Entrepreneur of the Year: Brittany O'Brien, Spruce Stationery & Design

Customers tell her that her shop is like “a Pinterest board come to life,” said Brittany O’Brien, owner of Spruce Stationery & Design in downtown Bellingham.

Yet the focus of O’Brien’s business is a bit different than that of Pinterest, the popular social website where more than 70 million users upload posts of arts and crafts, fashion, food and other creative endeavors.

Spruce Stationery & Design is all about actual dyed and cut paper products, specifically wedding invitations.

“With weddings, the first thing your guests see is the invitations,” O’Brien said. “I think that people are still very traditional and sentimental when it comes to wedding planning.”

O’Brien, voted Entrepreneur of the Year by readers of The Bellingham Business Journal in the 2014 Readers’ Choice Awards, opened Spruce in June 2013 at 1422 Cornwall Ave.

As currently the sole force behind the store, most of O’Brien’s attention is on designing invitations and other signage or printed materials for weddings. But her shop also offers design services for other print products, including corporate stationery, party invitations and holiday gift cards.

O’Brien got her start after she decided to leave a job she landed at a commercial design firm following her graduation from Central Washington University in Ellensburg in 2003. Her bachelor’s degree was in graphic design and advertising.

The job made sense for someone with her background, but it was difficult to find creative outlets through her day-to-day work, O’Brien said. After designing her own wedding invitations in 2005, friends began asking O’Brien to use her talents for their own weddings.

A year later, she was taking freelance design jobs, and attending bridal-industry expos. She generated buzz, and had her work featured in several bridal magazines, such as Seattle Bride and Martha Stewart Weddings.

Opening her storefront in downtown Bellingham allowed her to expand her business, she said. With more space, and better visibility, she is now able to attract a broader variety of customers than she would be able to if she continued working freelance, O’Brien said.

“It just gives a lot more flexibility,” she said.

Business at Spruce is very seasonal, O’Brien said. Winter holidays generally bring a boost, including more orders for personalized stationery and products used as corporate gifts.

O’Brien said she generally has about 5-10 design projects going on at one time.

Her Cornwall Avenue location is next door to Pure Bliss and Chocolate Necessities, two local shops that are in separate, yet complementary industries to hers. O’Brien said the neighbors have helped drive walk-in traffic to Spruce, and she believes the effect works both ways.

Handling the volume of business she’s generated in her first year has been one of her greatest challenges, O’Brien said. She expects to hire new employees soon, including one to handle in-store customer service, and another to work on graphic design and production.

Online retailers present her greatest competition, she said. O’Brien counters that by carrying products from small, artisan creators, particularly ones that cannot be found anywhere else.

“I’ve been really pleasantly surprised and overwhelmed with the positive response from the community, especially because it’s a different style of shop for Bellingham,” O’Brien said.

Evan Marczynski, associate editor of The Bellingham Business Journal, can be reached at 360-647-8805, Ext. 5052, or evan@bbjtoday.com

Entrepreneur of the Year Runners-up

First runners-up

Doug Pfeif and Zach Pfeif
Haywire Computer Repair
360-306-8791, 2004 James St.

Second runner-up

Colleen Unema
Q Laundry
360-656-5621, 810 Alabama St.

See all of the 2014 Readers’ Choice Award winners by clicking here.

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