When I started Fresh Emblem, I always wanted to make it to year 5.
Because almost 50% of new businesses don't make it to year 5.
Thankfully this October will be Fresh Emblem’s seventh year in business. It hasn't always been easy and it hasn't been an exponential curve of growth, but Fresh Emblem has been profitable since day 1.
It's been a rollercoaster just as any business owner will tell you... I’ve met a lot of incredible people along the way, received a lot of help and good fortune, and had many speed bumps.
Before I rehash 7 years of Fresh Emblem adventures, I have to admit that I have recently come to a major realization.
I have always treated Fresh Emblem as a side hustle. I never gave Fresh Emblem the love it required to grow like a wildfire.
Although my time commitment towards has changed between full-time and part-time over the years, I never gave Fresh Emblem 100% focus or intensity when I was working on Fresh Emblem full-time.
If I'm being honest, I never believed that Fresh Emblem could grow or be a sustainable source of full-time income for many years. I always worried that air freshener sales would dry up.
Often my irrational solution was to hedge my bets by always having "another side project" on the go. The goal was to always have multiple income streams in case an income stream dried up. I definitely got sucked into all of the Instagram business advice, "most millionaires have 7 streams of income."
Other times I was trying to be rational because I needed more income and had to (or wanted to work) a full-time job. Especially when the pandemic was in full swing.
The only time that labelling Fresh Emblem as a side hustle was justified was when I decided to chase one of my deepest curiosities... crypto.
I jumped down the crypto rabbit hole and worked at a U.S.-based crypto market intelligence Series B startup. That experience opened my eyes to how an incredible entrepreneur and startup operates.
A few months ago I was laid off from my crypto job, due to the company 'restructuring' and cutting 10% of the workforce. It sucked, but incredibly grateful for the opportunity to see the intensity of a top tech startup.
This October will be Fresh Emblem's 7th Birthday. In reflection, side-hustling almost killed Fresh Emblem. It has taken me 7 years to stop getting distracted by shiny objects and give Fresh Emblem the effort it deserves. Now my goal is to give Fresh Emblem 110% focus and a whole lot more intensity.
Let's Go Back
When I first started Fresh Emblem I had no clue what I was doing. In 2016, I started Fresh Emblem right after graduating from university.
I wanted to find a job at a local startup, but no positions seemed available and other jobs did not appeal to me. I was looking for something that was related to problem-solving. Obviously that's not in any entry-level job descriptions. So I decided to start brainstorming business ideas in the North Forge co-working space. Doing my best to avoid the golden handcuffs of the corporate world.
It was a rough couple of months of figuring out how to find a "good business idea." I didn't know where to find inspiration and didn't know how to execute any business ideas. I couldn't code, I couldn't design any physical products, and I didn't have any tangible skills. Sigh.
Growing up I played a lot of sports (primarily soccer and golf), focused on doing well in school, and just being a kid without a worry in the world. I slowly came to the conclusion that my high school degree and business school undergrad were not going to help me build a new product.
What I needed to do was continually build my skillset to start my business. Thankfully my co-working space was beside a fabrication lab where there were laser cutters available to its members. To unlock the full potential of the laser cutters, I focused on learning Adobe Illustrator from good ol' Youtube University.
Watched and worked through a few Illustrator tutorial series. Began making some digital graphic designs. Grabbed a fabrication lab membership. And started lasering the new designs out of plywood.
It was a lot of fun to self-teach and brute force a couple of new skills. One thing led to another and soon enough I was turning sheets of plywood wood into air fresheners. Check out my first air freshener prototypes. These are embarrassing. But hey they say, "if you aren't embarrassed by your first prototypes, you didn't release your product early enough."
I know what you're thinking... yikes. Me too. I cringe looking at these old pictures.
Back then, I had no clue about the importance of packaging design, graphic design principles, or manufacturing processes. Everything was janky at the start. I should have taken my friend Nick's advice and called the business "Janky Danglers."
These Janky Danglers did earn Fresh Emblem its first couple thousand dollars. And I will never forget the first Christmas market I did and earned $400. When I got home and counted that $400, I was hooked. I wanted more of that sales high.
When people pay with their hard-earned money you for a product you created, it is the ultimate compliment. I thought I was rich making $400 in one day. I felt on top of the world! haha
Ah, how those were simpler times.
As I continued on in my janky ways, I hit an inflection point and almost shut down Fresh Emblem at this point. I couldn't find a way to scale production sustainably. The process of soaking of the wood emblems in baking sheet trays with oil scents was too time-consuming. Everything was messy, produced a lot of waste, and it was difficult to predict the demand for each combination of scent and emblem design.
I thought long and hard about how to improve the value proposition of my air fresheners to consumers. I realized if I pivoted my product a bit I could get the scent to last longer on the wood. In fact about 4 times longer.
Instead of soaking each emblem in scent in baking sheet trays, I changed to bottling all the scents in individual dropper bottles. That would allow consumers could scent and re-scent their wood emblems multiple times.
Now, instead of a pre-soaked air freshener lasting just 1 month. A rescentable air freshener kit could last up to 4 months.
This inflection point was a game changer.
Full steam ahead on this pivot to the next version of the product. I began to bottle all the oils into dropper bottles. I labelled them. Made instruction cards. And sourced thicker poly bags.
Then off I went to local farmers' markets to test out the latest version of my air fresheners.
(P.S. I didn't understand the importance of photography during this stage of Fresh Emblem lol)
Pro-tip: I'm a big fan of farmers' markets for new product validation. It's a great way to test and get feedback on a new physical product. When I started going to farmers' markets I honestly just wanted to make money. However, upon reflection, $40 to rent a table for 5 hours is one of the cheapest and fastest ways to conduct market research. Seeing firsthand how many people are willing to buy my product is 10X better product validation than getting 100 survey responses from your Facebook friends.
Vending at farmers' markets helped me prepare for Christmas markets. I always looked through my farmers' market sales data to see which emblem designs sold the best. Plus I got to connect with a lot of incredible people that sometimes led to future opportunities. For example, a lot of custom bulk orders came from people I met at these farmers' markets.
Being brave and having positive body language at farmers' markets and Christmas markets can go a long way.
The Obstacle Is The Way
From 2017 to 2020, Fresh Emblem was consistent and the operations were somewhat sustainable. Between all the markets, wholesale business, and inbound custom bulk inquiries... Fresh Emblem was quietly a nice cash-flowing business.
In 2020, I was ready for Fresh Emblem to have a big year. Made a small investment to expand into Arizona, where a friend would be the boots on the ground and start selling Fresh Emblem products. Then COVID-19 hit. The Arizona project never made me a single dollar.
All Fresh Emblem sales and revenue basically went to zero overnight.
Obviously, everyone had to adapt and adjust, but the pandemic put Fresh Emblem at a standstill. This was my thought process when everything started to close down in 2020:
1) I can't sell at markets, since almost all in-person events were cancelled.
2) Most retail stores that I wholesaled to are closed.
3) No promotional products or group gifts were needed since no one was able to see anyone in person or gather for any conferences/conventions.
4) E-commerce wasn't (and still isn't a viable scalable sales channel for Fresh Emblem), because the price point of Fresh Emblem products (less than $30) isn't great for e-commerce. Digital marketing and Canadian shipping costs really cut into products that are less than $30. But, e-commerce was the only option. Some e-commerce sales during the pandemic were better than no sales. It was not an ideal solution.
5) The COVID government relief cheques were nice, but now with hindsight... was it worth the inflation we're feeling now? That's another topic for another day.
But I'll own it, I could have pivoted more during that time and could have been more resourceful.
I felt very hamstrung and felt there were no options for Fresh Emblem and I needed to wait out the pandemic. So my wife went back to work for the family until the pandemic passed, while I took care of the kids at home.
Finding A New Normal
It was a weird time for myself and Fresh Emblem. Eventually, I got a job at a technology development firm to incubate a start-up project that never got off the ground. That job only lasted about 6 months. Probably a misstep joining that development firm. Nonetheless grateful for the opportunity and helped me bridge the gap during a time when I felt I was failing with Fresh Emblem.
Right after that job, I jumped into volunteering for crypto gigs to tickle my interest in crypto. As mentioned earlier, these volunteer crypto gigs led to me getting a dream job. I worked for 10 months as a DAO governance analyst for a Series B crypto market intelligence startup based out of the USA.
When I was laid off, it hurt my ego for a little while. Eventually, I reframed getting laid off as an opportunity. I got to spend time with my family in South America, help my wife through a serious back injury, and return to Fresh Emblem with intensity.
Turning a Corner
A mantra that I heard recently from Shaan on the My First Million pod (great business podcast btw) was "intensity is the strategy." Shaan encapsulated my realization about the importance of intensity into a 4-word tagline.
This tagline resonated with me because I realized not only was I treating Fresh Emblem as a side-hustle, I had been half-assing Fresh Emblem for 6 years.
Over 6 years, I have vended at large Christmas markets and cold-emailed a few retail stores, but other than that I gave outbound sales almost zero effort. 99% of Fresh Emblem's custom bulk orders have come from inbound sales. Fresh Emblem has been extremely lucky with product market fit. I have put minimal effort into outbound sales and marketing over the years.
Considering most business ideas never get any traction, I took all of Fresh Emblem's inbound inquiries and sales for granted. I have been lacking the sales and marketing intensity to grow my business to a seven-figure business.
(Why not have a big hairy audacious goal right?)
I have no more excuses. Focus and intensity are the primary strategy.
Defining Focus and Intensity
Focus and intensity are just words though. Now that I’m back full-time on Fresh Emblem here is my current reminders and to-do list:
- I'm cold-emailing more than I have ever done in the history of Fresh Emblem.
- I'm working on providing a better packaging experience for customers.
- I'm trying to create more content for Instagram, this blog, and the new Fresh Emblem LinkedIn page. It takes a while to build out all this content and systems around creating content.
- I'm tinkering with AI tools to learn the best way to use them for Fresh Emblem.
- I'm thinking of creative non-traditional ways to do lead generation.
- I'm reading copywriting books from the legends on how to provide world-class salesmanship.
- I'm collaborating with my graphic designer to develop new emblem designs.
- I'm rebuilding my website.
- I'm contemplating offering a new line of essential oils.
- I'm working on building more efficient manufacturing processes.
- I'm finding new ways to hang out with entrepreneurial people.
- I'm launching a new custom emblem offering with a friend this fall.
Wearing so many different hats, can be tiring, but I find it a lot of fun!
The to-do list is always long, but I enjoy experimenting with new different ways to solve problems, since it's always been my goal to work on solving problems all day.
As a solopreneur, it's a lot of trial and error to solve all these problems and/or challenges. Thankfully I have received plenty of help from family and friends along the way.
Solving all these problems and challenges hopefully leads me to accomplish my 2023 goal: Hit $200,000 in revenue. Cheers to 5 months left in 2023 and making plenty of sales to hit that goal.
Implementing my 2023 mantra "focus and intensity" every day and saying NO to all the shiny distractions has me feeling excited and scared. It's scary to not hedge my bets with other sources of income or side projects, but it's exciting to focus on growing Fresh Emblem to its full potential!
Next week, check out my blog post about the how the legends of business, politics, and sports have inspired me.