Meet an unlikely saviour of the high street — an Oxford alumnus who’s making stationery cool in the era of the iPad.
By Lindsey Harrad
‘I remember standing at the back of our new Guildford shop a few days after we’d opened, and a group of 12-year-old girls came in and they literally squealed with excitement. At that moment I knew we had a good business on our hands,’ laughs Chris Manson (St John’s College, 1985), founder of stationery chain Blott.
On the face of it, the idea was hardly one likely to gain much traction in the iPad era. But now Blott has a website and 12 high-street shops throughout the UK.
Chris says he felt there was an opportunity to launch a cool, fun stationery brand with products that appeal to kids, and values that appeal to parents. ‘What we do is apply great design to utility products to make them more attractive. Part of our message is to the parents — if you purchase a well designed, thoroughly tested product with educational value, it will inspire your children to be more creative, more intelligent and more successful at school. But undoubtedly, some of our products are, frankly, frothy too, we call it really nice stuff for really nice days.’
After reading modern history at St John’s, Chris took the well-trodden Oxbridge route into business, achieving accountancy qualifications through Price Waterhouse Coopers’ graduate programme, and then going to work for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Company managing the finances for his overseas shows. His next stop was Chelsea Football Club, where he ran the club’s commercial activities.
In 2000 he left to launch his own interactive TV shopping venture with two fellow entrepreneurs, Sit-up Ltd, to exploit the advent of multi-channel digital TV. Taking the business from zero customers to 3.5 million in five years and selling to Virgin Media for £194 million garnered Chris an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award and enabled him to take a sabbatical in Portugal for a few years with his young family.
When he returned to Oxford to live, he saw an opportunity to build a more tangible, design-based brand. ‘New retail businesses start in recessionary times when rents are cheaper, and new retailers bring customers back to the high street, so we’ve been part of that, delivering something completely fresh and targeting a different market,’ he says.
‘We might be in a digital age but there’s still an insatiable demand for pencil cases, school bags and all that stuff, even kids who use iPads still need stationery for school, and enjoy making scrapbooks, photo albums, travel journals and so on.’
With this in mind, Blott offers an array of vibrant, quirky products that make doing homework more fun, so does Chris have an impressive collection of the Japanese Iwako erasers that his young customers go crazy for on his own desk? ‘It’s rather tragic stereotyping but I’m a boy so I love the electric sharpeners — anything with a battery and I’m there. I’m still about six years old at heart!’