Interview by Annie Pearce, Vice President of Communications at Triangle AMA
Stephen Fraser is one of two Internet geeks that created Spoonflower when their creative wives wondered why there wasn’t a way to create your own custom fabric. The company not only strives to allow individuals the freedom to create their own fabrics, but also to provide fabrics that are good for its customers as well as the environment. The on-demand process cuts down on wasted fabric, ink, and the printing process uses less water. As a company, Spoonflower is on a mission to bring more of the industrial world into the 21st century.
In this interview with Stephen Fraser, discover his passion for this area and his thoughts on how we can move our community forward. Hear about the harrowing beginnings of Spoonflower, as well as the goal to influence more of the industrial world to move to digital printing.
Our vision is to make the Triangle one of the top five centers for innovation and entrepreneurship in the country. What do you think still needs to happen to accomplish this?
The Triangle is already one of our country’s leading regions for innovation and entrepreneurship. The foundation for our success was laid decades ago in the form of investment in the infrastructure to support tech and life science companies. Local universities partnered with government and private investors to create Research Triangle Park in 1959, which became the home of successful companies like IBM.
The more recent blossoming of the region has also arisen from the successes that came before it. When a company does very well, especially when it’s a company that goes public, that company tends to generate waves of smaller start-up companies. Those smaller companies help create and attract new talent and investment, and some of them, in turn, become successful themselves and start the cycle over again.
An example of how that sort of ecosystem works is Red Hat, which went public in 1999 and became one of the Triangle’s greatest success stories. The entrepreneur who founded Red Hat, Bob Young, went on to found Lulu.com in 2002, which was the first company to allow people to publish and sell their own books through the Internet. It allowed a reader to buy a single copy of a book that would be digitally printed on demand and fulfilled. Working at Lulu.com is where I met Gart Davis, my co-founder at Spoonflower, and in 2008 we applied what we learned at Lulu to start our own company. Another local success story, Bronto Software, was founded by two entrepreneurs who met working at Red Hat. A third local startup that is doing well right now, Windsor Circle, was founded by someone who used to work at Bronto.
All of which is to say, what the Triangle really needs to continue to thrive is more success stories, especially big ones: more companies that are started here, grow here, and then go public the way Red Hat did, spinning out the seeds for further innovation in the process.
The other thing we need, just to add a bit of political context, is a state legislature that is not fixated on retrograde social legislation like the recent HB2, which limits the scope of legal protections available to lesbian, gay and transgender people. When North Carolina is perceived by people outside of the state as hostile to particular minorities, and also near the bottom of the pack in education and teacher pay, that makes it awfully hard for those of us in the business community to sell the idea that our state is a great place for software engineers, executives, and other skilled professionals to relocate, and that it is a great place for investors from elsewhere to find opportunities for their money to grow.
Why did you choose to start your business in the Triangle?
I grew up in Georgia, but as a young person struggled with what I perceived to be my home’s social conservatism. I first came to North Carolina as a college student at Chapel Hill, where I was enamored with a state that seemed -- much more so than the place where I grew up -- to embrace the future. In my twenties I lived in California for a few years, in the Bay Area, and then, after that, returned to Atlanta in the late 1990s.
I moved back to North Carolina in 2000 and found, at that moment in the state’s history, what seemed to me to be place that embodied the best traits of the southern United States, a colorful and interesting history combined with a rich and diverse culture that was forward-looking. The existence of a tech economy here in the Triangle -- which is a far more livable, affordable region than Atlanta or the Bay Area -- is what made me want to settle down here and, eventually, to want to found a company here. And mostly, those instincts have proven to be right. We’ve been able to hire amazing, talented people here at Spoonflower.
What’s your vision for your company in next 5 years?
Spoonflower was the first company to make it possible for anyone, anywhere in the world (with a computer and an Internet connection) to design their own fabric. Over time, we also created a vast marketplace that allows independent artists to create and sell their own surface designs and to earn commissions in the process. Those two things were quite revolutionary in their way.
The next revolution is to help influence more of the industrial world to move from traditional methods of textile printing -- mass manufacturing -- to digital printing, which is far less wasteful and resource intensive. Over the next five years, I hope Spoonflower will play an important role in expanding digital textile printing to other industries.
What are you reading (or what do you recommend)? Listening to? Watching?
Of course I have to recommend The Spoonflower Handbook, which was published by Abrams this past fall. The book was our best attempt to lower the intimidation factor associated with designing your own fabric, wallpaper, or giftwrap for the first time, written for people who might not know the first thing about Photoshop or digital design. It’s a great introduction to all the concepts you would need to work with Spoonflower or any other digital printing service, and includes over 30 projects that range from the simple -- a pillow made using a photo of your pet -- to the complex, like a dress designed using a print engineered to fill the entire space of the garment.
We love the concept of being able to design your own fabric, wallpaper, and gift wrapping. When was the moment you decided to take the leap and create your own company?
Spoonflower was my wife’s idea, originally. Kim is -- unlike me -- an avid quilter and crafter. She had a vision for a set of curtains she was planning to make for our house, but no way to print the design she had in her mind. I had a bit of a background in Internet companies that allowed people to print customized products on demand, so I found it surprising that there wasn’t already a website that allowed people to design their own fabric.
Back at the beginning of 2008 I thought it was an amazing idea, but wasn’t really sure I’d be able to pull it all off until I sat down for coffee with Gart and he agreed to help put together the ‘beta’ version of the site so that we could test whether or not there was really a consumer demand for print-on-demand fabric.
A few months later, even though we had no printer, no employees, or even an office, we did have a very crude site with a real shopping cart, along with a very small handful of real orders. Once there were real orders being placed, there was no turning back. Failure was not an option. Those first few years of the business were quite harrowing, but we were very lucky to have survived and thrived. Today, Spoonflower has around 175 employees and, in January, opened an office in Berlin, Germany. It’s been a wild ride, but a wonderful one.