Mirage Creative's Mark Gavin Mirage Creative's Mark Gavin

Like newspaper publishers and postal services, Mark Gavin holds front-row seats to the carnage facing organizations that make their money by moving around pieces of printed paper. His firm, Mirage Creative Ltd., has been producing elegant, environmentally friendly notebooks under the Ecojot brand for 15 years. But, Gavin says, the past five years have made for some tough sledding, and the market continues to throw out confusing signals. While personal letters and gift cards are rapidly disappearing, Moleskine, the Italian firm that makes a line of high-end retro notebooks, just went public.

To stay “innovative and relevant,” Gavin explains, his $2-million-a-year Toronto company recently began developing a smartphone app—which launches in a few months—that allows users to send electronic copies of their Ecojot notebook entries. “You can take what you’ve written on paper and share it electronically,” Gavin says. The app, in effect, allows notebook lovers to continue scribbling on Ecojot’s stylish products without turning their backs on digital communications.

Mirage has a lot riding on the notion that something as ephemeral as a digital app can stanch the erosion of notebook sales, and not just in Canada but also in the U.S., Mexico, Scandinavia and Australia—all markets in which the company has (and hopes to keep) retail customers.

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The 2014 outlook is very different than the one Gavin encountered in 1999, when he took over his brother’s gift business and transformed it into a company that sold paper products that cater to people who covet lovely notebooks. “There is an element of obsession,” Gavin says of his customers.

After gaining some traction with Canadian book and gift retailers, a chance encounter in 2001 with a buyer from Borders, the now-bankrupt U.S. book chain, brought Mirage its first massive foreign order. The buyer, who loved the aesthetics of the Ecojot notebooks, bought thousands of units, and did so at a time when a US$100,000 order translated into C$150,000.

It didn’t take long for the other big book retailers, including Barnes & Noble and Indigo, to notice the notebooks and decide they also should get into that market.

Read: Don’t Ignore Online Customers

But that initial order, and some of the large ones that followed, meant that Mirage had to transform the Ecojot line from a cottage-type business into a serious operation that could produce large volumes of goods on relatively short notice. While Borders ordered pallets of books on a no-return basis, they nonetheless offered 90-day payment terms. “It was exciting and scary at the same time,” Gavin recalls. “We didn’t know how to produce so much product.”

Once that first big cheque arrived, 90 days after the launch, the payment provided enough capital to ensure that the company has been profitable ever since, says Gavin. “We were able to go into the black for the first time.”

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