Why (and How) You Should Test Before You Invest in a T-Shirt Design

sugoi shirts shopify masters

While it's easier than ever today to launch your own t-shirt business, the reality is that some designs will be a hit and others will be a miss.

Relying on your gut alone can result in time and money spent on designs that no one is willing to pay for.

That's why you need a feedback loop that helps you ditch unpopular design ideas as soon as you identify them, and double down where there's real demand.

In this episode of Shopify Masters, you’ll learn from an entrepreneur who built a 6-figure print-on-demand apparel business by identifying his winning designs early on.

Ryan McCarthy is the founder of Sugoi Shirts: a store that designs & sells streetwear inspired by Japanese pop culture and anime.

If I put an ad out and I’m not getting any bites on it within the first 3 to 4 days then I can be pretty much be sure that that’s not going to work.

Tune in to learn

  • How to use Reddit to get feedback on your products
  • How to test t-shirt designs with ads without wasting money
  • How to create a fashion design brand without a design background

Listen to the podcast below (or download it for later):

Don't miss an episode! Subscribe to Shopify Masters.

Show Notes


Felix: Today I’m joined by Ryan McCarthy from Sugoi Shirts, Sugoi Shirts designed to sell Japanese pop culture, anime inspired street wear, and it was started in 2015 and based out of Buffalo, New York. Welcome, Ryan.

Ryan: Hey, thanks for having me.

Felix: Yeah, so tell us a bit more about who is buying these shirts, give us idea of who your customer is.

Ryan: So, our customer is a pretty specific, we have the demographics locked down here. So, it’s pretty much 18 to 24-year-old males. And we do have females too, but definitely more of a male dominated industry, and mostly United States but we have touched sale’s over in the UK, Australia and other parts of Europe as well.

Felix: Nice. So, how did you identify that there was this market? Like, what’s your background? How did you decide on this particular niche?

Ryan: Sure. So, my background actually is, I am my audience, so I think it’s very important to be passionate about what you’re selling and what you’re doing with your brand. And so, it was very easy for me to identify the audience because I come from a background of loving anime and I’m also, I’m 25, so it’s easy for me to sort of identify with the audience already. Basically, I think a lot of it comes down to, I know what people like when it comes to the shows, and when it comes to fashion, and both of those are sort of in my background experience, so I kind of just combined the two together and went from there.

Felix: Makes sense. So you already, you are your customer, like you said, you’re already passionate about the niche and you would buy your own products already. So once you are sitting down and thinking about what kind of products, what kind of shirts, what kind of things introduced into your store, you start with a base of what you would like, would you go beyond that to understand like a way to validate whether other people would like it as well?

Ryan: Yes. So, it’s funny, one of the first things I did to sort of validate my audience and make sure that everything was right, was I went to Reddit before anything, and I just sort of was throwing out the designs that I had, and something I should note too is I do all the designs myself. So, a lot of times I’ll finish a design and make sure that people like it before I start advertising it, or kind of pushing it out there into the market in terms of sales. So, I like to ask people their opinions on the designs before I even begin remotely selling it.

Felix: So, you’re going to Reddit, which I think that’s a great place. Go into a community that exists and get their feedback. What’s your approach? So you have a design that you have in mind, you’re going to Reddit.com, are you going to a specific sub-Reddit, like how are you creating the post to get that feedback?

Ryan: Yes, there are, there’s specific sub-Reddits that I sort of came across that I didn’t even know existed. I actually didn’t really use Reddit a lot until I started getting into this, and Reddit just has a plethora of different sub-genres that you can just, you can tackle and if people are in those sub-Reddits they’re generally very passionate about that topic. So in my case, anime street wear, anime fashion, it’s a very niche subject, and I managed to find maybe 5 or 10 sub-Reddits where people were just able to comment on my designs and give me feedback and let me know “Hey, we liked this.” Or “Hey, maybe don’t run with that.”

Felix: Makes sense. So, you’re just creating a simple post with an image? Walk us through, what’s the, how do you solicit feedback? I think one of the reasons why people tread carefully with Reddit is that they can certainly help push your brand, but also rear its head at you if you’re approaching them incorrectly. So, give us the tips and tricks on how to approach carefully.

Ryan: That’s right. So, I mean the first time I did it I was, like I said, I didn’t really have any experience with Reddit. So, I went through that whole process of getting roasted, I guess for lack of better words, on Reddit. I definitely didn’t approach it right the first couple times. It sounded too salesy, I guess. So, you definitely have to approach it with caution and just, you have to throw yourself in as if you are a really passionate member there, which I am and I just wanted to make sure that it came across that way. And, the best way to do that for me was to put up just literally a screenshot of my Photoshop file with the design I was working on. It wasn’t even on a tee shirt. I mean, it wasn’t anything like that, just strictly the design and the Photoshop file and just saying “Hey, I have this X design here.” It could be, I made sure it was very specific, like the wording that I was choosing was very specific to what I was talking about. And “Would you guys be able to give me some feedback on this? Do you like it? Do you not like it?” So that’s kind of how I went about it.

Felix: Got it. So you gained this feedback from them. Does this also turn into traffic and sales? Like where, once you have the designs figured out and you found what they liked, what’s next?

Ryan: Yeah. So, and this is very early on, this is back when I was first starting the business, I don’t, actually haven’t used Reddit quite as much lately, but definitely brought a lot of initial traffic, because at that point I did have the site up and I did have some preliminary designs for sale, and when people started realizing that some of these designs were actually pretty cool, and it started clicking with some of them, naturally without even saying “Hey, visit my”, having any call to actions or anything like that, they would just sort of naturally gravitate towards the site because they just wanted to see what other designs I had to offer. So, really it’s kind of like that saying of like, where your product is sometimes more important than even your marketing, like if you don’t have a good product or if whatever you’re selling isn’t clicking with people, then no matter how much advertising you do, it’s never going to fly. You know?

Felix: Yeah. I think there’s something to be said about going into passionate communities and if you can present a product that you know they’ll like, you don’t need to be too pushy because they’re going to be naturally curious. I think taking that salesy call to action approach is more important when you have a little bit, I guess colder traffic where they might not be as passionate as these communities. So, that’s a great point that if you come into a passionate community like a sub-Reddit, that the ones that you went into, you don’t want to be too pushy. It can actually backfire and it sounds like in your case it did backfire, and I’ve heard numerous other cases of the same thing happening. So again, passionate community, no need to be too salesy, just present a product that you know that they will like.

Ryan: Exactly.

Felix: So, you mentioned that you design these tee shirts. Is that your background? Do you have a background in fashion design? Like what’s your background?

Ryan: Yeah. So, my actual background is in web design and digital marketing. So, I came from working at an agency where I would do search engine optimization work to sites, and I do a lot of design work in Photoshop, and putting some websites together. So I sort of had a little bit of a, I guess a head start you’d say, when it comes to that sort of angle because not everybody’s coming in with web design knowledge or something like that. So, that definitely helped me kickstart the store in the beginning because I already kind of had that knowledge going into it. And I mean, I still have a lot to learn. I mean, having run this for the past two years now, I didn’t realize how much more there was still to be gained from actually going ahead into it. But yeah, so that was basically my background, just working with websites, constantly being in Photoshop and one day I was just like “Hey, maybe I can give this a try.” You know?

Felix: Yeah. That’s great. So, when you are creating these designs, are the concepts from scratch or are the concepts kind of ingrained in the community? Like, where are you getting these ideas for your designs?

Ryan: Yes. So, a lot of the inspiration comes from other people that I see doing work out there. So, there’s a lot of cos-players that I follow. I’m also looking at different trends in the anime world, so like different memes that are out there, different, popular anime shows that are going on, and I sort of just pull inspiration from all those, and also then I go look into the fashion world and I sort of see what’s in that world as well. And I just sort of combine the two together to get the final product. So, a lot of times the actual physical ideas are actually pretty random. Like, I just sort of think of something that I genuinely like in the anime world, and something that I also like that’s happening in the street wear fashion world, and then, like I said, I put the two together and hopefully the design sticks.

Felix: I like that approach of doing that research and not just sitting in your lab without any outside influence. You are going out there, looking at other influencers, looking at memes, looking at popular shows, and then reducing your risk essentially, right? Because now you know that these are already popular elements, and you’re just going to create your own spin on it. Have there been times where you’ve have created something and you’re like “This is definitely going to be a hit because it pulls from all of these popular sources.” And then it flops? Can you give us an example of a time like that?

Ryan: Yes, there’s definitely, there have been those times. There’s some designs that I have finished and I’m like “This is going to do great. Like, there’s no way this can fail.” And then yeah, it ends up failing completely, One of those designs was, it was, it’s not on the store anymore, but it was called Internet Famous. That was the name of the design. And it was basically like the blue verification check mark that you get on social media fused with like this sort of animated background, and people were at the time, two years ago, were talking about, there was this whole thing going on around that check mark. And then, in the anime world there’s like this meme going around. So I put the two together. I’m like “This is going to be great.” And nobody bid on it at all. It totally, totally failed, which actually really surprised me at the time, because I thought it was one of my better designs, but it did teach me that you can think you have the greatest thing in the world, but until you really go out there and test it in advertising, and again, just seeing what people think of the design, it can sometimes just not go the way you thought it would.

Felix: Yeah. Let’s talk about testing a little bit, because I think this is another place where people don’t know how far to push it, or they push it too far and waste a lot of money. You recognized, for this example of the flop, you recognized that you are going to be able to test it in advertising and it just wasn’t working, and then you pulled back the reigns, and you even removed the product from your store. How do you know when, like how much testing is required before you can make a decision on whether a product is to be a success or not?

Ryan: Yeah. In the very beginning stages of the business, I didn’t really have a general sense of how long I should test something. So in the beginning, I let things run way longer than I would today, so for instance, like with that design I was just talking about, I let a whole bunch of different ad sets for that across tons of different, on Google, Facebook, different outlets, I let a bunch of those run for probably a good two months just trying to scrape any audience and any data I could, and nothing was sticking, and I should have realized sooner that it wasn’t working and just caught it. But, today my sort of rule of thumb is if I put an ad out and I’m not getting any bites on it within like the first three to four days, then I can pretty much be sure that that’s not gonna work.

Learn More: Get ideas for things to make and sell online.

Felix: Got it. And if you were to go back, would you take that same approach for someone that’s just starting out? Should they just be testing three to four days, and like can you give me an idea of how much budget you would typically allocate towards testing and tee shirt design?

Ryan: Yeah, I would say maybe in the beginning it is worth going a little longer because you might not be hitting that right audience right away. Like, now I know exactly, like different, exactly what different groups and what different subsets of audiences work perfectly well for me. But back then, two years ago me, I didn’t really realize that. So I guess in retrospect, that probably is worthwhile, like just testing for a little bit longer periods of time. Maybe a few weeks. I don’t know if maybe two months, that was a little expensive, but yeah, maybe try a month or a couple weeks, and just set maybe five or six different ads with totally different audiences that are generally related to what you want to do.

I mean, you can get specific with it, but try that, and then I’m one of those guys where I also learn from other mentors and everything, and looking around the Internet and I’m watching YouTube videos, as I’m sure many other people do, and a lot of people said like a general rule of thumb was try $5 a day, and I definitely stick to that as well. I totally agree with all those people that say that. $5 a day is a really good number to test, at least in the Facebook, Instagram world. Adwords is a little different, but Facebook, Instagram world, I think $5 a day on ad sets is perfect because it gives you a very good idea very quickly if something’s working or if it’s not.

Felix: And what you’re saying earlier I think is important, is that you don’t know yet what your audience is early on, but now in your experience you do know what it is, because what you’re saying is that sometimes an ad could flop because it’s not the right product or the design people just don’t like in general, or it just might be because it’s matched to the wrong audience. But now you’ve figured out the audience piece, that’s kind of the control, that’s stabilized, now you can just throw some products at it and if it doesn’t work, then you know it’s most likely the product and not the audience, because you’ve already got that dialed down. So I think that that’s like, people can make the wrong decisions, right? Because they think that it’s flopping because of the design, but it might be because of the audience, or vice versa. Talk to us about the approach that you took to really nail down the right audience to target for your products in the ads.

Ryan: Yeah. So, with the audience it was a little tricky in the beginning because I thought, when I went into it I thought I knew exactly, like I said in the beginning of this interview, I am pretty much my audience. Like I am very passionate about the stuff I sell and I would buy this stuff that I sell. So I thought right away "Okay, let’s tackle the 18 to 24-year-old male who likes anime. And, I thought that would be enough, and it turns out that it wasn’t, it was close, but it wasn’t quite quite there yet. So, it’s interesting you can think you know your audience right off the bat, but until you really test that, you don’t know exactly. So, I pretty much nailed down the audience by, like I said, starting with that generic 18 to 24-year-old male who likes anime.

And then, when I started seeing some things come back data-wise from those ads that I was running, that weren’t really making money, just so people know that too off the bat, expect to lose a little bit of money in the beginning. It’s one of those you have to spend money to make money concepts. So don’t be afraid of losing money, because the data you get back will be valuable in the end. Very valuable. So, in terms of, if we’re going to talk like specifically Facebook ads, I looked at the data coming back from the general audience that I started with, and I started getting some feedback from like the Facebook Pixel, and I started looking into the insights that were coming in, and Facebook Insights. And I could see it was giving me different breakdowns of very specific Facebook pages that I would have never known about without having that data come back to me. So, from there I was able to look at those specific Facebook pages and sort of branch out from there and say “Well, people are liking this, then maybe they’ll like this page or this page.” And kind of go from there.

Felix: Got it. So, when you’re doing this kind of testing, do you try to keep the product the same? How do you know? Because I think goes back to the other question about, their two very major variables swing a successful work to a failure really easily, which is the product, it might not be liked by anybody versus the audiences might not be correct. So, when you are testing these different audiences out to try and develop and understanding who your target audience is, did you keep the product the same? Like, how do you know that it wasn’t the product that was the issue? Especially early on?

Ryan: Yeah. Especially early on, I definitely kept the product the same, only because I already had, at that point if I’m advertising it, I’m sort of committed to that. Like I have, I have made that product, it’s on my site, I should give it the proper chance, I should commit to it. So, I think that was important, holding true, standing by, if you have a product and you believe in it, I think it’s important to stand by it and hopefully you find people that also stand by it. So yes, I did not change the product at all. It was all about changing audiences and getting that data back from Facebook to work and kind of comb through different sub-sections of audiences, so that way it would really let me know, if I went through all those audiences and none of them bit then it’s probably the product at that point, if that makes sense. You know?

Felix: That makes sense. So, to kind of reiterate, when you first started off, you committed to a product and to some degree you have to use your gut instinct as an entrepreneur to commit and decide that this is something I’m going to put everything into. So you picked the product, you stuck with the product, you changed up the audience to figure out what is your audience, you discovered other varieties of your audience because you noticed other interests, other pages that they liked through your Facebook Insights, and then once you’ve really nailed down who your target audience is, now you can start switching up the products and testing out different designs.

Ryan: That’s correct.

Felix: Got it. And what’s your approach to targeting, especially with Facebook? Is it mostly targeting specific pages? Like, what’s your research process behind, I think, I guess now it’s slowed down, but when you’re first starting out, any recommendations on how people can play around and try to nail down who their audience is?

Ryan: Yeah. A lot of it is, I mean, well, if you’re in my situation and you have a gut instinct of what your audience might be, generally go with that gut instinct, and hop into Facebook, into their Insights section and search different pages that you can research and find out that might be related to your topic, or also look at like, Facebook has different things for behaviors, like shopping behaviors and stuff like that. It can get very specific. So, look in Facebook, if you don’t have a gut instinct, I would say go to Facebook Insights and look around in there, and sort of just kind of go off of, I mean, you should have a general idea of, if you’re selling something, start, with a keyword or something like that that you can search in Facebook Insights, and see what you can find with that.

Also, just look around, like I was saying in the beginning too. Keep up on trends, and look around at what else is going around in the world with your specific niche. So, make sure you follow other, in my case I followed a lot of other brands that inspired me to do what I’m doing now, and seeing what they were doing, and so I guess competitor research is also important, and just looking around at different blogs, news articles, like just look around as much as you can, on social media, everywhere.

Felix: Got it. And you mentioned that when you were testing out these ads, you wanted to get a bite within three to four days. What’s considered a bite for you? Like a conversion, someone actually purchases, are you running like a conversion type of ad or just trying and drive visitors? What’s the approach?

Ryan: Yeah, for me it pretty much comes down to conversion. So, if I’m doing conversion tracking, like I was saying, if I don’t see, so I guess if I don’t explicitly see X amount of conversions within three to four days, then I know for a fact that that’s probably not gonna work out. So yes, conversions are what I’m really looking at, purchases.

Felix: Got it. Now, one thing that you mentioned earlier that I think is a different approach than what you would find in most kind of tee shirt or fashion brands that pop up, is that you are not only creating these designs but you’re combining with what you see in the street wear fashion world. Can you say a little more about this, and what are some examples of combinations that you’ve come up with?

Ryan: Yeah. So, different things I did, I mean the hardest part was making some of this stuff cool, because that’s kind of the whole thing with street wear is that it’s very different. It’s kind of edgy. It’s cool, how can I merge, basically I was trying to come up with how can I merge the anime world and make it something that’s really cool, like even if you don’t like anime to some extent, you still might like the designs because they’re just cool. So, that’s a lot of my thought process with all of my designs, is how can I make something look cool for people in their 20s that they want to wear in a city or something like that. So, that’s pretty much, that’s a big angle that I come from.

Felix: Got it. And so, for anyone out there that wants to also start a tee shirt brand or some kind of a brand that designs concepts for fashion, and they don’t have a design background like you have, what recommendations do you have here? Like, where can they go or how can they enter this world if they don’t have that background that you have?

Ryan: Yeah, definitely. I mean, one of the biggest things, especially when it comes to fashion, is having good designs. So you really want to find someone, in my opinion that’s one of the most important things, is finding someone that can work with you and shares the same vision that you have. So, a lot of different ways you could find, I mean, there’s designers out there that you can find quite easily. I mean, I know a lot of other designers just from my background, there’s plenty of freelancers out there that are looking for work, and I’m sure they’d be more than happy to come on and tackle projects like that if you’re in a similar situation. So I mean, ways to find them are through different sites like Upwork, if you’ve ever heard of Upwork.com. I mean, there’s a lot of freelance designers on there. I was one myself at one point in my life, so I can tell you that Upwork has some really great freelance designers if you’re looking there, and also just look around locally. I mean, look in your area. There’s bound to be some talented designers in your area too. So, people will post on Craigslist, and everything like that. So check around.

Felix: Yeah, it’s great that you have experience of both sides and that you’ve been the freelance designer, also now that you’re doing the designs yourself for your on your own brand. So, for anyone out there that wants to work with a freelance designer, what are some ways that you found it best to work with an entrepreneur? Like, if an entrepreneur comes along and they want to get some designs done, they don’t have a design background, how can they effectively communicate to a designer?

Ryan: Right. So, it’s not necessary to meet in person, but I always think if you can, if it is in any way possible meeting in person is, I think there’s something to be said about that. It’s huge and you can really explain a vision better because you’re just, you can get hands on and you’re right by each other, but if you can’t, there’s plenty of other ways to go about that. You can do chats online, you have Skype, Facetime, all these things that make it certainly just as easy to do, but working through designs with an entrepreneur, like what I had done in the past, it’s very important if you’re the entrepreneur, you have to really explain that vision of what you want to them. So, by that I sort of mean you need to, if you can like, I mean even take a piece of paper and try and sketch out something, even if you have no artistic talent whatsoever, just to get like a basic idea so they can visually conceptualize what you’re going for. I think that’s very important, to make sure that you both understand exactly what you’re looking for from the get go.

Felix: Yeah. I think that’s something I hear over and over again, about being visual with a designer, showing them examples of other things that you like, things you don’t like, or even try sketching it out. I mean, the last thing you want to do is tell them “Hey, make it pop.” Or something like that.

Ryan: Right.

Felix: Don’t use words, use actual visuals, if that makes sense. So, you mentioned a couple of times now about how you don’t like taking the salesy approach and it hasn’t helped you in the past. When it comes to the Facebook ads, and anywhere else you advertise, is that your approach there as well? Do you try not to be too salesy?

Ryan: Yeah, it’s really funny, and I’m sure this is different for many other niches, but with my niche in particular, being salesy hurts me. So, and I’ve learned that because I’ve tried it over and over in the beginning, and it doesn’t work, because that’s what, you hear a lot of that from reading and watching different YouTube videos and everything that is, you need call to actions, and they’re definitely important. It’s definitely important to have a Shop Now button or something like that on your ad, so people are directed to go to the proper place and everything. But, at least with my niche, I found being honest with people, and just being a little more, just trying to like connect with them on their level.

So, a really good example of a Facebook ad that was really successful for me, and that I’m still running to this day actually, it’s been running for almost a year now, is just a, I wrote this joke that was really, really relatable as the Facebook ad copy, and then I had a picture of an actual person with the piece of clothing on, so it wasn’t just like a, your typical shirt on a hanger type of thing, and it just, it took off. I mean just by, it was literally a one sentence, one liner joke, and the amount of people that were tagged in it, or people that found it hilarious were just, it was overwhelming, so I mean something, I mean get creative with the Facebook ads. Don’t stick to the typical methods, because you might find something like that works. And it certainly did for me.

Felix: It was a joke related to the tee shirt?

Ryan: It was a joke related to the shirt itself, because the design itself actually was sort of a joke, and so I was kind of able to play off of that in the ad copy.

Felix: Got it. And you mentioned that the image was the shirt being worn rather than just laid out or on a hanger. Have you found that that’s more effective for in general?

Ryan: Yeah, that’s interesting. Sometimes it is and sometimes it’s not. So, if your picture is very clear. So, if you have some, like a model wearing the piece of clothing, you want to make sure it’s clear because I have had it backfire in the past where the picture is maybe not, like you can’t see the design as well because the model’s turned a certain way or the lighting wasn’t right or something like that. So sometimes, just having like a template mock-up file of the shirt with the design like facing you forward, totally clear, does actually work better if you’re trying to like for instance, get the design out the first time. Like usually, the very first time I present the designs they’ll just be on the mock-ups of the shirts. Just because people, like I want to make sure that they can clearly see what the design is right off the bat, and then from there I can get a little more artistic with like having models and doing more artsy shots and stuff like that.

Felix: Got it. So, what’s your approach to creating that Facebook ad in terms of the image and the ad copy, if someone wanted to take the same approach of just trying to be relatable rather than trying to be salesy. Do you, maybe not necessarily have a formula, but do you come into it with a particular framework that you try to work with, that has been effective for you?

Ryan: Yeah, there’s no real set formula for that because for me every design is different, but I have sort of tested around enough that I know what works, like what boundaries I can push and what not to sort of touch. So, I go in with it, I think copy is, in my opinion is not crazy important, even though I know that’s sort of contradictory to what I said with that one ad, but I still think visuals are super important, especially when it comes to Instagram. So, for me it’s really locking down that picture, and then the ad copy just sort of supplements, like that just makes the picture better. If you can have witty or unique copy that goes with that great picture, then it’s going to be, it’s going to really hit home.

Felix: Got it. So, kind of what you’re saying then is that a visual can make or break an ad, but the copy cannot.

Ryan: in my opinion, yes. The copy just adds, I shouldn’t say adds to the ad, it supplements the ad. I think the copy is just, it’s important but most people are going to see the picture first probably.

Felix: Makes sense. So, on Instagram are you also just running ads through the Facebook Ad Manager and targeting Instagram, or is your approach differently with ads on Instagram?

Ryan: Nope, that’s exactly how I’m doing it, is through the Facebook’s Ad Manager. I’m just setting up Instagram ads in there.

Felix: Got it. Do you work with any influencers?

Ryan: I have. Yeah. And that’s interesting because I was, again, Instagram wasn’t really something that I was super big into before this, which is funny because now I’m on it 24/7 practically. But, that definitely has played a good part, especially in the world that I’m working in, with fashion and anime, there’s a lot of cos-players out there, there’s a lot of fashion enthusiasts, and even if they don’t have a crazy huge following, it’s worth sending a few pieces of clothing to them if they’re willing to tag your page and show it off, because you will get some really honest, kind of almost organic traffic from anybody that follows them and is like “Hey, if they think this is cool, then maybe I should check it out too.” You know?

Felix: You mentioned a little bit earlier about how there are certain boundaries that you can’t push up against, you don’t want to cross. Is there a certain tone that you need to establish with your brand, like can you give an idea of what that is and how you came to establish it?

Ryan: Yeah. So, the tone again, as for me at least, I’m not being too salesy or pushy. For me it’s really just, like when it comes to posting on social media, I try to just ask questions, like sometimes, it’s actually not sometimes, a lot of times I’m not even posting about my products. I would say a good 75% of the time, I’m actually talking about like, just anime with people, like asking them “Hey, what shows are you watching now?” Or “What’s your favorite anime character?” Just something that gets the community talking and engaging with each other. And then, they’re sort of naturally excited about that, and they think that’s cool that a brand is talking about that stuff, and then they kind of just go to the site because they think that’s neat that you’re engaged and you know all that. So that’s been my approach with the tone on social media, is just posting things people will like, and then now and then it’s important obviously to showcase your products now and then. But I just, I don’t push it down their throats, I guess is what I’m saying.

Felix: Yeah. That makes sense, where you have to balance content that’s not product focused, but content that the audience actually likes. Because I don’t know about you, but I think for most people when they are checking out a brand’s Instagram page, if it was just constantly products, you’re probably not going to go back and look at it frequently, but if it’s interesting content that’s just beyond products, that covers more breadth, I think it tends to pull people back into it more, because there’s more variety essentially due to content, so that makes a lot of sense what you’re saying.

Ryan: Absolutely.

Felix: And so, are these products that you have on your store, are they all, do you hold inventory or they print on demand, like what’s your supply chain look like?

Ryan: Yes, that was, for anybody looking to get into this, that was the absolute hardest decision in the beginning. And it still is a decision that weighs on my mind to this day, because there’s so many different ways you can go about it with the clothing world. Right now, currently I am print on demand, and there are definitely some serious pros to that, but there are also some cons as well. So, I don’t hold any inventory, and to me that is one of the major pros is that I never really have to completely worry about getting all this inventory sold. It’s sort of just okay, it allows me to test designs a little more freely, and I don’t have to stress so much about like, if this design flops, uh-oh, now I have 100 shirts I have to sell, something like that. So, to me that pro in itself weighed out any other con of print on demand. So, that is sort of my approach to why I went print on demand.

Felix: What kind of cons have you experienced, though?

Ryan: So with the cons, definitely there is a little bit of a margin, a profit margin, take back that you get from going to print on demand because it is a little more exclusive, that convenience does affect your profit margin slightly, but for me it’s worth it just to not have to worry about a massive amount of inventory that I have to hold. And it also offsets any expenses of having warehousing, any fulfillment, stuff like that, like all of it’s taken care of by one company that I work hand-in-hand with, and they’ve been incredible with me.

Felix: And can you tell us a little about the vendor applications that you use for print on demand?

Ryan: Yeah, absolutely. So, I actually worked with a company called Printful and I would say they’re pretty popular now. When I started with them, they weren’t quite as huge as they are now, but they are absolutely amazing to work with. So, like I said little, it gets a little expensive with print on demand sometimes, just because again, you’re paying for that convenience, but for the customer service you get with Printful, for the fulfillment times, I mean they, when an order gets placed on my site, it’s almost always sent out within, in two days. And if someone’s in based in the US, they get it within the week. It makes my life so much easier, and then it lets me focus on the things that are important to me, like actually designing the shirts, and focusing on the website and the marketing and all that. So, it takes all that stress off of me.

Felix: Makes sense. So, I think one thing with Printful and other print on demand services is that they provide a variety of, I guess base tee shirts, or whatever kind of clothing you’re looking for. How do you decide which one to go with? I think this is a point where there’s some analysis paralysis about which base tee shirt or which base hoodie or whatever to go for.

Ryan: Yes, also something very tough to decide early on. And again, that’s also something I still think about to this day is how can I make my shirts better? What material can I use? But, one of the biggest things I did was I ordered blanks of every single shirt they offered in the beginning. So, I just took the few hundred dollars and I just said I’m going to test every single shirt and feel it in person and look at it in person, so I can really understand what I’m working with here. So, I think that’s really important is don’t just go off reviews or eyeball it online, like when it comes to clothing you really want to feel it, touch it and see it in person, that’s critically important. So, I tested every piece of clothing they had in the beginning that I knew I wanted to work with. Like, I knew I wanted hoodies and tee shirts and sweatshirts. So, anything that they offered in that realm, I ordered and saw it in person, and kind of went from there. Also, something that was important to me personally was that it was as ethically produced as possible. I’m pretty passionate about that. So, I wanted to make sure that they had options like that as well. And they did, which was great.

Felix: Nice. So, with Printful do you also have a team in place, or can you run this entire thing yourself?

Ryan: So, at this moment in time I’m doing everything on my own, and again, I probably wouldn’t be able to do that without Printful or without the print [inaudible 00:39:25]. If I was the model where I did have inventory and stuff like that, I’m almost positive I would have a full team by now, but it’s kind of been nice not having those expenses at the moment just because of the print on demand model, and how great Printful is to work with. Like I said, if I ever have an issue with anything, they’re always willing to respond and take care of it. I mean, sometimes within minutes I’ll email them and they’ll get back to me. It’s crazy.

Felix: Very cool. So with the website, you mentioned that you’re a designer, so I’m assuming that this was created all by yourself?

Ryan: Yes. This is all, everything you see is totally by myself.

Felix: Nice. Did you have like a Shopify theme that you chose, or is it done from scratch?

Ryan: Yeah, in the beginning I worked with the, I think it was called the minimalistic or minimal theme. I really liked that. I just liked how it just sort of displayed the products up front, and you could throw in slide shows and it made it really easy up front just to have that and, as something to start with before I got too crazy. But as of today, yeah, now I’m running a totally custom theme that I worked on.

Felix: How long did that project take?

Ryan: Not terribly long. I mean the nice thing is, is you can usually search around on different marketplaces and find some theme or templates that have been created already, and then you can just sort of modify it from there. So there’s like a Monster template, there’s Envato Market, Creative Market, all these different places online where you can find different designers who have sort of created different themes that you can upload into your Shopify store, and then modify it from there. So, that’s usually how I’ll start. I don’t go totally custom, because there’s already so many great starting points that you can work with out there.

Felix: Yeah. No need to reinvent the wheel too much.

Ryan: Exactly.

Felix: Yeah. What did you want to add to your store by taking this more custom approach, what was essentially missing that you wanted to be able to control on your own?

Ryan: Yeah. For me, it was mostly just adding some specific content a little easier. So, in my case, I really wanted to have some like parallax design, which is where you have those banners and they kind of scroll really cleanly in the background, and just adding some custom content sections. So like, I wanted some testimonials sections just to be able to lay things out a little bit differently, and not so rigid. Not to totally, I don’t want to rip on the Shopify themes. There’s a lot of really great Shopify themes out there, but in terms of just managing how I can control the content and the, in terms of placement and what I can add, that was the biggest thing for me, was going a little more custom.

Felix: Right. Makes sense. Yeah, one other page that I recognized that I haven’t seen on other stores, is that you have a page linked to from the navigation called Coupons. What was the idea behind this?

Ryan: So this is really funny. I actually, I came up with this idea not by myself actually. I saw a website once upon a, this was ages ago. I stumbled across this website that had this in their navigation and I’m like “Wow, that’s interesting. You never really see that on a website, like an actual dedicated in their navigation, coupons page.”

Felix: Yeah. Most stores will make you work to find the coupon, right?

Ryan: Yeah. Yeah. So, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the idea at first, but I made sure they were small enough that they didn’t really hurt my profit margin to any really crazy extreme, but they were like little incentives that people can go to this page and they see it on there, and it’s actually inspired more orders over time. Like, with Shopify you can track the discount codes and see how many times they’ve been used, and I mean these have worked wonders on my site, just by having this dedicated page. And it almost becomes like a game too, and it’s kind of interesting and fun for the shoppers because they see they have three, if you go to the Coupons page, there’s three different options they have to choose. They can get free shipping, five percent off, or $2 off your total order. So, a lot of people I’ve noticed have, and they’ve told me that they’ll play around with their order and see what works out best. And again, it just kind of creates this incentive for them to purchase even more.

Felix: Yeah, I like that, that it, I’m assuming it would drive up the average order value too, in certain cases where they need to do that to reach like things like free shipping, and yeah. So what other, what applications are you using to power your website, or just your business?

Ryan: Right. So, I’m using quite a few applications. There’s definitely some that I feel are like almost necessary in any Shopify store, because these are pretty applicable across the entire realm here. So, one of them I’m using is, I mean I can give you specific names of them if you want.

Felix: Yeah, please.

Ryan: Beautiful Abandoned Cart Emails. That is one of the first apps I ever installed, and it was something that I realized even before starting the store, that there’d probably be a lot of people that would come to the store but maybe wouldn’t be ready to buy right off the bat. So, I instantly found the most affordable and probably the best abandoned cart email responder that I could work with. And, this was one of the ones I found on the app store. Like I said, it was Beautiful Abandoned Cart Emails, is the name of it.

Felix: What’s in that? What goes out in the email, and how frequent, or how soon does it go out?

Ryan: Yeah, so basically you’re allowed to, you can put in whatever you want. So you can customize the abandoned cart emails however you want. It sends out two emails. The first one goes out within 12 hours, and the second one comes about two days later. So, it’s an interesting span of time and you can customize that yourself, but it also has an auto-optimization feature built into it. So it kind of knows, it will learn over time what timeframe works best for your customers and business, which is pretty cool.

Felix: What have you found? Is it the sooner the better, or give them a day? What’s worked out for you?

Ryan: I think it’s, the first one, the 12 hour one is a good timeframe because it’s not immediately after they leave the site, but it’s within that same day. So, if they maybe did it, and they went to the site in the morning and then like in the evening, like before they’re going to bed or something like that, maybe they just forgot that they went to the site, or they were thinking about it and just needed that reminder. So, I think that first 12 hour one is what really hits, and then the second one, like I said, comes about two days, almost two days after they visit the site. And that’s also helped as well because if people visited the site and they forgot about it, it sort of reminds them later in the week like “Hey, you went to this site earlier, do you want to complete this order?” So, I don’t know, I think to me at least, those two timeframes have worked out really well.

Felix: Got it. Yeah, so what other apps?

Ryan: So, other apps that I use are, I think probably the second, one of the second most important ones that I went with was this Sales Pop by Beek, I’m sorry if I’m saying the wrong name wrong, but it’s Beeketing, Sales Pop. It’s this little like, kind of unintrusive pop up that comes in the bottom corner of your website, and it just sort of lets people know that someone just purchased something somewhere and it’s kind of like this cool little trust system, that you can see that people are buying from your site, and when your visitors are on there, they see that and they’re like “Oh, okay, other people are buying from the site.” And they’re also able to click on it and see what the product was that they bought, so it can take them right to that product page if they see it, and they like that shirt that somebody bought, or something like that. So, that’s been a really cool, I wouldn’t say it’s completely necessary, but it’s definitely an awesome little app to have on the site.

Felix: Have you seen a bump in conversions from adding that?

Ryan: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. I actually, it’s funny, and I tested that very early on when I had it on my site. I took it off for a couple months. I thought maybe it was a little, I’m not super big on pop-ups and I thought “Maybe, this might be, maybe this is too intrusive.” And after taking it off for two months, I actually noticed a decline in sales and then when I put it back on it went right back up. It was pretty much like clockwork. It was very interesting to me to see that. So yeah, definitely a helpful app. I have a few others if you want me to go over those too.

Felix: Yeah, please.

Ryan: So, one of the other ones I use is this, it’s called Mobile Converter. It’s also by Beekening. And to me, this is a really important one because most of my sales come from mobile devices, as I’m sure a lot of other Shopify stores and websites have as well. So, basically what this app does is it puts a Buy Now button, kind of sticky at the top of the product page, so when someone’s viewing a product and they start to scroll on that page in any way, shape or form, it sort of hovers down from the top, and it’s not like, it doesn’t cover a lot of the page. It’s just a little tiny little bar, but it’s enough that you notice it and you see the Buy Now button, and that has brought a ridiculous conversion rate to the site, and I would never take it off the site.

Felix: It’s basically for mobile traffic only?

Ryan: Yes, actually don’t quote me on that, I’m not sure. I’ve never used it on desktop, but I’m pretty sure this is just explicitly for mobile. But yes, it’s a great thing to have because sometimes your Add to Cart button is below the fold, and sometimes people don’t see that right away or they just miss it for whatever reason. So, it’s nice to have that other second alternative kind of come from the top, and it almost makes it impossible to miss it. But it’s also not so invasive that it’s covering your whole screen or anything like that. So, definitely a worthy app to have on the site for sure.

Probably the last one I’ll mention, and this has also been critical to my site, is the, I think they changed the name of the app, I’ll actually look it up here.

It’s Web Push and Facebook Messenger Conversion Marketing by Push Nova. It’s a very long name, but basically the app is, it’s web push notifications, so everybody knows about email marketing and posting on social media and running Facebook ads and all that. But this is sort of a different approach to, it’s like a newer sort of email marketing I guess, and I’m sure people have seen this on sites where you go to a website and a little pop-up comes in the left corner, at least on desktop, and it says block or allow notifications and all people have to do is literally just click that allow button, and then they’re sort of, they’re signed up for notifications. So, it’s super easy sign up for people, and it’s just incredibly helpful when I want to just get a quick little message out. So, say I have a new product or a new design that I launched, I’ll go into this app and just type in new design or whatever my copy is going to be, throw the picture of the design in there, and click send. And then, whenever somebody is in their web browser, that little pop-up will come to them. So, it’s almost like getting an email, but while you’re surfing the Internet. It’s very interesting, and it’s definitely helped bring a lot of traffic and conversions to the site.

Felix: That’s cool. So, they don’t even have to be on your site to get this push notification?

Ryan: That’s right. They can be pretty much anywhere on the Internet as long as they have a browser open, and they can pretty much see the notification.

Felix: Got it. Yeah. I was thinking, I obviously noticed it when I went to your site. Do you find that most people will opt into this? Like what’s the, what have you found in terms of getting them to actually subscribe essentially to this pop-up?

Ryan: Yes. I’ve actually, it’s funny, I’ve actually had more people subscribe to this than email marketing, which might be the placement of where my newsletter sign up is, that might be something I actually need to look into.

Felix: It’s also easier to sign up, right? All I have to do is click a button or something.

Ryan: It is, yeah, and people, it doesn’t feel intrusive or anything. I mean, you literally just click the Allow button. That’s it. Or, I mean if people don’t want it, they click the Block button. It’s really that easy, so there’s no, nobody feels like they’re giving away any information or anything. It’s really very easy to work with.

Felix: I wonder if you can, I’m not sure if you do this already, but I wonder if you could pair it up with some kind of incentive where every once in a while whoever subscribed essentially to this notification will also get a discount code, or access to shirts early or something, some kind of incentive to get them to essentially opt into it.

Ryan: Yeah, I mean I don’t think there’s a way to necessarily do that explicitly, like in the actual thing that pops up on the site where you can say “Sign up here for”, I think it’s like an automated, standard piece of writing that always comes up no matter what you do. But, I’m sure through social media, and through whatever outlets you have. If you let people know, like “Hey, if you allow these notifications on, we’ll send you a 10% discount.” Something like that, you could absolutely do that, and that’s something I’ve done in the past too, and it definitely works.

Felix: Very cool. Yeah, I think also in one of your pre-interview questions, you’ve mentioned that you also have an app called Help Center, to build your FAQ page?

Ryan: Yes, that’s right. Help Center is, that’s actually been a very lifesaving app, and I should’ve mentioned that earlier, because I think it’s very important to have a really good FAQ page, especially with an e-commerce site. I mean, people have questions about everything and anything when it comes to shipping, shipping times, where are you located? How can we get in touch with you? What do I do if I have a return or a refund or an exchange or anything like that? It’s very important to have those all spelled out on the site in a really convenient way. And that’s sort of what the health center app does, it just creates this nice little sort of like accordion dropdown of different sections of questions that you can organize, frequently asked questions, and you can just write the answers right there. And it helps a lot too in terms of customer service, and the amount of time you have to respond back to emails, because if you have it prominently displayed on your site, like I have the FAQ right in my main navigation, so it’s easy for people to find. I’ve noticed that ever since I put that on this site, the amount of emails I was receiving in terms of common questions decreased significantly.

Felix: Got it. So thank you so much for your time, Ryan. What are your plans for the future? Do you want to expand and scale up, or do you like keeping it the size it is today? Like, where do you want to go with the brand?

Ryan: Yeah, I mean I’m always game to have it expand. I’d like to see it keep growing, and just connecting as many people as I can to this kind of unique niche. It’s fun for me, I get excited with it and it’s something that I hope I can keep doing for a very long time.

Felix: Very cool. Can you give us an idea of how large you’ve grown the business over the last four years?

Ryan: Sure. Do you want that in terms of sales numbers or-

Felix: Yeah, whatever you’re willing to share.

Ryan: Yeah. I mean, it pretty much went zero to 300k in the first year, just from testing everything, and with, in terms of social media also everything’s in the five digit, thousand range with everything, also starting from nothing. So, if you don’t think it can happen, I think one of my biggest things, and this is something I just preach even outside of e-commerce, is just you never know until you try, and if you have a really genuine passion about something, you really want to make something happen. If you just really put your mind to it, you can make it happen.

Felix: Awesome. So, Sugoi Shirts, that’s S-U-G-O-I-S-H-I-R-T-S.com. Again, thank you so much for your time, Ryan.

Ryan: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

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

Speaker 3: If their reaction smells like somebody who’s not believing it and not understanding it, then we’ll walk the other way.

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.