My First Business Venture

Eleven years ago in the fall of 2004, I founded my first business—The Paper Pillow Company. Although it’s not listed on my resume and I don’t bring it up very often, during my time at Paper Pillow I served as the CEO and Creative Director, which is pretty remarkable considering I was in the 5th grade.

Paper Pillow was founded to fulfill my classmates needs to have a small, portable, and comfortable pillow they could use in class without being entirely recognizable as a pillow. Resources were limited at the time as I didn’t have the money to purchase fabrics nor did I have the necessary skills needed to sew actual pillows. Such challenging restraints called for an innovative approach to pillows. Of the resources I did have, paper was one of the most readably available. During this time, my friends and I already had lots of experience with paper and have done numerous experiments with it, including paper airplanes, attempts to perfect the paper ball, folding techniques for secret notes, and many more projects. While attempting to perfect the paper ball, it was discovered that paper became significantly softer due to the loosening of fibers and developed a more flexible property similar to that of fabric when it is crumpled up numerous times. This discovery of seemingly changing the perceived properties of paper to mimic that of fabric became the basis of The Paper Pillow Company.

In the beginning it was just a concept, but as more people began to express interest in them, the idea for Paper Pillows started to become more of a possibility and it naturally progressed into a team effort. At the time of prototyping our first Paper Pillow there was only 3 of us, and our initial experiment was extremely minimal using only a single piece of paper and staples. The first prototype didn’t quite work as we had hoped because we were attempting to fill the Paper Pillow with air in hopes that we could staple it enough to keep it sealed shut, but to our disbelief it wasn’t sufficient. When air didn’t work we moved on to the next attempt. We knew how to make the paper soft and flexible so our next attempt took a similar approach as the paper we used for the outside. Rather than unfolding the paper as we normally would we kept the paper crumpled up as balls and tried to stuff them inside. Although this attempt was much more successful, it provided for a very lumpy and uncomfortable pillow.

By this point everything felt hopeless, we were exhausting our efforts and resources attempting to make the Paper Pillow a reality but nothing was working quite right. The going got tough, but we decided to keep pushing forward. In our third version of the Paper Pillow we applied our revolutionary paper softening technique once again, but this time we shredded the paper into confetti. This version was extremely promising because the confetti allowed for an evenly soft pillow similar to how a traditional feather pillow would, however, the confetti called for a very large amount of paper in order to fill the pillows entirely. It simply wasn’t cost or labor efficient.

When it seemed like The Paper Pillow Company was going to fold before ever actually taking flight, things took a turn for the better when we met our first investor and new partner. Another classmate had approached us when we were early on in the prototyping stage just to see what we were doing, but she didn’t make much of it. As the prototypes developed she obviously saw the potential, and finally after the confetti prototype she approached us another time but this time with a question.

“Why don’t you use actual cotton for the filling?”

It was so simple, but we never posed that question because we didn’t have that as an immediate resource. We were only asking the questions that we could test in that very room. We didn’t have any cotton and so our response was also simple, “Well, we don’t have any.” To our surprise, she offered to be the cotton provider if she could become a part of The Paper Pillow Company. As we approached version 4 of the Paper Pillow and before actually hitting production, we had already grown our small company by one more person—who was arguably one of our most important hires.

The next day she arrived to class with a bag full of cotton and we were able to create our first successful Paper Pillow. A buzz was already being generated as we were going through the prototyping stages, but as we neared the launch our classmates were extremely excited to try them out. This was long before Kickstarter was founded and so it had to be entirely self-funded which luckily wasn’t much because we already had most of the materials. Upon our launched the first collection started at 25 cents for a pillow and sales were higher than expected.

While the first collection did well as just blank Paper Pillows, we knew we couldn’t get comfortable; we had to keep pushing the envelope. For our second collection we decided to incorporate more art into our textiles. By this point I was the creative lead, and we started pushing out Paper Pillows with patterns, portraits, and a wide variety of other drawings. While I was mainly the one creating the designs, if someone else were to create a design it’d have to first be approved by me before hitting the market.

Everything was going great, and this business I started from the ground up seemed to have hopes of growing. I was going to make it big. Others were interested in joining the team, production was at an all-time high, and we had talks of expanding The Paper Pillow Company to reach school-wide. When we least expected it, we were seemingly broadsided. Just like our paper softening technique, the company quickly crumpled—our teacher shut us down. Apparently, what we were doing wasn’t allowed or something like that. Although The Paper Pillow Company wasn’t able to blossom in the beautiful thing that it was becoming, it’s legacy will live on.