How I built a business. How it failed. The Lessons I learned. Pt2

I’m finally up an running with my online fashion retailer. (Part 1 here).

My Homepage (before I added my own designs)

My Homepage (before I added my own designs)

I’ve got a gleaming, beautiful and fully functional web store that is stocked with products and just waiting for customers. So now what!?!
After months of feverish work just to get this off the ground, I was now confronted with the even bigger problem of getting customers. To secure funding I had to produce a marketing plan of sorts so I wasn’t completely in the dark, I knew my customers and vaguely how to target them – I was aiming at students, at geeks and nerds, at the fashion conscious, tight budgeted mid 20 something’s of the world. I had not long left Bristol University so I had some idea on how to reach this crowd and where to market. To suit this young and vibrant crowd, I had unique and appealing designs in simple and bold colours that were priced appealingly – I was sure they would sell. What I quickly discovered is that you may have the perfect website with the perfect product at the perfect price, but getting the word out and getting people onto such a site isn’t easy.

Flyers as Art

So I started with Flyers, they were cheap and simple and seemed a good place to start.
250 printed for £11.99 , which I hand delivered through doors on a Saturday morning.

My First Flyer

My First Flyer

I made a point of targeting the large student housing areas of the city with these in an attempt to reach my target market. I also put an offer code on there for a 10% discount to add extra incentive. Also this would help me track the effectiveness of this promotional campaign as anyone who used the code must have had /seen a flyer. I’m a trial and error type of guy so I was compelled to analysis what worked and what didn’t, as I tried to learn the craft of marketing. Turns out they weren’t very effective at all as no-one used the code over the following months. I wasn’t ready to abandon the medium just yet though (it seemed to cheap to not to persevere with), so I attempted to try the flyer experiment again a month later – this time new on a grander scale.
I created an entirely new flyer from an original piece of artwork of mine, here it is:

Flyers as Art 1

Flyers as Art 1







I though it was something entirely different to the masses of letterbox spam we all receive and something would really attract interest and stand out. I had this beautiful idea about a series of flyers created directly from my achieve of art pieces, each one entirely unique and hopefully more than just a piece of junk mail. I coined the scheme Flyers as Art, blogged about it on the site and hit the social media sites. I loved the idea, and still do actually, so I was bold and ordered a 1000 of the above design.
I mean come on – its got a scowling ET on it! Genius right! Well, no!
Again the unique offer code was never used. Instead of pounding the pavements and visiting a 1000 houses, I paid for them all to be included in promotion packs that are spread bi-weekly around the city to the student population. This all sounded like a great idea before hand and was relatively affordable, but in actual return of investment terms – complete failure. Monitoring of website traffic after both flyer campaigns did show an increase in site visits, but not once was either discount code redeemed. This second campaign cost me approx £55 (£18.99 for 1000 flyers – £36 for distribution) and didn’t translate into a single order! All in all 1250 flyers generated zero orders! This was all very disheartening so I turned my attention to the digital realm instead.

Competition Time
So at this point I was struggling to attract anything other than website traffic and casual browsers. Only a handful of shirts had been sold and virtually none of my jewellery stock had moved. This wasn’t the life changing operation I though it might have been!
But I wasn’t about to give up, so I found a busy student targeted news website on which to run a competition. This was in the form of a side bar ad that cycled through a bunch of my products and offered a free to enter t-shirt competition. Subscribe to the e-mail list for the chance to win a free t-shirt of your choosing.
It ran for a week, cost £150 pounds and garnered me an e-mail list of a whopping 10 people! All the while offering a click through rate of around 0.7%. It ran on a busy website so did direct some new traffic to my site for the week, but in terms of sales – it still did very little to move stock. Although someone won a free t-shirt so I had a least one happy customer from the whole experience (and the beginnings of an email list I potentially could exploit later?).

Marketing Adventures.
I like to learn by doing, so at this stage I started experimenting with other internet based advertising in a blind hope something would work.
First up was Google Ad words. I set up a relevant ad to coax the student masses and ran it for about a week. I found this search based advertising particularly daunting and confusing. So many options, so much competition and again, very little in terms of traffic and virtually no sales. Granted my budget was miniscule and it barely ran for any length of time, but I was testing the waters to see if it was worth committing the remaining budget I had. I found the results depressing and disheartening so I moved on.

Stickers I had made - and then stuck on things around the Uni campus

Stickers I had made – and then stuck on things around the Uni campus

To Facebook I went in a hope of targeting a very specific demographic. I would run an ad that targeted local students aged 18-25, whose interests included geek culture, fashion and online shopping. It would link directly to my website in one instance, and in another instance try to garner Likes for my Facebook page. I garnered a 2.7% CTR, 60 odd page followers, but nothing in the way of sales. Again my budget was tiny and my campaign was short lived, but it didn’t exactly inspire confidence in the platform for future budgetary commitments. I found both of these platforms to be confusing and potential money drains – I’m positive I wasn’t ‘doing it right’, or spending enough money and time on the campaigns – but it felt like aimless fumbling in the dark.

Dweeb Keyrings - free giveaway

Dweeb Keyrings – free giveaway

By now this was all getting a little depressing. Whatever I tried simply didn’t seem to have much effect. It was all a little bleak and soul destroying and after committing so much of my spare time and energy into this project – it was crashing and burning.
Half-heatedly I decided to try and target my new found Facebook fans with a little promotional offer. I approached a small local trader whose specialty was laser cutting, with a view to getting some branded key rings created. I planned to use these in a special, limited time only, promotional offer to my 68 Facebook fans. I would just get a handful and see if the idea was feasible and they only cost 10.19 to get cut, so it was a comfortable loss leader.
“A free keying with the next 10 orders…” I posted, along with this attractive picture, to the Facebook fan base.
I still have 8 of these key rings!

Into the real World
By now I was sick of internet marketing, sick of the website itself and sick of looking at Google Analytics everyday. Also my budget was virtually gone, and although my full time occupation did allow me some money to invest, I’d discovered nothing encouraging into which to put my income. I was willing to re-invest some income if it would make the difference, but everything I’d experimented with was incredibly frustrating and ineffective. I was reluctant to throw more cash at Face book ‘likes’ or dismal click through rates. I was fed up and the dream was dying.
I turned my attention to the physical world after seeing a spate of pop-up shops and seasonal market opportunities in the local area. I reasoned that if I could get the product in front of people they would be more inclined to purchase. They were good quality garments and held unique designs, so I was sure they would be attractive on a market stall or in a shop.

My Amy tee - front of shop for all to see.

My Amy tee – front of shop for all to see.

I set about applying for several of these opportunities around Bristol and eventually got accepted into a pop-up shop that was opening up in The Galleries shopping centre in the run up to Christmas. For those unaware, The Galleries shopping centre is a large 70+ store mall in the centre of Broadmead, Bristol.Its a place I frequent on a regular basis and I was chuffed at the possibility of my products being on sale in  such a prominent location.

One of my Bays in the store

One of my Bays in the store

I was allocated 2 bays of shelf space for 2 months, and would also have one of my t-shirts displayed in the shop window for everyone to see. It was an exciting and unique opportunity and I stocked up the shelves with much enthusiasm and excitement. The store was subsidised by the shopping centre itself in an attempt to fill some empty shops, and was full with local independent fashion traders and handmade jewellery makers. We would have shelf space in return for a small fee (£40) and a days labour in the shop itself.
This was something of a landmark achievement for me and is something I’m still proud of. I had taken a product from my mind to the high street! I had created something that was now stocked in one of the biggest shopping facilities in my city. It felt good and it felt like an important achievement for my fledgling business. Predictably though, it didn’t really translate into cold hard sales in the way I had hoped. Over the coarse of the two months trading I sold 3 t-shirts in total. It was still great to be a part of and I learned a lot from the process itself, but it wasn’t the business kick-start I was secretly hoping for.
What it did lead to though was a contact with a local film club who required custom printed t-shirts that they could sell at their events – this developed into my most financially successfully period of trading. Over the coarse of 3 months I printed a total of around 60 tees for this club, at a rough £2.30 profit margin per shirt. It wasn’t groundbreaking by any means but it was enough to pay off a chunk of the outstanding loan arrangement.

And So…
So where does that leave us? At this point I had been running Dweeb clothing for around 11 months and I had struggled to turn any kind of profit whatsoever. Given the loan repayments were due monthly, I had barely covered my costs each month and had extinguished my miniscule marketing / contingency fund. It was all coming to an ignominious end. The cross roads came when the other half of my website fee was due. I had agreed to pay the second half of the design fee a year after going live if I still wanted to keep the website going – If I couldn’t pay, or didn’t want too, then the website would be closed.
I chose the later.
I could have, and perhaps should have found the money, but after a years worth of marketing, experimenting and promoting – I hadn’t gotten anywhere. There were no promises the second year would be any different.
And so I turned my attention back to my first love – writing – and threw my energies into that. It had been and exciting and interesting chapter but it was ultimately unsuccessful, as are 80% of first time business.
On a side note – I do still have the press, the plotter and the materials and have used it from time to time to provide family and friends with t-shirts and designs, so not all is lost – maybe one day I’ll find the drive to have another crack of the whip?

Pt3 – Lessons I learned….

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