Beardo’s Checklist for Creating Giftable Products This Holiday Shopping Season

shopify masters beardo

Holiday shopping can be hard. But you can make it easier on your customers by creating products that cater to the gift-giving season.  

Jeff Phillips is the inventor of Beardo, the original beard hat.

On this episode of Shopify Masters, he'll share his criteria for creating giftable products for the holiday shopping season.

We'll discuss:

  • How to promote your product through college and university newsletters.
  • How to personalize "just enough" when pitching to publications.
  • The process for selling your product as a "promotional product".

    Listen to Shopify Masters below…

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    Show notes:

    Transcript

    Felix: Today I’m joined by Jeff Phillips from beardo.com and that’s B-E-A-R-D-O dot com. Beardo is the creator of the original beard hats and was started in 2010 and based out of Toronto, Canada. Welcome Jeff.

    Jeff: Hey thanks. Good to be here.

    Felix: Jeff tell us a little bit more about the story and the creation of the original beard hat?

    Jeff: It was actually, the original beard hat came pretty organically. I was snowboarding in Whistler. Up at actually Whistler Blackcomb up at Seventh Heaven, which is the highest run. Absolutely freezing cold. All I had was this scarf, this old knit scarf in my bag. I actually used it to wrap my camera with. I was so cold, so I put it over my face and wanted a drink obviously as we’re going down, I had some water. I spread a hole in the mouth to make a little mouth. It was a brown scarf, looked just like a beard. That’s kind of how it got started. My friends were all laughing at me. I held onto that and I used it a few more times just because it was hilarious. I refined it a bit. A few years down the track, I decided, “You know what? I’m going to … People find this funny. I’m going to put it out there and see if it can sell.” That’s pretty much where it all started. Just a snowboarding trip, it’s funny how things come together like that.

    Felix: Did you have any experience previously starting businesses or creating products? How did you know that this was something that might make sense to release as a product? How did you know what steps to take to make it a reality in that way?

    Jeff: I had a few other businesses. Nothing like that, nothing online. I was doing … I had my own wildlife control business. I had a painting business. I had previously done a film and television degree. I had some experience with working with graphic design and stuff like that. Really, I just try to describe it to people. It’s just a gut feeling just because I liked it so much. My friends liked it so much. That was really justification that you know what? If I liked it, other people are going to like it too. I looked at getting them manufactured right away. Had the first thousand actually shipped out to us.

    Felix: Cool. You knew that you liked it, your friends around you were interested in the product as well. You thought it was funny. It seemed like it something that would catch people’s attention. You just went right ahead and manufactured, you said a thousand right off the bat? Or did you try to find other ways to … Or did you feel like you had to find other ways to validate that there was a demand for a product like this first?

    Jeff: When I first launched the store, we were coming up to winter. I just thought it’s now or never. It’s a pretty seasonal product, obviously you’re not going to wear that in the summer. I thought with Christmas coming, I’m going to get a thousand made and hopefully … My original plan was, if I sell all these from say October till March, if I sell out I’d be very happy, extremely happy. I always had a fall back as well. The thing was I thought people might not want this hat with a beard in it, they’re detachable. Worst case scenario, I could rip the beards out of the hats and they’re really nice hats alone. They’re hand knit hats. I can sell those those beanies, maybe a store would pick them up. They’d definitely pay cost. I would at least get my money back, that was the fall back. To me it was a bit risk free to do that.

    Felix: I like that you had a fall back, so that it was like you were saying it was risk free. Did you design that into the product itself or was it just something, a bonus that came with the design of the product.

    Jeff: I designed the beard hat to have the detachable beard. Actually that’s our patented design, is the detachable beard part, because I just figured some people wouldn’t want to wear it all the time. It looks good. It looks funny, but you don’t want to walk around, you don’t want to walk in a bank with a fake beard on. There’s places where you don’t want to wear them. I just thought, “I’ll give them the option.” That just made me think, people can rip them out, just wear them as a beanie and put the beard in for special occasions or to get a good laugh. I thought it was just, really it was a novelty. People would buy it maybe as a joke or they’d buy it for a friend or they’d use it on the ski hills, like I did, but that they could always just take the beard out and once they get bored of that novelty.

    Felix: You had this fall back in place. It sounds like you had a criteria that you wanted to hit. You want to sell all of them out by between October and March, so about what’s that? About six months. At what point did you realize that it was something serious? That you could actually turn it into a business and no longer a pet project that you were working on.

    Jeff: You never know for sure. I think my initial investment was probably with the hats and everything and the website and everything, my total investment was probably about $8,000. I called on some friends to make website for me. I think the first website was $500. You never really know. When we launched I think we launched November first, and immediately had a sale. The first sale we sold was in South Korea. That was really surprising to me, that we didn’t sell in Canada. It was a dot ca website back then. After 25 days we actually sold our entire stock. A thousand hats were gone. That’s really when I knew that this could go pretty big.

    Felix: A thousand in 25 days, less than a month is definitely a great sign that there’s a demand for this product. How did you draw that much attention towards this product so quickly. A thousand visitors alone in the first month would be a big win for a lot of new stores, but you were able to actually close and get a thousand sales. What was your early marketing plan to sell those thousand products in just 25 days?

    Jeff: I was really doing it on the cheap too. Actually I was living in Australia back then as well and I was living out of my buddy’s garage. I was paying $50 a week to live out of the garage. I was doing everything on the cheap. I was contacting blogs by email. I wasn’t really marketing. I was just contacting blogs. I was contacting … Anything I could think of to get it out there. I was posting on different sites talking about the product, contacting every media company I could think of. That’s really what drove the traffic. These people like this story. They like the story behind it. They liked the novelty factor of it, and the media was really quick to pick it up.

    Even university newspapers. I contacted pretty much every university and college newspaper in North America, and talked to their editors and tried to get that included in the university newsletters. Just by doing it on the cheap like that, I learned so much. I was able to grow it very quickly and very cheaply. I think that’s … I am starting to do that now actually. We are starting to get back to basics and do that again because it worked so well.

    Felix: You weren’t just looking for big publications, big websites. I think you were saying that you were going after newsletters. You were looking for people, especially I guess in universities in this case, to contact them. Was the approach different when you were looking for people that … Looking for press mentions through newsletters versus press mentions just on a blog, on a website?

    Jeff: It was pretty easy. People were pretty quick to pick up in both areas. It’s harder to get the more mainstream media. That’s what I was finding. The bigger, the huge blogs like the Huffington Post and things like that, it was very hard to get involved in those. I found that once you get into some smaller ones, it’s almost like the bigger ones kind of look at the smaller ones and pick up stories from the smaller ones. That seems to be a trend. Especially today, it’s very hard for us to get any mentions at any large media companies or blogs. It’s just hard.

    Felix: Why do you think people, why do you think press outlets picked up on the story so quickly? Because you mentioned that they were interested in the story. Was it the product itself or was it your story? What story were they most likely to cover?

    Jeff: The story was kind of secondary, the way that it was created. The images that we had back then were pretty funny. We’re still using some of them. Those are what draws the attention. The visualization of the product. That is really what spread through mainstream media back then as well.

    Felix: When you say visualization of the product, you mean that it was just like a funny photo of the product with the product in it? What was it that caught the attention?

    Jeff: We were trying to do all kinds of different photo shoots. We were doing ones with The Hangover characters. We were doing anything we could think of. We dress up like a fisherman and go down by the sea and take a photo with the beard hat on. One of the main images of me, I don’t know what it is, it’s a front focused photo, just looking at the camera. People have always said that image just sells so well. They don’t know what it is. I don’t really know what it is either. It is not funny. It is just a straight on shot. Just the shape of the beard, I guess, looks good.

    Felix: You were sending these photos in the initial pitch email when you were reaching out to these outlets?

    Jeff: Yeah. I basically did a draft. I tried to keep it as small as possible, and as short as possible to not waste anybody’s time. Just basically told them what we were, what we were about, and then sent a photo. If they’re interested, contact us back for more information. We’d fail nine times out of ten, but I did so much of that that we got a lot of press out of it.

    Felix: Makes sense, definitely a numbers game. I like this approach of focusing on the photo itself because if not there’s so much attention on how to write the message, how to craft the subject line. If you have a really interesting, funny, eye catching photo especially obviously of course with the product in it, it could itself just sell the pitch right off the bat because it looks so interesting that people just want to cover it. It’s a visceral response when you see the product in, I guess in your case, a very funny setting. I think that that’s definitely an angle that a lot of folks should take because I think that a lot of times it’s very text driven, very text heavy but a photo obviously can get the point across much faster.

    You said that it was very much a numbers game, you failed nine out of ten times, but you were doing so many times that you were bound to get a hit every once in a while. What was your approach then? What was the process for A) Finding these outlets to reach out to and then how to manage the work that was involved in reaching out and making sure to follow up, making sure to actually close the entire loop of pitching and then actually getting covered?

    Jeff: It was hard to find the contacts actually, that was the first step. It is harder now, which I notice as well. The first place that we looked was Wikipedia. Wikipedia was a great resource just to find, first of all, every college and university of North America. We cross referenced that with ski and snowboard, like ski hills. Any college or university that was near a ski hill, we wanted to talk to them. We found out what the newspaper was. This is all very time consuming work but by doing this early on, I made a pretty great database of editors of these smaller newspapers, even the mainstream newspapers.

    We contact them and try to contact them leading into winter. They are all looking for stories. The way I figured it was, if you can write something interesting for them, and put it in front of them at the same time that they’re looking for that type of story and you give them, not all the information but you give them a very small snapshot of your story, and you kind of word it how they would want to put it into the paper or onto the blog. You make their job really easy, they want to cover you that way. If you send them information that is hard to read, is not clear, they might pass over it. If you make them want the story, you put it in front of them at the right time, you’ll get out there. That’s kind of what we tried to do.

    Felix: I hear this all the time about how you want to essentially write the story for the blog, do a lot of the work for them. How personalized were you actually getting with each headline, each story when you reached out to these university? Let us say that you reached out to ten universities, are you actually creating a different story, different headline for each of the ten universities? Is it a general kind of story, general headline just for universities in general and then have a separate headline, separate story for more of a entertainment focused blog?

    Jeff: That’s a good question. For universities and colleges for example, for the newsletters, we would basically make the same one. We wouldn’t really change it too much because I wasn’t sending the whole story. I was just sending the photo and a little bit about us, giving them basically a little teaser. I was saying, “Winter’s coming. People are going to want to see this. I think your readers are going to be very interested in this. It’s the worlds only beard hat with a detachable beard. Take a look.” We’d send the photo. That kind of thing would get a really good response.

    We didn’t write the entire story and then send it to them. I actually think a lot of editors especially don’t like that. I don’t think they want to read an entire story before they decide. They are time crunched. They don’t want to do that. We send them a little teaser. If they’re interested, they’ll contact you and then you can send them everything in a short manner.

    Felix: Okay, makes sense. Was the approach to pitching a university to get into their newsletter, get into their newspaper different than you would when you’re approaching a more consumer focused or entertainment focused blog, like the Huffington Post, is the approach different?

    Jeff: The approach is pretty much the same. I think of, people writing the university papers are not as professional. They’re university students and they’re a little bit more laid back, and just chilled out about the whole thing. You can kind of approach them not as professionally. The email doesn’t have to be as professional. Where I find that bigger agencies are, like the Huffington Post for example, they don’t want the “Hello’s, how are you?” They just want the headline story. That’s it and maybe you’ll hear back from them. They get so much on their desks, I understand completely. They get so much across their desk or in their emails that you have to be short, but you have to hook them. You have to be different. That’s what’s getting harder, is everybody is learning this and they’re doing it. It is harder to get your story to the right people now. People are hiding their emails a lot more now I noticed too. It is hard to contact a lot of people.

    Felix: Yeah, definitely. You can see that the more professional, the bigger blogs, bigger publications are on more of a time crunch, that they don’t want all the kind of niceties that you would typically include when you’re reaching out to a smaller outlet like a university, for example. These universities that you’re going after, I’m so intrigued by this. I hadn’t heard of an approach like this before, but it makes a lot of sense. You’re finding universities, your product was geared for people in that demographic. Was your story printed in a print newspaper or a digital newsletter that was going out to the entire student base? Where was it included?

    Jeff: Mostly back then it was normally just printed out, the weekly newspaper that you pick up, the free one. We did a few giveaways too. That was an incentive for some of them. Some of them didn’t want to do the story, but we’d say, “Look, if you do the story, we’ll give you guys a giveaway so you can give away three hats, and we’ll send them out to whoever you want.” You have a little draw. They like that. They like getting involved. We did give away a bit of product as well. We found that worked really well early on as well.

    Felix: Did you find that these newsletters, these newspapers, do they convert better than a larger publication?

    Jeff: Yeah. It is hard to say because we did so many of them. You get into one large publication, but you’d be in 40 university newspapers. Back then, we weren’t so much looking at conversion rates. It was a big learning curve, so obviously we were just trying to get the word out there. The traffic to the website was insane. We just knew we were doing the right thing and sales kept growing, so we just kept doing it. We didn’t really take time to look and figure out where the conversions were coming from.

    Felix: Yeah, I’d assume that would be pretty hard too, especially if it’s print newsletters. Maybe you can look at the geographies of the purchases, but I can imagine it’d be still pretty difficult to determine. If it’s an offer, a campaign that’s working so effectively, then sometimes you don’t need to measure down to the exact university, sometimes you can’t anyway but that should not stop you from doing it. What was this timeline then? When I introduced you, I said the business was started in 2010. Was the product designed that same year? What was the lead up to the initial thousand production run?

    Jeff: Basically, the product was actually designed in 2006. That’s when it was really invented, but didn’t really take it seriously until a few years later. That’s when I really decided to take a run at it. I had come to Australia to be a teacher. I was teaching here and I had some spare time as well. I thought, “I’m going to take a run at this and put this out.” Basically the beginning of that year we started having them manufactured and just leading up to November when we launched.

    Felix: Cool. What made you revisit it? I think that there are a lot of ideas, a lot of products, that are on the back burner for a lot of entrepreneurs. It is always something in the back of their mind that they might want to come back to at some point or maybe new ideas come into their head that take their attention. What made you decide to come back to this product specifically?

    Jeff: It was just a stupid idea. It was a stupid little thing between friends and I didn’t really think much about monetizing it. Back then e-commerce was just really starting to take off and didn’t really know a lot about it, but with the launch of Shopify especially and Facebook and Facebook ads and everything just came in and started making it easier to reach these people online. I think it just happened at the right time. I don’t think we could have really done it any better if we started earlier. I think it kind of popped at the right time.

    Felix: You said in 2010 you made that order for the first thousand, sold out in 25 days through this PR, this huge PR outreach that you were doing. You kept on using the word, “we.” Was it more that one person or was it just you initially reaching out to all of these universities and publications?

    Jeff: Yeah, well it was actually … Yeah, like I said I was living in my buddy’s garage, so it was me doing a lot of it, a lot of the hard work. I had some friends in the house that were helping as well, just for fun. We were doing it for fun, but yeah, it was my project. We had a lot of friends involved, obviously everybody comes together and they just thought it was funny and fun, so we were doing the photo shoots together.

    Actually funny, I was thinking about it when you contacted me about this. I was thinking about, just reflecting and I haven’t really taken the time to reflect too much about the business growth. I keep mentioning I was living in the garage and didn’t have much money but was living in the garage of my buddy, and I remember I used to drive around at night, trying to put my patents through. We didn’t have WiFi so I’d actually been in my station wagon driving around with my laptop on the passenger seat open, trying to pick up somebody’s unlocked WiFi signal so that I could seat in front of their house and do some ads or put my patent through, which took a lot of time. It’s funny, thinking how far we’ve come, you know?

    Felix: Yeah. That’s crazy. That’s definitely another level of hustle if you don’t have internet, it definitely is a big deterrent to starting an online business. Definitely glad that you were able to find a way around it. Early on, I’m looking at the catalog, the site now and the products range. Different in price but it looks like most of the hats are in a $30 or $40 range. Was that always the original price point?

    Jeff: The original price point for the original hat was just as it is today, it’s $39.99 for the original, the hand-knit. It’s all hand-knit. Now we’ve got a few different models, we have a machine-knit beanie, and then the handmade beard. Those are $29.99, and then as you see we’ve expanded to a lot of different products. We’ve got a lot of ski masks now, we’ve actually got ski goggles. We’re doing a lot of promotional products as well, promotional branding for different companies with those bottles mustaches. I don’t know if you can see those, the small accessory. We do beard ornaments. We’re starting to really grow out a little, but still staying in the ski and snowboard markets, but also expanding a little bit more into the gift, more giftable items as well.

    Felix: Yeah, definitely want to talk more about that, the giftables especially as we’re coming into, I guess when this comes out we’ll be very much into the holiday shopping season. Before we get there, when you first sold that first thousand batch order, what was next? Did you then realize, “[inaudible 00:25:23] focus all my time on this,” or was this still something that you were going along slowly with?

    Jeff: Pretty much the first 15 days I knew, I was spending all my time on it. Back then I had my phone hooked up so every time I got a sale it would make like cash drawer “ching ching”. I remember the one night when … It was a little bit after that it was around Christmas, but after that first thousand was sold. It was going off the hook, it was just … It was the first time I had to mute it because it was ridiculous, it was going constantly. Being in a different time zone here, it was going all night, for the North American daytime. I had to mute my phone for the first time and that’s really when I basically retired from my teaching career to focus on that.

    Felix: Very cool. Did you just use all the funds from the sales to continue buying more products? What was the next area of focus to grow the business after that initial successful month?

    Jeff: Yeah, 100%. Took, I’m not exactly sure what the second batch, the unit or the numbers for the second batch, how many we ordered, but I knew we had to mobilize pretty quickly and get those in. Just kept reinvesting, and that pretty much happened for the first Winter, reinvested everything. Sales were going crazy so it was really good.

    Felix: Very cool. I want to get back to what you were saying about how you guys are now getting more into the promotional branding side and creating more products around, creating more giftable products. What made you … How did you realize to go in this direction? I guess to start with a more promotional branding side. How did you know to start going in this direction?

    Jeff: Especially with the BeerMo, the bottle mustaches, we realized that a lot of beer companies would obviously want them. I started sending samples around and people loved them. We got on some of the promotional product’s websites in North America and distributors started picking them up. We threw them out at trade shows too, and that really helped. The response really is what showed to us that people want these.

    Felix: Yeah, I guess initially it sounds like such a great sales channel because I’m assuming selling to big companies you’re going to sell much larger batches rather than one by one to consumers, maybe the profit margins are not as great. Is there a con to, I guess a downside towards opening up a sales channel like this to focus on selling your product specifically as promotional products?

    Jeff: The only downside is the turn around time, to do something like that a lot of these companies whether it be a promotional product for a beer case or a sporting event, we’ve had that where they’re looking for thousands of these things with their logo embroidered on the hat or on the bottle mustaches, the turn around time seems to be never short enough. The distributors always seem to want them pretty immediately and we just can’t do that, especially now, during winter when we’re mobilized for our online sales.

    We’ve got our production house running at capacity, to take on a large promotional order is hard. We try to spread it out throughout the year and make blanks, blank products that we can embroider or mark them with screen print and send them out. That helps, but then you’re carrying stock and it gets into a lot of other issues, warehousing and stuff like that. That’s the downside.

    Felix: To recap, the downside is that when a sale does happen with these big companies that want to buy your product for promotional reasons, they want it immediately? They want it much faster than you’re able to produce?

    Jeff: Yeah. Usually they’ll contact us with … We’ve had sometimes where people want for example 10,000, 15,000 beard hats in a special Pantone color with an embroidered logo and they need it in 12 days. We just can’t do that. Shipping time alone is six, five or six days, that’s the fastest we can send it. That kind of sucks because you’re seeing these huge potentials go out the door and not come to fruition.

    Felix: Yeah, I can imagine that sucking, where it’s like literally someone’s willing to give you money but you can’t produce what they need quickly enough to get it. You mentioned there are some ways to mitigate that by producing most of the product already but then finding ways to apply whatever the company is looking for as the very last step so that most of the production’s ready for you already, but the downside like you were saying is that that means you have to carry a lot of inventory in your stock. Basically in your experience, what makes a specific product more attractive as a promotional product? Because like you were saying, this bottle mustache was a product that you knew that the beer manufacturers would be interested in, why wouldn’t you be able to sell a product like the beard hat as a promotional product as well?

    Jeff: Yeah, we have done that actually. They’ve gone in beer cases as a promotional product, and like I was saying at sporting events, in the team colors. That’s always been really popular. For the bottle mustaches, they’re small, they’re lightweight, they’re silicon, easily brandable, and the turn around time on them is very quick. We knew those would be very popular. We can do any color as well and make different mustache shapes. With some of the different Mexican beers, they’re pretty popular. Obviously they fit right into their whole brand. Yeah, we just knew that they’d do well. We liked it, a bit of fun.

    Felix: Did you create the products with the goal of making a promotional product or was it something that … A product that already existed and you realized that it would make sense to push it as a product for promotional reasons?

    Jeff: Yeah, no, that one’s our design as well. We have other ones for wine glasses and stuff too. They’re not as popular obviously, we stick with the beers. Sorry, what was the question?

    Felix: I was asking, did you purposefully create this product to sell as a promotional branded product or was it something that already existed and you realized that it could be sold as well as a promotionally branded product?

    Jeff: Yeah, sorry. That one, yeah we came up with that one and we just knew that it would be great promotional product, just because it is small. It’s pretty cheap in terms of promotional products, and easily brandable. Right away we pushed that ones out to the beer companies. That’s pretty much where it started, and then with Movember too we figure that would be a really good sponsorship product for fundraising.

    Felix: If you wanted to, someone out there wants to explore selling their product as a promotional product, what’s the first step? How do you being this exploration process to become discoverable as a product that could be used for promotional branding and finding these companies that would potentially be interested in purchasing your products?

    Jeff: There’s different databases. The main one that we stick with is called ASI. It’s the Advertising Specialty Institute. Basically you can put your product up on their and distributors look at those. You can send out emails to their clientele. We figured we’ll put it on there, have a go and see how it works out. Response has been great so we keep it up there and go to some of their trade shows as well.

    Felix: What’s it like working with these brands? What’s the process like? Because like you’re saying, it could be a nightmare sometimes where they want such a large order in such a short period of time, but in I guess a more typical case where you’re able to handle, where it’s more reasonable, what is it like?

    Jeff: It’s pretty good. Most of the big brands [inaudible 00:34:31] work with them directly. All pretty much use distributors. They have a distributor that you’re … They might put a message out, “Look, we’re looking for some promotional products for,” I don’t know, “Christmas,” for example. Then all their distributors that they’ve worked in the past will start looking for unique products for them. Then whoever comes back with the best idea pretty much gets the contract with them. We work with the distributor direct and they tell us what they want, what color, what logo. We make them some virtual … some proofs, send it through and once they get the go ahead, we get the purchase order and send direct to their client.

    It’s pretty good. It’s a pretty quick process usually, the only thing like I said before is sometimes the turn around doesn’t work. They want it immediately. The brand would wait till the last minute to start looking and then there’s simply not enough time to do it. That used to get to us. It’d be, “Oh no, that huge order is gone. We definitely can’t do that,” but now we’ve … I don’t know, I guess personally I’ve taken a different look at it. I’d rather just do a high quality order and not rush it and have enough time, than rush it, have mistakes or something like that. I’m a lot more relaxed now than I used to be. I used to be just, “Go, go, go. Let’s get these out the door.” That leads to a pretty stressful life.

    Felix: Yeah, you definitely don’t want to say yes to everything because like you were saying you’re bringing a lot more stress for yourself when it’s not a situation that plays to your strengths. What makes you more likely to win these contracts? Is it just a numbers thing for these distributors? How do you position yourself in a way that makes you more likely to win a contract when these companies, these brands are looking for promotional products?

    Jeff: For us, we’re not trying to get the contract, it’s the distributors trying to get the contracts with the brands they work with. For us it’s pretty easy because we’ve got these patented products, design registered products as well, so we’re one of a kind. We put our product out there, the distributor shows it to their client and the client either says yes or no. Either they want beards and mustaches or they want something completely different l