This month marks the third anniversary of the date that my company, IAmElemental, transitioned from a successful Kickstarter campaign to a bootstrapped startup. How’s it going? I’m glad you asked. Here are three lessons I have learned.
1. You Can Run a Business from a Cell Phone.
My husband says that there’s no crying in baseball or startups. However, I would be lying if I said that there haven’t been some tears along the way. My wonderful PR guru would rather I keep this fact to myself. “You’re a duck,” she has explained. “You only want them to see your serene beauty above the water. No one needs to know about the frantic paddling your feet are doing underneath.” And, I get it. Admitting that I cry sometimes isn’t really befitting someone who runs a company. I am also not supposed to admit that my wifi hotspot is my office, that there is no staff, and that when I tell you I have a meeting at three o’clock, I’m really at school pick up. But, the truth is, it’s the truth. And, quite frankly, at this point, I am proud of the fact that we are what I lovingly call an “unsexy” startup.
Last November, IAmElemental was lucky enough to be TOTY (Toy of the Year) finalists for Rookie of the Year and Action Figure of the Year. Our set of female action figures representing the seven Superpowers that make up Courage lost to Mattel’s DC Super Hero Girls. And I am thrilled. A company with a full-time staff of two (myself and my Superhero COO, Veenita Bleznak), had the honor of losing the “Oscar” of the toy industry to two of the biggest, most powerful entertainment and toy companies in the world. It was the surreal culmination of good fortune, hard work, and a product that is perfect for the market.
Our 2014 Kickstarter was unusually successful. Not only were we fully funded in 48 hours (ultimately raising 465% of our original goal) by thousands of backers in all fifty states and six continents, but we were the lucky beneficiaries of a level of press coverage that was more “lightning in a bottle” than “normal course of events”; including being named one of TIME Magazine’s 25 Best Inventions of 2014. However, while all the attention was wonderful, it didn’t relieve the pressure we were under to convert our concept into an actual consumer product under a very tight deadline (read more here).
In the middle of this stressful first production run, while I was discovering just how much there was to learn, someone said to me, “You can’t run a business from a cell phone. It’s embarrassing.” You know what’s embarrassing? Making the mistake of thinking that the bells and whistles - the optics - matter. I have never run a business before. And, I certainly don’t pretend to know everything that goes into building a successful business. In fact, as Veenita likes to say, one of the secrets to our survival is that “we know what we don’t know.” Having said that, one thing that I do know, is that the reason we are still alive and in the game three years later is because I have kept our overhead as low as possible.
So, if you’re contemplating starting a business, please keep in mind that the statistics are real; close to 90% of all startups fail. As sexy as all of those articles in business periodicals make entrepreneurship sound, with their photo shoots of beautiful offices, a hip staff of geniuses, ginormous marketing budgets, and seven-figure investors who fund it all, most bootstrapped startups are home-based like mine. Turns out, that not only can you run a startup from a cell phone, you probably should run a startup from a cell phone.
2. Social Media Is a Modern-Day Tower of Babel
I will confess at the outset that I still retain vestiges of the Luddite I was prior to launching IAmElemental. I didn’t have any personal social media accounts, and we hadn’t created any for the business before our Kickstarter launch. Rookie mistake. As much as we prepared for the Kickstarter campaign and post-Kickstarter production run, we were unprepared for the social media explosion that followed. I just didn’t get it.
And, three years later, I still don’t completely get it. As much as I love the Internet for its access to the vast stores of information that feed my research-loving soul; even though I know that my company wouldn’t exist without it (more here); and despite the fact that the internet has connected me with amazing people I would have otherwise never encountered, in many ways social media continues to confound me.
Like the Biblical Tower of Babel, lately it feels as if everyone is just yelling, and mostly failing, to be heard above the noise. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, as the number of users continues to grow, rather than increasing the audience reach, the sheer volume - of both people and voices - has actually made it harder and harder to use social media as an effective marketing tool. It often feels as if I’m just spitting in the wind.
So, you might be surprised to learn that I am personally responsible for all of our social media output. And that I do it diligently, and I take it very seriously. While I don’t necessarily do it the “right way” (is there a “right way”?), I have found myself enjoying it more ever since Martyn Tipping, a speaker at a panel on social media effectiveness at Toy Fair/2016, offered this advice: Don’t worry about “likes” or “shares” or even “engagement”. Instead, use social media for storytelling. Compose every post so that if someone new discovers your site and scrolls through, she will get a clear sense of who you are and what your message is just by reading the first few posts.
This suggestion revolutionized the way I handled output. It also calmed me down. Because, on our shoestring marketing budget, our voice will never be loud enough to overcome the din. But, as Gary Vaynerchuk says, “One is greater than zero.” So, I celebrate each and every follower, comment, and share. We may be dwarfed by the shadow of social media giants with giant-sized budgets. But, step by step, post by post, we continue to build our brand.
3. Real Heroes Walk Among Us: They’re Called Customers.
In the IAmElemental universe, we have a saying: Real heroes walk among us. And we believe this with every ounce of our being. However, the interesting thing about saying it - out loud and often - is that this simple statement has magnetic power, and it pulls real life heroes into our orbit with a frequency I never anticipated.
So many people have reached out and offered to help us over the past three years, it is actually somewhat mind-boggling. Despite the fact that I am someone who has never considered herself a networker (more here), the IAmElemental message and mission resonates with people, and we have been exceedingly lucky to have generated an army of Mentor/Friends who have guided us and helped us to learn how to navigate this strange new startup world.
Then, there are the amazing retailers; wonderful people who have been willing to take a chance on a small, self-funded startup. We don’t have a sales force in place yet to regularly solicit retailers. We don’t have a TV or movie tie-in to lure in shoppers. Yet, the retailers come. And, because we don’t sell single figure packs of our 3.75” figures on our site (we sell sets), the only place to get them is via our retail partners. We cannot overstate our gratitude to both the early adopters and the most recent additions to the IAmElemental team for providing a place where a kid can go to pick a power and discover our secret: that all the Superpowers they could ever want or need are already inside of them.
The biggest thank you of all, however, goes to our amazing customers. No matter their age or gender - girl, boy, man, woman - our customers are the most important Superheroes in the IAmElemental universe. We only exist because of their generous and enthusiastic support. As a result, good customer service is our passion (more here). And, as the lone member of the IAmElemental Customer Service Department, there is nothing that matters more to me than a happy and satisfied customer. Not just because the customer is always right. Rather, because the customer is everything.These are just three of so many valuable lessons we learned during our first three years, and we’re eternally grateful to our real life heroes for teaching and supporting us in our success. However, we plan to follow the advice of another one of our heroes, Han Solo, who said, “Don’t get cocky.” Because, after all, we still have a long way to go. In the meantime, we can’t wait to show you what IAmElemental is up to next. And we look forward to continuing to learn as we grow... however unsexy those lessons may be.