Author: Richard Haines

Posted: 06 May 2020

take me there

The idea

Before I was a software developer I was a scaffolder, for 6 years. It wasn't what I wanted to do, I had moved to Sweden in 2010 having gone to university in London and met my would be wife. When we arrived I didn't speak the language and my girlfriend was pregnant with our first child, so as needs must I got a job through a contact of my father in law as a scaffolder in Stockholm. We had moved to the north of Sweden so this meant living in Stockholm during the week and travelling back up north for 7 hours every weekend to see my wife. I did this for 8 months until I found another scaffolding job in the north where we lived.

The years passed and we had another child, bought a house, got married and had lots of pets. (At one time or another we had a cat, rabbit, tortoise and hamster) This was all great, except something had been missing from my life, I missed having a creative outlet, something for me to relax with and at the same time dive into to escape the boredom of my day job. I had been taking night classes to learn swedish but it was a long slog and progress was thin on the ground, which meant that i couldn't really engage in conversations at social gatherings or at work.

Online

Until one day in 2015 I decided to look into the possibility of selling something online. At first I had no idea what I was looking for or how to go about getting an idea of what to sell let alone how to do it. I had no idea about creating websites, how to sell things on a website, how to source the thing you want to sell, how to ship it to the customer or even how to get customers!

After much googling I happened across Google Trends, I used this and a combination of searching for what was cool at the time that I found out about wooden sunglasses. This idea seemed a bit wild to me. How could sunglasses be made of wood? How would they be stable? I soon realized that there were indeed a few companies out there that was not only selling them but making them too. Now I should jump back a few steps here and point out that this didn't happen over night. I had planned to sell children's clothing, all eco, fair trade etc but the costs were crazy and we certainly didn't have the money to be throwing into something like that, competing with huge companies which had been doing it for years.

Once I decided upon wooden sunglasses it was time to figure out how to sell them.

Now before we continue I must say that this isn't going to be a step by step of how to do this stuff, this is merely my experience of going through this and how i approached it.

When we look at our clothing, our kids toys, our kitchen utensils or our mobiles they all, most of the time, have something in common. They are made in China. So it stood to reason that this would be a good place to start. Sourcing items from China can be done in many different ways, one of those ways is from Alibaba, a type of Ebay for wholesale. I searched through some companies that made wooden sunglasses and sent them questions asking about price, quantity, shipping etc.. All the things I thought I would need to know in order to begin selling online. Some responded and some didn't but I ended up with a shortlist of companies and items that i could begin with.

Now it works like this. They have a catalog of items from which you can order samples. Samples are expensive (relatively speaking to the final items cost) so you pick some items you like the look of and order them from the list of companies you have gathered. As these items are comping from China they take some time. So spreading that order is good as it gives you the best chance of finding the right company with the right product.

Once I got the glasses I needed a website to sell them on. At this point in time I had no idea how to make a website so after some market research landed on Shopify as the platform to host my site and sell my items. You know the drill, drag and drop until you have something that looks ok. We took the pictures ourselves (me and my wife). I had looked up how to do product photography at home, bog white sheets of paper, slight curve at the back, utilize the sunlight from the windows by having the table placed next to a window on the side.

I finally had a site up and running, had chosen a supplier, got some stock and was ready to go! I was going to make millions, it was going to be amazing, easy money!

Except it wasn't and I didn't sell anything. This was mainly because no one knew my site existed. I had only told friends and they were kind enough to buy some glasses but other than that there were no sales. The fact that no one knew my site existed wasn't the only reason I didn't sell anything however. When looking at some other sites that sold wooden sunglasses I realized that I had been copying a formula used by someone with big investment and a celebrity endorsement. They had managed to get Kylie Jenner to pose in their glasses before she became the breakout, multi-million dollar star she is today. After she became mega famous their sales went through the roof and they could then afford to by in more product, keep the prices dirt cheap (the mark-up on buying items from China pre-made is ridiculous) and pay for more marketing.

During this phase, which I like to think of as a trial run, I used to send out the glasses in cardboard boxes filled with wood chippings. This was a terrible idea. Don't do this! 😆

Back to the drawing board

So it was back to the drawing board. Buying in pre-made glasses was not what I wanted to do. I wanted to design my own and create a brand around them. Me and my wife (who is a wonderful illustrator) set to work drawing glasses, in detail to the millimeter. We put together some designs we were happy with and I started the hunt for a manufacturer which could make them for us. My first port of call was Europe. Then I branched out to the Americas. Both of these ideas failed rather flat as the cost of having them custom made was far to high for us to handle, not only that but the only people that made them were selling them themselves so they were unable to make for us too.

So this led me back to China again, but with a different plan. I wouldn't be using Alibaba this time, instead I searched for general purpose manufacturers and filtered from there until I found a couple which were willing to make our designs a reality. After getting some samples from a few of them I settled on one and so we began production on a line of wooden shades!

I stuck with Shopify but paid for a theme that I thought would encapsulate my idea of what the brand would be. Coming up with a name was also quite hard, it was my mum that actually suggested the one we chose (I shift between I and we a lot here, this I because although this was my endeavor, my wife was also heavily involved), SideRoot.

It was a play on words meaning to take a different path to the others, take a side route, with route being swapped out for root, like a tree root. Get it? 🙃

We had a friend in Stockholm who knew a professional photographer so We sent down a batch of the glasses and they had a photo shoot with some models, all for the price of some of the glasses. Win, win.

I now had a name, products designed by my wife and I and a website with professional product and model photos. But I wasn't quite ready to launch, I had learnt from the previous attempt that you can launch anything you want but if a tree falls in the woods.....

Marketing. Certainly a tough cookie but with some effort, lost dollars, A/B testing and perseverance a wonderful thing indeed! I created Facebook and Instagram accounts for the company as you need to have a social presence, and poured hours into learning how to do Facebook Ads. I'm not going to lie, it's hard.

After some time and testing we launched again. We got sales. If you have ever had a Shopify store you will know that they have an app and whenever you get a sale you get to here to most glorious sound in the world, a small "Ching Ching"! It wasn't long before a local opticians wanted to sell our wooden sunglasses in their store. Then a store in central Stockholm got in contact. I had calls from other websites wanted to stock our glasses too, though we only accepted one offer.

Kickstarter

Things were going well but the big difference in buying in pre-made glasses and designing them yourself is the cost. Paying a manufacturer to create custom made glasses costs a lot more and as such our mark-up was much smaller. Even though we were selling more we couldn't afford to design and pay for our next seasons glasses run. It was then that I decided to try out Kickstarter. I ran a campaign and it basically failed. I tried again, only this time I concentrated on copy and offers. What would convince people to get on board? Our story of course! Being honest in anything in life will bring you the best rewards, be that being honest with yourself or your business.

It was a success, The campaign was 249% funded and we had the money needed to launch a new season of designs! You can checkout the campaign here: SideRoot Kickstarter. To re-use that win in our marketing I decided to add all of the people that bought a pair, or more, of our glasses to our website in a dedicated page. This made them feel special, like they were apart of something, added weight to our claim of mass sales and enabled me to push this onwards in future marketing campaigns.

I had another idea that I thought would combine well with our Kickstarter success, and that was to plant trees. I contact a few non-profit organizations and found one i liked, Trees for the Future. We agreed that for every pair we sold, they would plant 10 trees which would help to provide families with a sustainable food source, feed for their livestock and fuel for their fires. This basically completed the brand.

After a while it was becoming apparent that I couldn't sustain this level of time investment as the business grew so I looked to sell. I wont go into details but the long and short of it was, I put a price on the company, had some offers, then someone came and just said name your price. That was that. Soon after I was back to being just a scaffolder without the creative outlet I so desired. It just so happened that my wife saw an add for a C# .NET course starting in our city. I enrolled in that, got a job as a frontend developer, taught myself JavaScript and React. Fell in love with it and started learning outside of work everyday, pumping those creative juices. The rest as they say is history. 👊

Oh i should probably mention the website, it's still live, not sure what the new owner is doing with it as nothing seems to have changed since i sold it to him. SideRoot

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