On Starting A Handmade Mexican Travel Hammocks Business
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi everyone! My name is Ben and I am the founder of Maca, a brand that sells handmade Mexican travel hammocks. Our hammocks are for people that want a unique, kick-ass, on-the-go hammock. Maca celebrates people who get out and explore somewhere new! But all that exploring requires some downtime and there is no better way to recharge the battery than to sink into a Maca hammock. Campers, vanlifers, hikers and nomads love our hammocks and especially connect with our “giving back” story.
We receive our hammocks directly from a certified fair trade supplier in Yucatan, Mexico. Over 900 individual makers hand-weave each hammock from the comfort of their homes. With each hammock, Maca includes a sleeve-sack and straps for easy setup anywhere your travels take you.
On top of that, we give $5 of every hammock purchased to a non-profit dedicated to improving the lives of the artisans and their communities. You can read a bit more about our giving back story here.
We sell our hammocks 100% direct-to-consumer via our website. At the moment, we are selling a couple of hammocks a month and have big plans to increase this number in 2020.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Growing up in the wave of awesome companies like Airbnb, Instagram, Doordash, Facebook, Uber, etc. (too many to name), it was hard for me not to pay attention. I loved watching and reading about how big ideas turned into big companies and how these companies impact society and change the way we live and behave.
Being a solo founder is hard enough as it is, surround yourself with supportive, honest and like-minded people. It takes extreme discipline to keep up with a side project when you're the only one held accountable.
Maybe it was just watching “The Social Network” one to many times, but building something from scratch and paving my own way has always been an attractive pursuit to me. I might just be another person on the “entrepreneurship” bandwagon but it doesn’t take away the fact that I’m extremely passionate and pour my heart into Maca.
Plus, I love that there is a bandwagon full of innovative, creative, and hardworking entrepreneurs that are open to sharing their stories and helping each other. Its inspiring, motivating, and this way, I can also learn from your mistakes. :)
Back to my story... for many years the ideas were filling up in my head and I was waiting for the right idea to pounce on. Some ideas I had were good but required technical knowledge I didn’t have or I didn’t know how to find the people that could help me.
Finally, I decided to do something I had knowledge about and felt like I could actually accomplish: eCommerce, Mexico, and hammocks. Why do I know about those things?
Growing up, we spent the majority of our summers in Mexico with our Mom's side of the family. Every home in Yucatan, Mexico has at least one hammock hanging ready for a quick lounge. What seemed like every night, I'd have brotherly fights over who got to sleep in the hammock instead of the bed. To us, the hammock was the pinnacle of sleep comfort and I thought it was the coolest thing.
You would think our obsession with these hammocks would die off in adulthood but it really only grew stronger, to the point that I wanted to take a hammock with me on all my hikes, road trips, camping trips.... you name it.
With some genius design work (a pat on my own back), I invented a simple bag and sleeve that safely packs up the whole hammock into the size of a football. With two straps, setting it up takes only minutes. I could now take a hammock with me wherever I went. With that, Maca was born.
At first, Maca was intended to be a fun side-project that I could learn from; learn how to build supplier relationships, how to work with manufacturers, how to build a website, how to drive organic traffic, marketing 101, 102, and 103, etc. etc. It turned out to be exactly that. The aim was always to make Maca a successful and sustainable business, but I also saw the project as an investment in my own education.
It also helped that my last couple of full-time jobs were in the eCommerce software space, so this business model was not completely foreign to me. Since the start of Maca, I have almost always maintained a full-time job at the same time and I have funded Maca 100% out of my own pocket.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
We have an amazing relationship with a fair-trade company in Merida, Mexico who supplies us with the hammocks. They work with over 900 individual artisanal weavers in the rural Mayan communities surrounding Merida, Mexico. The raw materials are provided to the weavers at a zero upfront cost, the weavers then hand make each hammock at home on their own schedules, and later they will come by to collect the finished hammocks.
These hammocks are difficult to move around and they can tangle, especially if you are frequently putting them up and taking them down. This was our #1 problem to solve. I taught myself how to use a sewing machine in my small New York City shoebox apartment at the time and began experimenting. It seems like a simple nylon bag but it gets complex very quickly.
I experimented with different bag designs, different bag materials, ordering parachute cord from Alibaba, buying tools and eyelets from the fashion district of NYC, etc. You can only imagine the mess in that apartment. I am sure my roommates thought I was crazy.
The full sleeve concept eliminated any danger of tangling and made it super easy to pack the hammock in and out. After landing on the design you see today, I started making and selling each hammock one by one in 2017.
I later began working with several USA-based manufacturers to make us the bags and straps at scale. Because I had already designed and created exactly what I wanted, this process was much easier.
I sent 10 completed sleeve-sacks to different manufacturers around the U.S. with a note asking, “can you build this for me and how much would you charge?” Long story short, we found one. Now I didn’t have to spend hours sewing one bag/sleeve and I could focus on driving the business forward.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Well... to be honest, it feels like it’s been a long 3-year soft launch. In other words, there was no champagne party. The website just went live one day back in 2017. Build it and they will come… that’s what they say…. right?
Building strong partnerships means success for Maca. We’ve seen the most success and momentum when we’ve decided to focus on collaborating with other brands, publications, and individuals.
I quickly realized that going forward, this was a marketing game now. If they don’t know you exist, then you might as well not exist. At first, I did what I thought you were supposed to do and built a Facebook Page and Instagram account and invited everyone we knew to come to check out our product and website.
We received a couple of orders from close friends and family but we were not reaching the masses by any means. What was encouraging though is that we did receive great feedback about the product and I do remember when the first “stranger” purchased a hammock. I was looking everywhere to see who this person was… friend of a friend? Or a long lost relative? But no, it was a complete stranger and they even left a glowing product review. That lights a fire under you.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
There are a handful of things that have had a positive impact on sales:
1) My first mission was to build a healthy amount of product reviews. I encouraged our customers to leave honest and genuine feedback (we use Yotpo). Being an unknown brand and website, potential customers stumbling on our site require peer-to-peer affirmation that first, we are a legitimate brand and second, that this is a kick-ass product. It is difficult to prove the impact but I have no doubt that the product reviews we have collected have positively impacted our conversion rate.
3) We picked a niche and targeted our consumers. We began getting traction with the Vanlife and RV community. If you don’t know what “van life” is, this Instagram account is pretty good at summing it up, VanllifeDiaries. We knew we wanted to appeal to the on-the-go outdoorsy folk, so this was perfect. Vanlifers and RVers were in need of a hammock to call their own and Maca was here to provide.
We have partnered with several Vanlife & RV publications; for example, landing the number one spot on VanClan’s Gift Guide as well as a dedicated product review article here (we need to do more of this). We can see that these articles are still sending us consistent traffic to this day.
We have also partnered with some inspiring Vanlife bloggers, Instagrammers, and nomads to build more awareness within the community. For example, we participated in a giveaway with @vincentvanlife. Here is their giveaway post so you can see what that looks like. We are not sure if this has resulted in direct sales but it did give us a small jump in followers on Instagram.
We have also partnered with:
- @Rachelgrixti, see an example post here
- @Soweboughtavan, see an example post here
- @She.who.explores, see an example post here
- @life_on_the_open_road, see an example post here
These partnerships led to a number of sales but only temporarily. We are wary to continue this activity as it does require giving away products and we are bootstrapped as it is.
4) We have not fully taken advantage of a newsletter but we knew the importance of building an email list. From day one, we have been building our email list with a pop-up newsletter sign-up, which has worked great (Thanks Privy). When the moment comes to fire off our first newsletter (which is soon), we will have an email list ready.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today sales are becoming more and more frequent. We have not turned profitable, but luckily we have managed to keep our operating costs extremely low. Our cost-of-goods-sold at the moment is about 50% which does not put us in a good position for retail. In other words, we take home around $60 of a $120 hammock order. Those margins do not work in a retail relationship.
Being that we are eCommerce direct-to-consumer at the moment, our focus is driving traffic to the website and that is a hard task in this very noisy world. However, we have a plan! Goals for 2020 are big:
1) We are doubling down on the Vanlife and RV community. In an effort to drive organic traffic to the site, we are launching a new blog called “On the Move,” made up of interviews meant to inspire our audience to get out and explore somewhere new.
Vanlifers, RVers, Sailors and Nomads tell their stories and show us how they live life “On the Move.” Our aim is to drive organic traffic growth and attract the audience we already know we do well with. We hope to publish 20 interviews this year.
2) Getting consistent and refining our social media with a weekly content schedule for each day of the week except Sunday (launching in Feb)
- Monday in Mexico - Post about “all-things” Mexico.
- Hammock Time Tuesdays - Post our best hammocks spots to date.
- Wild Card Wednesdays - Miscellaneous content that relates to Maca in some way, shape, or form. Most likely promoting the “On the Move” blog interviews.
- Thoughtful Thursday - We will focus on the rural Yucatan communities where our hammocks are made and bring attention to the Cielo Foundation’s activities and initiatives.
- Mexican Food Friday - Sharing our favorite Mexican dishes you’ve probably never heard of.
- Siesta Saturday - Another epic day to show the hammock in action
3) Driving costs down on materials for the sleeve-sack and straps which will help our margins and make us viable for retail.
4) I am actually based in Mexico at the moment and I am looking for a high-margin product to add to our offering (Mexico inspired of course).
5) As mentioned before, Maca gives $5 of every hammock purchased to the Cielo Foundation in support of their amazing initiatives in the Yucatan, Mexico area. We want to do more with the Cielo Foundation in 2020. They run a beautiful program called the The Girl Effect in which they sponsor full scholarships for young women to continue their education. In 2020, our goal is to sell enough hammocks to be able to sponsor and provide a full scholarship to one young woman. I think that would be the most amazing accomplishment.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Building strong partnerships means success for Maca. We’ve seen the most success and momentum when we’ve decided to focus on collaborating with other brands, publications, and individuals. When you have no audience, you need to figure out how to borrow other people’s audiences.
Because part of my initial goal was to learn in the process of building Maca, I didn’t mind getting into the weeds and teaching myself to do everything. In retrospect, this was inefficient and has slowed Maca’s growth. I have only recently veered away from that mindset and I am more focused on my time and spend it solely in areas that will drive revenue.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
- Shopify for our eCommerce platform
- Buffer for our social media management
- Privy for building our email list
- Omnisend for our newsletter
- Canva for creating marketing content
- Dropbox to stay organized on files
- Pixc for white background on product images
- Wave for accounting
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
How I Built This - I don’t think I have missed a “How I Built This” episode believe it or not. I listen for motivation and inspiration. Large name-brand companies become humanized and you realize that there are relatable and regular people behind these awesome companies which to me, is empowering.
Starter Story - I go to Starter Story to get ideas that I can actually implement.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Being a solo founder is hard enough as it is, surround yourself with supportive, honest and like-minded people. It takes extreme discipline to keep up with a side project when your the only one held accountable. It’s easy for the “side-project” to be just that, a side project that eventually gets put aside.
Personally, because Maca intertwines with my heritage and is rooted in my experiences growing up, it has been much more difficult to ignore. Even with that though, being disciplined is something I am still figuring out day-to-day.
It has been difficult to write up this interview because I always thought Maca would be further along by now after almost 3 years. I am learning to strip my ego out of the equation. I have learned progress comes much more easily when I am open, vulnerable, and transparent.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are not hiring at the moment but always looking for like-minded publications, brands, and individuals to collaborate and partner with.
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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