, “This is my business and this is the plan and in 10 years’ time, I’m going to be going public on the stock exchange with my company and so just you wait and see.” It was a little bit aspirational and I think it was just how I tried to think big and think boldly at the time, and everybody laughed, but inside, I also thought, “Yeah, I’ve got some big plans with this.”

Nancy: That’s just terrific. I mean, what is your exit plan now, because I love that you thought IPO. Is that still on the table or do you want to keep it within your family, or what is your plan for the future?

Heidi: We’re going to continue to fund as we have been for our growth, so we do continue to grow year over year. There are many opportunities that we can still be accessing. Along the way after we had become very knowledgeable about papermaking and we had launched a number of papers and a number of product lines and wedding and consumer goods, we stumbled on the seed paper idea, and that’s what we are doing right now where we create seed papers that you can plant. It has seeds embedded right in the paper. You plant it and it turns into wildflowers or herbs or vegetables because those seeds grow and the paper itself composts away.

And there are a lot of untapped opportunities in different geographic segments and different product segments and so we continue to explore that because the company’s big enough that we can springboard off of things that we have done in the past. So we’ve been looking at geographic markets, so developing Europe and Australia, and then in product segments, looking at different things like eco-packaging. That’s a big thing for us now. We do a lot of cosmetic packaging and beauty products where the company is very committed to having an eco-friendly product, and then wants the packaging also to create no waste, so we produce that seed paper plantable packaging for them.

Nancy: How did you first get into that? Because here you have basically a consumer company of selling calendars, books,notebooks and cards, and then suddenly you’re doing major corporations. What percentage of your business is that now for you?

Heidi: At this point, it’s well over 50%.

Nancy: Okay, well can you talk about the day that you went, “Hey, I think we could work with a Starbucks or a McDonald’s”? Where did that idea come from and how did you get your first corporate client?

Heidi: You’re going to love this story. Our graphic designer came to us and said, because this is late ’90s, “There’s this thing called the internet. They say it’s going to be big and so I’d really like to create some web pages for you,” because he wanted to build out his portfolio. I remember getting together with my board, which at the time was my husband and my parents and saying, “Okay. Internet. They say it’s going to be big. Let’s do three web pages.” We put up three web pages and it was very interesting, because that really opened the door to people being able to find us, because once companies and individuals were using the internet as a source of research, then there we were, ready to be found.

We did all sorts of things of course on our own to make sure that we were very findable, ad words and SEO for organic search and all that stuff, but that’s how these companies eventually tracked us down, looking for eco-friendly solutions and ways to demonstrate their commitment to being sustainable and they found us, and by then we were fully into the seed paper, the plantable seed paper concept, and we connected thanks to the internet.

Nancy: Okay, so there was a perfect storm there, of internet growing and becoming mainstream and eco becoming important to companies to show that they cared about the environment, and there you were, with the perfect product.

Heidi: Yeah, there we were, and it’s another example of an opportunity presenting itself and us jumping on it. So my message to entrepreneurs out there is that these opportunities are coming all the time and we need to be attuned to them and we also need to be ready to work really hard, actually, to grab those opportunities because it takes a lot of work to suddenly see something and say, “Oh, there’s an opportunity there for promotional products with companies. Okay, let’s quickly put together 10 or 20 or 30 products so that we can go big.” And I think those opportunities are coming all the time and sometimes we can miss them because we’re busy looking at other things or we’re too busy working on the nitty-gritty of the company and we’re not doing the work to observe what’s coming and recognize that as an opportunity.

Nancy: That’s a really good point, that as the company grows, you got your day-to-day operational business to run, and to keep the entrepreneur creative hat on, you probably have to work at that and actually carve out time to still be brainstorming product genius. I mean, really, I mean, to come up with the next concepts, which your company, everyone out there, you have to go to their website. It is so full of product ideas.

For instance, one of my favorites is, well, I’ve got a whole lot of favorites. One is okay, the confetti. I had a party here with some of my girlfriends who’d gotten divorced, so we were going to have a ceremony to celebrate now they’re free again, and so we all threw these, what I thought, beautiful pink petals as they went down the aisle in a field. Well, there are still pink petals out there, because they’re not biodegradable, and I now know that you have confetti that is made out of the plant seed paper so that you throw it and you’re planting wildflowers everywhere. I mean, how smart is that? And then you also have these seed bombs. Can you talk about those seed bombs that you can throw and you’ll have a garden in the middle of … Well, it started in the urban environment, didn’t it?

Heidi: That’s right. It has its roots back in guerrilla gardening, where people would throw the seed bombs into urban lots that were undeveloped and unsightly and the purpose there was to grow plants in these lots and so you could just throw it over the fence and water and sun and then the plants would grow. So we also have a product that does that and it’s made in our case out of paper pulp and seed. It’s packed with tons of seeds, and when they get wet and they get sun, then they’ll compost away and grow plants. It’s really cool.

Nancy: I just think that’s great. And another product that you have is memorials. So you go from wedding to death. Talk about how the memorial products came along. I mean, was that an idea from somebody in your office, something you saw as an opportunity, and describe that creation of yours.

Heidi: The memorial product line came from our use of our own products, where we had a need to commemorate a loved one and realized that it went beyond the ecological aspect of seed paper and went into the blooming memento part of it, and that it was absolutely perfect for something, for people to have a way of grieving and remembering somebody who’s passed on, and not just a somebody, a someone as well, because we have plantable pet memorials for cats and dogs and horses, and those pets are, I mean, they’re near and dear to our hearts, and when they pass on, it’s real grieving, so those memorial products give a way for somebody to grieve and remember themselves and then their community. And it’s really lovely, because then as those plants are growing, you’re remembering the person who passed away and you’re cultivating beauty in their memory. There’s just so many wonderful analogies that you can use when it comes to seed paper.

Nancy: Lovely. Now you and your mom, you’re partners. You started the company together. Could you speak a little bit about how you and your mom have stayed friends, stayed working partners, and if you recommend it as a way to go for other moms and daughters out there.

Heidi: We have a really unique relationship in the fact that we were able to make this work. And the secret to that is the fact that we’re very different and yet we have similarities. She was the expert in the papermaking and I was the expert in accounting and marketing and customer service, and so we came together with these unique skills and created a really fantastic business together. My mom also let me be in charge, which is maybe also unique within a mother-daughter relationship. I was also the CEO and she was the paper maker and supporter. She was really, really involved for the early years, the first few years, and my dad was also very involved.

And then there was a certain point where we had grown so big that we needed a full-time production manager and we needed full-time staff, and she had only ever wanted to be part-time, so she pulled out of the day-to-day and continued to be my advisor and my supporter. And then when I went on to have a couple of kids in the midst of a growing business, then my mom was there to help support with childcare, but she’s always been my cheerleader, so even though she’s not involved in the day-to-day, she’s there cheering me on and my great support.

And I would recommend it to people if they thought that that relationship was going to be enhanced by entrepreneurship. I could see some relationships might not be enhanced, and an example there is my husband and I, he’s a lawyer, and he’s a great advisor, but I think if we had to work day to day in our business, we’d probably kill each other.

Nancy: You’d be divorced by now. And when did your two children come into the picture? Where were you in the life of the company?

Heidi: We were five years in, and for us, that was a really pivotal moment after 9-11 happened. There was a lot of soul-searching in terms of what business did we want to have going forward and what life did we want to have going forward? We’d had some pretty significant business consequences when the whole world paused, and I realized after that that I needed to actually grow the business bigger, because we didn’t have enough profitability in order to sustain a crisis or an unforeseen circumstance, so we needed a bigger business that made more money, that had money socked away for … And for growth and for buying new equipment and things.

And then that was also the point where my husband and I said, “Okay, this business is young and we don’t feel it’s stable yet, but we’re not getting any younger and if we’re going to have kids, I think we’re just going to do it and we’re going to make it work.” So it was a decision to say this isn’t a priority for us as people and individuals, and recognizing that we want to sacrifice things for the business but it was a time to put our own personal family, make those priorities number one.

Nancy: So at the same time you were saying, “We need to ramp up the business,” you were saying, “We’re going to start a family”?

Heidi: Yeah, when you say those words back to me, actually that’s kind of crazy.

Nancy: I mean, you were doing the two at the same time.

Heidi: Yeah, yeah I was, yeah.

Nancy: But I think that’s worth underlining, because starting a business, yes, you start a business to get independence, as you said. Certainly you do it to make money, make the world a better place maybe, but you also do it, often, to create a more perfect life, a life where you’re more in charge, where children, husband, family, can woof and weave into the work. Did you feel that, think that?

Heidi: Absolutely, and also, I think that there’s no such thing as balance, and this is a great example of that, because-

Nancy: I agree.

Heidi: … back to what I said, I also, my mom and I had a book transcript that was due on our daughter’s due date, so it was pretty crazy, and so if you go into this life thinking that you can achieve balance, well I think you’re going to be wrong, and sometimes it’s all happening and sometimes it’s not, and that’s what keeps life interesting and an adventure and I am okay with that. So sometimes I rest and sometimes it’s craziness and it’s seeking to have the ebb and flow of the crazy and of also the personal rest.

Nancy: Amen to that. And do you remember getting to your first $1 million? Was that a big day?

Heidi: That was a very big day to get to $1 million, because you have to sell a lot of 50-cent cards to get to $1 million. I joined a group called EO, Entrepreneurs Organization, as soon as I hit the $1 million mark, because there’s a recognition that when you are doing that volume of business that you have to have a certain set of systems and you need a certain level of excellence within your business in order to sustain that. So that was a really big deal. But I will also add that I think that the journey includes not just the top-line revenue, but the bottom-line profitability, and so there have been times where I have thought, “I want to get to 10 million,” because 10 million in my mind was, “Okay, that’s the next point,” and I’ve actually come around to thinking that the top line is vanity. I’ve heard it put top line is vanity, but the bottom line, the profitability, that’s sanity and that’s excellent functioning, and so this was a decision that I made as well as to really focus on profitability and not get caught up in top line, because we could be scaling and growing and getting those top line numbers without having the profitability there and then my thinking is what’s the point? This is a lot of work if we don’t have the bottom line health there, and it’s about health. It’s about growing a healthy organization that requires both.

Nancy: That’s wonderful what you just said. And I’d also like to repeat what you said about EO, which is Entrepreneurs Organization? Is that right?

Heidi: That’s right.

Nancy: Which a lot of my friends belong to, it’s how you said when you get to the $1 million mark, and it gives you a support network and to bounce ideas off, bring challenges to, and it’s an advanced support group for those of you out there. To end, I’d like you to talk about when you were at a job, I don’t know how old were you when you were at the job when you told the president of the company you were going to quit and start your own company?

Heidi: I was 24.

Nancy: (31:10)

Okay, you were 24 and you were working at …

Heidi: (31:15)

Yeah, I was working at a biotechnology and pharmaceutical manufacturing company.

Nancy: (31:19)

And you went into the president of the company and you said...

Heidi: (31:24)

Yes, on my last day, I went into the president’s office. He called me in. He invited me in.

Nancy: Oh, called you in..

Heidi: He called me in because he had three pieces of advice for me. And the first was to ask, “Why are you starting a paper company when we’re moving to a paperless society?” The second was to tell me that 80% of business startups fail within the first three years. And then the third was to tell me that the door was always open.

Nancy: And what did you say back to him?

Heidi: Oh, I’m sure I stammered thank you, because on the one hand, I knew that there was the high failure rate. I knew that, and I was flattered that the door was going to be open and that I could come back. But on the other hand, after I left, my outrage I guess started to grow and I thought to myself, “Well I’m going to be the 20%. That’s just a no-brainer. That’s going to happen.”

Nancy: So it became a big motivator, yeah.

Heidi: It was a huge motivator, absolutely huge motivator.

Nancy: And as a last note, paper in a paperless world. Tell me why you love paper and why paper will always be there.

Heidi: Paper is more relevant than ever. We’re all looking for things that are tactile when so much of our lives are not tactile, and growing and planting and getting back into the earth and that connecting with the earth and the scent and the smell.

Our product, our seed paper product, spreads joy and it hits all of the senses and I think it’s just the most beautiful product in this day and age of a lot of sorrow and difficulty that I’m glad that we’re there with our Botanical Paperworks product to bring a moment of joy and happiness. And it humbles me in terms of our calling to be part of these different special occasions for people and I’m just so glad that we get to do this work.

Nancy: Well Heidi, I just planted a Christmas card that came from Botanical Paperworks in a pot on our back terrace, and I cannot wait to watch the wildflowers come up. So thank you. Thank you very much for joining us today.

Heidi: Thank you so much, and I wish you much beauty and much joy.

ABOUT OUR GUEST:

Heidi Reimer Epp // Botanical Paperworks

Heidi has turned her passion for paper into Botanical PaperWorks, a business guided by environmental sustainability and practices. The company makes and markets eco-friendly, seed paper that grows into flowers, herbs and vegetables when placed in soil. As co-founder and CEO, Heidi has overseen company growth from the ground up (pun intended) as Botanical PaperWorks went from start-up to international success story.

Botanical PaperWorks produces plantable paper products for companies large and small, including, Starbucks, Pepsi, National Geographic and Cirque du Soleil, as well as personalized invitations and favors. Most recently, Botanical PaperWorks has been showcased in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Glamour and Martha Stewart. 

Heidi is the co-author of three books: 300 Papermaking Recipes, The Encyclopedia of Papermaking and Bookbinding and Papermaking – An Introduction.

When not pushing paper, Heidi can be found spending time with her husband and two daughters. She serves as Director of Red River Mutual Insurance and several local and national not-for-profit organizations.

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