Interview with a Business: Neal Whittington of Present & Correct

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In these times of recession and High-Street closures now more than ever stores need to up their game and provide something focused. Combining a digital presence with a physical one is a tricky job but one store that is rolling in the successes of it is Present & Correct – the independent stationary and supply store. Since it’s conception in 2008 it’s been a home of carefully curated global goods all with that certain classic vibe to them without the now tacky ‘vintage’ tag plastered all over it.

I spoke to the founder, Neal Whittington, about how he started Present & Correct, how he keeps it running and his background before hand.

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Firstly, can you explain your job role and how you came to start Present & Correct?

My job role is the day-to-day running of the website and shop. It’s wrapping orders, taking product shots, working on new stationery, blogging, hunting, and chatting to customers. Present & Correct grew out of my love of stationery and my background as a graphic designer. I worked in branding for 6 years (at Winkreative) and during that time I made envelopes and things to sell in shops. I wanted it to be more than that. I have always collected stationery and I loved the idea of a shop which had old and new as well as my own work. I was really just creating a place where all of the things I like could be collated, and where I could sell my own ideas. I didn’t know if other people would like it, I just wanted to make it the best that I could.

What was your experience with formal education? Did you study design or was it something you fell into?

I studied graphic design for 3 years, graduating in 2001. It was something I always wanted to do, from around the age of 13. Before then I wanted to be a fashion designer (probably because I had a Fashion Wheel toy). I loved art college; I definitely tailored the course to cater to my desire to do commercial graphic design. We were encouraged to do crazy things, but I wanted to learn how to use all the software and print making equipment and make a good portfolio so that I could leave with something which would/might get me a job!

It sounds like you were a pretty independent student; looking back do you think you could have gone without University? Or would you say it was quite integral to your career path?

I definitely needed to do it, for personal as well as vocational reasons. I guess my upbringing told me that the logical progression from school was to go to college or Uni. I’m not sure I knew an alternative, at the time, which is a feasible route to being a graphic designer. I just paid my student loan off last week! 13 years after graduation. It was worth it!

Out of all the designers I know not one didn’t go through college/Uni. I think that speaks volumes about its importance.

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At what point were you ready to open up your own shop? Had your time at Winkreative given you an insight into running a business?

I’m not sure that being at Wink gave me insight into running a business but it did influence how I see and design things. I felt ready to open online when I saw how people liked my alphabet chart, it was a great encouragement. I also reached a saturation point of looking at other people making nice things and felt I had to do it for myself too. Also my bookmark folder was chock full of other people’s work which I had to have – and by having a shop it was a license to buy all these things.

Opening a real shop was a natural development, which wasn’t really planned, but an opportunity came up which just clicked so I couldn’t say no.

I would usually ask a question about the process of a certain project – but running a business is more of a continual process, so could you take us through your initial steps with Present & Correct?

I never really had a business plan. I used my own money and started small. I kept a client from Wink and had some freelance work too from other places, so that provided a steady income whilst the shop developed and grew. It scared me to owe people and I was based in the spare room at home so overheads were tiny.

I definitely aimed to restrict myself to new & old office items (though I like the occasional Mid-Century game!) by doing this it felt more focused, realistic and also perhaps more unique. It sounds too simplistic but I just wanted to stick to what I like. I think when you deviate from that it shows.

Like you mentioned there is a definite vibe to Present & Correct, one of the things I love is the consistency through out the products and the branding. How do you go about sourcing and designing your items?

Most of our vintage items come from Europe. It’s cheap for us to go there for a weekend, run around to markets etc and see what we find. There is a lot of luck involved but over the years I have made some contacts and also established which places, and when, are likely to have things. Today I am going to the V&A museum after a tip off from them about a skip full of old office supplies! I do get more offers like that these days, which is pretty nice.

As for the new things, I don’t go to trade shows. I find products through magazines and blogs. Often foreign ones and also sometimes with a bit of creative Google translate.

I design new P&C products when I can. Initially I thought I would just make paper based items but there is so much of that out there. I have found it really satisfying to try new things like pencil cases, wooden stencils, stamps and such.

The consistency of the site comes from me styling and taking all of the photos. It’s just my taste I guess! By not using the photos provided by suppliers it makes everything look like it’s from the same place, whether it is 85p or £85, English, German or Korean. Also a lot of the products are so graphic the photos almost take themselves!

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What has been the trickiest part about opening a bricks and mortar store that you’ve encountered?

There hasn’t been anything too major. I guess my budget, or lack of, was the initial obstacle but a good one because it forced me to think of fitting solutions which were not off the shelf but could be made cheaply without need for any help. Also translating the aesthetic of the online shop to a real space was important.

I think I found the initial change in routine hard to fathom but overall it’s made me a lot more productive and structured. It’s healthy to go somewhere every day and have a cut off point whereby you can go home and not work anymore. Finally, and this is very boring, but the increase in paperwork has been the least enjoyable aspect of having a shop! It’s just a case of making it routine and keeping on top of it. It’s another part of having a business that you love, and you have no choice but to get on with it!

Lastly, what’s been the most surprising thing you’ve learnt during your time running Present & Correct?

How much everyone else loves stationery and ephemera! It’s a much bigger audience than I expected and its so gladdening to meet people who love an old paper clip as much as you do. I’m constantly surprised by how much I can do and by the fact I am doing something I love. I’m very lucky.

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