Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello, I am Ross Nochumowitz and I founded and operate Baltimore in a Box: a popular gifting company that allows one to customize a Baltimore-inspired care package and ship it anywhere in the world. We make it easy to do all of this without lifting a finger (other than pressing the keys on your computer, tablet, or smartphone).
We allow the customer to pick 5, 7, or 10 uniquely Baltimore items to pack and send to your friends or loved ones missing “Charm City.” The items we offer are considered “iconic.” So, if you are from or have spent a decent amount of time in Baltimore you understand why they are included. And in most cases, you can only get these items if you live in or around the area which makes them particularly desirable to folks who have moved away.
Our main “product” is the service that we provide to our customers. We sell convenience! The truth is, that anybody can go out into the real world and curate their own “Baltimore in a Box.” And they might even be able to do so for less money than what we charge. But to do that, they might have to go to 4 or 5 different stores to source items, find a box that fits their items, buy a greeting card, hand-write a message, write the address on the box, find packing tape, and then take everything to the post office to wait in line to ship it. It’s a painful process to send a care package of any type to someone!
When I started this business, I wanted to help others do the same type of business in their respective towns or cities. People said I was crazy for “giving away my idea to the world.” I didn’t care! They would also ask, “Why didn’t I start the same concept myself in other cities?” Maybe a better entrepreneur would have. For me, I hardly have enough time to do this in Baltimore. And my idea wasn’t unique. People have been making care packages for people for decades. All I did was create an easier way to do it. So I wanted to help other entrepreneurs start their own “City in a Box” gifting business as I felt this could be replicated by a respective local anywhere else in the world with minimal startup capital.
I shared several detailed progress updates many years ago via Reddit:
For the past couple of years, we have been working on growing our brand via our own Baltimore-themed Ice Cream line to help market our gift box business called: Baltimore in a Box Ice Cream. We teamed up with a local Ice Cream maker and produced uniquely Baltimore flavors inspired by the very items we include in our gift boxes.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I had zero experience in gifting as a business and was also horrible at thinking of and giving gifts to people; just ask my wife!
my website was down because I was unable to fulfill all the orders. After all, I was just a one-man show in my basement and I was so concerned about disappointing potential customers.
I sort of stumbled into the business while working at my family’s bail bonds company of all places. While I was never truly content working in the family business I often tried experimenting with other business ideas. I launched startups dealing with online poker, a beta testing website, and even had a food truck at one point! While some of the businesses showed moderate success they never amounted to becoming something I could commit to, but each was invaluable to me in its own way.
Our family bail bonds business was well known in Baltimore for our popular marketing strategy which was simply: distribute as many hot pink and yellow pens with our information transcribed on the exterior to every business, home, and place we could think of.
We ordered nearly 1,000,000 pens per year and at times had 2 full-time employees in a custom-wrapped pen car to help distribute the pens. For a time, in Baltimore, you couldn’t go to many places without seeing one of our pens. They were in essence, iconic to Baltimore.
Since I had a little web development experience from prior projects, I created a website to help distribute these pens (for free) to anywhere in the USA. The website quickly went viral to the point where we were getting 200-300 pen requests per day so we had to shut it down as it was getting too costly to ship them out.
I said to myself: “There have to be other things from Baltimore that people would probably be excited to have sent to them, other than these silly bail bonds pens, and they might even be willing to pay for them too!” To some degree, this helped prove my concept before really even having a concept. Thus, Baltimore in a Box was born!
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
In the beginning stages, I had no relationship or wholesale agreements with any of the vendors of products that I was sourcing for my boxes. I would wait for an order to come in and then run out to the various shops near me that sold them and bought products for each box as I got orders. I did this because I didn’t want to start out buying a bunch of inventory before seeing if there was actually a demand for what I was selling.
I quickly realized that that method was not going to be sustainable for me. I needed to grab more items per every trip to the local stores. Certain stores only had a limited quantity of what I would need so sometimes it involved me going to 4 or 5 similar stores to scoop up all their Crab Chips, Old Bay, Berger Cookies, etc. Cashiers at local grocery stores looked at me like I was crazy when I showed up with a cart filled with nothing but Old Bay Seasoning shakers inside.
Before I even knew what was happening, a popular local blog found out about what I was doing and decided to write a piece on my new business. The blog post ended up being one of their most shared and read stories for that year and propelled a local news station to come to my home to film me in my basement packing and fulfilling orders.
The initial box offering was honestly awful looking. It was a plain brown box with a “Baltimore in a Box” logo sticker and the items were just carelessly tossed inside. I was even handwriting the addresses and taking them to the post office counter to pay for each package shipment individually.
I had no clue what I was doing! But it didn’t seem to matter, because people were still ordering. And that gave me the confidence I needed to continue. People were ordering so much, in fact, during my first Holiday season in 2014 I shut my website down because I was unable to fulfill all the orders. After all, I was just a one-man show in my basement. I was so concerned about disappointing potential customers and I did not want to ruin my company’s reputation early on by taking customers’ money and not being able to deliver in a timely manner.
While my website was down, I received dozens of emails from customers asking when it would be available again so they could order for their friends and loved ones that moved away.
Our gift boxes eventually got a bit nicer looking:
Describe the process of launching the business.
When I started, the first thing I did was create a list of about 10 items unique to Baltimore. Since I was born and raised here, that took me all of 5 or 10 minutes to do. I signed up for a Squarespace account, found a designer on Reddit to create a logo, and set up a site that allowed you to order a box that had a predetermined 5 of those items inside. I bought a Facebook Ad for $7 a day to drive traffic to the site, but nobody ordered.
I decided to tweak the process a bit and allow the customer to be able to customize the items for their boxes allowing them to select 5 from a list of 10 and that got me my first batch of orders!
That proved to be the key element going forward: customization! Just like when somebody goes out into the real world to create a care package they want to decide which items get put in their gift box. So I essentially created that same experience for the customer, but just made it convenient by putting it online.
My initial startup capital from when I started back in 2014 was minimal. I spent:
$150 - Logo Design
$96 - Squarespace 1 yr subscription
$83.40 - 50 Package boxes
$90 - 100 4x4 Stickers
$7 - 1 day Facebook ad
Total cost: $426.40
From there, it was just rounding up and buying different items I could include in the gift boxes.
In addition to experimenting with Facebook Ads early on, I also sent a couple of free boxes to people I considered “influencers” from the area in hopes they would share the box on their social media.
The orders were coming in steadily, at least for me as a solo operator, so I had to create systems very early on to make it so I wasn’t running around 24/7 sourcing the items. I knew I needed to approach vendors to let them know what I was doing and try to set up wholesale relationships with them so I could more easily acquire their products at a reduced cost. This was honestly difficult for me as I was worried about what some of the vendors might think of what I was doing. Luckily, they were all super receptive to my idea and thought it was so great to be included and classified as an "iconic item" in the Baltimore Box.
We have built an extremely niche but proven product over the past 8 years of business that sells itself when customers find out about us.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
I was growing quickly, with minimal to no digital marketing effort, so I decided to pull the business out of my basement and into a warehouse / retail store space. My thought was that not only will it provide me with more space to spread out and work, but it would also give me more legitimacy in the marketplace as a “real business” by having a physical brick-and-mortar location. So I signed a 2-year lease for retail space in a neighborhood called Highlandtown.
I wanted to be more than just an e-commerce business. I wanted customers to also be able to come into our store to build their own Baltimore Box or buy individual Baltimore items and souvenirs. I spent 2 years in this location paying about $1,200 per month in rent but ultimately decided to move to a better shopping district neighborhood in Baltimore called Hampden bringing my monthly rent payment to over $2,000 per month.
Once I secured the new location I hired a local muralist to paint the Maryland Flag on the front of the building.
By doing this, I turned my store into a local landmark. Now people come from all over the state of Maryland and beyond to check out our store and take selfies in front of our building. It proved to be an excellent way to give us more brand recognition and help spread the word on social media about our business. This was probably the biggest thing I did from a marketing perspective and it has more than paid for itself during the course of our time in business.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
With essentially no digital marketing other than some occasional social media posting, our business is still going strong today. We have expanded our business to attract many large corporate clients who will order anywhere from 50 - 500 boxes at a time. All of our corporate clients found us on their own by way of word of mouth. We do zero corporate reach outs or marketing of any kind to potential corporate clients.
Corporate gifting was a side of the business I never even thought of when I started. In the beginning, my assumption was that people would use our service if they were ordering for a birthday or an anniversary. But it didn’t take long for customers to put us on a new path for success by approaching us to say they wanted to send gifts to their clients around the world, or universities to send to their alumni, or business owners who wanted to cheer up their employees who were stuck working from home during COVID.
When customers create or discover new use cases for your own business that you never thought of before - that is when you have something unique and special.
What is great about corporate orders is that all the recipients get the same items. This makes things easier for us to source and packs the items. When we receive a one-off order on our website (since it's customizable) we don’t know what the customer will choose. So inventory management can sometimes be a challenge. But with a corporate order, we can order the exact quantities we need all at once to fulfill the whole order.
Additionally, corporate orders help us reach a greater audience. Every time we send a box to somebody, we are marketing our product and our service to a potential new customer. People who receive our boxes can undoubtedly think of several friends or family members they could send the box to so as a result we end up getting even more orders from our corporate accounts.
Below is the trajectory of our corporate business from 2016 - 2021:
Even though COVID forced us to shut down our physical retail location for much of 2020, it was the corporate side of the business that really took off. People were gifting and ordering online much more than usual during this time which helped our business spike tremendously. COVID allowed us to use our retail store as a fulfillment center which helped us charge through many of the larger orders.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I have undoubtedly made a lot of mistakes along the way. Probably my biggest mistake, and one I am still committing today is that we are doing no digital marketing.
We don’t email-blast our list, run Facebook ads, google ads, or even post much on our social media channels anymore. We have built an extremely niche but proven product over the past 8 years of business that sells itself when customers find out about us, but it could still benefit greatly from adding a little gas to the fire.
You may be asking: “Why aren’t I doing these things?” Well, the simple answer is that I don’t know how / nor have I had the time to learn. And I haven’t found a company that I like to outsource it to. I am also still very much in the trenches of my business. I still do all of the little things like ordering items, picking up goods, delivering gifts, packing boxes, printing postage, and answering all the incoming customer service calls and emails, among so many other things.
I have been afraid to scale and grow the business beyond our capabilities. It probably goes all the way back to what happened in the company’s infancy during our first holiday rush in 2014. It’s a fear of success where orders take over and I need to potentially turn the website off again and stop accepting orders. Most people would say, that’s a great problem to have! And it is. But, somebody still has to drive the ship and that person is and has always been me. So to some degree, I have been what holds the business back from taking the next leap.
One other thing I have learned about business is it takes a lifetime to build up a solid reputation and a mere minute or two to destroy your company's reputation. One bad review could overshadow dozens of glowingly positive ones. The reputation we worked so hard to build up I believe is one of the major reasons for our success thus far. If you take a bunch of orders and can’t deliver the product on time it will only lead to negative feedback.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I am pretty simple when it comes to the tools that help me run my business.
I use Squarespace for my web platform. I know Shopify has often been labeled the “king” for e-commerce but I just found it not as user-friendly as Squarespace. And since I was building the website myself I needed something as simple as possible.
I use Stamps.com for printing postage. I have tried using services such as Shipstation for postage but felt it was overly complex and not intuitive for what I was doing. We print all our postage manually (one at a time) to carefully review for potential address mistakes and try to catch them before they get sent out. Since our business is designed for gifting we often see customers enter incorrect shipping addresses at checkout.
For accounting, I have been using WaveApps. Most of the world uses QuickBooks but I have found Wave Apps to be far easier to use.
For customer invoicing and in-store purchasing we use Square.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
This may sound crazy but I don’t read books or listen to podcasts except on rare occasions. I have nothing against them but I don’t get much from them nor do I have the time to invest in diving into them. I am a firm believer that as an entrepreneur you must always be doing something to help your business continue going. And if you aren’t doing something, you are failing yourself and your business.
Entrepreneurship, to me, is all about action. And you can read all the books and listen to every podcast so you can “learn all the things.” But it won’t give you nearly the same education and experience as taking the risk and executing your business out in the real world to the best of your abilities.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
The best advice I can give is to take action. Nothing gets done by sitting on the sidelines while life and business opportunities pass you by. If you are passionate about your business it won’t feel like work. Growing a business is much like raising a child. There will be good times and bad times but it will always keep you on your toes and keep you learning and investing.
Don’t be afraid to fail or pivot your business. Always do things to keep your business relevant and gain more eyeballs. Never did I think I would branch my gift box business into my own ice cream line but here we are. We now have our own Ice Cream retail store featuring 13 uniquely Baltimore flavors. And our Baltimore in a Box Ice Cream is now sold in over a dozen local grocery stores.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are looking to hire a digital marketer or two. We need help with Facebook, Google, email, and social media marketing. Would be a full-time remote position. If interested, please contact: [email protected].
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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