Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello there! I’m David, a full-time Front End Developer and outdoors enthusiast with a side hustle called Rainier Watch (RW). RW is an apparel brand that sells quality goods inspired by mountains, specifically Mount Rainier, and builds community around “The Mountain”. For every purchase, RW donates to organizations protecting and supporting the National Parks.
The RW Shop includes items like shirts, hats, stickers, and more with local catchphrases like “The Mountain is out”. I prioritize using other local small businesses in the manufacturing process, in addition to using ethically made, and earth-friendly practices. Most of the customers are from Washington State, but surprisingly almost 40% of orders come from out of state.
The RW Shop started in August 2018 with some basic logo stickers and since then has grown to beanies, hats, shirts, and even an annual limited edition Holiday Sweatshirt!
Before COVID struck, about 75% of sales were from pop-up shops at farmers markets and local events, so the revenue changed to virtually all e-commerce in 2020.
Sales have grown from just a few hundred dollars a month via a Gumroad account, to a custom Woocommerce website that facilitates several thousand dollars in sales each month.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
In 2013 I was commuting to downtown Seattle for work on the bus and was awestruck by the clear (rare) days that you could see Mount Rainier out. For those who haven’t been here, Mount Rainier is a mountain that’s over 100 miles away from Seattle yet looks like you can reach out and grab it on the 50ish clear days a year. So when “The Mountain is out” it is a beautiful, yet elusive treat and is adored by the locals here in the Greater Seattle area.
The power and reach of social media, if used well and invested into, is pretty powerful.
On those commutes, I questioned if there was a way online to know if Rainier was out and visible, but alas I couldn’t find one. So I started a Twitter account, posting daily on my commute.
Here’s the first tweet:
Eventually, it caught on and people now tag RW on Twitter when The Mountain is out, it’s a community-driven thing that is really fun. After a few years of tweeting (off and on), I decided to try my hand at selling stickers. So in 2018, I started with some basic logo stickers that I sold via a Gumroad account. They sold fairly well and so I conducted a few polls on social media, curious if the followers would be interested in more designs. And the answer was yes! So I began to work on more designs, intending to create more stickers and maybe even shirts. Then later that year I started an Instagram account to share photos of The Mountain and to kick start the RW Shop idea that was brewing.
I think my background and interests have been key to the success of RW. I’m always dabbling in all sorts of areas (like design, digital marketing, branding, etc), and in the past, I’ve even created several micro-brands just for fun. At this point in life with RW, I hadn’t yet learned to code websites so I started the RW website on Carrd.co and Gumroad at that point. Also, my experience with graphic design was very minimal so I started with some very simple designs.
I think having a varied skillset and not being hyper-focused on one thing really helps people become successful Founders. I’ve refined my skills throughout the years of running RW; skills like building a small business, design, digital marketing, social media, apparel, branding, product photography, and e-commerce.
Now, after my career pivoted from Anti-Money Laundering to Web Development, I acquired the skills to build a website. In 2018, these skills came in very handy when I relaunched the RW Shop on Woocommerce.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
As I said, I started testing the viability of the RW Shop idea with stickers via Gumroad and as customers asked for more I launched the standalone RW Shop website in 2018 via Woocommerce. In my processes, I do a lot of testing with polls on social media to see what products and designs folks like. One thing I’ve learned though is polls don't actually lead to sales, even if the design positively resonates with the audience. So it’s important to trust your instincts as a founder and these instincts will evolve. And I think as a solo founder, decision and design fatigue is a real threat, so I’d recommend to other solo founders that they seek out a cofounder or experienced confidant that can help them make decisions.
Running RW has been an ongoing learning process in every aspect of the business. With apparel and e-commerce, everything is a rabbit hole, so I try to take things one at a time and often have to say no. Even though I always wanted to use earth-friendly packaging for shipping orders, it wasn’t until a few months ago that I had the budget to purchase 100% recycled materials for my orders.
I found my manufacturing partners by searching locally for great suppliers who make quality hats, shirts, stickers, and other items. Being as local as possible is important to the RW mission and I think as an entrepreneur it’s important to support other local small businesses, even if it costs a little bit more. Additionally, I intentionally use top-quality materials and products that will last for years.
For example, I use Richardson Sports, based out of Oregon for top-notch beanies and hats. For stickers, I use Diecutstickers.com, an excellent sticker manufacturing small business based just 30 minutes away from me in WA. Both are local to the PNW and do amazing jobs; I can’t recommend them enough.
Describe the process of launching the business.
The first real launch of the RW Shop was in 2018. Leading up to it I tested product fit by selling some stickers and a few other items via Gumroad and then for a few short months Big Cartel. The Big Cartel site:
After realizing there was a market fit with customers, I began to research more custom options web solutions. I thought about using sites like Etsy but I wanted to own the experience and the full customer journey, so I narrowed it down to Shopify and WooCommerce (WC). (This debate of WC vs Shopify has been something I’ve struggled with for years- it’s about control versus offloading aspects to a service).
I decided to go with WC because I would have more access to the codebase and thus it gave me more refined control. Oh and the biggest reason at that time was cost, hosting a small WC shop on a DigitalOcean droplet would cost around $10 a month versus the $30 for the basic Shopify tier. Being RW was a side hustle that was largely untested, I tried to (and still do) minimize overhead, especially fixed costs, as much as possible.
Product-wise I launched with stickers and a few apparel items like shirts. After doing a lot of research into that realm I settled on drop shipping the shirts via Printful. However, I wanted to use high-quality shirts and make them very brand-specific by including a custom label on the inside of the neck.
To do this with local print shops I needed more capital than I started with, often the minimums for that are 100 shirts, which can run over $1,000 with the high-quality shirt blanks I use.
Website-wise, I came up with a list of requirements and user experience features I wanted and then I dug into the wide world of WC themes. I didn’t have the expertise or time to completely build my own so I used a theme as a launching point for the site. I was pretty excited when I found the free theme I am using because it had a lot of important things included like accessibility features, optimized performance, and it was free! It seemed like I found a diamond in the rough and I’m pretty surprised I haven’t seen it used more. I launched the shop to some minor fanfare across the RW social channels and probably via an email. I actually didn’t focus much on email at that time so most of the sales came via social media.
Here’s the launch post from Instagram in August 2018!
Within the first year, I learned a few lessons pretty quickly; healthy margins are the key. I was focusing on premium shirts, which are very expensive and tricky to drop ship while making decent margins. In addition to sacrificing margins with drop shipping, you also lose control. And too often, I looked to the competition to price my items instead of accounting for my own costs and goals for margins to calculate my prices.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
I’ve only started to focus heavily on email marketing in the last year, but I wish I had done so from the very start. I really don’t love email marketing so I always focused more on social media marketing instead. But the really nice thing about email is ownership, you own the channels and the emails and the customer list. Social media is a seemingly endless game of chase the mouse and jump through Facebook’s hoops.
I’ve also learned just because I don’t like something as a consumer, doesn’t mean I should avoid it as a marketing tool. This is specific to email marketing, probably my second best channel for sales besides Instagram, and SMS marketing.
In October I launched an SMS marketing list, which was something I avoided for years despite hearing how its metrics were super impressive. It’s been a solid channel and one I hope I can grow more. It’s a unique way to connect with customers and keep them involved if they want to opt-in.
One really nice part of the RW business is how much User Generated Content the followers generate. Because I spent hundreds of hours building the RW IG account from 0 to 40,000+ in under 3.5 years, I’ve got a vast library of resources to draw from there. Part of the RW mission to spread and share a love for Mount Rainier and I’ve done that on IG by sharing photos of the Mountain by lots of talented photographers. And when The Mountain is out in the PNW, dozens of Rainier watchers tag my account on Instagram and Twitter to keep the community informed. It’s super fun, although it took a lot–I mean a lot–of time to build up that following and in a way ‘train’ folks to do that.
Lately, in 2021 I’ve been finding more enjoyable and fun interactions on Twitter. I have a love/hate relationship with Instagram - it’s definitely a huge factor of the revenue growth that RW has had, but it’s also a huge time commitment and never-ending mouse chase. Social media is such an amazing tool and it’s really fantastic to have such a direct connection with RW fans and customers.
It’s been more fun to post than serious posts like memes and such on Twitter, like the Bernie gloves meme:
I don’t do it often, but when I sit back and think about how many states and strangers I’ve sent orders to, it kind of blows my mind. I’m just a guy who decided at one point a few years ago to start tweeting when Mount Rainier was out, and then later decided to learn how to design apparel and create an eCommerce brand. You never know until you try something could be until you try!
The topic of Amazon often comes in the conversation around selling online. I have chosen to keep RW Gear off Amazon for several reasons. It requires losing my control over the customer experience (I try to send handwritten notes in all my orders) which is very important to me and the brand, and it seems like there’s a huge difficulty with counterfeit and fake items on Amazon.
In 2020, while pivoting hard to eCommerce to survive the pandemic, I also focused a lot on giving back. I launched the "The Mountains Are For Everyone" product line, which features a design that encompasses this motto. A portion of the profits of this line was donated to organizations supporting diversity and inclusion in the outdoors. I also held a fundraiser for those organizations and donated profits from several periods of time to wildfire relief efforts. This was all in addition to the everyday donation to National Parks that I do.
I was also able to increase my average order value, which was under $10 until 2020, by focusing my marketing content around my higher-priced goods and offering free shipping on orders over $50. This was important because I pack all my goods and with a higher AOV, I can get a better return on my time.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Mostly just trying to keep the dream alive! As I said, the pandemic really crushed my RW dreams. I was hoping 2020 would be the year I could really go hard on and see if it could become more than a side hustle. And in January and February, at two different local markets, RW had its best two single-day sales records.
Then the pandemic came and all markets closed for almost the whole year. Additionally, all my wholesale channels dried up. However, I am working on new apparel designs and fun collaborations for this year.
I also want to pivot the business model a little bit and do more limited quality releases in the drop style that often is popular. I do this every holiday season with our holiday sweatshirts that sell out very quickly. This approach will help me balance my time better when it comes to shipping orders and help increase that customer FOMO around the products.
Something that I’d like to do as well is to dip my toes into social media ads a bit more as my budget opens up because that’s something I’ve only dabbled with- a few hundred here and a few hundred there. But I’ve read case studies on how it can really open the gates for an eCommerce apparel company.
Tech-wise I’m hoping to launch an app that’s related to the shop but more focused on reporting if and where The Mountain is out. And I’m hoping to rebuild the shop site myself in code and relaunch on Shopify. I really like what Shopify has been doing the last few years and I think it's time to move to it. Moving to Shopify will allow for greater integration with more tools like Smile Rewards and a better checkout experience via Shop Pay.
I’m hoping the retail landscape improves and I can refocus on working with retailer partners and small shops to sell RW goods.
One of the biggest things in the future is finding where I can be strategic with my time. As 2020 wore on, I found myself fighting burnout and fatigue from doing literally everything with RW on top of my family and day job. To be honest, this is not a great thing and I’m hoping I can figure out in 2021 what can be broken off from my plate.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
The power and reach of social media, if used well and invested into, is pretty powerful. Without social media, especially Instagram, I think RW would be a smaller version of itself and might have been crushed by the pandemic.
I love the Pareto Rule and want to find areas where I can focus my time to be strategic in the business. Looking inward I know there’s a lot of things to analyze and strategize over, like focusing on returning customers. I know it's often said that acquiring new customers is often more expensive than returning customers. Focusing on existing customers is definitely a growth area for RW.
Social media scheduling software saves so much time. I’ve used the free tier of Buffer for several years but just upgraded to the paid tier. It’s worth it and completely changed my workflow, and in some ways, my life. I used to manually scrape images off Instagram and post them manually when the time came, which at one point it was three times a day! Now I can sit back and let the automation and posting happen. If your brand is highly focused on social content and UGC I’d definitely recommend using a tool like Buffer. I like Buffer because I find its UI better than the other similar tools. I’m hoping I can find other time efficiency wins like this in other areas of the business.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
WooCommerce as mentioned before.
Metorik - does a lot of advanced reporting, automatic reports, and even has a nice mini-email marketing tool built-in. It's a must-have for anyone else using WooCommerce (And they recently added Shopify integration, which I haven’t used so I can’t speak to it)
I love Drip for email marketing. I started on Mailchimp (didn’t everyone?!) but last year upgraded to Drip. It has an amazing UI and has a depth for advanced ecom strategies that I really like. Plus they have a lot of good learnings and tools, I feel like I’ve barely scraped the surface with it.
Sometimes I use Shippo for shipping but often I just use the native WC shipping. I tried ship station after hearing good things but couldn’t get over the ancient user interface
I use Eco Enclose for all my packing because they are hyper-focused on awesome, earth-friendly solutions.
Buffer is my social media scheduling software because it has the best UI and tools I think
Basecamp Personal (aka free tier) is how I track projects, todos, and information
Notion is for everything that doesn’t fit right in Basecamp.
Because I’m a web developer by day, I use Figma (and in years past, Sketch) for my designs. (Yes I know that probably horrifies the real designers out there, but hey, you use what you are good with! I tried Illustrator and even went to a Draplin talk about it, but I found it super clunky and hard to learn).
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I use Twitter a lot and created a list of smart DTC / Ecommerce folks.
- Shopify Masters
- Ecommerce Conversions by Practical Ecommerce
- Yo! Podcast
- Side Hustlers with Carla Marie
Probably a few others I forgot.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
Just do it. You don’t know if something will work or not until you try! I didn’t know anything about eCommerce until I started reading everything I could find about it online. That goes for other things like shirts, apparel design, etc. As an entrepreneur, you are very much learning everything as you are going - most folks aren’t experts in this world when they begin.
Ask around, be nice, and try to help out where you can.
Also be careful about saying yes, I say yes too often and it comes back to hurt me because there’s only so much time in the day!
Be strategic and don’t overstretch yourself (related to the last point).
Like the first point, you can learn anything online, and the best way to learn is to do it and fail.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
RW is in a tough spot, it doesn’t have the financials to pay anyone. But I’ve always got one ear open for the right person who would want to come on board and help grow the brand to a point where it could have paid employees.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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