I recently stumbled onto a thread on a marketplace website where the merchants were complaining that customers said the pricing on the marketplace was too high. Some of these merchants were imploring the site owners to re-brand the marketplace as a place to buy handmade and small business products, reasoning that customers should be willing to pay higher prices for handmade/small business because they shouldn’t support evil, corporate, big box stores and their dirt cheap prices.
On the face of this, it sounds good. But the reality is that all things being equal, people are motivated by price. While this marketplace site has a lot of handmade and small business products, the marketplace is dominated by products designed around the pop cultural properties du jour such as Breaking Bad, Dr. Who, Adventure Time, etc. And right now, that stuff is absolutely all over the place. You can get that stuff at Walmart, Target, Amazon, etc., not just handmade versions and not just small business versions.
Here’s a fun thought exercise: imagine I have a Dr. Who fan on my Christmas list and they could use some art on their walls. If I can buy a Dr. Who poster on Amazon for $6.75, why would I go to another marketplace website and pay $15 or $20? Sure, maybe the $20 Dr. Who poster has a different design and was silk-screened by hand in a hot, uncomfortable basement studio, but at the end of the day if I’m shopping for a Dr. Who poster and I can get such a poster for less than $7.00, why would I pay two or three times as much for a fairly similar product?
Being a small business or a purveyor of handmade goods is not compelling enough of a reason to get people to buy from you. You need to either compete on price or offer something those other stores and merchants can’t offer. I personally prefer to offer something no one else has. I prefer this for a few reasons:
1. It’s better for my brand If I were selling Adventure Time tees, I’d know customers were buying my products because they like Adventure Time, not because they like my brand. When that customer walks down the street, they blend in with everyone else. Their shirt would look pretty much like everything passersby have seen a zillion times.
Instead, I know customers are buying items from me that only I’ve designed. Those designs don’t look like everything else in the vast consumer market, and will prompt passersby to ask those customers “where’d you get that?!” Every time I sell another tee or hoodie or messenger bag featuring my art, it’s one more person that’s going to be out in the world showing off my totally original material to everyone who passes them, thereby growing MY brand, not someone else’s.
2. I can set my prices where I need them My company is the only source of products featuring my art. That means I get to set the price and I don’t have to sell my products on razor thin margins. My customers aren’t going to find a vastly cheaper Fuzz Aldrin shirt from another company because Fuzz Aldrin is my creation. That means I get to say what a product featuring Fuzz Aldrin is worth.
By contrast, if I were selling Breaking Bad themed products I’d have to do a fair amount of research on my competition and see how others have priced Breaking Bad merch so people will consider my products. Instead, I’m selling products featuring my own creations and it allows me to justify selling $25 shirts instead of $10 shirts. It also helps normalize the idea that independent artists are the place to go for unique, new, original material and that unique, new, original stuff is worth more money.
When even one company touts itself as being the product of an indie artist or purveyors of handmade goods but then sells products featuring famous corporate characters like Batman, Mickey Mouse, etc., it’s bad for ALL handmade/indie artists. It conflates cheap, mass-produced, unoriginal products with the concept of handmade, independent art. It trains consumers to expect everything should be cheap and unoriginal because they see that from companies billing themselves as handmade and/or indie artists. It blurs the distinction between Walmart and Etsy.
So much of my own job at Ex-Boyfriend has become consumer education. I’ll be exhibiting at a festival and someone will ask me “what’s this from?” I have to explain that it’s from my imagination. It’s sad that people are so used to homogeneity in the marketplace that they assume everything is from something else. Usually people are delighted once they learn that they’re seeing something that’s awesome all by itself without being attached to a TV show or movie.
3. I get to help shape the culture I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be the Beatles than Beatlemania. I’m not interested in being a cover band; I want to inject my own humor and aesthetics into the cultural zeitgeist. I can do that because I’m creating original material. If I just designed products around material other creators produced I wouldn’t be adding anything new to the culture. I’d just be trying to capitalize on the success of another creator.
Think about the successful artistic brands you know of — Sanrio, Paul Frank, Johnny Cupcakes, Blue Que, etc. They didn’t achieve their success by glomming onto the meme of the moment; they created their own universe, their own brand, their own artistic vision. They didn’t follow the trends, they set them. This is really what all creatives should be striving to do because it results in a world that’s filled with more interesting, original, new material.
4. Getting sued sucks
Riding the coattails of other creators is a recipe for legal trouble. Intellectual property owners are well within their rights to sue anyone who sells products featuring their trademarked or copyrighted material without permission. When they do decide to get litigious, IP owners can sue for thousands or even millions of dollars. And if you sold infringing products to a store, that retailer could get sued.
To me, it’s not worth the risk to my own business or my retail partners. I’d rather know I’m free and clear to make money off of my art in any way I like because it’s mine. I can retail, I can wholesale, and I can license, and I never have to worry about someone telling me I don’t have the right to do that.
If you’ve been selling products featuring other creators’ characters, know that you don’t need to do that. People absolutely will pay a premium for good original products. I know it’s true because I sell thousands of my own products featuring original material every month. Think about what you’re trying to accomplish. Do you want to make a quick buck and keep your fingers crossed that you don’t get sued, or do you want to build a brand with staying power and put something new into the world?
In my last post I mentioned that one of my goals for 2014 is to grow the manufacturing branch of my business. For years now I’ve owned and operated a graphic apparel and accessories business with my partner Matt, and we know all too well how hard it is to start and operate this kind of business.
The biggest challenge with selling your illustrations on t-shirts is cost. Let’s say you have a design that’s selling like crazy on posters and you’d love to print it on a t-shirt. You’ve got two options:
1. You can screen print your design onto shirts If you do that you have to:
• pay up front for the inventory
• guess what size breakdown to order
• stock the inventory yourself
Just to start with 1 t-shirt you’ll probably spend around $400 getting that first design printed. So if you wanted to go all-out with a full line and print 10 designs you’d need $4,000.00! You’re also going to have to sell hundreds of those t-shirts before you recoup that initial outlay and break even. And if you decided to print a design that ends up not selling well you might never break even on that particular design.
2. You can have your shirts printed to order on a POD basis With sites like Cafe Press you’ll only make a dollar or two per order and when those shirts ship to your customer the packing slip won’t have your branding on it. So customers will remember the shirt came from Cafe Press, not you. Even during the checkout process, your customer will be asked to join the Cafe Press mailing list, not your mailing list, so you won’t be able to re-market to them later if they liked your art.
Neither of these options is ideal. You can either take on a lot of risk, spend a lot of money up front, and allocate a lot of storage space to warehouse your inventory, or you can make peanuts from the sale of your art and have little control over your branding. The good news is, I’ve just created a new alternative to both of those options: Meet DropShipDTG, my new one-stop service for t-shirt printing and fulfillment.
Why I’m Offering This Service Although my t-shirt line has been around for a few years and at this point we have lots of best sellers that we regularly screen print, even we aren’t immune to the problems with screen printing. Sometimes I run out of larges long before I run out of every other size, and I don’t necessarily want to spend another chunk of cash just to re-stock one size right away. Sometimes I release a new design and it turns out to be a dud. If I screen printed that new design without any sales history I might end up with a bunch of slow moving inventory I can’t get my money back from.
I solved this problem by purchasing a DTG printer. A DTG printer is a special printer designed to print on cotton. So it can print on t-shirts, tote bags, sweatshirts, etc. The big difference between DTG and screen printing is that screen printing relies on screens. You create screens specific to one design and once they are set up you can create hundreds or thousands of copies of that design, but if you need to print another design you have to set up new screens. DTG doesn’t use screens — it’s entirely digital — so you can print 1 copy of 100 different designs with just about the same amount of effort that it takes to print 100 copies of 1 design.
I use my DTG printer to fill in inventory gaps if I run out of a size or test new designs to make sure they’re going to sell well before I invest in 100′s or 1000′s of screen printed pieces. The thing is, I only use my DTG printer for a couple of hours each day. The rest of the time it sits idle.
I decided to start printing for other artists to keep my printer occupied and generating income even when I’m not using it. It also means I can do something I believe in and enjoy, which is helping other creatives grow their businesses.
How The Service Works
If you’re interested in using DropShipDTG, you can create an account with us. Once your account is active you’ll be able to start taking orders. You can take orders for shirts the same way you take orders now. You can accept orders via your website, Etsy, Big Cartel, etc. When you have shirt orders you can log into your account and provide us with the order details. We accept your order data via our web form or via a spreadsheet.
We’ll print the shirts your customers ordered and mail them off using YOUR packing slip and YOUR return address. This means your customers will never know you didn’t ship the order yourself. We can even include your promotional materials if you’d like (stickers, postcards, flyers, coupons, buttons, etc.). We’ll bill you weekly for your orders once we’ve shipped them.
How much can I make from selling t-shirts? That’s up to you. DropShipDTG offers pricing tiers based on volume and you decide what you want to sell the shirts for. If you just sell one shirt per day your cost would be $15.00 per shirt. If you sold the shirts for $25.00 you’d make $10 on every sale — a much better return than what you’d get from the leading print-on-demand services. You’d also get to control your customer’s experience. They will place their orders with you just like they do now and when their order arrives it will have your branding so your customer will remember you, the designer.
You can learn more about DropShipDTG by visiting the website. We’ve addressed the most common questions on our FAQ and pricing pages. If you have additional questions not covered by the DropShipDTG website feel free to give us a call or send an email and we’ll be glad to help you out.
I haven’t blogged much in 2013 because my year was pretty consumed with my move to Los Angeles. So much has happened since our move but here are some highlights:
1. We Love LA!
When we decided to move to LA it was a business decision. We couldn’t find a screen printer we were happy with in Baltimore and we were doing too much printing to be without a printer we could depend on. Southern California has more screen printers than any other part of the country so we moved here to have more options.
We burned through a couple of printers in the LA area before we found a good printer, but we did find one we liked. We also found that we are close to a ton of other suppliers. This means we can get all the supplies we need within a quick drive. If we don’t feel like picking up supplies we can order them online and they arrive the next day. The money we’ve saved on getting supplies has been a huge boon. Not to mention the convenience of being able to get supplies so quickly!
LA has also been a great place to get noticed by more wholesale contacts and Hollywood costumers. Just being at live events in the LA-area has gotten our products seen by store owners and costumers, and landed us more wholesale business and more appearances on TV.
LA’s relaxed friendly vibe, sunny mild weather and affordable cost of living turned out to be a nice surprise too. We’ve been thrilled that we can find so much inexpensive, good quality produce at local markets. We’re close to tons of beautiful natural scenery which has been great for day hikes on weekends.
2. We moved more jobs in-house
When we started our company we had an awesome vendor who’d been printing and shipping our products for us. When they went under we tried to replace them but couldn’t find any good options. We ended up bringing fulfillment back in-house which was a bit of a bummer but turned out to be a good kick in the butt for us. We have better control over shipping, lower costs and it encouraged us to invest in some much-needed equipment.
3. More distribution = more business
We didn’t really have time to focus on advertising this year, so it fell by the wayside. I was sure our sales would tank but they kept on growing. I attribute the growth to getting more product out into the world. In the last 12 months we did more live events like festivals and conventions, did more wholesale, did more flash sales. In short, we got more of our product in front of consumers and into their wardrobes.
Since we design clothing and accessories, our customers wear our products out in the world and act as advertising for us. We hear all the time from customers that everyone asks them where they got their shirts, bags, wallets, etc. and they always send people our way. Just being seen all over the place has generated so much word-of-mouth business for us.
We’ve also seen benefits from all the free swag we’ve given out over the last 12 months. We’ve handed out hundreds of thousands of comic strips and stickers at festivals and conventions in the last year. We hear from people more and more that they’ve seen our stickers and comics and sought us out as a result.
What’s on for 2014
We have a few things planned for 2014 but here are some of the big goals:
1. Make more time for content and product development.
2. Hire more help, especially for live events.
3. Grow the manufacturing services side of our business (more about that later this week).
I haven’t updated in a while since I’ve been pretty swamped with my own business. We grew our sales by 60% for the first 6 months of 2013 (vs the same period in 2012) and relocated for our business. More about that later, but today I was prompted to post about something that happens to me all the time and sort of drives me crazy. At least once a week I run into someone who wants to start a business and wants to ask me all about it. I am happy to chat with them but they ALWAYS ask me the wrong questions. Here’s what they usually ask:
- What should I sell? (I can’t answer that for you.)
- How much of X should I make to start? (I don’t know — what are your distribution plans?)
- How do I get a website? (There are many ways to go about this; what is your budget?)
- How do I get started? (Too open-ended of a question.)
I basically get a lot of broad questions I couldn’t possibly answer or a lot of questions specific to the product. Here’s what you need to know and what you should be asking:
1. The product isn’t as important as you think it is
People starting product-based businesses usually fixate on the product and it’s the wrong thing to fixate on. A product is not a business. Repeat this mantra; it’s the #1 rule everyone doesn’t understand. Your product could be awesome or it could be crap and it almost doesn’t matter. Your success is going to be dictated by your ability to sell, market and find distribution channels, not necessarily the product itself. Sure, produce a product that you think is good and that you think will sell. But don’t expect you will succeed purely because the product is good.
2. How much capital can you invest?
Yes, you will hear of stories where someone started a business with $5 and people write entire books about this; that sort of thing is popular to talk about because it’s what wannabe business owners want to hear. However, just because something is possible doesn’t make it probable. Those people who “made it” because their product showed up in a hit movie or instantly got picked up by Hot Topic, etc. are the exception, not the norm. Don’t count on results like that.
If you want to build a real business selling hundreds of thousands of dollars or millions of dollars in product every year then you should count on your start up requiring a large investment of capital and a few years to really become profitable. My own business was technically “profitable” when it wasn’t a real business. When I first started and was selling less than $20,000.00 a year in product I was actually netting a few thousand dollars after all the expenses. It wasn’t a real business though. I wasn’t going to be able to pay my bills or quit my day job. Since growing my business to a quit-your-day-job size proposition I have had to loan my company tens of thousands of dollars over the years. It was necessary to put in that kind of money to grow our business to the size it is today.
That’s the reality of growing a business — they require investment to grow. And if you want to really grow it, it may require a pretty substantial investment of both cash and time. Are you prepared to put both of those into your venture to make it grow? Whatever you think it’s going to cost, however long you think it’s going to take, you’re probably way off. It’s going to cost so much more and take so much longer than you expect. Is this something you’re prepared for?
3.What will your distribution channels be?
Know how I said the product almost doesn’t matter? This is what matters right here. If you have a product-based business you need distribution channels. How are you going to get your product into consumers’ hands? You should obsess about this; it’s the #1 thing that matters.
Are you going to sell online? If so, how will you bring people to your website? Are you going to be awesome at online advertising and search engine optimization? Are you going to sell at retail events like conventions and festivals? If so, which ones? How will you vet them and find the right ones? How many will you sell at? Are you going to sell through 3rd party marketplaces like Etsy, Ebay, Amazon, etc.? How will you generate sales on those sites? Are you going to wholesale to stores? How will you acquire stores? Will you do trade shows? Will you cold call? How will you track your sales leads?
How much product do you need to sell to pay your bills and at what price point? How are you going to meet those sales goals consistently? Will your distribution channels be able to meet your needs in terms of price point and sales volume?
3. Are you willing to take on tasks you don’t really enjoy and learn new skills that don’t interest you?
This is a big part of the J.O.B. right here. When people ask me and my partner about our jobs, they assume it’s a fun glamorous gig and that we design all day. Design is probably less than 10% of what we do. We spend 90% of our time doing other things for our business. In any given day we might be managing vendors, placing sales calls or following up on other business opportunities, addressing customer service issues, dealing with logistical and administrative tasks like bookkeeping, paying sales tax, etc.
The list of things you will need to learn is endless and there’s usually no one to teach you. Remember how I said you’re going to need more capital than you think? Some of it is going to go here. You’re going to make mistakes. Some of them might be big and expensive. You’re going to maybe hire the wrong contractor or employee. You’re maybe going to have a manufacturer screw up a release of your product and send you a shipment full of defective goods. You’re going to do an expensive trade show that turns out to be a bust. You’re going to invest in some piece of machinery or equipment that breaks or maybe doesn’t deliver the value you expected. Stuff like this is part of the learning curve with starting and growing a business and there’s no way around it.
You do have to be an expert in nearly everything your business does and becoming an expert on all of it is going to take time and cost money. It’s going to involve embracing tasks you don’t find interesting and don’t enjoy. You can eventually hire people to do some of it for you, but unless you’re an expert how will you know who to hire and whether the employee or contractor is doing the job right?
Still wanna go into business? If you’re already in business you’re probably saying “amen” to everything I just wrote. If you’re not in business yet hopefully you’re taking it all to heart. I still don’t expect to have time to update here regularly, but I will try to add a few posts from time to time about what we’ve been up to at my company and stuff I’ve picked up as I’ve been growing my business.
I recently said that I don’t relate to a lot of people who read my blog anymore because of how my own business has matured. In response, one of my readers encapsulated a sentiment that perfectly jives with what’s been bugging me about writing for those who haven’t yet made the jump from hobbyist to professionals:
“I have been rethinking this very issue of late and though I don’t have a business background, I believe the problem is what’s called a business model. We “mom/solo” enterprises were sold a bill of goods that if we worked 60 hours a week, wrote a blog, had a Facebook page and tweeted, etc. if we did what we loved and were passionate about, THEN the money would follow. It doesn’t. It’s not a business model that works. It’s a pipe dream that comes true for very, very few. It’s just the way capitalism and the free market works”
In short, YES! Who’s selling this fantasy and why?
1. Failed entrepreneurs
There’s an entire cottage industry out there of self-appointed business coaches who never succeeded at their own business but want to give you advice on your business. They tell you exactly what you want to hear; that if you just work hard enough and blog and Facebook, you too can get rich. This is usually said in flowery language and accompanies pitches to buy ebooks and ecourses and attend seminars on touchy-feely subjects like story telling or showing the real you to customers. The language is always carefully crafted so that it appeals to creatives who have no interest in dull stuff like sales and accounting and SEO. It doesn’t delve into the nitty-gritty of cash flow and supply chains and vendor relations — that stuff is dry and complex and doesn’t usually appeal to creative types, even though it’s the stuff you most need to know in order to succeed.
2. Marketplace websites that target wantrepreneurs
I see some culpability on the part of sites like Etsy as well. Whether intentional or not, they are in the business of selling the fantasy that anyone can start a “business” with just a little creativity. You don’t need a big fancy website or technical know-how or anything — just pay a few cents per listing and you’ll be in “business”. Anyone with an internet connection and a dream can do it!
People fall for these promises because they’re appealing. Who doesn’t want to make a living hanging out in their PJs all day and crafting? The myth is fed by smiling photos of Brooklynites in hip studios in Park Slope who’ve quit their day jobs and struck it rich. “You can do it too!”, is the promise. These stories never delve into what’s really going on there. How many hours does the person work? How much capital did they invest? How much revenue is their business netting after expenses? What specifically do they do all day? Who have they had to hire to help them grow?
When I talk to people who are really in business they all have their horror stories of subsisting on mayonnaise sandwiches, trying to decide if they make payroll or pay the mortgage on their house, investing their whole retirement savings. One of my entrepreneur friends lost his house this year to foreclosure in order to save his business. Perception-wise, I am sure all his customers see is a success, a guy who’s been all over TV and in magazines and is really making it. The sacrifices to get there are never really talked about. It’s the story you aren’t being told most of the time. It’s not a fun, glamorous job; it’s a difficult and exhausting job, and if there was more truth out there about what the job really is there would be fewer people applying for it.
So what’s the reality?
The reality is that creating and running a successful business is hard, expensive and time consuming. I’m telling you this as a business owner shifting thousands of units of product every month to retail and wholesale customers. My business partner and I regularly work 12 hour days on our business and I personally invested tens of thousands of dollars of my own money before we became profitable. (This is actually fairly modest start up capital, by the way.)
We don’t spend our days crafting. We spend our days managing people, making sales calls, managing the company’s finances, coordinating with vendors, and generally solving problems that make us want to tear our hair out. We spend less than 5% off our time doing creative work.
When people find out what I do for a living they often say “that sounds like so much fun, how can I do that?” My first question is usually “well do you consider yourself a creative person? I mean, do you like creating, drawing, crafting, etc.?” If the answer is yes I usually say “then you do not want to do what I do for a living.” The truth is, in addition to the need for time and money, you need a willingness to spend your time doing things you don’t especially like doing. No one likes dealing with the vendor who is ripping them off. No one likes calling that buyer every week and trying to sound upbeat and not annoying while you try to get a purchase order out of her. No one likes staying up til 3am proofing an order that was delivered from a supplier late and needs to go out tomorrow.
But, Meredith, I don’t have $50,000 laying around and I can’t work 80 hours a week! I have kids and a day job! Making sales calls gives me panic attacks!
I totally get it, but given those facts you’re probably not going to be able to develop a mature and highly profitable business. You might be able to pull in some extra spending money, but you’re probably not going to quit that day job or build a seven figure enterprise.
So if you’ve found yourself stuck and frustrated and don’t understand why you’re not making a zillion bucks on your craft, take stock of what’s really going on. Are you sufficiently capitalized? Are you putting in the requisite hours? Are you taking on the unappealing but necessary tasks? If the answer is no and you aren’t going to change any of that, accept that what you’re doing is for fun or to make some spending money. It’s perfectly okay to do that and it’s a lot less frustrating than spinning your wheels and feeling like you’re “failing” at something you aren’t even really doing to begin with.
One of my readers commented about “that horrible catch-22 where my husband can’t cut his ‘real job’ hours until the business is making more, but the business can’t make more until he cuts his ‘real job’ hours”. This is a pretty common situation and it’s where I was when I decided to focus on my own business full time. Here are three things I think you must do to make the transition work.
1. Have cash reserves
There’s no way around this, you are going to have to assume some risk. If you don’t want to do that or can’t do that you are not going to be able to quit that day job. Don’t expect investors or strangers on Kickstarter to give you that money when you are taking no risk yourself and not putting up your own money. Things might get bumpy here and there once you go to work for yourself full time and you need to be sure you can pay your bills if that happens. Consider options like a home equity line of credit (interest rates are lower than a credit card and the interest is tax deductible in the US), retirement savings, or personal savings. I suggest having access to about 6 months worth of income at a minimum. It’s possible to get outside investors or a business loan but with no collateral or capital of your own on the line that can be pretty difficult.
Make a list of your monthly expenses. How much do you absolutely HAVE to make to survive? What could you cut back on if you had to? Be sure to account for costs like health insurance (if applicable) and taxes. Once you have this information figure out how you’ll fund 6 months of those expenses with zero income if you had to. If you can’t get access to that much cash now focus on a plan to save it up.
2. Have a specific plan to replace your old income
I can’t stress the word specific enough. How exactly are you going to earn the money and how are you going to somewhat accurately make those projections? Don’t say “sell stuff”. What exactly are the sales goals you need to make? When I decide to work 100% on Ex-Boyfriend we made a list of every upcoming pop up retail event we were definitely doing and what we expected sales to be (having done many of those events in previous years). We made a list of every wholesale lead and account we had and what we expected those to generate for us income-wise based on order history and current talks with those customers. We looked at our online sales from previous years and where the sales came from (ads, SEO, media placements, etc.) and made projections about where we expected online sales to be this year based on past performance. We had lots of specifics on costs and sales history that allowed us to forecast expected income.
We set goals that were reach, expected and bare minimum so we knew what we wanted to do, expected to do and absolutely had to do sales-wise to replace income that was being given up from another source. Every step along the way we were comparing our projections with the reality. Sometimes we made the reach goal, sometimes we made the bare minimum. Rarely (though it happened) we didn’t make the bare minimum of expected money from an income source. On average though we made our reach and expected numbers, which is what needed to happen.
If you find yourself struggling with the specifics of how exactly you’ll earn the requisite income, you aren’t ready to quit your day job.
3. Have a cut off number/date
Have a back up plan for what you will do if you aren’t meeting the expectations set up in step 2. How low can you allow the cash reserves to get before you have to get a new job? At what date must you be profitable by to continue with your plan?
If you aren’t making your sales goals you will have to find work again, you want to make sure you don’t allow your cash reserves to dwindle so far down that you’re desperate and destitute. It’s important to always compare your goals and projections with reality to make sure you’re staying on track.
Most business websites will talk at you endlessly about online marketing. How to do advertising, how to do SEO, how to optimize for mobile, etc. Let me preface what I’m about to say with this: These are all worthwhile things. You absolutely can see tremendous benefits from all of these tools and it’s good to know about these things and understand how to use them and why you might want to invest in them.
Now all of that said, in the last 6 months I’ve paid a lot less attention to online marketing. I haven’t spent a ton of time on our SEO, I haven’t been running a ton of ads, I haven’t been desperate for more Twitter followers. Despite this digital neglect our company has grown tremendously this year (even though we focused on those things more in previous years).
What the heck? How are you growing if you’re not blowing up the internets with your marketing?!
When 2012 started my partner and I talked about what we wanted for our business and none of the things we said had anything to do with the internet. We said “I want to be on TV/movies, I want to do events and I want to be in the fucking mall”. (We say “fuck” a lot around here.)
Just about all businesses have limits to their resources. The bigger you are the higher the limits are, but we pretty much all have them. We didn’t feel like we had the resources to do everything under the sun to grow the business so we settled on picking 3 things that we were going to hammer away at this year and really focus on them. That meant backing off some of the resources we’d sunk into online marketing in previous years.
Why did you pick those 3 things?
We really have one primary driver in our business, we want to be famous. We want everyone to know and love our brand. We want to be everywhere and have an army of loyal fans. So we had to pick priorities that served that goal. We didn’t just want sales, we wanted converts.
Wholesale was definitely our top priority this year. We picked it because we know when people see our products they fall in love. Our reasoning was the more stores carrying our line, the more people will see the products and fall in love and the more products we’ll sell. We felt like there was no substitute for being able to see our products up close and touch them and try them on.
Events were priority two, but the thinking was the same. If we just show up at festivals and comic cons and other pop up retail events and set up shop people are going to buy the heck out of our products.
Both pop up retail events and being in stores offers immediacy with the product that selling online doesn’t offer.
The media placements were our third priority, and we chose that as a priority because we wanted to create a sense of legitimacy around our brand that would appeal to wholesale buyers and consumers. We wanted to make people understand that we’re a real brand. We’re in the media, we’re on your favorite TV show, we’re in stores! We are not fly by night hobbyists working out of our mom’s basement.
What happened to your online sales and overall revenue?
While overall revenue increased quite a bit this year, online sales didn’t grow a ton. We definitely made more money via pop up events and wholesale. We still made money with online sales but it wasn’t our primary source of income like it had been in previous years.
Should I ditch online marketing too?
I wouldn’t say you should scrap online marketing altogether, we certainly didn’t. I will say you should pick three things for 2013 that are priorities for you and think carefully about what those things should be. Maybe online really is a goldmine for you and you should boost your efforts with online marketing. Certainly don’t choose to stop focusing on digital marketing simply because you don’t like it. What you focus on should be dictated by what drives revenue and growth for your business.
Pick your top goals for 2013 and let that dictate how you’ll spend your resources.
If you visit Smaller Box regularly you may have noticed the posts haven’t been as frequent and I haven’t sent out newsletters lately. Why is this?
1. I’ve been super busy with my own business
For the longest time I had been balancing my work on my clothing and accessory label with tech work. I did it because I was making tons of money doing tech work but it was also keeping me from making as much money as I knew I could be making with Ex-Boyfriend. I finally gave up tech work entirely and have been 100% focused on Ex-Boyfriend, working 60-80 hours per week along-side by business partner and husband Matt Snow.
We’ve had laser-like focus on the wholesale side of our business and started partnerships with some pretty major retailers. Our eat-sleep-breathe obsession is getting our products in just about every US mall in the in the next 12 months. This hasn’t left me much time to do anything else, which brings me to my next point…
2. I’m not sure how to write for Smaller Box these days
Most of my readers are in a different place with their entrepreneurial endeavors. A lot of my readers are running one woman shows and have no desire to be huge or build a multi-million dollar brand. I’m not disparaging that choice, but it’s not where we are with our business.
In the time since I started blogging here the questions and business situations I hear about haven’t changed and I can’t give the same answers I gave a few years ago knowing what I know now. I used to encourage everyone to make their situation work and I can’t keep doing that.
Creating a successful business requires a much steeper time and financial investment than most people are prepared to make, and that’s the real reason many businesses don’t grow or fail entirely. I can’t cheerlead the cause of starting a business with only a few hundred bucks in your spare time because it’s not something I believe in. I think it’s a road to heartache and frustration and I can’t encourage it. Yes, you do hear success stories about people who made those start up conditions work, but it’s not the norm, it’s not something you should count on.
I am hoping to still get posts in when I have the time, but at this point I really only feel like I can cover topics that are relevant to where I am with my business currently and it may be topics that aren’t relateable to hobbyists. Hopefully it will still be material that will interest some of you and maybe bring in new readers who are in the same stage with their careers that I’m in now.
I wanted to bring up a topic I hear a lot about on some design forums, but that gets little discussion from makers, and that’s spec work. Spec work means doing work on the speculation that you’ll get paid. I’m against you doing it and I’m against you asking other people to do it.
First of all, spec work comes in all sorts of forms. Sometimes it’s someone outright asking you for it. You’ll hear a story like “I’m starting a new business and if you do my website for free I’ll give you 1% of the first months sales” or “I want a new logo so I’m having a contest, best logo design wins a free prize”. Design contests are pretty much all spec work. You’re going to do design work and they’re only going to pay you if they decide they like the finished product.
Imagine if the entire economy worked this way. What if I decided I was only going to pay my dentist if I felt my teeth looked sufficiently white after a cleaning? Imagine if I told my divorce attorney “I’m only paying you if you get me 75% of the assets.” Other professionals don’t work under these conditions and designers/artists shouldn’t either.
Here are two of the most compelling reasons to avoid doing and asking for spec work:
1. It devalues design
If you’re one of those people who’s always pissed when someone criticizes your pricing or complains about how artists are underpaid, you should be the last one to do spec work or hire on spec. There’s a very good chance of the artist/designer doing work and getting paid nothing, which is about the worst deal you can get as an artist/designer. Even if you are looking at entering a design contest for a well known brand because you want the bragging rights or exposure, please know that neither of those things pays your bills.
Anyone seeking spec work is showing no respect for the artists’ work or time and thinks that you should work for free. Don’t encourage this mentality by actually doing it. It only perpetuates the belief that design/art is ubiquitous and no one need pay for it.
2. Good designers/artists don’t do spec work
While there are exceptions to this rule, generally speaking good designers and artists won’t do spec work. They usually value their own time enough to not get involved in that kind of work and they have enough paying customers to actually keep their schedule full of work that is paying them.
What this means for you is that if you are trying to get work done on spec (for example holding a logo design contest) you’re not going to get the most talented people submitting work. People willing to take on spec work might be too inexperienced to know better or not really be skilled/talented enough to get enough paying customers to occupy their time. Even if you have a good designer doing spec work, you’re not going to get their best work since you’re not really working with them. The best contracted design (whether it’s a logo or t-shirt design or new website) comes from a client working directly with an artist or designer and going through feedback and rounds of revisions.
If you need design work done check out portfolios on sites like Coroflot or Behance. Look for a portfolio that represents the kind of work you want done on your project and then contact that artist or designer about doing the work for you. If you can’t afford their rate wait until you can or keep looking for someone whose rate you can afford. Accept that this is a cost of doing business and be willing to pay for design work that you need done so you can get a product that serves your business the best.