Brand Analysis: Noodlers Ink (Part 1)

Anyone who has been involved with the online FP community has heard of Noodlers Ink and will have some idea of just how different they are to most businesses. Even the most basic assumption about a firm – that they are profit-maximising – has to be suspended here. Some users swear by their products while others, including some prominent nibmeisters and reviewers, have concerns about product quality and warn against their use. More so than any other brand, Noodlers inspires passionate debate and today – in the first post of two on Noodlers – we’ll have a look at the business and their place in the market.

Noodlers is known primarily for its enormous range of inks, offering more than 100 different colours, more than any other ink manufacturer in the market (even Diamine). Some of these inks have special qualities that are particularly useful to some users: archival, fadeproof, waterproof, forge-resistant, etc. If there’s a specific quality you need, Noodlers have it. They are also known for their low-cost, piston-filling fountain pens. Retailing from $20, the pens come with flexible steel nibs and are designed for modification, making them hugely popular amongst advanced users who want to tinker, experiment, and even learn how to grind their own nibs.

The popularity of these products is partly due to their uniquity in the market: I don’t know of any other brand that offers ink which glows in the dark or that won’t freeze in frigid winter temperatures, let alone available for less than US$15: well below the price of many standard inks from other brands. Similarly, the Neponset fountain pen is the only modern, flexible music nib that I know of, and is quite reasonably priced at $75. This low-price approach has won Noodlers a lot of loyal fans.

Such innovativeness benefits us all, even those of us who don’t use Noodlers products. On the one hand, it’s showing other brands that there is a market for new and imaginative products; on the other hand, it forces brands to justify high prices to users. It’s not a problem to charge $20 or $25 for a bottle of ink, but it has to offer something more when Noodlers is potentially available for half of that price.

The creativity (and, indeed, the disruptive attitude) and is entirely due to the founder, Nathan Tardif, who seems to be at least as controversial as the brand – perhaps unsurprisingly, given that they are apparently inseparable entities. Tardif’s creativity and determination to push the boundaries of what is possible in the market is why I included the firm as one of the two most disruptive forces in the market earlier this year.

Part of the controversy stems from Tardif’s strongly-held political views and his tendency to use Noodlers as a platform to communicate and advocate those views. You can get a sense of the views from some of the product names: the Bernanke ink, named after Ben Bernanke for the program of qualitative easing and featuring fast-drying ink, or Brown 41, an ink named for a US senator in Tardif's home state whose election gave a majority to the Republican party. Another interesting example are the Baystate inks, in which the bottle design features a catfish spitting on the statehouse (state congress/parliament). While many of the products are named for historical events or broad principles, the small minority of inks that are antagonistic – those fiercely promote libertarianism or agitate against government rule, whether US or Chinese – are the ones that get people’s attention and become the centre of debates.

While some users obviously respect Tardif’s willingness to put his beliefs on the line, other users – even those who share his politics – are understandably put off by their overt nature. And some users, like one commenter on reddit, simply aren’t willing to support a business that has a particular set of beliefs. It brings up the question of whether it’s a good idea to mix business and politics; Tardif obviously feels that the success of his business is secondary to the promotion of his beliefs. It’s an interesting position to hold, and one of the reasons why Noodlers is so unconventional.

It’s not the only controversial part of the business. Quality has become a major concern in recent years, particularly as some nibmeisters and a major reviewer have warned against the use of Noodlers ink in vintage pens. The problem seems to be that some inks, in some circumstances, seems to be melting the ink sacs inside the pens. Other nibmeisters have pushed back against the claim but it is obviously something that affects some people’s willingness to use Noodlers products.

Quality control of the pens is another common concern. Despite the all-American patriot branding of Noodlers, pen production seems to be outsourced to India and it’s perhaps not surprising that QC seems to be lacking. In my experience, all Indian (and Chinese) FP production seems to suffer from these problems. Although a couple of retailers told me that they felt the concerns expressed online don’t match the frequency of problems they see, another told me they no longer carry Noodlers because of the number of headaches. Another still carries the line, but said they had considered whether it was worthwhile. While it’s unclear how bad the QC problems are, retailers and users are obviously aware that problems exist and are perhaps more wary of Noodlers pens than other brands.

Perhaps the most consistent problem is production, both of pens and ink. Certain products can be unavailable for weeks or months at a time (particularly internationally) with little communication about when they will become available or in what quantity. Stories abound of retailers finally receiving a shipment of a particular product after waiting for months, only to learn that it’s not even enough to cover their backorders. Concerningly, Noodlers (or its distributor, Luxury Brands USA) appears to play a game of favourites with retailers, a dangerous thing for any brand.

These production issues have an easy explanation: I'm told that all of the ink is made by Tardif himself, all 100+ colours. I’m not sure what is his production capacity but I’m stunned that he can produce as much ink as he does, let alone sustain it for years while also making time to develop new colours, new ink features, and products like the Neponset. No doubt, it’s a huge job and consequently, the delays aren’t surprising.

What is surprising is that he doesn’t take on additional staff. I’ve heard and read various explanations for this – the cost and burden of taking on staff in his jurisdiction is too high, it’s a political stance, it’s to protect trade secrets, that Tardif is paranoid, etc. – but whatever the reason, it’s costing Noodlers a huge amount in forgone revenue. And that is causing harm to his business, it’s reputation, retailers, and users who cannot access products they want to buy.

To me, it also shows that Noodlers’ greatest asset – Tardif himself – is also its biggest liability. His creativity and innovation is what makes the company so popular but the blurred lines between the man and the business is what is holding it back from becoming a great company.

Tardif has the same issue that comes up in many small businesses: the owner is an expert – perhaps an artist in this case – in a technical field, but simply lacks the knowledge, ability, or willingness to run the business as a business. That is, as a profit-maximising endeavour and not a personal hobby. Everything I’ve heard and read tells me that Tardif is in this group of small businesspeople who are at their best in their vocation: experimenting and pursuing the innovation that established Noodlers rather than handling the routine tasks that sustain the business.

My big worry in a situation like this isn’t that the business is missing out on sales and profits (though it is), nor that the community is missing out on potential innovations from a more focussed Tardif (though it is) but burnout: the risk that Tardif reaches a point where he is psychologically exhausted, and is unwilling to carry on. Taking on too much work, too much stress, for too long – particularly when the money is not that great – makes a business unsustainable. At some point, it just becomes too much – and then what?

The best-case scenario is that the business and the ink recipes are sold to someone else or another company, and production is resumed after a short break. Personally, I’m not sure if I could see Tardif doing this: surrendering control doesn’t seem his style. The worst-case scenario is that he retires and so does Noodlers; for many in the community, that is an unthinkable outcome. But the longer Noodlers goes on as a one-man operation, working long hours and carrying a heavy load of stress, the more likely burnout becomes.

In this analysis, I’ve tried to give my assessment of Noodlers strengths, its weaknesses, and a possible (though not necessarily likely) scenario for its future. In the second part of this post (to be published in a week’s time), we’ll look at one potential strategy for how to build the business up and set it on a sustainable footing. 

 

My thanks to the retailers who generously provided their thoughts for this post.