I wrote the "origin story" of 80sTees.com over the course of a month in the spring of 2018. That only took me 18 years to get around to putting fingers to keyboard. But that post was written for my customers and really explains why I chose to start a business that sells tees from my favorite cartoons and toys as well as why I was the perfect person to start the business.
I assume the audience for this blog are people less interested in 80sTees.com and more interested in how they can start their own thing and/or learn from my experiences and mistakes. That's where this post comes in. Here I will document some key points along the journey. This post will grow over time as I am reminded of lessons and specific things that happen.
The Launch - Ready, Fire, Aim
When I launched I was using my personal checkbook and bank account to do everything, I didn't have a domain name (we had an Ebay user name of 80stees and the website was a subdomain (80stees.hypermart.net), I didn't have an office (thanks Mom and Dad for letting me use your computer and dining room), I didn't have a phone number (thanks again Mom and Dad for letting me use your phone number), basically I didn't have anything.
Despite all the things I did not have, I did have sales. And if you have sales, you have a business. You can always get the other stuff later, but if you never have sales why bother with the other stuff. Back in 2000 this was more revolutionary than it is now. Now people don't even need products to start a business. They'll get sales and then figure out if they can source the product (thus the many failures of Kickstarter projects).
The first website was hosted on a free (supported by banner ads) web host. I found them because they supported FrontPage websites. I had a free copy of FrontPage from my days at Penn State. My internet access was free via NetZero (supported by banner ads). Eventually I started using a hosted shopping cart called Bigstep.com, which was initially free and eventually added paid features. The PC I used initially belonged to my parents.
Better Ugly Than Expensive
The website hosted on hypermart performed really well in the search engines because I had full control of it, which meant I could name my pages in a way that humans would understand instead of in a way that a database driven site would. The bigstep shopping cart did not allow the same controls. Bigstep did not have many "themes" to choose from and did not support custom themes, so I interweaved 2 different websites to make them perform as one website. The shopping cart looked totally different than the hypermart site. It was so ugly, and super confusing. But despite all that we grew to about $800 in sales per day on average by sending people back and forth on 2 different websites! As a double bonus eventually the bigstep site started ranking for keywords which gave me a double dip in the search results.
Don't Quit Your Day Job
From launch until September 2002 I held a full time job. This allowed me to plow all of my profits back into the business (mostly in the form of new inventory). I probably quit too late because as soon as I went full time the business growth exploded. I can only say that with hindsight, though. When I quit my parents were supportive but concerned, and I had a fiance that was not at all supportive and that at least partially contributed to us breaking up.
I believed in myself and in the business, but back in 2002 not many people knew anyone making their living "on the internet". And honestly I wasn't an "internet" guy. I thought the internet was where nerds "chatted with babes" until about 1999 when I started to understand the potential. But I still didn't embrace the internet lifestyle fully so it wasn't as obvious what a gigantic part of our economy this would be.
Working From Home
Eventually Mom grew tired of her dining room and what is now a game room being taken over by boxes of t-shirts. It was about time I get my own place to live anyway, so I bought a 5 bedroom house with the idea that I could store the shirts in a few rooms and have an office. Eventually shirt storage took over the basement, a game room, and 3 bedrooms (I lived in one and the other was our shipping room). The family room became the receiving area. The garage was frequently full of pallets. Before we moved from the house in 2004 I was running a multi-million dollar revenue apparel company entirely out of the house. This was great for profits, but not so great for lifestyle.
Answer The Call
When the business was based out of the house, if the phone rang in the middle of the night (at least when it woke me up) I would wake up and answer it. There is something unstoppable about a hungry entrepreneur. Unfortunately for health and lifestyle purposes that is hard and unhealthy to maintain. Also, once you've achieved a certain level of success it's much harder to motivate yourself to answer that call in the middle of the night.
On To Stage Two
The business "grew up" in 2004 when we moved to a facility outside of my home. We got real phone systems, had nice computers, paid for commercial internet access, etc. Those expenses made life a lot easier, but the vibe of the company was never quite the same. It's easy for you to feel like a family with your employees when they come to your home for work.
How Can You Emulate Me?
It's much easier now to start an online business, and you can launch a shopify store for $40 a month and look quite professional out of the gate. You can work out of coffee shops for free high speed internet. You can sign up for google voice for free phone calls. You can use a 3PL to store your inventory and avoid hiring employees to ship your orders. If you are reading this I guarantee you have a smart phone, which means you have everything you need to become a creator and editor of incredibly high quality media.
If you read this please share how you bootstrapped your business in the comments below.