No Kickstarter. No Investors. No Debt. Reflections on our First Year.
One year! Holy macaroni, the last twelve months since launching Picture This Clothing have flown by faster than any time-chunks I can recall in my entire lifetime. This post is a pretty expansive recap of our first year learnings, challenges and triumphs.
BACKGROUND STORY (short recap)
We launched Picture this Clothing on August 17, 2016 as a self-funded proof-of-concept. No Kickstarter. No investor capital. No debt. $759k in sales in 12 months.
I’d sewn together a dress for my daughter based on a drawing she’d done. The positive response triggered my partner/co-founder Ken to say, “You’ve got something here!” We knew that making custom dresses like that first one I made for Zia would not be a business we wanted to get into, but over a couple months of pondering Ken came back with the idea to wear the actual drawing, rather than try to recreate it. And a coloring book style sheet to make it really easy for kids to understand what they were designing, and exactly how it would look. THAT was when we knew we had created an idea-baby. We needed help, so we called two guys we’d worked with in the past and had developed really great relationships with. Across 10-ish months of website building, product prototyping, moral support and each keeping on with our respective day jobs, Igi and Stephan helped us bring our idea-baby into the world.
Once we felt like we had a sharable proof-of-concept, we shared it with the world through a single tweet from my personal Twitter account, and by the end of the day, we had a writeup in TechCrunch. Thus began an exhilarating viral adventure.
Going viral is a crazy, elevating rush. In our first eight months of business, the only money we spent on marketing was that time I accidentally triggered a Facebook ad while trying to figure out the ad interface and spent about $20 before I realized what I’d done. Other people were talking and writing about us. Other people created videos that were getting millions of views. We were even invited to appear on news interviews and the Harry Connick Jr. show. Hehe.
All this was great, but we knew the viral state was likely to come down at some point, and we wanted to be as prepared as we could. Our hope was that the viral surge would give us enough momentum to work through challenges, and fuel growth. We’ve definitely seen a shift in the buzz and order volume since the viral months, but we’re still seeing solid profit which is super exciting for a “startup” in its first year.
Spreading ourselves thin
On launch day, our team was: Ken handling product, Ignazio was handling all things website and design, and I was handling customer service, communication and packing/shipping. A small team at our local print partner’s shop was ready to print/cut/sew orders on demand.
All of us had “day jobs”.
Ken is half of the two-man team for the successful app ‘Narwhal’ for Reddit on iOS, Igi was running his own very busy design shop, Meno Design, and I was the COO for native app dev company, MartianCraft. Our print partner was already an established local print shop with plenty of existing clientele. Our biggest hurdles came with the following:
When we launched, we thought it’d be amazing if we could get ten orders a month. When we hit almost $10k in sales in a single day only ten days after launch we knew we were going to need a bigger boat. All in all, a *great* problem to have, but it really forced us to refine our processes very quickly. For every step forward, it seemed we’d take two steps back. Sometimes it still feels that way, but when we take a minute to look back at how far we’ve come from those first weeks and months, this little team has made some major progress. Ken is a mastermind for problem solving and process efficiency and quickly figured out a lot of automation and better ways to work from end-to-end in our entire process. Along the way we pulled in Rick to help make our technology much, much better. Ken, Rick and Igi have been incredible. We had a lot of freelance help along the way, and we also found the amazing Liuba several months in, who makes Ken’s life 1000 times less stressful with her keen attention to detail in the product processing department. I’m grateful to be a part of this impressive team of pros.
Early on, we were getting about 200–300 email inquiries a day. Most of the questions/answers were available on our FAQs, but folks were finding it easier to email us. This was my realm and while I had created an awesome bank of responses I could copy/paste for most inquiries and we learned quickly to make our FAQs more visible on our home page, still the email volume was impressive. And there were more than questions. There were media inquires and orders to help our customers with. Because we were immediately profitable as a business, we were building capital that could be used for stuff like getting help. I definitely needed help, but I’m very, very picky about voice, tone and care in customer service, so this was something I was nervous about letting go of.
I’d worked with the ever-impressive, New Hampshire-based Amy Mash on a few freelance writing and social media projects before. Was I in luck when I reached out to her to see if she could spare 10–20 hours a week to help me out and she WAS! People this talented are usually backlogged for months, but our timing aligned perfectly. 20 weekly hours quickly grew to 40 and before we knew it, Amy was taking over customer service for me full time, and I was able to shift my focus to this crazy venture’s many other needs.
Sometimes things go wrong. We’ve messed up plenty. We’ve had a few orders slip through the cracks, packages go missing in transit, we’ve sent the wrong order to someone a time or two, we got the colors wrong, we had an off day in sewing… I’m not condoning mistakes or excusing them. Mistakes happen to all companies. I believe the important part of making mistakes is how you grow forward from them. How you handle each instance, learn and hopefully don’t repeat the mistake. Folks have reached out, some in rage, some in understanding, and I’m very proud to say that customers who reach out are met with genuine care, and our very best effort to make the situation right. Amy is at the helm of this care, and we could not do it without her.
It seemed like, with all the attention we were getting, a good handful of people assumed we’d been around for years, or were small and scammy, or that we were some massive corporation with evil intentions. If we don’t count our print partner we started as 4 and are now 8 people.
Ken, Ignazio, Rick, Amy, Liuba, Kimberlee, Stephan and me.
- We were accused of being sexist. We launched with a single, focused product and it was dresses. Partially because the concept was born from the original dress I made for my daughter. We looked at waiting until we had T-shirts ready to launch, but believe it or not, T-shirts were infinitely more complex and expensive to create up to our standard and it would have slowed us down. Because we wanted to see if there was even an audience that would respond to our idea before getting into pricier product development, we decided to focus on the single product that held the spirit of the original idea. Inside our first year, we expanded to youth and grownup sizes in both T-shirts and Dresses. Woo!
- We were accused of being racist for not having a diverse range of kids on the site at launch. I took the photos with my iPhone and worked with the kids I had immediate access to, my daughter Zia and her best friend Gigi (who, for the record, is Serbian). It was a fast-paced proof-of-concept, working low-cost with what we had at the time, not a well-plotted scheme. Since our launch, thousands of our customers have been awesome enough to share photos of their happy designers which represent children of all ethnicities from around the entire world. We share them as we receive them in the order they’re received. And we *LOVE* every single one of them.
- We were accused of overcharging for something that could “easily be done with fabric markers”. If fabric markers are the limit of imagination to compare us to, I suppose you may have a point. Our customers have proven that their imaginations have a much bigger canvas. We know the price point won’t meet everyone’s budget. While we are making a profit, we’re not making a killing off every product. Every piece is printed, cut and sewn on demand right here in Las Vegas, NV (my home town) by working age adults who earn a living wage. That’s an important value for us, and we want to believe that it’s possible to build a company this way, with people we genuinely LOVE working with, who share our passion and values, and know how much we appreciate and value them.
This hasn’t been so much a challenge as as surprise. It’s super weird to see my own child and our idea replicated identically on copycat websites in Russia. And Turkey. And right here in the US. We’ve seen a lot of copycats and not a week goes by that we don’t get an inquiry about franchising or taking our idea overseas. They say imitation is flattery, but it doesn’t feel very flattering. On the other hand, I guess that means we really do have a pretty neat idea. We are protected to the maximum capacity that we can be. Patents pending, trademarks, copyrights, etc. all registered. Pursuing each one is exhausting and time consuming, so we prioritize logically and have an amazing legal team leading the charge.
I know there will always be haters. There will always be trolls and idea-stealers. I don’t mind that these things happened because having an opportunity to respond with honesty is a great opportunity no matter how it arises. We are a team of people who love working with each other, we love and believe in the product we make — it brings us more happiness than we can describe when we see/hear from our customers how the experience of our product made their child feel.
It took us a minute to get orders rolling off the presses, but once they started coming the stream was constant. I’d pick up boxes of 200 products at a time from our printer, take them home, photograph each one for documentation purposes, inspect for quality, print labels, pack and ship. Like the customer service side of things, this important task quickly became a lot for one person to do. My step-mom Mary and sister Kimberlee made time to help me out of the sheer goodness of their hearts a few times. After a while, asking for free help felt like taking advantage of kindness, so we were able to budget paying Kimberlee to help me when she had a little time outside being a full time mother of two, and full time manager at Sephora. Without her I would have been buried.
I think it’s important to note that we pack each of these with a lot of care. We photograph every single product so we have a visual record of the finished product. We hang each item on bright, colorful hangers because work this amazing deserves respect while it awaits inspection and packaging. We compare each finished item to its original artwork before printing a shipping label. If it looks off, we send it back to Ken and Liuba to re-process or determine what happened, and what could be improved before reprinting.
We inspect each product for random printer tracks, ink splatters or sewing mishaps. We verify the size and that the artist’s name in the hem matches the one on the original artwork. When it’s ready for packing, we don’t just toss it in a box and send it off. We fold it, sprinkle a tiny pinch of confetti over it (because FUN!), we include a special little token of appreciation and a thank you card, we wrap in tissue paper, seal with a branded sticker (label with a handwritten name if there’s more than one in a package so customers know who gets what), then we seal and ship it. I believe the customer experience spans every touchpoint with us, including opening the package. After having Kimberlee help me as much as possible outside her regular job, we were lucky enough to make her a full time offer to take over the ShipShop in mid-January. The ShipShop has been one of the hardest things for me to let go of. There’s something about seeing and touching these unique creations that makes me fall in love with each and every one. It’s a crazy feeling to be surrounded with so many expressions of happiness and color! Kimberlee invests the same care into the inspection and packaging of these as I do myself, and that means the world to me. Your stuff is in the best hands!
Oh! We also subleased a 12’ x 24’ space from our print partner back in January so we could move the ShipShop out of our living room. SUCH a relief!
Having a Full Time Job
I mentioned somewhere along the way that when we launched this idea, I had a full time gig. I LOVED my work with MartianCraft. I’d started as an advisor with them in 2015, while running SWINGSET, INC, my own coaching/advising company. After about 8 months in an advisor role, they offered me the full time position as their COO, allowing me to continue working from my home office and expand on the work I was doing with them. I worked with incredible smart people and helped grow the inner-workings of the company. Seriously — LOVED IT. And when I accepted the role I could see myself there for… well, I couldn’t see an end. It was awesome. The proof-of-concept for Picture This Clothing was already in progress before I started with MartianCraft. It was basically in a state of “when the website is done, we’re ready.” Since Igi was building that as he could make time for it around his client work, we didn’t know if it’d really ever see the light of day. At some point in July 2016 Igi announced, “Hey! It’s done!” We tested it, tweaked it, then decided it was good enough to share. With the volume of sales from August 17 through mid-October, I could see that I was not going to be able to manage full time roles at both PTC and MartianCraft. I’m an independent mother of two young daughters, and this was looking at giving up a paying job I loved, for a gamble on an idea I loved in hopes it would pay off. I thank Kyle and the whole MartianCraft team for being so kind and understanding when I let them know I needed to go see where this thing would lead. I left my full time job in November to focus full time on Picture This Clothing. While I know I made the right choice for me and they’re fine without me, I still miss MartianCraft a lot.
My entire life I’ve heard people say “Time flies!”, it’s a total cliche yet the twelve months between August 17 2016–2017 have gone by more swiftly than anything I’ve ever experienced.
Eight months had passed before Ken and I looked at each other realizing we hadn’t taken a single day off since we launched the company. So we figured that out, and first took a night out, then a couple days. Then a couple more. We still have work to do every day, but with the help of our awesome team and the growth and getting better organized and more efficient, we are managing our time in a more livable way again. Pshew!
Oh, and yes, we’ve been able to pay ourselves modestly. We make sure we’re putting a good percentage of income back into the company first, paying our team on time, with several nice benefits. And we’ve started putting a bit into paid advertising, recently, too. We’ve been very lucky (and smart?) in how we set things up from the start. No debt, and no investors. We funded everything ourselves out of pocket at a very responsibly low cost, most of our expense in building our proof-of-concept was time.
Our focus this first year has been about mindfully building a team we love, so that we can continue the improvement of service to our incredible, creative customers.
We’ve improved a lot of processes and are knee-deep in the improvement of many more in effort to keep up with our bigger vision. We’re working on better internal technology, we’re working on new relationships, and new products we’re going to be *very* excited to share with the world.
We’re looking at growing into a new space where we can make better video content and bring our awesome local team together in a better way, and a whole lot more yet to be announced.
We have a whole lot of gratitude to be doing what we’re doing. We’ve helped more than 15,000 incredible designers wear their imagination in our first year. We think this is just the beginning for us, and for the concept of custom, on-demand clothing.
With Care & Imagination
Co-Founder, Picture This Clothing
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