Johnson Students Help Local Business – Acorn Design

by Mick Beideck, MBA '13 and BRM Director of Finance (3/7/12)

Mick Beideck, MBA '13 and BRM Director of Finance

With the help of BR Microcaptial (BRM), Acorn Design reinvents its business model for the 21st century.

“I feel like I’m talking to people who have their finger much more on the pulse of the changing marketplace and marketing strategies,” Steve said, as we met in a down-town Ithaca coffee shop to discuss the challenges his company currently faces and the impact BR MicroCapital (BRM) has had on his business.

When we met, Steve had just come from a workshop held downtown titled “Social Marketing Strategies for Small Business,” which was hosted by the founder of a media consultancy. Today, Steve, like many of his small-business contemporaries, is facing challenges that didn’t exist when he founded his company 30 years ago. “Many of my peers are having the same business problems as I am—tapping into social media.” In an effort to help overcome these obstacles, Steve looked to BRM.

Steve Sierigk is the founder of Acorn Designs, makers of, as he describes it, “nature-themed note cards and journals on eco-friendly papers.” As a naturally-gifted artist and Cornell grad student studying entomology in the late 70’s, Steve realized he could make some money in college by creating and selling “scientific illustrations” of flora and fauna. So great was his passion for illustrating that he decided to forgo the world of bugs and instead pursue his passion for art. “I always like the idea of the potential of an acorn … slow but steady growth.” So began Acorn Designs.

By the mid-80’s, business was booming: with 50,000 customers in its database and seven employees, Acorn Designs was receiving 30 to 40 unique requests a day for ecological-related stationary.

“We source the best papers, recycled plant-oil-based inks and packaging,” Steve said. “Our focus was on the retail customer.”

But by the late 80’s, large paper manufactures swept in and all but captured the retail market. Of the dozen or so small entrepreneurs Steve estimated were in the environmental paper market, Acorn Designs was the only one to survive.

“They all went belly-up, and we had to change our business model,” recalled Steve.

In what was one of the company’s first and biggest challenges, Acorn successfully scaled back its operations and shifted its focus from retail to wholesale customers: riding on the momentum of its integrity-rich product line and great customer service, Acorn stopped printing its full-paper catalogue four years ago and is making the transition to a web-based catalog supported by customer interaction using e-newsletters and social media.

Now, some 20 years later, Steve has seen a resurgence in retail interest as a result of the Internet. This, however, has brought with it a new set of challenges, namely marketing in the digital arena.

“My skill set is so old school,” noted Steve. “This is where the BRM coaching really helps.”

Steve credits BRM for helping him understand and use social media to elevate his company’s brand awareness. Steve has utilized BRM’s coaches for their understanding of, and familiarity with, various social media platforms to enhance Acorn’s online footprint. From website development to advice on the company’s Facebook page, Steve’s BRM coaches have helped him not just improve his digital presence, but see results as well.

“A lot of my peers don’t have the tools to keep pace with how quickly the world is changing,” and in that regard, he added, “BRM’s coaching has been invaluable. Whenever I talk to a business peer with concerns about adapting to the changing marketplace I quickly mention BRM's programs as a source of help ... it really feels like I have allies in BRM who take our concerns to heart.”