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Nikhil Ranjan of William Penn: The perfect penmanship

The founder of William Penn shares the ups and downs of his premium stationery business in the digital age—and why it is here to stay in spite of the pandemic

Nikhil Ranjan, the founder of William Penn.
Nikhil Ranjan, the founder of William Penn. (Priya Kuriyan)

You may remember the scene from the 2009 movie 3 Idiots. Viru Sahastrabuddhe, the tyrannical head of the Imperial College of Engineering (played by Boman Irani), is busy haranguing a new batch of students with a pep talk. At one point, he brandishes a pen from his pocket and proceeds to brag about its unique qualities. Millions of dollars had been spent to create its special design, he tells his attentive audience, in his inimitable lisp. It is the only pen in the world that can write in space, under zero gravity. But the dramatic impact of the moment is deflated by Ranchoddas Shamaldas Chanchad (Aamir Khan), who pipes up with a question. Why did astronauts not consider writing with a pencil? he asks—they could have saved everyone a lot of money! Amid much tittering, Sahastrabuddhe beats a hasty retreat, fumbling for an answer.

Nikhil Ranjan, founder and managing director of the premium stationery company William Penn, who is telling me this anecdote, supplies the answer to why they couldn’t have used a pencil. “Most pencils have graphite, which can cause havoc inside a space shuttle,” he says, sitting in his headquarters on a quiet street in Koramangala in Bengaluru. “That’s why the Fisher space pen was created in the 1950s as an anti-gravity device to write with in space.”

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The pen, with an hermetically sealed refill pressurised by nitrogen, works under extreme temperatures. It was part of the lunar expedition that sent the first humans to the Moon in 1969 and is used by the US space agency Nasa to this day. In India, you can buy it from William Penn, the American company’s authorised partner, which has been selling the Fisher space pen for the last 10 years or so.

Of course, you can get the same product from e-tailers like Amazon too but it isn’t quite the same thing. Apart from its meticulous packaging, warranty and care manuals, Ranjan’s company offers to personalise the pen with your name, logo or message of your choice. “In the last 12 months, especially, personalisation has been one of our most successful innovations,” he says.

You would think the pandemic has impacted a “non-essential” business like premium stationery worse than many others, but it’s not all doom and gloom. It’s true, William Penn had to close down some of its 30-odd stores across India, especially those at international airports (though one store recently opened at the Delhi airport’s T2 terminal, a sign of cautiously optimistic recovery). “As a company, we have suffered because we were heavily invested in offline retail,” says Ranjan. Focused online sales, especially through social media, have filled some of the gap, but ”the tactile experience of browsing in a brick-and-mortar store, trying products, picking up tips from the staff —it all matters,” he adds.

Indeed, providing a thoughtfully curated in-store experience was one of the unique selling points for the company when Ranjan founded William Penn in the early 2000s. Back in 2001, he was working with IBM as an engineer, but raring to start a venture of his own. His father worked in the stationery trade, a field Ranjan loved and understood well. He wasn’t keen to join the family business, however. Instead, he launched William Penn in 2002, whimsically naming it after the English writer, religious thinker and founder of Pennsylvania, US.

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“We were greatly inspired by the good work William Penn did in the 17th-18th century,” Ranjan says. “We liked the name and it sounded like a ‘pen’, which was, and is, an integral part of our offering.” A shade under 24 at the time, he was ready to take calculated risks. “We opened the first William Penn store not far from where we are sitting today, on 1st Cross Road in Koramangala,” says Ranjan, now 43. “It was an entirely new concept to the city, probably to the country, but it paid off.”

Until then, buying stationery was a transactional, over-the-counter affair, not an activity people spent much thought on. Instagram and YouTube, havens for stationery addicts, weren’t there to blow your mind. “You went to a store, asked for what you needed, and the storekeeper handed it to you,” Ranjan says. “But at William Penn, the customer had a chance to interact with world-class products—touch, feel and try them out—for the first time.”

While Ranjan didn’t undertake formal market research before launching his business, he had a fair idea about the supply chain and deep knowledge of products, courtesy his father’s trade. “In any case, there was hardly any data available in those days,” he says. “The import duties were upwards of 50% for premium products and few organised players were willing to pay such heavy taxes. William Penn saw a big uplift because it was the first entity to organise an unorganised market.”

Its business model was based on acting as the authorised dealer for premium brands like Mont Blanc, Cross, Sheaffer, Waterman and Sailor in the Indian market. Today, it offers something for every price point, ranging from 35,000- 40,000 for a Mont Blanc to a few thousand rupees for colourful Lamy fountain pens.

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In 2004, the time was right to launch a business with high street brands, be it clothes or fancy writing instruments. Shopping malls were sprouting in India’s urban centres and William Penn took advantage of the growing footfall in those spaces. By 2007, it had stores in Bengaluru, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Delhi. But the turning point came in 2010, when it set up shop at the Delhi airport. “It gave us huge visibility,” says Ranjan. “Pretty much anyone who flew into the country either landed in Delhi or used the city as a transit point. We were suddenly on the world map, as it were.”

But there was pushback from some customers too. “People wondered why they should buy from us when they could pick up the same product 25-30% cheaper during overseas travel,” says Ranjan. “Our pitch was that they could get now what they wanted in India, without having to wait for their next overseas trip, and that too from an authorised dealer, who promised them a warranty.”

However, more than individual buyers, it was the culture of gifting, especially in India’s corporate sector, that gave a tremendous boost to sales. “When we did a market survey in 2015-16, we found that gifting drove at least 50% of our business,” says Ranjan.

The findings were serious enough for William Penn to rebrand itself and expand its top line. In 2016, the company dropped its original tag line, “The world pen store”, and decided to look beyond the premium stationery and writing instruments market—towards lifestyle products like wallets, belts, organisers, desk lights and other accessories—and bring brands like Lapis Bard, Zippo, Hugo Boss and Secrid into its list.

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The other key reason behind this strategic shift was the steady erosion of the customer base since 2013-14, as pen and paper made way for phones and digital planners. Those were also the years of the e-commerce boom in India, when online retail began to catch on, forcing William Penn to reinvent its business and expand its range. “In the last year, we have seen a resurgence of interest in writing instruments,” Ranjan says. “Our fountain pen sales, for instance, have grown by 30-40% from 2019.” The spike, he adds, is partly due to a wider awareness of the options available in the fine writing segment. “Social media promotions heavily influence our business by generating customer interest,” says Ranjan, “though we haven’t been able to quantitatively track its impact yet.” Aside from customers in their late 30s with a taste for the finer things in life and disposable income (the “sweet spot” for the company, he says), younger buyers are coming to William Penn in search of ethical modes of writing, opting for finely crafted and long-lasting fountain pens rather than disposable plastic ballpoint pens that would eventually end up in the world’s landfills. It’s a trend William Penn capitalised on last June, when it ran a campaign to promote its line of fountain pens.

For all that premium stationery products may be the rage on social media, India remains a highly price-sensitive market, a gamble for major players in this space. “The steadily rising demand for foreign products has put more pressure on our business but we have to be prudent about our ability to manage the supply chains,” says Ranjan. “I may want to bring a well-made pen from Taiwan or a Hobonichi planner and Midori journal from Japan into India, but there has to be enough demand for these products to justify my acquisitions.”

One of the brands William Penn has burnt its fingers with, for instance, is Leuchtturm1917, a German-made line of notebooks. “Connoisseurs say their products are even more exquisite than Moleskine but we simply failed to get traction for them,” says Ranjan. At the end of the day, brand recognition is half the battle in business; the regular customer is more quickly swayed by legacy names than niche ones.

But this truism hasn’t dissuaded William Penn from taking steps to create its own line of products. “In the last four years, we have incubated Pennline, a brand that has done very well for us in the journals and notebooks categories,” Ranjan says. In a sign of the times, Pennline has branched into the productivity market populated with bullet journals, habit trackers, even a “superbook”, which marries pen-and-paper with the facility to charge a phone and connect a USB flashdrive, creating a perfect synergy between digital and analogue.

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And while William Penn retails premium fountain pens made by Ranga Pens, an iconic brand from Tamil Nadu, it is choosy about getting into collaborations with other home-grown entities. “Even the promising ones don’t have a scalable manufacturing model and seem content working out of garages,” as Ranjan puts it. “Another concern is over the consistency and quality of their products.”

In June, Pennline plans to launch a line of merchandise under special licence for 83, the movie that celebrates India’s historic win in the 1983 Cricket World Cup. It seems like a fitting partnership with the cry for Atmanirbhar Bharat growing apace—a home-grown brand collaborating with a home-grown production to celebrate an historic home run.

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