31. Anne Pleun van Eijsden: Leading a revolution in the paper industry

Anne Pleun van Eijsden talks to Sue Stockdale about her mission to create a healthy paper industry, and why she created her own rules about how to run a business, rather than following the traditional approach to being an entrepreneur. Anne is the founder of Paper on the Rocks, a scaleup that wants to create a forest friendly paper industry by scaling tree-free paper alternatives. They primarily do so by making sustainable stationery like notebooks made from upcycled stone waste. With a diverse background in History, International Law and Marketing, Anne Pleun knew from a young age that she wanted to become an entrepreneur and build a company that would change an industry for the better. She lives in the Netherlands with her partner and child.   Follow Paper on the Rocks on Instagram and LinkedIn or Facebook  and Twitter. 

Anne Pleun van Eijsden transcription

Sue: [00:00:00] Hi, I’m Sue Stockdale. Welcome to the Access to Inspiration podcast. The show, when you can be inspired by people who may be unlike you. Today, we’re heading to the Netherlands. And my guest is Anne Pleun van Eijsden, founder of Paper on the Rocks, a business that produces environmentally friendly stationary. Welcome to the podcast. Anne.

Anne Pleun: [00:00:33] thank you. Happy to be here.

Sue: [00:00:35] Now I know that you’ve got a really intriguing background and a bit of a social mission. So I’m really curious to learn more about what you’re up to now. I know your business is about five years old. And I guess I’m curious, first of all, to learn, what have you learned about being in business from these first five years?

Anne Pleun: [00:00:54] I learned a lot to be honest. I didn’t know anything about starting a business or building a business when I started this journey. So what I learned most of all is if you want to start a business, you should really pick something that you’re passionate about and that you feel is your mission. Because resilience and just keeping going with the mission is the most important. And sometimes it’s really hard to get over all the hurdles that you need to jump over. So I can imagine that it’s easier or while that’s the case for me, it’s easier to continue, [00:01:30] whatever happens, because I know that the mission is actually bigger than just this company or myself or my story. It’s not about my story.

Sue: [00:01:40] So that intrigues me to find out more about what is the mission behind your business?

Anne Pleun: [00:01:44] Well, the mission behind my business is that we want to create a healthy paper industry. So currently the paper industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world. And actually that’s because there’s a lot of water usage, trees are being cut down at a really horrifying speed, a time in history where we should make sure that we use our resources wisely.

And when you look at the history of paper, you see that we did not use trees when we started making paper, we actually used waste product or a leftover product. And I wish for the paper industry to start diversifying again and start using waste streams as the main ingredient for paper again. So we are actually with our stationary products, helping these paper alternatives to scale, to continue to grow and thus to create a diversified industry.

Sue: [00:02:38] So it does sound like a far bigger mission than just your business. How did you get into this in the first place? Because I think in a way, one might describe you as an accidental entrepreneur?

Anne Pleun: [00:02:50] Yeah. I think that’s the case. I actually knew from a very young age that I wanted to start a company. I think it was about 11 years old, when I realized [00:03:00] that I wanted to build stuff to create a better world, then I wrote a book about the turn of the century, where I described that I wanted to get rid of all the cars and wanted to people to start living in forest again and communicate with each other again. And that’s kind of stuck to me until now, because I still believe that we should change the way we live together and the way we live in the world.

So what happened is I studied history. And I specialized in social movements and revolutions. And through that process, I realized the business is such a nice vehicle for change, but it’s almost never really used for change, especially when I was a student. Being a social entrepreneur back then was really, then you were just a weird entrepreneur where you have been doing. And now I’m happy to see that that is changing because in my business, I also feel like I’m more of a social entrepreneur and an environmental entrepreneur, but also an activist. I think my business is also a form of activism for me.

Sue: [00:03:58] Now I know that you are a family of entrepreneurs. Am I right?

Anne Pleun: [00:04:02] Yes, you’re correct.

Sue: [00:04:03] So what did that teach you? I’m imagining sitting around the kitchen table at some stage, observing the rest of your family, running businesses. What were you learning by just observing them?

Anne Pleun: [00:04:13] First of all, that it’s really hard work. I think some people could underestimate that. It’s not a lot of fun all the time. It’s a lot of freedom, but it’s also a freedom with a certain burden. Because you’re never really free. You’re always busy [00:04:30] working on your business to get things going and growing, or you have a team that you should take care of. And I think people in my family, entrepreneurs, and my family always felt very responsible for their teams and their companies.

My father was for a long time, really old world type of entrepreneur. And that changed a lot the past that I think also the past 10 years or so, and he’s not also really involved in sustainable businesses. And I love that because it shows that also as an entrepreneur, you can really grow in the process and grow in how you look at the world. So we had a lot of conversations about how business of course can impact the world and how it should impact the world and what you can expect from businesses. For instance, Politic’s, for example, in these times.

Sue: [00:05:16] I’m imagining you gleaned a lot of lessons from your family about entrepreneurship. And then I’m wondering, in terms of your studying of history and particular revolutions, did you consciously think therefore that in a way you wanted to start a revolution with your business?

Anne Pleun: [00:05:31] Actually, yes. What I learned during my research in social movements and especially non-violent revolutions is that it’s very difficult to take people along to change something in the world, but there are certain tactics that are used in the social movements that are being used over and over again, to get people to accept change, or to take risks that seem really frightening at first, but if you [00:06:00] apply some of these tactics to businesses that want to do things differently, that helps because what we see also with our wanting to change the paper industry is that the current paper industry is a bit afraid of us coming for them, but it’s not necessarily that we are coming for them, but we just don’t feel like the argument that we’ve done this forever. So we just continue to do this because it works. It’s not a valid argument. So you need some kind of revolution really to help everybody to change their thinking and their behavior. That’s difficult. I think it is for everybody to be is just really difficult to change your behavior.

Sue: [00:06:37] In your own journey. Ana, I can imagine you had a bit of an insight into the realities of entrepreneurship. You had obviously your academic studies, where did the idea therefore, come to focus, particularly on the paper industry?

Anne Pleun: [00:06:52] During my studies, I lived in China for a while and there I learned about the paper alternative. That is stone paper. And I also learned about the impact of the production industry on the environment. I actually saw it firsthand. And when I got back to Europe, I lived in Berlin, back then, and I felt like I had to do something with this paper alternative because I’m a writer myself as well. So I have a whole collection of note books and now it feels still like I’m in a candy store all the time because my notebooks everywhere. But the thing is [00:07:30] I love paper. I’ve always loved paper and books. And therefore I realized that it’s such a massive industry that’s causing so much damage right now. And there are actually alternatives up for grabs. We should use them. And I just felt like I could be a voice in the change that could show people that you can also make a sustainable product that is actually beautiful product at the same time. Also educate people about the importance of that change. And at the same time, what I find very interesting about what we’re doing now is we’re also tagging along the paper industry, like the current paper industry to see if we could work together on the changes that are so necessary.

Sue: [00:08:14] So rather than being seen as a threat, you’re hopefully being seen as perhaps somebody who can instigate change and enable everybody to flourish in a different way?

Anne Pleun: [00:08:24] Yes, we hope that that will be the outcome. But of course, I also realized that it’s difficult for people within the paper industry to all of a sudden feel threatened by these paper alternatives. But the alternatives have been here forever. It’s just a better of using them more often. And the, actually the paper usage, especially the cardboard boxes and stuff. That’s increasing at a really rapid speed. So we need alternatives.

Sue: [00:08:50] Tell us more about stone paper then what is it?

Anne Pleun: [00:08:53] Well, stone paper is made from stone waste and the stone waste is ground to dust. [00:09:00] And the dust is bound with HDPE, which is a resin, synthetic resin that binds together the mineral and this production process uses no water at all. Of course, no trees and it’s cradle to cradle certified the material that we use. So what happens is that there is no waste in the production process. And in theory, you could also have a closed recycling loop for this material. And that I find very interesting combined of course, with the fact that there is no water necessary in a production process, and water is really becoming scarce. And we should watch out with how we use water.

Sue: [00:09:38] Having seen what was going on in China, you had an idea of how you could utilize stone paper in a different way, how you could potentially change the industry. You saw a potential problem and ways of solving it. How did you therefore get your first customers and actually create something that somebody wanted to buy?

Anne Pleun: [00:09:55] Thats a fun story, because what happened is I just had a baby and I was at home in Berlin with the baby, and I decided to just start the company and I’m always in a hurry in my life. So I always feel like I’m not going to think is over. I’m just going to start. So I launched a Kickstarter campaign after I finalized the first a dummy of a stone paper notebook. I was in touch with the people who invented stone paper, and they were very excited about the idea of promoting a notebook from stone paper in Europe. So I [00:10:30] started the Kickstarter campaign. And on the second day, I think the Dutch broadcasting agency was on the phone for an interview about my plans, but I had no business plan. So I just made it up a little bit. And then the day after that interview, some corporates from the Netherlands saw that interview and they were like, Hey, but we went to buy notebooks with our logo. Is that also possible? So we would, the plans changed because I thought, yeah, of course it is possible. And it’s actually very interesting because being on my own with a baby on my arm, it was kind of useful to have one customer buying a hundred books instead of a hundred people buying one book.

Sue: [00:11:09] As a result of the message getting out there via the media, you found your first customer. What happened after that? Then how did you go from one customer to then expanding your vision and seeing that you could make change in the industry?

Anne Pleun: [00:11:23] I went out the door a lot. So usually I would spend two weeks per month in the Netherlands, which is my home country. So I know the market best there. And then I would visit all the events and all the people I could make an appointment with because one of the things that I also learned from my father in this case is you don’t build a business sitting behind your computer. And maybe now it’s a bit old fashioned advice because some people to build a business behind a computer, but this was really worked for me because it was just a great reminder that you have to make personal connections with people and find people who are [00:12:00] in favor of your mission and who can help you get in touch with other people. Again, it’s kind of like the snowball effect. So that’s what happened really. The first two years, we had real good traction in the market and some PR attention as well. And then in 2017, I moved back to the Netherlands because the business was growing and I got some investors on board and then the team started growing. And that helped a lot because what I realized as an entrepreneur is that there’s so much, I cannot do. There’s so many things I’m really bad at, and now there are just people in the team are really good at these things. And that helps.

Sue: [00:12:37] One of the things you just slipped into the conversation, there was about having investors on and of course, you know, investors want in return on their investment. And how do you balance the need for the commercial realities of running a business versus the bigger social mission that you’re trying to achieve?

Anne Pleun: [00:12:55] That’s a good question. It’s always difficult. I think, to find investors who really align on your values when you have a sustainable or social company, because a lot of investors are really old fashioned still. They just want the return on investment. And I went through really elaborate conversations with all of the investors that are currently on board before joining forces. So I know that they are already about the impact. The impact comes first for them as well. And that’s also something that really showcases right now during these challenging times that they [00:13:30] are here for all of its.

So not only for the times when it’s really nice and all happy, but also when it gets tough. And I think when you’re looking for investors as a social company, you should look out for the real social investors. Not the ones who say they are or want to do some good, the ones who really want to do good and put the return on investment second. And still of course, we run a commercial business and the business needs to grow in order for the impact to grow. So we also focus on commercial growth.

Sue: [00:14:03] How did you do that weeding out? I’m imagining it’s about people walking the talk, not just what’s written on a piece of paper. Would that be correct?

Anne Pleun: [00:14:11] Yes. And it’s a lot about intuition as well. I think a lot of the times you feel if somebody is really honest about their intentions in investing in your business. And it’s also about having a lot of conversations about a lot of topics also to some people said to me in the beginning, it’s like a marriage. So you have to imagine yourself going through life with these people for a really long time. And can you get through one door if all goes South? for example, what would they do? So you have to have a lot of conversations before signing any contract with an investor. But also appreciate the investors approaching you. That’s also important.

Sue: [00:14:51] We’d love your support to help us inspire more people. Please go on over to Apple podcasts and leave us a review or leave a comment on our [00:15:00] website. Access toinspiration.org.

Now that you’ve your investors on board. Are you able to scale up the business more quickly?

Anne Pleun: [00:15:08] Yes, definitely. That’s also because we could build a team that has different competencies from myself, so that helps grow the business.

Sue: [00:15:19] Actually brings me on to a good point that I was wondering about the bigger mission of your business. Does that in itself attract people to want to work with you? I’m wondering these days in the competitive market of recruitment and finding great people does that help you?

Anne Pleun: [00:15:35] Yes, a lot. I have no difficulty finding people who want to work with me in this company. If I have to select people to work here at the company, I always also make sure that the impact comes first for them and that they really understand the mission and can share in the mission of this company and not just one the paycheck. Yeah. That makes sense.

Sue: [00:15:58] So how do you measure success then on a day-to-day basis what’s meaningful for you?

Anne Pleun: [00:16:02] What’s meaningful fullest trying out new things and trying to do things differently. So we measure also in terms of not really failures, but things tried and things tested. So to say, I love it when people make mistakes or when we can conclude together that something doesn’t work. Also, of course, I like it when things do work out and we also celebrate the little things in a startup.

I think you [00:16:30] should always watch out to forget, to celebrate. Things in general, because it’s so dynamic. And so many things can change over the course of one week. That’s. You should not forget to also appreciate the process and the team and the effort put into it. So that’s what we look at a lot. And we also look at the progress we are making and changing the industry.

So it’s not so much about revenue, which is of course important because we need to grow to make the impact. But we also look at if we can have new coalitions within the industry or within research and development to new paper alternatives, that’s to me success, when we see that the movement to change some things for the better in this industry grows because of our efforts or collective efforts.

Sue: [00:17:19] I’m wondering so far, one might argue that you’re making it sound a little easy and that with determination and focus, you can get there. I’m imagining there’s been a lot of tough times. So what have been the most challenging situations that you’ve encountered and how did you get through them?

Anne Pleun: [00:17:34] Well, we’ve encountered a lot of challenging times. I have to laugh a little bit that you say that I make it sound so easy, because of course currently with the COVID crisis, this is a really tough time for my company and for myself personally, as well. Things change so fast right now that I don’t even know where to start my day sometimes because yesterday’s news is old news already, and you need a lot of support [00:18:00] from mentors.

For example, being an entrepreneur and those mentors in a normal time are really helpful because they have experienced so much already during their lifetime, as an entrepreneur. And I’m very grateful that they want to share their experiences and also help lift me up when it gets really tough. And this current situation that we’re in is new for everybody. So now it’s more of a sharing your life and sharing your feelings and not feeling alone, I guess. And just sometimes having people tell you that the steps you are taking are the steps that I would also suggest to you to take. So let’s see what happens. It helps

Sue: [00:18:40] So having a sense of a support network around you and being part of a bigger community seems to be an important element of what helps to keep you going during those tough times.

Anne Pleun: [00:18:49] Yeah. I would recommend to every entrepreneur to have mentors and to really surround yourself with people who see you, but who really see you.

Sue: [00:18:57] The sense I get is around your comfort with stepping into the unknown, not just on your own, but with other people who are collaborating with you or supporting you, who are part of that bigger movement. What goes through your mind when you’re thinking about the future and that sense of the unknown, how do you approach that with confidence and a degree of certainty, or maybe you don’t?

Anne Pleun: [00:19:23] No, I don’t. I think certainty is not a part of a few in general in my [00:19:30] life. I don’t like to do things for 50%. I always do everything for a hundred percent or more. I just go for it completely. And then I have hope for the outcome, but I’m not necessarily always positive. About the outcome. I don’t know. There’s so much uncertainty in every aspect of life that I trained myself to accept that and to just put one foot in front of the other and go, but I never want to hold myself back because of fear or because of shame or because nobody’s doing it like this. I just want to try everything. Not really. I wanted to try a lot and see what happens. And if I fall flat on my face, then okay, then I get up again and I try something new or different or whatever, at least I did it.

Sue: [00:20:17] That makes complete sense. I’m wondering your family view, you know, five years onto your entrepreneurial journey. What’s their view of your journey so far?

Anne Pleun: [00:20:27] I actually never asked them. Sometimes they tell me that they think I’m brave for doing this the way I do it. I really appreciate that. I think they also sometimes don’t understand the way I choose to do things because maybe there are easier ways. To build a company, then the way I am building my company, but I choose to build my company such as I believe a company should be and for the long run and not for the quick wins.

Sue: [00:20:55] I think sometimes our families and those close to us. So the ones who we don’t get feedback [00:21:00] from often. I think that’s a common thing for many families in situations, focusing on the future. Now, what are your aspirations for the business and for the social movement for change in the future? What would be your vision or mission? In the longer term?

Anne Pleun: [00:21:14] My mission in the longer run would be to get the paper industry, to join forces with us. To collectively see how we can proceed towards a healthy industry and to also hope that we can get more people to understand that sustainability is not just about CO2 emissions or just about the things that are communicated about so much like the oil companies. It’s also about really all production industries. We should change a little production industries and watch out for more loss in biodiversity. I think we should communicate about that more also. I hope that more people dare to start social businesses, even though it gets really difficult. Sometimes it’s worth it because in the end, when I go to sleep at night, and I think about the fact that I am away from my daughter, for example, a lot I can sleep because I feel like I’m showing her how.

It should be done and I’m not doing just for the money or just for my own ego, not at all. I’m doing it to change something in the world. And I wish for many, many more people to feel that within themselves and to live a true life.

Sue: [00:22:25] Well, I think you’ve given us a lovely point on which to finish our conversation on at that sense of [00:22:30] people have to see it to be it. And I’m imagining therefore you’re a great role model for your daughter in terms of what’s possible.

Anne Pleun: [00:22:36] I hope so.

Sue: [00:22:37] It’s been lovely to speak to you. And if our listeners want to find out more about you and the business, how can they do that?

Anne Pleun: [00:22:42] On social media, we have an Instagram page and we are on LinkedIn with the handle paper on the rocks. And we also have a website which has paperontherocks.com.

Sue: [00:22:53] Fantastic. Well, we’ll put links to that over on our show notes, and it’s been fantastic to speak to you today and to get a sense of what can be done when you start a revolution in your country.

Anne Pleun: [00:23:04] Thank you so much for having me.

Sue: [00:23:07] I hope you enjoyed what Anna has to say about the quiet revolution she is undertaking in the paper industry. We’d really appreciate your support in helping us spread the word about the podcast. And if you can just share this episode with one other person, we’d really value that. I hope you’ve enjoyed this series. We’ve come to the end now. And we’ve been focusing on the themes of pioneering and sustainability. The guests have been amazing and I hope you have found their insights useful. We should be back in the new year with another series of access to inspiration. I do hope you’ll join us then.

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