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Today I have the honor of interviewing Sam Franklin, the founder of Greenvelope.com. What’s cool about Sam is that he started his digital stationery company while still in college and he bootstrapped his entire business by working odd jobs.
And here’s the thing. When he first started out, he did not know a thing about graphic design. He did not know a thing about websites or ecommerce. In fact, he learned most of his skills through sheer hustle and by taking online training classes on Lynda.com.
Sam’s story just goes to show that if you have the desire, you can learn how to do anything and start a seven figure business when you have no money or experience. Enjoy the interview!
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What You’ll Learn
- How Sam came up with the idea for his business
- How Sam bootstrapped his business early on
- Why Sam decided not to use a standard platform for his site
- How Sam developed a site without any technical knowledge
- How Sam found the time to start his business while in school
- How Sam found designers for his virtual stationery early on
- How Sam designed his early cards by himself without any prior knowledge
- How Sam generated sales early on with his site
- How Sam leveraged Facebook to drive traffic back to his site
- How Sam minimizes customer support with his small staff of people
- How long it took for Greenvelope to start making money
- The most efficient way to design a website as a non-designer
- If you need a website logo or website design, make sure you check out 99Designs.com and enjoy $99 in savings by clicking on this link!
Other Resources And Books
- Balsamiq – Prototype Software
- Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose
You are listening to the my wife quit her job pod cast where I bring in successful bootstrapped business owners to teach us what strategies are working and what strategies are not. Now this isn’t one of those podcasts where we bring on famous entrepreneurs simply to celebrate their success. Instead I have them take us to the beginning and delve deeply into the exact strategies they used early on to gain traction for their businesses.
Now if you enjoy this podcast, please leave me a review on iTunes and enter my podcast contest where I`m giving free one on one business consultations every single month. For more information go to www.mywifequitherjob.com/contest. And if you are interested in starting your own online business, be sure to sign up for my free six day mini course, where I show you how my wife and I managed to make over 100k in profit in our first year of business. Go to www.mywifequitherjob.com for more information.
Now before I begin I just want to give a quick shout out to this episode’s sponsor 99 designs. Now originally I wasn`t going to take any sponsors at all, but 99 designs caught my eye because I suck at design. And in fact when I first started my online store back in 2007, the design for my website was terrible, and I had absolutely no idea who to turn to. Now fast forward to today, 99 designs is a site where you can provide a description of anything that you want designed whether it be a logo, a web page, a T shirt, pretty much anything and have dozens of designers compete to deliver you the best design possible. And by best I mean that you get to choose your favorite design among a dozen of submissions from a pool of over 315,000 designers.
So if you are design challenged like I am, I highly recommend that you over to 99designs.com/mywifequit. And if you use that link and tell them that Steve from mywifequitherjob.com referred you, your design listing will be bolded, highlighted, given a prominent background and featured before all regular listings so that your request stands out among all of the designers. And in fact this special offer is worth 99 dollars. So if you need a logo, website, T-shirt, business card, or anything designed go to www.99designs.com/mywifequit. Now on to the show.
Welcome to the my wife quite her job podcast. We will teach you how to create a business that suits your lifestyle, so you can spend more time with your family and focus on doing the things that you love. Here is your host, Steve Chou.
Welcome to the My wife quit her job podcast. Today I`m honored to have Sam Franklin with me on the pod cast. Now Sam is actually someone I met through Austin Brawner who runs the e- commerce influence podcast, which incidentally is another podcast you should check out? Now Sam runs Greenvelop.com, which is a business that sells digital stationery for weddings, special events, you name it. Now Sam may or may not be aware of this, but sending digital card is actually very popular with first generation agents. So for example my in laws and my mom send digital cards all the time, like it`s all the rage for them.
And you know I`m not sure that my last statement kind of applies to everyone, but clearly these digital invitations are popular because Greenvelope is doing very well. Now, what I really like about Greenvelope.com is the ingenious business model. They don’t have to ship anything physical and as a result his business can truly scale. And what`s even cooler is that Sam totally bootstrapped Greenvelop.com from his college dorm room. Sam is truly an inspiration to us all, so welcome to the show Sam, how are you doing today?
Sam: Hi Steve, I`m well thank you and thanks for having me on the show, I`m excited.
Steve: Yeah, so can you just give us a quick background story. Tell us about the early days and how it all got started in your dorm room.
Sam: Okay, So I guess it actually goes back to just before going to college at Washington University in Saint Luis. I had taken a gap year before school to travel and kind of explore some different business ideas. I knew I always wanted to start my own business and growing up in the Seattle area in the pacific North West, I`ve always been outside on the weekends enjoying kind of the beauty of the Pacific northwest, hiking and rock climbing and fishing. And so I knew that whatever business it was that I was going to start, it had to be something that related to the outdoors or preserving the outdoors. And so fast forward a couple of months later, my family received a wedding invitation in the mail on thick-thick card stock and that’s when it kind of clicked.
We received this invitation, went to the event and shortly afterwards recycled the invitation and it seemed like there was an opportunity for my generation, the younger generation to send a nice correspondence via email. And at the time I had researched it. There was really one player in the space which was eBay that had advertisements across the invitations. And I thought for weddings well this might– people might want to pay a little bit, not have a free service, but in exchange for paying for the service not have any advertisements, and have really traditional templates that look and felt like a real paper invitation.
Sam: So with that I started drawing up specs on big piece of construction paper and then shortly after I went to Wash U where I started developing, and hired my first developer and started putting the idea into motion.
Steve: So I was going to ask you about that specifically, so are you technical in any way?
Sam: Not especially, I’ve always liked technology and computers, but I have done more of the business side of Greenvelope and hired developers from day one to help build my vision.
Steve: So I know for– like when I was in college, I didn’t really have any money. So how did you actually– did you get seed money somehow from your parents either that or from your credit card, how did you kind of afforded a developer early on?
Sam: So it was a combination of I had started a business actually in high school which was pressure washing driveways, and so I was skipping some classes and going out and pressure washing three or four driveways a day, and then delivering Pizza at night and being in high school and living with my folks it was pretty easy to save that money. So– and that was the initial funding, and definitely I didn’t have anyone full time to start and made some project based things that weren`t really expensive to that kind of start building up the initial ideas, and did as much of the design work, on my own.
Initial marketing– I didn’t really have a marketing budget so I relied on press and experimented a little bit with Google ads. So it really– they weren’t a ton of cost. Getting started I was doing everything I could to keep it as efficient as possible.
Steve: So did you use a standard platform like an open source platform or was everything like coded from scratch?
Sam: I looked into using standard platform, but it was– became clear pretty quickly that this was a custom product. That there wasn’t a system in place for where we were sending thousands of emails that were customized, and this whole idea of this spinning envelope animation that would spin around, and open and people could track our SPPs. So it was really a custom experience. So I had to go with– I took it to different firms in the area and it seemed like it wasn’t really a fit for our firm, it was much too expensive. So I went with the approach of just hiring a single contracting to build up the initial version.
Steve: Okay, and if– I don’t know if you remember but how much did you invest early on just to get started with this?
Sam: Yeah, the initial investment was 25,000 dollars and that carried me through, almost the first year of the business.
Steve: Okay. That’s actually not a whole lot of money. Okay. So what are some of the challenges that you were kind of faced, kind of growing this business out of your dorm room? Obviously you were still going to classes and that sort of thing. So how did you kind of just juggle all of these things, I mean it’s almost like a full time job in addition to going to school full time.
Sam: It was really challenging while I was at school. So between classes I was on the phone. After class until midnight, one o’clock I was doing stuff. Up early doing customer support– not much work life balance for the first year or two of the business, and then I eventually took some time off to focus solely on the business when I had hired a few full time people and it was showing a lot of potential.
Steve: Okay, so you were doing all the customer support and everything early on when you first started?
Steve: Wow! That’s crazy. So I noticed on your site that all of your cards look amazing. So would you consider yourself a designer, or did you actually hire designers to design those cards?
Sam: So I actually started doing all the design work as well…
Sam: And I have to admit the collection wasn’t as strong when we were relying on my design skills, but about a year and a half ago I hired a lady full time, Lauren, whose main role was kind of get our design collection spiffed up by going to different designers in the space and having them create designs for us that we could select and then sell on our site and then they would get commission if their design sold. So it was a way to get a variety of designers and a bunch of designs without too much capital upfront.
And for the designers that are selling a lot of their designs, it`s worked out really well for them. So now we have– I think we have about 35 designers now that we go to for designs and every month we`ll have different collections that we will ask them for. So we`ll do destination weddings this month and we`ll do holiday cards pretty soon here. So we kind of have that network of designers that we have built to create those designs and since it`s– we have all the stats on which designs do well, and I`m a big believer in kind of just relying on what– not what I got things, but what people are actually purchasing and what the stats say. And the stats have shown that a lot of my designs now have become obsolete. It’s always a little bit sad but…
Steve: Really, okay.
Sam: A lot of my early designs that I have made, there is all these like new designers that we have. So we are like Sam we go to take down another one of your designs and then, I`m understanding of it.
Steve: Isn’t that kind of a function of how much exposure a certain design gets though, whether it`s actually popular?
Sam: Well certainly but we do different things to randomize certain collections of designs and if – when – if you go into the site now and then I go later on the day it’s going to be a different order. So randomizing and trying to get as accurate data as possible.
Steve: Okay. So early on, so can you go into a little bit more depth about this arrangement you have with your designers. First of all how did you find them? And then exactly how does the arrangement work? Is it there upfront cost or they just give you the designs for free and it`s purely commission based, how does it work exactly?
Sam: So it’s purely commission based. They give us the designs, so we actually require designers to apply with at least five designs. And we need to– I think our limit is now– we have to have at least three designs from a designer that have been selected for them to become part of the site. We have kind of a call to, a call for designers now on the site. So we are getting emails from designers that want to apply. A lot of designers will tell their friends about Greenvelope and then they all apply. But it was definitely a lot more outreach and we are continuing to outreach to new designers. We you know look at different blog posts like top ten designers of the year or for 2014, and then different searching on Google, finding out kind of what designers people are talking about and then just send them an email and reach out to them and see if they are interested.
Steve: Okay, so back when you were small though, what was the incentive for one of these designers to want to join for free?
Sam: We didn’t start the designer program till about a year and a half ago when…
Sam: So at that point there was already enough volume to make it somewhat worthwhile for them.
Steve: Okay, I see. And so I`m just trying to judge whether you’re just like some superman like you did all your own designs. Did that imply that you had like adobe illustrator experience and that you are kind of artistic in that you kind of know what people want in those cards and that sort of thing?
Sam: Yeah, so I watched tutorials online on a site called Linda.com, which is very reasonably priced and you can watch as many tutorials a month as you wanted, so I just watched one– I think it was like a ten hour one for illustrator and ten hour one for photo shop and that gives you really-really the basics of what you need to get going and design cards on your own, so…
Steve: Okay. Well that’s amazing. That takes a lot of initiative to go and just watch the videos, and just say hey I`m going to start designing some really great looking cards that people want to buy.
Sam: Mm-huh. Well I had no Idea of people who would want to buy them, but it was fun and I tried it out in the early stages, but definitely there is people that do this all day and specialize in it that are going to be better than myself there.
Steve: So just curious how many designs did you launch with, like what was your kind of philosophy? Just get the site out there see if you can make some sales at first or did you kind of build up a reasonable size portfolio before you launched?
Sam: I launched probably like 25 designs, they had nice calligraphies, they looked nice, there was really no competitors in the space at the time. So on day one there was– what we did is we had to save the dates for free and the idea was if people kind of had a good experience with save the dates, invested the time making the guest lists in our system, then they would upgrade free invitations. So that was kind of a nice way to get traffic initially and then also a lot of those people we would send them promotions to upgrade to the invitations after they send out their save the dates. So that was a good way to get some initial customers using the product.
Steve: Okay. And so if we could just go back to just when you first launched. How did you get people to your site, actually how did you generate sales early on? Now you just mentioned this sales strategy of giving them free save the dates, but how did you even just get the word out by you site Period?
Sam: Yeah, there is a couple of ways. One is I actually before we did the podcast, I listened to your podcast– the recent one, I think it was Andrea, she had talked about her clothing company that she has done all the press for and gotten 200 or something magazines and that reminded me a lot of how I started and that same process of just finding people’s contact info, using those media databases, blasting a ton of emails out and seeing if people would be interested in covering the story. So we got a ton of press when we launched. It helped to be in college and the dorm room.
Steve: Yes that’s a great story.
Sam: Story– and a little bit controversial too when we first started and I think I have seen the industry change and become more accepting of electronic invitations for weddings since I started. We launched in 2010 but– yeah a lot of people would be like is this really– you know it was kind of a conversational controversial piece as well– the emailing wedding invitations and the etiquette around that. So that was another thing that helped us get press early on.
Steve: So just curious which databases did you use, were they some of the same ones that Andrea mentioned in the previous podcast? Or could you just shed some light on the specific tools that you used to do the outreach.
Sam: Yeah the– my media info was one that she mentioned. I think that was the one she found very helpful as well and that was one that I’ve used in the past and a lot of it is just Googling articles and seeing who wrote them, and then kind of maybe finding them on LinkedIn and trying to find their contact information. So a culmination of kind of organic, what could be uncovered in a Google search and the databases.
Steve: And what did you write in these outreach emails since you weren’t established at all, how did you kind of structure your email or your cold email?
Sam: They were pretty much plain text emails. I had experimented with more kind of graphic based emails and that was never as effective, just something relatively casual in tone and definitely short and it would just be like, “Hi I`m Sam, I just launched this website and we are trying to change how people view electronic invitations by creating really beautiful online experience, here is a link to a sample.” And so it was really that link to the sample and to our website that people would go to and be like oh! I have never seen an envelope spin like this with my name personalized on the front of it. So really showing off that product was something new that the people hadn’t seen.
Steve: Cool so I– you know so my wife and I run an online store, and we’ve been featured in a bunch of magazines, but those magazines actually, some of them rarely– not rarely I should say, but some of them just don’t lead to any sales. So were there particular publications that actually sent you a flood of traffic, and was it just primarily through these publications that you got your early traffic?
Sam: So it was primarily through publications we got traffic. Like you said it`s not necessarily a ton of sales. It depends how targeted– if it was more kind of like a human interest story in the local news, or if it was a story on a wedding blog with a promotion. So the wedding blogs and the very targeted things would lead to sales, but more human interest stories– I think were great to be able to put on the website, interviews and kind of build the brand out, but weren’t as effective for sales. And so another thing we did for sales is Google ad words, which was a great way to get started on day one, be able to get traffic to your site. It was a lot less expensive to bid for ads back then. So we`d pay ten cents per click or something to get someone to view your site and search for email wedding invitations– very targeted, very cheap relatively. It’s not at all the same now, but that was a way to get a bunch of people to our site early on.
Steve: Yeah, I was about to say because adwords for wedding invitations would probably be like an order of a dollar a click today. So do you still use adwords today for your business?
Sam: Yeah, it’s still definitely part of our acquisition channel and just because of the competitive nature to it and the high cost per click like you said a dollar or more, it’s not something that we can rely on as our sole distribution or acquisition channel.
Sam: So we are looking and that’s part of what we have been doing recently is looking into these other acquisition channels, refer a friend program. We have an event planner program now where we actually go and partner with the event planners.
Steve: Okay. How does that work? That’s very interesting because we are in the wedding industry also. So I`m just curious how– and we reach out to wedding planners all the time and these people just buy in bulk from us consistently. I imagine it works the same way for you. So how do you run your program and how do you reach out to event planners?
Sam: So we’ve just started. We have about probably 30 or 40 event planners now that have signed up. They get– when they sign up for our program, we give them a training on the product so that they can share it with their appropriate clients. And we`ve just– since we’ve recently started a lot of them already booked out their clients for quite a while, so we haven’t really seen it really turn into a huge distribution channel yet. But it’s a lot of people that know about it and hopefully when they are kind of next round of clients come in for the next season, that will be kind of on the forefront of their minds. So it`s kind of a new channel that we are exploring, we don’t know a lot about that channel yet. So…
Steve: And it’s just plain outreach, you just went through a list of planners and you just kind of cold called them to see if they would be interested. Is that kind of how you just found them?
Sam: Yeah, so we just looked through the different directories of planners…
Steve: Yeah, okay.
Sam: And we don’t really do as much cold calling or send emails out, kind of mass emails out to these planners. We do the research and find their emails and contact them, and again a simple casual pretty short, shortest key plain text email. Just kind of letting, almost approaching it as here is something that you know we think you should know about. We`re– this is kind of informational tool to add to your tools. It`s not really like you need to sign up for our program this week or anything, it`s more just informational email.
Steve: The reason why I`m kind of emphasizing all these things on this podcast is, you know a lot of people kind of launch their online business and they are kind of a little bit averse to doing the leg work, and they are just kind of waiting for their site to kind of get indexed in the search engines. And what I want people to realize is there is a lot of leg work involved. There is a lot of cold emailing, sometimes there is cold calling involved and it just sounds like you`ve really hustled your way to the top with this business.
So one thing I did want to ask you is what are some of your primary marketing channels? Like the primary drivers of business to your site?
Sam: So the channels that we talked about SCM, Adwords is big, Google search. So we are always working on our search engine optimization. And really referral business and word of mouth has been so big for us, and the reason that most every month we’ve grown is because the viral nature of our product when people send out 1000 or 100 invitations and have a good experience opening it and RSVPing it, that is advertising the product in itself to all the guests of these invitations. And also customer service has always been super important. From the beginning I realized we are working with people’s wedding invitations. You don’t want something to go wrong or if something does go wrong…
Sam: You want to able to fix it quickly. And so that’s definitely something that people aren’t used to working with other electronic invitation sites, being able to call someone or be able to get someone an urgent email to someone on a Sunday. The day they send out their wedding invitations if something goes wrong, and so that’s something that we are always kind overly I guess pleasing people in the quickness of response and quality of customer support. And in turn they write good reviews for us on the wedding websites, and they also tell their friends that they had such a good experience with Greenvelope.
So I think that is something a lot of people might not focus on or realize right away, and it’s something you don’t really get instant gratification on. But if you’re building a sustainable business over the long run, customer support is definitely helpful.
Steve: So does that mean that you have people answering phones everyday of the week, or do you have support people?
Sam: We do, now we have full time support, during business hours here in Seattle.
Sam: But if someone– our support philosophy is always like you know we are a small company, we can`t have 24 hours customer support, but we have it during the day if something happens emerging after hours, send us an email, someone will see it and if we need to, we can call you back. But most of the time everything gets handled during the day.
Steve: Mm-huh. Yeah I would imagine it’s not– people probably plan their invitations out way-way in advance right?
Steve: So, it’s probably not urgent most of the time. So have you tried facebook advertising at all?
Sam: We’ve done a little bit and we haven’t had a ton of success with it. Not to say that it isn’t a good channel and it couldn’t be successful, but we just haven’t I guess really figured out for our purposes how to do that effectively. And it’s something that you know we will continue to try and I know there is opportunity there, but it’s something that we are still in the process of figuring out. I think the promoted poster Facebook kind of forces you now if you want your following to see your post to promote it, so you can promote it for not too much cost. So we do that just that we invest a lot time making a nice blog post, we want our following to see that. So we do a little bit of that but just blanket Facebook banner ads hasn’t – we haven’t found too effective.
Steve: Okay, and then so that implies that you kind of built up a facebook following over time that you market to actively then?
Sam: Yeah, so we put all of our– we have a blog post, so we’ll do things like feature some of our couples, show their maybe custom invitation they designed and photos from their wedding and make it a board that we end up pinning up on our Pinterest. So really like our whole new rebrand of our site that we launched earlier this year was very image focused, and very– we actually, we did the logo, so it’s very simple and clean out kind of going for that more modern aesthetic.
Steve: Site looks great by the way; I was just on it earlier.
Sam: Thank you.
Steve: So what was I going to ask you. Oh yes, so usually the traditional way to design a wedding invitation is– at least when we got married you know you kind of pick an overall design that you like, and then usually there’s someone on the other end who kind of arranges things for you to make it kind of look nice. For your business is that all done on the website meaning like the customer actually designs their invitation directly on the website?
Sam: Yes so…
Sam: Everything can be done without interacting with anyone on our end, there’s no approval process there’s no– the only reason that we talk with the customers is if for some reason they get stuck at some point in the process, or have a question on pricing, they can give us a call but everything can be done on their end. So for example you pick a flower design– we’ll have a pre made one, and template on that design with a matching fonts and colors for that design that you can go in and just add your name in instead of a name– the sample name on the cards. So we give people a foundation to work with and just enter in their details and if they want to go above and beyond and add their own customization they can do that, but we give them a starting point.
Steve: Okay and this is just all graphical, you can just do it directly on the website to modify your invitation?
Steve: Okay. Wow, okay that’s, that’s pretty nice. So do you have people who require a little bit more technical support like, so I was just thinking of my mum, she likes sending out these digital invitations and usually what she does she– I don’t know what she uses actually, but it’s pretty much pre-made and it’s kind of brainless. Do you find yourself answering a lot of technical questions about your site, or is everything pretty straight forward and smooth for the most part?
Sam: It’s definitely a combination. Some people will go through the process, they’ll be our most high paying customers and we’ll never hear from them once, or if someone buying our smallest account like you know every single time they want to change a little font they call you.
Sam: And so that’s just I think the challenge probably that every business has, we want to give everyone great support, and I kind of see it as we have the people on staff to do support, and it all kind of comes down the wash I think giving everyone the same level support. If some people need to call in more, that’s okay and hopefully they’ll have a great experience and tell three friends about it.
Sam: So we have now about three people doing customer support.
Steve: Okay. And that’s their primary role, right? Just supporting customers?
Sam: Yeah, I kind of to keep it a little bit more varied in terms of daily work there’s normally a combination of other projects. If there’s a down time where there are not calls, the customer support agents can work on other projects as well.
Sam: In combination with the support, so kind of a combination and one thing that I was going to mention that’s really helped us reduce the amount of support is we have a knowledge base of these all these frequently asked questions that we make people look through before submitting a ticket.
Sam: So when we implemented that it was– cut support down tremendously and our supports remained relatively constant even though we’ve grown and part of that is that if we keep getting the– I’m still involved in lot of the support too, and overseeing that and so if we keep getting the same question over and over, we’ll put something in the pipeline to make that more clear or put a little like a little notification cue tip describing that color or that font, so people can find out information before having to contact us. So it’s always this balance of we’re growing but were also making the site easier to use, so everybody has less questions.
Steve: Okay and so earlier on you know as soon as you launched kind of how long did it take you for your kind of business to gain traction? I know a lot of people kind of like instant gratification you know get sales right away, but just if you can remember what it was like when you first launched and kind of just describe you know the early days before your business had any traction, how long did it take for things to start picking up, or you became optimistic about your business altogether?
Sam: Definitely it took quite a while, so I’ve been doing this five years now, and I think part of what was helpful for me is I didn’t really have any expectations at first. I remember I was interning at a PR company that was kind of helping me launch this, and I was telling the owner there, sitting down with him as you know we’re launching this week, I mean I’ll be so excited if I’m getting one sale a week, and he was like “one sale a week?” You need to be getting 100 sales a week, that will justify the amount of time and everything you put in this business. And I think as we’ve kind of you know we went from one sale a week to two sales to you know celebrating every time I got a sale. Now we’re at three sales a week to fifty sales a week and just growing from there.
So I think part of this good customer support and the viral nature of the product is that we’ve always seen the growth which is exciting and kind of keeps me kind of I guess raising my hopes and expectations for it. But also like never really being happy with where it’s at, I think that’s something that’s kind of helped me so far is never really being happy with the last sale, like there is so much more that can be done if you know I’m dedicating my life to doing this I’ve got to be doing it to my 100%. And I see so much potential that every day I want to be coming making you know work as many hours as possible, making the business better and growing as much as I can so.
Steve: So you know let’s say after a year, was it already making significant money in your opinion or did it take a little bit longer than that?
Sam: Well I started in 2008 and was kind of launched in 2010. So no money was being made those first couple of years.
Sam: In 2010 the first year that we launched– I think we did and I can show this number because I think it was on entrepreneur article magazine but I think we had 70,000 of business our first year.
Steve: Okay, that’s pretty good. Yeah.
Sam: Which I was pretty excited about and obviously we had a lot of costs, so we weren’t really making– I wasn’t really making that much money but…
Sam: But yeah, so it’s I guess going into it without a lot of expectations, I was constantly pleased but also constantly convinced by our– what could be done and the potential that’s on it to keep growing it.
Steve: Okay, that’s actually a pretty good attitude to have I think. That way it just– you don’t start making decisions strictly based on the money alone, you kind of are able to focus on the long term for your business. So speaking of which, so you mentioned that you know you tried to not remain satisfied with where you at and you’re always constantly trying new things. What are you currently focusing on now in the present date to grow your company?
Sam: Yeah, so we– what we’re really focusing on is going more and more into the business market. We have seen a lot of potential here, actually when we first launched for wedding invitations, businesses were creating wedding accounts and customizing wedding templates for their business events just because they were elegant and they wanted to sell something nice for their business events. They caught their– had good open rates and caught their audiences attention and that kind of sparked– I was like “oh maybe we should be offering business events as well.” So pretty early on we switched– we didn’t switch, but we added business designs and that’s grown to be over 50% of our business now.
Steve: Wow, okay.
Sam: So we’re building out a sales team now, just a couple of weeks ago hired a sales lady whose been in the event planning space for 15 years, and is excited and came onboard and we’re trying now to go and sell more of these kind of corporate accounts.
Steve: So these businesses probably just subscribe to your service altogether, they probably aren’t that price sensitive and then they continue to use your service right? Is that kind of more accurate as opposed to some of the individual customers that you have on the wedding site?
Sam: Exactly, so that’s the beauty of it. The problem with the wedding customers is you know they have a great experience, they use it once but maybe they use a baby announcement in a few years or maybe they’ll use for a birthday party, but there’s not a lot of recurring customer life time value where as these businesses higher price points renew and send out a lot more invitations.
Steve: So that, so you’re just– the way you’re growing is you’re kind of looking for new markets and then this business one is kind of what you’re focusing on, right? One thing I wanted to ask is and I wanted to ask you this earlier was back when my wife and I actually got married, we didn’t even think about sending out digital cards. It was paper, paper, paper from the start and that’s kind of being the tradition when it comes to special events and that sort of thing. So how did you kind of convince customers to go the digital route?
Sam: I think so far at the point that we interact with the customer, they are already convinced because they’re coming from searches like electronic invitations or email my wedding invitations, so at that point they are already looking and there’s no convincing that needs to be done.
Sam: But I guess right now our marketing is pretty focused to, and the point that we are starting to interact with the customer they’ve already made their decision.
Steve: Okay, okay it’s just kind of gotten more accepted over time and people just know that they want to save the environment and just go digital, is essentially what you’re saying, right?
Sam: Yeah save the environment a lot of, it also saves a ton of time and tracking all of those RSVPs and now we have survey questions so you can track new options and it’s really as much of a data management system as it is way to send the invitations out.
Steve: Okay, and this is just kind of a question for me, it’s a little more on the technical side, but you know when you’re managing all these email addresses you know, there’s a lot of emails that never make it to the end users inbox whether it will be put in the spam folder and that sort of thing. How do you guys kind of manage that aspect of your business?
Sam: So that’s always been probably one of the most challenging things since day one is how do we look like we’re sending invitations from someone else and have that actually go into the inbox. And so that’s something that you know the first couple of years of the business we banged our head on a lot, it’s something that we’ve figured out a lot of different little techniques here and there.
Sam: To you know make the content of our emails in a certain way that meets certain spam scores that we set up all these technical hosting things the right way.
Sam: There’s a lot of little things that we do.
Steve: Okay, so what I was getting at was you manage your own emails still, right? You don’t use a third party to manage your emails.
Sam: No, we send them all out with our own servers.
Sam: Which gives us more control and also gives us some advantages in that sense. So that’s a lot of kind of our technology is that emailing hundreds of thousands of emails at once and getting those delivered to now that were moving to corporate spam filters and stuff.
Steve: Let’s say someone wanted to start some sort of digital delivery system, you know maybe not necessarily cards, but if someone wanted to kind of emulate your business, what sort of advice would you give someone today? Would you tell them to go your route which was a fully custom platform, are there kind of other platforms that are already made out there to make this easier? How would things have changed if you were to start today?
Sam: I don’t, I think you have to go fully custom for this type of thing.
Sam: And I think the most important thing that I’ve learned and that I didn’t do very well at the beginning is creating the specifications for the actual what you want your website to be. There are certain times where you want to be short when you might be emailing your press things and there are certain times that you want to be long and that’s creating specifications for developers that will be very clear and everybody’s expectations are the same on both sides; the developers and the person that’s getting this software developed. So I think that’s something that I could’ve done better earlier on is being very clear. If you want to forgot my password thing, put that in the specs, put everything that you can think of in the specs and don’t be afraid of being too detailed because you don’t make it easier throughout the process.
Steve: Actually can we talk about your specs a little bit back when you first designed the site. Was this just like a word document where you specified exactly kind of in a flow chart how things were to be designed, or did you actually lay out the graphics and then just have the developer implement what you want it to look like?
Sam: Sure, so I’ll tell you what I do now which I think…
Sam: Will be helpful for people creating their site and what I did then which wasn’t at all a good way to do it.
Sam: It was like pretty much like one of those big pieces of construction paper and drew like every single page on the site with little arrows on like one giant sheet, like roll that up and took it into a meeting. And then you know I kind of was like oh I didn’t really understand where the designer came in, where the front in developer and where the– I didn’t really understand how the whole process works. So kind of taking that whole thing to one developer, and kind of trusting that they’d make everything work– it didn’t work out so well. So now it’s a very clean process, so one tool that I’d recommend everybody uses that’s creating these specifications it’s called Balsamiq, and it’s a very quick easy way to wireframe up how you want each page of the website to look.
So instead of having to learn illustrator and you know create all these boxes, Balsamiq is a very stripped down version of that that has– you can drag a button on, you can drag a browser window, you can drag check boxes, and you can just lay– they have all the assets that go into creating a website and you can lay everything out and put it in a single page. And then you can create all those pages and save those out. So you have kind of a black and white– this is all the functionality of the site.
Sam: And then find a designer who probably isn’t going to be a developer to make those look pretty, and get the design how you want it to look. And you’re not ready to talk to a developer until everything is designed. Once you have all the designs, then take that to your development team– a company with yeah Word document or Google document or something that has all the different details and how everything is going to function. But I think, I was just so eager to go to a developer before I even knew exactly how everything was going to work, and I think you don’t even need to get a developer involved until you have all the pages of the site specked out and designed. That’s just what I found, so I guess everybody might have different techniques but…
Steve: No, that’s actually pretty accurate. I mean you should know how everything is supposed to– the developer only comes in at the very end when it just comes time to implementation, right?
Steve: Everything should be designed ahead of time, otherwise– because the developer is not a designer, all right?
Sam: And a lot of times the designer is going to be the one that’s going to give feedback that “oh your button might be better here,” and you can kind of work organically in that process before going to a developer, and having a developer develop something and the, the designer comes in and he’s like “oh this doesn’t make sense with the button here,” and then now the developer now you know, you’re paying the developer to go back and change it. It’s just last step of the process is the developer.
Steve: Okay, and then one thing I forgot to ask you about also was conversion optimization. Are you guys constantly running conversion tests in the background for your sites, and what do you kind of focus on testing?
Sam: Yes so something that we didn’t really do early on and it was just kind of just– it’s getting features as many features as we can, that people keep asking for, and staying on top of support. Now that we’ve got the product to kind of more of mature state, it’s how can we optimize and look at our conversion funnel. So it’s something that we started doing in the last six months, and it’s been really exciting because we have this tool called Mixpanel that you can actually look at each step of the funnel.
And the funnel would be someone signs up, they create their first event, they chose a design, they create their card, something like this and you can see where each step of the funnel people are falling off. And then go in and run tests of you know maybe you want to change the signup button to start now, or these little types of tests, and it’s amazing what a little button change or a putting a certified logo in a certain place can change your conversion and having the tools and the data there to see that is really helpful. So now we’re at a point where we’re just kind of trying to optimize our– we can grow our business a lot by just optimizing our current traffic.
Sam: And getting people through that funnel, so Mixpanel has been a really cool great tool.
Steve: Okay, wow and so and that makes– I’ve never used Mixpanel before and that just kind of applicable to any person’s ecommerce websites, they can use this?
Sam: Yeah, so there’s two kind of big ones that are kissmetrics panel and for whatever reason we chose to us Mixpanel and we’ve been really happy with it, but I think kissmetrics is a good tool to look at too and it’s…
Sam: It’s event based tracking which is different from something like Google analytics. Event based tracking is tied to like the life time of a user account. So if someone creates an account with Google analytics and then goes to a different browser, you’ve kind of lost them, because it’s cookie based tracking was my understanding. But then with Mixpanel if someone comes from a Google search, creates an account, then goes to a different account or logs in, every action for that entire account is tied now tied to your analytics. It doesn’t matter if they switch computers or if they come back a year later, it’s all tied to those events that that account takes.
Steve: But they have to be logged in to your server, is that how they track it?
Sam: Or if they’re logged into their account yeah.
Steve: To their account okay, and do you use any heap map tools or any sort of recording platforms to see how visitors are interacting on your site?
Sam: We’ve used Crazyegg for the heap map.
Sam: Tracking before and that’s lead to some interesting insight. So that’s another thing that we’re looking at, and keep kind of checking out every now and then, but the reality is they’re just so many tools.
Steve: Yeah, there’s too many things.
Sam: You just kind of drive yourself crazy. So what I’ve done is kind of every week we have now kind of an optimization goal of the week. So every week I have a timeline of what were going to test that week and implement, and by the end of the week we’ll decide whether it worked. Some worked really great, some we thought would work didn’t work, but having the data is key. And so at the end– so the idea is every week we’re making the site a little bit better.
Steve: Okay, cool and you know I know you kind of started out really early on with your entrepreneurial endeavors. Were you kind of influenced by any mentor or any sort of book or whatever, what kind of put this ginormous entrepreneurial spirit inside of you in such an early age?
Sam: I don’t know, I don’t have– I don’t know, I guess…
Steve: Was it your dad? Was it any sort of book that you read? Anything?
Sam: Well my dad is a doctor and so…
Sam: So, I don’t think it was right there, but he’s been kind of entrepreneurial on his own sense and I kind of I don’t know I like the adventure.
Sam: And kind of the challenge. I don’t know I guess I kind of just fell into it and I like it.
Steve: So were there any books that you kind of read that kind of pushed you one way or another, like how did you learn how to run a business, or was it all just kind of trial and error?
Sam: It was all trial and error, and I read quite a few since I kind of started the business I’ve read books throughout the years. But a lot of it was just kind of learning from doing, which I think is– a lot of people are kind of just scared to take that initial jump, and you know feel it you need to read a ton of books before you try something, and I would kind of argue there are other ways– that give it a try and you’ll learn so much from doing, and you can start with not too much capital. I mean you can do a lot of the stuff yourself to begin with, or maybe partner with a friend that is a developer and you don’t really need a huge budget anymore to start or to try something out and to learn from it. But one book that I really like is called “Delivering Happiness” and written by the founder of Zappos, and it’s all about customer service and company kind of the importance of company culture.
One quote that really stood out is that in his book is that “your personal core values define who you are and the company’s core values ultimately define the company’s character and brand.” For individuals character is destiny, for organizations culture is destiny. And I think that’s so true if you’re creating a company for the long term is that that culture, the way you treat your employees and is so important, because it’s not something that you’re just going to be able to do everything by yourself. You kind of have to put a lot of trust in the people that work with you and create an environment that kind of encourages innovation, and that you know actually cares about what you’re doing and the customers. So those two kind of things customer service and building company culture have been really important to me from day one, and I would say those probably been the most important thing for getting the business to where it is today. And to where we want to go is that customer service to stand out, and different things that we do to create company culture.
Steve: Yeah I mean I completely agree with you especially in the wedding industry, I think since were in the same industry word of mouth is such a big deal. People just naturally talk, and if they have good experience, they tell their friends and before you know it, it kind of just multiplies exponentially. Yeah, so I’ll definitely have my listeners check out that book, I personally have not read it yet, but now it is on my list. So Sam we’ve been already talking for quite a while, I don’t want to take up too much more of your time, but if anyone who is listening has any questions for you or your business is there a place where they can contact you?
Sam: Yeah, absolutely they can send me an email at my work email which is Sam@greenvelope.com.
Steve: Okay, and awesome. I just wanted to thank you a lot for your time and you’ve given out a lot of good nuggets today about how your business works and I really appreciate that. So thanks a lot Sam.
Sam: Thanks so much Steve.
Steve: All right take care.
Sam: Bye, bye.
Steve: Here’s what I like about Sam. He’s got a tremendous drive and the fact that he started his business while in college is really impressive. Plus I really like the fact that he self taught himself adobe illustrator, so he could create his first designs, and in fact he kind of reminded me of how I self taught myself web design in order to create our first online store.
For more information about this episode, go to mywifequitherjob.com/episode38, and once again I just want to thank 99 designs for sponsoring this episode. I know a lot of you listening are waiting on the sidelines and trying to get the courage to start your own online business. I also know a lot of you there run your businesses already and know your website design could be better.
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One thought on “038: How Sam Franklin Created A 7 Figure Digital Stationery Company From His College Dorm”
Wahoo! Go Wash U! 🙂
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