Mike Macadaan is the founder of This is Ground, a store that sells leather tech and travel accessories.
Find out how he went from Etsy to launching a full catalogue of new and original products in just 3 years.
In this episode, we discuss:
- Why an original product needs to have familiar elements.
- How to balance your day job with your passion project and how to keep them separate.
- How to project how much inventory you need to have on hand.
Listen to Shopify Masters below…
- Store: This Is Ground
- Social Profiles: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram
- Recommended: The Design of Everyday Things (book)
Looking to move from Etsy to Shopify?
Set up shop on Shopify and get all the tools to grow your way. Our free walkthrough will show you step-by-step how to migrate your entire Etsy store to Shopify—from product listings to customers—in only 10 minutes.Migrate to Shopify
Felix: Today I’m joined by Mike Macadaan from thisisground.com. That’s T-H-I-S-I-S-G-R-O-U-N-D.com. This is Ground sells leather tech and travel accessories, and it was started in 2013 and based out of LA, California. Welcome, Mike.
Mike: Hey there, Felix. What’s going on?
Felix: Hi. How’s it going? Yeah, super excited to have you on. I gave a very quick overview of your store, of your background, but tell us a little bit more about your store and maybe what are some of most popular products that you sell.
Mike: I would have to say the very first product, which really kicked off the business is called the Cord Taco, which was literally inspired by a taco and all of our universal frustrations around getting cords tangled. That was the first one, and it continues to be very popular. Beyond that, since we did the Cord Taco, we received such a positive reaction to that that we ventured into larger organizers that most definitely take care a lot of the tech gear that we travel with everyday or carry around the city everyday. Then also, my background is design, so I tend to spoil people that work in creative arts, not just digital design but also just people that make stuff in general, people that use their hands to make stuff. Whether it be chefs or hair stylists or illustrators, architects, I tend to spoil those crowds quite a bit.
Felix: You said you have a background in design. Is this the first business or first product that you designed and tried to sell, or what’s your background been in with entrepreneurship?
Mike: Yeah. The majority of my career was definitely in digital, working on websites and mobile apps and desktop apps, so this is most definitely the first business of my own that had a consumer good associated with it. We certainly use tech as a vehicle for discovery and then to buy it ultimately, but the only other businesses that I was involved with where there was some consumer goods involved was just before this I helped launch a business called Dollar Shave Club, which is a subscription business for razor blades. I definitely helped on that, but prior to that it was pretty much just all digital.
Felix: Yeah, I’m sure a lot of listeners out there know about or hopefully know about Dollar Shave Club. That business has really gone to the forefront in the last few years, so I want to talk about that in a second, but let’s talk about your very first product, the Cord Taco. How did you come up with the idea behind this? Maybe give us a little quick description for it. This is audio only. Give a quick description of what does the Cord Taco do, and how did you come up with the idea behind it?
Mike: What the Cord Taco does is it essentially allows you to take in-ear headphones, like the white earbuds that you get with your iPhone or really any earbuds that have a cord attached to it, it allows you to wrap them up and then to put them into this little leather disc that has a snap on it, and it acts just like a taco. If you were to stuff this little round leather circle with the earbuds and snap it, you could then pop it in your backpack or your pocket or your daily carry. What happens is your earphones all of a sudden have a home. They don’t get tangled up. It’s a conversation piece. When people travel, and they pull their Cord Taco out, it definitely generates conversation on an airplane next to a stranger or on the train.
Yeah, it got started. It’s a funny thing. Basically, a friend of mine was doing a blog post for a popular design blog, and she asked me to come up with a way to organize cables because she was doing a desk makeover for someone. Essentially, I procrastinated. I put this project off for quite a while. Then one day in Los Angeles, I had some really delicious tacos with an investor, and the project was due the next day. When I woke up the next morning in this lucid, dreamy state, the two ideas came together.
I was a little stressed about getting the cord organizer done. I wanted to do something original. Then I just had those delicious tacos. I was thinking to myself, while lying in bed, that the taco shell was so simple. It’s just this round geometric form that does actually a lot of stuff. It’s responsible for so much. You can stuff so many crazy ingredients in it and wrap it up, and it does a fantastic job. I jumped out of bed. I mocked one up using aluminum foil and some Scotch Tape. I put some earbuds in it, closed it up, and when I saw that there was some functionality there and then saw that it basically acted like a taco, I Googled Cord Taco, and nothing came up. I very quickly made that happen.
Felix: Yeah, that’s definitely cool. It’s like a product that when I looked at it, I was like, “Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.” Living in New York, it’s a big issue for everyone that takes a subway because once you get to your stop, you’re just cramming your headphones into your pocket, and that’s definitely not the best way to carry it.
How did you validate this? You have a Kickstarter campaign. We’ll talk about that in a second. Did you do any other market research, present it to anybody else to get a better understanding if there was an actual need for a product like this?
Mike: I had a unique opportunity. First of all, I wasn’t exactly setting out to start a business selling Cord Tacos. I actually wasn’t even trying to necessarily innovate. I wasn’t sitting down trying to solve that problem. It was one of these things that just happened out of the sheer need from my friend that was working on this piece and then those delicious tacos I had. I had this great opportunity to then publish it out into this blog post, and it became part of a larger listicle. It was number 19, I think, of 26 ideas on how to organize your desktop. When that blog post was published, the editor was telling me that I needed to basically make that for sale.
I opened an Etsy store, and I put these Cord Tacos on there, just to appease the blog, so that their readers could have a place to go buy it in case they wanted to buy some. I honestly thought that I would maybe sell a few. I even just mocked a few up by hand. I cut them by hand in my kitchen, just to have a few on hand to sell in my Etsy shop. Then lo and behold, it became one of the most popular, sought after items in that blog post. After that blog post was published, a few other blogs started to reach out, so I quickly set up an email address. It was cordtacos@gmail. I was just doing a lot of these ad hoc things, almost just to be able to respond and to make everyone happy for a short period of time because I had a day job at that point. I wasn’t looking to jump into anything else necessarily.
A few of my favorite blogs posted about the Cord Taco, swissmiss and Design Milk, and a few other blogs that I have always read were talking about it. I was thinking to myself that we in this almost accidental way accomplished something that’s really difficult to do when you design something. I’ve always thought and this is what I’ve also read, is that when you design something that actually has some functionality to it, there is something clever about it that will appeal to people’s hearts and minds and it reminds them of something that they’re very familiar with, in this case a taco, you get all these things that are aligned. All of a sudden, you have a product.
I started losing my nights and weekends making these Cord Tacos because I was selling not a ton, but in the weeks to follow, the Etsy store definitely started to get some discovery by way of these blog posts. Then I would say about a month later … This is, by the way, pre me being on Shopify. This was basically when I moved into Shopify. I was still in my Etsy store, and one morning, my phone started to blow up. I looked on where the traffic was coming from, and it was all coming from Uncrate.
Uncrate had posted about the Cord Taco, and that’s when I had to change everything. My approach to that point was making them all by hand in my kitchen and my living room, nights and weekends. Almost in denial, it was a little depressing that I had a very busy day job. Then I would come home, and I would have to do this nights and weekends. Not that I was necessarily complaining. It was really wonderful to see people’s reactions to it.
I think that the week that it was on Uncrate, we sold about $20,000 worth of Cord Tacos. It was that moment that I knew I had to change everything. I had to not only scale very quickly the way that I was making these things, because I was cutting my fingers, and it wasn’t very pretty for a minute there. The bigger problem I had was I actually needed to scale my digital presence as well. That’s when we very quickly moved out of the Etsy store and moved over to Shopify.
Felix: Cool. There’s a ton of questions I want to ask you, but you mentioned something in there about how once you started getting picked up by the big publications, you looked at your current situation as almost … I’m not sure if this is the word you used, but almost depressing about you working a day job and coming home and working on this at night. What about that was disconcerting to you? Did you feel like you didn’t deserve this? What was it that you didn’t like about the situation?
Mike: It was actually more conflict and not really depression. The conflict was that I was the co-founder of this tech accelerator in LA, and we were experiencing a fair amount of success there. I would say that my entire design career, I was always messing around with my own businesses and my own products. The thing that presented conflict for me was that all of a sudden when I’m super-engaged in my day job, and I’m having so much fun and it’s so satisfying because the projects like Dollar Shave Club and these other businesses that we were putting out into the world were experiencing success, all of a sudden in my personal life, the Cord Taco and this new leather accessories business that was hatching was also experiencing success.
I would say that the depression I would recategorize as I was raw because I wasn’t really sleeping. It was intense days, and I would come home to intense nights, but I would say that it was totally worth it. The exhaustion and the rawness didn’t last long. The feeling of seeing people’s reactions and reading comments and seeing my favorite blogs pick up the story about the Cord Tacos definitely alleviated any of that and definitely gave me a ton of energy to go for it. Yeah, it was just mixed. It was a very exhausting period of time but definitely worth it. I’m not trying to complain about that period of time. It was just interesting.
Felix: I think that a lot of entrepreneurs that are listening have experienced this probably to a smaller degree, where you have a lot of great options but not enough resource, not enough time, not enough time in the day, not enough energy yourself to pursue all of them, even though they all look great. It almost sounds like you said yes to everything that was great. I don’t blame you because it sounded all amazing opportunities. What you gave up in return for all that, was like you were saying, your health. You didn’t get enough sleep, were probably really stressed-out.
It sounds like the reactions from your customers and people who were using your products did give you some boost of energy, but it does still seem short-term because eventually it all catches up to you. We’re all human. These are physical issues that you can’t just get rid of, not getting enough sleep and being stressed. How did you get out of this phase, or are you still in this phase where you are just getting by on your customers’ reactions?
Mike: No, good question. I’m definitely out of that phase. Just to back up a minute, I think that in people’s careers, when people end up doing what they love to do but then maybe they’re doing it at the wrong company or they’re doing it on a business where they have a co-founder and it’s not healthy or for whatever reason, I feel like people end up at the end of the day doing what they want to do. You can call this moonlighting. I’ve definitely been there where I’ve been at more corporate jobs where I moonlight off the side of my desk, and I’ll work on projects. You find things that give you energy and give you fuel, and in creativity, it’s easy to do. You can always work at your day job and then make something else at night that excites you.
In this case, I wasn’t really in a position where I was looking to moonlight. I was super-engaged and super happy at my day job, and then it’s like Murphy’s Law. All of a sudden, I launch my own thing accidentally, and the reaction is so positive that I continued to just deal with it. I did my day job. I definitely treated the leather accessories opportunity with a lot of respect, and I continued to basically scale my ability to manufacture the Cord Tacos.
I also started just making new products, just to see how far the love for what I was creating would go. Basically what I did was I stayed at my day job. I gave my partners a heads-up that I had this interesting hobby that was happening and was experiencing a little bit of growth there. The good news is that my partners were also serial entrepreneurs that understand that when this kind of thing happens, it’s rare, and you have to ride it out and see where it takes you, so they were definitely supportive.
The next product that I did after the Cord Taco was that I was receiving a lot of feedback that they wanted a product that would handle multiple cables, multiple cords for travelers. I did a rollup, a product that was definitely inspired by classic tool rollups from the past. I just did it for USB cords and earbuds and plugs, and I called it the Cordito, just to continue with the whole Mexican food thing that was a lot of fun. That ended up selling just as much if not more for a short period of time than the Cord Taco. People were super into the rollup.
Again, it was that theory against something that maybe we’re familiar with from the past. It definitely served a great purpose because you could stuff three cords and a plug in there, and roll it up. It was very efficient when it came to using space, and it had a fun name. People were really excited about it. I just over the course of probably six months started introducing weird little organizers that took care of these pesky little technology things that we all had to carry around and just started to in my mind make that space feel a little bit better.
Felix: Did you have any issues separating the two worlds, where you had this day job but then something that could be possibly even more exciting waiting for you essentially after work? I think a lot of entrepreneurs that are moonlighting that are working on their business on the side have this issue that I’ve heard time and time again, where they are working their day job but their minds are consumed by what they’re going to do after work, what they’re going to do about their actual passion project. Any tips on how to balance that where you just are focusing on what’s in front of you rather than being distracted, I guess when you are at work in your day job being “distracted” by your true passion?
Mike: I can share how I dealt with it, and that was I have to admit that I was lucky because I was already working in an environment where we were trying to create businesses and create things, so it was definitely an environment that was friendly for what I was trying to do. My main strategies at that point were number one, I was very open about what I was doing. I let everyone know, and everyone thought I was a little crazy, which was fine.
The next thing that I did was I worked very, very hard on my day job, to basically accelerate my own performance to try to get everything done as quickly as possible, so that I could actually be distracted, because I definitely was distracted by it. The distraction would occur after my daily responsibilities were complete. I was working in an environment where basically my whole job at this accelerator was about helping entrepreneurs create stories which would ultimately help develop their brand and help with user experience design.
I was in this mode where I not only had to be on my game when it came to creativity, but I had to be on my game for about sometimes three to five businesses at a time, so bolting in the Cord Tacos and the Corditos at the end of the day was like doing sit-ups at the end of the workout. It was just this extra thing that I did, but I also tried to find positivity in what I was doing in my moonlighting thing in the rest of my projects, so I was treating my office almost as a test-bed to gift the products I was making, in exchange for feedback. There was so much delight in my office with me coming around giving out free leather accessories. I tried to bring as much positivity around my distraction into my day job as possible just to balance everything out.
Now not everyone is going to be able to do that because obviously if you’re working in finance, and all of a sudden you create a product, maybe the environment isn’t as conducive to being creatively insane at work and going crazy like that. I think that there is a point where when you’re doing that, the distraction either becomes something that you really want to pursue and take as far as you can. If the distraction starts to compete and become more interesting than your day job, then you definitely have a decision to make. If you can extend that period of time so that you can think it through and work it out so that there’s a transitional period, then fantastic.
If you can’t do that, and you just have something that takes off, therefore you have to quit your day job in finance, then I say you quit your day job in finance because I think those day jobs in finance will always be there. The opportunity to potentially create some unique product, put it in the marketplace, and start a brand, and ultimately create this business around it, is I think much harder to do.
Felix: To maybe sum it up, if you can find ways to positively integrate your side project, your moonlighting project, your passion project into your day job, then that’s obviously the best situation. If you cannot and there is some kind of conflict, like you’re working a super corporate environment, and you’re trying to create something creative on the side, try to extend that balance as long as possible but eventually you will have to make that decision because it can only be in conflict for so long. I think that’s great advice.
I’ve talked about this a lot of times, recently about how there’s this big movement for everyone to just quit their day job and just jump into what they’re working on. Sometimes, that’s not the only answer. Sometimes that’s not the best answer. Especially, in your situation, it sounded very conducive and very helpful maybe even for your business to continue to have your day job because you found a way to integrate it. Your day job was set up in a way that you could integrate your passion project that you were working on on the side, so I like that.
You mentioned something a couple times already about how when you design something that’s functional, it needs to or it helps a lot to have an element to it that reminds them of something they’re already familiar with. That really stuck in my head for a bit, so I want to ask you if you can elaborate on that a little bit more. What do you mean by that?
Mike: I think if you just look at leather accessories as a whole, I don’t think before the Cord Taco I ever sat down and really thought why I had an affinity with products made from leather. I don’t know that anyone necessarily does, but I think that it’s something that’s a bit more wired. We’re programmed as humans to like certain things. We like things that are visual. You can probably theoretically trace them back to the fact that there was a time when there was no language, and we communicated through cave drawings. Leather products, there was a time when you would use hides of some animal as apparel or protective gear.
I think the same is to be said about products. If products just seem completely unfamiliar and seem very foreign, it takes a while to warm up to them. As a matter of fact, to warm up to them, sometimes you have to use it so much that you have to develop some habit and mental muscle around usage of the product. If it’s something that already feels familiar, then you already have a headstart.
Yeah, in the case of the taco, you don’t have to train people. The learning curve is not there because people understand the idea of putting something in a taco and closing it. That’s what I mean, and there’s a lot of other examples. Actually Don Norman wrote a great book about it. It’s called “The Design of Everyday Things”. He goes into this, as well, about familiarity with objects that we grow up with and how you can apply that familiarity. It doesn’t actually have to be the entire product. Sometimes it can just be objects or industrial designs that because you’re used to how something works, you can leverage that model on whatever it is you’re designing. Coming up with a series of new UIs and new objects to figure out isn’t necessarily innovative. It sometimes can be the cause of a lot of frustration.
Felix: Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense because us humans, we like to put things into a box. We like to categorize them in a specific way, so when you come out with a new product, it’s helpful to tie it back to something that’s already familiar so that you can as a customer, as a potential customer, I can feel familiar with it because it occupies some kind of space in my mind that says, “Oh this is just like this,” and then becomes a lot more familiar, a lot more comfortable. Maybe it gives you the willingness to be more open to trying out this new product.
I think that I’ve never heard anyone talk about it that way, but when you talk about it, it makes a whole lot of sense. It’s definitely something to keep in mind for anyone out there that’s thinking about creating a product. Make sure that there is some way to tie it back to something that they are already familiar with.
I want to take a step back to the very beginning of how this all kicked off because the way you described it, it sounded just so organic. You didn’t purposely set out to do any of this. It just fell into place, so I want to make sure I have the timeline right. You had an Etsy store already, and then some popular publication included your Cord Taco into their listicle. Then all of a sudden, you got a ton of traffic. Other PR outlets picked it up because they saw the growing popularity of your product. Maybe they saw it on the listicle. Was that the genesis of the business? Did it just really kick off that way?
Mike: It did and because I didn’t set out to start a business, I never sat down and created a budget where I had a category for say advertising or SEO or any of the more traditional ways that maybe you would seek for the discovery of your product. It forced me, because I didn’t have a budget for that, to rely on the merits of designing a product that people would have a positive reaction to. Then the even larger challenge was to appeal to social influencers and press and hopefully celebrities because I felt like that would be a shortcut to accelerate the discovery part without paying for advertising.
I didn’t even really want to grow a business paying for advertising, because I just think that sometimes it’s a little misleading to your numbers if you see this incredible growth but it’s all based on advertising. I would much rather, as an investor, see a ton of growth that’s based on people discovering a product that they love and then they buy more and more of that product. That’s just a bit more natural and organic, so that’s the route that we’ve taken.
Felix: How did you kick it all off? Was it that some publication included you in a listicle out of nowhere? Did you have some kind of pitch or reach out to them? How did you kick off this PR?
Mike: Like I said before, my friend was working on the blog post that featured the Cord Taco at first. The blog that published it had enough audience to reach editors from other blogs, so other blogs picked it up. I would say probably three to five decent-sized design blogs, and then the blog that ultimately put the Cord Taco on the map is I would say probably the number one or two blog for men on the Internet. That certainly helped, but what helped for me was when you’re moonlighting, you’re working at a job, and you come home at night, and you’ve got this weird business, and you’re a little raw and feeling a little insecure, you get energy off of that kind of recognition from respectable blogs. That gave me the confidence to then create another product, and I could say, “Hey, I’m the guy that created the Cord Taco, and now I’ve created this other weird thing called the Cordito.”
Then I started realizing that I didn’t have budget for a PR agency, so I went the old fashioned route, which is I just made a list of the types of blogs and magazines that I wanted to be in. Then every one of them has a tips link, either at the top or the bottom of their web page. I basically just started pitching everything on my own. What I learned through doing that was that editors I think actually at the end of the day, might appreciate hearing from the founder and the creator of these products, more so than being mass-emailed from a PR agency. The bootstrapping and the limitations of the budget that I had to do all this definitely I think taught me a different kind of a hustle and how to just be scrappy and do it that way.
That’s how it started, and then it became this addictive cycle of,“Oh, I just launched this product. Oh, I just told a bunch of press about it. Oh, I just saw this spike in sales because of all the press I just received.” Then you jump on the merry-go-round, and as holidays come around and as you get bigger and fancier meetings, the world just starts to expand, and the goals start to expand. That’s when you really go for it. I definitely made the choice at the beginning, because of the reactions that I saw. I made the choice to go for it.
Felix: Yeah. Did you ever feel like you could have been moving too fast because it sounds like this happened it such a short window. You had this success with the Cord Taco, and then you decided to let’s see what would happen, and you came out with another product, the Cordito. Then you just did it. Did you feel like you would have been better off it you slowed down, or did you feel like you would have missed the opportunity if you didn’t move at the speed you did?
Mike: I had to move fast actually because the other thing that I learned is when you do something that’s unique, it’s going to get knocked off really, really fast. The original design for the Cord Taco happened actually around the end of 2012, and by the time maybe January or February of 2013 came around, someone already told me that they saw a knock-off in Hong Kong. That actually is this other thing that forces you to move quickly. You’re then on the clock, right? You’re then like, “Wait a second. I just invented this Cord Taco.” I know I did because I searched high and low, and no one else did it.
I have to make sure that now I take credit for it, because if I don’t take credit for it and don’t protect my intellectual property, then everyone else is going to come in and eat my lunch and steal it. That also gets really depressing. It’s an emotional thing that happens, as well, when people knock you off. You really have to move quick if you’re going to be serious about it. That was a big source of that energy.
Felix: Yeah, I can list off all these products you have. I’m looking at the site now. It does seem like a lot of products that you’ve created and turned out in just the last three years. Are you at the point now where you found a different strategy, or is it just to keep on launching new products to establish your brand or to establish your place in the market?
Mike: We definitely sat down at the beginning and decided what this brand should represent and what it should do, which gave us an idea of a path. It wasn’t that we decided to necessarily launch a new product every 90 days. We just knew that if we were going to continue to appeal to the hearts and minds of people in creative arts and people in technology and people in these other fast moving industries, that we had to very quickly get all of these lines out because we were a little late to the game. We just started. We didn’t really want to take the slow route. We wanted to very quickly put stuff out there and get in the game, so that people could understand our brand and what we were trying to do.
We decided that we didn’t want to just be small cord organizers. We wanted to go into larger organizers that you could take on a daily basis to meetings around the city or take on trips on the airplane. Then ultimately, we wanted to get into larger carrys as well, so backpacks and weekenders. Having those goals in mind from the beginning allows you to pretty tightly script how you carry this out.
The other thing is that we, for the most part, the team has grown up in technology. That’s my entire background, so I’m actually not used to super long cycles for developing products, and because a lot of our stuff is hitched to the sizing of hardware like companies like Apple will launch, we have to be on our game and be ready to launch an iPad Pro case around the same time that it comes out. I think we actually launched our iPad Pro case before the iPad Pro came out, so sometimes we get a little ahead of ourselves, and there’s some calculated risk there.
It’s a lot of fun. It’s also very energizing. We tend to not overthink, and we don’t always get it right. When we do, and we’re right there from the beginning, there’s this really nice association with all this stuff that people end up loving to carry.
Felix: What is your process for discovering and designing and getting these products manufactured because again, so many and in such a short period of time, I feel like for any entrepreneur out there that’s listening and thinking about launching their first product that they’re creating themselves or thinking about launching a new product line, what’s the process that’s worked for you guys?
Mike: Like I said, we have an idea already of the lines that we want to create. For us, it always starts with looking into history. This goes back to leveraging stuff that has already been designed from the past. In many ways, that stuff is still very relevant. It could just be that the interior or some things that were envisioned in the 50s or 40s or whatever, maybe it just needs a modern update. We typically always start there. The process also involves a lot of identifying problems, existing problems, and that comes from observation. It comes from testing. It comes from interviewing. There’s a lot of different ways that you can get to what those problems are.
We certainly are not an arrogant bunch that likes to go hide and concoct a bunch of problems that don’t exist. We definitely pay attention to our community. We have a super-engaged and opinionated community that helps not only with product design but also with the naming of products, and we like to get them involved every step of the way. Once we identify problems that we’re trying to solve, it’s not unlike any other design process you would be familiar with. There’s a lot of sketching. There’s a lot of sharing of ideas. There’s a lot of critiques, a lot of pitching. My design team is a mix of technology, industrial design, furniture design, leather accessories, and then apparel, so we have this fashion side as well. There’s a very open, transparent, sometimes critical environment where we share ideas.
When we very quickly come to things that we like, we do rapid prototyping. We’re able to in our workshop in Los Angeles, create prototypes of any of these products. Then we essentially take those prototypes, and we test them out. Sometimes we’ll jump on a train, go down to Santa Barbara, head over to Palm Springs, or go on little short trips. We’ll find someone here in the office that’s going on a trip. We’ll make them a prototype. They’ll be sent off with the prototype. They’ll go out and basically bust them up and give us notes and tell us what they liked and didn’t like. Then we’ll revise the prototype.
Depending on what the product is and what the project is, we have production facilities now in Los Angeles and in different parts of Italy. Once we have a design prototype sample that we feel really good about, we’ll then get production involved. Then it gets even better because they’re familiar with techniques that are beyond our designers’ knowledge sometimes, so they’ll take a crack at coming up with a version that they like. Then we’ll test it a bit more. In many cases, we send out testers to our global community. For our backpack, for example, we sent ten tester backpacks out to people in Europe, Japan, Australia, all over the US, and even one in South Africa. We basically had a way for them to text us pictures and feedback in real time. We even created a map for that. You can go to venturebackpack.com and see all of that feedback, the music they were listening to, things they created all in real time, so we take that tester part very, very seriously.
Then once we have a version that we’re excited about, we’ll tell production to make a small batch of them. The reason we do a small batch is that usually that first production run, you’re still going to find some issues because this stuff is tricky. It’s stuff that we carry around on our shoulders. We wear backpacks. They have handles on them. They’re stuffed with thousands of dollars of technology equipment, and we want to make sure this stuff doesn’t fall apart and break. The breaking that happens, hopefully that happens with our smaller, more intimate tester group that already understands that they may happen. By the time we do production runs where we’re sending stuff to Apple or one of our other large partners, this stuff has been tested out, not only from a strength and a usability and the utility standpoint, but also just from a more aesthetic, emotional, visceral, how does it make you feel.
All of that stuff has been vetted. I’ll admit. We’re kind of snobby about not just design in general, but we have such a good feel on what our brand is about and what our design language is about, that when something feels just slightly off, it will end up delaying a launch. That’s pretty much the overview. Sorry if I went too long there.
Felix: I like that. I like that you do have this almost early Beta testers of the product, to give you feedback before you have a much larger production run. You’re saying your product is so hitched to technology, like the iPad, and the tech changes so quickly, the actual hardware changes so quickly, how do you manage the inventory levels? How do you project how much inventory to produce and have on hand?
Mike: Yeah, that gets pretty tricky. The way that we dealt with that in the early days was that we would not produce inventory. We were a made-to-order business. In the early days, we had a factory literally right next to our design workshop, so when you would buy something on our Shopify site, we would submit an order. We would have a weekend of sales or a week’s worth of sales, and we would submit an order to our factory across the hall. They would make it all very fast, and we would send it out.
That only works in the early days. When you need to scale your manufacturing capacity because you’re approaching holidays, that’s when you actually have to leverage the wonderful reporting and analytics that lives inside of Shopify so that you understand which variance, which sizes, which colors are going to sell. That’s when you need to take a slighter larger bet and produce inventory.
Now that we’ve been doing this for a couple of years, we have really wonderful data and historical data that can give us a sense for what color is going to sell and stuff that lives within our own domain. Now the stuff that we can’t predict is when Apple launches an iPad Pro, our new product, obviously we don’t know what that pickup is going to be like. Certainly, that will dictate a lot of this, and that’s where some of the unpredictability comes into play. When we have a hunch that maybe it’s something that we should wait until there’s a little bit more data around, then we have no problem waiting.
We still haven’t done anything for the Apple watch. We certainly have gone deep with the tablet and the laptop and the phone because those are things that predated our brand, so it was easier to start making stuff for that. Now we have to look ahead to a world that potentially doesn’t have cords attached to their in-ear headphones, so we have to be in front of that and embrace the ambiguity of not knowing whether that’s real or fake. Either way, we end up making stuff. You know, we’ll find something. There’s a lot of gadgets, a lot of gear out there that people end up using our stuff for, so it’s good. We have a lot of market indicators out there, and the majority of the time, they’re pretty close. We manage it, and we manage how deep we go on stuff, for sure.
Felix: I think we’ll close it out on this. One of the questions that I asked in the pre-interview was about your most successful marketing strategy. You had said that when it comes to marketing your brand, it’s been through storytelling, through interviews like this, through medium and other platforms. Can you say a little bit more about that? I’m not sure if there is a step-by-step approach to this, but if there is, I’d love to hear it from you. What has been your approach to coming up with a story and then how to tell that story?
Mike: One of the trickiest things is to get to a point where you do enough self reflection or therapy to know what the genesis to all of this is. I don’t really think I realized why or how this business came to be until I really stopped and looked at my history of how I got to that point. It might help to tell a little bit of that story.
It starts with the name This is Ground. The name This is Ground, the origin of that comes from when in my early 20s, I was on a tour with an advertising blimp. The blimps that fly over football games and NASCAR races, I was on tour with that thing, and I would communicate with the pilot by saying, “560 off of Bravo. This is ground.”
When I had to come up with a name for my very first online shop, it was that coupled with one of my favorite David Bowie songs that has “This is ground,” as part of the lyrics. There were some other things in there, but those were the main points. When I looked at the origin of the whole brand, it did stem from those early days on tour with the blimp because it was those days on that tour that I really became more adventurous. I was traveling. I was organizing very obscure gear, helium hoses, helium tanks, stuff that you need on a blimp operation, and it was really difficult to be efficient with space and time when you’re on a blimp tour. I learned quite a bit about how to do that. A lot of that carried over into this brand, because while it’s not helium hoses, it is cords and stuff that actually we all use now.
That story coupled with my experience working in technology in Silicon Valley and in San Francisco, when I put all of that together, it took a few friends to say, “Hey, that’s really interesting. You should definitely share that out.” Quite honestly, the Cord Taco is fun and all, but sometimes the origin and story behind it is really engaging, and it probably will open up more opportunities. When I started telling that story, I did hear from people. People in our community that bought a few of our products, they started to reach out to me, just telling me how engaged they were and inspired by the story because it seemed like it was an unorthodox path to get to a point where I had a business and a brand, but when it was there, when it was time, it was not like it was forced.
It was this combination of a whole bunch of stories, a whole bunch of experiences, and then all of sudden, when everything was aligned perfectly, it just happened. It had to happen. It was the time. I think that those stories are helpful for people that might feel like they’re stuck at their day jobs. I think that they have been inspiring to some other people, and it’s fun to help people see beyond something that might seem like they’re spinning or the same groundhog day, the same thing everyday. It’s helpful, so I think that it becomes this higher order thing. It’s not just selling Cord Tacos day after day. That part to me, I don’t want to seem complacent, but that almost is easier, but reaching people on an emotional level to where they engage on a deeper level with me and the brand, I just think that’s more important. Then the rest of it will come, but that’s to me the higher order thing and the more interesting thing that’s happened, is connecting with this community through the stories.
Felix: It sounds like a lot of times you’re just telling your story, right? Your own personal story that you’ve gone through. I think a lot of times when people think about story telling or telling the story, they think about telling the story of their brand and not so much the people behind it. It sounds like your approach has been make it personal, make it about you, make it about the people that are creating this company, that are behind this brand.
Mike: Yeah, and I think if you look around, there’s some really wonderful stories. One of my favorite stories is about the Grado family who’s been making audio equipment out of their home in Brooklyn for 50 plus years. There are stories like that that I actually believe exist, but maybe founders and entrepreneurs haven’t quite sussed it out to the point where they know how to tell it. Mine actually goes even deeper, but we’d have to have a cocktail for me to really get into it.
I think that those stories are like when you watch a documentary that you didn’t really set out to watch. Maybe you pressed the wrong button on an airplane, and all of sudden you’re watching a documentary on how candy is made. It might seem like this brainless thing, but it just somehow is super interesting just learning about what goes into something, learning about how something came to be. I just always think that it’s fascinating. The human stories to me … You know, like the Anthony Bourdains of the world that go around and tell these human stories. It’s not about the food. It’s about culture and the people that live in these places. That to me is just much more interesting.
Felix: Yeah, I think it’s going to be a lot more interesting to your potential customers, too, because that personal connection you can tie with them goes a long way. Thanks so much for your time, Mike. Thisisground.com is the website. What do you have planned for the rest of this year into next year? I’m assuming you have a ton of products that you guys are thinking about turning out. I’m sure you can’t really divulge all of them, but what are the plans for the business?
Mike: Yeah, this is a fun time of the year for us because this is when we put a lot of our new products into testing because people are traveling. If you look close enough out there, you might catch a prototype of ours out on vacation somewhere. Then in August and September, we process all of that and update our products. Then all of a sudden, we have a bunch of new products that we release when it’s back to school, in October, and definitely for holidays. We’re in this really fun period of time where we just gave birth to a whole bunch of prototypes. We’re seeing them develop. We’re making some tweaks so this is a really fun time of the year for us. We also get a chance to travel ourselves a bit and test these guys out.
A lot more to come, a lot more partnerships with great companies like Tile and Karma, so we’ll definitely be including some really interesting technology options in our gear and meeting more brands and more people that have ideas or stories to share. Yeah, just looking for more ways to get the word out about what we’re up to.
Felix: Awesome. What’s the best place for people to stay up to date on this stuff? I know you mentioned venturebackpack.com is one. Thisisground.com obviously is the store. Anywhere else you recommend listeners check out?
Mike: I think if you go to thisisground.info or thisisground.com, those are two great sources of information about our stuff. Then reaching out to us over our social channels, the main one is probably Instagram, of course. That’s a great way to connect with us. We’re very approachable, very accessible. We have a small team here in LA. We’re just at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to email us. Again, the human side of this is our favorite part, so anyone out there that wants to collaborate or has more questions or product ideas, by all means, please reach out. We’d love to hear from you.
Felix: Awesome. Thanks so much, Mike.
Mike: Thanks, Felix.
Felix: Thanks for listening to Shopify Masters, the ecommerce marketing podcast for ambitious entrepreneurs. To start your store today, visit shopify.com/masters to claim your extended 30-day free trial.