Growing a Niche Meme Business to $34,500/month

The Story of ATC Memes

Hello! Who are you and what are you working on?

Hi, my name is David Lombardo and I am one of the founding members of a website called ATC Memes.

ATC Memes originally started as a social media site that was geared towards air traffic controllers sharing stories and joke images known as ‘memes’.

Over the years, the concept evolved into an online store called RadarContact.com, where we sell many unique and niche types of merchandise catering to those who are involved with or have an interest in the aviation industry.

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What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

Ever since I was a kid, I have been interested in aviation. For most of my youth, I was obsessed with video games; specifically simulation games. I was borderline addicted to Microsoft’s Flight Simulator and the online WWII dogfighting game Fighter Ace. It was these two games that really got me into flying. I thought I wanted to be a pilot, and it was all I dreamed about. My parents purchased me a few intro flight lessons at the local flight school, and the first time I was able to actually control an aircraft (with an instructor, of course!) was at 12 years old. I still remember that moment and image very clearly. We were in a shallow bank over Saratoga Lake. “Ok, it’s your airplane!”, the instructor said.

But eventually, somewhere between the 6th and 8th grade, I had discovered the world of music. I would later become addicted to the consumption and creation of music, to the point of it becoming literally everything I did outside of school. I listened to everything I found, and also tried to learn everything I could about the art form. I played guitar and drums, and I was even doing session work for local musicians who had asked me to play on their demos and albums. It was pretty cool for someone of my age. Nonetheless, I still wanted to be involved in the aviation world, but I didn’t want to give up music. Being in a band meant being a pilot would be difficult.

I would say the most important thing is to start small and conquer a small niche before expanding; set realistic goals.

I decided to attend Purdue University, which was a great mix of all of my interests. I majored in aviation management, but I still had a social life and was involved with music. I had a band, and I also ran a music venue with the same band simply called ‘The Venue’. My classes on the other hand, were aviation based. It was as great balance.

There were many great times running The Venue, but what I remember most was running live sound; setting up the microphones, getting the volume and EQ levels correct, and making sure the bands could transmit their best sonic qualities to the audience. I had taken the skills I learned in high school and in the studios to the real world.

After graduating, I returned home and taught music for a few years. I had many students on both guitar and drums. I had eventually applied to become an air traffic controller, however. To make an extremely long story short, I was finally hired by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2014, attended the training academy in Oklahoma City, and was assigned to the New York Center, which is located on Long Island, New York.

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One night after coming home from an evening shift at my new air traffic control job, I sat down on my computer and sent a message to an old friend who had started a page for air traffic controllers to share funny and silly images known as ‘memes’. At the time, the page was pretty small but doing well for what it was.

“Hey man, long time no talk. Do you mind if I add some content? I can help you moderate it?”

“Sure.”

Memes are often images, videos, or audio files based on jokes or funny moments; references to experience, both seen and unseen, encountered in everyday life or in our case the incredibly serious world of air traffic control. To me, there was nothing more important than focus and seriousness when on the control room floor. I took my studies and profession as seriously as I could during my time training at the facility. However, off the clock, I was becoming increasingly distracted. I had to vent my creative energy. And one of the ways I was often able to do this was with blatant humor.

One night, when helping someone mix a song on Cubase, a digital audio workstation program (remotely via the internet), I had a website called ‘LiveATC’ open in the background. I was actually monitoring the frequencies for a sector I was to be trained on in the coming months and trying to memorize as much chatter as I could for frequencies and restrictions pilots received. However, when I played back the song I was mixing, I realized that I had inadvertently recorded the LiveATC transmissions. I played it back and put it through a whole effects rack worth of stuff, and the result was that the audio of the pilot's chatter sounded totally weird, almost ‘fake’.

Suddenly, a huge idea hit me with a spark of inspiration I had not felt since the days of flying that plane over Saratoga Lake; I would create my own ATC transmissions. And these wouldn’t be normal ATC, they would be intentionally hilarious. I envisioned scenarios that air traffic controllers could relate to, and make them ridiculous.

They would be ATC Memes.

In the weeks to come I wrote a few basic comedy scripts during breaks at work based on events I had experienced and in the evening recorded it using a few microphones I had around my apartment. In using my recording techniques I had learned in the years prior, I was quickly able to re-create very realistic sounding recordings.

Still, while it’s important to stay relevant, it’s just as important to disconnect now and then to focus on the things in life that really matter.

I made these assuming that people would know they were fake. In uploading some of the recordings to Facebook and YouTube, however, it became increasingly apparent that some people (even those who were aviation professionals) had no idea if they were in fact real or not. People began to share them, tag their friends, and comment on them. In one week, the ATC Memes page went from 8,000 fans to over 40,000. People also began to submit more and more of their own creations and memes. People were also sharing the memes, which also helped create buzz and a more social effect for our page. We were viral.

Ultimately, my love of music, audio, humor, and aviation was combined in the most peculiar of ways. People were super enthusiastic and loved the audio. And it wasn’t even real.

After a few months of establishing ourselves on multiple platforms (including YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, a blog, and others), my partners and I decided to try to monetize the page. At this point, we had over 140,000 followers and a very loyal following at that.

We designed and sold some t-shirts, and then some stickers, but nothing was significant. It was beer money. However, like the realization with the audio I had months before, on one evening in Winter 2016, another idea came to us, women’s apparel.

For many years aviation apparel had been pretty popular like shirts with aircraft references and airplanes on them, but it was all mostly for men. Women were (and still are) a minority in the aviation world. I am not entirely sure where the idea came from but one day I realized I had a huge PNG image file of the New York airspace on my desktop and I decided to upload it and see what it would look like on women’s leggings, of all things.

Within hours we had sold over $2,000 worth of these leggings. Suddenly I realized we had a lot of work to do, and this was only selling the products with the New York airspace. We wanted customers to have the option of every inch of airspace in the world. We also began offering custom products.

Sales are still going strong, and we have also added a variety of different products. We offer lanyards, hats, bags, phone cases, skirts, ties, shoes, dresses, and even blankets! In late 2017, we changed the name of our store to Radar Contact, a phrase that better reflected all of aviation and not just ATC.

In 2017 we also partnered up with another fantastic page ‘Airline Pilot Memes’ in an effort to offer even more designs and creative ideas to our customers. The person behind that page is undoubtedly a creative genius, and bouncing ideas around is truly an experience worth having.

Describe the process of creating the product and launching the business.

To be honest, the product came together itself because the idea of having authentic airspace printed on clothing was a very specific and strange niche.

The market research required was already encapsulated within our own fan base. That is to say, we just had to post a few mock images, and gauge the reaction from our already loyal fans.

This is perhaps one of the single biggest advantages in the modern world of social media. There is little risk of doing some basic market teasing and testing if you’ve already won over the attention of the audience through other means, memes in our case.

Get used to criticism; it’s going to happen.

If we had tried to do it the other direction (that is, sell something before building the rapport of an entertainment page), I don’t think it would have worked; or at the very least, it wouldn’t have been as successful. People want to establish a relationship with your brand and in 2018, sometimes this means they want to get to know the people behind the page. Entertainment (specifically humor) on social media offers a sort of social bond that blatant, old-school marketing cannot achieve. It was the glue that established the framework for the entire business itself.

We have since expanded not only the types of products that we offer but the designs of the products as well. We sell many types of apparel not related to the airspace map line of products, but they continue to be what we are known for. As for manufacturing, everything is done via on-demand printing through an online platform, and our suppliers all painstakingly worked with us to ensure that the quality was impeccable. We rejected some mock-up designs because they weren’t what we envisioned. We wanted everything to be readable, down to every little number and letter on the map.

Since you launched, how have you attracted new customers and grown the business?

We have experimented with many marketing techniques and avenues, but the most effective method by far is good old viral social media.

To this day we all continually work to try to have great comedy content to ensure authentic traffic to the site. We also keep our fans involved by sharing submitted images of them wearing our clothes and sporting our stickers, lanyards, ties, etc. This builds an absolutely huge community and sense of camaraderie between users.

I have also found an incredibly positive response from live video. In the past year or so this has become a vital asset for many online marketers with now nearly all platforms offering some form of live video feed for pages. I usually “go live” to talk about recent aviation news, recent memes/videos we’ve made, and of course our new products.

The results are mind-blowing. Sometimes we will make over 100 sales in a 15-minute live video broadcast. One time one of the partners went live on a flight and a fan was sitting a few rows behind him on the same aircraft! There are countless awesome tips and tricks for creating the best live broadcast possible that you can find by just doing a Google search. However, the secret to a good live broadcast is energetic and consistent interaction with the fans. Period. People want to be heard and live platforms allow you to listen to a virtually limitless number of people all at once. That’s a marketing superpower.

With respect to a more traditional advertising route, Facebook Ads has proven to be valuable in the information it provides, especially with the Pixel algorithms which have helped us realize what types of ads work and which do not.

Google Analytics has also been absolutely essential to understanding the impact of our marketing and the overall aggregate behaviors of our users, sometimes in real time. It's also fascinating to see A/B comparisons. For example, we have found that things as trivial as the color of a button can have a substantial impact on the conversion percentage.

A lot of it comes down to just experimentation. But before experimenting, it's import to build a customer base first. It’s better to build a base of loyal fans that you can experiment with to see what works as opposed to experimenting without any real dedicated influence. Follow the rules first, start small, and then have fun.

Finally, never discredit email. Our email list, gathered from our conversions, is one of the most responsive part of our business structure. It’s a good idea to immediately begin to build an email list. It’s authentic traffic that is “your control”, as an air traffic controller might say!

If you could go back, would you do anything differently?

It sounds incredibly cliché, but I wouldn’t really have done anything differently, not in this business and not in life.

One thing I wish I knew ahead of time was the challenge of handling sizing issues of the clothing. Sizing, especially in the world of women’s apparel and online apparel, can be notoriously tricky. We offer exchanges on all of our sizes and our returns are under 1-2%. Still, it becomes a logistical nightmare if 30 people all of a sudden want another shipment. These are things we never thought about. So I would recommend having an accurate sizing chart and that you confirm is “true to fit” by inquiring with your customers.

Finally, get used to criticism; it’s going to happen. It’s easy to be subjected to criticism because people hide behind a computer. It’s a rush to get thousands of positive reviews but it’s equally a rush (albeit a negative one) to get a one-star roaster that calls you and your business worthless. But don’t always respond to it.

You have to choose your battles wisely and being in small business is all about which battles to fight. Whether you’re directing a battlefield or designing stickers, the idea is pretty much always the same; minimize your moves and use your energy to achieve goals and values.

Do not jump at your rivals, especially in the beginning stages of a business. It’s best to lay as low as possible. Don’t intentionally rock the boat for a cheap thrill when the energy should be used to propel you and your business closer to your goals. Finally, it’s important to remember that the harshest critics can be total jerks, but some can offer some decent advice if you see past their cynicism. Conserve your energy for the stuff that matters. Also, for the love of god, conserve your money. Fighting battles can be really, really expensive.

Have you found or learned anything particularly helpful?

I have learned that you can always sell more product. It’s increasingly difficult to maintain people’s attention; especially in a world full of ever-increasing distractions. We had the attention of our fans though and that was entirely due to our memes and community. All of us were involved in aviation so we also had the knowledge of the industry.

Having said all of this, I have learned through many experiments that just because you have a lot of attention doesn’t necessarily mean your fans are all going to want to share your products to their social circle. The most difficult part of this process was promoting products and still trying to maintain our status as an entertainment page. However, by marketing to our current followers and integrating the products into references and jokes already established, many people caught on quick. Our fans were enthusiastic, and nearly all of them were already aviation professionals and/or enthusiasts, so this meant that news of the merchandise did in fact spread like wildfire.

In addition to this, all of the members of the ATC Memes team have some creative design experience in one avenue or another. I had experience making audio, running promotions, and doing basic graphic design from my days of running and promoting my music venue in college. The ATC Memes team tends to be able to compliment each other quite well with our strengths and deficiencies. One of my partners I work with is incredibly adept at illustrations and working with modern graphic design software. We often bounce ideas off one another. He encourages ideas for audio, and I perhaps encourage him for ideas on graphics from time to time.

atc-memes-ties

We will essentially do anything and everything possible to meet any of our customer’s requests for custom clothing, which can at times require a rather meticulous mindset and a keen sense of patience. Some customers require us to do things like color-matching and branding of their own logos on our products. This is always something we are happy to do. It is very satisfying to know that you helped someone’s idea come to life. After all, the idea of fantasy becoming realized is the essence of art and creativity, and it’s right on that border where all of the exciting stuff happens!

Sometimes, if a web community pushes conversions too hard, the reaction can be less than favorable (“you sellouts!”), but I have found that if you are tasteful and careful, the results are actually the contrary. Most people, so long as you are making relevant products and offers, are genuinely pretty curious. They want to know more.

We design all of our own stuff (we don't outsource any of the creative process), which I think is pretty cool to be able to say in 2018. We believed we had what it took to be different, but we weren't so sure it was going to be a hit.

I would say the most important thing is to start small and conquer a small niche before expanding; set realistic goals. Also, and perhaps most profound in my realization, is that there is really no such thing as a wasted talent if you put it to use, however humble. ATC Memes would not have been the same if I had not gone into air traffic control, and it certainly wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t spent the time as a 16-year-old kid messing around with electric guitar sounds. The audio was a fundamental part as to why this page became as successful as it did.

Customer service is also absolutely imperative. If you sell a lot of product, I have learned that you’re going to be dealing with a lot of issues. There is no way around this. However, by planning ahead and being ready to answer questions at a moments notice, you’ll help your brand tremendously. Set up auto-responders to let customers know you’ll get back to them ASAP.; set up contact forms; get a P.O. box to accept returns and snail-mail, etc. We also purchased a phone number which forwards to our cell phones. Customers are almost always surprised when a real live human answers. This in itself has led to countless conversions. Don’t overlook the human interaction! It’s rare in 2018.

Also, I try not to obsess about success and trivial matters like gossip and opinion. Our society is way too concerned about achievement, success, failure, and the matter of others. Rather it’s exponentially more important to stay true to your values instead of focusing on blatant achievements to compare yourself to others. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who wakes up and strives to be just a bit better than yesterday is already successful. It has nothing to do with other people and everything to do with yourself. This is as true for life as it is for business, and it cannot be stressed enough. Compete with yourself fiercer than anyone else!

Finally, but certainly not least, I am very lucky to have found good partners to run my business with. The guys I work with at ATC Memes are unbelievably creative, passionate, and truly gifted people who are always open to authentic communication and downright real discussion. They’re also funny as hell, and great guys to hang out with.

Where you are at now and what are your plans for the future?

In 2017 I made the tough decision to leave the FAA. Ultimately, I could not see myself doing that job for the rest of my life and knew that if I didn’t want to become handcuffed to it, I had to act now while I still had time to build a new career. I think a lot about the future of social media and how it has had such an undeniable effect on society. I often wonder what the next few years will bring as more businesses harness the power of the platforms and more players get into the game. There is most definitely an art to it, as millions compete to be heard, seen, and understood on a virtual stage.

Still, while it’s important to stay relevant, it’s just as important to disconnect now and then to focus on the things in life that really matter. Instead of focusing on “keeping up with Joneses” focus on what makes you and your business unique. You’ll never be as successful living in something else’s shadow as you will be if you dare to be different and cast your own shadow. Spending time nourishing my creative outlets like music and writing comedy is important in keeping our business unique and interesting to our fans.

In terms of networking, we will be doing interviews and making appearances at popular aviation events. I also hope to keep expanding the brand to new and exciting locations, including doing more B2B with companies (like airports and flight schools) that will stock some of our products.There is a lot of potential growth and with that comes the promise of new relationships with amazing people, which is perhaps what I enjoy the most.

What tools do you use for your business?

While we’ve experimented with a lot of different tools we have never used any automation tools. Most of the tools we have used are related to business promotions, organization, CRM, audio, and video.

The main e-commerce platform for our store is predominantly built on Shopify. We have also used WooCommerce. The software/products I am currently using are:

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources for your business and why?

This is honestly one of the hardest questions of this interview. I have had so many books and people influence me. Two books that have had a recent and significant impact on me are Peter Thiel’s ‘Zero to One’ and ‘Everybody Lies’ by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz; the latter had me actually re-reading certain sections in an effort to get more out of them, something I rarely do. While I find a lot of non-fiction literature to be fluffy, even superfluous at times, nothing within these two books seems to be without value. Every word is helpful.

“If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), "Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?" chances are you are. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.” - Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

The above quote is also from a book I have enjoyed re-reading for years, Steven Pressfield’s ‘The War of Art’. A book that, for all intensive discussion, is just as entertaining as it is helpful.

Some works have had an influence on certain parts of my life specifically. For example, the Stephen Dubner ‘Freakonomics Radio’ episode on The Upside of Quitting helped encourage me to quit my job at the FAA.

In a similar reference, Kashdan’s ‘The Upside of Your Darkside’ helped show me that it is ok to have self-doubt and anxiety, in spite of a world always telling us that negative emotions are somehow bad (spoiler alert: they’re not).

The Miguel Ruiz classic ‘The Four Agreements’ helped explain to me that great works, at their core, are quite often paradoxically inspired by stark simplicity, and ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ was a near perfect description of how things aren’t always so black-and-white. This idea of balance between extremes is also perfectly summed up in the classroom scene in the 2001 film ‘Donnie Darko’. While some of these references can be taken as obscure, they are fundamental to business and creative works.

One of the most influential works of literature I have ever encountered in business and in life is undoubtedly Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’, published in 1999. It is a book that inspires creation and curiosity and reinforces the idea that no matter who you are or what your circumstance is, you have a story. Don’t waste it. You may be surprised to find out how many people are willing to listen if you’re willing to create and bring your stories to life.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

The most important advice I can tell anyone is to just be yourself.

It is also important to have some sort of rapport with your customers. Again, start small, and work your way into new avenues of adventure. Don’t try to take on too much at once. The riches are in the niches.

Also, don’t be afraid to want to learn more. I constantly find myself worried that I don’t know enough, and I think this perpetual state of heightened anxiety actually has been one of my biggest assets when it comes to critical thinking and learning.

Enjoy your success! But don’t get too comfortable. Never stop learning, and never stop growing. Good luck, and most of all, HAVE FUN!

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