From Seashells to Dog Collars & a Job Site for Women, 16 Projects That Prove I’m Not Too Old to Play
Today I thought it would be fun to take a stroll through memory lane to look at all the “businesses” I’ve started. Mostly to put it all in one place for the first time (and to let you laugh at my expense), but also to see if there’s any connective thread. I’m using the term business loosely because these are basically just projects I’ve launched, and then neglected for one reason or another.
Business 1: My first entrepreneurial pursuit began at the Jersey Shore. Snooki was not involved. My cousins and I had shell shop we’d set up in front of our house. We’d get shells at yard sales throughout the year, haul them down to the shore, arrange them, price them, and woo people on their way to the beach to take a look and pick up a souvenir. Also, does my uncle look like a total creep or what? Around this time I also figured out how to make some extra dough (pun intended) at our family yard sales by selling cinnamon buns and brownies, in addition to clothes I no longer wore.
Age: Elementary school
Skills: Shell arrangement, pricing, promotion, negotiation, branding
Lesson learned: Buy cheap, sell high.
Business 2: My cousin and I wrote a book, called The Black Forest Polka, inspired by a song I loved to play on the piano. It had a wise old tree among dancing trees in a forest clearing, gnomes who were lost, and a mushroom king. We typed it up on a typewriter (I can’t tell you how many times I had to re-start a page), and I spent hours working on coloring the pages. We stapled it together and I carried it everywhere I went in a Manilla envelope, in case I ran into an editor. Around this time, I also created some limited edition handmade advent calendars and tried to sell them around the holidays. I think my mom bought one.
Age: Middle school
Skills: Writing, editing, drawing
Lesson learned: You can’t just make the thing, you also have to sell it. Mom is my number one fan.
Business 3: I made friendship bracelets, with all sort of patterns and colors. I’d buy string and “how to” books from yard sales to get better. Somehow my dad got me spot in a shop at the mall, and they all sold out. Keeping it stocked was tricky though because I had to balance the time it took to make one (about 3 days) with the store demand, my desire to wear them myself, and my desire to give them to my friends, as mentioned in the name. So, I only did that one batch.
Age: Middle school
Skills: Weaving I guess?
Product: String bracelets
Lesson learned: Use your connections. Create something easy to make that looks hard to make.
Business 4: I designed sports t-shirts, because I thought all of the ones that existed were really lame. And I wanted some with more of a surf vibe. I hand drew the designs. Then I surveyed my friends and teammates to see how many people would be likely to buy them, using SurveyMonkey. Then I digitized them painstakingly on my computer, evaluated screen-printers and choose a local guy. I spent my tax return money on it, and invested in about 500 shirts to get the price of each shirt down. I created a blog on Blogger to build the audience and a Twitter account. I tried to get a booth at a sports conference but it was too expensive. I sold about 50 shirts to my teammates, and still had t-shirts with me when I went to move five years later. My mom bought one, like usual! I also put most of the designs onto a Cafepress storefront, and so far in more than 10 years I’ve made $0.75.
Skills: Drawing, merchandising, marketing, Blogger, social media, audience research, SurveyMonkey
Product: T-shirt with a surf sports design
Lesson learned: Invest in less physical inventory upfront or consider not carrying the inventory at all. Don’t rely on what people say they will do, have them pre-purchase.
Business 5: I started a hand-drawn greeting card company with my friend, who six months into it moved to Panama with the Peace Corp. So I was on my own. I kept it up for another 2 years and kept her half the profits for when she returned. Friends and family were our initial business but word quickly spread. I sold in a brick-and-mortar store in a little commercial village square in addition to on the website I built, which I cobbled together using Google’s Blogger and integrated Paypal buttons. I eventually stopped because it wasn’t scaleable and I was tired from the pressure of nailing each card on the first go. I was only charging about $5 per card and each was an original — we didn’t do any prints. I logged into the email address associated with our business about three years later and found an irate customer who had ordered a card, on our still existing website, that never arrived. I deleted the website, refunded her, and apologized! That poor birthday girl on the other end.
Skills: Drawing, painting, merchandising, marketing, building a website, Blogger, partnerships, Twitter, Facebook
Product: Greeting cards
Lesson learned: Shut down the website when you’re done. Even if you put up a banner that it’s no longer active, it’s not enough.
Business 6: Inspired by my German grandmother, I created Projekt Gnoma, a self-published book with 52 simple, black-and-white ink drawings, each with a one-sentence caption, featuring our friend, the humble, garden-dwelling gnome. I funded the book by selling copies of it, copies of the drawings, greeting cards, and original gnome drawings. I used Cafepress to make the prints and Blurb to print the book.
Skills: Drawing, marketing, building a website, evaluating suppliers, Blurb, Cafepress, Kickstarter
Lesson learned: A heartwarming story sells.
Business 7: I created a purchasable treasure hunt kit including 10 clues (made to look like old scrolls), a treasure map, a mini wooden treasure chest decorated with a hand-drawn skull design, chocolate gold coins, and the hand-drawn pirate card. Just in time for folks to get one for Valentine’s Day.
Product: A treasure hunt
Lesson learned: Burning paper with fire & staining it with tea to look old takes longer than you’d think.
Business 8: I made WeMakt — a site similar to Etsy in that it connected artists making things directly with buyers, but there was an element of supporting causes at the same time, and a different pricing model that better aligned both parties’ interests. Etsy wasn’t very known at that time. I did tons of competitive research, mocked up the website pages, starting from mobile-first, and solicited funding. I talked to my dad about hiring developers since he worked in IT and this development was beyond my expertise. He took the project and said he was working on it — so that’s where it died.
Skills: Market analysis, pricing, website UX
Product: A online marketplace for handmade goods
Lesson learned: Try to do things you can do with your own skills from start to finish.
Business 9: I made Funnygrams, a new kind of candygram. This was a mailable that included a funny magnet paired with sour candy, that people could send to their friends. Sort of how you could give people candygrams in middle school. I was able to purchase some really cool envelopes from a high school friend’s Etsy store — so I could delight customers, support her small business, and my creative endeavors in one fell swoop. I also took a class and learned how to do ink printing, in order to make the tags I sent with each. And, I got into comedy and joke writing around the same time.
Skills: Drawing, merchandising, writing, fundraising
Product: A mailed magnet & candy
Lesson learned: It feels good to support others making cool things.
Business 10: This one is funny because I first named it “Elders Love” which sounds like a porn site for old people. It was not. It was a monthly subscription service where you could easily send print mail to your grandparents — a card with a hand printed message by me on your behalf and three photos of you. Depending upon the plan they selected, it would also include bonus treats like organic tea and photo-magnets sometimes. I couldn’t get the funding I needed to do this one — I only secured $800, so I didn’t move forward with it and refunded everyone. The video is worth watching though because a friend helped make it! I also taught a Skillshare class about how to do a Kickstarter project based on my experience with it.
Skills: Drawing, video, storyboarding, partnership building, marketing, Kickstarter, Skillshare
Product: A card and 3 photos mailed to someone on your behalf every month
Lesson learned: While I don’t think a good name does all that much, a bad name can really hurt. Survey a diverse range of people before picking a name.
Business 11: My siberian husky started a Facebook fanpage and built up an audience of 2000 fans with daily photo content. Then I ran a promotion where I would draw your dog in exchange for $5 which I donated to a siberian husky charity. I created a downloadable homemade dog snack cookbook which I sold for $1 a piece. I also created some dog collars and dog greeting cards on Zazzle, from which I’ve made $2.75. I later tried expanding this into a series of pet blogs on Tumblr for each dog breed (golden retriever, labs, etc) by enlisting my friends and their dogs, but it fizzled. And, when I got my next siberian husky, I also set up a Youtube channel and Instagram.
Skills: Drawing, fundraising, social media
Product: A hand drawn picture of your dog photographed and sent to you digitally
Profit: $95 donated to a husky charity & $7.75 for me
Lesson learned: People love dogs, always.
Business 12: A Facebook fanpage and Tumblr recording all the reasons my mom called me. Because she’s hilarious.
Skills: Writing, social media, building a Tumblr with custom html/css
Product: A Facebook community
Profit: $0, but I did use it in a job interview once & I got an offer! Thanks mom.
Lesson learned: Good content often already exists, you just have to recognize it & repackage it.
Business 13: I’d probably consider this my most successful endeavor to date, regardless of the profit being a loss. I had more than 250 paying customers (some were even repeats!), and I’m pretty convinced if I gave it the attention it deserved it would have really grown. Anyhow, I created a soccer brand inspired by the women’s beautiful game. I offered t-shirts, and coloring book pages featuring professional players. I worked with a few awesome designer friends to do it. I started a Tumblr rounding up women’s soccer news to develop an audience. Then I launched the apparel website on Shopify and used the Mailchimp integration to set up a handful of triggered emails. I partnered with a non-profit, Girls Leading Girls, funding some of their events, and developed partnerships with athletes, The American Outlaws, and other brands in the space, such as a leading podcast, and got some good media coverage. Facebook advertising worked really well, which was a surprise because my ad spend wasn’t all that big initially. I stopped working on it with a lot of merchandise left on my hands because I got bored with it. This time, I remembered to shut the website down. I’m learning from my mistakes!
Skills: Design concepts, working with freelance designers, merchandising, brand building, website building, partnerships, social media, influencer marketing, Shopify
Product: A soccer apparel brand for females
Lesson learned: Be in the right place at the right time as something’s just picking up steam and everyone’s willing to talk to make the whole field grow. Facebook advertising is worth testing. While I ended with less inventory than before, and consciously made the decision to invest in inventory because I thought the brand could get further if not associated with a third-party like CustomInk/Cafepress, but inventory just isn’t my friend. I did do pre-sale to gauge interest on certain designs though, so that was a win. My grandmother absolutely loves wearing the shirts as undershirts though, so they’re going to good use. And, I made some awesome friends out of this one, and was able to give back to the community which I learned again, feels good.
Business 14: I enjoyed exploring DC, and was part of a Facebook community that welcomed people to DC. So I made a website featuring big recommended lists of things to do in DC based on people’s interests. Basically walking tours for book lovers, gardeners, etc. I included price, address, pro tips, and made an entire day’s itinerary — so there was no thinking necessary, only enjoyment. Tourists could download and print the lists for their trip to DC. I could see myself picking this one back up because I have a ton of lists bulleted out I just haven’t had time to expand upon to create the articles.
Skills: Writing, technical seo, content creation, back on Blogger baby
Product: A website
Lesson learned: Don’t go so super content rich that you’re likely to only get through a few. Make the lift a little less by surveying needs.
Business 15: I got (more) angry about the gender pay gap, and women leaving the workforce because of it. So I designed a women’s career website, Freaking Apply, on Wordpress for the first time, curating a list of jobs with good companies in SF and LA for director-level and above positions. I re-wrote the job descriptions explaining what they’re probably looking for and how to best position yourself when you apply. I need to get back to updating this one, for sure. (Right after I’m done writing my Curb Your Enthusiasm episode. One thing at a time!)
Skills: Writing, technical seo, content creation, Mailchimp integration, Wordpress
Product: A website
Lesson learned: It’s good to re-evaluate tech stack options. I checked out Wix, Blogger, etc before deciding on a paid Wordpress which I’d always walked away from before.
Business 16: 10 Second Husband Rants. I mean, doesn’t that explain it all? I created an Instagram account featuring relationship complaints, because everyone needs to let it all out once in a while.
Skills: Using my friends’ pain for our gain, social media
Product: Instagram content
Lesson learned: You can make text posts on Instagram really easily.
There are lots of smaller projects, such as the Etsy store I had for my Oma’s hand-painted stones, a Tumblr providing feedback on terrible sales emails, etc. Often I’ll get a Google mail account login alert for an email address I set up associated with a random idea that I’ve long forgotten, which is kind of fun, but also like, stay out of my stupid accounts bots! I also remember really wanting to start a snowball stand right out of college, set up a siberian husky dog foster camp, and start a women’s print magazine for female college grads living in the real world (sort of taking on the perspective GIRLS eventually brought).
Anyhow, wouldn’t this make a cooler resume than the usual one?
Here’s what I think stands out to me:
- I’m a writer. In fact, a few years ago I made a conscious decision to give up my art to focus more on my writing. This was a hard choice because my dream growing up was to be an animator. My reason was simply that it’s easier to move with a pencil than boxes of art supplies — and I’ve moved cities a bit. Also, I’m able to take photos to express some creativity, and that helps. Though, I have this idea that video will be the ideal medium for me, and I’m working on it.
- I’m drawn to creating physical objects — there’s something really nice about making something you can touch, out of nothing. I seem to think the way to sell them is online.
- I’m pretty good at identifying trends, and what’s going to blow up in like three years.
- I make things I like. Which means I create things for women. I don’t go out and find a set of customers with a need.
- I’ve gotten better at working on distribution by building up communities before launching things.
- At the end of the day, I have no desire to start and grow a business on my own. This is how I “play” as an adult. And, it’s kind of cool I’m still finding excuses to play. Ideas randomly hit, and I decide whether to pursue them or not. If I don’t want to do it, I usually just write a quick Medium blog post on the idea so someone else can.
- Anything I missed?
Maybe a tie dye sweatshirt pop-up, but I know I can’t hold inventory. So I need to figure out a guaranteed distribution channel first, like early access pre-sale. The timing seems right because brands like Champion are making a comeback and Lebron James just wore a tie dye sweatshirt pre-game. I also just did a huge batch of t-shirts for myself and team, so I’ve gotten pretty good at getting a predictable outcome. The hesitation is that there are only 14,000 Google searches for tie dye per month, it’s unclear who the target audience would be/how to reach them, and putting all those rubber bands on to make the marks really hurts after a while haha!