Telling stories about your products is one of the best ways to sell them.
From pitching to editors to enhancing the perceived value of your products, there are a lot of ways to leverage the stories that are inherent to you and your products.
Our guest on this episode of Shopify Masters is Caroline Weaver, the founder of CW Pencils, purveyors of superior graphite.
Find out how she unearthed the stories that helped her go from collecting pencils to running a very profitable business.
- How to do market research when there’s not much data available.
- Why you should sell stories instead of products (and how to do it).
- Why you might not want to carry all the products from a single brand.
Listen to Shopify Masters below…
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Felix: Today, I’m joined by Caroline Weaver from cwpencils.com, CW Pencils is the purveyors of superior graphite. It was started in 2014 and based out of New York City, New York. Welcome, Caroline.
Felix: So yeah, tell us a bit more about this. What is superior graphite?
Caroline: Well, that wasn’t originally supposed to be part of our name, and then when I was painting the door of our physical shop, I just painted that there and now that’s what we are.
Felix: Nice. Nice.
Caroline: But I kind of consider … Well, by “superior graphite,” I just mean pencils that are better than the average pencil that you probably are used to or would find in an office supply closet or would find at Staples. A highly [inaudible 00:01:47] pencil, basically.
Felix: Definitely. So you have … We’ll talk about this a little more, but you have a actual storefront, and you have an entire website dedicating to selling pencils. This is not … I think a lot of listeners might be like, “This doesn’t seem like a business that you could build,” right? Selling pencils. I think you even talk about this in one of the pre-interview questions about how you are selling products to people that are into analog tools, which is an interesting way of putting it. So what made you think of selling pencils as a business?
Caroline: It’s something that I’ve kind of had in the back of my head for a really long time. I can’t even pinpoint exactly when it first came up. I’ve been an avid pencil user and just generally kind of old-fashioned person for a very long time, since I was a kid. I have only ever really been interested in using pencils, and I’ve always appreciated them for their simplicity, and for the ephemeral nature of them, and for their history, especially. As I got older, I noticed that a lot of the pencils that I liked weren’t being made in the US anymore or they were just disappearing from shelves in just standard, I guess everyday stores that we have here, like Staples or Walmart. I grew up in rural Ohio, so we didn’t have access to like nice art supply stores or any of that.
I went to college abroad and traveled a lot and kind of realized then that there are all these amazing pencils that exist in other parts of the world that nobody here knows about, because they’re just not exported for whatever reason, or they just are made in really small factories for local markets, and I also noticed that most of them are kind of better than what I considered to be the average. I kind of had this idea that maybe someday when I was an old lady, I could retire and have a tiny shop that sells pencils, and I could just sit there and talk about pencils all day. That was what I decided would be my dream retirement job. It just happened a little sooner.
Felix: Yeah, definitely. That’s definitely awesome that you’re able to make this a reality much sooner. So you like pencils, you saw that there was a … I guess not necessarily a market right away, but you saw that there are other places that were selling pencils. How did you know that others would like it too? How did you know that there was a market to sell pencils to, I guess people in America?
Caroline: Yeah. I guess that was the hardest part, because first of all, I don’t have a background in business or marketing or any of that stuff. I was just doing all of this by myself, so I struggled to even find places and ways to even do market research, because there are no other shops quite like this. There are a lot of shops that sell like a single brand of pencils, like a lot of these brands that I sell have their own shops in their countries and that sort of thing, but I guess the thing is is that I didn’t really know if it was going to work. In retrospect, I realized I was very naïve about that, but I think it kind of worked to my benefit at the time because I didn’t even have a chance to be scared. But I also had noticed that it seemed like a timely thing, because the popularity of analog tools in general, especially amongst younger generations, has really increased in the past five or so years. So I just kind of hoped that there were other people looking for these things, or I thought that at the very least, should I eventually be able to open a physical store, it’s the kind of store that exists in New York that sells just one thing, and I thought just based on like the novelty value of having a shop that only sells pencils, it could be successful.
I think a lot of it has to do, too, with the fact that when I first started reaching out to brands and doing my buying, I was very surprised to find that a lot of these brands that I was interested in acquiring that don’t really sell pencils especially in the US, they just don’t exist here, they were a lot more willing than I thought they would be to sell pencils to me. I thought, “Well, at the very least, I’ll be the only person selling these things on the internet in the United States, so at least I have that market cornered.” Yeah, much to my surprise, it took off way quicker than I expected it to. Apparently, there are a lot of closet pencil nerds out there.
Felix: Yeah, this is something I’ve heard previously, too, from other entrepreneurs that will identify a market or a bunch of brands or manufacturers or suppliers outside the US or outside their home country, and when they are willing to do the marketing, the selling of those brands’ products in their home country, those brands are so happy to work with them, because finally, they have someone that’s on the ground that’s willing to do the marketing and selling for them. So I think that you touched on something, which is that if you are able to identify that there is a lot of suppliers, a lot of brands outside your home country, and you are willing to do the legwork to build a market and to sell to your home country, I think a lot of suppliers are much more likely to work with you, especially … Or definitely, even when you are a large company, they’re much more willing to work with you because you’re investing in them just like they’re willing to invest in you.
So you weren’t able to necessarily gauge the market interest right away because there was no data. Give us an idea of the timeline, then. You started the … I think I read in November 2014 was when it was launched. How soon after did you start realizing like, “Wow, I am onto something. There is a market.” Even though you didn’t have the data, you started seeing that there was a lot of interest in it. So when did that happen?
Caroline: I guess that happened pretty quickly. I went into this kind of sheepishly. I kind of … My approach to starting a business, I think, was probably not … Well, I shouldn’t say it wasn’t a very good one. It certainly wasn’t conventional. When I first launched the website, I was a little bit afraid to tell people about it, and I had no marketing plan because I thought like … I just thought, “I’ll see how it goes for a couple of months, and then should I need to hire somebody to do that for me, then I’ll figure it out, but I just want to gauge what it’s like to even do this job and figure it out myself before I involve anything else.”
So I didn’t tell a lot of people that I launched this website, and then there’s actually a community of pencil users online that revolves around a podcast called Erasable that’s just about pencils. They got word of it, and then they all kind of became very regular customers very, very quickly. I hadn’t really realized the scope of online communities like that. Like there are thousands of people who are interested in these things on the internet. Once that kind of happened, once the internet communities kind of knew I was doing this, it took off pretty quickly. It was, what, November 2014 the website launched, and then the physical store opened in March. By then, we were already doing well online, and I felt confident that I could support a physical location as well. Then from there, it just really took off. We had an article in The New York Times, and it was just a snowball effect. It still amazes me every single day just how many people are interested in this stuff.
Felix: So you mentioned that you were sheepish about the business at first. You weren’t telling everyone about it. Why did you feel that way?
Caroline: I don’t know. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that I was doing something that sound … Before I had anything to show for it, sounded pretty crazy. I was telling people that I was opening a pencil shop. Even my family … My mom, especially, they were all really kind of confused and didn’t really understand how I was going to make a living selling things that cost like a dollar, especially in an expensive city like New York. So I had told a few people, and I just kind of wanted to feel like I fully understood what I was doing before I got more people involved. It didn’t really make sense. When I started the business, I did everything myself. Even the things I didn’t know how to do, I learned them because I thought, “If I’m going to be doing this by myself for a while, I’m going to have to know how to do all these things.” So it was a kind of slow process, and I just felt like I hadn’t figured it all out yet. So I just kind of wanted a slow start.
Felix: Yeah, this approach where you are not exactly sure yet about the business or about the product that you have that you kind of go into it like one foot at a time, like one foot into this new business, one foot into your regular life that everyone doesn’t question, I guess … Do you feel like … First, I think this is a situation for a lot of entrepreneurs, where it’s a risk-averse, I guess, approach to it? Which I think is a lot of people … Do you feel like you missed out on anything because you didn’t go full-charge ahead from the get-go?
Caroline: I don’t really. I don’t really feel like I missed much. I mean, starting a business is really scary, especially when it’s your first business. Especially for me, because it’s something that I was so passionate about. I almost, in retrospect, am happy that I kind of did it so slowly and so blindly and so much on my own in the beginning, because I feel like now … Now that I’ve got it figured out, I feel like in the beginning, it kind of gave what I was doing this kind of naïve kind of genuine quality to it that I don’t think it would have had if I had gone into it with a marketing plan and was like really, really going for it. I don’t know, I think that that’s almost part of the charm of my business, is that it’s pretty obvious that a person just did it, and that it wasn’t like a full team of professionals who are good at doing the business thing.
Felix: Yeah, you felt like this approach … This vulnerable approach that you took endeared you to your … I guess your customers at the end of the day?
Caroline: Yeah, I guess so. I feel like it just makes it clear that I’m just a regular person who really, really thinks this thing is awesome, and really wants to share these stories and these objects and these histories. I don’t think it hurt me at all. I mean, I’m in a strange position where I’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of press and have a lot of attention that has just very naturally come to my business, but I don’t know if it was otherwise if I would feel this way. But yeah, I don’t know, I think that that sort of vulnerability kind of resulted in a more genuine business. I think if I’d involved more people, I probably wouldn’t have made as many mistakes, but I think the mistakes helped me learn and helped me figure out how to just do it better the next time. If I’d done it all right from the beginning, I don’t know that [inaudible 00:12:38] would have as much heart as it does.
Felix: Yeah, so speaking of the early things that you had to learn, what were some of them? What were some of the things that you found most valuable about running a business that you had to learn on your own?
Caroline: Really, I really didn’t know how to do anything. I knew how to find the pencils and that was about it. I knew what I wanted the aesthetic to be, and what I wanted my website to look like. I even knew what I wanted my shop to look like, but besides that, I didn’t really have a clue. I think that’s where Shopify actually really helped me, because it was … I’m a person who … I’m a millennial, but I’m also a person who doesn’t really understand computers. So Shopify really helped me. I downloaded Shopify long before I even launched my website and just kind of got a feel for it, because it’s really user-friendly, and it was easy for me to figure out. The reports were really helpful, and I could keep track of my inventory, and it made sense to me. Of course, the legal stuff is really annoying. That was difficult to learn. I was very insistent that, along with help from an attorney, that I figured that all out on my own. Just like the little things, like knowing when I need to restock on things when it’s stuff that takes three months to get here from India, or knowing how to … Even little things like figuring out how to ship everything. Everything.
Everything was kind of a small struggle in the beginning. In retrospect, I’m really glad that I took the time to learn it all myself, because now should I ever be left alone to do this, I can do everything no problem. Even with designing the website. That was really something I didn’t know how to do. I knew there was a specific typeface I wanted, and I had to … I remember there was a night when I stayed up all night trying to figure out how to hook up the typeface that I’d bought to my Shopify template. Eventually, I figured it out, and that was kind of a really big triumph. That one little thing. That one thing kind of made me think like, “Okay, if I figured this out, I can figure out the rest. It’s going to be okay.”
Felix: Yeah, those little, I guess pep talks you gave yourself, celebrating those wins, I think are so important. Otherwise, you just kind of feel like you’re climbing uphill the entire time without taking a break to appreciate how far you’ve come. So I think that that’s a great approach. So did you buy a lot of inventory before opening the store? How much did you have in stock, I guess? Or what did you have in stock when you first opened the online store?
Caroline: Oh, gosh, we probably … We were talking about this the other day, because our two-year online shop anniversary is coming up, and we were talking about doing a sale on all the things that we’ve stocked since the beginning. When we thought about it, like really, it … Probably only about, I would say a little bit less than half of what we sell now, we had originally. We add new brands all the time, and we’ve also taken some things away, but yeah. It was a slow process. The summer before I opened the online store, I very slowly kind of reached out to all the brands I wanted to sell individually. I didn’t really go through distributors. I contacted the brands directly, and then got distributor information, or just bought directly from the brand. But I guess pretty frugal quantities of everything. Mostly because I live in New York City, and I was running this from my apartment. I needed to store it all there, so I essentially just spent the summer filling my closets with pencils.
Felix: Not the worst product to have large quantities of.
Caroline: No. They get heavy though. [inaudible 00:16:13] to move it all into the shop when that time came. But yeah, it’s a process trying to figure out exactly who your clientele is and figure out exactly what people are looking for. Knowing how much to buy. But these days, I think we’ve got it pretty figured out. I can look at something and know immediately if it’s going to do well.
Felix: [inaudible 00:16:37], I think this is an issue that a lot of entrepreneurs run into, which is to decide what to buy. How on the mark were you with that first initial stock of inventory? Were you able to sell out all of them?
Caroline: Yeah. I mean, most of the stuff that we stocked originally, we still stock. With the exception of a few things that have been discontinued. We sell quite a few antique pencils too, and that kind of stuff, of course, that always changes. But I think for a business like mine, it was pretty easy, because there are only so many pencils that exist in the world. There are still brands that I find out about that I didn’t already know about, but of the maybe 20 or 25 brands that I knew about from the start, it was pretty easy. I was going for a certain look. Of course, aesthetics do … Even though I sell a functional object, the aesthetic of it of course matters because people care about those things. I was really going for things that have a history, too. I think if you can tell a story, if you can tell an engaging story about the thing that you’re selling, the person that you’re trying to sell it to will be so much more likely to buy it, because there’s this nice little history that goes with it. I wasn’t just shopping for pencils, honestly. I was shopping for stories as well.
Felix: I like this. I like this a lot. So you’re saying that rather than just selling, “Hey, here’s a pencil,” you’re saying like try to tell a story behind it. What kind of stories are we talking about? What kind of stories come along with pencils?
Caroline: For example, we have a couple of varieties of copying pencils which have dye in them. They used to have analine dye in them and they were really popular during … Well, like World War One era before the ballpoint pen was invented, because it’s a pencil with ink in it, basically. So it’s transferrable, so you could make a copy from it with like a wet sheet of paper. Or you could also sign documents with it, because it wasn’t erasable, and at the time, the only other option was a fountain pen. During a war, it’s a lot easier to carry around a pencil than it is to carry around a fountain pen. So we sell vintage and current versions of those. We have one pencil from Japan called the Tombow MONO 100, and it’s a really, really slick-looking pencil. It’s really a premium pencil, and it’s the 100. The name MONO 100 indicates that it has 100 billion particles per square millimeter of its graphite core. Most of the brands that we sell, too, are over 100 years old. They’re around like the 100 year, over–100 year mark. So there are a lot of stories. We sell a pencil called the Blackwing 602, which is a current reproduction of a pencil that was very, very famous kind of mid-century. It was John Steinbeck’s favorite pencil, he wrote most of his books in it. I have some sort of fact about just about everything we sell here.
Felix: So how do you figure out these stories? When you are buying the products, buying these brands, how do you identify if you’re going to be able to tell a story with the products or not?
Caroline: I do a lot of research and I ask a lot of questions. I also think it’s really important to have relationships with the manufacturers that you’re working with. I like to make sure that I’m in frequent contact with all of them, and that we have a good relationship beyond that I’m just buying their things and selling them. Because then, when they hear a story, I’m the first person they tell. We’ve had so many invitations to visit factories, which is a really great learning experience because we can see exactly how these things are made. We went to … Caitlin, who’s my colleague here, we went to Switzerland in February to go to a pencil factory and learned so much. We learned so many little tidbits and really great stories from the people who worked there and from their CEO and their president and all these things that we never would have known had we not actually asked the questions and engaged with them directly. That’s an important thing, is kind of forming your own community around the thing that you sell. That’s where you learn all the good stuff.
Felix: So you do some of your own research, but then rely heavily on the people you’re buying from to help educate yourself on the products and the stories behind them. I think that’s an important point, because I feel like a lot of times, stores open up, and they’ll find a manufacturer, look for the cheapest one, and then just buy … Maybe talk with them every once in a while, Facetime or Skype or whatever, but then that’s kind of it. It’s just a business relationship. What you’re saying is that you can go deeper than that, build a much stronger relationship because they have a lot of these stories in your case, I think in a lot of other people’s cases, but then just they have experience in selling these products. So you should glean that kind of information off of them. That seems like what’s worked really well for you. So you mentioned that your approach now when you’re buying … You’re been able to be better at identifying what products are going to sell or not. So can you talk to us about maybe what your buying process was like at the beginning and then how it’s evolved to the point it’s at today?
Caroline: Yeah. In the beginning, it was truly … Pencils are generally sold by the gross, which is 144 pencils or 12 boxes of 12, essentially. In the beginning, it was simple. As soon as enough pencils from one brand were, I guess, below 144, that’s when I would reorder. But then I started to learn like which things are likely to be back-ordered, and which companies take a really long time to ship their stuff. I started to learn more about how certain brands like to have their POs formatted and how that helps them get orders out faster. So I very …
Then I hired more employees and started to have other people doing this. So I had to really streamline it. So I just … It’s very simple, I just made … Now we work from documents that I’ve made that we keep on our office computer. It has … I’ve entered every product that we sell, every item number, the quantities that they come in, the ideal stock quantity, the lead time, how they ship it, who to contact, which questions to ask … Just all kind of written out so it’s really, really easy. You just plug it all in. But yeah, it’s still a process. There are still some times when … We have a lot of really unique things, so we do a lot of stuff that is easy to pitch to magazines and to online websites for gift guides and stuff. So we never know. We might have a magazine coming out in a week that has a colored pencil set in it, and we’re going to sell like 300 of those in a week. Sometimes, we can’t prepare for that. But we can do our best.
Felix: What about when you were looking for new brands? Do you have an approach to identifying if it’s going to be a good seller or not?
Caroline: Sometimes. Most of the time, when we get new things … Especially with pencils, or like … Yeah, accessories are pretty easy. Any time there’s a new accessory, we’ll always stock it. But we’ve kind of figured out what our customers are looking for. Our customers generally like something that’s really unique. They like something that they’ve never seen before. They like something that, of course, is high-quality. It has to be priced well. We do occasionally get offers from companies who want to sell us stuff that’s really cool, but like it’s just really overpriced, and it’s important to me that everything is accessible, and that people don’t feel like we’re trying to rip them off. Really, it just really depends. With that sort of thing, I still think that it’s really just best to go with your gut feeling. I think that’s how you build a cohesive inventory, is by just kind of going with it and making those decisions. I think if you think too much about it, if you think like, “Oh, but like this” …
Of course, in a shop like mine, especially, there are certain things that are higher-priced items that I have to sell, because those are the things that pay our rent, but yeah, I try to not think too hard about it when I’m buying stuff, like thinking about, “Well, is this something that’s going to” … “Is this something that’s” … I don’t know. I don’t know how to put this. Like something that’s going to make people want to buy more with us, or any of those kind of like tactics to get people to buy stuff is not really something I subscribe to. I just stock stuff that I love and hope other people are going to love it too, if I’m being honest. But yeah, it’s hard.
Felix: Yeah, I guess you’re saying that you’re not trying to be super strategic about it, you’re just going with your instincts. Which is based on, I think, your experience as a customer, as a target customer, essentially, and then also as someone that has so much experience buying and selling at this point. One thing you mentioned before was about how in some cases you will buy directly from the brands versus through distributors. Can you talk to us a little about the difference and maybe some pros and cons working with one versus the other?
Caroline: Yeah. A lot of the brands I sell don’t have distributors in the US, so I have to deal with them directly, but I’ve also found that it just is really … It can be beneficial, because if I have an idea and I want to have something specially made, because I have a relationship with the manufacturer directly, that’s something that’s way easier to make happen. Or feedback is just heard a lot better if I can just go to somebody directly. Or if there’s something I want to buy and I can’t buy like the minimum quantity that a distributor would want and I have a relationship with the manufacturer, that’s something that’s a lot easier.
It’s been helpful, too, for things that come out that are maybe limited edition or harder-to-find items, because I’m often the first person that gets contacted about that stuff, because they know that I’ll buy and they know that I’m probably looking for it. We’ve had a lot of instances where there have been things coming out onto the market that are made in Europe or made somewhere else that have not been introduced to the US yet, and a lot of times, if a distributor in the US or if a manufacturer only has a certain allotment for the US and they know that I’m interested immediately, I’m often the first one they contact. I have the opportunity to get those things first, or I’m sometimes offered the opportunity to just like buy all of them and be the exclusive dealer of that item, whatever it may be. It’s just different. It’s just a different experience. It’s just difference.
Felix: When you do pick a new brand to work with … I know you were saying just now about how you don’t think too deep about, “What can this do for the entire business as a whole?” and look at all of this from a super strategic point of view, but when do you evaluate whether it was a good purchase or not? How long do you wait or what are you looking for to determine, “Okay, we should continue to buy this particular brand or this particular product”?
Caroline: I look at the sales figures, and I also … That’s also a thing that we really use social media for. A lot of Instagram. We do a lot of Instagramming, and we have a pretty big following on Instagram. I think we have like 104,000 followers. So if we Instagram something, we know almost immediately what people think about it and that’s really helpful.
There are things that we sell that we have always sold that I will probably always sell for as long as they’re being manufactured that don’t sell really well, but they’re important to me because I think they’re really interesting and I think they add something to our range of products, and it’s okay if we’re not selling like 200 of them a week. That’s fine. Yeah, I don’t know. That’s another reason why I love having a physical shop, because then I can actually interact with people in here and I can listen to what they’re saying about things. That’s really helpful, to have direct feedback from customers. That’s another thing that really just depends. There have been things that we’ve sold in the past that are really, really hard to get a hold of, and then once we got a hold of them, they didn’t sell really, really fast like we thought they were. A lot of it has to do with like the ratio of, “How well does it sell? How much effort does it take for us to get it, and does it make sense with the rest of the stuff that we sell?” Those are kind of the three factors that we think about.
Felix: I want to go back to something that you said earlier about how the business, the store really took off because of these online communities. I think, I’m not sure if it was you or Caitlin that wrote in one of the pre-interview questions about what has led to your success was appealing to a niche audience that loves analog tools. I think you said that you didn’t even know about these communities before they really took hold of your products?
Caroline: Yeah, like I said, I’m not a computer person. Until I had to make one for my business, I didn’t have a Facebook profile. I’m not really interested in any of that stuff, and it wasn’t until I started poking around a bit that I realized that all of these communities existed. Which I think is kind of hilarious that people go on the internet to talk about writing with pencils. Something about that always makes me really laugh. Yeah, those communities are … Honestly, those are the people who decide what’s going to sell well in our store. If we stocked something that like three people in a group, in an online group love, everybody in the group will buy it. We do also sometimes do like exclusive promos for especially our online community called Erasable for the podcast, just because they’re … Those groups of people, I guess, when you put a bunch of people who are so passionate about this one object together, they’re a force that nobody can really compete with. If they were to ever stop shopping at my shop, I think it would be a totally different … It would be a totally different business. It’s been interesting kind of discovering more communities of people, and it’s not even just about pencils. It’s about like the whole analog tools lifestyle.
There are even more communities of people who love pens, and even like pen people are often interested in these things too, or they aren’t interested in them and they think it’s because pencils … Like all the pencils that they’ve tried aren’t very nice, and they don’t realize that there are better pencils out there. So that’s where the internet is a useful tool, where we can kind of go into these communities and engage, and just kind of be like, “Hey, this is a thing that I think will help you.” We’re very careful to kind of treat … When we participate in communities on Facebook or even on our own social media, we’re pretty careful to not go in as a business, but kind of go in as individuals who run a business. Because we’d never want to make people feel like we’re alienating them or simply in it because we’re trying to sell them things. [inaudible 00:32:17] that we’re in it because we are in the same boat as them, and we also just simply want to talk about these things.
Felix: I’m not sure if you have a number in mind, but how big were these communities?
Caroline: I mean, the Erasable podcast community is our main point of reference, and they have quite a few thousand followers. I don’t know how many, but-
Felix: This was like a Facebook group?
Felix: Yeah, I think that’s important because a few thousand or several thousand, it’s not like a ton of people, right? Certain groups and pages have tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of people, but you were able to build a business off of a group in a relatively niche community. Obviously, I’m not the best gauge of this, but I didn’t know a community like this existed at all and you’ve built a business around it. So do you feel like this is … I don’t want to call it a formula, but do you feel like your particular case is unique where you are able to build a business off a small community, or do you feel like this exists for all types of industries?
Caroline: I think it probably exists more than a lot of people realize it does. I don’t know if it would be the same story for any other type of business. I mean, for us, it was at least a good starting point. The majority of our customers now, much to my surprise initially, are people who don’t even know that these communities exist, so it’s been productive in a way that we’ve also been able to help these … To like help the community of pencil users, because we are always talking about it with people that we meet in the store who don’t even know about it, so we kind of help each other out in that way, and I think we’ve helped to grow the community as much as the community has helped us to grow our business.
Felix: Yeah, I like to think of … Especially if you have a community of your own or you’re part of a community, if you’ve built a community around your brand, again whether that means building something of your own or just, I guess, attaching yourself to an existing community, the products [inaudible 00:34:33] almost become a natural, I guess, byproduct of being a part of this community. It’s like you have to … I mean, you don’t have to, I guess … But it helps you participate a lot more by trying these products, buying these products, using these products. I think that by itself is a great kind of sales engine, I guess, without having to be sales-y. Which sounds like what helped you guys really take off. You mentioned earlier that if only a few people like the products that you’re putting out, everyone will buy it. Can you say more about this?
Caroline: I mean, I think it works … It works on any social media platform, kind of, that if the right person likes it in a community based around things like this, if somebody buys it and they post a picture of it and write about their experience with it and say that it was like the most amazing thing they’re tried in a few months, then other people take notice and they come into our store and place orders and buy other things in addition to that thing that they were looking for that’s been highly recommended to them. Yeah, and they trust us. They know that we would never stock anything that they wouldn’t like for some reason or another, but I think it’s nice to have other people kind of … I don’t know how else to put it other than this way. It’s nice to have other people out there almost selling your things for you. Regular people who are using them in their daily lives. I think those sort of testimonials are really important to have. We get a lot of that on Twitter too. We have a lot of people tweeting about like a certain pencil that they bought that they really love, and they link to it, and then all of a sudden, we have ten orders for that one pencil.
Felix: Yeah, it sounds like what you’re building organically is just a bunch of influencers. You are … Be able to tap into these influencers, either … I’m not sure if you’re doing it directly or not, but it sounds like once an influencer is vouching for your product, vouching for the brands you carry, that is all you need, really, to have things take off. It’s such a big part of a lot of people’s marketing plans today, but it sounds like you’re not even doing this directly. It just seems to kind of pick up for you because you are carrying these products and being a part of the community, it’s almost like a natural, I guess effect of being a part of this community, is putting the products out there. If people like it, if the influencers like it, then that really helps kick things off for you. Once you discovered these communities and once you’ve been a part of them, are you able to do the market research now that you weren’t able to access before?
Caroline: A little bit. A little bit. That’s something that Caitlin works more directly with than I do. She was the first employee I hired, and she’s great because she is good at all of the things that I’m not good at. Which is nice, we work well together. She does most of that. Now that we have data and we have numbers, and we can kind of … We have a much wider reach now, of course, than we did before. Yeah, it’s a lot easier than it used to be. Quite honestly, a lot of the times, we don’t even need a lot of that, because we’ve like … We were talking about influencers, like I think our shop itself for this … I mean, the object that we sell, to a lot of people is kind of like a seemingly stale thing that’s uninteresting. That’s kind of what … What we’re doing is kind of bringing a little bit of almost like a cool factor to this object that nobody pays attention to. So yeah, just by us choosing something that we think is really awesome, most people believe us that it’s really awesome, because we’ve kind of … Yeah.
Felix: Yeah, so you have these communities that you’re a part of. You have your social media profiles, you said you have over 100,000 followers on Instagram. When you are in the process of either buying a brand or stocking a brand for the first time or not, can you walk us through the process of how you maybe do the research or introduce the products slowly to the communities and these profiles, and how you actually ultimately launch new products? I think this is a pretty straightforward formula that a lot of people are going to follow. Be a part of the communities, maybe start a community of your own, have some kind of social media presence of your own, and then take very similar steps, I think, that you’re taking to successfully pick the right products and then successfully launch it. So can you walk us through your process, I guess, if you have one?
Caroline: Yeah. With finding totally new things, I think it’s important for us to actually go out and find those things on our own sometimes. We’ve started doing what I call once-a-year pencil vacations, where Caitlin and I go to another place for a trade show or to visit something. The first year we were open, I went to Japan, and then this year, Caitlin and I went to a trade show in Germany, and then we went onto Switzerland to visit a factory. Those types of places are really, really useful, because we can kind of see what’s the norm in other places, and find things that we maybe didn’t know about.
But honestly, for us at least, a lot of the new brands that we sell come to us because those brands approach us about selling their things. So it’s become pretty easy, where we don’t have to even put in a tremendous amount of effort to find things on our own because we either … Or we get tipped off by somebody in a community that we keep up with, or one of our customers … If something is happening in the world of pencils, we’re usually one of the first people to know about it, just because somebody’s probably emailed us. But yeah, I mean we … I don’t really like to stock a single product of a brand. I think it’s important that we … I also don’t like to stock the whole range, because I think it’s important that we have at least somewhat discerning tastes, that we say, “Look, all these things exist, and from this selection of like 20 items, we’ve picked the nine that we think are the greatest and we’re kind of doing the work for you by telling you exactly which ones are the best.”
So I think it’s more about gauging numbers. How many of a product from a single brand are we going to sell so that they kind of have their own story together, but where they’re all interesting on their own too? Because if we have just one pencil from one brand, people are going to be like, “Well, why don’t you have more? Do they make more? Is there a reason why you only have one?” It’s also a lot of work to kind of seek out things from other countries that require expensive shipping. Usually a more complicated buying process when we’re just going to stock one item. So a lot of it has to do with are we interested in selling this whole range, or if we only want it for one product, then it’s more times than not not even worth stocking.
Felix: I like that you say that you don’t want to carry all the products from a single brand, because you want to at least show that you are being selective and show that you’re curating your product catalog, and not just being a middleman or middleperson and passing things along straight from the brand. So once you have identified that, “Okay, I want these products from this brand,” do you work with the communities in any way that you like introduce, “Hey, we have new products in stock.” Do you have any kind of plan to, when you want to introduce a new brand that you started carrying in your store?
Caroline: We’re really into sharing that stuff, especially the stories behind it. That’s when the stories really are useful, when it’s something that’s totally unknown. Where we can kind of be like, “Look at this awesome brand. This is when it was founded. This is where it comes from. Here are some cool facts about the stuff that they make, and here are all the specs about how these things are made.” That information’s really useful in those situations. We like to blog about that kind of stuff, or that, again, is where Instagram comes in handy. Most of our sort of product announcements happen there, which then we of course put on Twitter and Facebook, usually. We try not to do all three all the time for everything, because we don’t want to annoy people.
That’s another thing about how we do our marketing that is maybe a little bit unconventional. We don’t send a lot of emails. We do occasionally do promos and we send emails for that, but we probably send two emails a month as part of our email marketing, because … One of them that we send is a newsletter where we put links to blog posts that people might find interesting. That’s where we introduce new things, and people actually read it because they … I think we have something like 20,000 people on our email subscription list and people who have opted into it. I think it’s effective, because a lot of people listen to us more when we do have something to say, because they know that we aren’t emailing them every single day about every little thing that happens.
Felix: Makes sense. Can you give us an idea of, after being two years in business, how successful is the business today or the growth of the business since the beginning?
Caroline: Yeah. I went into this with very low expectations, because I was starting a business in New York City, and I really wanted a physical location. That’s a hard thing to do. I had kind of thought, “Okay, worst case scenario, I will do this by myself for three years. If I’m not making any money in three years, then I’ll evaluate and figure out what I’m going to do.” We’ve grown really, really naturally. Very quickly, but very naturally. Our physical store has been open for about a year and a half, and in that year and a half, I now have four employees, two of them are full-time. We’ve had to get an office down the street from our shop, because we were starting to run out of space to pack orders and to keep our inventory.
Now we’ve kind of … It was a lot of like ups and downs, since we had a lot of really insane press that made us very, very, very busy some weeks, and then not very busy the next week, and after navigating all of that, now we’ve kind of hit a point where we’re like very steadily making up a modest profit. Nothing like … We’re not making millions of dollars off of pencils, but we’re in a place where we’re busy all day, but we’re not overwhelmed. We’re easily making enough money to take on new projects, to do what we want to do, to pay everybody, to pay our rent, to … Yeah, just function as a business. I feel really grateful, because I never thought that’s something that I’d have with this shop so soon. Yeah, it’s been a real learning process. To anyone who thought this was crazy in the beginning, which was I guess a lot of people, it is indeed possible to make a profit selling pencils.
Felix: That’s awesome. Where do you want to see the store, either the retail store or the online store, in the next year?
Caroline: In the next year, I think I really want to work on growing our online store. I get offers all the time about opening other physical stores, which is something I’m really not interested in. Because running a physical store is a lot of work, and coming to our store is a very hands-on experience that I’ve spent a lot of time kind of figuring out. I think it’d be so hard to replicate anywhere else with as much integrity as this one shop has. So I think I would love to get into doing more of our own products, which is something we’ve kind of started doing collaborating with other brands and having stuff that’s designed by us, made exclusively for our shop, and just continuing to grow our online store by getting new, interesting things in and by reaching other markets that we haven’t really hit yet. I think that’s pretty reasonable. I have a hard time thinking about the next year, because most of the things I thought would happen in the next five to ten years have already happened. I’m quite happy with the way things are. I didn’t sign up for this to be a businesswoman. I signed up for it because I really wanted to sell pencils.
Felix: Very cool. Thanks so much again for your time, Caroline. So cwpencils.com is their website. Anywhere else you recommend our listeners check out if they want to follow along with what you’re up to?
Caroline: Sure, yeah. You can follow us on Instagram, @cwpencilenterprise and on Twitter, @cwpencils as well.
Felix: Cool. Thanks again so much for your time, Caroline.
Caroline: Thank you.
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.