This is the story of how me and my partner Desmond created a six-figure ecommerce store entirely in our spare time while working full-time jobs.
Statement began as doodles in a notebook, and has since done some pretty cool things – showcases at design festivals, regular features in local media and a nice passive income stream for the two of us. Most delightfully, it’s given us the opportunity to do all sorts of cool experiments we wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.
Here are the lessons we’ve learnt along the way.
Lesson #1: Start quickly by testing the smallest version of your idea
I’ve always been a little too perfectionist about most of my ideas, but in this case I was happy to mess around because I didn’t seriously think I had any chance of going anywhere with it.
So one day when I was a little bored, I decided to post the ideas on Facebook to see what my friends thought of them:
On hindsight, this was a very important step, for several reasons:
- “Writing down” my idea to share it with others forced me to make it “real”. Putting something out puts a stake in the ground for you to subsequently rework with. A crappy draft of an idea is more actionable than a perfect-but-imaginary one.
- Learning that people were interested in my idea motivated me to move forward. I didn’t have ANY of the skills needed to build or run a t-shirt company, and I definitely wouldn’t have felt motivated to learn them unless I knew that people were interested in buying what I had to offer.
- I got buy-in from the guy who’d become my partner. Having somebody else who’s also interested in driving your project forward makes it feel much, much more real:
It is on.
Lesson #2 – Get feedback and buy-in from customers ASAP
So great, now I had someone who wanted to help, and he had some visual design skills. He could help me do mockups in things that weren’t MS Paint.
These got us from “hey, those are pretty cool ideas, I’d probably wear something like that” to “How much is this t-shirt and when can I get it?” (The founders of Opena Case had a similar experience.)
Knowing that people wanted to actually buy these theoretical t-shirts got us motivated to figure out the t-shirt printing process. I don’t think we’d have bothered to go through all the hassle otherwise (and it would’ve been tragic if we did that, only to then print t-shirts that nobody wanted.)
Lesson #3 – Learn from others in your field – they know more than you and can help you out.
Ask, ask, ask.
How do you go from an idea to having actual t-shirts printed? We didn’t know, so we decided to ask someone. Specifically, we sought out an older acquaintance who already had some experience selling t-shirts, and bought him dinner in exchange for his thoughts. He not only shared his experiences (successes and missteps), he gave us the contact to his t-shirt printer!
Note: Please don’t be self-obsessed when you do this. What’s in it for them? How much time will you need? What exactly do you want to ask them about? What questions do you need answered? Show that you’ve done your research. And pay for the drinks or food, it’s only polite!
Be visible so people can contact you!
This would happen again and again in the history of our business: We’d be selling t-shirts at some flea market and have someone approach us offering to re-sell our products, or feature us in some publication. Some of these folks have gone on to become critical partners in our business – our best resellers and our current printers were all people we met in person while selling t-shirts at some event or another.
So ask people out to coffee. Talk to suppliers, vendors, event organizers – and get to know them personally, ask them for their opinions, be genuinely curious. They will have all sorts of interesting information for you. One of our resellers opened our eyes to the wonders of courier shipping, saving us a ton of trouble.
Lesson #4 – Start exchanging product for cash as quickly as you can
We literally started out selling t-shirts directly through messages on a Facebook page.
We would get messages from people on Facebook and we would track their orders in a Google Sheet. It took us a while to figure out the concept of an SKU – we just used different rows and columns for different sizes!
This worked fine when we were selling a few t-shirts a week, and it was possible to respond to everybody on Facebook. But once we started getting dozens of t-shirts a week, we realized it wasn’t going to be sustainable, and so we set up a “proper” ecommerce store on Storenvy.
Getting cash from your first sale is a huge rush, and the sooner you get it the better – because it’ll compel you to do more. The longer you defer this, the likelier you are to get bogged down with details.
Lesson #5 – Focus on a niche
Niche selection is the most important decision for entrepreneurs. It’s more than half the battle. –Drew Sanocki
We never set out to be a “Singaporean” brand – we just wanted to make t-shirts that I liked. But it just so happened that some of the t-shirts I wanted had a local flavor to them, and those were the t-shirts that resonated resoundingly with people.
So we followed the money and doubled down on that, making more and more t-shirts in the style that our customers wanted – while continuing to establish our overall brand.
The litmus test question you need to ask yourself is this – “What can I say to one person about my t-shirts that would get them excited enough to tell somebody else about it?” You’ll find that you’re forced to be really specific. (Derek Sivers again has a great story about this – Hillbilly Flamenco).
Lesson #6 – Celebrate your customers and they’ll adore you for it
This came very naturally to us – we were very excited to see that people liked our t-shirts enough to post pictures of themselves wearing them, so we were eager to share and celebrate that success with the rest of our page, as well as on Instagram.
We started getting a lot of word-of-mouth. People would literally ask their friends on Facebook “Hey, where’d you get that shirt?”, and the wearer would tag us in the comments, and we’d get an order (or five) from the friend.
Lesson #7 – Prioritize a few essential tasks over all the others
You DON’T need to do EVERYTHING. There are a lot of extensive guides available online with a massive list of all the possible things that you could do. But it’s entirely possible to make several thousand bucks with just Facebook messages and a Google spreadsheet.
You don’t need to be on all the channels – it’s much better to focus on one or two channels and really build great relationships with customers there, than to try and be everywhere all at once.
One thing we did always prioritize was giving our customers the best experience we could. In the early days, we’d often go out of our way to help people with replacements and urgent deliveries if possible. We couldn’t sustainably scale that, but it definitely made an impression on our earliest customers and got us a lot of positive word-of-mouth.
Lesson #8 – Value your time, pay for useful services.
We also setup a proper ecommerce store to save us the trouble of having to manually enter sales data – we started out on StoreEnvy because it’s free, and then moved to Shopify because we wanted more features and functionality.
With the benefit of hindsight, we’d have gotten onto Shopify earlier – we were uncertain and broke so we were very skeptical of spending any sort of money, but the time and energy it would’ve saved us would’ve been worth the cost. Having all the customer data managed for you in an accessible way ALONE is more than worth the cost. Having “proper” business expenses also has a psychological effect of making it “serious”.
Lesson #9 – Delegate! Figure out tasks that other people can do for you, and compensate them for it.
When we started getting more orders than we could handle, we ended up hiring interns to help us out.
We felt awkward at first – are we employers? Do we know how to manage other people? We basically copied what the best practices were at ReferralCandy – we used a Trello board to keep track of all the tasks we wanted to do, and we had fortnightly 1-1s with our interns.
Different interns brought different things to the table. One helped us do photoshoots with their friends as models. Another helped to codify our processes and customer service protocol into Google docs.
Lesson #10 – Write down your partnership agreement, and manage all your bills and paperwork properly, and do weekly or monthly reviews.
This is something we DIDN’T do, and regret. Just because you’re running a side-business doesn’t mean you can be totally lazy about it. We each put in a couple of hundred dollars to pay for the first round of t-shirts, and thought it would probably make us a couple of thousand bucks – negligible amounts we could write off. So we didn’t bother much with keeping track of the paperwork. But it’s grown to over $100,000, and figuring out all the accounting inconsistencies was a nightmare. Lesson learned!
We also didn’t meet as often as we should’ve, which meant that our business grew more slowly than we’d have liked. Having regular meetings also helps you get re-aligned on multiple things – why does your company exist? How are you making progress towards your goals?
Asking these questions is a great way to stay focused and motivated. You don’t need to have meetings that go on for hours – a quick 20 minutes catchup with your co-founder can make all the difference.
Over the years we’ve gotten lots of curious questions from people who’re interested in starting up businesses of their own. Here are some of them.
When should you set up a formal business entity?
You don’t need to set this up from day 1 – that’s just a tedious distraction from the most important thing, which is making sure that people want to give you money for whatever you’re making. My recommendation is that you start thinking about it once you’ve made about a thousand dollars. In our case, we didn’t bother until we needed a company bank account to receive payment from some particular vendor.
Should you use accounting software, apps, etc?
Yes! It took us way too long to bother with this because we were trying to keep our costs low, but this is a bad place to try to cut costs. Keeping rigorous track of your invoices is crucial – it gives you peace of mind, it helps you understand your business better, etc.
How do you run meetings?
There’s a lot of meeting hate in the world, but it’s really bad meetings that are bad. Effective meetings can be short, snappy, energizing and even exciting. We resolve things together and we have new ‘next actions’ to drive the business forward.
How do you move forward when you don’t know what you’re doing?
We never really bothered doing any serious marketing – we took a lot of pride in spending as little time and energy as possible on the project. But looking back, we could’ve done more even with the little time that we spent, by being a little more focused. Now we have to figure out what the next wave of products will be – which is a fascinating intellectual challenge – but we could’ve extracted more value, which would’ve given us more $$ – which we can then deploy towards interesting projects of our choosing.
What did you learn from your customers?
We would continue to learn a lot about our customers, both from witnessing them in real life (at flea markets) and from the emails they would send us.
Later on when we were selling t-shirts at flea markets, we initially tried to persuade people to buy t-shirts for themselves. Those people rarely needed much persuading – they either immediately noticed something they wanted, or they’d just scan everything idly and move on. We noticed, however, that quite a few groups of friends would point at some t-shirt or other and say, “Haha, that’s so John!”, or “This is totally Sally!”
We realized that people liked buying gifts for friends, and so we changed our pitch from “See anything you like?” to “Do any of these remind you of our friends?” We started converting people much better, and this influenced how we sell.
Got any questions? Let me know in the comments and I’ll reply + update this post!