Around two months ago, when Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast, my roommates and I launched a charity t-shirt campaign called Shirts for Sandy from the safety of our dorm room. The university placed us into lockdown for two days, keeping us indoors as the storm continued its destructive path, and I decided that it was the perfect opportunity to help the community while also flexing my entrepreneurial muscle. Within a few hours of conception, we had a t-shirt design completed, a website up and running, and our first sales already accounted for, the first of which came within an hour of launching the site. Since we donated all of our profits to the relief effort, I put profitable in quotation marks in the title — in essence, however, we were profitable as soon as we received our first sale, which covered the price of the domain (hosting was free on an AWS S3 bucket).
This post discusses the business lessons I learned from the entire process. Naturally, running a for-profit business will have its differences, but I wanted to record these thoughts for future reference and for others to learn from as well.
Start marketing efforts before launch. We began spreading the word about Shirts for Sandy even before we had a completed website. Starting with a Facebook page, we each invited all of our friends to "like" the page. First, we focused on capturing the attention of our network of friends, which gradually led to more and more people that weren't in our networks. This also helped us gain the attention of media outlets that further helped to spread the word. When the time came to launch the site, we announced this to our followers and our first sales came flooding in. Because of our social networking pages, we were able to build interest in our product before we even officially had anything set up.
Work for your sales. This may seem like common sense, but our sales numbers were directly correlated to the amount of effort we put in to get them. Whenever we successfully received media coverage, we would see a spike in our sales. Whenever we worked hard to talk to people about what we were doing, we would be able to convert these conversations into sales. If you sit back and just hope for sales to come in, you won't see many sales. You have to work for them.
Release first, then iterate. When we first launched, we were highly unprepared — we didn't have a t-shirt supplier yet, we hadn't yet decided on a charity to donate the money to, and we weren't very experienced in dealing with press and customer concerns. Our first interview was with the school newspaper and many people expressed their concerns to us. People wanted to know who we were, what we were doing with the donations, and whether we could be trusted, all valid concerns at the time. That day, we handled all of the concerns one by one, updating the website with clearer language, officially partnering with a local charity that funneled all the money to Sandy relief, and making sure that we were prepared for future media questions. I concede that most of these issues probably should have been handled before we launched the site, but we were handling a time-sensitive problem and our ultimate goal was to help the relief effort as quickly as possible. Even if we did spend more time figuring these things out before, we still certainly would have received feedback that could be used to improve future iterations.
Learn as you go. For all of us working on Shirts for Sandy (a team of five), this was our first ever direct response charity effort that wasn't focused primarily at fundraising at our high schools. Instead, our goal was to leverage the power of the internet to deliver much needed help to our neighbors who were hit hard by the storm. We ran into many problems along the way and had some high-stress situations where we wondered whether or not we could keep going — for example, our first t-shirt deal fell through and we wanted to keep our costs as low as possible — but we eventually tackled all of these challenges by gritting our teeth and carrying on. Experience is something that has to be gained, so it's best to jump headfirst into something and then learn the things you don't know along the way.
Find a great team. No matter how skilled or talented you think you are, there's always someone who can help you out. Whether you're running a business or a non-profit organization, one of the most important things is having people around you with a common goal, people that you can completely trust and rely on, as well as complementing your own individual skill set. I just mentioned that you should learn how to do things as you go along and a lot of these lessons are learned from your teammates. It's a great feeling to know that while you're working on building the website or the product, someone else can be designing the shirt, someone else can be looking up t-shirt printing companies, and yet another person can be emailing local press outlets for coverage.
Don't rely on the press to spread the word for you. Since we were raising money for charity, we found a wide range of media outlets willing to cover us, but even so, only about a quarter of the outlets we reached out to replied back to us. Our Hacker News post, for example, was completely ignored. I didn't expect to find much of an audience on HN, but I decided to post anyways, which is the mindset that you have to have when trying to get press for your startup. Your marketing strategy can't rely on TechCrunch or HN — even if you don't find the coverage you want, you have to keep going and find alternatives.
You can send donations to the relief effort or purchase a shirt from us over at the Shirts for Sandy website. If you want to donate directly to the relief effort instead, please do so through your favorite charity.