Written by Emily Glaser | Photos by Anthony Harden
The journey of Meg Ragland and Carolyn Lanzetta, from squirreling away kids’ keepsakes, to permanently memorializing them as mementos..
Ascend creaking stairs, hidden behind oft-closed attic doors or folded up into stifling ceilings. Step into the basement past motes of stirred dust, startled spiders, and splotched mold. Dive beneath the underbellies of guestroom beds. Dig into the poorly-lit confines of storage closets. There you’ll find it all: Stuffed in crumbling cardboard boxes and hastily-labeled plastic tubs are treasure troves of cherished childhood archives, long-forgotten memories that have lain untouched for months, years, sometimes even decades.
Opening one of these boxes and unfurling years-old artwork or awards is like plucking those memories right out of the depths of our consciousness, but how often do we actually bother to make that ascent or descent in order to dust off the finger-painted, popsicle stick-lined memory lane?
For Meg Ragland and Carolyn Lanzetta, figuring out the answer to that question led to their creating a unique new business, Plum Print.
For most of us, of course, the typical answer would be “rarely” or “never.” In a modern society where waste is taboo, nostalgia is a cultural prerequisite, and homes come with hundreds of square footage of potential storage, it’s easy to squirrel away mounds of beloved children’s artwork and familial mementos. We’re too maudlin to dispose of these artifacts, but too busy to remove them from their mausoleum; instead, they remain clandestine keepsakes thrust into the hidden corners of our homes. There has to be an alternative, an easy archive system to condense and store those memories, one that you can effortlessly access to stir that muddled potion of memories.
Ragland and Lanzetta’s solution? Excavate those storage areas, scavenge through those boxes and bins, and send those partially-forgotten archives off in a Plum Parcel. Within a few weeks, you’ll receive a uniquely-designed modern scrapbook/coffee table book, its pages filled with digitized reproductions of those cherished keepsakes.
A Similar Solution
Like most entrepreneurial undertakings, the journey by Ragland and Lanzetta to Plum Print’s creation was not entirely intentional. The two friends arrived at the same juncture in their career paths almost simultaneously. Both Ragland, an editor for women’s magazines (including Women’s Day and Family Circle), and Lanzetta, an equity trader at JP Morgan on Wall Street, had been working long hours and late nights, returning to youngsters in the evening exhausted. The prospect of continuing along their current paths with more tots in tow was unthinkable. Instead, Ragland and Lanzetta resolved to quit their careers and embark on a new business venture together. But what, exactly, would their business do?
Even as the two women grappled with the purpose of their enterprise, they found themselves addressing another, very different question. Each of their eldest children were reaching that fortuitous age at which creativity blossoms in the form of finger-paintings, crayon-colored pages, and stick-fingered drawings; as a result, the two moms found themselves with mountains of artwork and no solution for storage or preservation. In the land of lofts and high-rises, no one had the space to stash the mementos, but no one had an alternative solution, either. Eventually, those two questions—what kind of business to start and how to save their children’s artwork—found a common answer.
“We had talked for quite a while about starting a business,” Ragland remembers, “and it was kind of random that one day we were talking about, ‘What do you do with all your kids’ artwork?’ She didn’t have an answer, and I didn’t have an answer, and we asked other people with older kids, and none of them had an answer.”
What answers they did receive were less solutions than additional obstacles. “They were like, ‘I stuff it in a box,’ but in New York City you don’t have a basement to stick it in!” Ragland notes, with a laugh.
Faced with a mutual dilemma, the two women created their own solution. Lanzetta had begun photographing her daughter’s work, editing the images with Photoshop and InDesign to remove wrinkles and stains, and designing a simple layout to showcase the digitized artwork. She then found a company that would take those photos and print a single edition of her unique creation: a hardcover book, its pages filled with the creations of her kids. One of the images in that first book—a plum-colored purple handprint—provided a sticky namesake, Plum Print.
The response was immediate, and loud.
“When I saw her book, and other people saw it, they were like, ‘Oh my gosh, we want one!’” says Ragland. A business was born.
Pushing up Plums
After fielding dozens of requests for books similar to the one created by Lanzetta for her own daughter, in 2012 the two moms/entrepreneurs put together a website, bootstrapping and pinching pennies to make their idea a reality without the assistance of outside investors. They taught themselves basic graphic design, refining the process along the way, as Ragland’s magazine background was in editorial, not creative design, making her prior experience not exactly applicable. From day one, the idea was to automate and streamline the online ordering process to make it as easy as possible for harried parents; it was a sympathetic scheme that worked. Plum Print has never taken a traditional advertising route or placed slick ads in magazines, instead relying on Lanzetta’s own marketing experience to boost the standing of the swiftly growing company. Combined with the overwhelmingly positive word-of-mouth by their friends, and then by those friends’ friends, they had a built-in customer base from the start, and the orders poured in.
As the business developed, Plum Print quickly outgrew its humble thresholds. The company was thriving, growing quickly, and the two moms recognized they needed additional office space, as well as room for future expansion. Since space itself is a sparse commodity in New York, Ragland and Lanzetta knew they would need to move outside the city. Concomitantly, Ragland’s family, eager for open spaces and clean air, had begun considering a permanent move. Asheville became the natural solution.
“My husband grew up in Winston-Salem and so we were very familiar with Asheville,” Ragland notes. “We had visited Asheville on vacations and loved it here. My husband works in the music business, and brought his company, NewSong Music, to Echo Mountain Recording studios here in Asheville at the same time we brought Plum Print here.” [Note: Ragland’s husband, Gar Ragland, was included in our report on the Asheville music scene that appeared in the October 2016 issue.]
The decision was made even easier by Plum Print’s induction into the small business incubator at A-B Tech’s Enka campus, where businesses are invited to stay for two to three years, nurtured and allowed to expand into additional spaces within the campus. “The Asheville Chamber and folks with Ignite Asheville were very instrumental in meeting with us and encouraging our move to Asheville and introducing us to the entrepreneurial side of Asheville, and introducing me to the amazing folks at the incubator,” remembers Ragland. Plum Print didn’t merely receive the formal support of the incubator, but the genuine encouragement of the local community; Ragland and Lanzetta’s undertaking was the first investment of the Asheville Angels. (This seed round in 2015 was their first, led by a VC firm, Brooklyn Bridge Ventures, and rounded out by angel investors, including the Asheville Angels.) Cut to 2016: The business currently has a full-time staff of seven, plus 14 independent contractors in production. Lanzetta, who handles the development and marketing for Plum Print, remained in New York City, while Ragland oversees the production studio in Asheville. Thousands of thousands of printed books have shipped from the Plum Print office to date, with dozens in production daily.
They’ve created a well-oiled and efficient machine. During three years at the A-B Tech location, Plum Print grew from a single office to include a series of offices and a digitization studio, the shipping and storage rooms lined with incoming orders—often, multiple boxes of tokens, tchotchkes, and artwork—along with the completed orders and the accompanying original memorabilia that’s either being returned or in the process of being disposed of.
In July the rapid growth of Plum Print prompted the business to move again, this time within Asheville. The move was one they anticipated for months, deftly working the greater expense into their budget. The new space is located at the HatchAVL, the business concept of Troy & Sons’ Charlie Ball. Located on South French Broad in Asheville, HatchAVL will operate as a business incubator for startups, and Plum Print was one of the first three companies to move in, along with Anthroware and Mob Rocket. (Slated to move in soon are Venture Asheville, Galaxy Digital, UGoTour, LoLo, and Shiny Creek; the large building already houses Hopey & Co. grocery store, Little Bee Thai, and the Grail Moviehouse.) Here, for the first time, Plum Print has had the opportunity to design and personalize its own workspace, which, with its high ceilings, tall windows, and open floor plan, has a loft-like feel. The digitization studio is more than twice the size of the previous one at A-B Tech.
Ragland, commenting on the move, notes, “We love the palpable entrepreneurial energy in The Hatch. Our neighboring companies rock; our landlord, Charlie Ball, is the bomb; our space is big and open and bright; our desks are adjustable so we can sit or stand; and best of all, we are downtown!”
Easy as (Plum) Pie
With firsthand knowledge of the harriedness of working parents, both women knew they wanted to make this a convenient service. “We know that parents—especially of young kids—are super busy and this is just another thing,” Ragland points out. “They feel guilty throwing it away, so we make it super simple.”
And the process is simple: Place a $39.99 deposit on the Plum Print website, and within a few days a Plum Parcel will arrive on your doorstep. Fill the generously-sized box with your mementos—anything from simple paintings and rolled-up murals to macaroni necklaces and 3D sculptures—and use the prepaid shipping label to send it back to the Plum Print studio. Here, your keepsakes are carefully removed, digitized, and catalogued. The Plum Print process for digitization—a scientific algorithm and trade secret that includes white lights and magnets—produces a near flawless product; these aren’t the hastily photographed images you’ll find in an iPhone, but professional and unblemished images of your child’s artwork.
Any flaws that do appear in those initial photos—wrinkles, stains, the subtle age lines of once-crisp folds—are Photoshopped out of the digitized image. Throwing around the term “Photoshop” in relation to treasured children’s artwork makes some parents nervous, but Ragland and the entire Plum Print team are completely devoted to the integrity of the artwork; any Photoshopping is strictly in relation to time-induced flaws in the paper or product. “When kids’ artwork comes in, it’s seldom flat; it’s often rolled up; it’s often folded; it’s often wrinkled,” Ragland says. “People don’t want to look at a picture in a book with wrinkles on it, so we edit out the wrinkles. We don’t change the artwork; we’re just trying to make it as true to its original form as possible.”
The digitized, fully restored art then makes its way to the graphic design team, where it’s laid out, each page meticulously designed to best feature the art. Once completed, a digital proof is sent to the parents for revision and approval. What edits the parents do send in are usually minimal. “They can tell us, ‘The cotton ball snowman’s on his head,’ and we’re like, ‘Oh, we didn’t realize it was a snowman because all the cotton balls were the exact same size,’” Ragland says, with a laugh. “They can make any small changes like that and then they hit approve and they’re done.” Parents can also organize the pages chronologically, add captions or quotes, and send in an introduction, a “meet the artist” page of sorts that celebrates the creativity of the child.
Once the book is finalized, it’s printed and shipped back to the parents. (The original artwork can also find its way back home for an additional fee; otherwise, it’s sent to “Artwork Heaven.”) The final product—in softcover or hardcover; a price calculator on the Plum Print site outlines the final cost, with, for example, $90 for a softcover book detailing 25 pieces of art, $118 for a small hardcover, and $145 for a large hardcover—is a timeless collection of your child’s artwork, mementos, and memories. Unlike those hidden bins and boxes, Plum Print products are always within reach, those memories easily accessed. “Even if you have room to store it,” Ragland says, “you never look at it. Whereas if it’s a book on your shelf, you can pull it out.”
A Different Kettle of Prints
Plum Print is no doubt successful; their consistent growth over the past few years is a clear indicator of that. But what differentiates them from competitors? It’s a question Ragland hears often. With a host of websites and apps catering to our modern sentimental and commemorative needs, Plum Print could easily become lost in a sea of services—yet they don’t.
“A lot of people ask, ‘How do you differ from Shutterfly?’ Shutterfly takes your photos and you design your own book. We’re creating the digital images,” says Ragland. “People have piles of their kids’ artwork. They don’t have that digitally, whereas you already have your photos. So really, our benefit is actually the digitizing of your artwork.” Those digital reproductions distinguish Plum Print from any other service on the market, a caveat Ragland and Lanzetta began to recognize and market directly.
Once you send in the items and they’re digitized, you can access those images in a gallery where they stored indefinitely and on your own terms. You can revisit all the images Plum Print has ever digitized for you, and reintegrate those images into additional books, or new products and gifts—a whole new line of which Plum Print recently unveiled. “Some people who have four kids and they’ve done three books for each kid, they have a lot of images, and they can access those,” Ragland says. “So they can pick 12 and put them into a calendar, [or] they can pick just one for a pillow for grandma for Mother’s Day.” You can even download the images to use in your own projects, be it a collage (admittedly counterintuitive, but you get the point) or even a different service.
Ragland acknowledges that this concept—incorporating your kids’ artwork into gifts for family—isn’t necessarily a new one, but it’s one that can be improved upon and has been by Plum Print. Whereas other print studios might offer kitschy keychains, T-shirts, and mugs emblazoned with prints of your child’s work, Plum Print sells unique items such as pillows, dog beds, shower curtains, iPhone cases, and 18”-square poufs (sitting cubes). The company’s shower curtains, in fact, were recently spotlighted by Fox News in a report on unusual July 4 decorations, recommending how parents can turn their kid’s American flag painting into a curtain. (To date, Plum Print has been the beneficiary of quite a bit of positive press, garnering positive press from such media outlets as Real Simple, Good Housekeeping, Parents Magazine, ABC News New York, and The Today Show.)
And no matter what, Ragland maintains, their coffee table books will remain their premier products; these additional items, she says, are simply a means of “upselling current customers.” It’s a savvy business strategy that capitalizes upon existing customers and those limitless galleries of their digitized keepsakes.
Another unique aspect of Plum Print is the sheer lack of limits when it comes to their digitization and market. When Plum Print began, Ragland and Lanzetta intentionally marketed their books to parents looking for solutions for their kids’ piles of artwork, and they still do. But over the years, they’ve received and digitized a miscellany of memorabilia, clippings, and curios. “People can send whatever they want,” says Ragland, an honest assessment that has earned Plum Print a fair share of curious projects. She recalls one book in which they digitized and categorized a series of hundreds of trophies: A recent high school graduate was flying the coop and heading to college, and his savvy mother (who recognized the awards would wind up forgotten in the attic) sent in his trophy collection to be memorialized in print. One Plum Print repeat customer in California creates quarterly collections, sending in every scrap and slip, from field trip permission forms to school photos. They’ve digitized bins of baby clothes and shoes—the kinds of relics parents are loath to discard but can’t store forever. A baker in Canada sends in collections bi-annually to create tomes of newspaper clippings and archives. The options for what can be immortalized in a Plum Print book are apparently limitless.
Ragland describes one special project, sent from that same regular customer in California: “Her mother-in-law passed away, and she was like, ‘Can you do a book? I have drawers full of stuff from my mother-in-law.’” Ragland gestures, intimating the size of the box that arrived a few weeks after the inquiry, a seemingly massive chest of memories. And its contents were as varied as the life of the woman they documented, from hair ribbons to photographs to belt buckles. Once the project was completed—hundreds of pages—the customer ordered nine copies, one for each member of the family. “She wanted every relative to have it,” Ragland notes. Rather than divide the myriad contents between generations, spurring inevitable squabbles, the clever customer made sure everyone had a tangible copy of every memento—and no one had to store a thing. That project may eventually take shape as a whole new line of business; as they scale, Ragland mentions, they might consider partnering with assisted living homes, where they could provide senior citizens with printed books full of the memories they had to leave behind.
Recently, Plum Print launched the Plum Print Marketplace (Market.PlumPrint.com), which enables artists of any age to sell products featuring their artistic creations, including pillows, shower curtain, notecards, dog beds, iPhone cases, and more. From the sale of their items, artists receive royalties that can be directed towards an education fund, a growing career, a toy wish list, or even to benefit a charity of their choice.
Expansion into new markets and ventures is a hallmark of Plum Print. Last year the company revealed their new Ambassador program, an extension of their original motive of making life easier for parents. The Ambassador program offers flexibility and autonomy for moms or dads looking for part-time employment. Just as Plum Print brought Ragland and Lanzetta the freedom they’d been missing in their traditional jobs, so is the Plum Print Ambassador program intended to bring those opportunities to other parents. Perhaps, most popularly to date, they can host parties, where they share samples with other parents. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a mom who touched one of our books and wasn’t like, ‘I want one of these!’” says Ragland. It’s also a fun opportunity for moms to take care of the task of sorting and sending their kids’ artwork in; a gathering of friends, a glass of wine, and a Plum Parcel can make for a very appealing afternoon off from parenting. After the party, the ambassador receives a portion of the sales, the hostess receives “Plum Print Dollars” for each sale, and the parents get their own Plum Print book.
Plum Print also partners with schools as a fundraiser, both through ambassadors and independently. Ragland refers to this partnership as the “Easier than a bake sale” fundraiser. An ambassador simply goes to the school—shipping bags and order forms in tow—and passes them out for students to take home for parents to fill. The ambassadors subsequently pick up the bags and send them on to Plum Print; from there, Plum Print is in direct communication with the parents. It’s decidedly effortless for the actual school, yet they receive a portion of the profits from the fundraiser. “It’s not even [like] a fundraiser; it’s just a service to the parents,” says Ragland.
It’s a win-win for the school and the parents, and of course for Plum Print. Their revenue-sharing models, both as fundraisers and through their Ambassador Program, are “as easy as pie”—which is just what Ragland and Lanzetta always intended.
By the time a child graduates from elementary school, by some estimates they will have created around 800 pieces of artwork. That’s 800 finger-paintings, papier-mâché projects, and popsicle-stick structures, stuffed into boxes and hidden under beds where they yellow, curl, and flake away. Now multiply those 800 projects by some 25 million elementary school students across the country. It’s this commonality that’s helped turn Plum Print into a nationwide enterprise.
“We saw a need in our immediate area, especially living in New York City, so we thought, ‘Maybe this will just be a need on the coasts, people in big cities, Los Angeles and New York.’ Those are still our number one and number two, but number three is actually Texas; we would think people in Texas have plenty of room to store their kids’ artwork!” she says, smiling. “But really I think there’s a need—it’s not just centered around a city. Parents everywhere have these boxes and bins, and even if you have room to store it, if you put it in a box or a bin your basement, you never look at it.”
That nationwide need is also responsible for Plum Print’s remarkable 70 percent repeat customer rate, figures rarely cited in businesses outside of coffee shops and grocery stores. But that return rate isn’t just a matter of a need; as we’ve mentioned, there are other services that could satiate a parent’s hunger for products that memorialize their children’s artwork. The return rate, and the ever-increasing numbers of new customers, is a testament to Plum Print’s merit. “I think that speaks to the quality of our product and our customer service,” says Ragland.
But Plum Print’s true success lies not in its profits or projects, but in the pleasure it brings to its customers—especially the kids. “When we started the business, we really did it to take care of the parents’ needs,” says Ragland. “What we were really happily surprised by was the fact of how much these books mean to the children.” Ragland cites the inestimable joy that glows from the kids after receiving their own Plum Print book. They see themselves as published authors, artists deserving of their very own publication. But that pride spans generations: “We have some great pictures of Christmas morning, these 30-year-old kids getting their books, and they instantly remember [those events],” says Ragland.
Even Ragland herself has experienced the simple joys of rekindling memories through Plum Print. She recalls sharing her own book with her daughter and the smile that spread across her face as she pointed out similarities in their artistic styles: the way they both drew stick-fingered hands, triangular dresses, family pets with four lines for legs. It’s a moment that stands out in Ragland’s mind, one that might never would have occurred if those yellowed drawings had remained hidden away in attics and basements. Plum Print pulls memories from the stale, veiled corners of the past into the radiant world of today—which is where they’ve always belonged.
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