Jazz Shaper: Taymoor Atighetchi

Posted on 22 May 2021

Taymoor Atighetchi is the founder and CEO of Papier, the online stationery brand known for creating beautifully designed, personalised stationery.

Elliot Moss

Welcome to the Jazz Shapers Podcast from Mishcon de Reya.  What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however the music has been cut due to rights issues.

Good morning, this is Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss.  It’s where the Shapers of Business join the Shapers of Jazz, Soul and Blues.  My guest today is Taymoor Atighetchi, Founder and CEO of Papier, an online stationery brand creating beautifully designed personalised stationery.  Aged 17, British Iranian Taymoor spent weekends selling art procured by his father at London’s Portobello Road Market.  “That stall,” he says, “was the most valuable business experience I’ve had.  It taught me the very basics of trade – principles that are the same whether you are running a pop-up stall or a FTSE 100 company.”  After studying the History of Art at Cambridge and whilst in a corporate job, Taymoor was unable to shake off his entrepreneurial ambition, which is lucky because he’s here now with me.  He spotted a gap in the personalised print market for higher quality, affordable stationery with more mature, interesting designs.  As he says, “In the age of digital communication, I had a feeling people wanted to connect more meaningfully and thoughtfully with one another.  I knew that the magical feeling of putting pen to paper, or receiving a handwritten note hadn’t gone and, if anything, was stronger than ever.”  Papier was launched in 2015 and now has over one million customers and has collaborated with well-known and up and coming artists, designers and brands from across the world and all their products are made to order and therefore more sustainable.  Hello, it’s lovely to have you with me. 

Taymoor Atighetchi

Hi, thank you.  Thanks for having me. 

Elliot Moss

I read somewhere, you said, “I wanted to become an entrepreneur and I was looking for a gap and I didn’t really mind what I did but that’s what I was looking for.”  Tell me how you alighted on this gap called beautiful paper and beautiful writing materials and a kind of throwback if you like, to what people used to do, what I used to do, what many of us used to do.

Taymoor Atighetchi

Yeah, you are right, I actually, you know, for me the way I describe it, before even coming to the gap is the itch that begins and I know from other entrepreneurs who have set up businesses, that itch develops where you want to build something and you want to watch something grow and that was the root for me and I think it probably started out from a young age, whether it was selling on the Portobello Market and the next piece for me was, if I’m going to build something, grow something, it’s got to be something I enjoy because I think going into any kind of entrepreneurial endeavour, you know, has its risks, it’s definitely not always easy so you might as well have a good time while you are doing it and sell or do something that you love and for me, that was everything to do with design, craft and paper and I’ve always been somewhat, unusually, a stationery addict and right the way through, I remember even at University, despite being of the generation where Facebook was actually just launching at University, I was still sending notes to people, I was always amazed at how impactful those notes were, more so than any other communication so I did realise that actually this gap was there but there was no brand really championing a revolution in stationery and notecards and actually most of the brands that were around, were somewhat dated and so there was an element of stationery being in the past so I was keen to bring that back and that was really the birth of Papier. 

Elliot Moss

When did you start collecting stationery, Taymoor?  Because I’m also into stationery which sounds like a weird thing, I love the fact that I can, and obviously with the Jazz FM studios are dispersed somewhat at the moment so I’m in one of the bedrooms in my home, and my stationery is pride of place, I have different notepads, I have different staples, I have different paperclips, I have rough paper, I have… I mean, seriously, for you was it a similar thing and if so, how old were you?

Taymoor Atighetchi

Yeah, it was a similar thing and actually, I mean, some of my earliest memories are probably going on school trips and going into gift shops and picking up bits of stationery and pencils and notepads and actually, I fondly remember that back to school, I mean back to school is still a very big moment for stationery and in this year as well, you know, we’re making a big thing of it because it’s not just kids, it’s all of us as well with, in a post-pandemic world, we are all going back to school at some point and I fondly remember going into shops, Smiths and Rymans and doing that round of buying, you know, fresh pencils and the smell of rubbers when you first start to rub things out and it’s all of that tactility that I have so many memories of and it’s that tactility that I think people actually crave now more than ever as less and less of our communication is tactile, and digital. 

Elliot Moss

Was there a challenge for you then, when like many people I meet and I interview for this programme, when you went into the world of consultancy, you were a Bain consultant and there’s a great alumnus from that consultancy firm and many others as well.  Did you sort of feel like your creativity was going to be crushed if you weren’t careful and is that why you moved on so quickly?  I say quickly, a few years, but was there always a sense of ‘this is not going to be right for me’?

Taymoor Atighetchi

Yeah, I mean, I have only fond memories of my time as a consultant at Bain and I joined that firm saying in my interview that I was going to leave and set a business up and I’m going to do that as quickly as I can and I remember, actually, in that interview that the person took that in a positive way and said “Well, that’s brilliant, that’s what we want” and I still do the same actually, when I’m interviewing people to join Papier, I love it when they say “To be honest, I’m going to try and set my own thing up as quickly as I can.”  I usually put a caveat saying “As long as it’s not in the first few months, that’s fine” so it was always intended but I do think there would have been a risk that you can get very comfortable and stay somewhere too long and that itch was what I think took over after a while and you’re right, the creativity element is there, that’s the thing that you do need and building something from scratch is a very creative process and I think I would have struggled to do that in a corporate job. 

Elliot Moss

I’ve read about one of the big challenges for your business which is in fast growth and has been for definitely the last couple of years and even in 2015 as you say, you found that gap and you needed to exploit it.  Finding talent, finding the people that can do it, is possibly one of the hardest things.  How have you managed to identify the kinds of people that you want to join that team?

Taymoor Atighetchi

It still is the hardest challenge and actually I think it becomes more and more important and actually becomes… well it’s the one thing that stays as part of your job as a Founder is, not just hiring the people with the right skills but actually, more importantly, the people with the right values and we’ve done a lot of different things over the years and obviously part of it is through interviewing etcetera but one of the things I’ve started to do actually, is to ask less about people’s specific experiences and ask things about their values and in particular, kindness, and that’s something that we’ve introduced at Papier is, what we realise is that to make a great company grow very fast, you need very good people but you need them to be both good at what they do, you also need them to be very good at heart and that’s what keeps everyone sane in a very fast growth environment because in a very fast growing environment, tensions do flare up and we are moving at breakneck speed and things break along the way and actually what keeps the boat together, or the ship together, is having a crew of people that are good natured and so I often ask and people often ask, you know, have you got experience doing certain skills but I’ve started to ask about examples where people have demonstrated kindness and it’s been fascinating and it’s been a part of our journey now in hiring people and will continue to be the case as we try and make sure we do, as I say, hire good people. 

Elliot Moss

I think that’s right, okay, and the kindness thing, the kindness part of all of us is critical and it has been highlighted a lot in these last eighteen months or so since the pandemic began and of course people have been talking about kindness for a long time as being a critical part of the DNA of a business but let’s get serious on the other side of it, you need people who are super capable in a small business which is very ambitious.  So, how do you balance those technical skills and the broader capability of management with that kindness gene, what happens when there’s someone really kind but they’re just not cutting it?

Taymoor Atighetchi

Yeah, it’s tough because, I mean, one of the key things that you look for when you are trying to bring someone is, is have they done it?  And actually, when I say, have they done ‘it’, we’ve scaled, we’re doubling, to tripling in size every year so, actually, the challenge every year becomes very different and as I say to all people in the team, the job spec basically changes every year so, one of the things you do need to look for and what I do ask is, you know, to what extent have they seen this playbook before?  Have they gone through those similar challenges and experiences?  And that’s one of the ways to get under the skin of the technical detail because experience does count for a lot, especially in some parts of the business such as operations, you know, if someone has taken an operation from a thousand parcels a day to 40,000 parcels a day, they’re probably going to be able to do it again.  That’s one of the areas we try and get the technical skill. 

Elliot Moss

Stay with me for much more from Business Shaper, Taymoor Atighetchi, he’ll be back in a couple of minutes.  Right now though, we are going to hear a taster from the Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions, they can be found on all of the major podcast platforms.  Mishcon de Reya’s Joe Hancock, the Head of MDR Cyber and Katy Ling talk about current trends in cyber fraud and what individuals and companies need to do to protect themselves. 

You can enjoy all our former Jazz Shapers and indeed hear this very programme again with Taymoor, on the Jazz Shapers podcast or if you’ve got a smart speaker, you can ask it to play Jazz Shapers and there you will find many of our recent shows but back to today, it’s Taymoor Atighetchi, he’s the Founder of Papier, an online stationery brand creating beautifully designed personalised stationery.  We were talking before about operations and scale and we were also talking about your background in consultancy.  What is the way that you ensure that creativity remains at the heart of this business because it’s very easy to lose sight of that and we see many businesses across all sorts of industries where they had a great idea and then the operations took over and they lose their integrity and they lose their interest?  You collaborate with so many different people – artists and craftspeople and all sorts, even I think Desmond & Dempsey the pyjama makers, we had the Founders on Jazz Shapers a while ago – what keeps that bit fresh?  Are you the chief creative officer or are there, is everyone that person, how does it work?

Taymoor Atighetchi

No, I’m not the chief creative officer and actually, my job is more to ensure that creativity can thrive in the environment that I build and actually, while we do have designers and creatives in their very title, everyone at Papier is creative, and needs to be creative, it’s one of our values, it’s one of the areas that we evaluate people on when it comes to reviews, we want people to demonstrate creativity and that does beg the question, ‘What does that mean and how do you ensure that?’ and for me, at the moment especially, one of the key elements for it as the business grows at the scale, is to make sure that you don’t develop a fear of failure because early on a business’ life the, you know, the saying ‘You’ve got nothing to lose’ is very powerful.  You do have nothing to lose when you don’t really have a business, you don’t have much and as a result of that you end up doing a lot of very creative things and very experimental things and as the business grows and you accumulate hundreds of thousands, and in our case now over a million customers, you get a bit worried about doing certain things because, you know, you  might annoy a customer or you might actually do something that doesn’t feel right and you’ve got the weight of that on your shoulders but I think it’s really important that we are not afraid to fail and increasingly that’s what I try and encourage across all of our teams and that’s, I think, what keeps creativity alive. 

Elliot Moss

Do you think you have always embraced that same mantra which is ‘don’t be scared of failing’ and if so, where’s that kind of quiet, inner confidence come from?  Is that from a childhood thing?

Taymoor Atighetchi

No.  No, I have been afraid of failure, actually.  So, I’m on a bit of a journey on this, actually, I mean I’ve gone through most of my life trying to do my very best and in the main part, achieving, you know, good grades at school, getting into a University that I wanted, passing my driving test first time, I remember being absolutely terrified of failing that for no good reason, you know, you can always do it again, and I think that’s actually been a learning for me and I think one of the beautiful things about setting up a business is that it starts to teach you and it starts to become bigger than you and becomes your coach and I’ve only really started to learn that it’s okay to fail and that vulnerability and being able to actually say to teams, you know, I don’t know what the right answer is here but we’re going to give this a go and if we get it wrong, we’ll just try it again a different way, is new to me actually and…

Elliot Moss

You’re being very honest, Taymoor, I’m sure your team will be saying ‘Yes, that’s right, he is on a journey, he’s relaxed a bit, it’s very good and he’s being more open these days.’  

Taymoor Atighetchi is my Business Shaper and young too, Taymoor.  2015 when he set this business up, you were in your twenties, you must have been, my maths, 26, now that I know you are definitely 32.  The way you talk is very mature and I don’t mean that in a patronising way at all but it feels like you said you were on a journey, you know what you are looking for.  As a leader, have you, and you said a lovely phrase which I will repeat later I am sure, which is that the business becomes your coach.  Have you always enjoyed being quite reflective because it seems like you are a bit of a thinker as well as a doer and, if so, where’s that reflection come from?

Taymoor Atighetchi

Yeah, I think so.  It’s interesting you say that and people have said that in the past and I think some of that reflection may come from the areas that I’ve always been interested in terms of my kind of studying life and one of the reasons I got into studying History of Art was because you start with the object which, you know, I was always attracted to, they are beautiful things but then once you start to reflect, as you say, on it and understand it and see the layers within it and you start getting into history, philosophy, theology and all these different areas and I have actually, I have always thought that’s the one thing I miss, is a small bit of academia, I do miss being able to just read about history and theology and things like that so, I think there is an element of that.  I am interested in theory, what motivates people, that’s certainly something that’s relevant and important when you run a business so, I guess that’s where it’s all from. 

Elliot Moss

What interests me about the theoretical approach is, and I don’t know if this was intentionally but obviously, the whole notion of connection in this time especially as people have been more atomised and more alienated and literally seeing less people, that sense of things that people can do to connect and here we are connecting virtually in a way that we wouldn’t have conceived was okay, we wouldn’t have been comfortable but we are pretty comfortable now and probably most people who are doing this are comfortable but the act of connection, the act of writing a note, the act of curating a card for someone to get, the thought about actually choosing a lovely piece of art to sit on your wall, all these things actually go to a much bigger human need which his to connect and to be connected to the wider world, was that the thought at the beginning of this journey or was the thought more about the beauty of the object?

Taymoor Atighetchi

No, it was always both and actually, over the course of the five years where we really have developed this brand, we’ve realised that the object in itself isn’t enough and actually, what Papier as a brand needs to do is, it does need to provoke and it does need to provoke those connections and that deeper meaning and the object is, you know, it’s a bit like we use and analogy sometimes of a magpie and we are all kind of like magpies and these notebooks, these bit of stationery catch our eye so that’s what it, it does start from the aesthetic, object beauty of the products that we design and produce but then beyond that, it needs to go further and it needs to develop that meaning and whether it’s a notebook or an invitation or a notecard, it’s once that product has been used that it takes on that new meaning and whether it’s psychology or, we spent a lot of time thinking about, you know, shall we interrogate the psychology of these connections, we actually realised that that’s not what it’s about and we’ve reduced it, or we’ve enlightened it into a word, ‘magic’ and that’s kind of what we say about our stationery in particular.  There is some sort of magic that happens when you write a note or you receive a note and everyone knows what that feels like but it’s better you don’t try and reduce it in some ways to a science because that kills the magic. 

Elliot Moss

So, not too much, we like a bit of magic, a bit of alchemy.  Stay with me for my final chat with my guest today, the magician Taymoor Atighetchi and also the Founder of Papier and we’ll be playing a track from John Lee Hooker as well, that’s in just a moment, please don’t go anywhere. 

Just for a few more minutes, my Business Shaper today is Taymoor Atighetchi and we’ve been talking about theory and practice of management and all sorts of things.  The rubber hits the road, Taymoor, when you’ve got to build a profitable business and you’ve received a fair amount of funding along the way and it started small, I think your seed capital was a quarter of a million pounds.  What’s it been like fundraising and how dependent have you been on that and how connected are you to those funders still?

Taymoor Atighetchi

Yeah, we’ve raised capital kind of all the way through and in terms of how those connections have remained, I am still close to all my early investors, I mean, actually my old boss at my old company is an investor and we still catch up and I think it’s really important that you choose your investors, people think of it as trying to find someone who is willing to invest, I think it should work the other way too that these are people that you’re giving the opportunity to be part of this thing that you are building and it’s a piece of you and I think especially when you are setting up something as a Founder, you know, the business has evolved considerably and is in a position where profitability is very much a part of how we operate and so now the choice to raise capital is much more about where we take it next and how fast we push growth in different areas but I do think it’s been a great theme to have, I think investors do help bring you into a world where you are accountable, that you do have a boss, actually I always kind of think that I’d struggle without having anybody to report to, I think I’d probably be a bit too cosy and life would be a bit too easy, I do want someone to say you know, have you hit what you said you were going to do this year.

Elliot Moss

Do you think, also, just as a thought about the world of writing and the world of paper going forward that actually, it will continue to grow in use because of the prevalence of digital communications because everyone just does it the other way and, actually, writing becomes the outlier whereas before it was the way that people communicated.  Is that a good thing for your business?

Taymoor Atighetchi

Yeah, absolutely, I think that’s the irony in a way, that it’s because of the rise of digital that analogue communication has seen this resurgence but clearly that doesn’t mean all analogue, I mean, there was a world where pre-email you would communicate everything on paper so what’s actually happening now is if the more considered pieces of communication, the more thoughtful modes of communication that are translating onto paper and that actually means that actually people don’t want a piece of printer paper to scratch a quick note out, they want something more elevated than that so, absolutely, the rise of digital has definitely been a big part of why analogue communication, and we are seeing that actually in younger generations, you know Gen Z as it’s called, they’re the ones who are actually most aware of some of the health challenges that comes with an overload of digital and they’re the ones embracing everything from using daily planners and wellness journals and ways to actually use those forms of analogue to train the mind and be more mindful. 

Elliot Moss

It’s been great talking to you and I hope I will be more mindful and write more rather than typing, I think it’s definitely, it’s good for the soul.  Thank you so much for spending some time with me today and I really appreciate it.  Just before I let you disappear into the ether, what’s your song choice and why have chosen it?

Taymoor Atighetchi

I’ve picked a beautiful song by Sam Cook, A Change is Gonna Come.  He wrote this in the sixties, actually, and he wrote it after he was turned away from a white only hotel and speaking up for activists, he wrote, “It’s a long time coming but I know change is going to come” and I think it’s somewhat sad that that change hasn’t fully come around but as an entrepreneur and eternal optimist, I think it's a beautiful song that fills me with optimism every time I hear it. 

Elliot Moss

The evocative song choice of my Business Shaper today, Taymoor Atighetchi.  He talked about hiring people that were good at heart, kindness being absolutely critical to the values of his business.  He talked about not developing a fear of failure, really important when you’re building a business and finally, he talked about a different perspective on things where the business becomes your coach.  Really good stuff.  That’s it from me and Jazz Shapers, have a lovely weekend.

We hope you enjoyed that edition of Jazz Shapers.  You will find hundreds of more guests available to listen to in our archive, just search Jazz Shapers in iTunes or your favourite podcast platform or head over to mishcon.com/jazzshapers.

Since its inception on 2015, Papier has encouraged people to connect with each other in more meaningful ways by offering design-led collections of notebooks, cards, invitations and stationery. It works with leading artists, illustrators, brands and designers from across the world, making all products to order using the highest quality, sustainably sourced papers.

Taymoor began his entrepreneurial career early, working as Portobelllo Road's youngest antiques dealer (his family name translates to "art dealer" in Persian). He also founded news site "The Tab" while studying at the University of Cambridge. It was while he was working as a management consultant that Taymoor spotted a gap in the personalised print market for quality stationery with interesting designs, leading him to found Papier.

Highlights

If I’m going to build something, grow something, it’s got to be something I enjoy because I think going into any kind of entrepreneurial endeavour has its risk.

It’s that tactility that I think people actually crave now more than ever as less and less of our communication is tactile, and digital. 

Building something from scratch is a very creative process and I think I would have struggled to do that in a corporate job. 

Part of your job as a founder is not just hiring the people with the right skills but actually, more importantly, the people with the right values.

To make a great company grow very fast, you need very good people… You need them to be both good at what they do and be very good at heart – that’s what keeps everyone sane in a very fast growth environment.

One of the key elements as the business grows at scale is to make sure that you don’t develop a fear of failure.

I think it’s really important that we are not afraid to fail and increasingly that’s what I try and encourage across all of our teams and that’s, I think, what keeps creativity alive.

There is some sort of magic that happens when you write a note or you receive a note and everyone knows what that feels like.

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