Personalized drink ware: a physical product roadmap

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I’m fascinated by today’s story. I hate the word inspiring, but that’s really what it is.

Brian Johnson is the founder of Well Told, custom barware and drink ware. I want to find out how he launched on Etsy and grew the brand far beyond.

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Brian Johnson

Brian Johnson

Well Told

Brian Johnson is the founder of Well Told, custom barware and drink ware.

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Full Interview Transcript

Andrew: Hey there, freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy where I interview entrepreneurs for an audience of entrepreneur. And joining me is a listener, someone who has heard my interviews. And I’m so happy to have him on here, because what he did is I hate the word inspiring Brian, because everyone says everything’s so inspiring and everything’s so great.

But here’s the thing that excites me about your story and what you did with. You have these glasses, which as a coffee drinker and a whiskey drinker, I completely appreciate. You’ve got like, um, sections of books on them. You’ve got something that makes the person was holding. It feels like there’s a connection to the person who bought it and they look beautiful and they look academic and like spiritual.

It makes me feel like I’ve like, I don’t know, like I’m a literate person just looking at them. And I would thought that it would be so hard to do it unless you’re one of these people who hacked an Instagram, something or other to make it work. And it felt impossibly difficult, but you’re not that person, you’re an engineer.

You’re a person who took up art on the side and couldn’t help himself and tinkered and created this as an arts and weekends thing. And you found your path to sales in a place where I have to admit. Maybe it’s snobbery, maybe it’s this feeling that it’s just not a real business platform, but you went to Etsy, you started out there, you built up your own site and you grew it, and I’m fascinated by your story.

Um, I should introduce you to the audience. Brian Johnson is the founder of well-told. They make these beautiful pieces of. Of art that you happen to be able to use, to drink and serve and enjoy with your friends. Am I right

Brian: Brian? That’s right. That’s that’s a great explanation. Um, Andrew, thanks for having me on the show.

Like you mentioned, I’ve been a listener for a while and I’m excited to be able to talk with you. Um, yeah, well, let’s hold as, um, you know, in everyday gifts company, um, where we really try to have a deep, personalized content. Added to the outside that, that, that really connects the, uh, the gift giver and receiver.

Andrew: You comfortable saying what your revenue is? I have it here in my notes and it’s impressive.

Brian: Uh, yeah. Um, last year we broke 6 million in annual revenue. Um, and we’re, we’re looking to continue our growth rate. We’ve been on Inc 5,000 fastest growing private companies for the past three years where, um, We’re seeing we’re going to be at on this year again for fourth year in a row.

So we’re, we’re excited to keep, keep growing the business and adding more, more products and expanding how we’re, how we’re selling.

Andrew: What can you tell us about, uh,

Brian: profits profits? Um, well, COVID has been an interesting, uh, couple of years for us. Um, but we are, we’ve, we’ve been profitable, um, for a number of years.

And what we typically have done is, is, uh, recapitalized it back into the business so we can invest in growth, um, and be able to see. The team that we have, but then also really looking at a longterm vision and making sure that we can fund ourselves, um, through those profits.

Andrew: Meaning when you make a profit, you put it back into what, into hiring people and.

Brian: Um, it depends on our, our growth. We’re a team of internally, a team of seven right now. Um, we have there’s four partners and three, um, three new new employees. And we have a larger outside team as well, um, of different freelancers, um, code, support, marketing, and different years we’ve invested in different things.

Um, so we we’ve invested in. Some of our manufacturing partners in their equipment capabilities. Um, we’ve invested in just having capital in the company to be able to purchase inventory. Um, and, and then also the, the last couple of years it’s really has been in, in people and our, our external partners to invest in.

Andrew: I should say this interview is sponsored by send in blue. Anyone who wants to do email marketing. I’ll tell you later why you should go to, to send in blue.com/mixergy. And if you’re hiring developers, I’ll tell you later why you should go to see lemon.io/mixergy. How would you, before we get into the business part of it, can you describe like a typical.

Um, product on your site. I’m looking at the mall right now, but I don’t, I don’t know how to explain what makes this so special. Sure. Yeah.

Brian: Um, so our best-selling product is our hometown map, rocks glass, and it’s an 11 ounce, um, high ball whiskey glass. Um, and we add a laser etch on the outside of it. The street map designs.

So, um, we have maps for every us town for every college town. Um, and we also have topography and a few other designs. And so we take those intricate roadwork designs and etch them all around the outside of the glass. Um, so it’s kind of cool. We have a way that you can do. Immerse yourself in the product as you’re using it.

Um, and kind of explore, find the street that you, um, call home or, or one of a, of a happy memory. Um, so that’s kind of the

Andrew: on-demand I could, for example, give my brother a glass that has the street that we grew up on with the street where we used to play stickball as kids, because it was just a couple of blocks.

Brian: Yeah, that’s right. We have obviously some, you know, New York city, Chicago, we have some really best sellers. And so those we can make ahead of time and, and be able to send out quicker. Um, but all the other ones, yeah. We have custom made on, on demand and. Another great example of that is the night sky product line, um, where you can pick a location a time and a date, um, anywhere in the world.

And we show what the night sky looks like from that perspective, with the constellations, the stars, and then a custom message of why that, that specific time and place was important.

Andrew: You know what I wasn’t sure how much you want to talk about, or even if you wanted to talk about the fact that you are a weapons designer at some point in your life.

I feel like people who work for the department of defense, um, tend not to want to talk about it, or just because people in the audience may or may not care for weapons. But what you told me was fascinating, which was. As you were doing it, you were on the hunt for what your purpose was, what your passion was.

And so where you at all, as you were doing these previous jobs, touching on your passion and this artistic expression that you’ve now expressed through, well-told,

Brian: it’s a great question. Um, I think at the time, when I, when I was working for the department of defense, it was in an effort to find something bigger, like finding how I could contribute.

Um, in a meaningful way and with my engineering background and, and the, the position there, I felt like I could potentially do that. And what I found was maybe I was helping, um, uh, a larger mission, but I, it wasn’t as self rewarding to me for some reason. Um, and so as I, I kept kind of moving through my career.

I moved into medical product development, which had a more kind of immediate. Uh, obvious maybe helping standpoint. Um, but it still wasn’t as, as fun or, um, really enjoyable. So I started getting into consumer products and that was when. Um, this business on the side to explore making products for people’s homes, um, for my apartment.

And you’ve been

Andrew: doing it for your own home because when there’s a piece that you couldn’t find or you wanted, if you couldn’t get someone else to make it or couldn’t find it somewhere else, you would make it yourself, right? Yep. That’s right. And for example, what’s something that you made because you just had to have

it,

Brian: um, part of, well, the very first thing I think I sold on Etsy was a stainless steel picture frame that was laser.

And had stainless steel cabling running through it. And it just, at the time it was, um, a modern piece of art that and engineering. Um, I could use my design skills and then my manufacturing connections to get, get it. Um, and then as I kept doing that, I explored, uh, renewable materials. Um, the, the company used to be called the uncommon green and part of it’s.

Um, its name intent was that we would create products that were, um, upcycling materials or using, uh, energy efficient production methods. Um, so we made, uh, tables that were, um, Welded steel frames with re reclaimed Barnwood tops. Um, things that just like not only fed my creative and engineering aspirations, but then had a functional functional use, um, in my, in my home and others.

Andrew: But it started out as you making things just for yourself and then saying, I think I could sell this to the rest of the world and then listing the picture frame on, on Etsy. Am I right? Yeah.

Brian: And you know, I, I had, um, you know, I could have my own HTML website in college back in the day, and I knew I could create a website, but Etsy was just such a low barrier for entry.

It was, it was, I think I paid 20 cents to list the, the first time. And there was so little commitment. It was a marketplace. So there was already people there. I didn’t have to market or advertise to bring them in. Um, I just had to make a really great product, um, that, that people were looking at. Did

Andrew: you think that this was going to be a bigger business or were you just at the time playing around online the way someone might play with?

Uh, I don’t know, a virtual reality game.

Brian: Um, honestly I, I, at the time I didn’t think it was going to be my future career and what I hoped it was, is going to be a path to a different career. So was. Looking at, I was interested in, um, consumer products either with a consumer product company or consulting company.

And so this is, I was kind of using it as a way to build my design portfolio. So I’d have some examples of real world products. Um, and that, that actually led me to, um, to my, to my job at Keurig green mountain. Um, so I worked there for number for them. Um, I, I first started, um, leading the development of the, the cold pod.

So if you remember the, the cold machine that is no longer, um, I led the engineering for that pod. And then, um, that was only for the short beginning part. And then I switched into leading, um, It’s called advanced design research and consumer design. Um, so looking for new technology and new ways for physical interactions with.

Um, so we’d tear down all sorts of other products and find different user experiences that we could, could bring, bring to the next generation.

Andrew: Fascinating.

Brian: I was, it was a lot of fun. Um, a lot of great people, a lot of what did you, what

Andrew: did you do for example, what’s one thing that you tore down.

Brian: Um, so we were looking at a line of, um, how to make a brewer more premium and more high quality.

And so. Bye Kim. I bought a lot of, uh, other brands toasters actually, and would rip down Breville, toasters and Braun toasters, and just understand the different, um, mechanisms. Um, user interfaces, um, just the different materials they use and how those films, so that

Andrew: you can make something better, a better toaster or so that you can make a better coffeemaker using what they do with their

Brian: toasters or both.

Um, for, for this, it was a better coffee maker. Um, but we were trying to use all different kinds of proxy products to understand how. Different interfaces and different, um, brands kind of use the materials in different ways to premium as a product. I

Andrew: wondered if bigger companies did that and you’re saying you had least occur.

Did you would go and see, how are these toaster ovens of people love doing what they do? Well, what can we bring back to our team? What can we learn from the way that they’re doing their user experience, et cetera. Oh, that’s, that is fascinating. And you’re saying the reason you got that job is because you started with.

Uh, portfolio of your own designs and that helped you get that job, right? Yeah.

Brian: That’s that was the path. At least I like to think that’s what it was. Um, yeah. And you know, it’s been kind of my nature in general to, if I’m designing a product to look at other product type, um, products out there. So, you know, looking for inspiration in, in car manufacturing and design, um, you can find inspiration in all sorts of different products.

Create something unique in a space. And that’s, that’s kind of what I, how my approach with our glassware and drink ware, um, has been as well to try to bring something new to the market and looking at different technologies or decorating techniques and how we can really push the envelope on coming up with new and interesting products.

Andrew: I love your design sense. I think what you did was you explained what the product was. I don’t think we could explain with words why it just feels so. Bye look so good. I, you know what I mean? There’s, there’s something about it. It feels almost gimmicky. When we say you could put a map of anywhere on a glass, it’s not until you see the taste of the person who created it, that you realize this is something that you feel good about holding that creates a sense of atmosphere.

Just like being in a study at someone’s house.

Brian: Yeah, no, thanks for saying that, you know, and we take a lot of pride and also a lot of time and attention to detail. Our existing designs, making sure we, we stay true to our, our, uh, design guidelines and, and use those as we create new products. And, you know, we’ve, we’ve had customers ask, can you use this font or change the style?

And pretty much always we say no and, or show them why, or convince them, like you really don’t want to do that. We’ve thought a lot about what this looks like and kept it simple and modern and clean and, and subtle. Um, we, you know, our logo is on the products, but always in a very small way, that’s kind of off to the side to not take away attention from that true.

Meaning that, that true, um, design that that’s what the people were buying it for.

Andrew: You told our producer, you thought about furniture, but realize, I think you were living in Brooklyn at the time. Am I right about that? South Boston. And so you said, I can’t just start accumulating furniture here in my place. I think I need to find something smaller. Am I oversimplifying the, the way that you pivoted to smaller

Brian: products?

No. No, not really. I had, um, I had a small shared apartment in south Boston and I, there was a Makerspace, um, in Somerville, just across. The river. So I had a small workspace there, um, which was kind of needed to, you know, make and sell dining room tables. Um, and yeah, it was just, it became a hassle. It was, if I got an order for a dining room table, it would take, you know, weekends and driving back and forth to the Makerspace.

And I decided. T to really see some scale to this either I would have to build my own shop, which I didn’t really want to do, or I needed to find a product that was smaller, um, easier to ship, easier to prototype and, um, with, with a manufacturing partner that could do the majority of that. That for me,

Andrew: what’s the product that you came up with and the manufacturing part.

What’s

Brian: the first one. So early on, it was, it was glassware, um, and coasters, but it was the, it wasn’t maps at the time. It was math themed products. So, uh, the engineer in me, um, we, I, I took, uh, the digits of PI 3.14, um, and fit as many as I could on a glass. Yeah. Kind of the cool part was it just looked like a pattern in its own.

Um, and it was also kind of a funny party trick to, you know, be able to rattle off 10,000 digits of PI, um, if you can make, make it through that much. Um,

Andrew: so is that a party trick that you.

Brian: No. I tried to back in the day, but, um, with, with my kids and family, now I don’t have time, extra time to buy.

Andrew: All right.

I’m trying to get a sense of like what kind of a geek you are, but I think I’ve got it. It’s more of a design geek than a number of PI geek. That’s what you take to Etsy and manufacturing it. How hard is that? Is it, is it just someone who has a laser printer at first that you need, or laser engravers, that what it’s

Brian: called?

Yeah, a laser engraver, laser etcher, um, you know, it took us a number of years to settle on the right partner. Um, and it, it was still kind of, um, the technology was. Evolving, especially for that kind of marketing, it used to, you know, lasers were used to engrave metal and, um, you know, parts for military equipment, things that needed to have, um, a permanent marking on it that that could be it’d be done.

And so the glassware industry had started using it. Um, and. The first partner I had was I think, in the Midwest. And, um, it ma they made great glass, but the pricing just didn’t work. Um, and they, they were, they were, everybody was trying to say, oh, why don’t you just add this small little two and a half inch square on the front of the product.

And part of what I really thought made the product cool was that, that full wrap design that getting, getting the design around the entire canvas of the glass. Um, so after a couple of. Manufacturing partners we’ve we found one in, um, in New Hampshire, um, and have been with them for a number of years now.

And it’s been a great relationship. We’ve worked together. We’ve improved, um, improve our capabilities together, invested in both businesses and it’s resulted in a really high quality product that worked.

Andrew: You’ve said we a few times at this point. It’s is it more than you at this point in the story?

Brian: No, I I’m so used to saying we now.

Um, because I said hi for a number of years and I, I I’ve made the conscious decision to switch. Um, I started the business. 2009, I bought the domain in 2008, but didn’t sell into 2009. And then for the first three and a half years, it was just me. Um, and a lot of this initial, um, finding the suppliers, um, was by myself doing prototyping and finding the first customers, um, And then in 2012, uh, had to convinced two college friends to join me.

Um, this was about the time when I realized I needed to partner and bring, bring outside help and to be able to scale the business. Um, and it was

Andrew: get it before you brought them on, um, we’re still on Etsy exclusively or had you moved to

Brian: Shopify to, I had moved to Shopify also. Um, and then I had. A few wholesale accounts.

So it was, um, uh, a number of small businesses in the Boston area. Um, the Boston shaker, um, was the, our first wholesale customer. Um, if you’re in Boston, you’ll visit them. They’re awesome. Um, and, and so it was, it was, it was fairly small, still. Um, it was really regional. Um, it was the Etsy shop that had seasonal sales, um, and it’s still mainly math themed at that point.

So it was a fairly niche audience that we were, um, Catering to which probably also helped some of the discovery discoverability. Um, we had a big bottle opener in the shape of a pie symbol, um, that we got into, uh, some Buzzfeed articles, some like early press and PR, because it was just cool.

And

Andrew: did you get so much press.

And this was by the way the company is still at the, at the time was called uncommon green, which gives us a sense of what you’re looking for and where you were. Let me pause for a moment before we get into press and say that this interview is sponsored by a company called send in blue and Brian, the thing that I noticed that lights up my guest’s eyes and people in my audience, when I talk about them is.

They have all the features of a modern marketing automation email platform. And that means you can, you can tag people properly. You can message them based on what they’ve done, whether they bought or not. You can send out email, obviously, one of my guests and I always, as I told you before, Brian was. If you disagree with the sponsor, if you, if you don’t like them, for whatever reason, you’re welcome to bring in your point of view.

I’m not looking to have you be a shill for them. And so one of my guests said, yeah, that sounds good. But, um, I wouldn’t use them because I am into this into SMS. Text messaging is what worked for us. I said, well, actually they do SMS too. It’s really a robust system of everything that you’d expect at this point.

Email marketing is it’s not such a gee whiz new idea. We’re talking about before the year 2000 email marketing software existed. So these tools are they’re sending blue, keeps updating along with everyone else. In fact, they’re, they’re one of the leaders in it. What makes them amazing is they start out with a reasonable price and then they stay reasonable.

As you grow. A lot of times, email marketing companies will give you a fabulous, great price. Maybe even like a free price. But as you grow, suddenly, it costs more and more and more and more, and then it’s outrageous. And then it’s the most, the highest expense that you have outside of people in office. And you say, well, I’m making money from email, so I might as well.

And yeah, I’ll pay a lot and yes, I’ll pay for unsubscribes, even though I am not allowed to email to them because they’re keeping them a database and pop up a box and then you get sucked in and it’s too hard to leave. And what send in blue says is we’ll keep it reasonable in the beginning. We’ll keep it reasonable in the middle and we’ll keep it reasonable throughout the.

Relationships. So if you’re out there and you’re considering email marketing software for yourself, for your clients, for a friend, go check out, send in blue. And if you use my URL, you’re going to get a lower price than they offer other people. And here it is, the URL is send in blue.com/mixergy. And if you’re not familiar with them, by all means go Google them.

See how big they are. See the funding, see that, that this is a company with big roots and a big, uh, Big set of backers and big results up until now. They just don’t have a big price tag send in blue.com. Grateful to them for sponsoring. All right, I’m actually send blue.com/mixer. Do you use my URL? Give me credit for sending over.

All right. Uh, it was, it was called uncommon green. You were at that point, um, was where was I with the questioning? I, uh,

Brian: we, it was the, how, how do we got the press that we have? Early on. Yes.

Andrew: Thank

Brian: you. Yeah. So, you know, it was a lot of, it was just a lot of hard work. Um, I would have a product page or images and I would go on to every, um, platform that I could think of and submit photos.

Um, I think one of the old ones was not caught.org. Um, and it was these discoverability platforms. Um, there was also, this was kind of. The time when a bunch of those flash sale and gift box subscription companies, first making a big entrance into the e-commerce market. And they were looking for cool and different and eye-catching products.

Um, so we were able to make those few connections, um, and, and get a few early sales with some of those, which, which kind of gave us some confidence that what we had was, was working and people were connecting with. And was this

Andrew: just you emailing over submitting where you could sitting down and in addition to creating and doing customer servicing, who can I reach out to?

What can I say? How can I say it? Is that right? Yeah.

Brian: Early. It was, it was just me. Um, and it was late nights and designing, you know, designing the products themselves and then, you know, taking the photography by myself and in my condo. Um, and, and then submitting them to as many different places as I could.

Um, and it was, I think what it showed me early on too, was like the PR was a huge, a huge piece. And it was actually one of the very earliest things that I outsourced, um, after fulfillment. Um, so it was, it’s always been a, a really big thing for us because what we, we feel as if the product is good and people truly resonate with it, then, then they’re interested in learning about it and reading about it.

And that’s what PR has really, really done for us. I

Andrew: guess the reason that I’m saying wow about it is because everything that I see about you. Says you are going to figure out the design to, to, with a taste that other people can’t match. But I don’t see the type of person that I usually see in my inbox.

When I talk to you, the person is like pounding me with messages. And then since I get email ad, uh, emails from other, um, I counted our company. I see they’re sending the exact same email to other people and to everyone else at the company is like, we think you are the best. I could see their mail merge in action.

I could see their follow up with just bubbling this up to the top of your inbox or making sure that you see this. And so on. You just don’t strike me as that kind of a person who enjoys that whole process or, or who would do that. How do you do it?

Brian: Yeah, per personally that’s no, I don’t enjoy doing that, but I can appreciate the impact that it has.

Um, and so we, we use a number of different ways. We, we use Clavio for our email, um, system for, for email marketing. Um, but we also have an external marketing, um, agency who helps us with our ad campaigns. So we use kind of a combination when we really feel like is we need to be in all those, all the right places.

So social media. Um, presence, social media advertising, um, Google advertising, um, doing, hitting the right campaigns there. Um, and really, um, making sure that that paid advertising side is combined with, um, with our PR, um, and with our,

Andrew: but in the beginning, when you were doing it and you were sitting down, how did you do, how did you do a.

Uh, PR when it was just you doing it. So

Brian: I went to, I found places that I like to go to design blogs, um, image, image, gathering, you know, there was one called the fancy. That was, yeah. Yeah. They wanted to create a catalog of all the cool products in the world. And so a lot of the stuff was things that I was.

Already engaged with the communities, um, because I’ve found value in researching design and finding new products. Um, and so some of the PR was, was really kind of those, those communities and being able to share them, uh, my, my designs. Um, and then the really early on one, some of the, um, holiday gift gifting guides would find my products through, through those, those sources.

Andrew: Yeah. I went back and I looked at the internet. Archive back when your site was, was the uncommon green.com? Yup. There’s, there’s not a lot on their furniture was on their back even at 2011, so about 11 years ago now, but there was a list of press that you’d already received and it’s, it’s things that.

Consider press like the Washington post. Um, but also these online publications, like Thrillist and want this, I don’t know why it is, but it’s that kind of thing. And I could see your, your fingerprints on this and I could also see them running with it on their, on their own. All right. So then you did that, that allowed you to grow Etsy was going, and then at some point you said, I need my own store Shopify.

At that point, it becomes really hard because now. You’re not getting some other company sending you customers. It’s you trying to figure out what to do? How did you make Shopify work for you?

Brian: Well, the nice thing about Shopify is we had complete control over our brand and being able to really, um, have a great user experience and own that whole experience.

Yeah. Through, I think through Etsy. And also we had, um, a number of products on, um, another partner of ours, uncommon goods. They’re a gifting catalog company. Um, we started getting discovered. And so we, a lot of our early traffic was, was completely organic either for the description of the product, like map rocks, glass.

Um, that was really unique. And people were seeing in different places. Or, or in some cases it was the, the, um, the brand name itself. And either they had gotten a gift from somebody, um, and then found out we actually. Early on a lot of our instill true today, you know, a lot of our products are gifted. And so a lot of times the buyer doesn’t even see the product, um, which is unfortunate initially, if I went for this for themselves as well.

Um, but so the gift receiver may find it, love it, and then go to our website to check it out and maybe give a gift themselves. Um, so that, that process, we think also drove a lot of the organic growth that we had early on before we were advertising.

Andrew: That makes sense. You know, I started out with, uh, an online greeting card company and the reason that it grew was largely that when someone received a greeting card from our company that was sent, uh, by a friend, they would say, well, I should send a greeting card back to that friend two, or maybe a couple of other friends.

And it just keeps going. There’s something nice about being in the gifting business because everyone is every customer essentially is also promoting. Your company and sending your product into someone else’s home. How, um, how long did you go while you still had a full-time job?

Brian: Oh, geez. Let’s see. I went, so we had, I could have only, I could only do it because as we were growing, I was bringing on more partners.

So they were able to kind of do the same thing I was doing while you had a full-time job. Full-time job. Yeah. So it was, it was, um, part of the growth phase at the end, when it was more time consuming. It was really like a lot of it was for me, was creating new map artwork. And so I would come home and it would be in the evenings and the weekends.

And I would just be on my computer designing, designing new artwork. And so a lot of our growth in that phase was, was fairly. Fairly easy as far as the thought process went and I could fit it in, um, in the evening. So we could expand and offer more cities, um, for our map glasses or, um, if there was a custom order, I’d have time to create a new artwork for that.

Um, so I think we went, um, and the other thing, there was four partners at that time in 2014, um, and. Then one of our financial partner, he went full-time first. So him being able to do that, um, and he, him, him and I split a lot of the operations stuff. So managing our manufacturing partners, um, ordering packaging, um, just a lot of that day to day, um, side of things.

So when he went full time, that gave me a little bit more runway. To, to not have to jump. So I, and it was, it was a tough, uh, it was a tough job because I really loved, um, working at Keurig and, and part of it was not wanting to leave that environment and that, that workspace, um, knowing that it went from, you know, huge organization with all sorts of technology at our fingertips down to, you know, a small group of four with limited resources.

Um, but in the end it was. Inevitable that we saw that there was going to be potential for this to be our full-time career. And to make that happen, we had to really give it the full effort. Um, so I think it was.

Andrew: You worked at, you started, um, I, Craig, I always mispronouncing Keurig. Am I pronouncing it right?

Keurig? Yep. Curing. You started there at 2013. You didn’t stop until 2017. We’re talking about nine years after you’d founded this business, which is now called well-told nine years. You were doing this and then you finally left. What was it that made you finally leave? What, what happened to the business that allowed you to finally do it?

Brian: Um, we saw that we had. Really big growth potential, but to be able to do it, we needed more, more time and resources. And a lot of that was in the different spaces. You know, we had the four, the four founders. No, it was me. I, I led design, um, Dave led finance and our he’s, our CFO, um, Neil led marketing and Colin is leading technology.

And so we had all these aspirations for new product lines and new offerings and to be able to offer every town in the U S but to do that, we all needed more time to dedicate to it. So it was, it was. Decision to say, all right, if we really want to give this a shot, we can’t do the moonlighting thing anymore.

We need to invest ourselves in it and give it a shot. And so that was kind of that, that time period and finding the right time to leave each of our different companies. So we left in good standing and didn’t leave any projects, kind of hanging out, out in the wind

Andrew: as somebody who cares about the. How did you square that with Keurigs, you know, the dis the disposable cups that they have to make coffee?

Yeah.

Brian: You know, that’s, that was one of the hardest decisions I initially thought I had to make. And then when I realized is part of what I was working on was a lot of the sustainability efforts that Keurig had going on, um, to date where they, they do have recyclable pods, um, on the market. And so being a part of that solution, I felt like I could make an impact there and, and do some good in that space.

Andrew: The giving back part of your story? My right. Or I don’t know. I have gone over your, your company’s websites through the year so much. And I accidentally spent a lot of time on like a bad, bad version of your domain. Like your domain was, what was it? It was the uncommon green, but uncommon green was another thing, but yeah.

Anyway, you were starting to say, yeah, yeah,

Brian: it was, it was funny. I, I came up with the name on common green and I had it in my GoDaddy cart. And then I let it sit for a week and then somebody else bought it. And I was like, what? That, who? So I bought the oncoming green and I ended up purchasing uncommon green from them a couple of years later.

Um,

Andrew: And then well-told is actually well-told design.com. And I wanted to make sure that I didn’t accidentally in the interview use the word design because that’s the domain. It’s not the company name.

Brian: Yeah. Yeah. That was, you know, that was another big change for us. Um, as we, we looked at the company and saw what our product was resonating with customers, um, the name uncommon green just didn’t make any sense.

And it was the most confusing thing for, for people. Looked at, they looked at us funny, like, what does it mean? Um, and so we went through a redesign effort, um, to completely rebrand ourselves. And, um, that was a huge undertaking, but it, it was actually nice to be in a place where we already kind of knew the path we were going and what people thought.

Products and to be able to create a brand, um, and, and name that, that aligned with that, and really emphasized it more. Um, and so well well-told was, was that name and it’s this day and age. I mean, finding a domain name that’s unique is pretty tough. So, yeah.

Andrew: And so I also get the sense that you liked that you were influenced by uncommon goods, right.

Were you at all or is that, did the name come from now?

Brian: No. You know, it was, and being in a partnership with them, the name ended up also being a little confusing and it was good timing.

Andrew: They were selling your product, um, through their catalog. Right. And this was one of the big partnerships that you had early on and one of the big sources of customers.

So I could see how that would be confusing for people. They, customers might not know if uncommon green was a part of uncommon goods. Um, but then talk about what happened when you went to fab. Fab was doing these flash sales. You go on their website. An opportunity to buy something at a great deal.

Everyone could buy it at once. You did it. And then as I understand it, you and your wife went camping.

Brian: Yep. We were camping up in the Acadia national park in Maine and, um, it was over a holiday weekend and we had, I think it was the PI bottle openers, actually these big metal bottle openers, um, on, on the site for sale.

And we. We’re out of cell phone service, and didn’t really have access to it, um, internet for a couple of days. And we came into bar Harbor to go out to dinner and checked on my phone and had sold. I think it was over 600. Items and kind of said, oh wow. All right. I, uh, I got to get moving. So at that time we, you know, everything I did was bootstrap, so we didn’t have any investments, um, at all.

And this was right before the partners joined as well. So at this point it was just me and. I had basically teed up my manufacturing partners to be ready for an order. And they were going to turn it for me as quickly as I could, so I could meet all the shipping deadlines of the, from fab. So I quickly fired off an email and got that started while we were still on vacation and got home to a pallet full of metal bottle openers.

And, um, and then created a. Uh, basically a whole assembly line to package all these things and label them and print them out and ship them out. And the plan was to do it at midnight until three in the morning. Um, so I could still go to work and wow. We, the, um, what I didn’t account for was how loud a tape gun is at one in the morning.

And I couldn’t, I couldn’t do it. So I had to take time off from work to be able to package all them up myself. And that was, that was really the first. Aha moment of, okay. I need to find a solution for this because I don’t like packaging items and it certainly isn’t the best use of my time. So that was kind of when I started realizing to scale, um, I needed to find the right partners to outsource certain things, to, um, and be able to leverage their expertise and their, their setup.

Uh, And focusing

Andrew: on, you’ve found someone to package and ship for you that’s readily available. What I’m wondering is why didn’t you ever take manufacturing on internally? It seems like it’s a core part of your product.

Brian: You know, I had, in my career, we had a lot of in-house manufacturing and we had a lot of manufacturing partners and everything that I saw with the in-house manufacturing was how much overhead and how much.

Oversight and management and people, you needed to run, run that. And at the time that, that wasn’t even a glimmer of an option for me to be able to invest in a space and the, the, the cost of equipment, um, that was needed. And I felt like a, finding a, an established manufacturing partner who already had the resources already had the expertise, could handle the overhead and was able to scale with me so that, you know, I could make one glass affordably.

Yeah. And not have to worry about a huge amount of debt, um, but then be able to scale and make a hundred thousand affordably. So that was the main, the main reasoning there. And I still do a lot of physical prototyping and, and one-off, um, product designs on my own. Um, but when we have the partners that we have set up, the ability to scale, this becomes so much more, um, uh,

Andrew: How do you find a unique manufacturing partner like that?

I think if I wanted to obviously publish a book, that would be easy if I wanted somebody to carb on a product, maybe. Okay. I can get, but on glass specifically, it feels really hard to find in someone who could do it at your specifications and near turnaround.

Brian: So I kind of went backwards on this one.

Actually I knew from my engineering background and research, I knew the equipment that I wanted. I knew the brand. The manufacturer of the equipment that I wanted. And so I went directly to them and I said, Hey, I need, this is what I’m looking for. Somebody in the new England area that is a leader in, in using your products for this.

And they were able to connect me with a number of different options that I could then down select from.

Andrew: Okay. And so one of the things that my team told me, uh, was that this was going to be an interview. I always ask my team. Can you just give me a sense of what you think the interview is going to be?

And they said, Brian, Johnson’s, well-told how Brian Johnson’s well-told uses proprietary technology to drive them to a seven figure revenue so that the technology is something that they wanted to make sure that I noticed what is the proprietary technology. And if it’s not in the manufacturing, what is it in.

Brian: Sure. Well, so some of it is in manufacturing in, in kind of how we’ve optimized our efficiencies with our partners to create the highest quality at the best price. So we can,

Andrew: I mean, how do you do that for them? If they’re in, if they’re manufacturing for you, how do you increase efficiency for them?

Brian: So, you know, based on my background, in what I’ve, I’ve, I’ve worked through an engineering, um, I can, I can get on the shop floor with them.

Walk through the process and we can troubleshoot it and we can say, well, what if we cut this out? Or what if I change the resolution of the image to this, this level? Um, so we can optimize our etching time and the image quality. And so it’s a lot of trial and error. It’s a lot of feedback for them to saying like, Hey, by the way, if you change your artwork this way, then we.

We could potentially, you know, get, get two more glasses through an hour. Um, and so a lot of it’s that feedback loop and working together with them, um, and, and pushing each other to, um, to, to make it more cost-effective, but also make it higher quality. Um, and for the lasers, you know, a lot of improvements over the years have come through with, um, higher, higher power lasers.

And so making sure we’re we’re we have the latest and greatest equipment. Um, isn’t. But that’s like you mentioned, that’s not the only manufacturing isn’t the only, and can’t be the only thing that, that makes us innovative. Um, and the technology company. And so, you know, a lot of, um, what’s seen on our website, We spent a lot of time, um, in, in, behind the scenes to create everything that you’re seeing and what that means is, you know, the, we can, we can create every, every single town in the, in the country, but I did not hand design and hand draw each one of those maps.

Um, so we, we figured out a process to, um, Um, a lot of that, it’s still has manual interaction points to confirm different design elements, but it’s really been in the software development to create, to create our designs, to assist in creating our designs. And then, then also the product imagery and, and making sure we can show the customers what they’re going to get.

Um, and so we do that in a couple of different ways on, on some of the products, like the night sky, we actually have a 3d preview, so you can. C a 3d representation and spin it and zoom it and turn it around on your computer screen. And then we also have product imagery. So just still 2d photos of a lot of our other products and those we we’ve, we’ve built some, um, basically Bitcoin mining machines to, to create images.

So that we can, uh, we can have a preview image of basically every product in every location. Oh, you’re

Andrew: using machines that are meant for Bitcoin mining. Yeah. They’re like repurposing them for this. Yeah.

Brian: Wow. Colin, um, our CTO. Yeah. He, he built those from scratch and, uh, we’ve um, I think we, we have over, we have pushing, um, 5 million photography assets that we’ve, we’ve created with those over the.

Andrew: So if I type in now the address where I am, I could get that specific address. No, I think what I need to do is somehow put in the, the GPS coordinates,

Brian: right? So we have, we have two different ways. You can do it. If you’re in our hometown product listing, um, we use a Google API, the Google places, API like Google maps.

And so you type in a town and based off of it being available through there a little show you what’s available. And if you click on that, Then it’ll show you a preview. Um, we do have an anywhere maps option that is, um, is relatively the customize section. Yeah. And that’s, that’s the, that’s where you can type in any address and, and get that.

So that, that one we’re, we’re working to improve the user interface just to make it more, uh, more user-friendly. But that one, you can add any labels, you can zoom it on the address from of your neighborhood. Um, and be able to really add, um, lots of, lots of different things.

Andrew: All right. My second sponsor is lemon.io.

Anyone out there who’s looking to hire developers should at least consider lemon IO. And we talked Brian before we got started. And you said, oh yeah, I did call them up. And you said I had to put you on the spot, but I think it’s important. You said I didn’t hire from them. What did you call them up for?

What were you, what were you looking

Brian: to have. Yeah, sure. So we, um, w we were looking for a front end Shopify developer to help us with actually some of this, um, improving some of our user interface, um, refining, just some of our, um, our different capabilities. Um, we, we are, we have a backend developer that’s worked with, with us for awhile.

Um, and they said they, they just didn’t have. Shopify experts at the time. Um, but it seemed like, uh, it, my experience with it, at least going through the application and the vetting and the communication was really good. And I’d certainly reach out to them again. Um, if we have back end development or other ones that I know fit, fit their skillset or the, of the developers that.

Andrew: It’s important for me to not present this. This is an amazing company is perfect in every way, but to say, here’s my sponsor. I vetted them. I think they’re a good fit for the audience, but I also acknowledge that there are limits. And so the beauty of working with Lemonis or trying to work with lemon is if you go to lemon.io/mixer, G.

Talk to someone you can chat with them. You can tell them what you’re looking for. And if it’s a good fit, they’ll introduce you to a developer. If you decide to hire that person. Great. If you decide not to also find you can move on and often they’ll say, you know, what you’re looking for is not within our network.

We’re not going to pretend that we can have that developer for you. And so what I’m saying within my ads is if you’re looking to hire a developer of any type. Going at least include lemon in your consideration, in the list of places where you’re looking for developers, there’s nothing to lose. And if you find a great developer, it’s going to be one that works great and is actually going to be at a, at a lower price than you would, uh, going through other platforms because they are looking for people largely in Eastern Europe who are.

Who do a great job, but just are not getting paid, what they would get paid. If they say worked in San Francisco, um, I will say this is not a paid ad from them. I think their ads have run out. I’m just really feeling for that company. I know that they are based in Ukraine. The founders actually now. He’s now outside of Ukraine, but he’s trying to keep his company going.

And so while not keep this company going, he’s continuing to pay his people, whether they can work or not. And I want to support him in his ability to keep his company going. They’re doing well. They’re growing. Um, largely because of the reputation he’s built over the years, showing, showing entrepreneurs like me, how much his revenues growing, how he’s hustling to build his business, how he’s doing everything.

So he’s got a good reputation. And a lot of us are out there just supporting his, his business and allowing him to pay all his people. Again, if you’re looking to hire developers, it’s now from all over, uh, Europe, largely in Eastern Europe, go talk to him, get great developers, or frankly you decide, do you not, not a good fit and you can move on just like Brian did no hurt feelings.

No problem. Um, and if you use my URL, you’ll get a discount on their already low prices. The URL is lemon.io/mixergy lemon.io/mixergy. And I’m grateful to them for sponsoring, um, Why did you bring, you keep seeing partners into my head? I think, wow. Four partners. Why didn’t Brian? Just hire of people. Why did he want to have them in as partners?

Brian: Yeah, so that’s, that’s a good question. Um, when I, when I first realized that I wanted to grow the business, I, I also realized it’d be really. To design the business in a way that, like, it was something that I enjoy doing every day. And so I had some close friends from college that I have been sharing the business with.

And, and over time there is a number of them that, that showed more interest than others. And, and the decision kind of was like, wow, what better way to wake up in the morning than to be able to just work with your friends and, and enjoy that journey together and have it be a fun, fun. To have your day spent.

So I decided basically to have that friend zone business, and at least for the. Um, that initial group, and it’s turned out to be a way that we’ve continued to do business and find partners and, and employees. Um, it’s

Andrew: yeah, I get the front part of it, but why the partner part? Why not say I will hire you?

I’ll give you great pay. As we, as we grow until then we’ll be part-time and I’ll give you a great part-time pay and we’ll have fun doing it. ‘

Brian: cause, I didn’t have the money to just stay. I mean, just stay bootstrap. The idea was, um, they would, they would get the, the equity was that payment and, um, to be able to keep putting everything back in the business to grow it and stay bootstrap, that was really the only way I felt comfortable doing it.

Andrew: All right. Then what about this? I’m looking and. You have a lot of different skews, I guess, is what we call them, right. Or what you call them in business. You have a lot of different products. It’s not like you can keep a bunch of glasses in one place and then ship them out. There’s so many different products.

How expensive is it to store it? How expensive is it to and how difficult is to figure out how much you’ll need every.

Brian: It’s hard. Um, we’re, we’re actually a really interesting kind of inflection point in the business where what we had done is, um, we had looked at our sales demand and. Um, we were able to see which cities were best-selling and which ones were removing more.

And we could forecast, um, for the holiday season, which is our, by far, our biggest season in selling season. So we would pre produce inventory and, um, we understood all the pricing for our warehousing costs and, uh, fulfillment costs to be able to, to be profitable when we would ship out, um, items and, and the.

W w what that’s, as we, as we’ve grown with that ended up resulting in is while there was more best-sellers every year. So it wasn’t just 10 bestsellers. It was 20, then 50, then a hundred. And then as we’re adding product types into, you know, from glassware into insulated drink, where to coffee mugs to cutting boards, a lot of that became really difficult.

Th the shift we’re going through is really identifying a smaller number of high, uh, moving best-sellers and, and working on inventorying those. And then increasing our, our production capability with our partners to be able to handle more drop ship, um, made on demand.

I

Andrew: guess there is no, is there a way to figure this stuff out? I remember here’s why I asked you the only business class I hated at NYU. I wouldn’t even say I hated, I still liked it, but the only one that was. Uh, a drag was the one that required us to understand inventory management and throughput. The calculations were just so frustrating.

And at the end, it’s not like in finance where you do all the math and you see how much money comes in and how much, uh, how much interest you’re paying at the end. All you do is you just make, you know, the trains move on time. And so it’s, it’s challenging without the exciting payoff. How were you able to figure this all out?

Brian: Well, it’s changed over the years. Initially it was Excel and, you know, creating some of our own forecasting spreadsheets and looking at our sales data and looking at our, our growth and our traffic increasing. And I’m making an educated guess. And early on in that case, you mean you make mistakes, you sell out or you.

By too much of one thing. Um, in that case, the nice thing with our products is they’re, they’re, they’re very, we feel like they’re very timeless. It doesn’t feel like a product that next year is going to be out of style that you have to put on clearance to get. Um, and then, you know, as we’ve, we’ve matured, we, we do have different inventory software, um, integrated into our systems now to help us be able to create those reports of bestsellers and be able to give us highlights as we’re going, Hey, this month, this, these are the products that sold the best.

So we can start looking at and identifying trends, um, and even more mature than as. Our refining our marketing campaigns. We can really anticipate when we have a new product launch or when we have a campaign centered around a certain product that it’s going to move the needle, um, a certain amount. And so we’ve, we’ve just continued to improve those and, and, um, it’s not perfect, but, um, the, the drop increasing the dropship significantly helps that.

Um, so part of the idea has been holiday season stock up and then get, really, get really lean during the off season and try to drop ship everything.

Andrew: And then if you were doing them, and I imagine maybe at some point you will, for sports teams, you would have to pay licensing fee. You do it from national parks.

They’re owned by everybody, right? So you don’t have to pay a licensing fee for say, Joshua tree mugs. Do you.

Brian: Yeah, you’re right. Um, so yeah, no for national parks, um, there, there isn’t a required licensing fees. You’re, you’re limited in what you can use and you can’t use the, the whole park name in your product, title or listing.

Um, but there aren’t any requirements to give back, which is honestly, in my opinion, kind of unfortunate because those are some awesome. Resources that we have for our country, that that should be funded. So we decided that we were going to give back to them anyhow, um, regardless, and we we’ve been working on relationships with a number of the different nonprofits that support different parks, um, and are basically planning that a certain amount of proceeds from, from each product will go back either to one of those specific non-profits or to the national park foundation.

Um, we, we want to make sure that we are. Um, our helping and giving back in the causes that, that we, we believe in and that the products align with. Um, and we do, we do actually sell, um, licensed sports team goods for NHL and major league baseball. Um, those are through UNCA uncommon goods. So we have, um, they ha they have that licensing partnership and we’re able to sell, sell through them for those.

And then when you have one other licensed partners, sorry, the Kentucky bourbon trail. Um, so we do have licensed products for, for them on the site. Got it. And

Andrew: so you can sell it on your side, but uncommon goods has the right to create products based on their licenses. And so you’d listed on their site, use your technology to create it in your, your, your brand to give it the taste and reputation.

Okay. All right. Let me close out with this. If somebody is listening to us and says, you know what, I have this passion for making artistic products that people buy. I just worry about how do I get anyone to even buy it? What’s the advice you would give them today? Is it still Etsy or platforms like that to find an audience?

Is it something else? How would they get closer to where you are?

Brian: Well, the one thing I’d say is, you know, finding the right product that truly has that emotional connection and, and can get that feeling across to somebody, whether it’s just a beautiful designer, it’s a, uh, kind of more of a sentimental design approach that we take with our maps.

Um, but something that people really want, um, we’ll, we’ll bubble up to the top. Where, where to start is really, I would say what’s the, what’s the easiest and most comfortable for, for that person to do. And, um, if you need to spend six months figuring out how to create a Shopify store, then you’re not going to get started, um, for awhile.

So pick, pick the one that is most accessible to you, and it will hold you accountable and, and as you grow, you’ll probably expand into many other ways of. And

Andrew: then it seems the only thing I’m taking away from you is just promote, tell people what you’ve made, make it, sell it, but also tell people what you’re making, tell them what you’re selling, do it to as many people as you can see their feedback, um, and adjust.

I alright, I’m really excited to have you on here. I’m excited by your growth. I hope we’ll get to do this again. As the business continues to grow, because I feel like you’ve nailed a product that just has a. Like you said, it’s one of those things that is timeless, that you can imagine picking this up 50 years from now, and it’ll still feel good to have in your hands as, as good as it feels today.

Brian: Yeah. Great. Thank you so much, Andrew. And I’m glad, I’m glad you received them as well as we, we do. And we. That you’re listening to, to have a chance to, uh, to experience them also. And we do have a special offer for them on our website at well-told design.com/mixergy. Really feel free to check that out and we’ll have a discount code.

All right,

Andrew: well, tell design well-told design.com/mixergy. All right. I appreciate that. Thanks so much for being on here and thank you to the two sponsors. The first few doing email marketing, go, oh, look at this. You got my photo and everything on there. Uh, wait with a discount code. Cool. Um, and, uh, thank you to my two sponsors.

If you’re looking to do email marketing, go check out, send in blue.com/mixergy and again, hiring developers, lemon.io/mixergy. And finally well-told design.com/mixergy. And if you get something, let me know about it. I’m andrew@mixergy.com. Thanks everyone.

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