The day I walked into Staples and saw their knockoffs, a cold shiver went down my spine. There, on a long section of aisles, were what looked just like Levenger Circa notebooks. Sitting propped up at a nice angle were our leather covers, our dividers, extra discs for enlarging notebooks, even our wide-column paper formats with our miniature illustrations of the various paper options. “Slavish” was the word that came into my head. They had slavishly copied Levenger, not even bothering to pretend that they had come up with anything original. They did what big-box stores tend to do: find innovation in the marketplace, make it cheaper, make lots of it, and blow it out the door.
Of course I thought about suing Staples. I mean, come on! Even our page formats? Plenty of customers who had also seen the products reached out to us. They asked, “Are you selling in Staples now?”
But we didn’t sue Staples. I knew too much. First off, they had more lawyers. And second, the original design for what can generically be called disc-bound notebooks was patented in Belgium in 1946.
When I saw my first disc-bound notebook, it was a little item with the brand Atoma. I saw it at a pen show, some 25 years ago. It was all plastic and kind of cheap. But the revolutionary idea was there.
Consider conventional three-ring notebooks: You pry the thing open, exposing ragged metal prongs, remove a sheet, close the rings with a finger-pinching thwack, pry it open again to put the sheet somewhere else, and snap the contraption closed again. Forcing inherently strong metal to open up and then chomp back down again is a bad idea that, like a bad gene, keeps replicating down through the generations.
The fundamentally different idea in disc-bound notebooks is to take advantage of the inherent flexibility of paper to bend easily when in a single sheet, yet be strong when united together. It’s a kind of Zen approach to notebooks.
After seeing my first disc-bound notebook back at the pen show, I went hunting the world for more examples. At the international stationery show in Frankfurt, my merchandising group and I found versions from Israel, Brazil, India, Europe, and the UK. Each had slightly different spacing of the discs and different page sizes, but it was clear the idea had traveled around the world. Yet while it had gone a long way geographically, in another way, the idea had stalled out.
In all the renditions we saw, the notebooks were trying to compete with existing, inexpensive wire notebooks sold around the world. The disc-bound notebooks were better, yes, but their parts and assembly made them inherently more expensive to make. Since the largest market worldwide is for low-cost notebooks, the innovation foundered on the rocks of conventional thinking.
But Levenger was, and still is, an oddball company in the stationery world. We sell to lawyers, engineers, teachers, scientists, doctors, professors, writers—professional people of all types whom we sometimes refer to as the hyperliterate. Our customers read and write for their livings—and typically for pleasure, too. They look to Levenger for high-quality tools of their trade. So we had a different mission than companies that had tried to sell disc-bound notebooks in the past. Ours was not to make them as inexpensive as possible in a vain effort to compete with conventional low-cost notebooks. Our mission was to see how good we could make them. How beautiful could these kinds of notebooks be, both in their function and their looks? First we would build it, and then see if they would come.
Build a Better Notebook
The first thing we did was reunite paper with its longtime friend and fellow naturalist, leather. Then we upgraded the discs. We realized they didn’t have to be plastic. We made them out of aluminum, instead—lightweight, strong, and handsome in the variety of colors we introduced. We found that the pages also turned more easily over polished aluminum, “high-speed” discs.
Finally, we improved the paper: not just the feel and performance of the paper, but the graphic layouts of pages as well.
Facing the increasing competition from digital devices, we felt an obligation to see how good paper notebooks could become. How fast and how far could paper notebooks evolve?
Thanks to thinkers like Paul Saffo and Kevin Kelly, we were aware of a pattern of technological change: that not all old technologies go away when they are obsolete. Candles are obsolete as a lighting source, yet they continue to evolve. What home or romantic dinner is complete without them?
Bicycles are another of my favorite examples of this pattern. Made obsolete a century ago by cars and motorcycles, human-powered bikes continue to evolve into ever more specialized and delightful forms.
Yet who was doing this with the paper notebook? Paper is obsolete for big data, but who doesn’t still want notebook pages to fill with inspired thought? Around our conference table, we would ask ourselves, “What company will do this if not us?”
A Latte Grande You Can Write On
Periodically, journalists would pen articles about the paperless office, often predicted, yet always just off on the horizon. Sometimes they would call me for interviews and I’d quote Steve Jobs: “The easiest way to predict the future is to invent it.” So while Silicon Valley was reinventing telephones and countless other digital devices, we were laboring over new paper notebooks.
The good news: Our expensive Circa notebooks took off. Bless our customers who would pay for better function and looks. Who says notebooks could cost only $1.99? Starbucks didn’t think coffee had to be 99 cents. And just as customers drank up the affordable luxury of a Starbucks latte, they turned with pleasure the pages of Circa notebooks from Levenger.
When they launched, they also did hip videos and social media. Clearly, they were serious about making this a significant part of their business. We felt the impact right away. Our sales went down. Then Office Depot and other notebook makers got on the disc-bound notebook parade. Martha Stewart, who had praised the Levenger notebooks on one of her platforms, liked them so much she made her own.
Our CFO was alarmed. “Shouldn’t we go after them?”
But then something else happened. Our sales started to grow again. It seemed that some people who were introduced to disc-bound notebooks at their local big-box store somehow found out about Levenger and upgraded.
Instead of suing Staples and the other followers, we wrote the words of Walt Disney on the whiteboard: “We can invent faster than they can copy.”
When innovative companies come up with better products and big players copy them at lower prices, customers win. It’s what’s supposed to happen when capitalism works well. And in the spirit of Conscious Capitalism, I salute Staples, Office Depot, Martha Stewart, and the rest of the players who copied Levenger. For they all have helped spread this advancement in heritage technology to millions of new people who would not have found it otherwise.
Editor’s note: Steve writes more about candles, bicycles, and Circa in his quasi-memoir, Holding Dear: The Value of the Real.