Office Space

Spicing up the office supply industry.

A company doesn’t have to be sexy to be successful, so long as it serves a purpose and generates profits. Take, which is about as unglamorous as it gets. The company, founded in 2005, is now the largest online specialty retailer for baby products.

Mindful of that success, Andrew and Ryan Landau sought to bring the same energy to office supplies and launched Chalkfly in July 2012. The Detroit-based Internet retailer recorded $75,000 in revenue in the first five months of business, and in 2013 it was on track to generate $2 million in sales.

“Our goal was to use our technology background and disrupt a traditional industry like office supplies,” says Ryan, co-owner. “We’re not experts in that sector; rather, we’re a technology company that sells office supplies. Then people asked if we could do janitorial supplies, so we have those products plus technology-based supplies like toner cartridges — even breakroom supplies.”

To set themselves apart in what is a $35-billion industry, the Landaus hit upon a novel concept: Allow customers to donate 5 percent of the cost of their purchases to a favored teacher, school program, or an educator ($50 maximum). Using what the company refers to as Chalkfly Cash, a teacher who signs up for the incentive can redeem a donation for paintbrushes, markers, posters, or dozens of other products.

Even as it manages explosive growth — the company has close to 20 employees — Chalkfly debuted a new website in December and plans to launch a mobile app this year. Part of a growing portfolio of digital-based companies that make up Detroit Venture Partners (DVP), a venture capital and business incubation operation, Chalkfly tapped another company in the portfolio, Detroit Labs, to design and implement the app.

To facilitate next-day delivery, the pair lined up distribution deals with 32 existing shipping operations around the country. At some point, Chalkfly plans to offer its services outside the continental United States.

Ian Burnstein, owner and COO of Storage Pros in Farmington Hills, says he uses Chalkfly to buy office and cleaning supplies for his company’s headquarters and 54 remote locations. “We were using Staples, but Chalkfly was easier to work with, plus they offer free delivery,” he says. “They offer the best price, plus we love the charitable side. They’re like the Apple of office supplies.” db