Thursday, April 24, 2008

innerTee postmortem | lessons learned

When I ran into Bijoy last month at SXSW we had a good chat about the past year and the ups and downs of innerTee, my bootstrap t-shirt mixing community. At SXSW Interactive last year innerTee was up for a web award and now just over a year later its up for sale. Obviously things didn't go as planned but I thought it might be helpful to share some of the lessons we learned and how my bootstrapping experience helped me as I moved onto the next venture.

For almost a full year innerTee had a steady stream of coverage from when we first announced the site in early 2006 up to our web awards experience last March. Our business model seemed solid and everyone we talked to raved about our shirts and the innovative process we were using to mix art & artists.

So enough of the ancient history, lets get to the good stuff. The big question here is how did we screw it all up if thing we're really that great. I've mapped out a few of the key things and hopefully this will be helpful for anyone looking to turn a great idea (which I still think innerTee is) into an even better business.

1. Don't start the party too early
We announced innerTee in March of 2006 but weren't able to launch the site until December of the same year. We had a lot of blog and print coverage early on but changed our plans more than once on when the real site would go live. We had over 3000 people sign-up to join the site but by the time we landed on the final version we'd lost a lot of steam and a number of similar concepts were introduced into the market.

2. Focus on who your customers actually are
Similar to Mark's post, we had a very strong vision of what we thought the site should be and who our buying customers should be. We focused our marketing efforts too heavily on the tech market we knew thinking designers and techies would jump on board and buy a bunch of shirts. However when we launched the site a much younger audience showed up and we were unable to acknowledge that and make the shift with them. We were selling a number of shirts through our Amazon store but sales from the site were just not there.

3. Be able to adapt quickly
As a bootstrapper one of the biggest advantages is the ability to quickly make changes to your business model or strategy and refocus. In our case that was around the creation and management of our online community. One of our biggest mistakes was not securing someone on our team with the technical knowledge to quickly update our site and be able to respond to the rapid changes needed to manage a project like innerTee. We had the sales & marketing as well as production teams needed but without the technical ability to adapt our community went stale.

Although we fell short of our goals for innerTee as a business we did build a successful art & t-shirt community (minus the sales we expected) and gained some valuable experience in regard to building and managing an online e-commerce application. Some of the mistakes we made can be chalked up to being rookie bootstrappers or the fact that both of us had full-time jobs as well as family obligations which are real things to take into consideration when trying to plan your business.

The great thing about bootstrapping is that we are able to take these lessons and quickly apply them to the next idea.

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