Saying hello to success in specialty stationery
Story by Donna Reges Hall
After lots of planning and dreaming, husband and wife Jon and Katie LaNasa and partner Derek Stockman started their holding company L & S Retail Ventures in 2003.
The core focus is InvitationBox.com, an online store that offers the products, service and personalization of a stationery and gift shop with the convenience of the Web.
Jon, an entrepreneur at heart, says he’s drawn to the challenge of balancing all his responsibilities as a business owner.
“I enjoy growing enterprises and being involved and doing lots of different things,” he says. “In the morning, I help with the proofing and the typesetting. I used to print every order. I do all the HR, I do finance, I cover the entire spectrum. Being an entrepreneur allows you to do multiple things and you can do them at the pace you want to do them. Setting the goals and priorities, hiring people, working with people … That’s sort of what makes business fun.”
InvitationBox.com specializes in gifts and invitations for the whole range of life’s special events, from birthdays to weddings, baby showers, graduations and everything in between. Jon says a majority of his InvitationBox.com customers are 25-35-year-old brides, newlyweds and new mothers, as well as daughters giving their parents birthday and anniversary parties.
Along with their own unique designs, InvitationBox.com carries some of the most popular vendors in the industry including Inviting Company, Stacy Claire Boyd, Odd Balls, Picture Perfect, SanLori Designs, Cross-My-Heart and Paper So Pretty, to name a few. The company does 99 percent of its business online, but still maintains regular store hours for customers who like to see products in person and have some guidance.
Interestingly, neither Jon nor Stockman have any real background in the invitation industry.
“I came into this business out of a finance background,” Jon explains. “Derek has more of an IT background. We had no clue how to print. We knew nothing about designing invitations. We built these capabilities up step by step. I designed a lot of the cards in the beginning. I printed everything in the beginning. We sort of half learned how to do different things. As we’ve learned, we’ve been able to grow.”
Though it wasn’t a passion for invitations that drove them at first, Jon and Stockman didn’t just happen into the industry by chance.
They plotted their business ideas together while working as former colleagues at Amphenol in Connecticut. Jon was tired of the extensive global travel his job required and was ready to do something on his own. When the time was right, he and Stockman took their leap.
“We’d go out drinking once or twice a week and we’d sit down and say we want to do something else,” Jon explains. “And literally for a year at these happy hours, we’d break down ideas in a spreadsheet. We came up with 70, 80, 90 different business ideas. And we just kept coming back to this market. It’s a $40 billion market if you include greeting cards, and at that time there really weren’t the Shutterflys and the Kodaks. Tinyprints had the same exact idea at the same time we did. There were a few online people but it was really ma and pa driven and your local boutiques. I said we know the Web, we just need to learn how to do the printing piece which we’ll figure out. Let’s go for it.”
In the beginning, Katie was the sole employee and ran the InvitationBox store for the first year, while Jon and Stockman worked on the website. Today, they have 13 full-time employees, as well as several part-time employees who help leading up to the busy June wedding season.
“I think the presence we convey makes us seem much bigger than we are,” Jon says. “But we’re able to do so much so competitively with a very condensed staff. We’re very efficient and very goal focused and there are only thirteen of us here.”
This is the company’s second time on the Inc. 5000 list, a feat which the owners attribute to hard work. Jon is no stranger to 14-hour work days, he says.
“Nothing is more important than working hard,” he relates as advice his father gave him. “If you work hard at anything, you’ll eventually get good at it and be successful.”
“If I don’t put the hard work in, I can’t ask everyone else to. I have to set the example for everyone else,” Jon says. “If I’m not working the longest hours, I can’t expect anyone else to outwork me. I mean, we’re not investment bankers here. We’re not handing out $10 million bonuses to the person who works the longest or hardest. So I try to set the example of ‘Work hard, do whatever it takes.’ If I have to go take the trash out, I take the trash out. If I have to fix something that’s broken in the bathroom, I go fix it. It’s what you to do succeed.”
Jon has worked in the past with Priceline founder, Jay Walker, who he calls one of the great entrepreneurs of our current generation. During that time, Jon was able to sit in on meetings with Walker and says he saw the speed of his ideas and execution. Jon learned how to strategize and how to come up with big ideas, break them into small pieces and develop them quickly.
Those lessons of growth certainly seem to be applicable to InvitationBox.com. The company is now obtaining an even wider following by advertising with popular wedding websites such as theKnot.com, Weddingchannel.com and Weddingwire.com.
Jon says his company will be focusing this year on the formal wedding market, which they have ignored up until now because it’s labor intensive to sell the product and to produce it. He expects development in that market to lead to significant revenue growth over the next few years. Jon plans to expand the company’s unique invitation designs as well, which are created under the name IB Designs. With large competitors like Shutterfly and Kodak, LaNasa works hard to hold his own in this niche industry.
“We’re definitely one of the up and growing companies,” he says. “We’re not the biggest but people know us.”