Goulet Pens: A True Penabler
In this space I often write about Swash Labs and the work we’re doing with clients. I don’t always have the opportunity to write about a business to which I have no direct connection, and even if I do, it isn’t always clear that blogging about a place I like to go or shop is necessarily helpful or valuable to us, or to you.
Today is different. I want to tell you all about The Goulet Pen Company, an online pen shop based in Virginia. I’ve only been a customer of theirs for a few months, but even in that short time I’ve seen their company grow a great deal. I don’t know them at all, and the only relationship I have with the Goulet Pen Company is that it is where I spend money on the care and feeding of my midlife crisis.
I turned 40 in April, and in the months leading up to it, I found a new hobby: fountain pens. I’d picked up a couple of Pilot Metropolitans over the last few years, mostly to see if I still had the same latent interest in fountain pens that I discovered when I was in high school. I would write poetry—almost all of it bad—and short stories and music and I liked doing it by hand even though I had a computer.
Fountain pens felt dramatic, and required a process, which fit my emo sensibilities extraordinarily well. So I would occasionally buy a Sheaffer fountain pen (something like this, which I definitely bought late last year when my interest was picking up again) for ten bucks at Wal-Mart or Eckerds, back when the former sold such things and the latter existed.
During the last two years of high school, as I entertained this sidecar to my writing hobby, I didn’t know how to take care of fountain pens, or how to clean them. As a result, I would routinely break them or get ink everywhere or let them dry out and then assume they were ruined and start all over again. Then I went to college and more or less forgot about it, although I would occasionally still get a little snobby about what kind of ballpoint pen I liked to use, or what kind of mechanical pencil I preferred.
Then, some time around Christmas last year, the New Yorker published this list of the 100 Best Pens. Not only was I pumped to read the entire thing, I was amazed to see that some of the best fountain pens were also surprisingly affordable:
The Pilot Varsity, a disposable fountain pen!
The Lamy Safari, which looks cool, writes great, and is twenty-ish bucks?!
The Pelikan Stola III, which I can only very favorably describe as a pen that writes like a comfy couch feels and costs $30?!?
The one I finally landed on was the Kaweco Sport – a $25 German-made pen that writes like a dream and performs a particularly fine magic trick of design: when the cap is on, it is tiny; when the cap is posted on the back end, in writing mode, it is full-size.
I ordered the Kaweco from Amazon in January and then I was hooked. My midlife crisis would not be cars or boats or jewelry or hairplugs, and for that I am thankful, because apparently a traditional midlife crisis can be prohibitively expensive. Rather, I’d get into something much more reasonable, seasoned with just the right amount of middle-aged emo writerly affectation: mid-market fountain pens.
They’re functional, affordable, beautiful, and they come with process baked in, what with the cleaning and the inks and the good notebooks and the storage. It’s like I woke up one day and was suddenly very into a narrow channel of arts and crafts, and I was happy to use it to write letters and postcards and short stories.
It often happens that whenever you pick up a new hobby and start watching YouTube videos and joining Facebook Groups, a few high-profile names in the space jump out. Sometimes they’re authoritative experts, well-respected within the community, and sometimes they’re simply the most fun and have the best content. Brian and Rachel Goulet seem to be both, and they’ve built one hell of a brand in the best way possible: by building one hell of a brand experience.
My first order from Goulet was actually a gift for Andi back in April, and I made it when I was already pretty deep into the hobby. I’d asked for and received several pens for my 40th birthday, and in figuring out what to ask for I’d watched a ton of Goulet’s YouTube videos and experienced some great engagement from several people on their staff through their Facebook Page, which has excellent, consistent content and carries an audience about 50,000 fans.
Working through their content will show you that Brian, Rachel, and their staff not only know what they’re talking about, but that they also walk the walk: these people love everything about fountain pens, and it shows. I think there’s an advantage to really loving the thing you sell, and Goulet is a perfect example. When I talk about telling the story of what you do, and telling that story with enthusiasm, this is what I mean.
As I understand it, the store started as an offshoot of Brian making his own pens, and the online dimension had roots as a blog about inks, and then a small offering of pens from other manufacturers grew up out of that. Only the Goulets know exactly how everything has evolved, but if I had to guess, I would say that a big reason for their success is their borderline maniacal devotion to customer service. They are communicative and helpful through every step of the ordering process, the stuff you order shows up packaged with extreme safety, and each order comes with a personal touch – a thank you card, a sticker, and a mini Tootsie Roll Pop.
Those last bits are relatively small, but they make a huge difference. As the business has grown, they‘ve been modified for scale in a few ways, and their video explaining the most recent shift is one of the reasons I wanted to write about them: they took it so seriously, talked to their community (which is composed of a sizeable audience of real die-hard fans, and includes the Goulet Nation Facebook group with almost 14,000 members), and had obviously agonized over the balance between providing a good experience and making life manageable for their team and their fulfillment process. For everyone at Goulet, starting with and running all the way up to the top, it is extremely important that their customers feel appreciated.
I have made several orders from Goulet since that first one, and since fountain pens are such a personal, analog thing, it sometimes happens that a pen you buy at a distance isn’t actually a good fit for you once you get it in your hand. The Goulet return policy doesn’t have to be as generous as it is, but even returning something I didn’t like is a great experience at every touchpoint, with an easy process and very responsive staff members.
There are plenty of things you don’t have to do in business, and especially for a small business, many of those little touches and special customer experience elements cost money, time, and resources. As a small business owner, I understand that those extras add up, and the intentional commitment to a great customer experience is obvious and demonstrable at Goulet. They’ve turned me into a customer for as long as I like pens, which I bet will be awhile.
If you want to learn more about fountain pens, Goulet’s Fountain Pen 101 series is a terrific place to start. And if you want to buy a fountain pen, you should buy it from the Goulets. I don’t know them, but I can see how they approach marketing and brand experience, and they do those things so well, I can’t help but recommend them.