Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi guys! I am Timm and I’m the founder of CATSIVERSE - Your Cat Universe. I started the business 4 months ago. It all started with building a niche community on Instagram last year. For cat lovers who want to help save cats and protect the planet, CATSIVERSE provides a custom cat portrait service and premium sustainable artwear - because we want to create a better future for all living beings.
A portion of every item or service sold is used to support a cause our community cares about. Every cause has its collection. Every purchase serves that cause.
The custom portrait service is the newest addition to our site. This adds the option to have your cat portrait on pretty much anything. Custom pet drawings are neither new nor unique. Our focus on sustainability and community probably is. The goal is to create a unique customer experience. I want everything to be extra climate positive and help fellow cat people create a better world.
The first week raked in around $100 profit.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I work full-time as a project manager for a big company. A while ago I got into side hustles through Twitter. And I loved the endless opportunities and freedom this could provide. I’m 35 years old and I don’t feel like working for someone else for 30 more years. The thing that caught my attention the most was e-commerce and digital marketing. It seemed like an easy way to make some money on the side. Although money is not my primary focus. What I like is freedom. To do what I want, when I want.
So I spent my free time researching opportunities. Reading books on the topic. Came up with a few ideas, but always found something that put me off.
Then I got the chance to run marketing and social media for a local gym. I loved it but didn’t know what I was doing. I felt like I needed to create my own thing from scratch to be able to make quicker decisions and be able to experiment a lot.
Scrolling through Instagram I found a cat fan page that illustrated viral cat videos in one frame with 1 or more drawings. And it grew like crazy. There were a couple of things I didn’t like about it and they did nothing to monetize their ~200k followers. I thought to myself: I can make a better version of this and make money with it.
My wife is also what some would call a cat enthusiast. I say, crazy cat lady. So I kind of saw myself developing a passion for this. Which I think is key to any success. I couldn’t see myself running a horse fan page for example. And I didn’t start any of the other ideas I came up with in the previous months.
So I created an account. There are enough cat videos out there. And it’s a huge community.
Now I’ve had some experience in running social media accounts. What I couldn’t do was draw cats. Which was a good thing. Because I didn’t feel like spending my time drawing cats. And I’m a huge fan of delegation and automation. Time is precious.
Starting with 0 followers is hard though. But I wanted a fresh account and to be sure every follower is here for what I made. I found an awesome freelance artist and looked for funny cat videos together with my wife.
The drawings were better than the competition but no followers mean almost no engagement.
Some reels hit a couple of thousand views. But followers came in slowly. I kept going. Improved the captions. The reward comes with consistency.
Once the page hit a couple of hundred fans I tried to start a newsletter to have control over who sees my content. And of course to monetize it. But that didn’t work. I had nothing to offer.
So I changed the path and thought of ways to improve what cat lovers buy. Cat t-shirts? It is probably the most saturated print-on-demand niche. And 99% of all designs look like they are made for kids. Plus you get low-quality garments and zero customer experience, let alone individuality. There must be a better way to do this - and there is.
How do you set yourself apart in the biggest print-on-demand niche? You niche down more.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
How do you set yourself apart in the biggest print-on-demand niche? You niche down more. I felt like quality options were just not there. I wanted a mix of premium quality and evergreen designs with a classy touch. I also love this planet of ours, so every piece should have a low impact on the environment.
The community aspect was also a huge one. There are many ways the cat community helps and needs help. Making cool designs that raise awareness is a great way to support. And bring the opportunity to raise money too.
Purchase with a purpose is a great phrase to describe my mission. The first designs and samples were not very good. To set the clothes even more apart and have a more unique design, I tried embroidering some drawings.
The results were not as expected and not premium at all. There was too much detail in the illustrations and the embroidery looked bad.
One of the first causes that I chose to support was helping animals affected by the war in Ukraine. I came up with the slogan CATS LOVE PEACE which is also what the collection is called. It’s my way to raise awareness from the cat community. All profits are used to support directly in Ukraine. In addition to the blue and yellow text design, we also feature individual accounts from refugees with cats and follow their journey. Having their drawing and being part of this collection is a unique way to help them. A collection includes t-shirts, hoodies, mugs, and hats.
The ADOPT, DON’T SHOP collection supports rescue shelters worldwide. We recently partnered with a rescue home in Spain that cares for cats that are too sick, too old, or not socialized enough to be adopted.
In addition to these, we also plan designs for more sub-categories. They will include funny and artsy designs and only parts of the proceeds will be given to a specific cause.
Key to scaling everything will be individual portraits. The drawings are really good and make amazing wall art. I got lots of messages asking for custom portraits.
After some research, I realized that our drawings are better than most of the custom digital drawings I could find. So I created a product around it. And I want this to be eco-friendly too. Right now I’m considering different options for planting trees for every order.
I wanted to keep the cost of this project low. In addition to the website and hosting cost, I ran some ads on Facebook and Instagram. The drawings make up most of around $1,000 that was needed to get to this point.
Describe the process of launching the business.
I started working on the website around April. At first, I used it to try and collect emails which did not work. With the path getting clearer and products evolving I shifted to creating a store on the website. The first item was just a coffee mug with the CATS LOVE PEACE design.
I made weekly giveaways on Instagram to spread the message and get some traffic. Then I added more and more designs and reached out to some influencers. Cats rarely wear shirts so I needed some human ambassadors. I am particularly proud of Frank Wilde, a Berlin-based fashion designer sharing a photo of my design on his page. Also, every one of the mug giveaway winners posted a picture with their cats. That helped a lot.
I set a budget and time limit of $1,000 and 6 months to achieve any results. With organic traffic from one social media source only it was pretty successful. I was hoping to grow way faster on Instagram, but quantity is not everything. Just like with email lists the size is not as important as the quality of potential customers.
That is also a lesson learned. I didn’t think like this in the beginning. It is much more powerful to have a small and engaging community than the opposite. I met a lot of cool people and genuinely care about all of them. They guided me toward what they wanted and I will continue to involve them in new product launches.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Care about your customers. Genuinely try to help them. Do more than you have to. Surprise them. Have a set of values you represent and act on them. Don’t let the price be the main factor to buy from you. There will always be someone with a cheaper offer. Offer a unique advantage and sell results, not features.
I can only speak of social media marketing. It’s very different depending on your niche. What worked well for me is partnering with bigger accounts to get more impressions. Don’t use outdated Instagram hacks or myths. Follow/Unfollow methods will get you to 10k followers real quick. But none of them will engage with your content. You have to grow organically to successfully monetize the audience.
Engage with content from your niche. What are they doing, and what works for them? What doesn’t? Help them and entertain your followers. Utilize every feature your social media platform has to offer.
It is also important to choose the right platform for your business. Where is your target audience hanging out? What else do they care about? What do they need?
Make sure you have a strategy and pick your platform accordingly. Plan your content and create a social media calendar. It’s how you know what works when and how. Include times and topics of the content.
It’s the best way to measure and monitor your efforts. I aim to create 80% of content to entertain and inform and 20% to directly promote the business. Make sure to not repeat the same message over and over. Be creative. Find ways to switch things up. You can experiment a lot. Results are almost instant and give you valuable feedback.
Don’t overcomplicate things.
I also followed very basically SEO best practices. I signed up for a trial account at Semrush and did keyword and competitor research. Optimized the page on a technical level with decreasing loading times to make it more mobile-friendly (very important). I set up custom titles and meta descriptions for every site and every image. Avoid keyword stuffing and just make sure your site is user-friendly and most of all helpful.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
There is a lot of room for growth and I only just launched the most promising product with the custom wall arts. I plan to utilize more social media channels especially Pinterest and Facebook. I believe there is very much room for more organic growth. These channels would have probably even been a better choice, to begin with.
But it takes much time even running only the Instagram account. I’m working on repurposing content and covering all channels at the same time.
This year I will put most of the profits into the growth and combine the organic efforts with paid social media traffic and search engine marketing. I also love to get more into SEO and optimize on every front. I plan to focus more on marketing efforts and automate operations as much as possible.
I also want to switch from Squarespace to Shopify in the short term. E-Mail flows will be an important part of the customer experience. A monthly newsletter to further retain customers is also planned.
Gross Margins vary from 30-85% with clothing being on the bottom end. I expect around 500 monthly visitors this month. The conversion rate is at 2,54% since launching the portrait service.
Right now I’m focusing on the US market. My printing provider produces in different locations worldwide so shipping times will stay pretty low, even when targeting other markets.
Social media following just hit 1,000 and on average I reach around 20,000 people a month.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
You need to build a network. Partners you can trust online and offline. Although it is helpful if you start on a budget to do most of the work yourself - I believe it is especially important to only delegate tasks if you know what you would consider good work. You must know what perfect is. Only then you will know how much you should and must pay.
I had to learn to plan my time because tasks got out of hand. There was so much to do and I didn’t prioritize well enough. Start with what makes you money. It’s not as easy as I thought it would be. Time flies and at times it feels like you don’t get anything done. I find it helpful to put on a focus playlist on Spotify. After a while, it will get you into a flow because your mind is trained to do focused work in this setting. Leave your phone in another room or turn on airplane mode.
Create an ongoing list of things to do and rank it by priority. Use outputs to describe the task. Update this every day.
I also write down 3-4 major tasks on a post-it note each Monday. It’s only the weekend when these are completed. Keep changing the location of that Post-it so you see it as often as possible.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
The first tool I used was Canva. I use it to create all Instagram content. It has so many features and I plan everything in there. It’s where I keep all the story, reels, and post templates. They also have an app to use on your computer or phone.
To keep track of progress and all tasks I use ClickUp. It’s super powerful, even the free version and it has lots of templates to help with productivity and anything you can imagine.
The website runs on Squarespace because I didn’t like the free Shopify designs. It was super easy to set up and has a great knowledge database for any kind of questions.
Integrating apps is also super easy. For fulfillment in terms of print on demand I use Printful. The customer support is awesome and they have fulfillment centers all over the world. Their product catalog is also very nice and offers a variety of different styles and products. Fiverr is my go-to freelance platform. It’s just easy to use and with some digging, you will find very talented people. Any kind of office software is also key. I like all things Google.
One thing I recently discovered was Shortpixel. You can compress your website images and reduce loading times without much loss in quality.
If you’re into meditating or just stretching to get your mind free I recommend the Downdog yoga app. It guides you through practice with videos or audio. Choose your level, focus and tempo, and desired time.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
The 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferris kind of opened my eyes in terms of what’s possible. And that anyone can reconstruct their life. If you feel stuck in your 9-5 and want to live life on your terms - check it out.
Hooked by Nir Eyal should also be a must-read for everyone creating products. Everything to understand customer psychology is in there.
If you’re building a business you should consider selling it at some point. Built to Sell by John Warrwillow is an absolute must-read for anyone starting a company. More freedom, your schedule, and the money you deserve. It’s not possible if your business runs your life instead of you running your business. Read this book.
Marketing fundamentals are crucial.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Don't neglect your health. You need to take care of your body and mind. Eating healthy and staying in shape are keys to success. Also, keep a balanced sleeping schedule. Your energy will increase and so will your outputs.
Enjoy the ride. Your goal should not be to just get there. Have fun along the way.
Fail often. Don’t always try to make it perfect. Find ways that don’t work and learn from them. Seek feedback, and ask for help. Learn to say no. Time is your most valuable asset. Don’t waste it trying to please anyone.
One last thing for small business owners: Don’t overcomplicate things.
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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