sHeroes: A conversation with Jennifer Matthews and Julia Au, twin sisters and co-founders of Tempaper, the first removable wallpaper company
Lead with confidence- When we first launched Tempaper, no one wanted to hear about wallpaper. It was during the 2008 recession and wallpaper was not cool. It was viewed as expensive, labor-intensive, and dated. Our belief in the potential of removable wallpaper and our enthusiasm, led to many opportunities. In fact, the manager of our first major account (Janovic in NYC) actually said something like this during our first meeting 10 years ago: “Ladies, I don’t know what you are selling and if it even works, but I have to buy it. Your conviction and enthusiasm are enough for me.” We still sell to the Janovic Paint and Decorating Centers today.
As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Matthews and Julia Au, twin sisters and co-founders of Tempaper, the first removable wallpaper company. Since Tempaper launched in 2008, Creative Director Jennifer and CEO Julia have established their brand by releasing original collections in their signature style. More recently, they have also designed collections in collaboration with industry influencers such as Bobby Berk, Genevieve Gorder, The Novogratz, goop, and Zoe Bios Creative, among others. The sisters have managed multi-million dollar budgets and forecasts for domestic and international clients, in addition to the company’s extensive business operations. Together, they have scaled Tempaper’s revenue to an impressive annual growth rate of 34% and expanded its reach immensely. With approximately 75 million square feet shipped and millions of white walls covered to date, Tempaper provides the ultimate solution for a rapidly evolving market of design enthusiasts whose tastes are changing with increasing frequency.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
JA and JM: While working on a New York City production set, we recognized a need for a product that didn’t exist. After witnessing the time and energy it took to install and remove traditional wallpaper, a revelation was made. We knew various industries and individuals could benefit from a self-adhesive, removable wallpaper. From there, Tempaper was born.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
JA: We began working with a Japanese retailer five years ago. He is still our distributor and sells Tempaper to two of the largest home stores in Japan. Kuramoto, “K” as we call him, is our dear friend. This partnership has led to many interesting and truly memorable moments. One particular moment happened during a week-long business trip that involved two translators, and a full itinerary of meetings from NYC to Florida, to New Jersey, and back to NYC. As we were boarding a flight to our printing facility, one of the buyers handed me a piece of paper and said it was a gift. I was honored as we had truly been showered with gifts since first meeting the group in New York. The businessman handed me a purchase order for 5 containers of Tempaper. It was the nicest gift that I have ever received on a jet bridge.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
JA: I remember this story like it was yesterday. I was leaving the office on a Friday afternoon when our shipping clerk stopped me in the parking lot to tell me that I had a phone call. I typically avoid cold calls, but I decided to answer it. The connection was awful and there was a very loud echo, so I thought the call must have been a scam. The ladies on the line said they were calling on behalf of one of the largest chain stores in America and wanted Tempaper to produce for them. I laughed out loud, thinking there was no way it was a valid opportunity. I drilled them with questions and demands and dismissed the pitch as a random solicitation. I ended the call by requesting an overview of the opportunity at hand, clearly thinking it was a dead-end opportunity. It’s a good thing they persisted because I received the presentation and a follow-up from the director only to realize that it was the opportunity of a lifetime. After working with the same ladies for six years now, we still laugh at our first encounter. Let’s just say, I have since learned to never read a conversation by its echo!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
JA: We defied convention and brought to market an innovative product that changed the perception of wallpaper. Manufactured with state-of-the-art materials, Tempaper’s self-adhesive nature makes it the ultimate design solution that does not require messy pastes or the help of a professional installer, unlike traditional wallpaper. We have preserved the integrity of wallpaper while making it the perfect, low-commitment solution for renters and homeowners alike. Our designs are made 100% in the USA and are free of lead, phthalates, and VOCs.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
JM: Yes! We are in the process of completely redesigning our website and transforming the way customers shop our product. We have connected with our consumers through in-depth surveys to understand what inspires them, and the challenges they encounter when shopping for removable wallpaper. It’s essential to understand the customer experience when selling a do-it-yourself product, and to anticipate the design dilemmas that may surface. Incorporating our findings, will allow us to better serve our customers, which is our top priority.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
JA: Let your team lead. Micro-managing an employee hinders their growth and can consume and distract you from focusing on the bigger picture.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
JA: Schedule department meetings that foster open communication. Listen to your staff and communicate clearly about your expectations. We have found that our team performs better and is more efficient when clear expectations and goals have been established.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
JA and JM: Our aunt was a set decorator in New York City, and she introduced us to the film industry at a very young age. She also had the initial idea for Tempaper. We definitely wouldn’t be where we are today without the inspiration she provided.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
JM: Julia and I have created a corporate culture in which our employees feel valued both in and out of the office. We believe in a work/life balance and allow our employees the flexibility they need to be good parents and partners, in addition to good employees. We believe that having a healthy balance produces better work and creates a supportive environment where we can all thrive, excel, and — most importantly — be happy. Julia and I genuinely enjoy helping others. We adopt multiple families each Christmas, provide school supplies to underprivileged children at the start of the school year (we’ve always loved that time of year!), and donate as many winter coats as we can during our annual coat drive.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
JA and JM: Lead with confidence- When we first launched Tempaper, no one wanted to hear about wallpaper. It was during the 2008 recession and wallpaper was not cool. It was viewed as expensive, labor-intensive, and dated. Our belief in the potential of removable wallpaper and our enthusiasm, led to many opportunities. In fact, the manager of our first major account (Janovic in NYC) actually said something like this during our first meeting 10 years ago: “Ladies, I don’t know what you are selling and if it even works, but I have to buy it. Your conviction and enthusiasm are enough for me.” We still sell to the Janovic Paint and Decorating Centers today.
Be clear and concise- Lead with clear direction. No employee wants to make a million changes to a project because their boss didn’t know what they wanted in the first place.
Go with your gut- It’s usually right! We have no formal training in our fields and have built our entire business on our artistic abilities, courage, and instinct.
Don’t let success cloud your judgment- Julia once said no to signing a contract with a large chain store because it would have given them the rights to our intellectual property. At the time, it would have made a huge difference with cash flow, but ultimately, we would have lost a valuable asset.
Don’t be complacent- Do what you need to in order to make your organization stronger, even if it means making internal changes that seem more challenging.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
JM: Put the phone down! I have small children and wish we could get away from the mass amount of technology that we use every day, especially when it comes to social media. The added pressure it puts on our children and society is making us all crazy!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?:
JA: “Ideas are hallucinations until execution.” I have had this quote on a Post-it note next to my desk since the inception of Tempaper. Starting a business is extremely hard, but it was harder for us to imagine Tempaper never coming to fruition, and that is what motivated us.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
JA: I would love to have breakfast with Martha Stewart — what an incredible woman she is! A business mogul who has been able to overcome tough obstacles to ultimately find success again. And she has Snoop’s approval… sign me up!
JM: Anna Wintour, without a doubt! She is such an icon, and her eye for trends is unmatched. I would love to sit down with her and hear about her approach firsthand — that is, if I could find anything to wear!
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