Each week, we seek expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.
Minto Roy didn’t start out trying to save the world. Five years after co-founding Social Print Paper, which produces copier paper predominantly from waste wheat straw instead of traditional wood fibre, he hasn’t yet put all of the planet’s wrongs to right.
“We’re social entrepreneurs. We’d like to save the world, but we’d like to make money,” says Mr. Roy, senior partner of the company, which is based in New Westminster, B.C.
The company’s Wheat Sheet paper is made of 95 per cent alternative fibre (60 per cent wheat straw residue and 35 per cent recycled wood waste from industry such as furniture factories) and 5 per cent Forest Stewardship Council-farmed forest. The raw materials come from India, where the paper is made from wheat straw that used to be burned as waste. (In the long term, Social Print would like to manufacture in Canada to reduce transportation costs.)
The company employs about 40 and brings in annual revenue of between $5-million and $6-million.
In sales, the company has taken aim at big multinational businesses and government offices, for whom paper reliance is still a necessary throwback in today’s digital age.
Their pitch? Green paper promotes engagement with customers and employees. “Those are robust benefits that you’re just not getting from your current paper,” Mr. Roy says.
He and his partners, brothers Lee and Alan Gieschen, are fully aware that for large-scale corporations, sustainably sourced paper has to perform on par with traditional paper, and the price must be of comparable.
Customers, including the University of British Columbia and the David Suzuki Foundation, say that once Wheat Sheet paper is loaded into the copier, nobody can tell the difference. The paper is priced similarly to 30-per-cent recycled paper, which Mr. Roy says is the “societal standard” for companies looking to become more eco-friendly.
Social Print’s paper is carried by office-supply chains Lykki, Grand & Toy, Staples and OfficeMax. This is vital, Mr. Roy says, because most businesses have contracts with one or the other.
To meet Social Print’s goal of saving half a million trees annually it must sell 3,000 tonnes of paper a year, but it’s only 10 per cent of the way there. So it’s also looking to sell in the United States.
For now, though, educating consumers and improving sales in Canada are the big goals.
“In 10 to 15 years I’m hoping that people are going to walk around society and say, ‘Can you believe we used to make paper from trees?’” Mr. Roy says.
The Challenge: How can Social Print Paper educate potential customers and improve sales?
THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN
Elise Rees, co-market leader with private mid-market clients, Ernst & Young, Vancouver
I can see why they’ve gone after the government, and that makes good sense, but they should also try large banks and large multinationals. They have to target those organizations’ procurement teams and really understand the key concepts around the procurement processes to find out whether their product has any edge. Social Print should offer volume discounts to show that what they’re doing is at least as competitive as the people these companies are buying from right now.
You have to be able to get in when the renewal terms come up. If it’s government, all things have to go through a request-for-proposal process. They have to build awareness of their company with the procurement team. They also have to be able to ensure they can get supply of the product on an as-needed basis, because clearly people don’t buy their paper once at the beginning of the year, they buy it throughout the year.
Shawn Smith, director, and Donovan Woollard, venture director, RADIUS, a social innovation lab and venture incubator at the Beedie School of Business, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver
Based upon their ability to secure some key institutional accounts, Social Print’s case on performance and price appears strong. The challenge is in addressing convenience, particularly as they enter mainstream distribution channels to reach larger clients.
Procurement is a tough job, and taking a risk on a new product is daunting enough before needing to go to a completely different supplier to get it. Trusted channel distribution partners, and stronger emphasis on procurement convenience (alongside continued emphasis on price and quality) would help.
Robert Hii, founder of the sustainable clothing manufacturer Ecogear, Toronto
It kind of sounds like Social Print will have the age-old issues, which is everybody wants paper to be eco-friendly and sustainable, but they won’t pay the price.
One of their best options I think would be to hit the colleges. I think Social Print might be able to make their pitch there and say, “We’ve calculated the carbon savings, and if your college uses 100,000 sheets of our paper every year you’ll be saving X number of forests.” There’s a nice story to it, to be sure.
Hailey Hollinsworth, co-founder and head of sales, Ungalli Clothing Co. Inc., Thunder Bay
Social media is crucial to customer education. It’s how you get the word out, how you get people talking about you. On their website there are no links to their social media pages.
When I Googled them all that came up was their Twitter account. Twitter is great for connecting with other businesses. I would love to see this company on Facebook and Instagram connecting with customers. Instagram is such a great place for a brand to display who they are and what they care about.
THREE THINGS THE COMPANY COULD DO NOW
Get to know the people in procurement departments at big business and government organizations.
Try Facebook, Instagram
Social media goes a long way to representing a brand these days.
Establish campus credibility
Pitch your paper to universities and colleges, where a green image is important.
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Interviews have been edited and condensed.