27% Margins: Lessons From the Paper Notebook Business
- Great Margins: A notebook business like Moleskine can be extremely profitable. In their 2014-15 financial statements, for example, Moleskine reported operating profits of ~26% to ~27%.
- Varied Distribution Streams: Most companies in the space offer some combination of wholesale, B2C retail, ecommerce, and customized (branded) notebooks for B2B clients. For example, in 2019 Moleskine engaged in all 4 of the above, with wholesale representing their largest channel (54%), followed by B2B (25%), retail (14%), and ecommerce (7%).
- A Means of Self-Expression: The best companies in the space transform notebooks from a commodity to a personal accessory by building story-driven brands and offering a range of colored and limited-edition covers that people love.
- Suffers From Seasonality: A large portion of annual sales takes place around the holidays (according to their 2015 annual report, most of Moleskine’s sales take place in Q4). Success hinges largely on finding novel ways to engage fans throughout the rest of the year.
- Prices Vary Tremendously: Prices can range from a few dollars to $200+ for paper notebooks. Some companies, like Leuchtturm Gruppe, use different brands to offer products at drastically different price points.
For a brief time in the mid-2010s the well-known notebook brand Moleskine was listed as a publicly traded company on the Milanese stock exchange. In their 2015 financial statements, they reported a whopping ~27% operating profit margin.
To put that in perspective, during the same year, Coca-Cola reported just ~16.5%.
More than that, their revenue had grown ~30% YoY, and some of their direct retail business (consisting of several dozen Moleskine shops around the world) had grown ~76%.
Despite the fact that it gets little media attention, and operates mostly on the periphery of our awareness, the notebook business is both important (what entrepreneur doesn’t have a favorite notebook?) and interesting.
“I wrote my name and address on the front page offering a reward to the finder. To lose a passport was the least of one’s worries: to lose a notebook was a catastrophe.” –Bruce Chatwin, travel writer who inspired the Moleskine brand
Even in our digital age, when high-tech note-taking companies like Evernote have seen valuations of $2B, there’s still an entire world of analog notebook producers driving tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue each year — all on a product with very little noticeable differentiation from competitors.
To do this, the biggest players in this space have mastered the art of grabbing attention — whether it’s through Moleskine’s well-positioned kiosks (one of their largest expenses each year), Field Notes’ visual storytelling and quarterly limited editions, or Leuchtturm Gruppe, whose premier branding enables them to sell a pocket planner for $200+ and a notebook the size of a box of matches for ~$65.
Even if you never run a notebook company, the industry still offers fascinating business lessons. Read on for an inside look at how it works, as well as ideas and inspiration on:
- Building a subscription business to overcome seasonal sales cycles and de-commoditize a product (Field Notes).
- Different social media strategies used by key players in the notebook business to engage their audience.
- Opportunities that capitalize on the popularity of existing brands, without being forced to compete with them head-on,
- And much more…
1. Business Models
Inside the notebook business there are several distribution models, and many companies engage in more than one. Moleskine, for example, uses wholesale, retail, ecommerce, and B2B. Below are some basic definitions of how each works:
Wholesale involves selling bulk notebooks to large retailers like Staples or Barnes & Noble. In 2015, Moleskine reported working with 76 wholesale distribution partners, and sales commissions to these groups represented one of their largest expenses. By 2019, wholesale distribution accounted for 54% of their revenue (€88.5m).
In this model, a notebook manufacturer offers custom notebooks to companies. For example, Moleskine worked with TED in 2016 to create custom pen-and-notebook packs for conference attendees. In 2019, B2B represented ~25% of Moleskine’s revenue, up from ~19% just a few years earlier.
Retail and Ecommerce
Many notebook brands sell directly to consumers as well, and different companies approach this differently. Moleskine, for example, operates 77 Moleskine brand stores around the world, whereas Leuchtturm Gruppe buys stores under different brand names (Bethge and Torquato), and uses them to stock and sell products from across their brand portfolio.
An emerging model, companies like Field Notes sell notebooks on a subscription basis with fresh books arriving at customers’ doors on a regular basis.
2. Secret Sauce
When it comes to notebooks, many people actually prefer to judge the book by its cover. Different colored covers take the notebook from a utilitarian tool to a symbol of self-expression, and offering different cover colors and designs is a key differentiating strategy for many players in the notebook business.
One way to drive sales is to create limited-edition covers. We covered this “affinity marketing” more deeply in our conversation with Mike Stemple, Trends member and the original founder of Skinit.
In order to drive demand without needing to spend heavily on advertising, Moleskine produces limited-edition cover art collaborations with well-known brands like Pixar. Meanwhile Field Notes uses a similar strategy, creating seasonal editions that they produce in limited quantities.
New entrants to this market often make a name for themselves and develop a following by designing a notebook around a specific need, like increased productivity. Companies like Best Self, Bullet Journal, and Passion Planner (which raised ~$658k on Kickstarter) have built large followings and productive businesses by helping people stay organized.
To some — namely, writers, creatives, and entrepreneurs — notebooks are treasured items, and they’re obsessive about the brand and style they choose.
3. Key Players
Though the company was founded in 1997 as a subdivision of design firm Modo & Modo, Moleskine has worked hard to build a brand that leans heavily on nostalgia, creating a timeless feel that evokes the old Parisian art scene.
Indeed, Moleskine’s design and even its name are said to come from a passage in travel writer Bruce Chatwin’s book The Songlines in which he describes his favorite oilskin-covered journals, which he bought in a small Parisian paper shop until the producer went out of business.
“In France, these notebooks are known as carnets moleskines,” Chatwin writes, “‘moleskine’, in this case being its black oilcloth binding. Each time I went to Paris, I would buy a fresh supply from a papetière in the Rue de l’Ancienne Comédie.”
In the mid-1990s, an Italian woman named Maria Sebregondi read those words and pitched Modo & Modo on the idea of resurrecting Chatwin’s beloved notebooks.
They started with a small run in 1997 — just 5k notebooks — but from those humble beginnings grew one of the world’s best-known and much-admired notebook companies.
From 2012 to 2016 Moleskine was listed on Milan’s stock exchange, so there is a public record of all their financial statements and annual reports, which offers keen insights on what it took to run a multinational notebook brand.
Then, it was purchased by D’leteren Group in 2016, a Belgian company primarily focused on the auto industry.
Comparing the financial statements from 2015 (their last full year as an independent publicly traded company) and 2019 offers insights as to how the company’s strategy has changed since its acquisition, as well as granular details on things like production costs, which may carry over to other companies in the space.
In 2015, they ran 2 product lines (paper goods, and travel bags/accessories) via 4 distribution channels, and paper goods made up ~92% of their revenue (€117.6m).
Of the 4, retail and B2B were growing the fastest (~76% and ~57% YoY, respectively). Ecommerce represented a very small portion of their business, but was growing at ~41% YoY, indicating that this could offer opportunities to new entrants.
Perhaps the biggest change between then and now is that today, Moleskine has added a 3rd, digital product line to their offering. This new line includes things like a digital pen that writes on paper but can also sync everything it writes to an app, as well as an iPad app designed to mimic a notebook, among others. They acquired a majority share of EDO.io, an app development company, and according to their 2019 report their Moleskine Flow App won the 2019 Apple Design Award for Excellence in Design and Innovation.
Their M+ digital line now represents ~5% of their revenue, ~€8.2m in 2019.
A snapshot of their financials since 2014 shows how things have changed in the years leading up to the acquisition and since:
Geographically speaking, Moleskine operates in 100+ countries. In 2015, Europe represented their largest market (possibly because they were founded in Italy), but Asia was growing the fastest.
Today, their revenue breakdown across each region remains roughly the same, despite an ongoing trade war between the US and China, where many products are sourced.
Drilling down further into their old income statements, we get an idea of what it takes to run a notebook business like Moleskine.
In 2015, Moleskine did ~€128m in revenue with ~€35m (27%) in operating profit, up ~38% from 2014. Cost of goods sold was ~21% of revenue, a slight YoY decrease indicating that as they grew they were able to take advantage of economies of scale.
Moleskine’s greatest costs each year were “service costs,” which pretty consistently represented ~31% of revenue and were made up of the following:
Among the top 5 service costs were:
- Commercial/sales costs: This represents the cost Moleskine pays to get premium point of sale (POS) positioning on shelves near the cash registers in stores like Barnes & Noble each year as well as commissions they paid their wholesale and B2B sales partners.
- Storage: These costs increased as Moleskine opened more warehouses in an attempt to serve different geographies faster.
- Rents: Traditionally representing the cost of their offices, this figure nearly doubled YoY as Moleskine opened 27 retail shops and points of sale around the globe.
- Customs expense: Represents the cost of importing their product from centralized hubs in Italy and China, as well as fees paid on sales of their travel collection.
- Transport: The cost of shipping products to end consumers.
Since 2015, Moleskine’s profit-to-income ratio has fallen off.
While some of this is no doubt due to the resource demands of running a new digital company, their 2019 annual report offers other clues as to why the financials may have slid. In addition to losing their CEO, they write:
“… We have changed the organization to empower regional teams to achieve better and faster results. In addition, we have strengthened certain group functions, namely marketing, to ensure we have a consistent brand proposition across the globe. While this has brought us closer to customers and increased our ability to deliver the brand proposition locally, it has also created some inefficiencies and increased our cost structure that have not been offset by adequate growth in the top line.”
One interesting thing about Moleskine is that they’ve never spent much money on traditional media marketing (just €1.9m in 2015, or ~1.5% of revenue). What money they did spend goes primarily to press releases, sponsoring events, and participating in stationery fairs.
Instead, they pay a premium to display their books near the checkout line in stores all over the world, and they partner with well-known brands and franchises to create special-edition notebooks that strike the hearts of people who see them.
Founded in 2007 by Aaron Dreplin and Jim Coudral, Field Notes is a growing operation that maintains a small-town feel. Their design comes from the field notepads that agricultural brands used to give away as promos to Midwestern farmers.
Founder Aaron Dreplin has a passion for these antiques and has been curating a massive collection of them from across the country.
Field Notes is a private company, so we can’t say precisely how much revenue they generate. But they do sell on Amazon. According to Jungle Scout, of the 420 products that appear when you search for “Field Notes,” all of the 10 top products are from this company and represent ~$280k per month in revenue, meaning Field Notes generates $3m+ per year on Amazon alone.
Three things stand out about Field Notes’ business strategy:
- Limited Editions: More than anyone else featured in this breakdown, Field Notes does a great job leveraging the power of limited editions. Each quarter, they come out with a new cover design.
- Subscriptions: Dovetailing nicely into their limited-edition tactic, Field Notes offers a subscription service, which automatically sends new limited editions straight to your door.
- Community Engagement: While the Field Notes notebook is widespread and easy to recognize, the team behind it is still small, and very involved in the local community of their native Chicago. Their social media and video feed (see below) are used to tell intimate stories about the business and its values, and to cultivate a sense of connection between the brand and its customers.
Several times each year, Field Notes produces beautiful new videos, which they use as a way of bringing their audience behind the scenes.
Sometimes the videos are funny commercials for their limited-edition notebooks; other times they’re interviews or commentary with leaders in the design world or the Field Notes team.
These give people a close sense of connection to the brand, and clearly cater to the founder’s own love for aesthetic storytelling.
Some notebook fans will no doubt recognize the Leuchtturm name, along with their colorful notebooks known as the Leuchtturm1917. What most won’t know is that this notebook company is actually just one brand underneath a larger umbrella of a stationery titan, Leuchtturm Gruppe.
Leuchtturm itself got its start in 1917 making books for stamp and coin collecting, and today it’s the world leader in “collector systems” — which include special books as well as display cases for all sorts of collectibles.
Today, this family company operates a series of consumer brands, primarily in the office supply and stationery realms.
There are 2 things that are notable about Leuchtturm Gruppe’s strategy:
- They acquire and build different brands in order to appeal to different levels of the market, ranging from inexpensive stationery all the way up to premium handcrafted goods.
- They own distribution channels that don’t bear their name (Bethge, for example, sells goods from each of their stationary companies, though someone in the store wouldn’t know much of the inventory is all from the same umbrella company).
Their brand strategy is particularly interesting. Using a handful of brands, they’re able to cater to several distinct markets at very different price points with notebooks ranging from €6 to €20 (Semikolon) to €200+ (Treuleben).
Treuleben provides a unique example, as the website is structured more like a luxury car brand than a stationery company. There’s no pricing on the homepage. Products aren’t laid out in neat rows or columns. They use terminology like “discover our sizes” and “enjoy the plain journals” in their calls to action — all to create an air of exclusivity and quality, which comes with a higher price tag.
In an extreme example, their Bonsai Edition notebook is just a little larger than a box of matches and sells for €55 (~$65) — 4x+ the cost of Moleskine’s classic black notebook — proving that with the right positioning, there’s essentially no limit to what kind of price point you can set on these goods.
Much of the notebook business is centered around gifts, and according to Moleskine, most of their sales take place during Q4.
Protecting Intellectual Property
In 2015, Moleskine spent ~€3m on consulting services, primarily on “legal advisory services in commercial and intellectual property issues, particularly as regards the brand.”
Meanwhile, Field Notes faces copycats like Field Book, who use the same design specifications (including a similar typeface) and sell at a fraction of the price.
One challenge notebook companies face is engaging with their users and getting them to repurchase. On their own, notebooks are essentially a commodity, and many people never actually fill them to the point of needing a replacement.
To help with this, brands turn to storytelling and social media. Instagram is one of the most popular social arenas for these companies to play in, given its visual nature. Here we see 3 different companies and 3 different social media strategies, each with varying levels of success.
Moleskine: Moleskine has recently chosen to embrace user-generated content on their Instagram account. Nearly all of their posts highlight artwork done by users in Moleskine notebooks in response to creativity challenges they host. Often garnering 800-1k likes, Moleskine sees ~0.3% engagement from their audience.
Field Notes: Field Notes’ Instagram account is very much the voice box of the brand. It’s split between product shots and community engagement, announcing farmers markets to the Chicago community and highlighting locally owned brick-and-mortar stores that carry their products. Often garnering 600-800 likes, Field Notes consistently sees ~0.6% engagement.
Leuchtturm1917: Leuchtturm opts for a unique combination of product placement and storytelling. Their feed is almost entirely made up of product shots, but they use the photo descriptions as a chance to tell a story and lean heavily on contests for user engagement. As a result, they see some of the highest engagement of the 3 brands, ~0.7%.
One step up from notebooks are journals — notebooks with printed pages designed to help people be more productive. The added utility of guiding someone to be more productive means these often sell at higher prices than notebooks alone.
- Bullet Journal ($25): On the surface, the Bullet Journal is a simple dot notebook, but what it really is is a productivity system. By selling productivity know-how along with the notebook itself, the company has grown quite a reputation.
- Self Journal by Best Self Co. ($32): A 13-week daily planner designed to help you move toward your goals and reflect on your progress.
- Lunar Calendar by Treuleben (€180): This pocket-size planner is mostly blank, but its unique design, coupled with Treuleben’s premium branding, have put it in a high price tier.
In the same way that Moleskine is attempting to diversify their product line by offering travel accessories, there’s an opportunity to create ancillary products designed around notebooks from the major players.
For example, these leather journal covers for the pocket-size Field Notes books sell $13k/mo worth of product on Amazon, according to Jungle Scout.
A notebook is a medium around which you can rally and engage a community. It is, quite literally, a blank canvas which you can use to project your worldview, and in doing so, attract others who think and feel the same way you do. There are virtually unlimited opportunities for notebook companies to cater to certain niches, whether through a physical product, or services and experiences.
- Products for Pen Enthusiasts: Among 3-star reviews of Moleskine, Leuchtturm, and Field Notes, one of the most common sentiments was that users loved the look, size, or design, but that the paper itself did not hold up to fountain pens or art pens.
- Experiences for Creatives: Companies like Unsettled are building travel experiences that specifically cater to creatives and capitalize on their love for the Moleskine brand.