Duffy Bookbinders: Guiding Principles For Any Small Business

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2021 08 01 duffy bookbinders

[5-minute read]

In the Truevo blogosphere, we’ve covered topics from podcasts to business plans, and we thought it would be a good time to get some real-world small business perspective. Joining us today for an interview is Tom Duffy, the proud owner of Duffy Bookbinders, a fourth-generation family business in Dublin, Ireland. 

With over 100 years of expertise running through their veins, the Duffys are pillars of the bookbinding community in Ireland. The first bookbinder in the family, Paddy Duffy, started his apprenticeship in 1914 but was interrupted by nothing other than him taking part in the 1916 Easter Rebellion against British rule. After spending a few months in a prison camp in Wales, he returned home and picked up his apprenticeship where he left off. No big deal. 

As a family and as a business, the Duffys have endured World Wars, the advent of the Kindle, and now, Covid-19. We spoke with them to get some perspective of what it takes to be steadfast in business. 

Over to Tom. 

Do you know how Paddy Duffy came up with the idea and capital to start his bookbinding business?

Although Paddy was the first bookbinder, it was actually his son Tommy (my father) and my mother Kathleen who started the business in 1970. They had met while both working in Hely Thom’s, which was a large printers and bookbinders in Dublin. At the time, Paddy – my grandfather – was manager over the bindery. 

Regarding finance, my parents started the business by building a small premises at the back of the house, and with hand-bookbinding not needing a lot of machinery, they were able to purchase some second-hand machines with their savings. The most important thing in starting out is to keep your overheads as low as possible so if you have quiet weeks you are not bleeding money.

What are some of the pleasures of working in a family trade that’s over 100 years old?

You never lose the sense of the history involved in what you do every day. The most important thing is to work to the standards that you were taught by previous generations. People will always pay for quality.

What’s the most interesting project you’ve worked on in the shop?

In 2011 when Queen Elizabeth II visited Ireland – the first British monarch to do so since Irish independence – we were asked to reproduce the binding on a book which was presented to Queen Elizabeth I on her visit to Ireland in the 1500s. It was to be a present from the Irish president Mary McAleese to Queen Elizabeth and we went to Farmleigh House where the original is kept. It was a great experience to hold a book that was presented to Queen Elizabeth I all those centuries ago. The project was a great success and we were very happy with the outcome.

What was your experience of working through Covid lockdowns?

Very strange but lucky that we always had the likes of hospital registers coming in for binding, so in the early weeks we were still in and out of work but until full tourism returns we will not get back to the turnover we had pre-Covid.

What pieces of advice would you share with other small business owners, especially those who are just starting out?

As I said before, keep overheads to a minimum. In 2014 we started producing our own handbound notebooks as other parts of the business were declining, especially the likes of theses, as these were being accepted electronically by colleges. We had no idea of the retail market and the best piece of advice was from a buyer in a very upmarket store in Dublin. Her advice was to protect your product, as the “lowest” type of shop you sell in is the level of your product. What she was saying is that high-end shops are not interested in stocking an item that is available in chain supermarkets or the likes. 

In a nutshell

Phew, it’s always humbling and refreshing to hear from someone with so much perspective and experience. Thank you, Tom, for your time and consideration. To sum up, here are four nuggets of gold from Tom’s words that will stand any small business owner in good stead as they forge their way to creating a legacy. 

Nugget #1

“The most important thing in starting out is to keep your overheads as low as possible so if you have quiet weeks you are not bleeding money.”

When money starts rolling in, it might be tempting to pour it all into new locations, fancy equipment, and team vacations. If there’s anything we’ve learnt from the last year, it’s that the future is unpredictable. Build up a solid nest egg of savings to tide you over when things are not so peachy. 

Nugget #2

“People will always pay for quality.”

Need we say more? 

Nugget #3

“ […] we started producing our own handbound notebooks as other parts of the business were declining.”

Innovation is a key to survival, and sometimes hardship can offer opportunities for growth and renewal that you wouldn’t have found any other way. These notebooks are now a widely recognised and beloved offering from Duffy Bookbinders, and the sole reason this writer knows of the brand at all. 

Nugget #4

“ […] protect your product.”

Your product, your service, and your character is all your small business has, at the end of the day. If you let inferior quality and poor service start to influence your offering, no amount of flashy advertising and cool branding will save you. If the core of what you do is full of integrity, originality, and quality, you will have something worth protecting. 

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