Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi! We’re Pam and Gene Farley, and we own Comic Crate, a subscription box that sparks a love of reading through comic books.
Comic Crate is the only comic book subscription box where the buyer gets to choose the rating of the comics received: G, PG, or Teen+.
We are a $100 Startup and within the space of 18 months have grown the business to an average of $1,000 in revenue per month.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
We have owned Comics & Collectibles, a comic book, and a game store in Sacramento, California for more than 20 years. When our kids started school, we saw firsthand how much comic books can help kids learn to read and love reading.
We wanted to get comic books into more kids’ hands, but we knew it wasn’t feasible for busy parents to make a special trip to a comic book store. And most parents don’t have the depth of experience to know what comics are OK for kids to read and which are not appropriate--but we do. Here’s an example of all the new comic books that are released in a single week. This is overwhelming for people who aren’t in the know!
I floated the idea of a comic book subscription box in a local Facebook mom’s group and got lots of positive responses. We knew we had a unique idea and just needed to crunch the numbers and figure out how to make it profitable.
At that time, we thought it would be an extra revenue stream for our brick-and-mortar store. We had no idea that it would support us through the 2020 shutdown when our business was closed for two months due to quarantine.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Since we’re already extremely familiar with comic books, the packaging and shipping details were the key points we had to work out.
This is a situation where we had to “unlearn” something we took as a fact. Comic book collectors base the value of a comic book on its rarity and physical condition. If you’re shipping a comic book to a collector, it needs to be carefully and securely packaged to prevent shipping damage. As you can imagine, this is prohibitively expensive.
We decided to ship in more user-friendly packaging, both to save on shipping costs and to give the recipient a better opening experience. We found that the kids receiving the Comic Crates don’t mind if the comics are bent a little during shipping. Here are a few of the shipping packages we’ve tested:
Cardboard shipping box
Thin cardboard envelope
Branded bubble envelope
The “buying customer” is typically a parent or grandparent, but the “end customer” is the kid who receives the package. We decided to include a flyer that explains what Comic Crate is, and a survey postcard so the reader can tell us how they like their Comic Crate.
Our startup costs for the initial boxes, labels, business cards, and reply postcards were less than $100. We went from idea to income in 6 weeks.
Describe the process of launching the business.
We initially marketed Comic Crate as a literacy aid. We talked about the different types of learners and how they could benefit from reading comics:
Reluctant Readers enjoy comic books because the short bursts of text and vivid images are easier to read than the solid text in a prose book.
English Language Learners can match the text to the images in comic books to help decode and understand the text.
Proficient Readers can enjoy the art and text while learning how the comic medium models concise language.
Comic Book Lovers of all ages and reading levels can appreciate and enjoy the enticing and engaging stories in today’s comic books.”
We quickly saw that these comics were not typically being used as a teaching aid, but were strictly for enjoyment.
Our marketing has been strictly organic and word of mouth. We have approved enrichment vendors for many homeschool and charter school groups and have appeared on local news and entertainment TV shows.
One of the obstacles we continually face is the lack of G-rated comic books. There aren’t many G-rated comics being made, because there isn’t a high demand for them. Also, because comics are printed to order, we can’t order more of a specific comic once it’s on the market. We have to plan ahead and order wisely.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Right from the start, we shared Comic Crate with our personal networks and with our comic book store customers. We didn’t have money set aside for conventional marketing and wanted to start slow to perfect our processes.
Don’t be afraid to talk about your project with your family and friends. Don’t be a broken record, but let people know what you’re doing. You never know what connections those people have--and that can lead to a big break for your business.
Our marketing has changed focus since we started. Original marketing was based on comics as a vehicle for literacy and education. This was a good start but didn’t resonate with customers. Now we invoke parents’ sense of nostalgia and remind them of the fun they had reading comics as a kid:
“Remember riding your bike to the corner store to pick up a slushie and some comic books? Then Mom would catch you reading comics under the covers at night and pester you to go to sleep. The fun of reading comics was a big part of our childhood, and we want to share the joy of comics with everyone across the United States.”
Amazon: this seemed like a no-brainer, as the existing comic book grab bags on Amazon had poor reviews and most contained VERY inappropriate comics. We spent $250 to buy UPC codes (which are required to place your product on Amazon), jumped through their many hoops, and sold exactly ONE Comic Crate via Amazon in the last 12 months.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We went from idea to income very quickly, and in spite of our hiccups have been profitable since year one.
The price of the comics is printed right on the comics, so it’s easy for the buyer to see the exact value of the books they’re receiving. This is different from other subscription boxes, where the items don’t have an MSRP and the value of the box is based on the items’ perceived value.
Shipping is built into the cost of the Crate, so shipments from California to the East Coast have a lower profit margin. We chose to build in the shipping cost and absorb this loss to make it easier for the customer.
We currently assemble all Comic Crates personally at our comic book store. Many of the kids send in their reply postcard each month, and we do our best to fill their requests if we can.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
You may have to unlearn things that you think are true. As mentioned above, we thought shipping would be an obstacle. It turned out that these customers aren’t worried about a dinged-up corner or having the books be bent in their mailbox.
Since comic book conventions are such a big deal, we thought we’d have a Comic Crate table at a local vendor event. This was not a success because Comic Crate is not an impulse buy. It is very popular around holidays and for birthday gifts.
One of the forces out of our control was the 2020 shutdown. No new comics were published for more than two months. We had plenty of stock for our PG and Teen+ Crates, but we had to be creative to find comics for our G-rated Crates.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We use CrateJoy for all the subscription box processing and credit card payments. They do all the back-end work and confirmation emails, which takes this headache off our hands.
Pirate Ship is our shipping company. They give us a great discount off USPS pricing and are pirate-themed to boot.
We purchased a Rollo label printer and labels to make it easy to label the Crates.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
All of Chris Guillebeau’s books:
- The Art of Non-Conformity
- The $100 Startup
- The Happiness of Pursuit
- Born For This
- Side Hustle: From idea to income in 27 days
Plus his podcast, Side Hustle School
James Wedmore’s podcast, Mind Your Business
John Lee Dumas’ podcast, Entrepreneur on Fire
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Your project has to be something you’re passionate about. Whether you hit it big quickly or are in it for the long haul, you will be eating-breathing-sleeping your project for years. If it’s not something you love, you will be sick of it and won’t engage enough to take it to the next level.
You can start a project with a small budget. Focus on solving a problem, and get your product to market quickly. I can guarantee that our first customers did NOT care that their comics were packaged in an envelope with a Comic Crate sticker on it. They were just excited to get their comics!
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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