Bonita Ivie Prints is a range of Afro-inspired stationery, cards and gifts.
Interviewed in London, August 2019
Bonita; “My USP is cards using West African designs and language celebrating that culture, as well as traditional African print textile designs called ‘ankara’ or wax patterns. I wanted to create products that people of colour can easily identify with, to make both celebratory and everyday moments special. I’ve always been a stationery lover and big card writer and I noticed a gap in the market for something reflecting African culture and thought; why not try and fill it? It was initially easy to design everything as I had so many pent-up ideas I wanted to use. When you’re a freelance designer, you’re working the way the client wants and not necessarily to your taste, so I was eager for a project where I had creative freedom and could design things the ways I liked.
There are few comparable brands but I’m encouraged by ones like Kitsch Noir and Dorcas Creates which I both really like. I wasn’t looking for a business opportunity at the time I started, but when I recognised the lack of ethnically diverse stationery, I knew I had the skills and opportunity to do something about it. At the time, I was freelancing so I had a bit of time at my disposal to do something cool. I found a permanent job soon after, working four days a week for a charity doing branding and marketing, so now I combine the two.
I first had the idea for the brand at the end of November 2016, then set up the first iteration and got things printed in December, then started selling in January. I came up with the name because it’s my baby, and Bonita is my [Spanish] name, and Ivie [pronounced Eve-yay] is my Nigerian name. Sourcing suppliers was a big step. I use different ones for different items. Finding the right suppliers is tricky because you want the quality first, but getting the price right is also so important. For example, I found some notebook suppliers who make amazing premium notebooks but it doesn’t leave much margin. I don’t see myself as a luxury brand and want the products to be affordable, so they might turn out to be a limited edition! As an entrepreneur, it’s good to know other people who are doing something similar who can recommend their suppliers to you. I have a couple of stationery mentors who have guided me with stuff like that.
My first stockist was Etsy. Etsy is a really good platform as customers can discover you there without knowing your brand first. Diverse Gifts in Brixton was my first IRL stockist. I’ve found SEO really important for attracting stockists as people Google for things. That’s actually how Somerset House found me for their gift shop. I rarely reach out to stockists – the ones who come to me are mainly POC. Somerset House wanted to stock the range to tie in with the exhibition Get Up Stand Up, which celebrates the art of the Windrush generation. If I could choose anywhere to sell in, I’d say Paperchase for sure.
I created my own website and started selling online through that in October 2018 using Squarespace, which I’m happy with. They have beautiful templates and it’s more customisable than Etsy so you can express your brand more fully on your own site.
I originally studied architecture but during the first year I realised it wasn’t for me. After a year, I made the decision to continue the course regardless, because a huge fee increase (from £3-9k per year) was imminent, so this was my last chance to study at the lower fee. On the course I learned a lot of useful skills; a lot about design, how to use Photoshop, and layout skills. After my degree I taught myself graphic design. At my current job I manage junior designers and I can teach them to lay things out in a uniform way. I’ve always been creative and I’m from quite an artistic family; I have a cousin who is an artist at the Royal Acacdemy of Arts, my sister Benjamina was on The Great British Bake-Off and is a creative baker, who I also run a supper club with called The Sister Table.
Having a job and two side projects mean I generally have a big workload. I’m juggling so much – I work evenings, all day on Wednesdays and weekends on Bonita Ivie Prints but I’m good at organising my time, and I do go out in the evenings to see friends and family and try to keep Sundays free. My tip is start early. I’ll get up at 6am and start doing small tasks. I’m naturally a busy person and don’t like to be idle! That kind of thinking helps me run businesses but still have a social life.
My business model is quite simple – I put my own savings into it originally, but the start-up costs were low. I still live at home so don’t pay rent. The business turns over now. Stationery gives you quite a bit of flexibility, unlike say, clothing which has a limited shelf life – and waste is minimal. At points in the past I have sacrificed my social life but I have balanced that now. I enjoy looking at finances and things like that. My worst task is emails. I don’t like dealing with people cold calling me and often asking for free stuff. I also find Instagram quite hard. People don’t see your posts – only a third of my followers see them. It’s a lot of work to come up with enough content to do a post every day. I take my own photographs to get content which is time-consuming. In reality, the third top referral is Instagram, Etsy is the main source of traffic, then Google or direct search. There’s no point pouring so much into Instagram if only 3% of your traffic comes from there. It’s a good way for a newcomer to discover you, but ultimately it’s not a money-making tool for me.
The most exciting highlights have been being stocked at Somerset House – that was really big for me, it’s an honour to be featured at such an institution. Running a card stall at Afro Punk Paris was so fun. I saw Solange perform, the vibe was great and it was good to meet new customers. From time to time I do feel like giving it all up. I think; if I didn’t have all this work to do and orders to take the to Post Office I could just chill! But I like having something I’m proud of that I’ve put my name to. I’m excited to be expanding the range, I’m doing phone cases and more homeware soon.
The advice I would you give to anyone setting up their own project would be; know your market. That’s so important. Ask yourself – how much of a need is there? Also know your capacity – and focus on your best idea, the one you are most passionate about rather than trying to do 10 different things. It is hard! When I started off I got so much press which I rather took for granted, then in the second year I didn’t get so much which was hard, but at least I had a really good start.”