About:Blank goes into hibernation.
Hi there, it’s been more than a year after we announced that we were closing abxstore.fi, our online store for English-speaking customers. Today, we are announcing that About Blank as business is going into full hibernation.
We had a nice run starting from 2009 100% Design London to launch the brand itself and its first product, Notebook, 2011 Copenhagen Design Week to launch Stand and Folding Chair, and 2012 Helsinki Habitare to launch the bookshelf. At its peak, About:Blank products were sold at 26 online and offline retail outlets in 11 countries. We were extremely happy to collaborate young and smart guys in Orego Furniture to prototype the bookshelf, and to work with Johanna Gullichsen, one of our favourite designers in Finland, on the textile covers for our Notebooks.
Trained as designers, it was fun to produce what we wanted to really use ourselves, send the products to different places around the world, and talk to the real users in person, or otherwise virtually through emails and comments. However, we’ve decided to stop making products for a while and focus on what we do in our respective day jobs. We have few reasons for the decision, which we want to share with you today.
First, we’ve learned that producing and distributing products are not easy side-job.
At present, Seunghoon is working as the director of design marketing at a mobile marketing solutions company. Seungho is doing his doctoral study at Aalto University and has been teaching students in a course he initiated. Soeun, who works as a freelance illustration artist, has launched her first book ‘First, Helsinki’ last year. Hyunsun, who had been writing articles for DesignDB, has been preparing a book on her reflections of her life and design in Finland.
These are not new changes. In fact, all four core members of About:Blank have always been working as part-timers. What’s new is that we all became parents, Seunghoon and Soeun from 2013, and Seungho and Hyunsun from 2014.
Our initial idea was to keep the scale small and thus manageable, and the customers will find us if we do a good job making useful products. Although this stays intact, we’ve learnt a lesson the hard way. Keeping a “small” business – from designing a product and making prototypes to placing order for production, checking faulty products, packaging, and distributing those – takes a tremendous amount of care, much like many people jokingly (and also ignorantly) say “I want to run a corner cafe or a pub when I grow old”. In other words, we did not fully understand the weight of responsibility in manufacturing and distribution of products. We have learnt that it is next to impossible to be good parents to our kids, do our main job, and work on About:Blank successfully at the same time.
Second, we’ve learnt that one needs to reach a scale in order to obtain sustainable revenue stream.
What differentiated About:Blank from few other manufacturers were perhaps that (1) we fabricate our products in small quantity (2) for the best possible quality (3) in the vicinity of where we were. In 2008 when we started, we did not find a good enough printer and binder around us in Korea, and we ended up with Shibuya Bunsenkaku in Nagano, Japan. Stand and Folding Chair were made in Salo and Helsinki, Finland respectively.
Japan and Finland probably belong to the few of most expensive countries to produce paper- and wooden product. Due to the high cost of production, we’ve been communicating to retailers directly and made our own online store in order to save distribution margin in the wholesale. Although this has contributed to boosted margin, it eventually raised the amount of work for each of us and has become burdensome.
We could have reduced the workload and enhanced the revenue stream if we moved our production to Korea, China or Poland as we were advised by other manufacturers we met in fairs. Perhaps that might have made About:Blank known to more people.
It was not an easy decision for us, however, given the starting point and initial idea, and it would also require one of us to be a full-time to scale up the business and attract investment accordingly. Unfortunately, none of us could give up what each of us were doing.
Finally, we’ve learnt that one should constantly introduce new products in order to sell the previous ones.
We did not understand why many companies introduce new products, or at least newly coloured their old products to bring them into the market each year. We now see the reason after going through a gradually losing contact with most of the 26 retailers in 11 countries.
The so-called “design shops” were under tremendous pressure to introduce new products all the time. In a way, it was one of the only competitive edge of them against the massive retail outlets. Despite their effort, each year these interesting store close their businesses for different reasons (No wonder why the printed Wallpaper City Guides failed miserably when we were travelling Stockholm). Consequently, it has become essential to find new outlets for selling About:Blank products as much as designing useful, quality products. Unfortunately the pace of us finding new retailers did not catch up the speed of losing the previous one for the aforementioned reasons.
We all worked with more flexible hours when we started About:Blank, so that we could go on work/fun trips to different places, talk to interesting shops, and introduce our products to different markets. However, we’ve come to a point where we have to make a decision.
In addition to that, introducing new products means expenses for designing, prototyping, and exhibiting at fairs. This was a dilemma shared by many young designer-manufacturers. Many that were becoming known to the world actually made some money, but most of it was being re-invested for the activities around introducing new products and finding new retailers.
We couldn’t find other solutions than scaling up, moving production to other countries, or owning our own manufacturing facilities to reduce the margin in distribution as in few rare cases some designers do do.
About:Blank goes into full hibernation given the reasons above. We wrote this lengthy goodbye because we thought some young designers who may follow their passion like we did. Of course, this could be a biased experience from four designers who ran a business as a side job in the past small number of years, or bad excuses to explain ourselves why we have to close the business we enjoyed so much running – we hope you’d consider it as readers.
For a while, or maybe indefinitely, this post will be the last post on our blog. One of us may reappear with a new About:Blank back-up by a handsome investment. Till then, be well. So long!
Seunghoon, Seungho, Hyunsun and Soeun
March 31, 2016 in Incheon and Helsinki respectively