We're back. It is time now to reopen the shop here online.
All along my intention was to press ahead with our original goal: to build a brand around an affinity group, and to do it using social media. In doing so, this little shop will serve as a hand-on learning lab. This is less about making a buck selling a few tee shirts than it is learning the skills required to actually do it.
One thing I do try to avoid is making any project about me - any commercial undertaking should be about you, the audience that we strive to serve.
But since we did close shop, it is odd and inconsistent to try to reopen a year later. So this will be my attempt to try to share where my head is at with this.
Before we look at where we are going, it is useful to take a quick look back at where we have been.
In 2018 I opened this little Navy tee-shirt shop online here (Marines too), just as a creative outlet that would hopefully serve as a leaning lab, and if things go right, I'd break even or earn some beer money.
What I discovered it is that, in order to really do this right, it requires some time, energy and focus - and a bit of cash as well (though not all that much).
A few things happened with this project in 2018 that I honestly didn't expect. I'll offer this as a short sitrep:
My first order was purely organic - and in fact I still remember this - some guy named Todd in Colorado purchased one of my first vintage aviation designs, on a hoodie (Todd, thanks - I owe you a few beers).
This was about a week or so into the project. I was so elated. This thing works! Suddenly I was really starting to image the possibilities.
Then nothing. And I mean for weeks, little to no traffic. OK, that's fine, I assumed that this is normal, and that I just needed to work harder: examine the shop, make improvements to the store itself and probably find better designs.
Testing and experimenting ensues now, but looking back I admit that it really wasn't a methodical or scientific 'A or B' approach, but just a slow, lumbering clumsy movement, throwing things against the wall and looking for clues or evidence that something might stick.
Then I hire some online help, some 'experts' to help me improve the site design, do some search engine optimization, etc. This was not a good experience.
All the while I am starting to flirt with the idea of committing to some small ad budget, probably in the form of Facebook ads. I had used Facebook to run ads for another online project, and I had at least a limited appreciation of the power short promo videos. This is a comparatively cost-effective way to reach a lot of viewers, and drive traffic to a site, but you still need a viable product to sell in order to make this work - something that people are actually interested in, and hopefully actively looking for.
Then came the flish design.
I should explain that this is a tradition from the Navy cryptologic support community, and it is not an original design - far from it. But this narrow niche audience knew it and already identified with it, so I could see at least some demand. Some former shipmates helped out and we ran with it.
Once I had it loaded up on some tee shirts and hoodies, I shared with a few other former shipmates. They in turn shared on social media forums and the orders started rolling in.
So for a few months, in the late summer or early fall, the store was generating some profit. Now I was faced with the challenge of trying to replicate this small degree of success with another design. And I never managed to do that.
Why We Closed Up Shop
Well over 90% of sales came from those Navy spook 'flish' designs. Ultimately I spent as much or more on advertising than I turned in profit.
It became clear that I was going to need to do several things different and/or better in order to succeed with this online e-commerce project.
* Build a following organically
* Learn to advertise selectively and cost-effectively (or not at all)
* Identify demand among new audiences
* Learn to solicit feedback to develop popular design offerings.
It is obvious here that the best selling design was not mine, but a suggestion from an affinity group. The 'flish' experience showed me what was possible. This little shop got 90% of total revenue on pure referral demand, with zero ad spend. The question was, and is, how to replicate this.
For me personally it really just became a question of focus. Sometimes life is what happens to us while we're busy making other plans, and I found myself needing to remove some excess activities and focus on one or two key projects. The online t-shirt shop was one of a few projects that needed to get handed off or closed down in order to allow me to focus some energy on just one project.
Why Reopen Now?
As noted above, the original objective was to use this as a hands-on learning lab. So now there are new channels and new strategies that I very much want to test, and this little store might be a great way to do that.
Ideally we will use some new approaches and new social media channels to address the shortcomings we encountered before, and that is growing an audience cost-effectively. So not only are we exploring new paid advertising channels, but first and foremost it is my intention to make search engine optimization ('SEO') a priority. Driving traffic to a site that isn't correctly optimized is just not that smart - paying advertising dollars to do this is really dumb.
Nobody would ever expect to earn a living selling tee-shirts and hoodies, no matter the affinity group. At best this will cover costs, pay for some online marketing/analytical tools, and maybe buy an occasional case of beer. This is, after all, a skills-building project, more than anything.
And the skills that I build here are going to play a big part in a larger project. I just need to learn the ropes here and prove that I can do it.
And so, it is time to finally focus, eliminating all the distractions, and take this project seriously.
Of course, it will always be fun and a labor of love.
The Voice Of The Customer
The key lesson so far has been that the voice of the customer will cure all. So our goal is to find a way to engage our audience in a way that leads to product suggestions. Why should we offer you our designs, when you can tell us what designs you would really like? That is the approach that is going to be at the core of this project renewal.
Sure we will do our best using the design ideas that we already have but we're not going to stop there. Those are just the conversation starters - topics and/or concepts that we can hopefully improve on. The voice of the customer simply MUST be our compass that we use to navigate.
So I look forward to hearing more from many of you and taking your ideas and input into account as we go forward.