How I Started A $15K/Month Ecommerce Selling Colourful Map Art Prints
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello Starter Story! My name is Scott Wood and I'm the co-founder of Mapply - an Edinburgh-based map print company specializing in colorful map art prints of the world’s best places. We sell primarily city map prints, but also have since expanded to customized prints of anywhere in the world in a variety of striking colors.
We’ve gone from selling a few hundred pounds a month in prints at the end of 2018 to over £30k ($40k~) in prints last December - our busiest ever month. We did this with almost no marketing whatsoever.
We are also sold in numerous brick and mortar stores across Edinburgh and plan to expand to the rest of the UK and beyond over the next few years.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
My background has been in digital marketing for the last 12-13 years, primarily focused on SEO (Search engine optimization), so I understand a few of the things needed to be done to get traffic to your website and what I think constitutes an interesting product and brand. Also, I have been an avid traveler for years - spending time in Australia, Southeast Asia, and Europe so I loved different places, art, cultures, and food.
As such, working on something travel and art-related came naturally as it connects many of my interests - digital and travel. I came up with the idea when I was working at Skyscanner here in Edinburgh, a global travel comparison site (Kayak would be the US equivalent). I had seen a brand called Mapiful that operates out of Scandinavia that was doing very well and thought - why not be the Mapiful for the UK?
Fortunately, because of the relatively low barrier to entry, It was easy for us to launch a product, website, and social media channels as we did not need to hold stock to get started.
We validated the product offline to start with, which is unusual given my background but felt it was the quickest way to get immediate feedback on the product. I wandered into several design-led gift stores and showed them our Edinburgh and Leith map prints and got an order for 8 prints that the first day, which blew my mind. And off we went, we were now in business!
It’s hard for me to prove without financials from other companies, but I believe we are the biggest/most prevalent company in the UK now selling customized map prints.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
I started with thinking about a product that would be desirable for travelers, dreamers, home designers, and people thinking about places that were special to them. Maps seemed like the logical way to encapsulate lots of those things, so it was a good place to start.
I had always loved to travel so these prints seemed like a nice way to remember these trips. Being able to customize these is also a strong motivator to buy, to make it really personalized for a special gift.
Even if sales dropped to zero tomorrow I would be happy with what I’ve learned along the way about business and growing a small lifestyle brand. It's been a great ride so far.
Also, like food and music and people - places always evoke strong emotions. Everyone is from somewhere or has been somewhere that has a strong meaning to them, so it felt like a nice product and offering to create.
We started by taking map data for a small area of Edinburgh and focusing on that core area first to really nail a set of maps for Edinburgh and Leith where we lived. Once that map data was cleaned up, we worked on a color palette to help style that map along with the framing, text, and borders, etc to create the look and feel you see now.
Following that process, we then looked at how to print these maps on high-quality art paper which isn't as easy as it seems. There are SO MANY types of prints, inks, paperweights, etc, so we had to test this out across lots of different print companies in the city. We settled on a company called Print Sponge who helped us a lot in the early days getting our product looking good.
We also tried and tested a lot of packaging options to get customer orders sent out safely without issues. For example, we found that flat envelopes for larger prints almost always arrived damaged, so we had to investigate mailing tubes to avoid returns and damages.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Launching the business was a very low-key affair - we just made a single sale of a map print to our friend, then grew gradually from there. No fanfare, promotion, or anything like that. All of this was just funded from personal savings.
In the early days, we didn't have many map prints available, so our product offering was around 10 products which we uploaded to our website and Etsy store. Then day by day we would just keep adding products and the sales would continue to increase.
I think that continual adding of new things to our store really helped us gain visibility - no magic recipe, just 10/20/30 products a day, when you had the time.
Because of the low overheads, we probably spent less than £300 ($500~) on everything to get going, including some external hard drives, stationary, Shopify set up, etc.
The first few months were already profitable, so we didn’t need any startup capital to get going.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
We typically rely on a lot of big marketplaces to do our selling for us, plus our website and several brick-and-mortar stores. Our first sales were gained by simply walking into a gift store in Edinburgh and asking if they’d be interested in selling our prints. They took 8 on the spot, which was awesome and exciting that it was that easy. I think just trying is important as you may be surprised with the results. I also learned a lot from speaking with people about the product packaging, pricing, and other feedback which helped shape the finalized product.
I would strongly recommend trying brick-and-mortar stores in your niche if you have a physical product because it's relatively simple to approach them if your product is relevant and is a nice relatively passive income stream to add to your sales.
Online, we sell primarily on Etsy, which attracts lots of people in the craft/art/style maker world, but also people interested in gifting something to loved ones, colleagues, etc. Within a day or two of uploading our first products, we got a sale, which was a great motivator that this could work. Since then we just expanded our range and started advertising on Etsy, which has a decent return, especially around the Christmas period, etc.
We typically pay around 30% of the sales revenue in advertising spend, so for every $10 in revenue it costs us $3. Given our margins, we can still operate profitably within that range, plus it allows us to gain reviews and improve our rankings in Etsy organic search results.
In regards to Google Adwords, we are still working on getting this to work for us. Straight-up search Ads didn't work that well from an ROI perspective, but Shopping Ads have been somewhat more effective, allowing us to appear for hyper-targeted product queries such as ‘City name map print’. You will see it's pretty competitive, but three of the ads are ours - one for our website, plus our Etsy store and IamFY which is a design marketplace we sell on, so our saturation is pretty good.
Given my background in SEO, we also made sure all of our products and landing pages on the Mapply website are pretty well optimized. There's a lot of room for improvement and I haven't done much testing, but Shopify has a decent base level of optimization, which means I don't have to worry too much about it. Over time, we get increasing volumes of free organic clicks to our site as we have landing pages for almost 1,500 maps of the top cities in the world, along with strong rankings in the UK for ‘map prints’ and other related keywords which are highly targeted and well-converting search terms.
We did some outreach to local sites with discounts and offers which helped on that SEO front, such as Edinburgh Lockdown Economy - a site that helps support local Edinburgh businesses.
In regards to another source of sales - our Instagram has definitely attracted a fair few sales and people tag our products in posts or share us which helps get more people to find us. I think given we sell such a visual product, it's important to have a presence there even though our followers are still relatively low, it's growing each day.
We have run several print giveaways and promotional posts which has helped us gain followers and a few sales. I believe this is one of the biggest channels we can explore to grow our sales going forwards as we become a social media lead marketing business.
We all want to make money and do big things, but unless you genuinely like what you do, I don’t think it's possible to be fully invested as you need to be to get good traction and continue to drive growth.
Amazon is one we have only just started to try, but it definitely has what my partner calls a ‘cold start problem’. You simply don't rank anywhere in the listings unless you have a registered trademark, lots of sales, and reviews so I think that will be a challenge. It also took ages for Mapply to be approved as a brand on the platform so we could actually list items. But I think eventually it could be a strong channel for us!
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Our revenue mix is currently around 50% through online marketplaces, 30% through our website, 10% via social media, and 10% by brick and mortar.
For paid visitors, customer acquisition costs are around £10-15, with the primary search traffic driver coming from Google Adwords with the AOV being around £35. Currently, we get the majority of sales organically, but there is room to focus more on paid acquisition to scale up our topline revenue growth and expand our market share.
So far the year is looking promising. Our revenue and sales for Q1 2021 are up around 2-3x on last year, which is super promising, but I feel like this could be somewhat of a Covid bubble - as lockdown still is in force in most of the UK, so shopping volumes online has increased massively. Our sales jumped dramatically last year when lockdown came into force and people were reminiscing about their favorite places, home, holidays, etc.
I’d also like to see Mapply or another similar brand (to be decided) be built to expand into multiple different types of prints and products to capture more potential audiences. There are lots of areas we haven't even considered such as T-shirts, canvas prints, mobile phone cases, etc but we would need to position this in such a way as not to detract from our current brand aesthetic and offers.
Marketing-wise, I would love to delve deeper into social media influencer marketing - I think there is a huge gap to do well there so we will be pushing that extensively over the coming months. We have already had a good few channels posting lifestyle pictures featuring our prints, so I feel this could be really strong for us.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
So much. A lot more than any job I've had for sure.
When you have to figure out everything yourself, from sales to marketing, to product and quality control, fulfillment, customer service, etc. It gives you so many new skills that you may have never encountered in the past.
One thing I learned is to pick your battles and try not to focus on too many different things, for example expanding the product ranges in new print types rather than create more maps. We would have grown quicker just going ALL IN on maps rather than spread ourselves thinly across multiple categories etc. If something is working for you, definitely try and go deep on it.
On the flip side, you also what to understand what is working and what doesn’t in regards to marketing, so try and test lots of ideas to see what works without investing too much time. Test, learn iterate.
Another one of the problems we encountered early on was to not account for VAT (UK equivalent of sales tax) on our products in the early stages, so when we went out to brick and mortar stores with our pricing we didn't add on sales tax to our prices, which would mean we were too expensive for them when we sold enough within 12 months to have to register for VAT, etc. We got advised this by a store owner and this showed how we didn’t think too far ahead in the early days, which caused us problems later on.
And lots of other stuff I can't remember. Even if sales dropped to zero tomorrow I would be happy with what I’ve learned along the way about business and growing a small lifestyle brand. It's been a great ride so far.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
The main one is Shopify for our website, you simply can't beat it for getting started quickly. The interface is also super easy to use which makes your lives a lot easier.
We did however run into issues with bulk uploading and updating our products because each map we sell has lots of variants (color x size), so this is tricky when uploading via the API. So watch out for that when working on your merchandising - consider the complexities of having lots of variants!
We also use Shopify for email as we don't have that many subscribers (less than 2,000) so their drag and drop system is fine for our uses.
Other than that, only the most obvious Google products such as Google Analytics and Google Search Console to understand how the SEO side is going…
In regards to freelancers etc, we have used Upwork and Peopleperhour for small things, but not extensively.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
For a wide variety of SEO topics, you of course can’t beat Moz. I still call it SEOMoz as it's what I referred to a lot when I first started learning about SEO. Other sites like Webmasterworld, Searchengineland, etc.
I used Guy Kawasaki’s Alltop for SEO as my kinda homepage for a long time, taking in as much as I could about the industry.
In regards to books, I must say I’m not a big reader, but Nir Eyal’s Hooked was a book I read with great interest and explains lots of topics related to creating habit-forming web products, which I think is invaluable as you want to build something with users.
Seth Godin’s marketing books are also well-trodden, but really good. I enjoyed Purple Cow in particular and carried a lot of that approach to Mapply when thinking about how to wow customers and create advocates and repeat customers for your products.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
I think it goes without saying that a strong interest in the thing you are building is super important. Sure, we all want to make money and do big things, but unless you genuinely like what you do, I don’t think it's possible to be fully invested as you need to be to get good traction and continue to drive growth. Sure, I'm sure plenty have but the majority won’t.
In regards to when you should start - I like a bias towards action. Do something. Launch the site, so you get SEO starting to work. Create your first product, launch something - a splash page, anything. It's better than waiting forever to be perfect, then the moment has passed.
You can always iterate, but until you get a feedback loop started from potential customers on your product or service your idea isn't worth anything. People get hung up on the best possible branding, best-looking website, fancy logo, etc when in fact a lot of that doesn’t matter and you could have made a sale 6 months ago if you'd have just launched your semi-crappy thing when you first thought of it. You can always iterate on your idea once launched, but waiting forever to get going is just a missed opportunity cost.
You’d be surprised at how little others care about your branding and actually think it looks cool when you are agonizing over it thinking it's not ready for launch.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are looking for someone to help with our social media marketing, reaching influencers so if you are interested in something like that do let us know! This would be a freelance position, working 5-10 hours a week.
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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