This post was inspired in part by Nat Eliason's deepdive on the same subject.
On June 12th, 2020 I launched opusobjects.com, a boutique ecommerce brand for those looking for positive change. The flagship product was a 30 day habit tracker, mindfulness journal and inspirational calendar.
It was a passion project that reflected who I am, what I believe, and also physically represented my skills. It was my first ecommerce business and in truth it was my first real business in that it didn’t trade my time for money. Ultimately it took almost 9 months from conception to development (amidst a disturbing and confusing pandemic) to completion.
If you’re thinking about launching an ecomm store, starting something on the side, or just want a story about going from an idea to something tangible, read on. This is in no way prescriptive or “what you should do” - I made plenty of bonehead mistakes. But I think there’s always value in sharing your experience doing something so I hope you enjoy!
Stage 1: The Beginning
I started thinking about Opus in October 2019. I was chugging along at my day job and subconsciously yearning for something additional to sink my teeth into. At the time I had been freelancing for over 2 years, mostly copywriting, content marketing and website projects. But that wasn't quite enough.
Since ~2015 my general goal was to come up with a great tech idea, be a Founder/CEO, raise a bunch of money and build a huge team. I was going to be like my mentor and friend Jonathon Ende of SeamlessDocs, now GovOS. (I still might) But if I’m being really honest, by 2019 (and maybe even earlier) I just wanted something that was my thing.
It’s somewhat hilarious now to think that I believed I was a rare person in wanting to be an entrepreneur (or more accurately, to own and operate my own business) because who doesn’t want to strike out on their own in 2021?
That said, in fall 2019 my mind was open to new ideas, and I was itching to start. The second part of that ideation was that I had recently met my friend Amelia, who worked at JungleScout in Austin at the time. JungleScout is huge in the ecommerce tech space, helping merchants analyze and understand the data within Amazon. Amelia is a borderline expert in ecomm and especially in launching new brands and products. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but meeting her gave me a quiet confidence that I could figure it out.
The third part of the ideation phase was meeting Ranjit at a men’s event, a young software engineer and entrepreneur. Ranjit had built a journaling practice in college in which he created a very specific way of lining and modulating his notebooks to organize his thoughts, plan his day, and get more done. This journal would eventually become his business Polymath Planner. (Use code CLARITY10 for 10% if you're interested) Over Old Fashioned's he told me that he taught himself Adobe Illustrator on a Christmas break, launched the business a month or so after, and that today it was steadily growing month over month.
Being a product marketer by day, my mind rushed to questions like “Aren’t there a million journals out there?” “What’s your competitive advantage?” “How much did you validate the idea/business before launching?” But none of those questions really mattered to Ranjit because he had created a unique system that he knew he could market and grow on his own. And he was right.
To summarize, by combining my (1) entrepreneurial itch with (2) a recent connection I made and (3) a recent inspiration of the Lean Startup method of “just do it” and start learning, it was all but guaranteed a good idea would hit me sooner or later and, more importantly, that I would be ready to act on it.
Stage 2: The Idea
In late 2016 I discovered Tim Ferriss, lifestyle design, and biohacking all at once. Every month I was running a new experiment. I took the famous "no complaining challenge" for 21 days. I was doing keto - albeit mostly “lazy keto” - before brands like Perfect Keto existed and before there were infinite YouTube channels to help you do it correctly. I created a standing desk for myself, was doing hot yoga every other day for the first time in my life and overall was just a walking A/B test.
While this was a transformative time in my life, I failed at 80% of the things I tried. I crashed my nervous system doing all these health challenges while holding down a stressful startup job, I screwed up my diet with peaks of discipline and valleys of binging and was so thoroughly confused about my identity that I got into a bad relationship.
That said, this chapter drilled into me that you can’t form a bunch of habits all at once or make any substantial change in your life without focusing on just that change. I realized that creating real change in your life was possible only through accountability and focus.
Stage 3: The Product
Once I combined my experiences with my inspirations, and realized the two guiding principles for positive change - accountability and focus (alternatively constraint and simplicity) - the Opus calendar was born. Initially it was a plain calendar in which you would tick off boxes when you accomplished your “goal” or habit you were trying to build for that day. But after "eating my own dog food" for several weeks, sharing the prototype with friends, and considering what would make it really stand out, I ended up with something I could work with.
When you take a swing like this is, you need to maintain forward momentum. Sometimes that’s as simple as “making it real”. For me, that was telling my friend and brilliant designer Julian about the idea.
I hesitated at first; I was somewhat embarrassed by the prototype and not convinced anyone would even want it. Within a few hours I got back a “treatment” → a far improved prototype, a visual moodboard, and enough design elements to start the conversation. This exercise successfully made my idea “real”.
After this I hired Julian to take it over the finish line. We ironed out the colors and logo, and soon we had a good enough prototype to begin test printing. I considered online options like Smartpress before going with a local printer here in Austin, TX. Miller IDS. While it wasn’t the most economical choice, being local meant I could go in and get real answers from the staff and being customer-centric meant that they didn’t laugh me out of the place when it was obvious it was my first time doing something like this. After a couple proofs and a few rounds of feedback, I had what I believed was a premium, sellable product. I ordered 50.
Stage 4: The Launch
With the units in hand, it was time to start working on the launch. That said, I briefly considered doing what many suggest to entrepreneurs starting out - testing the market to see if they want what you sell before investing in inventory. But I believe knowing yourself is crucial to any form of creative output and I knew that if I didn’t pull the trigger on inventory that I may become impatient with the demand and not promote as aggressively as if I already had sunk costs (I’m not saying you should always do this - this is was just my approach this time around)
Being a marketer I know I needed to set the runway with a few things:
- Sleek ecommerce website (Shopify)
- Lifestyle and product photography (Gattozzi Collective)
- Some content marketing (A few blog posts)
- Launch video
The website was super simple. Shopify truly is the best in the space, and provides ample free and paid themes as well as a ton of documentation if you want to play with their open source template language, Liquid. They make it incredibly easy to get started so it was one of the first things I did, even when my prototypes were super rudimentary or I had only told 1-2 people about the idea. In total it probably took me 5 days to get it from theme to a website unique to my brand. I picked a minimalist theme, plugged in the colors for my brand and was off.
Photography was next. I had run into Matt Gattozzi of Gattozzi Collective at a men’s event (shout out Guy Talk!) and liked some of his portfolio. After a bit of negotiation he agreed to shoot the calendar and my girlfriend Alisha and I interacting with it. I took the day off work and we knocked it out in 4-5 hours at Auditorium Shores and my apartment complex and I couldn’t have been happier with the result. (Matt’s agency does a free social media audit if you’re interested)
With the website full of product and lifestyle imagery and a closet full of inventory, we had everything we needed for an ecommerce store. Now we just had to launch it.
I opted for a quick launch video to talk about my inspiration for the product with some b-roll of the calendar in action. I didn’t have the budget for Matt again but I also didn’t want to be cheap and shoot it on iPhone or my webcam. So I enlisted my dad who was living in Austin at the time to help set up his DSLR on a tripod and just roll with it. After 2-3 hours of bad takes, re-adjusting my stance and fumbling through the script I had written on the fly, we got something usable. It’s by no means professional but it was cool enough to share on social media and I got the added bonus of a memory created with my dad.
After we finished shooting, I fired up a free trial of Final Cut Pro and spent the next 4-6 hours simultaneously trying to learn it and put together a 90 second video for the product launch. It was brutal, but the excitement of "shipping" something gave me this steady source of energy through the night.
The next day I did all the non-sexy admin work to get the store ready for launch. I enabled my Shopify store to actually accept payments, I installed a "pre-order" app (because I knew I wouldn’t be able to start fulfilling orders until the following week), and I put together social media creative - all in hopes I didn’t embarrass myself when I openly asked my friends and family for money.
Stage 5: The Result
At around 4pm CST on June 12, I posted my launch announcement on Instagram. I got near-instant love and support on social media and less than an hour after that I got my first order - Max Tave if you’re reading this thank you!
I was honestly floored by how many people cared and supported - I’ll touch on that in another post. For now we’re running on nearly 1900 words so I’ll end it here! Thanks for reading and let me know if you found any of this valuable or interesting.
Till the next one.