Leadership by Geoff Colvin

Making office supplies stylish

February 2, 2011: 5:00 AM ET

Poppin.com wants to do for staplers what Starbucks did for coffee: turn them into something people want, not just need.

By Jessica Shambora, writer-reporter

Do tape dispensers and hole punches need a makeover? According to Ken Seiff, founder of Bluefly.com, and venture capitalist Chris Burch who co-founded Tory Burch with his then-wife and is also behind Voss Water and the Jawbone, the answer is a resounding yes. Hence, Poppin.com, a sort of Apple-meets-Office Depot concept, which launched on an invitation-only basis last Friday with a wider rollout to the general public to follow.

No matter how virtual our world becomes, we still need office supplies. But they don't have to be ugly, says Seiff: "We can redesign the products to make them fun and cool and inspiring." Poppin will sell staplers, pens, and notepads to businesses via the web, but we're not talking about Grandpa's Swingline; the products have all been custom-designed by Seiff's team. The result: supplies with an iPod sensibility (they come in multiple colors to coordinate with your company's brand).

Why office supplies? It's an industry ripe for disruption, says Poppin COO Noah Maffit, who ran e-commerce at Office Depot until 2008. "The industry hasn't changed in any fundamental way in 25 years," he explains.

During this time, the office supply business has been dominated by three retailers: Office Depot (ODP), Office Max (OMX) and Staples (SPLS). But there isn't much that separates the big three, which all share the same logistics-driven business model: carry almost identical products, promise to deliver them the next day, and compete on price. As a result, the products and experience are commoditized, while service and design take a backseat.

Poppin's founders see a new model, based on their observations of companies that have shaken up industries once also seen as dull and unexciting. They hope Poppin can do for office supplies what Starbucks (SBUX) did for coffee, JetBlue (JBLU) for airlines, and Method for cleaning supplies. These are signs, they say, that consumers actually care about design, sometimes more than price.

All of this sounds nice, but can Poppin convince office managers that stylin' stationery will help the bottom line? Seiff believes that he can make a business case for increased morale, and he notes a trend of companies aspiring to be more mission-driven, which includes creating a culture that keeps employees happy and also attracts new talent. He thinks Poppin can help companies accomplish this by providing their employees with the best tools to do their jobs.

In addition to offering what they think are superior products, Poppin also hopes to win on service. That starts with the website itself, which will feature a fun, user-friendly interface and fewer products to sort through. Rather than offer thousands of products like its rivals, Poppin hopes to get by with just a few hundred, based on the premise that they'll be the cream of the crop.

Limiting inventory will help Poppin keep costs down so that it can compete with the big boys. Seiff says that designing the products internally and buying from China  also result in savings by avoiding the costs that come from working with brand names or distributors. More savings could come from de-emphasizing next day-delivery, which is less important to customers than it used to be, says Maffit.

Poppin also targets small- to medium-size businesses that are often denied the big discounts granted to large corporations. Early customers include fashion brand Theory and Robert De Niro's Greenwich Hotel.

For founder and CEO Seiff, it comes down to this: "The two places you spend the most time are in bed and at the office." Poppin doesn't promise to help customers sleep at night, but it does hope to make them happier at work.

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