Two stories this morning in the Americas Version of the Daily Brief from Quartz revealed that Moleskine, the Milan-based company that manufactures the iconic pocket notebooks, is going public. The company hopes to emerge with a market value of €560 million (in excess of $700 million).
The two stories were:
• Zachary M. Seward on ‘Everything you need to know about Moleskine ahead of its IPO’; and
• Anna Codrea-Rado on ‘The complete guide to taking notes effectively at work’.
The traditional Moleskine sales pitch mentions a long line of artistic and literary users of this “legendary” notebook genre, among them Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, and Bruce Chatwin, the British travel writer who apparently bestowed the name. As an aside, I wonder what van Gogh would think if he re-appeared today and learned that his favorite notebooks are now made by a company that seeks to value itself as the equivalent of a mere seven of his paintings (at inflation-adjusted auction prices). “Seven?!!” he might ask incredulously. Given the market for his work while he was alive, presumably equating this IPO valuation to a $100,000-per-painting price for 7,000 of them would be difficult for him to grasp, but $100,000,000 each for seven would surely leave him stupefied.
Two things caught my attention in the stories. Firstly, in the Seward article there is a figure taken from the IPO itself (p. 18) that shows a conceptual map of Moleskine’s competitive space and its position therein (“MAPPA CONCETTUALE DELL’ARENA COMPETITIVA E DEL POSIZIONAMENTO MOLESKINE”). The version in the Quartz story has anglicized labels on the axes for any reader unable to decipher the Roman cognates. (Clockwise from the top in the figure below they should be Identità, Cultura, Funzione, and Commercio. Seems Quartz has a low opinion of its readers.)
The IPO self-describes Moleskine’s “arena” as the upper right quadrant, between the “Identity” and “Culture” axes. This sounds about right, since above all else it is marketing a brand, and very successfully at that. To anyone who is serious about writing by hand on high-quality paper, however, it is not surprising that Moleskine does not see itself competing with either “Luxury” or “Stationery.” Within this group, the most demanding writers are arguably fountain pen users, of whom I am one. We are a small-yet-dwindling demographic, people who resonate to “Luxury” and “Lifestyle” in pen-and-paper brands, where sticker shock is an inescapable part of life (at least until our spouses or partners see the credit card bills).
Sadly, if you ask one hundred fountain pen users — good luck finding that many! — ninety-eight of them will probably dismiss most Moleskine paper as dumpster-bait. You can make the same inference by searching the forums at the Fountain Pen Network. In this sense, Moleskine is not a luxury brand.
Or you could try another metric: search for the weight of the paper that Moleskine uses in their standard notebooks. They don’t reveal it with good reason: it is a poor (low) number. Probably on the order of 70 gsm (grams per square meter), based on some measurements by Brian Goulet for an Ink Nouveau podcast. The best writing papers start at about 85 gsm and go up to 100 or more, and the real stationery companies (e.g., Clairefontaine, Fabriano) are proud to put the weight on their papers. Not Moleskine, but that’s OK if it is not competing in that space, which the IPO seems to disavow. Fair enough.
In the interest of balance and full disclosure, I should add that the paper in the Moleskine Sketchbooks and Storyboard Notebooks is another matter entirely. It is very much heavier, 165 gsm if the European Paper listing for the Storyboard Notebook is correct. I happily use both with fountain pens, but that still doesn’t make Moleskine a luxury or stationery company to me.
Secondly, to give Ms. Codrea-Rado her due, she mentions as part of the transition from the IPO story to hers on note-taking that Moleskine notebooks have “nicely bound paper.” It’s a subtle point, and I suspect that a lot of readers will simply see “nice paper.” But her actual statement is absolutely true — Moleskine bindings are great! And if you are using a ballpoint or pencil, no problem; you can take notes all day long. But with a fountain pen or gel rollerball? Then the jargon of problems with the paper immediately kicks in: feathering, ghosting, bleed-through, and more. Even if you don’t know what those mean, they don’t sound so good, do they? But again, no problem if you don’t count Moleskine as a stationery company.
The other thing to notice is that there are Italian companies that might be screaming for blood if Moleskine had claimed a position in either of those left-hand quadrants. This could include fountain pen companies such as Aurora, Omas, and Visconti. And again there is Fabriano, which was making paper a century before Gutenberg was born. For fountain pen users, these brands are synonymous with Luxury and Stationery, domains to which Moleskine may aspire but which it certainly isn’t occupying right now.
In the mean time, they are selling huge quantities of those notebooks that fountain pen users reject and are making correspondingly large deposits in, well, some bank, somewhere. Perhaps Swiss, if not Italian. Certainly not Cypriot.
Now, if you will excuse me, I have solved my self-imposed “Penvestor’s Dilemma.” I must check my brokerage account and see about access to the Borsa Italiana for that IPO.