Comm Studies grad parlays notebooks into brick-and-mortar schools
It all started as a wish.
Which became a realization.
Then the idea itself took hold.
But it took a BHAG for Tyler Tolson to launch Denik, the multi-million-dollar company that creates the cool, colorful and retro notebooks that have become the darlings of millennials.
A BHAG, for those uninitiated in the leadership courses of Communications Studies, is a Big Hairy Audacious Goal. In other words, a seemingly impossible idea that hangs around amid all the commotion and urgency of a student’s mind.
Tolson’s simple wish, first spoken as a boy, was to be an artist and help people. “Hold on!” said insistent voices that began in his childhood in Bowie, Md. “That’s a one-way road to starvation.”
But the thought lingered, like an unsharpened pencil.
The realization came as a young student at Utah State University. Walking between school and work, Tolson filled dozens of notebooks with sketches, flashes of brilliance and nubs of ideas. One day, though, he actually turned his attention to the basic spiral notebook in his hands. It was drab, he realized, worse than dull. It had no story. A shack concealing a palace.
“We fill them with our creative output, with our heart’s desires, with our fears, thoughts, ideas,” he says now. “But the product itself is not very creative.”
The big-picture plan, when it came to him, “just kind of made sense.” That took place in a class taught by Prof. Matt Sanders, Tolson recalls in an interview at the Logan-based headquarters of Denik.
“I thought, ‘What if I take my artwork and artwork from people all around the world, print it on the cover of a notebook, and then send some of the profit to the artists themselves and save a bit to build schools?’”
Today, from Denik’s main office in a west Logan industrial area, Tolson directs a thriving business that produces stylized notebooks, sketchbooks and journals that are sold around the world. You can pick up a Denik notebook whether you’re shopping for pens in Staples, watercolor paints at Michaels or browsing sales at a high-end store like Nordstrom.
Two facilities in the United States and four in China produce the lovingly designed notebooks. Their covers carry works of graphic and fine arts from a global community of artists.
In a warehouse near the Denik office, stacks of boxes await delivery. Across the parking lot, 12 employees work in sales and product development, their desks overseen by a mural that reads: Above and beyond.
Shelves near Tolson’s desk display the many custom notebooks that Denik has designed and produced for such companies as Disney and Linked In.
Tolson’s greatest pride, though, lies in the four schools Denik profits have funded: two in Mali, one in Laos and a new grade school that opened a few weeks go in a rural Guatemalan village.
Tolson arrived at Utah State University in 2008, initially majoring in graphic design and business. He soon found a niche to satisfy his helping-hands craving — student government. Students elected him as USU’s student body president in two subsequent years, the only individual still to hold that distinction.
In time, though, his inclinations shifted to the English Department. He finally settled in and unpacked his bags in Communication Studies, a program in the Department of Languages, Philosophy and Communication Studies within the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
“It was perfect for me,” he says of the program, which examines the way humans and their societies communicate. “It’s kind of like a business degree without the accounting and numbers. It’s all about leadership and people and how to interact in society and organizations.”
Tolson and some classmates spent a semester working on their BHAG, a business plan that would become Parko, a website and smart-phone app that reserves parking stalls.
The business concept earned this non-business major and his fellow students first place in the Huntsman School of Business’s Opportunity Quest elevator-pitch competition. The prize was start-up monies.
Although Tolson left the venture to finish his final year at USU, the entrepreneurial experience taught him one lasting lesson: creating a business is itself a kind of art.
“That creative process was invigorating,” he said. “I loved taking something from a mere idea, creating it and making a product or business that adds value to people’s lives.”
The BHAG, he adds, inspired him enough that he soon started on his next BHAG.
Tolson’s journey from ambitious college nerd to entrepreneur is one of those stories that sells motivational books.
He settled on the idea of producing a notebook that in character and design matched the brilliance people would create within its pages. The name Denik (the second syllable is stressed) came from a Googled search of how to say “notebook” in the world’s languages. Czechoslovakian won.
Then began the hard work of taking a kernel of an idea and nurturing it into a sustainable venture. This space between a fancy and its fruition is the graveyard for many great ideas and businesses. Tolson, however, was “too naive to be intimidated by the task,” he says.
Tolson began his journey like he would a college road trip. “It’s like standing here in Logan and saying, ‘I want to get over to New York.’ Well, you just start driving,” he said.
“You know the direction you need to go. You may not know all the best roads, but you’ll figure it out.”
His destination was this: “I wanted to create a product that has story, that has meaning, a brand that appeals to the millennial age group.”
A millennial himself with a typical college student budget, Tolson used his little stash of money to acquire a spiral-binding machine. Next, he bought up notebooks in grocery stores across Cache Valley, removed their covers and unwound the metal wire.
The humdrum notebook covers were replaced with Tolson’s art work and that of other USU students. His first cover carried his own sketch of a nerd in a Ghostbusters tee. Soon, using the recently popularized Instagram, he hooked up with artists in Columbia and elsewhere.
“I’d add a nice spiral and a nice cover, slip it in a poly bag with a sticker on it, and that was my product,” he remembers. “ I had products probably within a month of the idea. Were they perfect? No.”
That was November of 2011. Tolson and a band of dedicated followers attended every USU event where they’d find potential buyers. Poetry readings, stage plays, 5K races, bingo nights, snow-boarding movies. “We learned pretty quickly that if we told people what we were doing they believed in it,” he said. “They wanted to be a part of it, and they wanted to support the cause.”
The momentum leapfrogged, and in 2012 he got a call from Tom’s Shoes, a front runner in what Tolson calls the “social giveback business mindset.”
Tom’s Shoes executives, remember Tolson, were impressed that “Denik was one of the early adopters and one of the first real social companies driving this millennial demographic and creating products for them.”
A partnership followed, and Denik notebooks were featured on toms.com alongside the products that have branded the company as a socially-minded, for-profit outfit. For each pair of Tom’s shoes purchased, it donates a pair to children in need.
Denik moved from Salt Lake City back to Logan in 2014 with the help of investors who, said Tolson, streamlined the production process and made the company more viable.
“They made some small tweaks, gave us some guidance, and helped us learn how to work smart,” he said. “Now, we work really hard at working smart.”
Tolson and his international designs tap into one of the most enigmatic and sought-after markets: millennials. “The 18-35 demographic is our core market,” he said.
At age 30, he is himself a member of this generation that carries “a bit of edge.” Millennials, he adds, “are not comfortable with the norm; they like disrupting the norm.”
They may be children who were brought up with silver (computer) screens and social media, but millennials crave nostalgia, a link with their own past. Retro rocks with them, as do second-hand stores. Millennials, adds Tolson, “resurrect old vintage styles.”
And, just as anyone over the age of 30 would consider, say, an Underwood manual typewriter to be a historic curio, so millennials look at actual paper tablets (not Apple). “People always told me I was crazy to start a notebook company,” said Tolson. “But millennials gravitate to these historic artifacts.”
Yes, indeed, he really did state that a notebook is a historic artifact.
But Tolson has the last word about the viability of a notebook manufacturing company. “If you look at every school, every student, every professional, every single person, they’re using paper and pencil in notebook or pad form,” he said. “It’s a huge market.”
When Tolson first began his search for a worthy charity, however, he quickly discarded the idea of distributing notebooks to youngsters in the Third World. Notebooks have a shelf life and eventually wear out; schools, on the other hand, don’t.
Denik sets aside 5 percent of profits to accumulate in a bank account. When the balance reaches the price tag of a school, Denik pairs with a nonprofit partners to build the structure.
Only chosen are nonprofits that are active in the targeted poor neighborhoods. Plus, Tolson said, community members themselves must be “invested in the project, whether it’s financial or actual physical labor and then maintaining the school.”
Artists whose work appears on Denik covers receive between 2.5 and 10 percent of the sales, said Tolson. The cover designs, which change every four months or so, are chosen in consumer polls.
A Denik cover can be bold, loud and vibrant. “It can express buyers’ personality a little bit,” Tolson said. Most popular, however, are artistic works on what Tolson describes as the more conservative end of the spectrum. “We like designs that have flavor, so when you’re in a meeting, people go, ‘Oh, where did you get that?’”
Tolson and his wife Nicole care for thier three children in their River Heights home, 5-year-old Norah, 2-year-old Henry and Lucy, still a babe in arms. Denik, too, he adds, “is like one of my children.”
Taped to a wall in the Denik conference room are a couple dozen cover designs currently in the judging process. Yellow or pink sticky notes indicate yea or nay votes for each one. Tolson’s favorite is a simple, elegant design imprinted with the phrase “Crazy Ideas.”
“We do a lot of good in the world,” said Tolson. “We’ve created a lot of jobs, which is cool to see. The artists we work with, our vendor partners and our customers who are able to give back to an extent that four schools have been funded, it’s exciting.”
Perhaps Tolson’s chosen notebook cover should read, “Crazily Successful Ideas.”