Adam London and Brian Smith are one half of notebook and pencil company Public – Supply. There are two other co-founders, Russell Daiber and Leigh Salem, but Adam and Brian are quick to add that Public – Supply is actually the cumulative effort of several other minds at work. “It’s us four, but we also have Jou-Yie Chou, Ruben Caldwell, Tim Jeffreys, and everyone else who works here. Everyone belongs within the family,” says Brian.
Housed in an airy storefront in Brooklyn’s Dumbo neighborhood, Public – Supply shares its space with Studio Tack, an architecturally-based design studio that works on everything from building and interior design to branding and web design. Adam explains, “Studio Tack is a partner in Public – Supply. They were started separately but with common people. Really, it’s just a natural marriage.”
Founded in 2012, Public – Supply started with the simple idea to create a beautiful product that supported a cause. They’ve gone to painstaking lengths to design and craft the best notebooks possible, and have since expanded into boxed sets of brightly hued pencils. No detail is left unnoticed, no page goes unturned — literally. The minimalist aesthetic of their products evokes an ageless quality and timeless practicality. But they’re more than just a pretty face.
According to its site, Public – Supply’s mission is to “support creative work in our country’s public schools.” The company achieves this by donating a healthy 25% of profits directly to high need, arts-focused classrooms. Through DonorsChoose.org, P-S has funded over 140 classes and reached over 28,000 kids. Their contributions have supplied cost prohibitive items like musical instruments, 3-D printers, cameras, computer software, and arts and craft supplies to teachers and students across the country.
WORDS BY MIA SAKAI | PHOTOS BY BETH KLEINPETER
What came first — the idea to support a cause or the idea to craft a product?
Adam: We wanted to make a beautiful product that had a cause behind it, or that supported a cause. All of us have some sort of connection to the arts, whether it be playing an instrument, or being an artist, or creative writer, or just being a fan. We wanted our products to help public schools, particularly in the arts, and creating a notebook epitomized that for us. When you think of school, notebooks are definitely one of the things you think about.
Brian: For us, the notebook is a way we communicate to each other and to ourselves. Even though it’s so analog in this day in age, we love the extension of the mind through the hand, to the writing utensil, to the paper. Nothing can really replace that relationship. We were committed to notebooks as a physical product. When we came up with the concept of Public – Supply, it was sort of a no-brainer to support creative arts programs because a lot of people don’t have access due to administration, bureaucracy, budgets, or politics. So anything we can do to allow kids to be exposed to the creative arts while they’re young, we try to do.
How long did it take to go from initial concept to final product? What’s involved in designing and producing a notebook?
A: We started in November 2012, and in July 2013 we had the first three colors of the notebook made.
B: January 2014 we started the process for the new notebooks and the new sizes, and those came out this winter. It took us a year from concept to actually getting the notebook. That seems like a long time for a dumb piece of paper, but there’s a lot to think through. For instance, first we had to find what we thought the right size was. We went to the store and bought a bunch of notebooks and found the ones we liked. Then we were testing paper, rounded corners, scoring, binding, how it folds. Things like the radius of the corner, the type and weight of the paper, the colors, the style, everything. We went through 80 iterations of this notebook to get the one that opened just the right way, that was threaded in a certain way. We’re constantly doing product research and making subtle changes that may be imperceptible, like the size of the dot, or the location of it, or the type of ink that we use. It’s been a learning process.
What is DonorsChoose.org, and why did you select them to partner with?
A: They’re a super interesting non-profit. Charles Best is the founder. He went to Yale, is a Teach For America grad, and taught at a low-income school in the Bronx where he was constantly struggling to get resources for his classroom. So he came up with this idea for DonorsChoose.org. It’s basically like Kickstarter for classrooms. Teachers can use the platform to post different projects. You can read through project descriptions including how many students your donation will impact and itemized lists of the products you’ll actually be buying. One of the stats they’re founded on is something like $2 billion is spent out of teachers’ pockets every year for classroom purchases that they’re never reimbursed for. Another stat is that from 2007 to 2011, 85% of arts funding was cut in the NYC school system alone.
B: When you have a teacher’s salary and you end up buying $400 worth of crayons and paper, it’s not an insignificant amount. We love DonorsChoose.org because they allow us to quickly, easily, and transparently find teachers who are in need or have a specific need, and help them out.
How do you determine which classrooms to donate to, and the size of your donation?
A: We filter for a few different things, but always for the arts. First time teachers on the platform are big for us. If a teacher nervously puts up a project wondering if it will get funded, we do our best to fund it. We donate as little as $50 up to $2000, but average projects are $300-$500 bucks.
B: We always filter for high need, creative arts. Last week we were looking at classrooms and one of them just needed a music stand, which is like $30. But seeing these specific needs and knowing that the donation is going to that specific purpose means a lot to us. Plus, teachers are so good at writing descriptions for their projects and keeping up with the progress of their classrooms.
A: Right away, they send you a thank you note, like a comment on the site, and sometimes they’ll actually do handwritten notes. We have hundreds of thank you notes from the kids.
B: It’s tear-inducing. So endearing. The time these kids took to write these notes! I wish I could just tell them to practice the trumpet more.
You’ve experienced a lot of quick growth in a short period of time. What do you think it’s the result of?
A: People buy our products for all different reasons. Some people will buy it, take it home, and then read the back of the notebook and think it’s even more awesome. It’s not just beautiful, but it also has a cause behind it. Other people are drawn to the cause.
B: And others hear about us not by seeing us, but by word of mouth. I think it comes from all ends. I think people look at the notebook first with their eyes. Then when they turn it over or engage one of us to speak about the brand and what we do, they become even more convinced this is the right product for them. You could do this project or this company with a really, really bad notebook. But we had no interest in doing that. It could be really bad and it could be sold in terrible stores, and you could still do it. But we’re designers and we care about quality. So for us, it’s as much a design endeavor as it is a mission.
How are you sustaining P-S? Is it paying for itself to operate, and more importantly, is it paying you yet?
B: We don’t pay ourselves. Instead of putting money into our pockets, we prefer to put it back into the company. It’s paying for itself to operate, but we all have other jobs. It’s disingenuous and unfair to not be honest about how people get businesses started. There are lots of entrepreneurs — or people that want to be entrepreneurial in spirit — who are mislead to believe that money just falls in peoples’ laps, or that things just happen. But there’s a lot of grunt work and growing pains, and we have to have these other jobs so that we can do this. Of course, the eventual goal is to not have these other jobs, but while we’re nurturing it, we have to nurture ourselves financially.
A: We’re really proud of P-S and what we’ve built, but we couldn’t have done it by just quitting our jobs and committing to it fully. I was really fortunate to have learned a skill — digital marketing — that has allowed me to consult on the side and fund my ability to work on something that I love. I think we all feel like that.
You’ve collaborated with artists and brands across a variety of backgrounds and disciplines. How did you establish those relationships, and what’s your criteria for partnerships?
A: They all happened sort of naturally, like “if you build it, they will come,” as lame as that is. Early on, people looked at us just as notebook makers and wanted to fully customize it. But this is our brand and our brand identity. As silly as a box on a notebook is, that’s what defines us. That’s something we want to stay true to. Right now we’re developing our brand; we’re partnering with other artists and designers and people that get it who are willing to lend their brand and partner with us. It’s hard because we want to accept everyone and we want to grow, but you have to grow strategically. It’s been defining to work with the people that we have.
B: With a broad term like “creative arts,” you can get a broad reach in terms of influence. Tim Coppens, Robert Geller, and Band of Outsiders were all from personal relationships Jou-Yie had. Each group designed their own notebook, and the proceeds will go to a fund for high need students to attend fashion school.
P-S began with the intention of supporting local classrooms in NYC, but has since expanded nationally. Why not stick close to home?
B: It just made sense to expand. We’re now sold in 80 stores across the country and internationally. We’ve done collaborations with companies like Facebook in San Francisco and Shinola in Detroit.
A: I think the first project that we donated to outside of New York was when we sold some notebooks to a company in California. They have three offices: Chicago, New York and LA. So we split up the proceeds and donated to those classrooms.
B: The need and the awareness is not a local one.
A: I don’t think we ever started with just trying to help in New York. But since we live here, it was like, let’s start to help out locally, and then expand. Now we have international business, so we’re looking for different partners to help manage donations internationally.
What are Public – Supply’s goals for 2015?
We’re focused on diversifying our product line to include more beautiful and functional objects like pencil sharpeners, bags, and different styles of notebooks.
Expanding our giving reach: We started our classroom giving in NYC. As more retail shops represent our product and mission, we continue to expand the scope of giving. We’re happy to report that we’ve funded over 140 classrooms representing a cross section of communities.
As our company grows, we’re always looking for better and more efficient ways to get our products to our customers. We’re investigating more productive means of distribution and fulfillment.
Four founders makes for a lot of cooks in the kitchen. How are your roles and responsibilities split, and how do you reconcile differences?
B: We all bring something different to the table. Adam is a sales wizard and is super approachable and can talk to anyone. Russell is also very adept in sales, but he’s also a passionate writer and helps craft our voice. Leigh is an incredible designer and has an eye and a vision for everything graphic-related. I’m a fastidious designer and product manager and love seeing things through from concept to execution, so I deal with product development and getting things made on budget and on time.
A: The way we’ve built this company isn’t necessarily the blueprint of how to build a company, not that there really is one. Initially, we all wanted to touch every single aspect, but it took forever for things to go through. So we decided to define roles. Eventually, you just have to trust each other. Of course, if someone wants to be included in the sales or design process, that’s ok too.
B: We cross-source ideas to each other all the time, but ultimately one person is responsible for seeing something through.
What advice do you have for someone looking to start a product-based company?
B: Start small and focus. Make one thing and do it really, really well. Everything else will grow organically. It’s not to say you can’t have a vision of what your company’s going be like in the future, but I would refocus in terms of the criteria for success, and not what that success actually is. It’s about a general fulfillment of these benchmarks that you set for yourself. They shouldn’t be so specific that they hinder your ability to make a decision every day. I also think asking a lot of questions is super important. If you have a dumb question, a million other people have the same dumb question, which means that question’s not dumb. So it’s being able to admit what you don’t know and being able to have the courage to ask something that you think you should know.
A: If you’re genuine in your product and what you’ve created, and you believe in it, I think people will come out of the woodwork to help you, whether you know them or not. We started this thing out of thin air, and you’d be surprised by the people that reach out. We’re constantly humbled by what we’ve created and who wants to partner with us.
Public – Supply’s Suggestion
. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2011.
More on Public – Supply
Hurly, Adam. “Birchbox Man Q&A: Inside Public – Supply’s Quest for More Creative Classrooms.” www.birchbox.com. November 2014.
DeLeon, Jian. “The GQ+A: Jou-Yie Chou of Public – Supply Talks Good Notebooks, Giving Back, and Good Design.” www.gq.com. December 5, 2013.
Gallagher, Jake. “Public – Supply | Noble Notebooks.” www.acontinuouslean.com. November 15, 2013.
Medina, Sammy. “Minimalist Notebooks Maximize Arts Funding In NY Public Schools.” www.fastcodesign.com. November 4, 2013.
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