Art Supply Insiders Podcast

ASI 33 "Paper with Soul" Interview with Aivaras Sidla, CEO for SM LT

June 21, 2022 Jeff Morrow & Dave Lee
Art Supply Insiders Podcast
ASI 33 "Paper with Soul" Interview with Aivaras Sidla, CEO for SM LT
Show Notes Transcript

Listen to a company that really make a difference. SM LT makes "paper with soul"! They produce paper like no one else does. SM LT developed a really unique structure & an informal environment. They have about eighty employees and involve every one of them in business planning at all levels. Their social responsibility is second to none. Sustainable since the beginning of 2022: they start using electricity from 100% renewable energy sources for production processes! And, more than half of their employees are disabled people. All of their  products are developed in consultation with their consumers and various artists.
Click here to learn more about this incredible company.
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And welcome back to art supply insiders. My name is Jeff Morrow, and today we're talking to Aivaras how do you pronounce your last name? Sidla of S M LT. So welcome. Thank you for joining us. Tell us a little bit about who S M L T is. And what is it you guys manufacture?


Thank you Jeff.

For inviting me here. It's a pleasure who we are. We are a manufacturing company. We are from Lithuania. This is a small country in Europe and what we do we do art paper products for for drawing enthusiast and profess. It's drawing products. I mean sketchbooks drawing albums and related items.



So you also do watercolor paper, don't you?


We do have quite extensive assortment for watercolor. And one more thing that if we're talking about the. We don't make paper ourselves. We make products from it, it means that we buy from paper. And we make a product.


So one of the things that I saw you back at the NAMTA show in Orlando and on your internet is you talk about something you call product with soul. What does product with soul mean?


It's a deeper rabbit hole. We are in let me put it this way. It would be twofold. Thing, one thing is that we are quite new company relatively new.

Yes. So we have more than 20 years of work from establishing, but in the art papers we started about 10 years ago. And before that we had only school items and office items, and we came to the point that we wanted to do something more interesting with more added value. And we started to look into art papers.

And when we looked in the market, we saw that market has everything. It has very good producers with very good products. And we understand that if we want to go in there and to be there for a long time we need different approach. And this approach lets us to, when we create each product, first thing we have to do, we have to answer for our.

Why it will be successful, why people would like to use it? Yes. And we try to invent causes. Yes. If you look at our present range from, even from external view, you will see that it differs. It means first thing it, it's very natural looking. We don't we try don't to not to use very glandy papers on the covers.

It's minimalistic, if you touch it, it's very natural. There are a lot of recycled papers in our range. Yes. And this is a range. It's not just one product. And second. We are in the ranges. So it's one course. Yes. And when we are trying to answer ourselves, why's different. It's not only the look it's a paper inside for example when we created our professional, what you call album, we had to pick from more than 20.

types of watercolor paper and to decide which one will go into the product. So we asked locally Lithuanian well known artists to help to pick the best one. Yes. And it, it's a interesting thing. If you look at our product pro professional product, On the cover, you will see artworks and these artworks are made by the people who chose the paper, basically.

Yes. How cool, how very cool. So if you see Paper professional paper for the pencils. You'll see the artwork made with the pencil by the guy who chose the paper for the pencil. Yes. So in this case our force our specialist specialists, artists effort come into product and it gives.

A little bit of human touch. Yes. Together with the look. The second big part, I would say it's company itself. First quite simple thing. We are small company and we, we like to be a small, small means not only the size of the company. There's 80 people in the company working. But it's ability to be such team who, where all people knows each other yes.

And knows what they think. And we think we are very different, but we think in the same way, yes. We want to make something, not just go to work and make our work. We want to give to people to communi is something back? Yes. Okay. Small, independent, fast. If I continue I have to tell our approach to social responsibility in the company.

Yes. The first thing from 80 people, almost 50 working with disabilities. That's great. It's not just business what we do internally. Are not only making products, but we are working with the people it's like we call inside. It's a bit of returning the depth to society back.

Yes, we are lucky that we are able to work and provide the products. And then we feel that we have to give something back. So we're trying a bit to make a wealth, a better place. Step by step small steps from, from us. But we do that. Yes. So social responsibility and then , it's very different approach to what we do in our business.

It means that We're not profit orientated. If we look at our strategy, it's about two thirds of topics. It's not about how to earn the money, but it's how to be responsible and how to be a part of community. Yes, it's a very long story, but to keep it short, It's another big part where where we create the soul that is behind our products.

Yes. And it comes into product. And as far as I feel, I like to be in the trade shows, I like to talk to workshops. I like to talk to end users and and artists who draw. So. I'm pretty sure that people feel



Boy, I can, I can understand that. I've gotta tell you this whole approach is so different than I've heard from most companies. How did all of, how did this vision get started? Did it get started with, started with you or was there someone else that had this vision for such incredible social responsibilities?


It started with Pain and tears as usual yes. As a company. We're a good example of saying what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger.

This company had in past several histories or several steps of a revolution. I came into company. I'm not a founder. I came into company in 2009 and it was a bit different company. We. At the moment, it was a ecomonical crisis in Eastern Europe. And it was tough times in Lithuania, more. We had some problems with finance in all country and in the company.

And we at the moment, something in 2009, 2010 our former owners bankrupted and we had so much troubles. That we didn't know where to start solving them, but we started, yes. We started by thinking about export. We started by thinking about different products and our products is one of those.

So I'm coming to the part, how this approach holistic bit holistic approach started in the company. It started with the tough times. We had to work for very long. I mean, the team inside the company and we understand that it won't be one year or two years or three years when we get on flat land and we feel ourselves better and it was quite tough.

And in internally, our team were discussing why we are coming to work and what we are doing here. Yes. Because there is no fast results. I don't know, even such small things. Like I dunno, salaries of of all team were not very big. Yes. And it was colossal amount of work. And when, while questioning what we are doing here, why we are doing here, why we are coming to work, we started to find out step by step that we had a little bit social responsibility actions going on.

Like. Less amount of people, but still we had some person with disabilities and we thought, okay the very big motivator is that we helped somebody by working. Yes. And step by step we understood that one of the core things, why we want to go forward is that we can do a bit bigger things than just go to work and earn earn money for a living.

Yes. And, and it evolved in time that we understood that. This is one of the core principles of our work. So that's the story.


Now, when we chatted in Orlando, one of the things I thought you said, and you can correct me is you involve your employees in most of the business , is that correct?


Yeah, totally. Our listeners. Don't see yet that, but behind my back is company management chart. Yes. You can find it in our website. We provide a lot of information about ourselves. So listeners may enter in and look at it. The thing is it's totally flat. And the second thing is that there is no general manager in the company basically.

And we. Didn't we... were unable to find it in management books. So we had to invent it basically what it means that we are all equal. Yeah, of course our, our experience. Our knowledge, our know, how is very different. So we have to find a space in the company and still we are divided that somebody works in sales.

Somebody works in finance. Somebody works in manufacturing call logistic logistics. You cannot make a product without that, but but when we decide, for example, The long term plants. We make a questionnaires. We give it to all our people, all 80 our people. And we ask people to think, to use their imagination and their knowledge and to think where do they want us to.

Afterwards, we take this big, big piece of information and we narrow it to our long term plans, basically me in this place as a manager of the company, I don't decide where we go. I only help people to show our way, yes, we come back a bit to the product with the soul. It goes full



Doesn't it? Yeah. So the other thing that you said was that was important in the company is humor. Ah, yeah. How does, how, how does humor play an important part in your company?



I think one of the anchors. The thing is that sometimes it's difficult. Yes. Because if we have meetings, it's all

hee, hee, haha all the time and looks like that. We waste a lot of time, but it creates atmosphere and the humor thinks humor thing is it helps us to cover the edges. Yes. There's a point that the team is very interesting. I'm talking about people all the time. Yes. Less about the product.

Yeah, no, that I, I understand we are who we are. The team is very different. It's not that everybody usually if there is a small company, the owner hires, people who are very similar to him and we are different. Part of our people is about 55 or even 60. Part of our people is 20, 25.

Even the age. Yes. And approaches are different. And, and I don't know how to say the characters are different. So humor inside the company helps us to find one language and maybe sometimes to find the bridges between differences of people. So this is the place.


Wow. So a again, if, if people out there want to find out more about your products and more about your culture, they go to SM

Is that correct?


Yes. Yes.


And that's where they can see all of the different products that you offer.


Yes, of course. They will find a catalog. There, and I, I feel that I should get back a little bit about the product range because people, people think is always on top, but without the products we were unable to do what we do in, in the products, all of them are made from paper and cardboard.

Yes. Most of them, 99% meant for drawing and sketching. And there are product lines, the most important product line for us. And the first product line from art is what we call authentic range. This is if you look at our product range, this is the most colorful products that we have.

We have 16 different papers inside that covers most basic needs of drawing according to different drawing and sketching techniques. Watercolor of course. The first thing paper for pencils, several, several grades; gouache, acrylic paper for experimentation, like color papers like brown watercolor paper like black paper mixed media papers.

You have it all. Yes. So this is what we feel is the middle range, middle range in terms of quality and pricing. And the users are from beginners for, for this product to, to professionals professionals in this case, use it for fast works. Yes. For sketches and initial things then going upwords

we have a professional range professional. What, what we mean that if some artists is is going to make some commission work, then we propose to use our professional range because it's archive archival quality papers, which is acid free. And long life. Yes. And of course they are picked, the papers are picked by professionals by by the artist themselves, like I told in the start of our conversation, then we have a step up range, what we call the start pad.

The start range. I I'll start with the story about start. If you look at this range, you will see that one, the range name, which is on the cover, the T letter is a bit different from all Start is because we had in the team internal Internal struggle. We came up when we were creating this range, we came up with two ideas for the name.

One was Start because if you want to start with the art, you have to start. Yes. But the second idea was that everybody who is coming, maybe not everybody, but most artists who are coming to art, they want to be a star. Yes. So we have in final conclusion, we come to two names in



Star with a T at the end of it.

That's good. One. Very



Yeah. And this range is meant to people who usually artists start with the school range papers, and they, then they want to make a second step. So this second step. We try to create something that gives opportunity for people to test art papers in still economical price range.

This is the idea about the range, so free main ranges that forms most of most of our production. And of course we have if you an authentic, we have 16 different papers. Then we have a lot of sizes and then we have a lot of forms, like spiral ones, like glued pads, like sewed books with panoramic size.

And then we have square ones. Yes. And additional products. If we talk about the range we have a artist greeting cards. We call them Haku cards. A bit Eastern name Eastern Haku is a small poem, which is concentrated only on one idea. So this is, was, was our idea. If you create a postcard size drawing, most probably you will not draw all world in it.

You will come up with one idea. Yes. So this is the connection with the name.


So let me jump in real quick and let me ask you, so where I'm in the United States, you're in Lithuania. Where, where do people go to purchase your



Not easy answer as in US we are just warming up our feets. It means that we met, met in NAMTA show and it was only second show in US for us.

We started actually, we started two years ago, but it was we started and the COVID started. Yes, that start. And most, most probably you felt the same as we felt that many art shops were closed during the time for a long time. So we are not in many shops yet. We have a distributor in US it's company called Hilltop paper and in the fear we had very, very good feedback from the art shops and we had a lot of visitors, so it's most probably.

In quite a short time, we'll be able to, to cover and to be in more places in US. Basically for for now, my suggestion would be we're very responsive in social media, like Instagram and Facebook. We will answer very fast if somebody needs a product and they need a product somewhere in some city they could drop us a line and we would we would respond to.

Where, yes. Where is the closest place that they could buy or where is the best place online, where they could buy.


So perfect. So as, as we're, we're kind of winding down now. So as I understand it, you've got three major lines, Authentic, Professional and StarT.




so to speak. And if they wanna find out more about you and your company and your culture, they would go to SM and that's where they'll find all their information.



Right. Totally. Right.


Is there anything I've forgotten to ask



I don't know, but I can talk for, I don't know, for ages for weeks, so so don't tempt me.


no, I'm not gonna tempt you. So, so Aivaras thank you so much. This has been a real breath of fresh air to hear a company that talks not only about their products, but about their

social responsibility and how they take care of their employees. And I, I, I hope a lot of other manufacturers are out there are listening to this and will tap into the very same thing. Thank you very much for what you're bringing to, to the art industry. We really appreciate it.


Thank you, Jeff. It, it was a great opportunity for me to be here



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