The Journey of Launching My First Product, “To Do Cal”

Note: This is the first and only time I’ll hand out sales numbers on my products. It’s dangerous and invites competition. I’ve seen others do it and screw themselves over. I’m handing mine out because I’d like my readers to let me know if I’m doing something wrong or my margins are too low. This is my first product and a massive learning experience.

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ToDoCal is sold here (FREE, I’m moving to West Coast and need to liquidate entire inventory):

Official Store $FREE Amazon  Etsy

A long story short:

  • Had an idea for a square-less calendar design with more room for appointments and notes. 
  • Ran a KickStarter campaign asking for $25,000 and failed (obviously).
  • Screw it, I’ll take a risk anyway. Spent $2,000 and had 250 calendars printed.
  • Quotes and finalization took way too long and I finally got my shipment in December. Less than 1 month before New Years. So I was REALLY late.
  • Ran a Fab.com sale starting Dec 5th 2012 for 1 week and sold 147 units and got a crash course in fulfillment.
  • Opened an online wordpress store 2 weeks before new years and sold out on March 1st.
  • Ordered 250 more calendars for 2013 and 1,000 calendars for 2014. While I was at it I redesigned them and the packaging so that 1 calendar shipped is exact 1lb (instead of 2 lbs 3 ounces) which reduced shipping by $2-3 dollars.

Conception:

I came up with a unique calendar layout that combines a traditional format with a todo list back in 2008 and drew it up on paper. In 2010 I finally published it on my blog: http://www.chrisnorstrom.com/2010/12/invention-calendar-layout-that-actually-has-space-for-notes-reminder/,  Finally another 2 years later in 2012 I taught myself Adobe Illustrator for the first time and designed the calendar so I could try to get it selling on Kickstarter.

Mistake: I forgot to set up a launch page that collects email addresses while I was working on my launch.

I’m ashamed, there’s no excuse. There’s free, paid, and open source solutions that take minutes to set up. You literally have nothing to lose. Don’t make the same mistake I did. Just register a domain, throw up a Launch Effect or Launch Rock or KickOffLabs or custom static page with a form for collecting emails of interested potential customers who happen to find their way there. You have at least 4 options:

  1. Launch Effect Premium for WordPress (free and paid versions)
    (has Complete control over email addresses, is self hosted, total customization, takes some time to set up, Free & Paid versions)
  2. Launch Rock
    (Free, not self-hosted, less customization, but easier and quicker to set up.)
  3. KickOffLabs
    (Free and Paid versions.)
  4. Static HTML page with a widget to collect email addresses and send them to MailChimp.
    (free, simple, scalable up to 2,000 subscribers, paid options available after that)

Lesson: The massive difference between products & online startups.

Websites = Launch now, perfect later: 
Get it done and launch, iterate later, fix mistakes as you go.

Products = Tons of planning, quotes, revisions, must be near perfect at launch, no mistakes allowed:
I never realized how much preparation there is in getting a freaking calendar launched. Damn.

Lesson: Sell your product ASAP, IF there are sales, THEN continue and build a brand and site around it.

how-it-works

You don’t need a website, a brand, or even a logo. Countless people are selling their products on ebay, amazon, etsy, craigslist, and other marketplaces. In fact you can throw up imaginary items and see if they sell just for research. If anyone orders and you can’t actually fulfill just cancel the transaction and mark the item as “I no longer have this item / it was damaged”. It’s sad and bad news for your first customers but it’s the most realistic way to test a product.

Everything else costs immense amounts of time and money to create (e-commerce websites, logos, brands, business cards, stickers for your product, etc…) So start selling your bare unbranded, unpackaged, product first.

Lesson: Quotes from printers/manufacturers add up and can take months.

I planned on launching the KickStarter campaign in November and shipping out my calendars in December in time for new years. Oh how naive I was. Finalizing a calendar size and cost, paper type, etc… took about 3 months.

How? Because it takes 5 business days (forget about Sat & Sun) for printing companies to get back to you with a quote. Once you see the prices you’ll make adjustments on paper thickness, type, # of pages, binding type, quantities, etc… and it will take another 5 days. I know for certain that you’re reading this thinking “how could this process have possibly gotten stretched out to 3 months?!”. Oh my friend it did. And that’s just the way things are. Even with simple products like calendars there are hundreds of different combinations of options and you will spend a massive amount of time reviewing them and their prices and that’s how you get caught in the trap. Ordering a calendar to be printed is one thing (that’s easy, takes only 1 week) but building a calendar and getting quotes back and forth to finalize the size, quality, and quantity is a very LONG process.

Lesson learned: Start 6 months to 1 year early.

Attempts at attaining a patent:

Yes I wanted to file a patent. If I work my ass off for something I don’t want it ripped off. I don’t want to lose money in the future due to bad business decisions in the past. I hate software patents like the next guy but physical inventions deserve some kind of protection. You don’t want to end up like these guys from kickstarter: http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20120824/08241820146/pen-vs-pen-dealing-with-copycat-naming-shaming.shtml

Patent attorney Mark Nowatarski had a deal running where he would file a patent for free (excluding fees) and you’d only pay if your kickstarter campaign was funded. Don’t know if that’s still the case but he was awesome and great to work with: Here’s his site: http://www.marketsandpatents.com/crowdfunding.php

So I learned that once you publish an invention you have a time limit to file for a provisional patent, I think it was 2 years according to the old rules and I was nearing my deadline all because I published my calendar on my blog. One patent attorney told me it was useless to get a patent on a calendar design and that it would be covered by a simple $50 copyright filing, another helped me go ahead and file a provisional as part of a kickstarter deal he was running. So for $125 (the filing fee) he filed a provisional patent for free. The deal was if my upcoming Kickstarter campaign was successful then I’d pay the $5,000 or so using my Kickstarter money to file the complete thing. I thought “why not?” I’ve only got $125 to lose at the moment. So I filed a provisional which gave me 1 year to file my official patent for $5,000.

My hilariously deluded, awful, terrible, no-good, failure of a Kickstarter campaign:

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/chrisnorstrom/the-calendar-reinvented-a-giant-21-month-wall-cale (had a video btw, I just had it taken down)

Yeah….. I kind of asked my backers for $25,000… … … on January 17th 2012… and the campaign was only 30 days, ending in the middle of February 2012 … And the calendar I was selling them started in April 2012 and ended in December 2013 (21 months). I’m truely ashamed… 

I explained to my backers (all 11 of them): “Kickstarter and Amazon Payments will take out about $2,000 in fees so I’m left with $23,000. I’ve priced out everything from the printing, delivery, shipping, packing, and labeling and it will cost $16,000 to PRINT and SHIP 1,000 Calenders (without profit or buffer money). Another $5,000 to apply for a design patent so I at least have some protection from established manufacturers. $500 will be used to incorporate my business and set up an online store with credit card processing so I can sell these calendars year round. The remaining $1,500 will be buffer money to cover any surprise costs, international shipping surprises, gas money, money to hire neighbors to pack calendars into boxes, and anything else that comes up.”

Looking back in hindsight, these numbers are idiotic, ridiculous, astronomical, hilariously atrocious for a calendar project. I was too late, asking for too much, the calendar was too expensive, so obviously it failed. Because…

Mistake: I was selling my product around MY needs.

My mistake was that I was pushing MY needs and not my customer’s needs. MY needs where to get this thing going and not wait till next year. MY needs where to sell 1,000 calendars and have them be wire-o binded and be massive and 21 months etc….

My Customer’s needs where to have a creative unique calendar that was affordable and to receive it before new years. I failed to fulfill their needs. Obviously they weren’t going to fulfill mine.

My Kickstarter failed. Should I risk my own money and “Just Do It™” ?.

I thanked my backers (all 11 of them) told them I’d be back next year with a lower goal and revised calendar, told Mark the patent guy I’m not going through with the patent, and decided to wait till next year to get the calendar rolling on kickstarter again. Wait a minute…. Why do I need to beg for money on Kickstarter in the first place? Why don’t I just put in a few thousand dollars of my savings and try to sell my calendars the traditional “Grow a pair and sell them yourself” way?

Lesson: My own fear was holding me back.

So here was my logic to not taking risks my whole life:
I was born stupid (everyone is) and deep down inside I’m aware of how stupid I am. Other people don’t know how stupid I am. As long as I don’t look stupid in front of them I can hide it, and they won’t judge me for my flaws, imperfections, and occasional dumbfuckery. So I avoid taking risk, so I don’t fail and look stupid in front of others.

Yeah…

However I had an immediate change of heart when I sat down with myself a few weeks after my failed Kickstarter and said, “One day I’m going to die and my rotting ass is going to be forgotten and no one will know about me or my stupid fucking calendar.” That was pretty much it. That was my wake up call. Succeed or fail you’re going to same place Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Steve Jobs, your great great grandparents, and sadly Milla Jovovich are going. Into the deep black nothingness that awaits us all (heaven, for the believers). No one will care about what you failed at or how dumb you looked while trying. Besides, you’re only 1 of 7 billion people. So I literally just stopped caring cold turkey that day.

I decided to just go ahead, risk a bit of my own savings and buy and sell the calendars myself through whatever means possible.

The Birth of “ToDoCal” & There Goes $2,000:

I renamed “The Calendar Re-Invented” to “ToDoCal” and after a few quotes I chose a very well awarded (and reasonably affordable) local printer in St. Louis (http://advertisersprinting.com/). After months of back and forth quotes on size and paper and binding and all that jazz I finally ordered 250 calendars for a little under $2,000. Each calendar cost $7.66 to make.

My Babies:SAMSUNGThe First Batch of 250 Calendars (17×26):

They’re 17 inches wide by 26 inches long, 12 pages, 12 months, chipboard backing, and the months/pages peal off from the top. The binding is simple glue and there’s 1 hole in the middle at the top to hang the calendar.

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Mistake: Not having the front page be a blank sheet for protection while shipping

Issue: CANNOT be rolled, must be shipped flat.

The clock is ticking. It’s November 9th 2012 and I’ve got 250 Calendars in my basement.

I had a little over a month to sell them before new years. And I. was. freaking. out. I was and still am a terrible salesman. But I pushed on. I figured the pressure was good for me as I had no choice but to learn quickly or lose 2 grand.

Lesson: DO. NOT. OVER. OPTIMIZE.

Over-optimizing is preparing for success without the guarantee that you’ll reach it. A.K.A. Buying things you don’t need right now. Things fail by default, very few products and companies succeed. Entrepreneurs/inventors are optimistic by nature and like to buy a bunch of crap they’ve deemed will help them when massive orders come in. Wake up. You are not going to get massive orders. So stop accumulated “ego-comforting” supplies. I’ve done this so much in the past that I’ve weeded this behavior out of myself. For instance:

  • I could’ve bought UPC barcodes and stickers ($60) to put on all 250 of my calendars but I didn’t. I don’t need them. I’m not selling to any major stores at the moment.
  • I wanted to buy an expensive $70 special stapler with 1/2″ long staples so I don’t have to use cumbersome tape to package my calendars in their cardboard envelopes. But I didn’t because I don’t have a single order and packing style isn’t finalized.
  • I was going to buy printable self stick shipping labels so I could buy & print postage from USPS and just stick the label on the package instead of having to tape it on. But I stopped myself. Until enough orders come in to warrant the labels, I’m sticking with manually taping them on.

 This is the one thing I did really well. I started small and built up only when I needed to.

Securing Shipping Supplies:

Because the calendars can’t be rolled, I have to ship them flat by purchasing a giant flat cardboard panel from Clean Carton Company in St. louis (http://www.cleancarton.com/): I had this shipping method planned in advanced months before I ordered the calendars.

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Splitting it in two.

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Then folding each piece in half with the calendar laid flat in between.

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And taping 3 sides around so it’s ready for shipping.

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This process requires about 20 minutes per calendar :( I had no other realistic choice. Custom boxes at such a low quantity (200-250) would be insanely expensive and I can’t roll the calendars into a tube either.

Getting on Fab.com

I kept hearing about them http://fab.com/ so I applied and was accepted for one of their Holiday flash sales.

If you’d like to get on FAB.com here’s what you can expect (at least according to my experience):

  • Get in touch with a buyer (fab has buyers who go around discovering new products to put on fab and how and when to combine them for themed sales).
  • Expect to mail a sample of your product for free.
  • You need to have a way of reading Microsoft Excel and word spreadsheets. You will get a lot of them.
  • Create a separate email account JUST for your fab sale. Believe me. Please. Listen to me on this one.
  • You will be hit with a “shit ton” of emails from beginning to end from a lot of people.
  • Fab is NOT automated, everything is done manually by emailing people back and forth a LOT. (At least when I worked with them). Everything is done through numerous people. There’s a person in charge of buying, editing your listing, shipping, accounting, UPS account setup, packing slips, payouts, etc… And they will all send you emails with forms, and excel spreadsheets, and instructions. It can get complicated on your first time through.
  • You can either ship out orders yourself (pack your product into your own boxes and print out UPS prepaid postage labels on FAB’s UPS account) OR you can ship your products to FAB’s warehouse and let them pack and label and ship your products.
  • Fulfillment is a pain in the ass. If you’re selling more than 50 of anything it’s better to let Fab do it. Ship your products to their warehouse and let them handle everything.
  • Fulfillment is a full time job. Take a week off of work. Because depending on how much you sell, you’ll be over-inundated with orders.
  • Fab asks for their 30% plus they ask for your item to be discounted by at least 10% so you better have some great margins.
  • I barely made it onto Fab because of my margins. Normally they wouldn’t take me because they’ve got other much more profitable products to sell.

Surprise! The new corrugated sheets I bought online are crap.

I wasn’t going to spend 20 minutes cutting up corrugated board to make giant envelopes so I figured I’d buy pre-cut board online at Shillington Box Co. for cheaper and just tape everything together. Haha! no. 

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These were the most low quality, flimsy, crappy corrugated sheets I’ve ever seen. These things were so delicate that stapling them would just puncture through. Well, there’s goes $50 (I sold $20 of these to people on craigslist so I got some of my money back). (Yes I told them about the flimsy quality, I’m not an asshole.)

Maybe I can go back to Clean Carton Company and get those original corrugated sheets I used for prototypes. The heavy duty ones I originally intended on cutting and using…. NOPE. They’re gone.

Getting Creative with Packaging

Turns out my fallback boxes (the ones from Clean Carton Co) were one of a kind and sold out. No one else in St. Louis has those type of that quality and size. The good news is, this worked in my favor. One of the sales guys at Clean Carton Co. suggested I take some other boxes home and experiment. And luckily I discovered I could do this:

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By turning the flat inward I could tape the sides and it would hold the calendar safely in place during shipment. This new packaging method knocked me down to 5 minutes per calendar (includes everything from printing labels, packing, taping, moving, etc…). Sweet! So I bought 250 just to be safe. They came in at about $0.55 each.

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Poor basement. The rest of the house is nothing like this I swear!

FAB.com Sales Stats:

My sale was from December 8th – December 15th and despite my calendar “ToDoCal” being odd, strange, new, and one of over a dozen calendars featured on FAB during the sale, I still sold 147 calendars. It took 20 hours to completely and fully take care of fulfillment. And I was exhausted. I won’t go into details but the stress had taken it’s toll on me and I discovered at this level of stress and sleep deprivation my body wasn’t healing itself correctly. My skin would split and bleed from random places O_o. I slept and napped quite a bit after the sale.

I Sold 147 Calendars on Fab and made $30 in profit.

And that’s completely my fault.

  • I set a low MSRP price tag of $12.99 per calendar instead of 14.99 or 19.99. I was nervous, I never sold products before and was sitting on 2 grand worth of inventory that was going to be worthless after new years if no one bought it. So I set the price low. (Later through experimentation on my store I found out 12.99 coincidentally is the perfect price buyers are willing to pay for my calendar.)
  • My calendars cost $7.66 (because I ordered only 250 of them. If I had ordered 1,000 they’d cost around $3.50 each), the boxes I ended up shipping them in plus shipping labels, plus tape cost $0.63 each.
  • Total cost to me was $8.29 per calendar.
  • FAB was looking to buy them from me for $6.50.
  • After some back and forth negotiating and asking a manager/director’s permission they’d allow my calendar and pay me $8.50 each
  • I’d like to emphasize that I was very close to not making it on FAB. I barely made it because of my low margins. I pretty much begged them. I just wanted to get rid of these things so badly, and they had pity on my poor little entrepreneurial heart and I’m very thankful for that.

After Fab / Designing and Hacking Together a Custom WordPress E-commerce Store.

The Fab sale ended in the middle of December and I had to find a new way to sell my calendars. I threw them up on Amazon and Ebay but didn’t sell much because my calendars where just one of millions of products. I needed a permanent landing page and place to sell these things.

I chose to diversify and put my calendars on Amazon, Etsy, Ebay, TheFancy, and set up my own custom e-commerce store using wordpress + wp e-commerce plugin + paypal + stripe.

Here it is: http://dayonepp.com/

my-online-store

Jesus Christ, it was a lot harder than I thought. I’m a UX / Design guy, so it just had to be perfect. So I spent 30+ hours modding the hell out of a wordpress theme and a WP e-commerce plugin to make it look nice. I have to say I feel exhausted just thinking about the experience. A big part of the problem was the WP E-commerce plugin. I had to fight with it so much just to get it to look nice.

Lesson: The WP E-Commerce plugin is garbage. This is the most Half-Assed wordpress plugin I’ve ever used. It works but is glitchy beyond comprehension and has wasted at least 20+ hours of my life.

  • Paypal Payments Standard is glitched up, some of my customers couldn’t checkout. It doesn’t correctly send address information to paypal either so I had to disable sending it. The options in the plugin settings page don’t seem to have any affect.
  • Useless for international orders: Incorrectly calculates international shipping and cost of shipping balloons out of control because it gets rates for every item in a customer’s shopping cart then adds them up. Normally (for domestic shipping) it lets you decided if you want to get rates for each package individually or add the weight of the packages together, use the largest size box, and get a rate that way.
  • Checkout is bricked if order weighs over 75lb, Shipping plugin can’t separate order into 2 separate packages and return rates. It just doesn’t let buyer continue during checkout. And there’s no way to warn a customer about this. They’ll just sit there confused and frustrated.
  • Downloading an order as an excel spreadsheet is has a bug and has to be manually fixed each time. There’s no first header for the order numbers so all the data is incorrectly under the wrong heading. City names are under the address field, states are under the city field, country is under the state field, etc…
  • Transaction emails are glitched and do not send out when new orders come in. They’re getting caught in a queue somewhere and after the stars align, are finally sent. So don’t count on getting an email, you have to check your Store each and every day for new orders. They were working fine at first.
  • The checkout page itself is glitched. When you add a page to wordpress or have misaligned spiritual energy, the checkout page no longer exists and you have to manually deactivate the wp e-commerce plugin and activate it again to get the checkout page back.
  • Permalinks can be glitched. Products that I set up in the beginning have different urls than now. Yet both pages work, but are displayed differently. WTF.
  • Customization is a pain in the ass. Certain labels and wording are directly in the templates, others are in language files. And others are in different template files. And a lot of customization gets over-written every time you upgrade the store. So you’re setting yourself up for a lot of maintenance.
  • Stripe plugin costs $37 and is glitched as well as being a half-assed job. Doesn’t even support “test” mode. Doesn’t send last names to stripe, it just doubles the first name, so when you’re trying to refund a customer’s order and you’re looking through your Stripe Control Panel you have to find it by price or first name only. And since it doesn’t support test mode, you have to actually create a $0.50 product, purchase it with your credit card and that’s how you know if your plugin works. It also doesn’t give your customers any errors when their credit card is declined or has an incorrect entry. It just reloads the checkout page and gives no instructions. The creator didn’t bother to tell you which API key to enter in the settings. Is it your Publishable API key? Or your Secret API key? You’ll have to try both because he didn’t feel like typing an extra 1 word next to “api”. Thanks a lot man! Great job!
  • Stock control is horribly coded. If you turn on stock management and tell wp e-commerce that you have 100 units of a product in stock, and someone visits your store, adds 100 items into their shopping cart, then leaves, those 100 items will be reserved for them for a minimum of at least 1 hour, or 24 hours or 1 week or whatever time you set in the admin control panel. Meaning ALL of your other customers will see “Temporarily Out Of Stock” when they visit your store and will be unable to order. Costing you money. The lowest you can set this time limit is 1 hour, so if you get a flood of customers like I did, and have 85 Calendars in stock, if enough people add it to their cart and abandon it, it will reach it’s limit and show EVERYONE, “Out of stock”. I had to disable stock management as it’s useless.
  • The “Complete Purchase” action is Glitched. Every time someone clicks it, if there’s something wrong with their payment info or they forgot to enter something in the form fields, the page will reload and tell them what they forgot. It will also count each and every try as a separate transaction with an incomplete payment and log that into your store under “Pending Orders”. Yeah. I had a poor soul by the name of Damien G. who took a good 15 times until the transaction went through (keep in mind, the Stripe plugin doesn’t give errors when your credit card info is wrong in any way) and my store’s back-end had pages worth of incomplete orders from him and others that I have to manually clear out. This continues to happen constantly.
  • International shipping calculations are coded incorrectly. Every other USPS calculator (official, post office in-store, ebay, paypal, pitney bowes) says that sending a 31x20x1 inch box that weighs 2 lbs 4 ounces overseas costs $41.57 to send to Belgium, $27.93 to Canada, & $34.58 to Mexico. Wp E-commerce keeps saying it’s only $16.95. To any international location. $16.95. Where it’s getting that number from I don’t know, but it’s wrong. So i had to cancel $200 in international orders.
  • The USPS Calculator cannot / doesn’t know how to use metric. If you create a product with the weight in pounds and dimensions in inches it’ll do it’s thing. If you change it over to kilograms and centimeters the calculator breaks and doesn’t do anything.
  • International Shipping has another glitch, by default, when users are shopping and checking out, it selects the country and state where the admin is based out of (in my case, USA, Missouri) so when they change their country to Belgium or Switzerland, for some odd reason it puts “Missouri” in the shipping state field.
  • Coupons also have a glitch, updating them doesn’t work, if you want to make a change delete the coupon and remake it from scratch.
  • WP-ecommerce does not permanently record weather or not a payment for an order was successful. If it was successful Stripe or Paypal or whatever payment method you’re using sends back a confirmation and WP E-commerce changes the “status” of an order to “Payment Accepted”. However, it seems to have a mind of it’s own as after a few days it likes to randomly change the status of orders that aren’t closed to either “closed order” or “job dispatched”. You then have to go through Paypal and stripe and match up the transactions to see if an item was paid for or not.
  • Found another bug. Deleting variations of a product deletes the original product’s shipping and weight and table rates. Forcing you to enter them all over again. Why? I don’t know.

I hate this plugin and I hate the people that made it. I know that makes me sound like an asshole but it’s the truth. I know the plugin is free, that’s not why I picked it, I chose it because of it’s shipping options. It’s the ONLY wordpress e-commerce solution that has the shipping options I need. I’ve invested 20 hours into wp e-commerce and every few weeks I discover something broken. Before you tell me to quit my bitching and just go file bug reports and help make wp e-commerce better. These glitches are already filed and many are several YEARS old. Others have been complaining about them for years. I’m not the only one. You need to realize that the team does not care. They’re making money by NOT fixing these issues and just charging for premium support. That’s the catch.

If they fixed their store glitches, no one would purchase premium support and that seems to be their revenue model. WP E-Commerce = Free e-commerce plugin with lots of features (so you can get hooked) that makes it’s money by being glitchy so you can pay for premium support.

Here’s a nice gem I found in the purchase-log-notification.class.php file:
“// legacy code, which Gary honestly doesn’t fully understand because it just doesn’t make sense
// prior to 3.8.9, these actions are called on each product item. Don’t really know what they do.”

Seeing as how the developers don’t understand their own code it’s no wonder there’s so many bugs and glitches. I’ll be using MarketPress / Woo-commerce / others in the future and will tell you guys how they go.

Lesson: Avoid buying WordPress themes from ThemeForest.net

All I wanted was a wordpress theme with custom sidebar options, some widget options, maybe 1 slider plugin, and easy markup for buttons & columns. I made the mistake of going with the Avada WordPress Theme from ThemeForest.

Long story short, Here’s why you should avoid buying these kinds of WordPress Themes:

  • They load up 2-3MB of code, waste bandwidth and slow down your server.
    • In order to compete with the hundreds of thousands of themes, the theme authors have engaged in what can only be described as “Feature Warfare”. Each theme is stuffed, packed, and over-packed with features, many that you don’t need and just slow down your wordpress installation, just to compete with the other themes on features.
    • The theme authors do this because the audience of ThemeForest want the most bang for their buck so they over-stuff their themes with 3 different html5 sliders, facebook plugins, twitter feed scripts, 10 different javascript animation scripts. And most cannot be disabled and are hard coded into the themes.
    • Many of the themes load 3mb of code when you first visit the site, and each page re-load is 1-2mb. This is the best way to slow down your website or take it offline for a few hours.
  • They are TERRIBLY coded and have bad performance.
    • Because the authors of these themes focus on quantity of features over quality they don’t bother to code properly or even cleanly. There’s a massive amount of unnecessary and overlapping code, files that don’t even affect anything, and tons of social media nonsense loading up whether it’s being used or not.
    • Some of them have so much nonsense loading and running that simply scrolling through the site while having 10 tabs open in your browser making scrolling choppy and sluggish.
    • They also conflict with other plugins.
  • Constant and Major Updates.
    • Because there are so many features there are many problems and glitches which have to be constantly patched. If you’re looking for a stable theme that you can mold into what you need, look elsewhere.

The Avada theme itself is the best selling theme on ThemeForest, I bought it at a time when it had just 400 purchases, it now has 33,000. The theme authors have finally started to optimize the theme but it still has a 2mb load with roughly 900kb subsequent loads. That’s just too much for me. The front page of this blog (even with ALL of the images loaded) is still only 1.2mb. If you enjoy DDOSing your own website every time you’re mentioned on Facebook go ahead.

Most of the themes on ThemeForest are like this.

Custom E-commerce Store vs Amazon vs Ebay vs Etsy.

Listing Fees, Final Value Fees, Transaction Fees:

  • Amazon = takes out $4-$5 out of my final price!
    • no cost to list item
    • very high 25%-30% fees
  • Ebay (+ Paypal) = takes about $3 out of my final price
    • very cheap to list $0.50 which lasts 1 month
    • Fees are about 11% of total price + shipping (yes ebay takes out fees from your shipping costs too)
  • Etsy = takes out less than $1 per transaction
    • Cheap to list $0.20 (per item listing)
    • Cheap fees 3.5%
  • My Custom Store (Wp E-Commerce + Paypal + Stripe) = $0.85 per transaction
    • Free to list
    • low fee of $0.30 + 2.7% on each transaction

Winners: Etsy and a Custom Store

Shipping accuracy and options:

  • Amazon
    • the worst shipping options ever, you will lose a lot of money on shipping because shipping is flat and not calculated according to size+weight+destination. To compensate for this I had to list my calendar as being 30lbs just to get Amazon to give me more for shipping.
  • Ebay
    • Best shipping calculations ever! Shipping is calculated according to size+weight+destination+quantity and is accurate down to the penny.
  • Etsy
    • Bad shipping options. No shipping calculation, must use self set flat fee.
  • Custom Store
    • Pretty good shipping options, slightly inaccurate due to glitches in the software I used

Winners: Ebay & Custom Store

Ease of Setting Up (On a scale of 1-5, 1 being the easiest and 5 the hardest):

  • Amazon (3 moderately easy)
  • Ebay (2 pretty easy)
  • Etsy (1 extremely easy)
  • Custom Store (5 very hard) + you need to have hosting which supports php and mysql + ssl certificates and you need to be able to set it up.

Winners: Etsy & Ebay

Shipping Options:

  • Amazon (Terrible / Worst / Money Loser)
  • Ebay (Best! / Calculates shipping down to the penny using size, weight, quantity, and destination)
  • Etsy (Flat only, no calculated)
  • Custom Store (Would be perfect if not for glitches / Calculates shipping down to the penny using size, weight, quantity, and destination)

Winners: Custom Store & Ebay

Options and ease of Customization & Freedom:

Winner: Custom Store

Coupon Options:

Winner: Custom Store

Permanency:

  • Amazon – pretty permanent page for your products
  • Ebay – listing expires and must be relisted 
  • Etsy - listing expires and must be relisted 
  • Custom Store - extremely permanent + custom landing pages

Winner: Custom Store

Customer Service and About Page:

  • Amazon – pain in the ass, no about page
  • Ebay – easy customer service but no real about page
  • Etsy – easy customer service but no real about page
  • Custom Store - easy and you can make yourself a very in depth about page

Winner: Custom Store

Which brought in more revenue?:

  • Amazon: $60 in revenue
  • Ebay: $200 in revenue
  • Etsy: $300 in revenue
  • Custom Store: $3,000 in revenue!

CONCLUSION & why a Custom Online Store pays off so well:

If you’re wanting to sell a product AND it’s an invention of yours which qualifies for Etsy, immediately post it on etsy and start getting sales immediately. Etsy is small enough to where your products are still discoverable but large enough to have an audience and community for good sales. It’s easy, cheap, and great for beginners. Amazon and Ebay are too big, your products will get lost in the millions of listings.

Afterwards, if sales pick up immediately look into building an online store as a permanent home for your products as the payoff is well worth the cost and hassle.

  • You are in complete control of the look and feel, the customer service, the interaction, the user experience, and the presentation of your products.
  • Unlimited use of coupons and promotion codes.
  • Unlimited custom landing pages.
  • Control over how many images, and resolution of images / videos your products have.
  • Control over price, discounts, & sales.
  • A permanent landing page for your products.
  • Control over the description and length of description of your product.
  • 1-on-1 customer support.
  • Ability to blog on your store and convert readers into buyers.

The Downside of an E-commerce store:

  • Initial time and cost of setting one up. (I chose an extremely custom wordpress e-commerce store which cost me about $82 worth of plugins and 30 hours of my time) if you go with Shopify, Magento, or any of the other online stores your experience will be much better.

Lesson: Learn the Metric System

No joke. The death of the US fractional system unforgivably overdue. Quick, what’s 3 and 5/8ths inches plus 7 and 3/16ths? Don’t bother, the metric system’s on the other side of that ruler for a reason. and I turned the ruler around and started counting in mm, cm, and suddenly my life got easier. Calculations were instant and I made less mistakes.

Everyone should learn the metric system.

Your Shipping Options:

First chose how you will ship: USPS (United States Postal Service), UPS, or FedEx. For me USPS is cheapest and fastest for my packages.

Understand This!: Buying Postage for your USPS packages at the physical locations (even if you use the APC: Automated Postal Center machine located inside some USPS locations) is ALWAYS $1-$3+ more EXPENSIVE than buying postage ONLINE using one of the methods below and printing it out at home.

  1. Physically go to the Post Office every time you have to mail something and stand and wait in line
    • Pay regular price for postage, no discounts given.
    • Service is free but very time consuming + expensive.
  2. Use PayPal Multi Order Shipping
    • Get discounted postage $1-$3+ on each package.
    • Service is FREE (but you can’t create international shipping labels)
    • More time consuming (lots of clicking)
    • Online web app that you can use from any computer
  3. Use Pitney Bowes Smart Postage ($15/month)
    • Get discounted postage $1-$3+ on each package.
    • Service is 15/month with 1 month free trial
    • Less time consuming but not as easy as Stamps.com
    • Address input is a bit annoying (Address field is multiple input boxes)
    • Online web app that you can use from any computer
    • Downside: Once you delete your account all of your records are gone permanently!
  4. Use Stamps.com ($15/month)
    • Get discounted postage $1-$3+ on each package.
    • Service is $15/month with free trial
    • Very easy address input (one big text input box)
    • Must download and install the desktop software
  5. Use Endicia.com ($15/month (secret $10/month plan available if you dig around))
    • Get discounted postage $1-$3+ on each package.
    • I haven’t tried Endicia’s $15/month plan yet, I have however tried the 10/month no bells and whistles plan. It’s alright, it’s software that must be installed and it looks like it’s from 1992 and not user friendly but works.

For the moment I recommend Stamps.com, Next month I’ll finally try Endicia and tell you guys how that goes.

How did I sell the remainder of the 100+calendars after my Fab sale?

I went around to nearly every design blog I could find and tried to get them to mention my product. Very few products make the cut and I was rejected by all but 1. Design-Milk.com. They mentioned me twice. Once in a post about “the best modern calendars for 2013” and then later dedicated a whole post just for ToDoCal. The second time however, I set up an exclusive 10% off coupon code “designmilk” just for their readers.

The owner of design-milk, Jaime helped me out so much that I can’t thank her enough. She really saved my butt and helped sell off the rest of my calendars. I’ve decided that anytime I’m launching a new design product I’ll head to her first.

Sold Out and Ready For More: Re-Designing & Upgrading The Calendar:

I sold the last calendar on March 1st and now had to order more. I took everything I learned and decided to optimize and save money by re-designing the calendar.

Priority Goals:

  • Get the calendar and packaging down to Exactly 1lb (just 0.2 ounces over and it would increase Postage by $2-$3). I calculated everything from the tape to the label to the box to the paper and wire-o binding. This was crazy btw, I stayed up for a good 2 days to get everything right.
  • Allow the calendar to roll up.
  • Allow the pages/months to fold back instead of having to be ripped off.

Result: Shrinking the Calendar by 2 inches on the left and right and by 1 inch on the bottom. Upgrade it to use wire-o binding instead of glue binding, and removing the chipboard backing.

calendar-before-and-after

What this allowed me to do was roll up the calendar safely and use smaller lighter packaging.

Shipping-before-and-after

I ordered 1,250 custom sized cardboard boxes (about $0.53 each) from Wunderlich Fibre Box (best prices and service in St. Louis btw) and about 2,500 custom cut foam pads (about $0.08 each) from Diversified Foam Products to put inside the boxes at each end.

Lesson: Fulfillment/Shipping almost always requires a large amount of space.

Well, I’m now ready for next year and a few hundred more orders for this year’s calendars.

SAMSUNG SAMSUNG SAMSUNG

Results: Profit Increase:

The redesign helped with pretty much everything: Lowered cost of making, shipping, and packaging calendars. As well as increased profit by about $2-3 per calendar.

Lesson: Don’t give away your products to people who didn’t ask for them.

I don’t want to put anyone on the spot so I won’t give names but I sent 5 gifts to CEOs of tech’ish companies and/or incubators. I’m not sure why. I was thinking that they’d like the design and send back a “thank you” at most. A dream come true would have been for them to maybe check out my portfolio or establish some kind of acknowledgement of me for future reference. Yes I’m really that stupidly hopeful.

Not a single one of them even sent an email saying “got the calendar, thanks”. One of them I tracked down to his blog and he still refuses to reply. I knew they’d be busy but I didn’t know how much of a waste of time it would all be. All the delivery confirmations show the calendars were delivered but no one answered back. 

That’s no one’s fault but my own. I was expecting a pat on the head and a word of encouragement during a time when I was freaking out about spending so much and not knowing how to sell it.

Learning About Calendar Buying Season:

So right after February all my sales just died. That was it, that was the end. Apparently calendar buying season starts in October and ends in February. So Oct, Nov, Dec, Jan, Feb are your only months. Sales start to trickle in during October and die off in February.

My Disastrous Experience with Google Adwords:

I spent $75 dollars with Google Adwords and all I got was 1 sale. The good news is, the money was free, I had $165 credit from Google from past promotions so it wasn’t my money.

First, call me stupid but Adwords is confusing as hell to use for a someone who’s never used it before. None of it makes a lot of sense. And it isn’t very intuitive. I tried numerous campaigns, different keywords, all that stuff and still, I just couldn’t sell, even if I did, what was the point of sometimes paying $1+ per click to sell a calendar?

I’m just stupid about Adwords, I’ll have to sit down and learn about it later. I went through tutorials but got the same results. 

Advertising on Reddit:

I think I broke even. I paid something like $30 bucks for an ad on the Apple subreddit because they were into that design / minimalist stuff. I sold like 2 or 3 calendars I think? It was so little I don’t remember much.

Only 1 of my international potential buyers came back.

Only. One.

My crappy Wp E-commerce plugin had messed up international shipping calculations so I had to cancel $200 worth of international orders and disable international shipping until the plugin developers fixed their crap. I had about 10 people email me wanting to be notified when international shipping would be available. I emailed them 3 different times, using 3 different email methods (hoping to not get caught in their spam folder) and only 1 of them actually came back. Those other orders ($200 in revenue) are gone forever.

Lesson Learned: Make the sale NOW because people will forget you and even lose interest in your product later.

Lesson: The True Source of Procrastination:

Stranger, we’re the same. Together we’ve spent years watching our lives go by without having anything to show for it. Reading bullshit articles about how to stop procrastinating and finally get things done. Telling ourselves that 2006, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 is going to be the year we finally figure out what’s holding us back. We know it’s “us” and “fear” yet we’re still helpless. It’s our worst habit. We want people to believe in and take a risk on us when we won’t even believe in or take risks ourselves. We are pathetic. And the only way to stop is to get off of TechCrunch and HackerNews, take the thousands of dollars you worked your ass off to save, and actually risk it and pour it into something.

It’s the only way.

And here’s the terrifying part. You will probably lose it. You WILL probably fail. So you better learn something abso-freakin-lutely amazing to justify that loss. Go all out. Explore your options. And use that knowledge for next time, because there will be a next time and when there is you will do better. If you lose all the money, you’ll work your ass off and make more. You’ll have no choice. Life goes on. You’ll bounce back.

Which is why I FORCED myself to spend 2 grand, order 250 calendars and sell them myself. Then spent 6 grand on 1,250 calendars for next year.

Moral of the Story: Start Small, You Can Make Massive Mistakes and Still Be Ok.

It’s no wonder so many people get overwhelmed by successful kickstarter campaigns. Look at how much work it is just making and shipping 250 calendars. This basically taught me that I never ever want to “launch big” again. I’m glad my Kickstarter failed and I started small.

Like all this free information I just gave you? You can thank me by purchasing some calendars or magnet pens here:

ToDoCal is sold here (Now FREE, just pay for shipping): Official Store $FREE Amazon Etsy

Or say thanks with a donation: Make a Donation using PayPal

  • Hod Benbinyamin

    Great Story.
    I am following you for long time now.
    Good luck

  • Luke

    Incredible amount of information, and a great read. And a great product behind the story.

    Good luck, and all the best!

  • Al

    You may have saved me from heading down the wrong path….maybe.

  • Richard Everett

    Nice product, and a really inspiring story of the ups and downs of your journey. I’ve been working on my own product (http://kitreturn.com) and have really fallen down at the “how to I get this sold??” stage. Some of your hints and tips are very useful. Thanks for sharing.

  • Pieter Baecke

    Pretty cool post! Thanks for the informatioin.Good luck selling your new calendars!

  • Raphael Yancey

    Very cool post. Too bad I don’t use paper calendars, I’d bought it for sure!

  • Beau Doran

    great post, so much insight, i think you just saved me a lot of head ache and money

  • Yogesh A. Mujumdar

    Good writeup! Serves as a what-not-to-do-and-actually-do list for anyone planning to start ones own business.

  • Dragos

    Great reading! You know you could add a digital downloadable option for the international market. People might prefer to download and print it themselves then ordering a calendar from overseas.

  • Wai Mun

    you could sell online using bigcartel… a lot of the designers/creative products owners use it.

  • ztk

    Inspiring. Thanks.

  • SachaG

    Well written and insightful. I wish you luck.

  • zdenulo

    thanks for detail description of your experience…

  • yaaguy

    This was an awesomely informative post! I appreciate your transparency!

  • http://excid3.com Chris Oliver

    Congrats Chris! I loved this idea when you first showed it to me. I’m excited you finally got it launched!

  • http://www.trulysimple.com Ben

    great post with very detailed information. Thank you for putting all that together and keep going! look at all you learned so far.

  • eyesnight

    Great story, very insightful and some really useful information. I would love to buy the calendar but when UK shipping costs were added it gave a price that was nearly $100 dollars…

    You don’t mention approaching physical shops to see if they would stock your calendar, did you do this?

  • David

    Really interesting! I am not sure how it works in the US, but most people I know in Europe using paper calendars get them for free at supermarkets and/or bank branches. How about trying to deal with them so they use your calendar to build theirs?

  • Lynne

    Very interesting! Although I just tried to add a 2014 calendar and it only had the option of buying both 2013 + 2014?

  • Casey

    Thanks for sharing your process so candidly! I’ve been selling on Etsy for almost 6 years and have run into lots of problems similar to yours. Like when your supplier stops stocking something that you needed yesterday to fill an order that’s supposed to ship tomorrow (like your cardboard catastrophe). I feel your pain!

  • Joe Kent

    Any reason you didn’t try a service like Shopify?

  • John

    Hello. I thought your article was really interesting. I was amazed by how difficult the process turned out, and impressed by your problem solving and learning from experience. I wish you the best of luck in the future. Also, your calendar looks very impressive. =)

  • Peter Sipe

    Thank you for writing this.

  • Ilogic

    I think your idea is brilliant especially if you print the calendars on livescriebe like paper, and create a templet that can be uploaded with livescribe. That way people can use the livescriebe pen, which automatically scans every written word..and the text can be viewed/shared on different devices. Also with the pen you can program the pen (by setting up commands on the paper) to erase things completely, as on a whiteboard. [I am using livescriebe as an example, as they already have a well defined business] you might be able to partner with them.. it will extend definitely your customer pool.

  • mcclusb

    This is great. Plus, I think you’ve identified your next project–personalized store/financial application. The need is defintely out there.

  • Anne Garcia

    Wow! I have an Indiegogo campaign up and running right now (http://igg.me/at/gourmandsgrater), and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you taking the time to so thoroughly chronicle your start-up experience. And I love the honesty, willingness to share the numbers and your overall humbleness (no chest-pounding about a successful entrepreneur you are like every other CEO of their own company). I am in Spain and so I won’t bother you with the international shipping, but will donate. THANK YOU!!!!

  • Michelle

    Thanks so much for taking us through your journey. My husband read it first and told me I had to read it. Super insightful; a must-read for anyone launching a physical product.

    • Michelle

      PS – We ordered a calendar and pens … the pens are a brilliant idea too!

  • http://www.wpcurve.com/ Alex McClafferty

    Lesson: The True Source of Procrastination – amazing.

    Every wantrepreneur should have this post as required reading. Thanks for baring your soul so others can grow.

  • http://www.marketsandpatents.com/design-patent.php Mark Nowotarski

    Chris, Awesome story. Thank you for sharing. (and of course I ordered a calendar)

  • Mike Ashby

    Beautiful. Really liked the reflections on fear and procrastination. When you talk at the end about trying, failing and learning, I had the sense that you learnt even more about yourself than you did about product start-ups. And i’d buy the calendar but i live in New Zealand. Thanks to The Browser for bring me this story.

  • jc46202

    Fascinating read. Unless I missed it, nowhere do you really discuss who your anticipated buyers would be. That seems to be a sales shortcoming. You do mention the different sites you used for advertising and that some of them played to people appreciating design, but that doesn’t seem sufficient to me. You’ve got a great product, but who is most likely to buy it? I immediately think of architects, designers, design centers, museum stores, etc. Next I think of people obsessed with productivity, fans of David Allens Getting Things Done system, and other like-minded folks. Finally, I think of Lifehacker devotees. Where do those people get their information? What are their purchasing habits? And perhaps most importantly, where might you be likely to make some bulk sales so that your time and profit margin is maximized?

  • Gisele

    amazing story and learnings ! Definitely helped me ! I’m starting a small business and there is a lot that comes to my mind… Tks a lot !

  • Michiel

    Truly fascinating read! If I’d be in the states I would order one. I gave you a facebook like instead, hope it pays off somehow for your efforts writing this article. Thanks so much.

  • ck

    Ditto! Totally great (and entertaining!) outline / narrative – am forwarding to my struggling entrepreneur / dreaming wanna-be-neurs… :-)

  • bannedforselfcensorship

    Great story. Be careful of pricing products on your website lower than Amazon…technically their agreement says that is not allowable. (I can’t see how its legal though.)

    Also, on Amazon there are ways to get your product noticed and achieve higher sales.

  • http://www.perryweb.com/ Marsha Perry

    Thanks so much for sharing. I was especially interested to hear about your experiences with the WordPress

    E-commerce plugin. Shipping calculations can be a pain no matter what cart you use. Even so, the

    E-commerce plugin can be hard to configure. And I was blown away by the note you found in their code. I’m not sure if they offer the shipping calculations that you need, but I’ve found E-Junkie to be a good cart.

  • SharonD

    Very interesting, very complete. Thanks for a thoughtful analysis that money can’t buy. Don’t have enough wallspace for your calendar, would love to see a notebook size, too! B5 or smaller would be ideal for me. I just bought a set of your ingenious pens to support your and thank you for this post.

  • Andrew Jackson

    Wow this is really impressive and very thorough. It made me laugh at times as I’ve gone through some of the same struggles and seem some of my customers go though the same thing as well. Really well done. One thing that you might want to try before sending anymore out to executives is, instead of sending them a blank page on front try putting their company logo on it with a not attached saying you would like to offer your services for a company calendar at a reduced rate as a thank you to their customers. Do this especially with sales oriented companies that provide a service. As vendors they are always looking for affordable gifts to give their customers. – http://brandshare.us/

  • Peter Petkov aka Jeyko

    nice work brah

  • Juan

    Thank you, I just bought a calendar to thank you, AWESOME story. I appreciate the amount of dedication on sharing it with this amount of detail. Saludos from Spain!