More Than a Store: Why (And How) This Founder Built a Lifestyle Platform Instead

More Than a Store: Why (And How) This Founder Built a Lifestyle Platform Instead
iEDM shopify masters

Building an online store lets you showcase and sell your products or services.

But building a platform lets you create a place for members of your niche to return to and connect with others who share their interests.

In this episode of Shopify Masters, you’ll learn from an entrepreneur who went beyond building a store and instead decided to create a platform to become the central hub for the Electronic Dance Music scene.

Anthony Ulanovsky is the founder of iEDM: the premier online EDM lifestyle superstore.

What really solidified our approach there was seeing the various small companies out that there were selling a good product, but not necessarily to our market.

Tune in to learn

  • How to protect your business from suppliers that might not deliver
  • What "sublimation printing" is and how you can use if you’re selling merchandise
  • What factors to weigh when determining if a niche is worth getting in to

    Listen to Shopify Masters below…

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    Show Notes


      Transcript

      Felix: Today I’m joined by Anthony Ulanovsky from iEDM. iEDM is the premier online electronic dance music lifestyle superstore, and was started 2012 and based out of Fort Lee, New Jersey. Welcome, Anthony.

      Anthony: Thank you, Felix. I appreciate the intro.

      Felix: Awesome. So tell us a bit more about what are some of the most popular products that you sell in this superstore.

      Anthony: Well, for the season right now, a lot of our hoodies are popular, and some accessories too, like goggles and a lot of accessories and trinkets you would take to a music festival. And also a lot of casual wear, such as hoodies and sweatshirts for the season right now.

      Felix: Got it. And you mentioned to me a little bit off-air about the origin of the business, that it was a little bit different than it was before, or I guess, than it is today, and you’ve also branched off from there. Can you take us back to the beginning and tell us about how you got into like maybe E-Commerce in general?

      Anthony: Sure. I mean, I would take it even back a step further. You know, for me it was always my goal to own my own business, so even going to school, you know, that’s something I already was pretty confident that I wanted to do. So coming out of, graduating college, basically coming out of there, I was looking for a potential job for maybe a small business out there or something that would still allow me to grow my own business and grow at my own rate. And the opportunity came about was working in the mortgage industry. So I took that just being that it was a sales job and it would allow me to feel as if I did own something of my own, you know, however that may be. So I started there in 2010, and as I was working in the corporate world, I was realizing that my yearn to own my own business was never really going to leave my mind, so I started just considering the various options out there and looking at trends.

      In late 2012, I got together with a friend of mine who also had a job. We decided in our spare time just to examine things and potentially just try some things out as far as our own business. So we started really looking at potential niches out there within different industries that we were interested in, and that’s where we started EDMLife from. So EDMLife was the company that pre-existed before iEDM. Late 2012 we started it. So basically we were avid fans of electronic dance music and that industry. I have some friends over in Europe where the industry was much bigger than it was in the United States at that time, and I had a very strong inclination that it was going to come here and be much bigger than anything we could expect.

      So where we started off, we basically went to a music festival and created some custom glasses we had made, you know, at a two-week turnaround, and basically we just went around through the long lines and tried to see if there was a market for it, you know, if there’s something that was interesting to people. And it did pretty well. We snuck them into the music festival. We went around and the whole goal was to just understand was there a demand for something like this, how are people reacting to it, and the reaction was really positive. So from there we basically developed a Google website, you know, just a cheap kind of templated website, and going off of really social media traffic and organic traffic, we didn’t do any paid search or anything like that at that time.

      And as we basically began to grow our product line, we approached other businesses about potentially drop shipping, seeing as how we didn’t have a location, you know, we didn’t have the time or the money up-front. Basically we wanted to offer them the opportunity to make a little extra money and create an opportunity for ourselves, and from there we started expanding the store from just glasses and, you know, it just grew from there. A few months later basically I decided to delve much deeper into it, and really dedicate my time and try to create this future for myself, and me and a good friend of mine basically decided to just leave the company be and I would take over since he just was focused on growing his career in the corporate world.

      Yeah, and that took us to 2013, and then 2014 once that plan really developed, April 7th of 2014, I quit my mortgage job the same day that iEDM launched, and I just took that job.

      Felix: Awesome. So I want to dive into that a little bit more, going back to the original hypothesis that there was a growing niche that you were getting into. So other than looking at, or seeing that the European market had a much, much bigger industry, much, much bigger niche, and you recognizing that’s probably going to come to the U.S. as well, what other factors did you look at or do you look at today when you are evaluating whether to get into a specific industry?

      Anthony: You know, for me the main factor is the niche, and that’s how really Epic Hoodie as well. I’m a believer in my personal experience and some other self-made individuals that I’ve come across, if you try to force a business idea, you know, in a position where there might not be the opportunity, even if it’s a passion of yours, you may fall flat. It just might not be a good opportunity for you. The way I viewed it, the electronic dance community as a whole was much bigger in Europe and the music was making its way here. As far as the EDM apparel market over there and the festival market, it was nonexistent as well. I just saw the opportunity and saw of course how commercialized things get in the United States.

      The main thing for me honestly is I don’t think I would ever risk anything on a business that wasn’t already part of a niche. If it’s not a niche, you know, if we’re going out there and just going to prove that we’re better than a bunch of other companies doing something similar, you know, that’s a tough hill to climb in certain cases, especially if you don’t have strong funding behind you. So my approach was niche first, find the niche first, and I was actually looking into a few different industries, not only electronic dance music, you know, back when I was brainstorming this. So you know, I was just very confident in the opportunity there. There were some other companies in the industry, no one had a strong marketing budget, you know, no one really, it all seemed like very young companies. And that’s really where the main idea came from, was to create a platform for other small businesses that sold a product for the EDM community for the music festival market, and give them a position, give them a platform to sell their product where maybe their own social reach wasn’t strong. We thought that we were good at some things including social media marketing, growing a social media platform, creating websites.

      So basically we took these brands that sold really cool products, oftentimes handmade, you know, artist-made, but they never really reached a wider market, and we took it as our opportunity, our position to connect those individuals, those companies, with potential customers.

      Felix: So you’re looking for, when you’re looking at niches, you look for, identified popular passionate niches with competition that you felt like you could outmarket?

      Anthony: Yeah, I would say so. We just tried to figure out a market that wasn’t overly saturated, and that was relatively new, and where we could still build a pretty strong position. And of course, the other factor is you need to have a passion for what you’re looking for. So I thought the niche was there and so was the fact that it was just something I was very passionate about, you know, something that I knew my heart would be in for a long time. But yeah, as far as the niche goes, there were no established companies, there was no real corporate powerhouse within the industry at that time, so basically our goal was to get our foot in the door and slowly grow from there, and capture that market.

      Felix: Got it. Yeah, you know, you hear a lot of times where people are afraid of competition, right, where they recognize competition so they think that that means that they don’t want it, they want to find a niche that doesn’t have any sellers in that space. So when you saw that there was a big niche in Europe already, but just no semblance of an apparel industry out there, that aspect didn’t turn you off to the idea that maybe there’s no demand for the apparel industry with the EDM niche? Like what made you look at that situation then think differently than maybe what’s conventional?

      Anthony: Well, I was seeing the trend already starting, you know, and these festivals, they’re so massive and they were coming from Europe and they were coming here on such a massive scale. You know, you’re talking hundreds of thousands of people on multi-day events all over the country potentially, and they were already occurring. Mainly what I was looking at was the growth of some of these music festivals and they were literally doubling in size year by year as they made their way into the United States, you know, from 2010 to 11 to 12, they were just growing at a very, very fast rate. At the same time I did see the merchandise that was being sold at those events, and saw some of the up-and-coming companies that were popping up on social media back when social media was much more limited than it is now, much less accounts, so word got around relatively quick, especially hashtag research and things like that, you would see what was going on there.

      But I definitely noticed a trend. I noticed a trend and I just, my personal view on how the clothing market here works and just how the apparel industry, you know, these massive amounts of people, if you create a product that caters to their interest and caters to those events, that’s a real possibility. And I already saw other companies starting to, but we just thought that, “You know what, we can do this, we can do this better.” We were very confident in what we were doing, and we thought we could facilitate faster growth than they could rather than going in and creating our own product, by creating a platform and getting good at other aspects of the business as far as marketing, social media, and collecting these smaller companies that themselves are looking for the right foot in the door and the right opportunity, and helping their product get sold and reach a wider audience. So basically we created situations where it was a positive situation for both sides, and that’s how we were able to pull some business partners in and create a situation where both companies were growing.

      So really our goal was not only to go up against competitors, but it was to work with a lot of potential competitors in the industry and kind of have our hand in the cookie jar in various areas and grow with them.

      Felix: Got it. So you did see that there was a groundswell of, or at least the beginning stages of growth in industry in terms of new businesses popping up, new brands popping up, but there was no organization around it, and they maybe weren’t strong in selling or marketing online, and you saw that as an opportunity to come in, bring some organization around this industry, create this platform and then help the different brands that weren’t, that maybe didn’t have the skillsets or the resources that you guys had access to, to help them sell to that same audience and in return you’re now getting a cut of the profits.

      So talk just a little bit more about this platform then, this platform approach, because it’s certainly different than maybe what a lot of other entrepreneurs have taken where they come out and they create their own products or maybe they’ll work with a select few vendors to sell product, but you’re positioning this as a platform first. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

      Anthony: Yeah, the goal in mind was really to create a stable situation. When you’re creating a store and you’re creating your own product and designs oftentimes there’s a lot of up-front costs. We wanted to really go into a situation where we wouldn’t require an outside investor and minimum investment up front as well. And that’s really what pushed us toward that approach. But really what kind of, what really solidified our approach there was just seeing the various small companies out there that were selling a good product but not necessarily to our market. We basically slowly took that product and brought it over to our electronic dance music festival market, and that’s how we really started building up what we were doing.

      Honestly, my personal opinion is if you’re creating a fashion brand, there’s a lot of up-front costs and there’s a lot of risk factor. You can create five, 10, 20 designs, but to build it up, it would just be built up at a rather slow pace. Our goal was to get in there and build enough of a market presence to where if there was corporate funding on say one of our competitors, that we wouldn’t get blown out of the water. So the goal was really to go in and just grab a piece of that market before it was too late.

      Felix: Now were these brands or products that you were working with, were they already selling to your demographic, to your customers, or were you taking them from other industries that they were selling and introducing their products to a brand new audience?

      Anthony: You know, a little bit of both. In some cases we definitely were taking a product that wasn’t selling to our audience and introducing it rather successfully to it. An example of that is really a lot of the clothing you see on our website now are sublimation-based. Basically that’s not a local printing process, it’s not like screen printing, it’s a one-off printing style, so you’re printing one product per print. And you could really take any graphic and apply it there. The great thing about it is it’s all really computer-based so you don’t need a high up-front cost, you don’t need a minimum number of units or a mold or anything like that. So we saw some companies out there that really were at the forefront of this new technology that wasn’t existent before because these art files are just absolutely massive, and we were the first to incorporate them into rave wear and to music festival clothing. That’s one thing that we jumped on it back in 2013.

      Yeah, but I mean, overall we basically took a little bit of both. It was some personal introductions that occurred, you know, where maybe we did some music festival vending early on and we met some companies out there that had a good product. So we took a mix of established companies that were already on the festival circuit and had products, especially accessories, and then we also incorporated this made-to-order type clothing that was sublimation-based and seeing how a lot of that clothing did crossover very well to the EDM market.

      Felix: Now which do you prefer? Which kind of product do you prefer, helping to sell a product to a market that already knows about it, or introducing a new product to the market?

      Anthony: It’s hard to say. I would say I would be much more passionate and proud about introducing completely new product to a market, because that’s something that’s our own, that’s something that’s very unique. But again, you always have to weigh the risk factor, and be confident in what you’re doing because if the risk is too strong, you know, you could fall flat and it’s a hard recovery from there. So we always try to create a situation where we were taking some risk but we were also alleviating that risk by selling products that we knew would sell to the market. Maybe the upside wasn’t as great, maybe the profit per unit wasn’t as great, but we knew that we would build a stable environment for ourselves.

      But I would say overall, you know, definitely introducing new products and new styles to the market would be something we’re proud of. And now I would say sublimation itself is all over our industry. Really every one of our competitors is selling a lot of them with the same manufacturer, but it’s that kind of industry where everybody catches on quick now. But I would say we were one of the forefront companies with that specific printing style.

      Felix: When we look at this from the perspective of what’s the easiest path to revenue or profits, is it the approach of bringing a new product to, a brand new product to your market, or finding one that’s already selling, I guess, or already, people are already familiar with and then backing that product or that brand?

      Anthony: You know, it’s tough to say. If your individual product that you’re selling that’s your own has a high up-front cost on something that requires a strong investment, if you’re extremely confident about that product and the niche out there, then I would definitely say go for it. But if you’re in a situation where you don’t have a massive up-front investment, you don’t have investors and you’re trying to take the minimal risk, and maybe create a situation where down the line you can release your own product and make that work, then I would say go in the direction of selling other products first. Go the safest route possible to at least establish yourself, to establish a cash flow, because otherwise you’re taking something and you’re taking a fairly big risk.

      But that’s really the way I view it, because let’s say we start a fashion brand. I can’t see us creating a hundred designs that could probably sell well up front. Usually you start off with a handful of designs, you got the artist, and then it’s an uphill battle. You know, what if that artwork doesn’t sell, then what are you going to do? You have to go back and pretty much toss that money and start over. So that’s really why my approach is that, you know, I try to survey the environment and see what is already selling, or at least that was the approach in the beginning, and pick the safest option for us with the idea that down the line, we can go more and more into our own direction, with minimal risk. But if you’re someone who really is, if a lot is riding on your investment and you’re trying to, it’s now or never and you need to build that business and you have a certain limited number of funds to make it happen, I would say you have to take the risk but you also have to take the safe route.

      Felix: Got it. So maybe when you’re bringing a brand new product, higher risk but higher reward, but if you’re working with a product that the audience is already familiar with, lower risk but possibly also lower rewards as well. Now at this point, how many brands or companies are you working with?

      Anthony: We work with about eight brands and now we’re going more into the direction of working with private artists and working directly with artists. That’s especially the direction that we’re taking on Epic Hoodie, the other business. But a lot of the companies that we’re working with now we’ve pretty much been working with for a few years now, you know, and some of them, again, they were even outside of our industry when we started working with them and now those companies themselves have a little electronic dance music section on their website. I would say yeah, about 10 companies right now.

      Felix: And how did you pick them? How do you identify which brands and which companies are going to be good partners?

      Anthony: The way we really did our first wave, you know, we honestly got most of the companies signed within a matter of days. The goal was to come to them with an approach that was a win-win for both sides, where we offered them extra profit, we offered them the ability to grow, and we of course create a situation for ourselves where we could take a small profit. Profit is always a little more difficult when you’re trying to sell a product that’s made in the U.S.A., and the costs are high, but we were able to make it work. So basically the approach, a lot of it was social media research. A lot of it was Googling and especially social media research and just making a long list and then cutting it down, cutting it down and finding those companies that we were confident in. Because the thing is too, you know, you’re taking small companies, you know, a lot of these companies start off with a few thousand followers and a semi-janky website, because everyone who has a new business, everyone was trying things out.

      So for us it was about taking, finding a company that made a cool product but again, also not taking a massive risk, because you can sign somebody on, you can agree to something, and then if they can’t deliver on the sales and the fulfillment, then you’re in a very bad spot and unfortunately we did learn that the hard way in the beginning. Those were some of the growing pains experienced. But you have to quickly adapt to what you’re seeing and again, when you have a set limit of funds and you know that this is the amount of funds you have to get your business off the ground, you have to make the right decisions. Even if you fully believe in something, you know, that’s sometimes not enough. You need to really make sure you alleviate some of the risk because if that doesn’t work out, then you’re in a situation where you might not be able to get off the ground.

      Felix: And with your experience today, looking back, what are some red flags that you would see today when it comes to partners that ended up not being able to deliver on their end of the deal?

      Anthony: You know, you want to do a lot of research as far as their website goes and their business and make sure they’ve been in business for a few years. And say they haven’t, you know, create a situation, whether it’s contractually or how you’re purchasing inventory, where you don’t put yourself in a situation where potentially orders can’t get fulfilled. I would say for us, it’s more so as we grow, looking at getting distribution rights for our work rather than relying on third parties as well. You really, the goal is to control as much of the process as you can on your own and not be dependent on the other parties. That’s important. But we were in a state of almost desperation in the beginning. We had to find these partners and we had to bring these new companies in, pretty much every company we were working with was only like one or two years old at the most, including the competitors that we had out there.

      So it was a little bit like the Wild West, you know, we’d find a page that maybe had a few thousand likes and had a pretty decent website and it looked like the product was really cool, and we started off. But there were tons of growing pains. A lot of it wasn’t really the fault of the companies we were working with. We were going headfirst into the sublimation industry as far as that new style of print, that colorful style that we felt would really translate to the EDM market. And these companies were just starting off with manufacturers who themselves were just starting off. We pretty much worked with some of the very original manufacturers out in the United States for this type of printing style, you know, and in certain cases when there were sales spikes, the companies just could not handle it because it was the made-to-order process and that created some situations where there would be delays, and it was a situation where you’re risking some of your company’s reputation. So you just have to make sure that you leverage that by delivering the expectation to the customers and playing it as safe as possible.

      Felix: What can go into a contract to help protect you from suppliers that might not deliver?

      Anthony: I would say there’s termination clauses as well as potential penalties for late orders and things of that sort. But I mean, I would say the contract is not always something that can really protect you, because if you’re dealing with a really small company, let’s say, as a partner, the contract’s not going to give you too much protection at all. You’re talking, if you start off and say you place your first 50 to 100 orders and they’re not fulfilled, it will be a tough task to take that company to small claims or try to enforce a contract because you’re going to create more work for yourself. I would just say research the companies you’re working with. Don’t go headfirst into working with any new partners and putting, again, all your cookies in a basket. You have to be smart and take minimal risk at the beginning with new partners.

      Felix: Yeah, I think there’s a process that a lot of store owners go through to find the right suppliers, right partners, and a lot of times the learning is done the hard way, where things don’t work out and then they learn from their mistakes in that way. When you are researching a business these days, are you just going to Google, typing in their name, I mean like how do you get as much detail as possible on a business to help you make a confident decision on whether to go into business with them or not?

      Anthony: Google, looking at their social media, looking at their onsite, just trying to identify how well put together their website is, trying to get an idea of their order volume, even maybe placing an order or two just to try to see where those order numbers are, getting their product, definitely getting a sample of the product, understanding their production process, understanding if they’re importing something from outside the U.S., which is always a very risky situation. And especially for us, where we’re just, that’s not part of our branding anymore, we’re all made in the U.S.A. But you have to really cover every base. But again, in a situation if you’re trying to work with a small partner in the beginning, especially in a drop ship type situation where the other partner’s not well established, you have to start out very small, because even if everything looks legitimate, that company can be just more interested or concerned with what’s going on on their website. So they make a commitment, especially oftentimes companies make commitment to drop ship and they can’t honor on their end.

      And I completely understand that. You know, when we were a small company we also had a similar situation where we just did not have enough resources to facilitate the drop ship department that we started, so we started and quickly closed it up because it just was very difficult to work with. So it just, the main thing I would say is scale slowly. Especially if you’re working with companies that don’t have that kind of online reputation where you could trace back to the very origins of the company and find a long history and see they have hundreds of thousands of orders. If it’s a small business, you never know what you could potentially get yourself into and you have to be able to pull yourself out of that situation if there’s a calling for that.

      Felix: Got it. You mentioned earlier that the companies that you work with, that you started working with way back in when you first got started, are now much larger and also have, or the ones that weren’t in the EDM industry, now have EDM sections on their website. Is this concerning at all as you’re growing, that the partners that you’re working with are also such a growing in, I guess, maybe their supplier power, where they are now potentially selling directly to your customers as well?

      Anthony: It is, but not significantly. The companies that have those sections and now they still cater to pretty much a different market than ours, they’re just, just see the opportunity in the market that we’re in, and they want a piece of that. But yeah, I completely understand the question, you know, you want to facilitate other businesses and help other people grow, but you never want to also facilitate your competitors taking up a [inaudible 00:26:41]. So we’re very careful in who we work with, and again, you know, I think that the, just ideas in general and being able to constantly evolve is the main key here, because you won’t stop the growth of other businesses. But for us, one thing again that we’re looking to do is really grow in the direction of artists and working directly with artists rather than brands, because that just gives us a unique product. We don’t want to be in a situation too where we sell a product that two, three of our competitors are also selling. We want to keep it unique, we want to keep evolving.

      Felix: Got it. Yeah, I was going to mention that next, about your approach towards creating your own products by working with these artists. What has that process been like now that you’re shifting over towards more investment in this area of working directly with artists to create essentially unique products now?

      Anthony: It’s definitely a bit of a tough transition because a lot goes into prepping the artwork and getting it print-ready. But it’s a transition we’re happy to make because we understand the unique product that we’ll be putting out there. A lot of the artists we’re bringing in have not even had their artwork featured in clothing yet, and we think that it’ll look amazing once it’s ready. You’ll especially see a lot of that on Epic Hoodie in the upcoming month or so, just a lot of new artist releases on there that cater to more of a unique market, not just the EDM industry, which iEDM does. But the process is definitely a transition, because there is labor involved in getting artwork, taking a piece of art and getting it ready to where it can come out on a piece of clothing and still have the necessary quality and resolution and be something that people are willing to buy.

      So there are some growing pains, but like anything else, you just have to be willing and able to quickly adapt and adjust whatever you’re doing based on what’s going on there.

      Felix: And how did you find these artists?

      Anthony: Online research. A lot of online research, a lot of social media research. And mainly it was just finding artwork that we think would cater well to our industry but not necessarily going within the industry for that. So we’re going a little bit back to our roots to where we’re bringing in some outside ideas and people where we think it will translate well to what we’re doing. At the same time the electronic dance music industry itself, it’s just, it’s, the reason we got into it in the beginning was because we were confident that it’s an industry that’s here to stay just, it’s synonymous with technology. It’s electronic, that’s just the way music is trending. But the market itself is constantly changing and evolving, so we have to keep changing what we’re doing. And it’s become such a big industry that there’s so many different niches within there and so many different genres and styles and interests that we can bring in outside artists and bring in outside ideas and still create business for us.

      Felix: Now when you are drop shipping or working with these partners, or when you’re working directly with an artist to create your own products, what are some ways that you’re able to test out the market to see if they would be interested in that particular product or that particular design?

      Anthony: Honestly, just starting on a small scale and seeing how things go. We created some avenues where we could produce artwork rather quickly and we can put it on clothing rather quickly and we can pull it if we have to. So it’s really just trying out new trends, and doing our own research online, seeing what seems to be trending and then coming ahead with our own, first we put out a few designs and see how they sell, see if they trend, social media’s always a positive indicator as well, we’re able to see how people respond to it on social media on our social platforms. And then if it’s something we’re looking to do, we go from there. Nowadays we’re trying to push the envelope and change a lot of our artwork quicker just because again, it’s become a situation where there’s a lot of other companies trying to do similar things to what we’re doing and come out with some more artwork so we have to keep evolving and changing things. So we’re constantly trying out new things and that’ll especially be evident again this coming fall as we release a lot of these new artists and really come out with a new look as far as a lot of the products that we’re selling.

      Felix: Got it. Now, you obviously have lots of different products on your site, lots of different categories. Do you also remove products or categories from your site over time?

      Anthony: Yes, we do. We test things out as well, you know, in certain cases it’s better to just remove products and keep the ones that really sell well. In other cases you want to give customers a certain selection, especially if your collections aren’t as abundant as maybe some of the other collections in the store. So I would say it’s a little bit mix of both, but like anyone else who has been doing this for a matter of years, you have to understand it’s not always the same approach. You always have to keep testing your approach. The audience changes, the approach changes. And also Shopify comes out with a lot of tools that you can incorporate as well. Back in the day basically you didn’t really have any tools to organize your collections in a way that products that sell the best would be up in the front, based on a certain period of time. So let’s say you had a product that was on your store for years, of course it would accumulate a lot of sales, and if you sorted by best-seller, it would always be up there and people wouldn’t see your really new arrivals.

      But now there’s apps out there that allow you to display the trending items rather than just the old wore-out best-sellers. So this way if something’s not selling, it will get pushed to the back of the collection and not really interfere. But back in the day where you had to do everything more or less manually, that’s when we’d be more inclined to delete products off the website.

      Felix: Got it. Yeah, and because you do have a lot of products and also with categories, other than allowing Shopify or apps to auto-sort your products based on popularity, how do you think about organizing the categories and products when you sit down to design or redesign the online store?

      Anthony: A large portion of the decision-making is based on sales within a certain period of time. But we’ve also incorporated some apps. Our best-seller app is one that comes to mind, and it basically, you can set a period of time over which it’ll average out the sales and figure out what’s selling the best, and that’s what it’ll put out there. You can also basically set up a formula for new arrivals and how they’re incorporated into the overall sort order. So let’s say you set the order to best-sellers over four weeks and then you can say that 30% of the placement will be from new arrivals, so even if they aren’t up there as far as best-sellers, an app will help to do that work for you. In other cases it’s manual, you know, manual alignment and doing things manually. Sometimes the app isn’t the best approach because you look at, you go check your website and you’ll see that there are certain products that have a similar color or style and they’re now grouped together, which is not the greatest thing.

      So it’s a bit of both, it’s feeling out the collections, feeling out the sales, and identifying what’s the best approach there. Because when you have as many collections as we have as well, as many products, if you take it all upon yourself or your employees to manually move things around, it’ll be a difficult task and a very time-consuming task, and especially if you’re weighing that against sales, it’s a very time-consuming task.

      Felix: How often do you change up the organization of the site?

      Anthony: It’s live, due to the app, so it changes on a daily basis. But every few weeks we look at the overall orders, and especially if we’re releasing a new collection or there’s a seasonal collection, that’s when we’re really looking at it. If there’s an important seasonal collection, we may look at just completely doing it manually. Usually depends on the volume of products and if that’s manageable for us.

      Felix: Have there been any tests that you’ve run in the user experience realm that have yielded an increase in the conversions?

      Anthony: Not necessarily conversions, but add to cart conversion rate, you know, just add to cart rate itself, we’ve definitely weighed our options as far as manual sort, putting new arrivals on the first page, using the best-seller app. So we’ve compared results and seen what would work best. For us it’s also a bit of a balance because we have a reviews app, so we have Yotpo reviews in the site. So it’s a bit of a double-edged sword where you want to feature your older products that have accumulated a lot of reviews, to really make, you know, connect with the customer and give that trust back, but at the same time, you also need to incorporate your new arrivals in there, even if they might have one or two reviews or no reviews at all.

      So it’s a delicate balance, and sometimes the things that help, such as having a reviews on your site, may also hurt you in a different situation. Let’s say someone lands on a page and even though your website has three to 4,000 reviews, on that page there’s one product with a review. Or let’s say there’s one product in there with 10 reviews and other products have zero reviews. That can work against you potentially.

      Felix: Got it, you have to think about how people experience your site within your site too, not just how they see your site as a whole, because lots of times they don’t see your site as a whole, they just see a portion of it when they’re landing on just like a product page. Now you mentioned earlier about the sublimation process, that you guys have took on early on, and it’s a relatively new technology in the apparel space. Can you talk a little bit more about what is sublimation and how you’re using it with your products?

      Anthony: So sublimation is very unique compared to screen printing. I personally feel that it’s an up-and-coming, well not even up-and-coming anymore because now it’s pretty widespread. But basically the difference is the technology allows you to create HD prints, colors that are very, very strong and detailed, something that screen printing with a press doesn’t oftentimes allow for. The other main factor for us was it allowed us to cover an entire fabric. So that was a cool idea because, you know, the electronic dance music industry and the festival industry, people really like colorful clothing. That’s something that really caters to that market. So being able to actually take designs and put them over an entire surface area of the clothing was something that really captured that market. So sublimation printing, it’s very expensive and it’s still relatively new and there’s certain downsides to it, but an upside is you don’t have to create a mold like you would with screen printing, so you can try out new designs, if they don’t sell, your only up-front work is really creating those art files and art panels to get it printed.

      But these files are so massive as far as the sublimation files go that a few years ago just the computer technology wasn’t possible to create such high quality art. Now it’s a whole new world and you can do that. But it’s become pretty widespread. You see low-quality sublimation type work, you know, you’ll see it in Walmart and all these places that are importing it and you can see high-resolution, high-quality designs like what we sell where you’re basically looking at it and it’s almost like you’re staring at a painting. That’s really our approach and that’s what we wanted to do, and we’re especially pushing with Epic Hoodie, the most unique thing about it is just the overall colors that it produces. You can make very unique artwork and it can also allow you to experiment with different types of art without investing into a few hundred units.

      For a company that’s not building up inventory it’s a good approach if you find the right manufacturer, you know, and if you get the process down pat. The artwork is very, something that people are just not used to seeing, and now we’re really getting to the point where we’re trying to get our artwork to such high quality to where it’s almost like you’re looking at a painting. That’s how we really extended our branch, and we’re going out to artists that maybe before only printed on canvas art and things of that sort, and now we have the technology to take their artwork and put it on clothing without distorting it, that’s the main thing. Being able to create these massive, massive files that are so high-quality that when they print on the actual item, there’s no distortion whatsoever. There’s no pixelation. That’s something that just was not possible a few years ago, especially, even when we just got into it, it wasn’t possible.

      Felix: Now are you printing, or do you have your own printers? Like how do you get these products made?

      Anthony: We’re a partner of some of the bigger manufacturers in the U.S., so we basically, we have very close relationships working with them, and we send them the files and we have a whole process laid out. They really are an extension of our company. They ship for us, and we work hand in hand with them.

      Felix: Got it. And are these like print on demand, or do you usually buy a large amount of inventory up front, how does it usually work?

      Anthony: A lot of it is print on demand. When we started, the wait times would be 40, 50 days in certain cases and especially during holidays, it just got absolutely insane. Now we’ve got it down to a much, much faster time, you know, we’re talking five to 10 days. But a lot of it is print on demand. In situations where you got a design that’s really selling well, or a wholesale order, or you’re trying to bulk up for the holidays, then in that case you would make some up-front purchases, but it gets very tricky, print on demand, because you have to keep in mind the way business is trending. Not just for yourself but the other partners that work with the manufacturer, and be prepared for delays and things that are outside of your control. And that’s something that you learn the hard way unfortunately, but again, every year you have to make little adjustments here and there, and make sure that you’re moving in the right direction.

      Felix: So is it anything beyond just these constraints due to competitors or due to other companies that are using these print on demand, companies that might take the resources from you? Or are there any other reasons why you might entertain the idea of moving beyond print on demand and possibly printing yourselves?

      Anthony: It’s hard to say. You always want to have control of the printing process and if say a manufacturer gets too popular and the wait times are too strong, you might go in a different direction. But I would say it’s all really based on trends. If you see the trend, if you see the opportunity out there, business creates the opportunity where you no longer have to rely on print on demand, and that creates a bigger market for yourself, and things are stable enough to where you can purchase up front, then that’s something we’ve definitely done in the past. But right now this is really the approach for us as we expand our artists and really grow and test the waters. Everything in the beginning is really a test.

      Felix: Got it. And so something you mentioned, too, to me prior to interview was that one of the most important things to think about as an entrepreneur is to find the right niche and then form the business plan around it rather than the other way around. Can you say a little bit more about this?

      Anthony: I’ve read rather callous examples of people trying to get their businesses off the ground and just, overall, just seeing success rate. It’s not an easy thing to have an idea then, you know, create that idea and have it become something that actually comes to fruition, and, you know, it’s, positive returns to where you’re stable enough to dedicate your full time to it. My personal approach is that it’s a little hardheaded, you can’t be too hardheaded, even if you believe in a product yourself, you have to see the way the market reacts to it. Especially, I mean, my recommendation to anyone who’s starting off is even if you’re super passionate about something that you’re doing or you have a product, you have to weigh the opportunity that’s there and the market that’s there for it. Don’t force something if there’s a lot of competitors and if it’s going to be a super uphill battle. You just have to be smart, you have to believe in your product and definitely be willing to take the risks, but at the same time, I would approach it by first finding a niche and then exploring that niche and creating your business rather than having a business model idea first and then just forcing that in. You want to find an opportunity and be smart about it.

      Felix: When you, you mentioned earlier that EDM was not the only niche that you were considering early on. What made you choose the EDM niche over the other options?

      Anthony: You know, it just, that’s the way the conversations went. The very first time that I wanted to explore these, I had a few ideas and I got a group of my friends together, all of them had jobs and myself and my partner at that point were the ones that ended up following through with it, but I basically put out a few ideas out there of different industries that I saw really getting big over the next few years. This is really the route we took just based on just the discussions we had and what was realistic. I would say that in this specific idea that I had here for this business, it wouldn’t require me to leave New York, something that the other potential idea would have required me to do.

      Felix: Got it. Nowadays are you using paid advertising to drive traffic to the business?

      Anthony: Yeah, we are using paid advertising. We use Google Advertising, we use social media advertising. Without divulging too much, I would say that it’s a very, just like the business, it’s an environment that’s changing very quickly. Especially Facebook, especially social media as those platforms get really maxed out as far as their advertising space, and as they go public, you know, and the yearn for profit from their end becomes stronger and stronger, it becomes more difficult to keep those spreads and to keep doing what you’re doing. Especially on our part, you know, one of our main things is quality of product, and while there are avenues to get our same product printed overseas, we wanted to stay true to our business model and deliver a made in the U.S.A. product and facilitate business within the United States for other companies as well, you know, helping the economy but at the same time, we want to deliver a very high-quality product to our customers.

      But again, it becomes as situation where things change, companies go into the industry, they have higher spreads because maybe they’re importing things and there’s definitely decisions that have to be made and as advertising gets more and more expensive, you really have to make calls on certain things, and in certain cases focus more on organic advertising rather than paid advertising and figuring out ways to make the spreads work and to keep your profit margin there.

      Felix: What do you mean by organic advertising? How does that work?

      Anthony: Working on your social media and the unpaid aspects of it. And jumping on new platforms, maybe jumping on Snapchat, jumping on other platforms that provide that opportunity for you without investing too much into actually the paid reach. That’s really what I mean by that. At the same time too, like, for example with our business, we have iEDM Radio, which is a pretty popular podcast in the EDM industry, something that we do one, to give back to fans, and two, to really have just a separate connection from the apparel side of things, you know, separate way that people can know us, and we can establish that rapport with electronic dance music DJs and producers. So the podcast has been something that we’ve had for a few years now, you know, we have our own aspirations for that sector of the company.

      Also On Blast, which is our blog where we’ve been getting a lot of big interviews with a lot of the industry leaders, and that’s another way to really get organic placement both online through a search engine optimization but also just continue that word of mouth and have our brand freshly into the minds of people in the industry and their fans who may read those articles. So it’s about really exploring and weighing paid advertising against really other ways you can reach a wider audience.

      Felix: So rather than spending your time and resources on paid advertising, you are creating content that will attract the kind of customers that you want to check out your store, whether that be through the kind of content you post on social media, or the podcast that you mentioned, or the blog, putting content out on the blog as well. Now to run this entire show, what kind of apps or tools do you use to help run the business? I heard you mention the best-seller app and Yotpo earlier. Are there any other apps out there on Shopify or off of Shopify that you use?

      Anthony: Yeah, so mail apps, right now we’re using MailChimp, potentially looking at other apps as well as far as the emails go. Cart recovery, we’ve tried our hand with a few different apps on Shopify, right now we’re using I believe it’s called Beautiful Abandoned Cart Emails. We’re also using a separate abandoned cart from MailChimp. Just to name a few other apps, Yotpo for reviews is the reviews app we’re currently using, a bit on the expensive side but it does have some of its positives. ShipStation, to just control the whole shipping line and make sure things go on time. An app that we’ve recently started using is Lucky Orange, which is a pretty cool app, it allows you to really experience, see the user experience and see what they’re seeing on their end. Oftentimes there’s glitches and there’s things that you may never notice because the program and the coding itself is so synced into the browsers and the computers people are using.

      Felix: Quick question about Lucky Orange. This tool and I think Hotjar are the two most popular ones and this realm. Of course you’re probably getting tons of traffic and even store owners that don’t have as much traffic as you, they are maybe overwhelmed by all the recordings, all the data that’s coming through there, like how do you make use, or how do you make actionable use out of that data that comes from a tool like Lucky Orange?

      Anthony: Yeah, and the other app, I have tried it out as well in the past. Lucky Orange is just the one we’re really sticking to at the moment, but you know, the most favorable tool I would say there is one, just if there’s any odd patterns that you’re noticing with your conversion rates. You definitely want to jump on there and try to understand the user experience and see if there’s something that you’re not seeing on your end. The other thing is heat maps, and understanding if something is dissuading clicks or persuading clicks and trying to understand that data, and then work off that data to make future decisions. But to be honest, it’s a great, great tool, and we’re doing our best to use it more and more. I feel like we’re not getting the most use out of it right now.

      Felix: Got it. So you look for signs that something might be wrong or something might be worth investigating just by looking at your high-level metrics and then using a tool like Lucky Orange to dig into the kind of surveillance footage, I guess, of what might be going on that’s causing these changes in the metrics?

      Anthony: Yeah, yeah exactly. Exactly. I’d love to say that we’re in a position where we’re using it to improve the store day in and day out, but realistically under current resources and trying to grow the product lines and the seasonal situation here where we have a lot of things going on in Epic Hoodie and iEDM, we’re mainly using that tool in case there’s anything, any negative trends that we see, or if there’s any new website [inaudible 00:49:40] and features, [inaudible 00:49:42] out, and just make sure that everything’s all good across platform.

      Felix: Got it. Thank you so much for your time, Anthony. So iEDM.com is the website, you also mentioned Epic Hoodies at EpicHoodie.com?

      Anthony: Yep, EpicHoodie.com.

      Felix: Got it, so that’s a new store that has been launched. Where do you want to see that these, this empire that you’re building go to next, this time next year?

      Anthony: You know, hopefully internationally. Hopefully expand to international market, but at the same time I really hope by this time next year, we really separate ourselves from our competitors by just providing a unique experience and a unique product. That’s really our main focus right now is just changing some things around as far as what we’re doing, and just really creating something that’s unique. And just seeing how fast the industry changes, my recommendation for anyone out there starting their own business is really just never settle. Constantly look to improve, constantly look to change because things do catch up. It’s the internet. Everybody sees everything whether it’s a company overseas selling your images, or whether it’s competitors seeing what sells and rightfully sell, it’s their right to do so, but you have to keep changing, you have to keep delivering a fresh product if you want to really reach that next echelon. So hopefully by this time next year that’s where we are.

      Felix: Thank you so much again, Anthony.

      Anthony: All right, Felix, thank you so much.

      Felix: Here’s a sneak peek for what’s in store in the next Shopify Masters episode.

      Speaker 3: They get the first tote out of that fabric for free as sort of a thank you for helping us connect others with that country, and then they get $10 per tote sold as well.

      Felix: Thanks for listening to Shopify Masters, the E-Commerce marketing podcast for ambitious entrepreneurs. To start your store today, visit Shopify.com/Masters to claim your extended 30-day free trial. Also for this episode’s show notes, head over to Shopify.com/Blog.

       


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      About the Author

      Felix Thea is the host of the Shopify Masters podcast, the ecommerce marketing podcast for ambitious entrepreneurs. Got something to share with Shopify Masters listeners? You can submit your story for consideration.

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