My Failed Online T-shirt Store

(I wrote this in 2016 but never hit the Publish button. I’m hoping some stuff might still be relevant. I’ve embellished with Emojis)

The Master Plan

It wasn’t about becoming rich, but rather to learn a bit more about online businesses that sell physical goods. I thought I’d create an online store selling geek T-shirts for IT people. I decided that the jokes should be geeky enough to be appealing to my niche, but not too so I wouldn’t risk that only a small portion of the audience would understand them.

Tribe identified? Is the product niche enough? Check

I had found out about Printful’s integration with Shopify that would enable dropshipping in my online store. Shopify’s pricing was a bit steep for a shop that hasn’t made any sales, but anyway, it wasn’t such a big upfront investment.

No inventory, no handling, no shipping? Check

Would I spend hours on designing the T-shirt designs? Nooo way! With “The Noun Project” pro account I could have access to the largest library of vectorial icons and I could use each one in 250 T-shirts for $2. A witty text for the icon and a bit of Inkscape graphics and job done.

Time-to-market under 20 minutes? Check

I decided not have complicated pricing and I went for a single price of $21.99 with free US, CA, Europe shipping. It might be a bit pricey, but I insisted on the free shipping everywhere. Subtracting printing and dropshipping costs I would make $5 per T-shirt.

Dead simple pricing strategy? Good price compared to competitors? Check

What shall I call it? “T-Shirt…, Tee Shirt, Tee Sharp, t#….: Tee Sharp Store!” I purchased and redirected it to my Shopify store

Geeky name with available .com domain? Check

… What could possibly go wrong?

The Product

Zero sales 👌

What Went Wrong?

I thought I knew my customer 👨‍💻

My designs were unique so I didn’t have to worry about somebody selling The same stuff for a lower price. I identified (… more like I guessed) that I would have 2 types of potential customers:

  • Someone who is looking for a geeky T-shirt, gets to the site, finds one they like and buys it.
  • Someone who is just browsing the web and suddenly sees a T-shirt they fall in love with in an ad or their social media timelines, gets to the site, perhaps browses a bit and buys one.

I saw two ways of attracting customers:

  1. Letting them see my products and expecting them to like them
  2. Luring them into my site by publishing quality content they’d like to read and then exposing them to my products once they’re in my site.

Social media craze… not quite 😑

I followed the advice of some online marketing books and created a Facebook page, and Instagram account. I thought it would be hard to have Twitter as well so I didn’t get to use the account much.

Shopify provides store integration with Facebook, so I could have my products displayed in my Facebook page where the prospective customer could select colour and size and then they would check out without even visiting my page. I’m not sure I’d this was a good or a bad thing. But more importantly: it wasn’t even a thing since I never made a sale through that channel.

As for the Instagram account, I thought I’d use it to post new designs regularly and that I would garner likes and visits to my site. Thanks to the tags I used I got a few likes and I couple of followers. I also boosted a few of my Facebook posts and that had a similar effect to hashtags in Instagram. I got an interesting conclusion here: getting strangers to like your photo on Instagram is much easier and cheaper than Facebook, however they are less likely to actually visit your site. You can’t really put links on Instagram comments which makes it a lousy sales channel.

Content marketing?

I then read a bit about content marketing and decided that I should create attractive content to my potential customers. Once they were in my site — or my FB page — I could easily lead them to my products.

After some thorough analysis (of about 5 minutes) I got to the conclusion that, given my products are funny stuff, my content shouldn’t be about showing the T-shirts or explaining the jokes in them. Instead I should create a feed of IT jokes and memes and I could insert a product post or an image to a T-shirt inbetween. I used MemeCreator to create funny content for my tribe.

That’s all folks…

I shared a few posts on my own timeline, boosted a few of them and then I went to a wedding abroad for the weekend and when I came back I never got back to it. There was not cathartic event, no thrilling cease-and-desist letters from someone with a similar name; it plainly died out.

So why I think it failed? 👎

Is acknowledging failure early a good thing because you can limit your losses and start something new once you’re back on your feet? Or is it a bad thing because you gave up too easily instead of trying to save the project?

Lack of passion

I did this one thing right: I chose to target a tribe I know. However the product was not something I was very passionate about. I like the jokes, but I don’t really wear T-shirts to work. I should have been my own first customer. I should have been a walking billboard. I should have been eager to show my designs to my colleagues.

I thought but just creating a minimally decent product and some visits, that would have been enough. I was wrong. This lack of passion translated into the fact that I didn’t advocate for my own product. Advocacy is the strongest level of customer engagement. I was not my own advocate.

Loss of momentum

I spent about a week creating designs, fiddling with Shopify’s web interface, thinking about strategy, etc. Basically getting something out there, an MVP shop. I think it was good that I invested in a platform instead of coding the page myself. Then I think I was on the right direction about the social media.

However, as soon as something changed my routine (a trip abroad), I completely lost momentum and never really came back to out afterwards.

Weak willpower

I set myself the challenge of focusing everything in making my first sale. I was getting visitors thanks to some of my posts and paid traffic from Facebook, but not a single one bought a T-shirt. Maybe the sample size was too small, maybe my products were utter rubbish. In any case, not making a single sale was a big blow.

Lack of patience and focus?

Should I have waited longer? invested more money in getting more leads? Perhaps the 200-odd visits that the site has received are too small a sample size to calculate any success rate.

Product-market fit?

It’s hard to tell. There is definitely a market out there for this kind of T-shirts. Other companies have a similar products, but they are far better positioned in terms of SEO, brand, their content machine, etc. Was the market perhaps a bit too saturated?

Price point

Conversion cost with Social Media marketing was too high. That pushed the price to over $20.

What next? ⏭️

Should I be more methodical and invest more time in the store? Should I just write it off and jump to the next thing with the lessons learned? Good news is I’ve only invested a couple of weeks in this, but perhaps that’s the reason it never took off.

I’ve just found out that I can move my designs to Spreadshirt and have an online store for free there. This is really an affiliate marketing programme where you charge a flat fee for your designs and Spreadshirt mails a check every month for the sales. You can also put your designs in the marketplace for other people to create products based on your work.

The only reason why I may chose is because it’s free as opposed to the $29 a month that Shopify charges. I’ll be clearly losing control over my shop, billing, etc. I’ll let the long-tail kick in and I may switch back to Shopify or a different platform if need be.

Any comments are appreciated!

Readings 📚

Good books that I read and that could have helped me, but I apparently didn’t follow:

  • Maurya, A.: Running Lean: Iterate from Plan A to a Plan That Works. O’Reilly, 2010.
  • Waite, R.: Online Business Startup: The entrepreneur’s guide to launching a fast, lean and profitable online venture. Rethink Press, 2015.
  • Norris, D.: Content Machine: Use Content Marketing to Build a 7-figure Business With Zero Advertising. CreateSpace, 2015.

Software Engineer | talks about software, multilingual children