This is a follow up story for Joker Greeting. If you're interested in reading how they got started, published about 3 years ago, check it out here.
Hello again! Remind us who you are and what business you started.
I am Travis Peterson and the co-founder and president of Joker Greeting. Joker Greeting makes endless singing greeting cards and other annoying pranks. I don’t do everything but I make it all come together. I design the cards (new concepts and art direction) and work with manufacturing and order and maintain inventory, I create shipments and maintain warehouse inventory, I create the videos and copy and voice for ads and manage social media to try and make sure product is selling. Most importantly I manage cash flow; which makes and breaks startups.
Joker Greeting has two main product lines:
- We make endless looping musical greeting cards that have no off switch and last 3-6 hours for nearly all occasions.
- We make hide and seek noise pranks that play random noises to annoy any friend, relative, or office-mate.
We mostly sell directly to customers from our website but we also have some great channel partners we work with as well as some upcoming partners that we are co-developing new ideas.
On April 1, 2020, I will reach my 5-year mark of being a business and it’s been a very interesting journey; like any business. It’s not a rocket ship but I am pretty excited to say that in 2019 we will reach over $650,000 in revenues and 2020 shows no signs of slowing.
The goal is $1,000,000.00 in sales for 2020; I will aim higher and do my best. New product lines will hopefully be successful (secret ones) and just keep building what Joker Greeting is now.
Tell us about what you’ve been up to! Has the business been growing?
Since last, I was interviewed by Pat our topline sales are up from I think around $25,000 a month to $50,000 a month this year. To be clear, our sales are not that linear and definitely seasonal as anyone should expect. This is an average for the year. The question now is, what are we doing right? Let me attempt to break down what I see and what I have learned.
There are a few reasons why we have been able to expand revenues. Primarily it is the fact that we have a solid platform of items that are in demand. It’s not like I had a broken wheel and to fix I just needed to scale the wheel; which really isn’t easy but it’s far easier than searching for a working product, I think. Why are revenues up? The simple answer is I have a larger ad budget and more inventory to sell. Additionally, there was a shift from wholesale to direct sales (we even stopped selling through amazon, a boon for us), and a successful launch of a new category of products. I can try and explain each of these a bit more.
In case you don’t remember (why would you?) Joker Greeting started on Kickstarter in 2015 and raised $92,073 in the first 30 days. That was a crazy experience. But I quickly learned that in order to continue to have the success I needed to grow my inventory which sucked up more capital and I needed a budget for ads. That money was gone very quickly. Bootstrapping a company is a much slower process than VC or Angel rounds. But as I have been able to grow sales roughly 20% every year I have been able to find better ways to finance and pay myself (I always get paid last) and increase inventory. Once I can increase inventory I just work very hard to find a way to sell what I have. I’ve been limited by capital but also I think my slower growth has protected me as well. And honestly, my natural inclination is to endure rather than a sprint. Why try and be something I am not?
We have also shifted a lot from certain vendors who purchased my goods at wholesale. They have really good SEO and the capital to pay me upfront for my inventory. I didn’t have either of those. Things change though and direct sales have been a big driver in revenues as well over the years. I even left Amazon. After trying to work with Amazon as a sales channel I have chosen to not involve myself with Amazon. I understand their siren call but the biggest cost to me was lack of customer service with my own customers. If a customer had a problem I had no way to really fix their problem (like replacing a defect). So they would simply give me a rating and I couldn’t even defend myself that they used the product incorrectly or that the product was defective. It was a risk to remove myself from Amazon but it has paid off I think.
I work very closely with customers and do my best to serve them as best I can. I don’t personally like marketing emails and so I don’t use marketing emails for my customers, but the more traffic I can drive to myself allows retargeting and look-a-like audiences to actually work quite well. Once you add up all the costs of amazon, I don’t think it’s a good long-term strategy for Joker Greeting. I noticed Nike removed themselves from Amazon as well; perhaps for similar reasons.
Another reason why I think I have found success is product expansion. Pretty simple but also costly and risky. Before 2019 I never had a St. Patricks Day card and I only had one Father’s Day card. I don’t like having lots of options but expanding into smaller holidays did help. It helped me reach a wider audience but also just having more inventory to sell when I normally would have nothing. It seems obvious but St Patricks day doesn’t seem like a BIG holiday or that anyone would care. It’s not a huge seller but it’s a hilarious card. Additionally, I was able to launch a new category with Joker Meow, Joker Cricketand more devices that is more like to hide and seek prank. These devices adhere nearly anywhere and play a random noise for 8-20 hours. These have been very successful and I have been expanding this category. It’s a whole new set of customers that don’t normally buy greeting cards. I already have four more items planned to launch in February and March. Creating a new line of successful products is difficult and lucky. I made a Joker Toot that farted randomly and this sold pretty well but not like the Joker Meow. It’s hard to know which one will break out. For me, it’s important to try new items but doesn’t go all-in on the first batch. Make it, learn about it, then expand or remove it.
What have been your biggest lessons learned in the last year?
My biggest mistake of 2019 is not expanding my Joker Cricket line soon enough into Joker Meow and other sounds. Those have been very good to Joker Greeting this year and I was too careful this year to try them out. I also had a vendor email me saying they would buy a pretty big quantity of Birthday cards so I spent a pretty good penny making that quantity only to have them buy 1/10 of that ask. Was it a mistake? It’s hard to parse mistakes with normal business problems. But I do think I could have kept that line of communication open with them as I went into production and been able to use that cash for another product that needed more.
I have been trying to open up some partnerships this year. Rather, I've had some successes with two partnerships. I have tried for years to create custom items for companies but many don’t have the means or tenacity to really try something new. I did have one customer ask me to make a farting birthday but not as an exclusive just because they thought it was funny. I’ve had some progress and one is definitely working out pretty well and helping both our revenue streams. And we have even worked on a co-product that may launch in 2020. The second partner is just about to get their product so I will find out.
And a lesson learned is the importance of copyright. I have a vendor, I will not share their name, who basically bought my product and copied it in every way. I chatted with my copyright attorney who said, basically, if you have that little © on the back on your cards so they know it and then copied you you have a right to block them. It’s a bit more complicated but what is great is youtube and Shopify both comply with Copyright and it was easy to show them my product and the copycat and both the video and product were taken down. I actually ended up making friends with another site as he now sells my Endless NSFW card exclusively for me. Because his website sells more NSFW and had a much different demographic than Joker Greeting it has worked out well for both of us.
What’s in the plans for the upcoming year, and the next 5 years?
Plans will always be disrupted. But I plan to launch a third product line in 2020. I actually have two new products planned and testing but anticipate one of them not working or selling as well as I hoped. Maybe both are huge successes but I have no idea. I wouldn’t make either if I didn’t believe in them myself. Both new products are different from what I currently sell. Let’s see what happens! Maybe they both fail! Luckily I can keep making greeting cards.
For 2020 I plan to launch “version 2” of my endless greeting cards. I can’t quite say what that is going to be. But I've had very good success with some tests and it will be trickling out through 2020. The goal is to keep the core benefits (plays as long as possible and loud) but reduces some core customer costs and challenges. These are obvious goals and I’ve known where I need to improve for 2 years but reaching that goal takes time with the right improvement. I am one person with limited cash and I need to be careful to not erode my core idea and disrupt my cash flow. But I will certainly work to progress towards better products and not be idle. In the end, happier customers makes for more sales and stronger company. Rather, exceeding expectations is the goal of not meeting them.
For 2020 I will be partnering with another prank company and co-developed a prank that will launch soon, and I have 2-3 other small products I am always testing and breaking during any six-month period while driving my manufacturer crazy.
But the drive is to break $1,000,000.00 in revenues and double that again in 2-3 years with expanded product lines and wider distribution. How exactly I get there I don’t have a specific driver other than my tenacity to keep listening, testing, and launching new products. That is what we have done well and will continue to do.
Have you read any good books in the last year?
Antifragile by Taleb was a great book to read. I’m not sure if it helped me directly with my business strategy but just gave me a lot of new ways to think. He is very arrogant but he also has a lot of smart things to say so it kept me going. I am about to jump into his other book Skin in the Game. Taleb is not for the lazy or easily offended. I do not fall in-line with all his teachings and he is arrogant but quite often right or at least raises a very good reason I can’t dismiss. I think he purposefully talks over you and expects you to work to understand him. Some find that annoying, it certainly isn’t convenient, but I don’t have a problem with that.
I just started a new book called, The Old Waysby Robert Macfarlane. As ironic as it sounds, I definitely think we spend too much time in front of phones and screens. My job requires it and I justify screen use to take care of myself and family. I don’t feel bad about it. I just think I try to find some roots in that truth that I need to get away from it; physically. This book is pretty boring as a subject matter but I find it fascinating. It’s about walking. How walking is good for you to learn about yourself or others or the world. If you read Steve Jobs's bio you will know he often walked and talked and I believe quite a few people interviews while on walks rather than sitting for coffee. This book goes much further down that path (no pun intended). The fact is we have walked for centuries and our bodies have adapted to walking. Check it out!
And I really like short stories more than novels. I really enjoyed Exhalation by Ted Chiang. Each story is quite interesting but some better than others. These stories are a bit like Black Mirror but that is a soft comparison.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who might be struggling to grow their business?
Don’t do it alone. I now work alone (mostly) as my brother decided to follow his own path years ago. But we started it together. I’ve met with many founders and it’s very hard to do things alone. It is possible but I think you lower your probability of success. One very simple reason is that if you can’t find someone to join you is because you are the only one who needs it (that is not good).
During the last 5 years, I have tried to launch two more companies with friends. One is barely kicking but on its last leg as we attempt to make some adjustments and see if demand picks up. And the other project hit a wall we just didn’t see coming and we may very well end up completely changing the product and trying again. In the end, they both felt like really good ideas on every account. Well, a few thousand dollars later and none were great and none were ready. Even successful people can’t always make more success.
If you are struggling it may be worth changing everything towards a new path that you now see as better. I am involved with a technology company that had a great product and fell completely flat twice. They basically decided to remove some complexity and go after a less sexy market but after 18 months landed some VERY large purchase orders. I think part of their success was going after a simpler market they knew they could dominate versus trying to disrupt an industry they basically found a way to shift it a few steps and make it more palatable for those with capital. Sometimes a new idea carries too much risk the buyer does not want. I think Joker Greeting is a bit like this too. We simply took a timely product and steady industry and edged out competition into a new category. We didn’t disrupt anything but opened up a pocket that people were willing to pay for.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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