Twelve hours ago, an email from Shopify notified me my trial period was expiring. It was an automated email usually of little significance, but it inspired me to write this post and reflect on how far we've come, the mistakes made, and lessons learned in a little over a month. For the past two months I have almost entirely gone by the pseudonym "anon" due to a series of internet posts that resulted in 259,594 unique visitors, 549,542 page views, $40,159 in revenue. Image from Shopify:
Shirtwascash is an anything goes user-submitted shirt design platform. People submit their creations to our community website shirtposts.com, those go into a survey, people vote on which shirts they want and give feedback, then we do licensing / design work, and release the new designs on our website. Our first survey was completed 2,200 times - so how'd I do it?
After my previous startups in bitcoin, online ticketing, and a social network for festival goers, I made sure to test demand first and thoroughly. Last May I saw this post "the internet designs some shirts" and was laughing my ass off. The pants shirt in particular was funny to me and I wanted it. Turns out a lot of other people did too. I created the first survey that night and posted it: "the internet designs some shirts [UPDATE]". ~1,000 filled the survey from that so I found a local manufacturer.
A mistake I thankfully skipped:
If you need your product manufactured, I highly recommend finding someone local. Yes, we could make more money offshore but being hands on with quality and maintaining a great relation has been a winning combination. I would have been completely fucked if I had started anywhere else due to quality control, design adjustments/changes, etc. We've already had repeat customers and that is extremely important to me.
Here's one of my first mistakes: I recruited a technical partner for a retail shop and gave away some equity. My platform-building startup history made me overthink the technology behind this. I wanted it to be similar to imgur in style so it was familiar and to accept bitcoin / dogecoin from the start. I recruited my roommate, who is a phenomenal developer (check out Launchkey), but turned out to be unnecessary. I never had any experience with Shopify until now, but it is incredible.
We launched with this beautifully simple website and made ~$10k in the first two weeks. I decided to switch to Shopify at that point since my roommate was busy and we needed a lot of changes to move forward. If you make a Shopity or similar marketplace provider, I highly suggest doing all of the setup and design work yourself. It's one of the easiest things to overcome / learn and if you'd rather give someone money to do it - then you're probably going to fail.
My encounter with Social Media "Influencers" aka popular internet kids
Have you ever wondered what type of results a tweet from someone with 334k followers will get you? So did I. My friends host parties called "The Influential House" that connects sponsors with social media influencers and hot girls. We decided to go for the $5k spot while still attending the Electric Daisy Carnival. The party itself #TINHouse trended #1 on twitter (although I have my doubts on the methods used to make that happen), but the kids didn't show us any love or even much respect. Some demanded free stuff from us, others stole from eachother, several stood around expensive rental cars out front flexing their muscles, and generally glamorized a lifestyle of abundance for having such twitter handles as "Bad Advice Dog". Photos from #TINHouse.
We were told Shirtwascash received 10 million impressions from who knows where which resulted in: ZERO SALES. Not only that, but our focus on it actually lowered total visitors on our website over the three-day period. I still want to spend money on marketing that has a positive ROI but I haven't seen it yet. Organic and honest communication with your direct customers is the way to go. If that doesn't exist, then maybe you have the wrong product or market.
After that weekend of babysitting spoiled children, I doubt I'll be doing anything like that again. I love our customers, they send me really funny & supportive emails. I decided I'll focus on just getting more people like that.
My second biggest mistake was underestimating international shipping. When we launched the initial website, orders were pouring in from all around the world. I had to very quickly figure out how to organize and ship abroad and that was difficult, until I found Shipstation.com. Now that we have Shopify + Shipstation in place, they sync with eachother. Our process went from data mining & excel sheets with the old site to clicking a button to print a prepaid label. I highly recommend this combination if you sell product online.
Ever since that sponsorship weekend, I have just continued to engage users on various forums online and spread the idea of "the internet designs some shirts". I track where others share our link to discuss things like "would you wear these" and inject myself into the discussion w/ an introduction and carefully answer questions. Our biggest moment so far was from a reddit post in /r/internetisbeautiful. We've been linked or directly related to 3 reddit posts that have hit the front page. Reddit makes up a significant amount of our traffic, but also has the lowest conversion rate.
Since reddit changed their default pages from 25 to 50, there is a lot more opportunity to get your startup exposure. /r/internetisbeautiful is a new default sub and popular posts go straight up the reddit viewership chain.
Emails are super important
Emails convert into sales higher than pretty much any other medium and it's a great opportunity to "nurture" your relation with customers/fans. I'm not surprised that emails are important, but their real impact was something I didn't understand until starting this. Collecting emails should be important from day one. I wish I had started earlier.
I have a history in corporate finance and operations at a major casino in Las Vegas - I am happy to announce that I put in my two weeks notice on Friday to pursue this fulltime and finally leave corporate behind. I am always available for questions or comments at email@example.com.
This blog has received over 100,000 organic views since its writing and is featured near the top of many Shopify-related Google searches. The #1 question I am asked is..
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