If you’ve never heard of Ugmonk or Jeff Sheldon, he can seem like one of those overnight successes. The designer started Ugmonk as a simple t-shirt company in 2008 and has steadily grown it each year since, adding a suite of impeccably designed products like wallets and prints particularly popular among creative types.
Three of Ugmonk’s latest t-shirts
After years of hard work and building his business, Sheldon now has the ideal setup: He works from his home in Pennsylvania on the products he wants to work on, at the pace he wants to work on them. He gets to take the time to focus on his craft while still maintaining balance, yet another example of building the business you want to run around the life you want to live.
But, now that all may change.
For his latest product, Sheldon decided to try something different: A customizable desk organizer named Gather that he announced on Kickstarter, and, well, that’s when things got a little nuts.
The project was funded in 47 minutes. It garnered coverage in all kinds of blogs and publications, and as of this writing, it’s raised nearly $300,000 — 16x the asking amount.
Although we skew away from physical products on GrowthLab, that’s a launch we can learn from.
So I spoke with Sheldon recently to get his advice for entrepreneurs that want to try something new, and how to create so much demand for your launch that your product sells itself. And, warning: There are no shortcuts.
You’ve raised 16x more money than you initially hoped. How did that happen?
My list is not massive. But it’s engaged — and that’s taken years. In fact, I don’t even like calling it an “email list” because then it’s easy to forget that this is a group of real, actual people engaging with me and replying. That was my number one asset, and it took years.
But launching Gather was a six-month process at least. It was that drip drip drip of content. I started writing lots of blog posts and running giveaways about workspaces. I did a demo on how to build a monitor stand, for example. I was giving away lots of value there. It wasn’t by chance, they were meant to get more attention to the workspace category.
And social media?
Social media complements the effort, but it’s hard to reach people even if you tweet the same thing 10 times in a row. So instead, I teased this product to my email list about a year ago. I started showing what I was working on and alluding to it.
I would say “this is the biggest thing I’ve ever worked on” and kept dripping out little details. I prepped people so much that they didn’t even look at the price by the time I announced the Kickstarter. They knew they wanted it, and that’s why I hit my funding goal in 47 minutes.
How important is it to build storyline when you launch something?
That’s why I like Kickstarter, I get to tell the story through video, and the story is everything. The product looks interesting, but it is the story that connects. It’s the story of Gather solving your cluttered desk problem. If we had just whipped the video together I don’t think we’d be at the level we are now.
I storyboarded it out and wrote the script. It took at least 20 different versions until we got it dialed in. Then I had to record voice-overs again and again. The actual shooting process involved me and my friend Jeremiah, though we probably should have had five people [laughs].
We shot for three very full days and then there was a week or two of editing after that. Eventually, we got up to version, like, 20. You know files like “movie-final” and then “movie-final-final10.” I’d say the whole shoot was between $8,000 to $10,000. And I’m sure people will read this and say “You can produce a video for cheaper!” Yeah, but it’s going to look like it.
Taking all that time and care paid off. The video had people saying “I didn’t even know I needed this but I want it!”
You talk a lot about trust and quality. What are the mistakes people make when launching in that regard?
Not telling enough people soon enough. Most people wait until a week before the launch date to grab emails and launch. That’s not enough time. You’re not able to provide enough value or prove yourself in that window.
I’m a big fan of letting people in. You don’t have to build it in the open, but show people as much as you can. Give away stuff, provide value. So when you do launch, people don’t ask themselves “Who is this guy? What is he doing?” They know.
Too often, people hold their cards close to their chest because they don’t want other people to know what they are working on. But then the launch comes, and no one cares.
Would you say that this slow drip of information and value makes you stand out?
It’s probably one of the biggest factors when it comes to launching. Think about it: You don’t walk into a high-end store you’ve never been in and get whacked with a 50% off sign. Let’s say you go into a running shoes store. They want to know what type of running you’re into, what your needs are, and what your problems are with your current shoes. Only then do they sell anything to you.
That’s what a good sales person does in a physical store. But online, for some reason, we go straight for the “Here’s 10 emails! It’s 90% off!”
Most people are like, “Man, I don’t even know you!”
How do you build that trust?
Until you have a history, the only way to prove it is to provide other stuff for free. Show people that you’re serious. We have a good radar as humans when someone is B.S.-ing.
At least tell your story as clearly and as transparently as possible. People relate more to that than, say, testimonials.
Who out there do you respect when it comes to launching?
One that’s influenced me is Paul Jarvis. The way he launches and sells and talks to his audience is helpful. It’s personal, frank, and honest. You feel like you can trust this guy. Whenever he launches something I at least check it out. I’ve tried to do the same and now people tell me that they feel like they know me from my emails.
But people like Paul show that you don’t have to do things the way everyone else is doing them. You can design your business around your life. In our venture capital, workaholic culture we keep hearing bigger is better and more more more. He’s someone that does it his way and that’s cool.
How did all this attention change your business?
It’s making a much bigger splash and rippling out to many more sites and blogs than anything I’ve ever done. Which is exciting because doing one large thing and seeing a ripple is more sustainable than doing a bunch of small things. I felt like I was on the hamster wheel for the last eight years. But I could never really step out because nothing had a long enough tail. But this seems like this could be something much much bigger than any t-shirt, bag, or wallet. The Kickstarter response shows there’s potential for pushing this to a bigger level.
Sometimes our readers have to switch from an e-book to a course to even an event. Did you find yourself having to embrace being a beginner again when you switch categories from t-shirts to a desk organizer?
Totally. You have to start at zero. These manufacturers don’t care that I’ve sold clothing. It means nothing to them when I’m talking about a physical product. I had to be able to say, “I’m okay to start at the bottom and act like I’m in kindergarten.” Dive into the deep end and challenge yourself to figure it out. It’s harder for an experienced entrepreneur sometimes because switching products can humble you.
How do you sell a brand new thing to your community without coming across as sleazy?
Hopefully, the purpose behind what I’m doing transcends categories. Some customers of my t-shirts and Gather may be the same person, even though they have nothing to do with each other. That doesn’t make sense!
But the thing that ties it together is the philosophy behind the brand. Which, for Ugmonk, is the quality, the details, the design, the aesthetic. It’s not hard to sell my customers on those because they already believe in it. That almost makes it easy. If I sold something that didn’t feel that way, I would feel sleazy and weird.
What have you learned from doing physical products that someone selling an info product should do?
Create a coherent experience in the way things feel and look. I think about the emails, the packaging, the tape, the boxes. Everything. I want it to feel like it’s coming from the same spot. That’s digital and physical. It can be easy to get lazy on info product stuff and not build things custom. I think people forget about those details. If someone is going to spend thousands of dollars with you, you should have the same care, consistency, and thought as you would in a physical product.
How much does that ACTUALLY matter though?
You can have an undersigned terrible thing that functions, sure. But it is a way to stand out and be memorable.
If you’re going to put in the time to build something, make it special.