December 11, 2013

Are You Letting Stubbornness Get In The Way of Smart Business Decisions?

If you started your business purely because you really enjoy pulling a squeegee across a mesh screen or manually operating your vintage letterpress, this post isn’t for you. If you started your business to make money, then listen up! Every day I talk to artists who are convinced some aspect of their production methods or manufacturing materials is a must-have and that their customers care deeply about this thing they’re so stuck on.

Here’s the reality: Most of your customers probably aren’t married to wearing American Apparel t-shirts. Most of them don’t know what the heck “giclee” means. They cannot tell the difference between a notecard set that you made by hand with a letterpress vs. the set that was mass-produced using modern machinery to produce a similar effect. Your customer doesn’t view your products through the same lens as you. More often than not they are buying a product because they like the design of something, not necessarily due to the specific components or manufacturing techniques used in its production.

When evaluating your product manufacturing methods and components, ask yourself these questions:

 1. What Will Make Me More Money?
My partner and I sell t-shirts and accessories and we do not print on American Apparel; we print on blank shirts that cost about half as much as American Apparel. They’re perfectly nice and soft and well-made with a great fit, but don’t have the hipster cache of American Apparel. We sell thousands of shirts at live events every year and no one has ever decided not to buy a shirt from us because it wasn’t American Apparel. It’s very rare that we run into someone who has an opinion on our blank shirts one way or another. Mostly our customers are looking for a comfortable tee with a good fit that features a good design that speaks to them in one way or another. We also very rarely run into a customer who doesn’t like our shirts because they want a thicker, heavier weight shirt — it can happen, but it’s extremely unusual. We don’t expect to please everyone, so we try to design our products based on what will please most people.

If we chose to print on a more expensive blank shirt because we just assumed our customers insisted on it we’d make less money. We’d either have lower margins (less money for us) or we’d have to raise our prices (making our price point too high for many customers — again, less money for us). I’d print on a more expensive blank shirt if I had some evidence to support that my customers really wanted shirts made of organic cotton or a certain brand of shirts, but it’s simply not the case. I see no reason to adversely affect our income to add a product feature that the overwhelming majority of our customers don’t care or ask about.

2. What Is Scalable?
When you started your business, maybe advertising that all your products were handmade by you sounded like a charming selling point. But what happens when your order volume increases or a department store calls wanting to place a large wholesale order? Is it realistic for you to keep making everything yourself by hand when you have to sell thousands of pieces every month? Even if you could keep up with all that production, is that going to give you enough time to tend to the other parts of your business, like new product development?

A product is not inherently bad because it was made by a vendor or employees, and your customers certainly won’t enjoy the product any more or less based on who physically made the item. If your creative business is your livelihood (or you want it to be), think about how you’re going to keep up with production as demand increases.

3. How Do You Know What Your Customers Really Want?
Are you assuming your customers want you to use specific production methods or components or did you come to this realization based on their feedback? How do you really know your customers would *only* buy posters you designed if they are screen printed vs. printed digitally? How do you know your customers prefer a more expensive piece of jewelry with fine gem stones instead of a more affordable piece with faux stones? Selling at live events is a great way to get customer feedback in real time. What are your customers focusing on about the products? Are they actually interested in the manufacturing process? Are they more concerned with price than the quality of the materials? Are they buying your items specifically because they are handmade by the designer or 100% organic or 14 karat gold? Take note of what your customers seem to like about your items when they’re right in front of you, and think about ways you can lower your manufacturing costs while still producing a quality finished product your fans will enjoy

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November 21, 2013

Don’t Want to Compete on Price?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Meredith @ 3:53 pm

video

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?


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November 18, 2013

You Shouldn’t Invest In Inventory Until You Have Sales

Filed under: Market Research — Meredith @ 10:43 am

Image by OneLenz

“You shouldn’t invest in inventory until you have sales!” said Lori Greiner on a recent episode of Shark Tank. Greiner is a millionaire entrepreneur and panelist on TV series Shark Tank. If you don’t already watch Shark Tank, you absolutely should! The series is about entrepreneurs pitching their businesses to a panel of wealthy entrepreneurs-turned-investors. If the entrepreneur is successful the investors will invest in their business in exchange for an equity share. Every episode is full of interesting commentary about entrepreneurship, but this comment from Laurie is a particularly good one.

The Shark Tank investors were talking to an entrepreneur who’d sunk $200,000.00 into inventory and his business was operating at a loss. He did not end up getting an investment offer. All the investors thought he’d sunk too much cash into inventory.

But Greiner’s comment is a tricky one — how do you make sales with no inventory? Obviously it would be nice to have a proof-of-concept before you invest in inventory, but it begs the question, “can you sell something you don’t actually have to sell?” Yes! And here are a few ways you can do it:

1. Pre-Sales
If you have a product you can only sell after it’s been mass produced, hold a pre-sale to secure funds for production and to demonstrate that people do want to buy your product.

If you’re running a pre-sale, you might want to offer your early adopter customers a discount. They are buying the goods long before they will be delivered and helping you get your first batch of inventory made. You can use your discount offer as a selling point to drive sales and reward customers who helped you get things going.

If you can’t generate enough sales from a pre-sale to fund your manufacturing, that’s a pretty good indicator that demand for your product might be less than you expected. Better to know this before you spend your capital on inventory rather than after.

2. Made to Order Products
Made to Order products are a great way to start selling goods before you produce them in bulk. You can make the products yourself or have them made as orders come in. This is a great way to see what people will buy before you stock up on finished goods. If you aren’t going to be making your own products to order, look into suppliers that provide this service such as DropShipDTG or Art of Where.

3. Small Batch 
While it might be cheaper per piece to make 10,000 of something, hold off on that kind of inventory level until you know you can sell the goods. Consider producing your finished product in smaller batches, even if the unit cost is a lot higher, just to test out sales before you mass-produce.

A friend of mine who designs and manufactures sleepwear actually market tests styles of sleepwear from other companies before she manufactures. She goes to retail stores and buys different styles of pajamas to sell online. She makes notes on what sold — details like colors, sleeve length, fabric type, etc. and designs her own sleepwear based on that sales data. Although she doesn’t actually make money selling a few dozens sets of pajamas she bought at Target, she is able to gather enough sales data to know what she should be producing for her own product line.

 


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November 15, 2013

Selling What Sells: How to Get People to Buy More of Your Art

If you’re an artist trying to sell art you’re leaving a lot of money on the table if you’re literally just selling prints or originals of your work. This is because home decor is one of the tougher categories to sell in general.

Don’t believe it? Check out this graphic from Target’s 2011 annual report. Target is a brand that works hard to promote their housewares line and yet apparel and consumables like food and laundry detergent outsell housewares both individually and as a whole.

target

The story is the same at Walmart, where home goods make up a mere 6% of sales while apparel comes in at 13% (more than double). Even health and wellness beats home goods.
walmart

JC Penny’s sales tell the same story.  Home goods make up 21% of sales, almost all the other sales are comprised of clothing and accessories.
jcp

Macy’s sales mix looks the same. Home goods make up only 16% of sales while clothing and accessories make up the rest.
macys

Why is it that retailer after retailer has less success in housewares than any other category?
All of these retailers certainly sell a lot of home decor products and do plenty to market these products in advertising, wedding registries, etc. The issue is consumer shopping habits. Home decor lasts for a long time and people rarely need to restock. People are in the market for home decor usually after they move or when they have a life changing event like a marriage or a baby. Moves, weddings and babies don’t happen for the average person all the time.

On the other hand, the average person replaces their toiletries, clothing and accessories pretty often. That’s why these are such great products to sell. Once you have a customer who enjoys your brand they’ll keep coming back if you sell products they need to purchase more often.

If that’s not good enough reason to get into selling your art on apparel and accessories, there’s more!
If your customer is buying your art for her home, the number of people who will see that art, comment on it and go seek it out to buy for themselves is a tiny sliver. If your customer is wearing your art out in public she is showing your art to thousands of people every day just by walking around. Your customer basically becomes a walking billboard for your art every place she goes. She’s likely to run into more people who will see your art, notice it, ask her about it and seek it out to buy for themselves.

Do you want to make more money?
If yes, it’s time to look for ways to get your art onto products people consume every day. I know this strategy works because I use it for my own brand. While we do offer our art on prints and in the past we’ve offered a few other home decor items, our t-shirts outsell decor items 100 to 1!  Most of our online sales come from word of mouth. People ask our customers where they got their shirts and our customers send those people our way. Most of our traffic from search engines is people searching for keywords from our designs.

So how do you get your art onto products people want to buy?

  • Consider putting your art on functional items like t-shirts, bags, wallets, belts, pendants, etc. You can customize these products yourself or have them made for you.
  • Look for products with great margins. If you can make something for $2 and sell it for $15 that’s a great margin. If it costs you $5 to make something and you can only sell it for $7 that’s a less attractive margin. Only consider items like this if you think you can do a really substantial amount of volume to make up for the poor margins.
  • Look to other retailers for ideas. Take a stroll through a store like Pier 1, Macy’s, Urban Outfitters, Bed Bath and Beyond, gift shops, etc. Notice what sorts of products they offer that feature graphics — things like candles, t-shirts, soaps, pendants, belts, etc. Take note of what they are retailing these products for and think about whether you could produce a product like it featuring your art.
  • Get creative with sourcing. Sites like Etsy are full of makers, often based in your home country, who might be able to produce bespoke goods for you at a wholesale price if you order in bulk. Also check out sites like epromos.com and other promotional product websites. They have a huge assortment of items you can have customized to feature your art. Check our suppliers that specialize in custom products like Ink It Labs. They create custom laser-cut accessories featuring your submitted art.
  • Consider private label manufacturing on-demand, such as dropshipdtg.com, which allows you to sell your art on t-shirts without any up front costs. Or check out Art of Where which allows you to sell your art on device cases and leggings.
  • If you’re going to have products made featuring your art be sure to request samples, especially a sample featuring your art if possible, so you know you’ll be happy with the finished result.

 


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November 14, 2013

3 Pricing Strategies That Made Me More Money

Filed under: Ecommerce — Meredith @ 10:52 am

image via darrendean @sxc.hu

We all want to come up with ways to make more money and sell more product, but it’s so easy to overlook some of the easy ways to do it. In the last 12 months I’ve employed a few techniques that helped us sell more product. Try these out with your product line:

1. “Starter” Products For Customers Short on Funds
Even if you have moderately priced products, there will be customers who can’t afford to spend $10 or $20 or $50 today. That doesn’t mean they won’t spend $1 or $5, especially if they really like your products. Most of my products range in price from $15-$50 but I do offer 1″ buttons for $1 and magnets and keychains for $5.

Theses mini-accessories feature many of the same illustrations on my more expensive products like messenger bags and t-shirts but they’re affordable for just about everyone. They’re inexpensive to produce so my margins on those items are terrific. In 2013 we sold several thousand dollars worth of these impulse-buy items. It was a tiny share of our sales for the year but it’s still money we never would have made if we didn’t have products at that price point.

Even if you have a moderately priced line like mine, think about new items you might be able to offer for $5 or less to snap up some of those impulse-buy dollars, especially at live events like craft shows and festivals. Check our sites like epromos.com and other promotional goods websites. They often have a whole host of products you can have decorated for $1 or less.

2. 2 For 1 Deals to Move Overstock
Since much of my inventory is produced in large volume (screen printed shirts, batches of belts, etc.) it’s inevitable that I will end up overstocked on products here and there. Maybe something that had been selling well tailed off or something I expected to sell well ended up being a middling performer. Whatever the case, I have limited space for inventory so if somethings not moving quickly I have to figure out how to get it off the shelves. I recently solved this problem by offering a 2 for 1 deal on my website.

Customers who generally like our designs and are looking for a deal can order 2 shirts for the price of 1 on our website. They tell us what shirt size(s) they want and give us some information about preferences for design themes and shirt colors. They know the actual shirts they get will be a surprise (since we are selecting from shirts we’re overstocked on) but we use their preferences to try to find shirts we think they will like. Our margins are still very good at half off, so it’s a win for us and our customers.

You might simply prefer to put overstock inventory on sale in your shop, but the reason I like this strategy is that it encourages your customers to buy 2 items instead of just 1. If I simply marked all my overstock items at half off on a sale page I would have more orders for a single item. This strategy guarantees that each order will pick up at least 2 items.

3. Volume Discounts to Encourage a Bigger Purchase
We usually retail our shirts for $25.00 but when we do live events we also offer a volume discount of 2 shirts for $40.00.  This discounting offer usually results in more than half of our live event customers buying 2 or more shirts. We offer similar deals online, with coupon codes that are only effective for spending a certain amount.

If you can offer a volume discount on your products give this technique a try online or at your next live event. You’ll likely see a big boost in sales, especially at live events. If you can’t afford to offer a volume discount on all of your products, select 1 or 2 products you sell a fair amount of and try this strategy out with those items first.


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November 13, 2013

Add T-Shirts To Your Product Line With No Upfront Cost

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , — Meredith @ 2:46 pm

shirts

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.


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November 5, 2013

What I’ve Been Up To

Filed under: Uncategorized — Meredith @ 8:46 am

photo by kovik via http://www.sxc.hu

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).

4. Keep growing our online and retail presence

How was your 2013? Let me know in the comments!


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November 4, 2013

Important: Keep Your Mailing List “Clean”

Filed under: email marketing — Meredith @ 12:40 pm

email

If you’ve got a mailing list chances are you think “bigger is better”. I’m here to tell you, it’s not. More opens and clicks are better, not more subscribers. There are two reasons this is the case:

1. Cost
Most mailing list providers (Mail Chimp, Constant Contact, etc.) charge you based on how many emails you send. So if you are sending 10,000 emails per month you are paying more than if you are sending 500 emails per month. So why would you want to pay to send email to people who aren’t opening your emails? Save yourself some cash by keeping your list clean. That means regularly removing inactive subscribers.

2. Deliverability
Email service providers (Yahoo, Gmail, etc.) keep track of whether people are opening your emails. If a tiny percentage of your subscribers are opening, those services are more likely to assume your emails are unwanted to send them right to the junk folder, which means you won’t be getting much benefit from your mailing list.

So how do you make sure your list is lean and clean so you can get the best bang for your buck and increase your chances of getting your emails into your customers inboxes?

1. Do not add people who didn’t give your permission
Don’t add people to your mailing list unless they gave you permission to do so. Simply adding people without permission is rude and spammy and is going to make your customers angry, so don’t do it, no matter how tempting. There are lots of legitimate ways to get people to join your mailing list, here are a few ideas:- offer a coupon code for signing up
- accept mailing list sign ups at live events like craft shows or festivals
- run a contest people can enter by joining your mailing list
- offer the option to join your mailing list during the check out process on your website

2. Clean up your existing list
Your mailing list program probably gives you data on which subscribers are opening your emails and clicking links in them. You can use this information to get rid of inactive subscribers. Gather a list of subscribers who haven’t opened your mailing list emails or clicked on your links in the last few months and send those subscribers a message letting them know you’ve noticed they haven’t been opening your emails. Ask them to confirm that they still want to be on your list. If they don’t respond or confirm, remove those subscribers.

I do this with my own mailing list about twice a year and shed thousands of subscribers every time. I know that sounds like a lot of subscribers to lose, but it means my open rates are much better and I’m not paying to send email to people that don’t want it. That check-in email also gives the inactive subscribers a chance to stay on the list if they still want emails from us.

With the holiday season around the corner, now is a great time to get your list clean before you start sending all those holiday season promotions.

 


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July 18, 2013

Wanna Go Into Business? Ask the Right Questions.

Filed under: Uncategorized — Meredith @ 10:32 am

customer service

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.


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February 12, 2013

7 Time, Money and Sanity Savers for Doing Trade Shows

trade shows

It’s trade show season, so I thought I’d share a few of my favorite trade show tips. While I’ve seen lots of great articles online about doing trade shows, there are several insider hints that I haven’t seen other trade show veterans talk about, so here are 7 things I’ve learned with experience that I wish someone had told me before I ever did my first trade show:

1. Do not do it without a car
If you are staying in a hotel right near the convention center hosting your trade show, you might think you can get by without a rental car. While getting by without a car can be cheaper, it can also be a serious hindrance. In most cities, a car is indispensable for several reasons (some of which I will talk about in a minute). First and foremost though, if you forget to bring something with you and you need to get out and replace it you are totally screwed if you have no way to get out and procure the replacement.

When we did our first trade show in Las Vegas we realized we were short on Command hooks and forgot our display for our belts entirely. Thank goodness we had a rental car, we were able to find a nearby Target and collect the items we needed to complete our trade show booth.

2. Be strategic about sustenance
Convention center food is overpriced and gross. Save your taste buds and your wallet by stocking up on non-perishable food items at a grocery store (again, having a car comes in handy in case you need to drive to a supermarket). Think about things like apples, carrot sticks, pita chips, nutrition bars. You want food that’s easy to carry, easy to eat quickly and neatly, won’t smell funky and will hold up okay if it’s in your bag all day. Energy drinks are also helpful, especially since trade shows often involve schmoozing at after parties that can go fairly late into the night after you’ve worked all day.

Having some bottled water and mints on hand is a good idea too. You can get dried out and your breath can get smelly if you are talking to people all day. Avoid offending by staying hydrated and minty. (Select mints over gum, you don’t want to be chomping on gum in front of customers.)

3. FedEx is your friend
If you are flying out of town to do a trade show, the cheapest way to get your booth gear out to the show is in your luggage. That said, for most exhibitors that’s not going to cut it. I know we end up having to ship stuff when we do trade shows. If you need to ship items keep in mind that the trade show will try to sell you on using their shipping and receiving services, but those conveniences come with hefty fees. Even shipping your stuff to your hotel or a FedEx location in a hotel or convention center gets expensive. They charge handling fees on every box and it’s based on how much those boxes weigh. The costs really add up.

You can save yourself some money if you are willing to pick up your shipments at a FedEx location nearby. (Again, that rental car is making itself useful!) FedEx will hold shipments for customers for 5 days at no additional charge. (Unless it’s a FedEx in a convention center or hotel, they will charge you a small fortune.) You just have to pay the shipping costs (way cheaper than paying for shipping AND handling fees at a hotel or convention center). When you ship your items, just indicate that you want your shipment held for pick up and then retrieve your items once you get into town.

4. Do a dry run booth set up
Set up your trade show booth at your home/office before you leave for the show. This accomplishes two things: First, it helps you actually see what the booth will look like, sometimes things look different in our minds vs the real world. If you’re stuck on how to set up your booth google for pictures of other people’s booths to get ideas. For example, if you are showing a Pool Trade Show in Las Vegas you can google image search “booth at pool” and find some photos of booths to see how other people did it.

The other thing that a practice set up accomplishes is helping you build a list of what to pack for the show. Which brings me to…

5. Make a pack list
You want to make a list of every little thing that needs to come with you to the trade show. This can be stuff like scissors, pens, an exacto knife, packing tape, samples, promotional materials, etc. Write everything down so that as you are packing for the show you can check the items off your list and make sure you didn’t forget anything. (Honestly, there’s a good chance you will forget something but if it’s something you can’t do without, having access to car means you can likely go buy another one once you get into the city where the trade show is.)

6. Don’t buy stuff before you go
If you need more clothes hangers, Command strips, tape, photocopies of your price list, etc. don’t buy it before you leave and then pack it to send out to the show. It’s a total waste of money to pay to ship something you can just go buy when you get to the show. Make a list of what you need to buy and then once you get into the town where the show is being held go buy it there. Every town that’s hosting a trade show is full of Targets, Home Depots, Office Depots, etc. You can get hangers and photocopies in Las Vegas or Orlando or wherever you are going just as easily as you can at home.

7. You cannot live without these three tools: notebook, pen and stapler!
While lots of stores write orders at shows, there are just as many that do not. You’ll have people who come into your booth and seem interested but for whatever reason don’t pull the trigger. Here’s what you want to do with everyone who gets into your booth:

First, determine if they are a buyer. If they are not, get them out of your booth. You are there to meet buyers and you don’t want a buyer passing you up because you looked too busy to pay attention to them. People trying to sell your SEO, manufacturing, PR services, etc will talk your ear off if you let them, so do not let them. You say “thanks for stopping by but I’d like to make myself available to buyers, feel free to leave me your card and if we’re interested we can follow up after the show.”

If you are talking to a buyer you  want to gauge their level of interest in your product line. You can do this by chatting with them a bit. You want to get a name, where they are from, what products they seem to like and a little bit of info about their store (i.e. where is it, what are their customers like, etc.). In a perfect world, the buyer will write an order during the show. You can incentivize with show-only promotions like free shipping or discounts, etc.

If the buyer still won’t buy at the show, here’s where the notebook, pen and stapler come in. If you got a business card from a buyer staple that into the notebook with notes about what they liked, what their store is like, etc. If you didn’t get a card, still make a note of who you talked to, where they are from, etc. When you get back from the trade show you’re going to want to spend your time contacting these warm leads and trying to close those sales. You want to be armed with as much info as possible to help make that happen.

Even if the buyer does buy at the show, you still want to write down any info you were able to glean from chatting. These details can come in handy when you are trying to get them to re-order. It shows that you are really paying attention and giving them personalized service. For example, if a buyer tells you their customers are mostly teen girls and you have a new product that’s perfect for teen girls it’s helpful to know that is who the buyer is shopping for so you can steer him or her towards that product.

 

 

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