A fanbase is a small-but-passionate group of your kind of people.
They tend to share similar beliefs, experiences, and, in the case of UI Stencils, professions.
Jay Dokken is the founder of UI Stencils, tools and accessories for software planning and design.
In this episode of Shopify Masters, you’ll learn how having a dedicated tribe helped earn sales from the onset of his business.
Listen to Shopify Masters below…
You have to be continually refreshing your product line, adding new products, taking away the old products that don’t sell. That’s really important.
Tune in to learn
- What dedicated fans can do for your business.
- How to cultivate your relationship with your fanbase.
- Why you’re doing things right if you have products that are falling flat.
Felix: Today I’m joined by Jay Dawkin from Uistencils.com. That’s the letter U, the letter I, S-T-E-N-C-I-L-S.com. UI Stencils sells tools and accessories for software planning and design. Was started in 2007 and based out of Denver, Colorado. Welcome Jay.
Jay: Thanks for having me Felix.
Felix: Excited to have you on. Tell us a bit more about these tools and accessories that you guys create and sell.
Jay: Basically when you’re designing an app or you’re designing a website oftentimes the best way to get started is with a pencil and paper. There’s something very natural and very fast about using a pencil and paper. It also puts your mind in a certain space where you can think about ideas a little differently than if you were to start on a computer.
Felix: Makes sense. Did these tools exist that you guys sale, did they exist before you guys came along?
Jay: No. That’s an interesting question. We pretty much invented the market for this type of thing. I think that’s a really important point to where our success comes from. Is we were the first people to think of the idea and expand upon it. That allowed us to really gain momentum and go from there.
Felix: Just to give the audience a little bit more of a visual, essentially what you guys sell I guess in the name UI Stencils, you sell a bunch of other things too. But what I think makes you guys or made you guys popular were these stencils. I’m looking at one now. The iPhone stencil kit. There’s an object that looks just like an iPhone and a bunch of I guess, different icons that are valuable for people to sign onto to use as a stencil. It makes it a lot easier to design like you’re saying, applications or a website. Just kind of give people a visual of that.
What’s your background? Are you guys designers, software developers? How did you get into this?
Jay: For I guess up until a year ago I was a web designer, app designer UX person. I ran my own web design company with a partner in Seattle called Design Commission. We helped a lot of companies, a lot of start up companies. There’s a big tech community in Seattle. A lot of money and a lot of venture capital to create software, create apps, create companies around ideas. This idea, UI Stencils, was an off shoot out of that where one year we were trying to think of a good Christmas gift to send our clients. We put together a website like design your own website kit. It included a drawing stencil and a pad and a pencil. We got a fair bit of response from that. People were into it and liked the idea. Then I think maybe a year later the iPhone essentially opened up their app store to developers. We released an iPhone version at the same time the Apple development conference was happening. That just went viral. It pretty much shot us into the stratosphere with the amount of sales and the amount of interest. We had to go down to the post office and buy ten thousand dollars worth of stamps kind of thing to get all the orders out. We didn’t know what we were doing. The rest is history. That gave us the push that we needed as a business I guess.
Felix: You guys had this idea for a gift to give to your clients. When did it start becoming more of a business where you wanted to sell this to other people then just as a gift for your clients?
Jay: Yeah. It really happened naturally out of demand. I can say I’m pretty sure we had the initial website stencil kit for sale online. We were getting some sales but things didn’t really start taking off until the iPhone stencil kit essentially happened. Does that answer your question?
Felix: Yeah. I want to learn more about this virality that happened because you launched this product.
Jay: I think the lesson there is timing. It was one of when to release something. In our case there was a little bit of luck but if you can time it in the right way, you can ride that ripple effect of what’s happening. I think that there is something to be said about releasing something at the right time.
Felix: Say a little more about this. How do you know looking back on it, how did you … if you could reverse engineer I guess the timing of your launch, how would you recognize when you should be launching something? How do you know how to time it correctly?
Jay: In our case this product specifically was catering developers who were making apps for the app store. We launched it at the same time the App developer conference was happening. I think that it had a snowball effect because of that. If you’re creating a line of swimsuits, the fashion industry obviously knows when t release things. That could be one example. Paying attention to when to put something out there.
Felix: For your case, you also still have to obviously releasing something at the right time can help you ride the wave. But you also have to I guess catch that wave too right? You have to do some of the initial grunt work to get this going, to promote it yourself. What did you guys do to kick off this viral product?
Jay: It was completely out of our hands. We did very little in terms of marketing or getting the word out there. Basically the reason it became viral is how everybody else responded to it. Everybody was posting about it. Everybody was sharing it. Everybody, there’s this almost frenetic atmosphere in the product and this really unbelievable response that people had. We didn’t have to do anything. It automatically became viral.
Felix: Right. Have you been able to repeat this success, maybe not to the same degree, but have you been able to either launch products or release videos or anything like that, that have been able to catch on virally?
Jay: Yeah. I think it’s very difficult to repeat that. There are definitely products we release that people respond to more than others. Part of it, in our case, is how useful something is. If we release a product and people can really understand the value and the dream that it brings, then it tends to do a lot better. I don’t know if that makes sense.
Felix: Can you elaborate on that? I definitely get what you’re saying about how if people can immediately see the value of a product that you’re putting out there, they’re going to respond much more favorably and I think also lines up your product launch for more likelihood of going viral. Does that mean you have to do a better job communicated or messaging your product? What does it mean to make your product much more recognizable for its value?
Jay: I think in our case it has to do with two things. One is the design of the product itself. This is really important and it’s almost the most important aspect of getting traction with a product. The other aspect of this all is how somebody perceives that it will add value to what it is that they’re doing. If somebody thinks that this is really going to enable them to take the next step with their idea or this is really going to push them further in what it is that they’re doing, then the product is a success. It’s the combination of those two things that really sell products essentially.
Felix: I like that. That if the product enables your target customer to take the next step, it makes it a much more valuable product because it’s almost like they are trying to cross this gap, trying to cross this [inaudible 12:17] and then you come along and say here’s the bridge to get there is such a media kind of click in their head. I need this product. This product is valuable because I’m facing a problem that’s right in my face that I need a solution for. That makes a lot of sense. Does that mean that you need to spend a lot of time … how do you catch people at that opportunity? Is there a way to keep your product top of mind so that when they do run into this situation where they have a problem that your product can solve, they know to go to you immediately?
Jay: Yeah. I think it’s lately it’s the type of thing where somebody is interested in user experience or somebody is trying to learn about app development or somebody wants to start a business or wants to build an app and they’re not quite sure where to get started. They start to search, there’s lots of blog posts that mention us. There’s other people in the industry and in social media who continue to write about us and that sort of thing. That’s where it comes from.
Felix: I see. You’re almost a recommended product for a lot of people that are seeking out this, I guess they’re almost beginners. They are beginners in the beginner stages of starting company, getting more into US, getting more into design, getting more into developing software or applications and they’re probably out in the internet looking up for ways to do it. Then your product is recommended. Is that what usually is that happened with discover?
Jay: Yeah. There are beginners for sure but there are also professionals who continue to use our products and reorder our pads that they like and some of our other products. It can be used with both beginners and experts. Basically the value of our products is with early stages of an idea. You have an idea, you want to iterate on it, you want to prototype things, think about how screens fit together, how flows fit together, think about how you might structure something in a really quick manner. That’s where our tools come in. Both beginners and professionals find value in that.
Felix: Do you actively try to get blogs or sites to mention or recommend your product? How do you stay at the forefront of the list of recommendations that blogs put out?
Jay: We should be doing more of that for sure. It’s the type of thing where we don’t reach out as such as we should. We have satisfied customers talking about us. We have people in the industry who are writing certain topical articles about the best practices in UX and they write about us.
Felix: When they do write about you, do you reach out to them? Do you try to start up some kind of relationship? I’m just trying to get a better idea, how do …
Jay: I think you got a great point there. It’s important that you write somebody back and you’re like hey thanks for mentioning us in your blog post. That’s important. It’s something that is hard to do. It’s like flossing your teeth or whatever in my case, where you got to get in the habit of doing. I’ve never … for some reason or another I’ve never been the type of person that sends out thank you cards for stuff. That’s important. My old business partner was great at that. He sends out thank you cards and it makes a huge difference. It makes a big impression. I think that for sure that’s important to do.
Felix: I’m not sure if you’re familiar with this service called mention, mention.net. I’ve used it before and it’s a great way for … it’s essentially a Google alert but maybe even better because it might keep track of things like social media as well and keeps track of anyone that mentions your brand, your website, and it’s a great way to not have to actively search out your name or your mentions yourself. They let you know when something comes up so it’s a cool service for that. This was an idea born out of just a gift that you wanted to give to clients. It became much more in demand. People were asking where I can buy this or how can they get more. What was the next step? How did you … assuming you were still working it was in some kind of agency that you worked at or you owned? When did UI Stencils become more of a real independent thing of its own?
Jay: I would say 2008 we built a brand around it and launched an eCommerce store and then got serious about launching new products.
Felix: 2008, this is only a year after that initial success of grass roots success, even more organic than anything. You wanted to get more serious about it. Did you then start approaching … how did you get these things made? Were you approaching manufacturers and producers at scale?
Jay: Yeah. Part of the idea was we knew about this manufacturing process. I’m an arm chair industrial designer I guess. I knew about this industrial process. That’s when we reached out to a manufacturer kind of thing.
Felix: Gotcha. What did you get made first? Was it just this iPhone kit that you had created or did you guys already have additional products lined up by the time you wanted to launch the eCommerce store?
Jay: We started with a website version that looks a lot different than what’s up there now. It was made out of stainless steel, the same material. Then we slowly got into pads like sketch pads. Then we started offering other accessories that people might use when they’re in these early stages of thinking about idea. Then things like branded t-shirts and books and other stencils. Then we released some clear versions of the stencils.
Felix: When you had this eCommerce store did you have a strategy to market or to get more traffic to the store? Were you still living off that virality of the initial products?
Jay: We were living the virality of it. It’s the type of thing where you get a certain traction with the virality.
Felix: It’s a hard word.
Jay: Yeah, that is a tricky one. Then you feed off it in different ways. You reach out to people, you start developing more relationships based on that. It definitely had a lot to do with the initial kick that we got in the business.
Felix: You mentioned you started reaching out to people, I’m assuming these are people writing abut you. I’m just trying to get a better understanding of how do you keep this buzz going after that initial kick off like you said. What were you guys doing?
Jay: I think of the reasons for that is there’s a dedicate group of people who were really interested in what we were doing. If you can cultivate that somehow, that’s going to be your best method for growth. I heard a talk one time but this speaker was talking about developing your tribe or cultivating your tribe of people. That’s really what you want to pay close attention to. In our case it’s a very niche tribe. It was easy to identify who is going to find a lot of value out of what we’re doing.
Felix: I like that you find this core group of people, core group of I guess champions of your brand of your company. By making them happy they go out and spread the word for you essentially. How were able to identify this core group of people and how were you able to reach them?
Jay: They identified us and they wrote about us and they shared it with other people who were also interested in us.
Felix: Did you know that this tribe or these kinds of people existed prior to them starting to write about you?
Jay: Not to this extent. We did not fully understand the extent of how there was this mad rush to develop apps and this is the early days of mobile app development. I think even before the Android app store so Apple was just opening up their app store. That’s what set things off.
Felix: What do you do to cultivate this relationship? You’ve identified or they have identified you. They start writing about you. How do you keep them happy and keep them interested in writing more and more about you because I’m assuming there’s only so much to write about one particular company. How do you keep them writing about you or keep your company on top of their minds?
Jay: It’s hard. I think one of the things that is really important for us is to continue to develop new products that meet the needs of this audience. If you’re just sitting back and doing a whole bunch of marketing, even in content marketing I don’t think would continue to sell old products. You have to be continually refreshing your product line, adding new products, taking away the old products that don’t sell. That’s really important.
Felix: It’s almost like you have this engine now that exists but you have to keep on feeding it with fuel. The best way to do is just more products, not to create more content yourself. You have to give them more things to get excited about because they don’t get excited about the same old things over and over again. I think that brings us to an important topic, which is product development for you guys. You mentioned earlier that there are some products that you release that just don’t respond as well as others. Some respond way better than others. How does that affect your process when you go into deciding what kind of products to develop next?
Jay: That’s a good question. I think you don’t really know what people are going to respond to. You can take educated guesses but you don’t have a hundred percent certainty that something is going to be a success. I’ve always liked this idea of having a shot gun approach to releasing products where you try your darnedest to make something useful, put something together that you think people will respond to. Then releasing a whole bunch of different ideas and seeing what’s going to sell well overtime, what’s going to shrivel up and die, then you take away the ones that done do so well. Then you continue to refine and maybe release new versions of the ones that do well.
Felix: I like that thought about how you don’t know so just get out there and try it. This shot gun approach to releasing products it can get expensive right? It can get expensive in your actual monetary investment, get expensive in the time and energy put into it. How far along do you go when you do release a product? Do you actually produce everything and get it out into a form that can be shipped to customers before you have an idea if it’s going to be a hot or not product?
Jay: We create the product before we start selling it. We have a stock of product in hand before we sell it. Was that your … I’m sorry.
Felix: I guess I was trying to understand if you don’t know until you try to sell a product whether it’s going to be successful or not, it seems like it could be very expensive to go through that entire design, all that. Do you actually go through everything before you have any idea if it’s going to be successful or not?
Jay: Yeah. I think a couple of things there. One, there’s always this balance between cost and quality and design. Really as an entrepreneur you need to be good at both because if you make the product too fast or too cheap that’s not good. At the same time, if you spend too much in design or too much time thinking about it then that’s not good either. Striking that balance is key for sure.
Felix: What kind of questions do you ask yourself when you’re trying to figure out if you might be spending too much time on one versus the other on cost versus design?
Jay: It’s a gut feel. I’m a designer by trade. I naturally like noodling ideas and taking my time and thinking about the details there. I’m leaning towards, I naturally lean towards that side of things. I think I’m also a very frugal person I would say. It’s important that when it comes time to manufacture something or ship something I’m doing it in the most efficient manner.
Felix: Do you have to make these hard decisions then on saving the cast, saving the time, at the expense of the design or I don’t want to say necessarily the quality, but at the expense of the design?
Jay: You know our situation it’s so … I guess one aspect of what we do is the products are pretty simple. It’s not like we’re creating a piece of electronics hardware where we have to coordinate a whole supply chain of different ship manufacturer and PCB board guy and assembly plant. We’re not doing that and that might be a little different ball game.
Felix: I guess I was trying … because you were mentioning this balance between cost versus design. I think a lot of entrepreneurs go through this too where they have this ideal vision of their product in their head and then once it hits the very hard wall of reality when they go to the manufacturer and realize how much time, how much money it’s going to cost to get them to realize that dream, I’m sure you go through this process too when you have to compare your dream versus the reality. How do you make those decisions?
Jay: You got to move forward. You got to push forward. As long as you have a vision in place, anything is possible. It’s not getting hung up on stuff thinking of different solutions. One material is not working then try something else. If one guy is going to take six months to do something, then you got to find a different supplier. You got to keep moving forward.
Felix: Stay flexible. If you can’t stay flexible, then you can’t move forward. That makes sense. This tribe that you have are I’m assuming very vocal when they give you feedback as well, do you listen to everything that they say? If they want a specific product from you, do you immediately go out and make it? How do you take feedback from your most vocal and dedicated customers?
Jay: We love feedback. We get emails all the time regarding different things, different ideas. Some are really great. Some you have to take with a grain of salt but all feedback is good. Anytime somebody takes the time to send you feedback you should definitely pay close attention to that for sure.
Felix: How do you determine if feedback is feedback that you would take versus feedback that you take with a grain of salt?
Jay: I have a certain opinion about how things should be done and how the design process goes when people are using our tools. A lot of it is based on simply my experience. There’s nobody else here really to collaborate with or determine whether that feedback makes sense or not. When this whole business was with the design studio, up until a year and a half ago or so, it was great having a team of people there to run ideas off of and get feedback on and help shape the feedback and help maybe one aspect of the feedback is good. You take that part of it but you leave the rest. It helps out a team of people around for sure.
Felix: When it comes to your tribe, like I was saying earlier they’re usually very vocal and passionate and with that kind of passion you can also trigger them in the opposite direction. Have you guys ever done anything that’s not necessarily upset your tribe but that maybe they didn’t like as much as you would’ve thought?
Jay: Yeah. We’ve released products in the past where it’s just crickets kind of thing. We think it’s a good idea but nobody else responds to it. For sure, that happens all the time. I would say that’s a mark of you’re doing things right because if that’s not happening then you’re not releasing enough products.
Felix: Makes sense. When you do come across that you released and let’s say it doesn’t do as well as your other products, but it’s still selling, it’s still profitable, you’re not losing money on holding the inventory or selling the inventory, do you keep it in your catalog or do you cut it out if it’s not a roaring success?
Jay: What I generally do is I keep it up there. We get rid of product that doesn’t sell. Sometimes we sponsor conferences or programs that need some product or would find some product useful. We’ll send out stuff that isn’t selling too well to them but then usually what happens with those types of products is I leave it up on the site but it’s not linked in any way, so links still get spread throughout the web and a lot of people find our website through old products or through outdated products. Those links stay up.
Felix: Gotcha. It wouldn’t be easy to navigate to it from your homepage but if someone had the link to it they could still get to it. The reason why you have that is because that link might exist somewhere on some other site and you want people to find your actual site through that product page even though it’s not as a successful product. That makes a lot of sense. You shouldn’t burn those bridges even if the product isn’t as successful because you could get that residual traffic to it. You mentioned something to me I think in our pre interview questions, which is about how you like the idea of having a design driven business and how you like to think about ways to fuse design when creating a successful business. Can you speak more about this?
Jay: My background is in product design, development, app design, digital product designs. We’re talking about web apps and mobile apps and the marketing sites that come along with that and branding. I’m a big proponent of really letting the product speak for itself and letting the product be your number one kind of marketing method or tool. I’m a big believer in spending a lot of time up front to essentially set things on the right path. It has a lot to do with product design and development. By being a design driven business, you’re investing in product design. Whatever it is that you’re doing, if it’s digital, if it’s physical, if you’re selling clothes, if you’re selling potted plants, make sure that what you’re doing it is really design orientated. I guess you’re investing enough time in the design of your product.
Felix: That means you’re saying that don’t take the shortcuts especially if what’s your competing on is design. Don’t take shortcuts on the design early on just to get to market faster. Is that what you’re getting at?
Jay: Yeah. I would go so far as to say if you’re not the designer yourself, be initially involved in the design process. Get to know how the design process works, how best to leverage that process. It has huge ramifications for your business, your brand, and ultimately your success.
Felix: For people that aren’t designers like you’re talking about but do work with designers. Let’s say they have a fashion brand or maybe they have a t-shirt brand and they don’t have a design bone in their body but want to be in this industry and they’re working with designer. What do you find as a designer yourself? What do you find is the best way for a non designer person to work with a designer?
Jay: I think it’s important for those types of people to really align themselves with a designer or creative person or somebody that is visually oriented. This person should be on their pay roll or be their best friend or be very close to the business, be a partner in the business, that type of thing.
Felix: I see. If you’re not a designer but you work with the designer, not only should you be involved more into the design side, you need to bring the designer more into your side into maybe the business side of your brand.
Jay: Totally. Totally. Just infuse them together. The closer that you can get and the more synergy that you can create between the business and the design side the more successful you’ll be.
Felix: That’s a great point because a lot of times when people are talking about working with designers they think of them as just an employee, someone that they have tasks for and then ship it out, throw it over the wall, and wait for them to finish it up and throw it back over the wall. That doesn’t work nearly as well as you’re saying, which is to bring them into the business. Make it more of a two way conversation rather than just a one way from the non designer over to the designer. That’s a great point. I want to talk a little bit and go back a little bit and talk about the manufacturing of this product. This is a product that is not like crazy complicated but does seem like there is not that much room for errors or I guess it doesn’t allow a lot of tolerance on this product because there’s small icons. These stencils need to be exact to make it actually work with during the design phase. What has been the manufacturing experience been like for you to find a manufacturer and work with them to create a product like this?
Jay: It’s been all right. We actually had a manufacturer for a long time in Seattle. Their place burnt down actually. We had to find another manufacturer for them. We’re fortunate that our stencils are made by a very reliable partner I guess and manufacturer. They have a very rigid process in place. There’s reliability there. Not everything you do is that way. Not everybody takes quality as seriously. Some of our products are made in China and it’s very difficult to ensure a certain level of quality to communicate that you want things done in a certain way. There’s a lot of nuance involved. Sometimes it’s a challenge for sure.
Felix: Definitely makes sene. You mentioned that at one point this was in the lifetime of this business, it was mostly in a part of the design agency but now about a year and a half later it’s independent unit. Way less people that are now working on this. I’m assuming you … what’s the team like? Is it multiple people still? What’s the make up of the team?
Jay: It’s just me and my wife Dorothy. She handles all the fulfillment in customer service. She ships the product, she orders more product when we run out. Then I’m more on the product design, marketing, photography side of things. That’s the break up of the work.
Felix: Gotcha. What about any tools or apps or services that you rely on to run your business?
Jay: What do we use? Order Cup for fulfillment in Shopify. That’s an app on Shopify. We use … what else is important? That’s about it. Don and I use slack for just messaging each other. Photoshop is key for doing stuff. Taking photos, putting up photos. Mail chimp for sending out mail, email, newsletters. What else do we use? That’s pretty standard fair.
Felix: For your shipping you said, which app did you say you use?
Jay: It’s called Order Cup.
Felix: Order Cup, okay.
Jay: I think a lot of people use Ship Station. Is that Ship Station?
Felix: Yeah, that’s definitely a popular one. Cool. UIStencils.com, again is a website. Where do you want to see the business be this time next year? What kind of goals do you have for the business?
Jay: I’d like to keep growing it. I think I have a list that’s a mile long that contains product ideas and things I want to do. It’s just a matter of crossing those off the list and getting those done. I hope to broaden the appeal of what we’re doing. I think a lot of people just see us as doing these stencils but we are offering a lot more things on our site. A lot more products. If we can steer the store in the direction of being a general resource and supply for app designers and developers and start up companies and that type of thing, that would be great. It’s a tricky thing to try to expand beyond what you’re known for. It’s like being typecast as an actor.
Felix: Awesome. Thanks so much for your time Jay. UIStencils.com, again is a website. Anywhere else you recommend the listeners go and check out if they want to follow along with what you guys are releasing, what you guys are up to?
Jay: Follow us on Twitter.com/UIStencils and also Instagram. You can follow us on Instagram. We hae newsletter sign up on our site. You can stay up to date with new products and promotions. There’s a download in our blog or if you go down the footer there’s a download section and you can download some free tablet files that you can print out and use for sketching your ideas on our site. That’s a good way to get started and then maybe order some of our products.
Felix: Awesome. Thank you again for your time Jay.
Jay: Thank you Felix. I appreciate it.
Felix: Here’s a sneak peek for what’s in store for the next Shopify Masters episode.
Speaker 3: In terms of how we communicate through influencers really what we do is I would email them early on and say, we have this product, we love your hair, we’d love to give you some. We’d love to have you try it. Here’s how to use it and hers what it is.
Felix: Thanks of listening to Shopify Masters, the eCommerce marketing podcast for ambitious entrepreneurs. To start your store today, visit Shopify.com/masters to claim your extended 30 day free trial.