I'm a user experience veteran. This means I've spent the last dozen years or so working on other people's projects—everything from site overhauls for large, household-name companies to mobile app designs for scrappy startups.
One day, I realized I wanted to pursue my own dreams. So I started my own product design company, called YoonCo. I tend to create open-ended digital products, but this time I wanted to do something in the physical world.
Even though I'm a very digital person, I still carry a notebook to take notes. But I was never really satisfied with existing journals—they weren't conducive to tracking multiple projects at once, not to mention everyday stuff like grocery shopping and baby to-dos. So I spent over a year developing a notebook that would allow me to add, remove, and rearrange pages however I wished. I had no previous experience in stationery design or book binding. I just dove right in.
I'd been inspired by the Lean Startup movement, whose basic premise is to get a minimum viable product (MVP) out the door and let customer feedback be your motivator. So I taught myself everything I could about making notebooks, avoided dealing with the gatekeepers in the industry, and fabricated everything—everything—in-house to keep things as much under my control as possible.
When I felt the notebook was ready, I sold just a few to friends and family and plied them with free beer and lunches to get their feedback. Then I made little improvements and sold some more to get even more feedback. Then I made more little improvements, and so on. There were lots and lots of failures along the way, but because I launched with a super-low-risk MVP and tiny customer pool, they were never big failures. My new motto became "Big Batches = Big F-Ups," and I stuck to it religiously. I even tried out a single roll of shipping tape to test before committing to a bulk purchase. (It's great tape.)
I never considered raising funding, or pitching a big office supply company for a partnership. I really just wanted to make something, including everything from the product name, its logo, the notebook, the Shopify customization, from soup to nuts. Something that would become customers' daily companion—a notebook that would allow them to jot down any idea, big or small, without fear of "worthiness."
How did you earn your first sales? Which channels are now generating the most traffic and sales for you?
I sold my first notebooks through word of mouth to friends and family, simply to test things out. I was actually terrified of success—I mean, one guy in a little workshop can only do so much! So I treated the entire first six to eight months as a training period to make improvements to the product, settle on final suppliers, and make refinements to my production process. It also helped me fine-tune my marketing voice and figure out what sorts of communications my customers would actually enjoy receiving.
And all throughout, I would mutter to myself: "Big Batches = Big F-Ups." Start small, always, and proceed with baby steps.
It's a good thing I did so, because one day Sorta got featured on Lifehacker, and everything changed. Orders shot through the roof. People were saying things like, "This is the notebook I've been dreaming of!" The pressure was on.
The other lesson I learned from this incredibly hectic period was that transparency and honesty really do work. I emailed my hundreds of new customers and was frank: I'm just one guy, and I absolutely love the interest, and your notebooks will take a while to ship so thanks for your patience. I also swallowed my stage fright about releasing my little notebook to the world—I had been through enough incremental design iterations to be reasonably confident I had a good product on my hands.
The Lifehacker explosion led to other things, including a retail gig with The Grommet and other exciting things I can't mention right now. I've been able to meet and collaborate with the most interesting people anywhere: writers, artists, educators, techies, government, and so on. The whole experience has changed the way I see the online and physical space, and how they interact and amplify one another.
As Sorta grows, I'll continue to follow the Lean Startup principles that got me here in the first place: start small, move cautiously, listen to customers, and question all your internal assumptions.
Tell us about the back-end of your business. What tools and apps do you use to run your store? How do you handle shipping and fulfillment?
I use a MacBook Air. I use Sublime Text to edit my Shopify templates, MailChimp for marketing communications, Fireworks for image editing, Tumblr for my blogging, and the incredibly useful ShipStation for shipping and reporting.
What are your top recommendations for new ecommerce entrepreneurs?
If you're new to the exciting (and liberating!) world of Shopify, things can seem daunting. I recommend starting small—sell a product you have lots of control over, in a way that lets you course-correct quickly and without a whole lot of risk. Don't freak out about customizing your Shopify templates down to the last pixel—the product will do all the talking.
And this applies to any business: treat your customers, especially your really enthusiastic ones, like the kings & queens they are. Sing their praises, loudly and often. Be generous with your time with them. Even help them in their endeavors if you can. I really believe in karma in this way—every good deed comes back to you, and for a reason.