Our Entrepreneurial Journey
Annabel St.John, Founder and Designer
An innovative and design enthusiast, Annabel St.John is undeniably making her mark. As the founder of lifestyle brand QUEEN & GRACE, and stationery brand PaperQueen, St.John has harnessed her strong business sense, artistic vision, and design talents to grow her company and the QUEEN & GRACE brand into what she refers to as a "lifestyle" brand. Named West Vancouver Chamber of Commerce 'Business of the Year', St.John is a force of positive energy, building a company that encourages empowerment through style and actions. Guiding positive energy and perpetual inspiration, St.John is living proof that anything is possible when you are passionate about what you do and believe you can do anything you set your mind to.
In her off time you will find her on the golf course, tennis and pickle ball courts, staying active, giving back, exploring the world and having fun!
After moving to Paris, France to study Fashion Design, followed by Fashion Merchandising in Long Beach, California, Annabel St. John was hooked in the fashion business. She then gained valuable experience honing her skills working in the high end retail business, in the front end with clients and later in the backend, buying, importing and managing. After ten years of experience, Annabel decided it was time to spread her wings, take the plunge and be her own boss, just like her grade 12 year book write up stated she would do. So, in 1995, with a seven month old baby in tow, she purchased a niche printing business called Thistle Calligraphy. The business mainly offered calligraphy services using an automated printer, called a lettering bed. Each piece of stationery was individually printed (a very slow process, with a lovely outcome). This service, paired with several beautiful lines of stationery and invitations options, was the perfect combination to offer to brides and socialites for their stationery needs. As well, to many Universities and Associations to print their calligraphy needs for their graduating students diplomas.
The day Annabel called to register her new business with the city, the person on the other end of the phone kept thinking she was saying "Whistle" Calligraphy. Uh oh.... Thinking this was going to be a common problem, she re-named the business, right there on the telephone, to Hunter Calligraphy, the name of her baby boy. A new business was born, and set up in a tiny room in the basement of her little house in West Vancouver, BC.
Got got pregnant with her second child. Tore down her house in West Vancouver to build a new house while continuing to run her business from the basement suite she was renting, while the new build was happening.
Gave birth in March to her second son, Hamish, and moved into her new house a month later. She had "moved up" in the world, literally, from her windowless, basement office into her main floor, 10' x 10' office with big, bright windows. (It's amazing what you can do in 100 sqr feet)!
1998 | The PaperQueen brand is born
The evolution of printers and scanners was changing fast. Prices to buy printers were finally beginning to drop, becoming affordable for people to buy their own and start printing for themselves at home. It was only a matter of time before Universities and businesses would start in-house printing. This was the first technology interference Hunter Calligraphy would notice.
Custom stationery was becoming a big part of Hunter Calligraphy's business. The start of PaperQueen "Illustrated Stationery" went like this. Annabel drew a simple line drawing of a girls wearing a dress and wearing a crown and had a stamp made of it (before her scanner acquisition). Then she stamped each one onto blank, good quality card stock. Each card was then hand coloured, hand glittered and then individually printed using the calligraphy lettering bed with the clients name. They were beautiful little pieces of art, but very slow and labour intensive to create. No one was going to get rich with this business model.
One day, a client asked Annabel to draw her a custom illustration and print 100 of them for her. The thought of doing all of the above by hand, 100 times did not thrill her. She felt that was a good time to invest in a scanner.
With her new scanner unboxed and installed, she drew and coloured an illustration and watched the scanner do it's magic. Out printed this darling, coloured illustration directly onto the stationery card stock. She could not believe how seamless and easy it was! This was her "ah, ha" moment. The printing world had just expanded a hundred fold in her mind. The options were endless, and the volume printing options were endless. (Game changer #1) PaperQueen was born (a nickname that many friends had started calling her since she bought her business). She officially changed the business name from Hunter Calligraphy to PaperQueen in 1999.
After shipping samples to Kate's Paperie in New York, the famous stationery chain called to say they wanted to carry PaperQueen greeting cards in all five of their Manhatten locations. Their opening order was for 2,500 cards, PaperQueen's biggest order at the time (plus the US $ was at an all time high and we were invoicing in US currency).
We were now on the map, and in New York! (Game changer #2)
After shipping samples to all of the Editors listed in InStyle magazine, the hottest magazine on the market at the time, PaperQueen received a "thanks, but no thanks" letter in the mail (email was not a thing yet) saying they had just printed an editorial about stationery but they would keep us in mind, blah blah blah. Then, exactly one week later, PaperQueen received another letter. This one saying they had reconsidered and they were going to be printing a third of a page spread on PaperQueen's hand glittered stationery, along with pictures and ordering details. It was a thrill and a panic all at the same time. We didn't have a website! We were going to be in a major magazine publication and we were working out of a 10' x 10' office with toddlers crawling around the floor and a single telephone line.
So what do you do when you have a critical deadline with hardly any time? You get shit done, that's what you do. PaperQueen hired a website designer and had their first website designed in three weeks. (There would be three more websites to follow over the years.) It was not an e-commerce site, but it was an online ordering system, that anyone in the world could order online. After and order was received, they would call each client individually for their payment details, which worked out brilliantly because they got to speak to each and every customer. PaperQueen did over $10,000 in online sales the month the InStyle publication came out. It was a thrilling, incredible time.
We now had a worldwide, online presence. (Game changer #3)
On a whim, wondering what they could achieve next if InStyle was relatively seamless, they shipped more stationery samples to the buyers of Neiman Marcus, at the time, the God's of the stationery world. They wrote back, (yes, they mailed letters back then), asking for a meeting in New York. Annabel hopped on a plane (when opportunity knocks, get on the plane) and met with five Neiman's buyers at the National Stationery Show in the Javits Center. After the meeting, they chose PaperQueen as their first Canadian stationery company to be showcased and sold in their stationery catalogue and on their website. They showcased seven different PaperQueen products on seven different pages in their stationery catalogue. And to top it all off, they chose a PaperQueen hand glittered card for the front cover of their stationery catalogue. (Massive game changer #4)
PaperQueen was picked up by a major distributor in Toronto, Paper E. Clips, which put the greeting cards on the map throughout Canada and the USA.
Business was booming and PaperQueen continued to create beautiful invitations and personalized social stationery. However, towards the end of the decade they began to notice a slight decline in sales, due to the ever increasing popularity of the internet. Feeling this, they decided they needed to take the leap and go to market themselves with their own greeting card line.
PaperQueen made their debut appearance at the National Stationery Show in New York, gaining many new vendors and was nominated for Best New Stationery Line. Only three companies were chosen for this nomination among over 500 stationery companies. PaperQueen also landed a new key vendor, Papyrus, who, until recently, operated 450 locations throughout Canada and the United States.
Even though sales were strong, the fact could no longer be ignored that the internet was directly impacting the stationery and invitation business worldwide and it was only a matter of time before it got even worse. Why would people continue to write and mail when they could simply text or email for free?
While on a holiday in Arizona visiting a friend, Annabel noticed an exquisite necklace around her neck. (Annabel is and always has been a major jewelry aficionado.) She sourced where it was from, flew to New York and bought several beautiful necklaces and bracelets to bring back to offer to her clients. PaperQueen was now in the beginning stages of morphing into the fashion accessories business. An effortless transition and perfect fit complimenting her fashion design background.