Starting And Growing A Customized Maps Startup to $60k/month

The Story of Craft Oak

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

Hello, my name is Humphrey and I am one of the founders of Craft & Oak. We make a variety of custom prints for home decor, most notably maps of cities, maps of stars, and coordinates. We have a few other products coming out soon, including a print that should include characters of your family/team/couple.

Our top selling products are maps of cities, or maps of the stars. The city maps are customizable in that you can drag / zoom in and out just like in Google Maps, to get the exact section of any map you would like - you can then customize the labels on the print themselves to give it a personal touch. With our star maps, you choose the date/time of any location in the world where you want to view the stars from, and we use open source observatory data to plot out what the stars looked like on that day. You can then add a custom message to it - these are typically great products for gift-givers.

Our target market is a person between the ages of 25-40, either in the market for a personal gift, or just to decorate their home. People that love to travel are also a great market for us. We’ve found that in the past our best converting segment was a male from the ages of 18-30, however, that is slowly shifting and now a majority of our sales are being driven by females.

We launched our first product (city maps) in April 2017, and did about ~350k in sales in 2017. This year we’re on track for about 1M/yr in sales (online-only). Our gross margin is rather high - at around 65-70%, but we do spend a lot in marketing and still are trying to get better in ad-spend so that our absolute bottom line is a higher % than our historical average has been.

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

My backstory is that I had quit my job at a mobile gaming company in Nov. 2016, where I had been working for nearly 3 years in monetization. My goal at that job was to monetize our users via in-app purchases based on data that was available to me within the game’s ecosystem.

To be honest, I had zero experience in e-Commerce, but I did know from my previous job that I was good at learning from data, setting up and creating experiments over and over again, and making business decisions with the information provided to me.

I had always wanted to "start" something on my own, and when I was talking about doing that in January of 2017, I was approached by a friend who wanted to also start something - but for him, it would be a side gig because he had a full-time job already. This friend would become my business partner, and still is a part of the business today - he would like to remain anonymous for the purpose of this Starter Story.

The idea to start this business in the custom poster space was actually my business partner’s, he saw it being done in Europe at small custom gift shops, and we had done some market research and saw some other incumbent websites doing the same thing.

I was just eager to get started on working on anything (as I had been unemployed for about 2 months at the time and was not sure of what to do next), but I knew I wanted to try my hand at a direct-to-consumer type of business. Looking back on it now, I’m thankful for the experience and where we are with our business, but I do believe direct to consumer is a really tough grind and requires a bunch of luck. I read this article by the Twitch founder, and basically he says that "B2C is a gamble while B2B is (more) within your control." and I tend to agree, it’s tough to argue with his viewpoints.

Anyway, I had some money saved up from working at the gaming company, and both my partner and I put around 10,000 USD each into the business, for a total of 20k. We started an LLC, a bank account, and contracted one of our contacts to start making us a website.

To be honest, I had zero experience in e-Commerce, but I did know from my previous job that I was good at learning from data, setting up and creating experiments over and over again, and making business decisions with the information provided to me. I try to do my best in making decisions without any ego interference. I personally believe that this is one of the most important qualities you can have to being a successful entrepreneur. Another thing I try to avoid is to make a business decision based on a singular anecdote.

Describe the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing the product.

Craft & Oak used to be known as YourOwnMaps. That was the name we originally started with and we chose the name because of its searchability via Google, and also because we originally only had one product - the city maps. We re-branded this past month (July 2018) and we did so because we soon want to offer products that aren’t maps. It was going to be difficult to scale to other products if our domain name still included the name "maps" in it.

To start with, after we were done prototyping and designing the original website, we also had some initial tech made for us by the same developer to process map data into a PDF file format.

I then took these PDF files that we had and went to different printers in the San Francisco Bay Area and asked them to print them for us. We eventually negotiated with two printers that were willing to take on our project and print our orders for us once we got started. I learned a lot about printing, the pricing of prints, the quality of ink, fulfillment, and all the problems that arise in the printing world at this time.

After operating for about a month with these two fulfillment partners (printing and fulfillment), we started to run into bottlenecks. We were doing everything at such an inefficient rate, the shipping method I chose (UPS) was too expensive, the printing COGs were too high, and not only that - we had no way of scaling past 20-25 orders a day. Having a weekend of 25-30 orders would freak me out because I knew my printing partners might not be able to fulfill them the next week.

This was in late May of 2017, roughly a month after we launched, and it became dire to me that I had to find a new printer, one with the ability to scale nearly infinitely and also one that was willing to take on a smaller account (our company). I ended up doing a Google search of printers across the midwest, I knew that part of the reason COGs were so high was because we were situated in the Bay Area and everything here is too damn expensive.

Long story short, I called a bunch of places and found one excellent provider in Dallas, TX - which also happens to be one of the better shipping hubs in the continental United States. I took a trip to Dallas, TX in June of 2017 to check the facility out, and see if they would take on our project. They agreed, and we started some rough implementation of our custom backend with their printing team.

Looking back at our fulfillment process now, it’s probably one of the more inefficient ways to fulfill custom prints as a new startup. I’m sure there are printing startups out there with existing infrastructure that would easily plugin to Shopify, but again, since my website was custom and we didn't know any better - we had to deal with the situation presented. I’m happy to say we still work with the same printer now, their costs are reasonable, and they’re reliable + able to scale even through spikes of volume.

In the fall, we launched our second product - Star Maps, I had seen them in the past before I started this business, but then I saw them being advertised on Instagram by a few companies, and I thought it would be an easy market for us to transition into - we had the infrastructure and the framework for star prints, and the customizations that were available from the existing websites just didn’t appeal to me. We were able to launch that product rather quickly (within 3 weeks of deciding to do so) and it’s been a good source of additional revenue for us.

Nowadays, we’re focusing on our rebrand (from YourOwnMaps to Craft & Oak), trying to grow our brand organically, email marketing, and better optimizing our media-buying strategies for the holidays of 2018.

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Describe the process of launching the online store/business.

The process was long, it took us a long time to figure out what a good landing page looked like, it took us awhile to settle on a design of the website, and we’ve had to learn a ton along the way.

All in all, the spec of the website + design + implementation took 3.5 full months, and even after it launched it really only had 1 basic core functionality. After launching, we literally had no idea what to do to start driving traffic. It’s always the question I had wondered about before starting a business, how do you get traffic to a website that’s completely brand new?

Well, it turns out in late 2016, and early 2017 - I had started a really stupid meme account on Instagram. I had slowly built up around 12k followers to my meme account, but I could already see the power of advertising directly on Instagram from learning how to meme.

All the bigger meme accounts would sometimes advertise certain companies, and I had always wondered if that was profitable or not. I think learning to meme really gave me an edge in Instagram advertising, I learned what a "good" IG account looked like in terms of engagement, followers, posts, everything - because I had something directly to compare it to (my own).

I spent a lot of time on socialblade.com learning about other Instagram accounts I idolized, and I think that gave me an edge later when I was starting to advertise on Instagram through influencers.

Btw, here’s the meme I’m most proud of that I came up with myself.

Anyway, I started to buy advertisements from some of the memers I knew in the community, it turns out, there’s really only like 20-40 really big meme pages, and if you get to know a few of them, you’ll start to network and get to know all of them.

In the beginning, I was dumbfounded at how much traffic it was driving, I had no reference point, but looking back at it, advertising on Instagram in May of 2017 was amazing - the price I would pay for the amount of traffic I got, it just can’t ever be matched anymore. For every $1 I spent on Instagram direct influencer marketing, I was probably making $4-5 dollars back in revenue. This was really helping keep our business afloat while our shipping costs, and COGs were still too inefficient, and really bought us a lot of time and we stayed breakeven/cash flow slightly positive to keep scaling and getting better. If I had to guess now, the CPM’s for these ads were probably well under $0.75. That’s 75 cents per 1000 impressions.

Here’s an example of the type of posts we would post to meme pages:

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Some more examples here.

As you can tell, they are directed to that crowd and meant to be funny. The trick to IG influencer marketing, at least from what I can tell, is to not post a blatant ad. Rather, engage the person viewing your content and then drive them to your website from there. I would describe this as subtle marketing. Here’s the kicker though, if you make an advertisement that’s a meme, and it’s actually TOO good of a meme, it won’t drive any traffic either. The trick for me was to make it a half-funny/decent meme, but where people would still realize it was an advertisement. Here’s an example of a meme that was too good and didn’t drive any traffic.

2017’s revenue was driven from 80% of just Instagram advertising. I probably spent way too much time on Instagram in 2017. Each ad-post was manual and painstakingly time inefficient. Advertising with influencers is tough because you have to send them engaging content, refresh the content constantly, and since you’re dealing with a person on the other end - sometimes if the influencer isn’t reliable, they end up forgetting to post your advertisement. You have to stay on top of them at all times. It kind of sucks because it’s manual, but for 2017 - it was still the most efficient ad-spend channel we had.

There were times when we were behind on fulfillment, and I was hesitant to keep advertising because I was afraid we weren’t able to fulfill the orders. I’ve learned now that this is a great problem to have, but at the time I was quite risk averse and just didn’t want to do too many things at one time.

I also want to point out that besides Instagram advertising, we did get some press from online media websites that also helped drive some traffic throughout 2017 - most notably a Product Hunt post, some features on some gear articles such as: UrbanDaddy, InsideHook and Japanese Gizmodo.

I would say the biggest lessons learned from the process of starting a business is that you really have to be able to be OK with doing multiple tasks that can have a huge impact on your business at the same time. There were times when we were behind on fulfillment, and I was hesitant to keep advertising because I was afraid we weren’t able to fulfill the orders. I’ve learned now that this is a great problem to have, but at the time I was quite risk averse and just didn’t want to do too many things at one time. I’ve always been the type of person to finish 1 thing from start to finish before starting another. Let’s just say I’ve gotten really used to juggling different tasks now and am more comfortable doing a few things at once.

My advice for any entrepreneur who hasn’t started something yet, is echoed in the r/entrepreneur sub a lot, which is... Just to get started. You’ll learn more starting something in a shorter amount of time than any traditional job, IMO.

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Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

Since launching, we’ve still employed some IG marketing direct through the influencer, but it’s gotten a LOT worse.

I said above in my paragraph that I used to see 4x ROAS (return on ad spend), but now I’m lucky if I see 2x. Instagram is dying for influencer posts in my opinion, and their algorithm changes so often that it’s not always reliable. Right now, we’re really focused on email marketing, FB campaigns, Google Adwords campaigns, retargeting display ads, and SEO/organic traffic/backlink building efforts.

That annoying pop-up that everyone has on their website encouraging you to sign up in exchange for a discount code? It’s heavily effective.

I would say as of now, our breakdown of marketing costs are as follows: 40% FB, 40% IG direct influencer ads, 15-20% Google, and then the rest is display retargeting. As far as the time focus for now, we’re really focused on email marketing, building out reputability of our website via reaching out to other blogs/articles/press, and trying to improve our SEO since our rebrand.

One thing I want to point out for any new e-commerce store is that getting your email list up and running is really valuable. That annoying pop-up that everyone has on their website encouraging you to sign up in exchange for a discount code? It’s heavily effective.

Once you have a user’s email address, you can then send them abandon-cart emails, put users in an email marketing drip campaign, and generally you have many more opportunities to capture a sale later. The best part is, is that it’s easy and besides the fee you have to pay some SaaS company for their email service, there’s not much other spend you need to allocate to it. If you currently run an e-commerce store and aren’t doing this, I think it’s something you could implement right away and see quick results from.

We try to experiment and test rigorously our landing page, or any edits to the website - such as new copy, new features, different placements of things, upsells, discount codes, price changes, etc. Although we’ve settled on a lot of these things, we’re still constantly trying to figure out what the best optimizations are for our website.

The best way we’ve been able to implement an experiment is via Google Experiments, which you can just do right in Google Analytics. You can compare one version of the website to another and see how it affects the metrics you care about.

As far as Amazon goes, we have some products listed on Amazon, that just aren’t performing well - we printed a small quantity of 4 of our top cities and sent them to FBA, but they haven’t sold that well and we haven’t really focused much of our time on it. I think it’s something that we could focus on more, but for now our inventory just kind of sits there and we pay an amazon stocking fee every month. Since most of our products are customized and designed by our users, I think it does defeat the purpose a bit - to have pre-made maps sent to Amazon for fulfillment.k

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

I’ve touched on a lot of the things above, but I will go ahead and list some of our current stats of the business:

Gross Margin: 65%

COGS: 32% (this includes everything, printing, fulfillment, shipping labels)

Customer Acquistion Costs: This changes a lot but we’re happy if we’re acquiring users for around 2-4x ROAS.

Monthly Traffic: 50k visits/month

Avg Time on Site: 2-3 minutes, longer for returning users

Conversion Rate: Depending on product, between 1-3%

Email subscribers: 25,000 - although only a portion of these are active

Social Media Engagement: We have about 90k followers on Instagram at time of writing, 1,500 Facebook likes, and a very low number of Twitter and Pinterest followers.

Our operations are pretty lean today. It is still mostly me just running everything that has to do with the website/daily operations. My business partner helps with strategic vision and thinking, some marketing, and improving our current website/optimizations of the website. We have 1 contractor for design related tasks, 1 contractor for help with customer support/small daily operational activities, and we have 1 developer on staff/that we pay monthly - the same developer who built our site - he also helps us run experiments that he thinks are valuable.

We currently have a few more products coming out in the next two months, and want to prepare our website as best as we can for the upcoming Q4. Our long term goal is to grow and scale and become one of the market leaders for custom posters, we’d also like to expand more into Europe, and better our operational service to Canada in the near future.

Right now, online makes up 100% of our sales, but would love to get into brick and mortar type stores if there’s a fit for it. I would love to scale this business into a 2-3M/yr business by the end of next year, and really improve at digital advertising - as it is not our strongest area of expertise, and is probably the limiting factor as to why we aren’t scaling faster/larger.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

I was taught at my old job to really value data and experiment constantly.

I will say that some of our biggest mistakes that we made in the past were due to me making a decision without testing it because I intuitively thought it would be better. Sometimes I just wanted to make a quick decision in the hopes that it would solve some problem we were trying to solve for at the time, and well, we’ve definitely been burned by that. So, I would say always test and experiment before releasing anything huge, especially if you have the luxury of time.

I’ve learned that self-directing your time is and being able to stick to your goals/staying disciplined is important. Starting a business is a process - it takes time for it to gain traction. There are days I sit and wonder to myself if I’m doing the right thing, if we’re growing fast enough, and you’re always comparing your business to others. I find that it helps to maintain perspective, stick to the process and the results will come. Building a business is not always an instant hit, but I find that if you stick to your process and grind it out - you will make progress and these small amounts of progress will incrementally amount to something bigger.

Starting a business, you will make tons of mistakes. You may make wrong calls, but as long as you’re making what you believe is the best decision at the time given the information presented to you, all business then becomes is a series of decisions you’ll have to make. For example, you may make a decision that you believe is right given all the information you have at the time. Later, in light of new information, you realize that the original call you made is not working. Well, now you have newer information - you can always adapt and pivot your decision. This goes back to the ego thing I talked about earlier, just because you’ve made one decision in the past, does NOT mean you cannot change your mind. In fact, you should almost always change your mind on your original decision if you have new information that is clearly telling you that the original decision was not the right one. Stubbornness is not your friend in business.

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What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Our website was built on OctoberCMS

Email Marketing: Omnisend/Mailgun, although we are switching to Klaviyo.

Email Capture: Custom, but a discount pop up is what we use

Generating Maps: Mapbox

Tracking: Google Analytics, Google Docs

Customer Service: Intercom, Slack for internal

Shipping Labels: Shipstation

Payment Processor: Square

Social Media Tools: Hootsuite

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

The only podcast I’ve really ever listened to regularly to is "How I Built This" on NPR. Always learn something when I listen to an episode. I also read a lot of these StarterStory’s on reddit and tend to ask a bunch of questions of other founders.

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

I was once a wantrepreneur, for many years. I would say if you can start in some type of capacity, whether its on a really small scale or going all out - that it would be a really great learning experience.

Yes, you can do it on the side at first, but eventually if you want your business to be successful, it’s going to start demanding more and more of your time. But getting started and learning about running your own business is valuable experience - and I am sure many other starter stories will emphasize this as well.

I have a lot of friends ask me if they can be successful running a side business (something like Amazon FBA, or my website on the side), while I do think you can - it’s certainly much harder when you have to commit the rest of your mental energy elsewhere for 8 hours per day. You can be successful doing it on the side - but I think it would probably have a ceiling of being just a side income.

If you want to eventually have your business be your primary source of income, I believe you’ll probably need to do it full-time at some point.

Where can we go to learn more?

Website: www.craftoak.com

Facebook: Craft & Oak

Instagram: @craftoak

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