Green Element weekly podcast Interview with Anne Pleun van Eijsden from Paper on the Rocks.


Today we’re joined by Anne Pleun van Eijsden from Paper on the Rocks. She started Paper on the Rocks in late 2015. After studying International Law, a bachelor in History and minor in Chinese she worked as an e-commerce marketeer. But from a young age she felt that she wanted to make a difference by becoming an entrepreneur who was ‘doing good’. Then she encountered stonepaper. A beautiful alternative to traditional pulp paper. Almost overnight she started Paper on the Rocks – without a plan but with a very solid belief in the need for change. Now Paper on the Rocks is an internationally operating stationery business, we are a certified B Corporation and provide notebooks made from scaleable paper alternatives – such as our Rockbooks from stonepaper and our soon to launch Leafbooks from agricultural waste – to the B2B and B2C market.

Will: Hello and welcome to the Green Element Podcast. Thank you so much for joining us and helping us understand more of what it is that you do and what your purpose is and who you work with. So, on that note, could you let us know more, please?


Anne: Yes, we work to change the paper industry. We want to create a positive change in the way we use and produce paper notebooks. That’s why at the moment we launched our first product, that’s the rock book. It’s made from stone paper that uses no water, no trees, no harmful chemicals, and no bleach to make a perfectly fine waterproof and really soft type of paper. I started the company at the end of 2015 with just this product and we are currently expanding the product range because what we found out is that there are a lot of alternatives to paper already on the market that are really viable. We want to bring those to the attention of a lot of people because what you see is that the paper industry is such a big industry, that, generally, people don’t know about these alternatives. It’s such a small part of the market still and with my company, I want to raise awareness that we can do better than what we are doing right now. At the same time, you see a trend where the stationery industry is actually a growing market contrary to what a lot of people think because we are doing so much digitally. A lot of people are going back to writing and we want to make sure they do that in a more sustainable way.


Will: Brilliant. So, stone paper, I have to ask you, anything to do with stones?


Anne: Yes. Well, actually a lot. It’s really made from stone waste, calcium. All over the world, you have these mines and these mines they don’t use the regular stones because they are not valuable enough. So, if you use that stone and you grind it to powder, you can mix the powder with a part recycled HDPE, which is actually at the moment, it’s a plastic variety, but you can bind that by heating. So, instead of using loads of water, you can just heat it up and mix it. It becomes like a balloon-like structure that you can pull out then it becomes really thin and then you can use it like paper.


Will: So, I’ve got to questions now, the carbon footprint of that with the heating and I know that making paper is incredibly carbon intensive, is it as carbon intensive or less? Have there been studies done because I know our listeners want to know? It may be a different process but is it better, is it more carbon efficiency?


Anne: Yes, the production process is definitely more efficient, it uses one-third of the energy compared to regular paper production. Right now, the production facility where we source from, they use solar panels to get the energy from. In our case, of course, we don’t make the paper, we make the notebooks. So, in the production of notebooks, you also have the ink, the glue, laminate and the energy that’s being used to produce that book. That’s also CO2 neutral process and the inks are vegetable ink, so we make sure that the whole process of making this book is better than the regular books that are on the market right now.


Will: Brilliant. The second question was, I’m writing with a fountain pen, will I be able to tell the difference?


Anne: Yes, especially with a fountain pen. The ink doesn’t dry that fast on stone paper because it’s waterproof. So, I started out not recommending using a fountain pen on stone paper, but then we do have some shops here in the Netherlands who are specialists in selling fountain pens and it’s super popular. So, apparently, some people really like to use a fountain pen on stone paper because it glides over the paper a bit more than regular paper and it doesn’t soak the ink out of your pen.


Will: Okay, brilliant, because I am a fountain pen person, when I use paper, I like it I don’t know why. I think it’s because of the way it feels.


Anne: Yes.


Will: You feel like a calligrapher even though you’re not.


Anne: Yes. Well, it’s really nice feeling. Before I started this company, I was a huge fan of notebooks as well, so I have like a whole shelf full of notebooks and pens but not fountain pens.


Will: What’s your favorite pen to use on the notebook?


Anne: Well, it’s a brand actually so I like a ballpoint pen from Lamy, but it depends also on the type of filling that’s in the pen, of course, so the medium is my favorite, medium and blue.


Will: Cool. So, what would you say your business superpower was?


Anne: I think our superpower is to make a material that’s not known at all and is better than the regular alternative, to make it known on the market, so that’s actually my specialization. Before I started this company, I was a historian and I studied law as well and I focused on social movements a lot but also, I worked in e-commerce marketing. What I really like for a business is to be more than just a money-making machine. I always knew I wanted to start a business but always that it should have a positive impact on the world, not just a business. So, for this company, I knew from the get-go that it needed to be more than just oh, I make a notebook because I like it.

So, that’s the whole process of building these companies, we want to make sure that people know the issue and that they also know that there is a solution and we want to provide a solution that’s equally or better than the regular notebooks on the market. I feel like if you want to provide a more sustainable alternative, it should also be attractive to people because people want to buy attractive products. They cannot change that around, you cannot tell people at this moment in time, you should opt for a really boring looking notebook that falls apart within a week just because it’s better, you have to also make a better product.


Will: Is it more expensive than a normal notebook? Is it much more, is it a little bit more, is it cheaper or is it the same price?


Anne: We priced it on the same level as the Moleskine brand, so I think you also have the [07:11 unintelligible].


Will: It’s on the higher end.


Anne: It’s on the higher end market and we really looked at the regular pricing on that market and that means our margin is very low compared to the other companies but I’m fine with that. We’re just going for volume and then in the end, also the paper alternatives when they become more like a normal type of paper then the price will also change. The materials that are used for the stone paper, but also for the other paper variety that we will introduce in the coming weeks, it’s waste, so it’s just a matter of ramping up the production.


Will: Okay. So, can you tell us a bit about how you engage your staff, suppliers, and customers with your vision and purpose?


Anne: Yes, let me see where to start. So, the people I work with right now in the team, we just expanded to the team, so first, we were three and now we are eight. What I like a lot is that these people usually they find us, so we communicate a lot about the mission of the company and not so much about, oh, look at her and how nice her product is. The people who are now working in our team they are all mission-driven people and my selection process for hiring people is not to look at their resume. I want to look at the person, so I don’t even look at the resume before the first conversation. I just feel like if you write me a letter and I really feel that you are a mission-driven person, you understand that we need to change something, and you have a way of convincing me that we should have a conversation then we have a conversation. I just find a spot for you in the company, in the team, because no matter what your background is, my background is also crazy.

Nobody ever expected me to start my own business, if they did not know where I’m coming from. My whole family are entrepreneurs, so I always knew that I would, it’s in your DNA sometimes and I think I’m affected by that. But nobody thought I was going to do this and still people are like, well, but you don’t have a business background, how do you know how to start a business? Well, I just started, I did not have a plan myself. Also, for the team, we just got into a conversation, I want to know from the people what they want to learn from the business and from me and what they can bring to the table, that’s the selection process.


Will: I think what you’ve just said is completely resonated with me and you talk to many people and, interestingly, not on this podcast, that the people that you talk to that I wouldn’t necessarily think to interview for this podcast. The people that would go, I can’t believe that you’re doing that, how can you do what you’re doing? You have to look at the resumes first, you have to understand and actually, I think it’s in your favor that you haven’t got a business background, that you are running it with your heart and with your brain as well. I actually think that we do ourselves a disservice, I think that you’re running a business smarter, you’re not following what has been done before because you think that’s the way to do it. You’re using your brain and your heart in the same instance and I think that is the reason why we can learn from you and that’s the reason why it’s people like you that we should be listening to, not a business leader that goes, “yeah, you have to look at the CDs”, the old-fashioned way, I think.


Anne: Yes. Well, you know what’s funny is when I started the company without this plan, it just was really like overnight. Okay, I’m going to do this, made a Kickstarter campaign with a designer and we started the next day. The second day of the Kickstarter campaign, the NOS, the national news agency was on the phone with me for an interview about my business plan. I just made something up, I was like, okay, I’m not going to miss this opportunity to be interviewed by them and then the whole plan like the two rule plans that I had to make notebooks for consumers changed after the Kickstarter campaign. I started making notebooks for businesses mainly because that was apparently the better option and the way that I could gain a bit more volume in the business. But then, I got the advice from actually my father to find some mentors who did have like a more regular business background, they had more experience in this field to help me, to guide me a little bit. So, I do have a group of mentors now who help me with the business and with making sure that I don’t make the commonly made mistakes, so that helps a lot.


Will: That’s actually really important and that just makes sense. I was thinking about I’m kind of going against what I just said previously but it doesn’t, because I think it’s still the same thing. There are still elements of the business that are the same across, we work with our business mentors as well and I totally think that it makes a lot of sense what you do.


Anne: Yeah, I mean, I also like this way of doing things because that’s also actually in terms of how I select the people I work with we just closed the first investment round with Impact Investors. I was in an Accelerated Program by The Impact Hub in Amsterdam and I was interviewed by National Bank who was also participating in this project about my criteria for an investor. I said if you’re coming and telling me that I should make a big return on investment for you and it’s about the money or maybe if I notice in the conversation that you say you’re an impact investor, but really, you’re not, then I’m done. They were a bit laughing at me like, yeah, you’re never going to find someone who acts like that. Now we actually have two parties on board who are exactly like that. So, the impact is first and the second comes, how’s the business doing? How are the people doing? And then the profit comes way behind because we want to make a change in the industry and in the world and that just doesn’t work in an old-fashioned way.


Will: Cool, how exciting. It must be really fun to talk to those people and I don’t know, I bet there were some great conversations that you had between you and the investors. You probably found quite firm friends as well I would imagine.


Anne: Yes. They are really involved in the business, I also asked for that because I’m the sole founder of the company and I got criticized for that a lot, which I also find funny because, why not? I know that sometimes it’s a bit lonely, but it’s not at all lonely because I have all these mentors and people who are supporting me, so I’m fine. But it’s really nice to now have these two parties who are helping me in finding the way on how we can broaden the impact of the company. I do have a feeling of where I want to bring the company, but I’m not sure how to get there and these people they want to assist me on that road, so to say. It’s kind of securing to know that I’m not just floating around trying to do something but the people who know about business, know about impact are helping me.


Will: Yeah, brilliant. So, when it comes to running an ethical and sustainable business, what would you say your biggest struggle so far has been and can you tell us a bit about how you’ve overcome it?


Anne: I think the biggest struggle is that it takes time. Maybe it takes more time to start the business than if you were to start a regular business with just a product and just no really big story, I think that’s easier. In the beginning, I thought well, this is such a great stone paper, such a great invention, the book looks great, the website looks really nice. I have all these companies supporting me from the get-go, Triodos bank, for example, was one of our first customers and it was great and then it just slowed down. I thought if the National News Agency is speaking about us and all the others followed and all the magazines wrote about it, how can it not be an immediate success? Then I realized and I was also told by these mentors, just take your time and you have to feel like you have a long breath, can you also say that in English? Yes, so that was a lesson learned in patience, but in also continuing like grit and what I’ve found really nice from the investors is that they also applauded that.

A lot of people who start an impact business they feel like it should be a success from the beginning, or they don’t have any room to wait or to continue while the company’s not doing that well yet. Maybe for personal reasons or whatever, I can totally understand that but maybe if you take that into account from the start and you know that you need a bit more ley way to get there, that could help, that could help a lot. But you have to continue, just not give up because this is something new and people don’t listen to your story or to you, immediately. Unless you’re like really famous and it’s your 20th company and all of the first 19 were a big success then you’re fine maybe or maybe not even.


Will: If you could offer one piece of advice to our listeners which could help them with their purpose, what would that be?


Anne: To find the purpose or in general with reaching the purpose?


Will: Either really, just a piece of advice about their purpose, really.


Anne: Okay. So, two things, first, I think it’s really good to talk to people in the field of sustainable business but also in the field of regular business because you have to deal with that world in any case. So, it’s not going to be like you start a business focused on the new economy and you’re going to work solely in the new economy, you need the old one as well. So, find people who can advise you on that and who can be a mentor, that was really helpful to me. Secondly, what I really like is to view my company not as a business, but as a social movement because we are not working to make this like the biggest company in the world that’s making the most, has the biggest turnover and the most profits. We want to make an impact and social movements are really good at that, they change something in society, and I can work in this company for the rest of my life if that’s the goal. If the goal is to change something in society for the better and to change the paper industry for the better. That’s what motivates me, and I think the people in my company as well, actually I know that this motivates them as well. So, look at it from that point of view, like how will you operate in the larger society and not just as a business unit.


Will: You really need to speak to Adam from Redding, I know I mentioned him.


Anne: Yes.


Will: Definitely, I’ll link these two both on email after this.


Anne: Yes, please.


Will: I think we’ll get like a house on fire, I really do.


Anne: That will be nice. Yes, great.


Will: When it comes to reducing your environmental impact and carbon footprint of your business, what would you say your biggest challenge or frustration is?


Anne: Well, my frustration is the paper right now that we are sourcing it’s sourced from other parts of the world. So, I would favor a model where we would source the paper from the regional facility for all the parts of the world that we distribute to. So, right now the production of the notebooks take place in the Netherlands, which I really like a lot and we distribute mainly to Europe or within Europe. But, for example, the United States is now also becoming a bit more attractive to us, we do have some customers there. I would rather do the paper production and the notebook production over there. Also, for South Africa, for example, that’s also an interesting market, I would also rather produce the notebooks and the paper over there. Have a paper producing facility for the stone paper but also the other type of paper that we are going to source over here, but that takes time. It can really frustrate me but not everything is done overnight, that’s really my personality I think, I just want everything right now but it’s just not possible it takes time as well.


Will: Okay, so you can you tell us about how you approached environmental management and your carbon footprints?


Anne: Well, first we look at the paper we source and where we source it. So, we have some selection criteria, they’re also visible on our website on how we find our producers, also for the notebooks. So, for me, the most important is that they have a strategy in place on how to use green energy and not use another type of energy. That’s the main selection criteria and not so much pricing. So, my notebooks are more expensive to produce than the other people’s notebooks, but I want to find a way to communicate that to my clients so they understand that we are producing in a more environmentally friendly way, but because of that, the book might be a little bit more expensive. Also, when we look at, for example, transportation, that’s something which we are now working on to see if we can distribute the books to our individual consumers by bike. I mean, we’re in the Netherlands so we do have a lot of bikes here and also transportation services by bike. The company itself like my office is not so big yet, so we do want to have also practices in place there and we need to look at how we manage the energy we use or the materials that we use in the office, but it’s not that that big of a deal yet.


Will: Okay. Is there any advice for learning that you’d like to share with anyone listening to this podcast?


Anne: In general?


Will: In general. Well, obviously, it could be in general actually if you want. I was thinking more in particular to your business, but we could, in general, you could do both if you’ve got some wisdom that you have from your life.


Anne: Okay, let me think, so it’s a lot now. Okay, I think it’s important to just stick to your beliefs. Even though in business you can be really distracted by quick wins, and there will be people crossing your path who will steer you towards those quick wins. You have to say goodbye to those people because you’re never going to get progress in society if we all keep on doing what we’ve always been doing. If people call you crazy because of what you’re doing that’s totally fine and it’s actually awesome because we need crazy people right now to start the change. This is like, I mentioned it before but it’s so important to me to not view your company as a business or to only use your business school learnings on how you build your business. But also look outside of the field of the business learnings and read some books that are not about building a business or four-hour work week or whatever else, The Lean Startup, those kinds of books. I mean, they’re nice, I also read some of those books but it’s nice to look beyond because if your company is going to be in society and participating in society and changing something there, you need to know about the broader perspective.


Will: Yeah, okay. What would be the best way to connect with you and learn more about what it is that you’re doing?


Anne: Well, LinkedIn, I use a lot of LinkedIn, I also write on LinkedIn, so please feel free everybody to connect with me on LinkedIn and also by via email. I always try to answer my emails, not that quick maybe but I always answer it.


Will: So, what we’ll do is we’ll put all those links on the podcast show notes for everyone listening. Thank you very much for that, I really enjoyed talking to you about your organization, what you’re trying to do, what you’re trying to achieve and how, I think more importantly how you’re trying to achieve it. I think that’s what has been best, so thank you.


Anne: Thank you, thank you for having me, it was really my pleasure, great.


Will: Cool, that was that. So, how’s that, was that okay?


Anne: I think so. I think sometimes I want to share more about how I’m building the business, but, of course, we’re still in the position from startup to skill up. So, it’s not like I have a huge organization and I can share how you should organize that. I mean, we do also think about that, but for example, the policies that we implemented it’s not that much because I believe we should just keep going and build the plane while we’re flying, that type of style is more, apparently from the start, my way of doing things.


Will: Personally, I think that’s the right way to do it, that’s the way I’ve done it, just from what I’ve read but from what I’ve read I think it’s the right thing to do it. Being able to be flexible and dynamic and being able to choose your path as you go along.


Anne: Yes, it makes it really easy.


Will: I love this job talking to people that you, I feel really lucky. I ended up doing this podcast because I don’t know we weren’t contracted and I love it, it’s brilliant, thank you so much.


Anne: Thank you, it was really fun, I really like this. I also like to share the learnings from my part even though I just got started because I feel like so many people are maybe on the verge of starting something or they started something and they feel like giving up, I had that as well. A year ago, I felt like maybe I should just quit and then I had all these people, these mentors, I don’t know if you know Doper, the company from the water bottle in the Netherlands, that founder is really nice. Merijn, he’s one of my mentors and he just kept calling me like you should continue on, your continuing right? You’re still going, please don’t stop, please go on and that helped a lot. I felt like it was just my perspective that things were going too slow while others around me felt like I was just getting things started and maybe it was the valley of death or something that I was in and felt like well, this is not going to work out, but it did.


Will: Maybe we can get you in a year’s time and see where you are.


Anne: Yes, I would love that. I think it makes total sense to do that. Did you do that before with other guests on the show?


Will: We only started in July.


Anne: Okay, so that’s a bit fast.


Will: If I’m being brutally honest, I wouldn’t necessarily want every person, I don’t ask everyone. I’m not just saying that, I haven’t asked every single person but I think with you because of the funding and because of the growth and because of where you are and I think it’d be really interesting for people to hear a year on where you’re going so I’m actually going to put in my diary for this to come up in a year.


Anne: Yes, perfect.


Will: It will probably come up in your diary and I’ll phase it so that it’s like four weeks prior that it’ll be notified and we’re like, what? Oh God, yeah.


Anne: Yes.


Will: Thank you very much.


Anne: Thank you, thank you for your time. Well, in any case, we’ll speak a year from now maybe before.


Will: So, what I’ll be doing now is I’ll be sending you a link so you can upload your logo, any links, your LinkedIn links, social links and all of that and anything that you want to put in it so that it’s all in one place and I’ll also give you a date of when it will be published as well.


Anne: Yes, great, so we can also share everywhere.


Will: Yeah, exactly. It’ll be sometime in time in January, I have a long lead time now. But I was actually thinking about that and I may push it forward I don’t know, I need to look at the diary and see, but yeah, brilliant. Thank you.


Anne: Thank you, thank you very much and until assumed. Ok, bye.



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