Do you know that inkling feeling of happiness when entering a store and coming across a product that immediately just reasons with you? For me that is what happened a few weeks ago when I came across the About:Blanks notebooks in concept store Daily Poetry. I tracked owner Kjell Betlem down, and asked him all about his notebook business (and guess what: he’s willing to let go of one pretty notebook for one lucky winner!)
You turn old books into new notebooks, how did you come up with this idea?
I first got the idea about 5 years ago when I was browsing the written off books selection at the library. It was quit sad, these books no one was reading anymore. One book didn’t have a title on the cover, and I immediately imagined it could be an awesome little notebook.
I went home and actually made that book. Though I first had to learn bookbinding techniques. I decided upon gluing rather than stitching, to make things a little easier. I bought secondhand machines for cutting and gluing the paper into the book and made some books for myself, friends and family.
How did you go from making your own few notebooks to having a full on business?
People were really enthusiastic about the notebooks I made them, so I decided to build a webshop. Because of my background in graphic design and photography I was able to do this, and my own branding, without having to hire outside help. The first few months I got quit a few orders but when it slowed down I realised I had to reach out to more people. An acquaintance of mine owns a store so I took a bunch of my books to her store, and she was happy to sell them! I reached out to more shops, and soon demand was up to a level that I couldn’t quit make them all by myself anymore. Luckily I found a social employment facility where my books are made to this date.
Was that a smooth transition going from full control to outsourcing the production?
It was a bit rocky, definitely. The first working facility I worked with weren’t quit specialised enough. Around 20% of the finished notebooks had to be discarded, which was really just a waste. A few months later I switched to a different social employment facility, where they have an actual bookbinding department. This was perfect, I didn’t have to invest in any machines or anything and just a few days later my first batch of books were ready to sell.
Where do you find the old books you use for your notebooks?
I have a few suppliers in second hand books I work with, they keep an eye out for books that could be turned into an About Blanks notebook. At times people donate their old books as well. And a while ago a publishing house rang me, they were cleaning out their old archives and asked me whether I wanted to use their old stock. They donated a lot of books to use for the notebooks, and I gave them some notebooks in exchange. In the end they purchased quit a large selection of the notebooks because they liked them so much.
You’ve had quit a lot of publicity, most notably in the national ‘Volkskrant Magazine’, which is a bit of a dream for every Dutch designer/maker. How did this happen?
Luck really! I went to a store one day to drop off new books, and as I walked in, the store owner was chatting with one of her friends. This friend turned out to be a photographer at the Volkskrant Magazine. I told my story and showed some of the notebooks. Later I emailed her again and then it got published!
The saturday morning of the publication I woke up and still sleepy I checked my orders and 4 books had already been sold. That’s very exciting stuff.
I can imagine! What else is exciting about running your own business?
Another thing that makes me happy is getting to sell abroad. When me and my girlfriend went on a holiday to Berlin, I took a bunch of books with me in my suitcase and went to visit some cool stores there. Now there are 3 selling points for About Blanks in the city!
The first time I received an order for a book from Australia, was something I found really special as well. It was just one notebook, which isn’t going to skyrocket my profits, but it’s exciting to have someone on the other side of the world enjoying your work.
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows though is it, running a business?
No, there are definitely times that it’s hard. In the beginning, when business was slow, I had occasional thoughts like ‘is this as cool as I think it is’ and ‘am I doing the right thing here’.. When I was working with the first social employment facility I received quit a number of books that didn’t meet the standards to be sold. I would find it hard to be harsh so I’d accept them anyway, and ended up having a whole stack of unsellable books.
Since the two years that I started About Blanks, the business has slowly evolved. Now it’s going well, demand is up to a point that I actually need to tell people they have wait longer for their notebooks to arrive. Which provides a whole new challenge!
I bought a copy of ‘the Capital’ by Karl Marx for my brother, who is an economist himself and his birthday coincides with labor day. He loved his new notebook, my mum was very jealous she didn’t come up with this idea herself (she is, among many things, a bookbinder) and I obviously loved it. But one book adoring friend thought it was pretty disrespectful, throwing out such an important work to turn it into a notebook. Though I didn’t agree with him, the sentiment didn’t surprise me all together. Books are so very personal and people get emotionally attached. Have you had such feedback before?
I indeed hear it occasionally that people find it somewhat disrespectful. I think however it’s more disrespectful to have these books lying around, for decades, only collecting dust. I much rather see people use them again.
The About Blanks notebooks are all about re-use and re-purpose, and throughout the whole process I find ways to work as sustainably as possible. Making sure we recycle the little trash we have, and using FSC certified paper. Using books that otherwise would have been thrown out at some point because nobody reads them anymore, is an important part of working sustainably.
What do you think the future will hold for About:Blanks?
I definitely just want to continue to grow. Grow steadily though, because I need to be able to keep the supply steady.
Adding more cool stores to my selling points would be great too, including stores outside the Netherlands.
And then, at some point, I would probably add another product. Something based on the same values of the notebooks, enabling inspiration and creativity.I want to make people live more creatively, more mindful.
Finally: what are your tips for those aspiring entrepreneurs reading this?
Make sure you build a business around a product you absolutely love and believe in, or it will be very hard to continue when things get tough. Something I’ve experienced is that I really enjoy the sales part of my business, because I believe in it. It’s very much my baby, receiving positive feedback is just the biggest compliment you could give me.
Thanks so much Kjell for this interview. Ready to stock up on About: Blanks notebooks? Visit the the online shop, and follow Kjell’s business on Facebook and/or Instagram!
Give Away is closed
Give away time! Would you like to win an About Blanks notebook? Enter the give-away!
1.) Go pay a visit to Good Ideas Grow On Trees on FB and like the page (optional but recommended)
2.) Go pay a visit to About: Blanks on FB and like the page (optional but recommended)
3.) Leave a comment below answering the following question:
What would you use your About: Blanks notebook for?
THE GIVE-AWAY IS OPEN WORLDWIDE. WINNER WILL BE RANDOMLY SELECTED OUT OF THE COMMENTS, AND BE CONTACTED ON JUNE 15TH. PRICE IS NOT EXCHANGEABLE FOR MONEY. YOU’LL RECEIVE A HANDMADE NOTEBOOK PICKED BY KJELL HIMSELF.