This is a follow up story for Penny Portrait. If you're interested in reading how they got started, published over 1 year ago, check it out here.
Hello again! Remind us who you are and what business you started.
My name is Maury McCoy, I’m the creator of the Penny Portrait Kit. This kit allows anyone to create a crazy cool portrait of Abe Lincoln out of pennies. It’s a fun experience and the final work of art is a stunning conversation starter you can hang on your wall. You can be guaranteed it will be worth at least $8.46. (It takes 846 pennies...)
So far we’ve sold over 6,800 kits and have them on display at the U.S. Mint, Lincoln’s Presidential Library, the Money Museum, etc. It’s more than just an 18 x 24 poster, it’s also a fun learning experience.
We include a booklet with info about coin collecting, Lincoln history, chemistry experiments you can do with pennies and even include a collectible 1943 steel penny with each kit.
Tell us about what you’ve been up to! Has the business been growing?
A little bit growing, but also a few steps back
I’ve landed a few new channels to help me sell my product including the U.S. Mint. They now have a completed Penny Portrait hanging up in the U.S. Mint gift shops in Philadelphia and Denver, so that’s pretty cool!
Amazon has been nothing but a headache as of late which is unfortunate as that is where I make the majority of my sales.
There are tons of middlemen in any industry and if you don’t watch yourself, all of your profits will go to these folks instead of yourself.
I applied for and received a trademark this last year, (~$300) and that SHOULD have allowed me to control my brand and listing page on Amazon. Alas, as my product was once part of a legacy program they had called “Vendor Express” and because of that they are unable to allow me to edit my listing nor can I do a lot of the cool things other brand managers can do. (The internal workings of product listings at Amazon are a nightmare. I’ve been trying for TWO YEARS to get my product listing cleaned up to no avail. There is a giant blank white space where a video used to play, that has just been a void for some time now.)
Additionally, Amazon essentially became pay to play this holiday season. I recently read an article that Amazon increased its advertising revenues 3-fold this past year and I understand why. Amazon would just not send me any traffic organically and when I did pay for it, they’d charge so much that I really wasn’t making very much on each sale. If I sell something for $20, Amazon already takes about $11 and now they were wanting me to pay another $4-$5 for each sale in advertising costs. Very frustrating. I usually sell about 500 units over the holidays and I think I may have sold 1/3rd of that this year, even after increasing my ad budget from previous years and primarily spending it on Amazon.
I notice it as a consumer too. Searching for something leads to a ton of sponsored products followed by “highly ranked” products with fake reviews (often for entirely different products.) I’m going to be looking into other channels and perhaps see if I can figure out how to get listed online at Walmart as well. Amazon just isn’t what it used to be.
I’ve also dabbled with a fun online marketplace using crypto-currencies called Open Bazaar. (The associated app is called “Haven”.) Not making many sales, but it’s a cool new paradigm for online shopping where there is no central party to take fees or control listings. It’s the future but hasn’t quite hit critical mass yet. As more people get frustrated with Amazon, I can see it being a thing.
What have been your biggest lessons learned in the last year?
I need to learn about online advertising a bit more. In the past, I’ve just thrown some money at Google ads, Facebook ads, Reddit Ads and Amazon ads. It was hard to know what worked and what didn’t. This year I mainly focused on Amazon and my sales were way down!
The advertising industry is always changing along with the tools and it’s very difficult to stay on top of. I probably need to start dabbling around Sep/Oct and fine-tuning my ad campaigns with small amounts of money to really be prepared for efficiently spending my sparse advertising dollars come Nov/Dec.
What’s in the plans for the upcoming year, and the next 5 years?
Excellent question. My goal is to keep this project as low effort mailbox money, but I’d love to find a way to ramp sales some more. I think if I could figure out a few evergreen advertising efforts (e.g. Pinterest Pins) and perhaps figure out how to game the Amazon system, that would be great.
Have you read any good books in the last year?
Yes, I’m an avid reader (or listener as audiobooks tend to be easier for me.)
The Alchemist was also a great book for entrepreneurs and the audiobook was wonderfully read by Jeremy Irons.
Also, a bit fascinated by money and history lately, so read Will Durant’s The Lessons of History and the Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson. (My day job has me working in the finance industry with hedge funds and institutional investors.)
Advice for other entrepreneurs who might be struggling to grow their business?
Control expenses. Spend a little money and measure the results before going big on anything. There are tons of middlemen in any industry and if you don’t watch yourself, all of your profits will go to these folks instead of yourself.
You don’t need fancy stationery or expensive accounting software. Keep things lean and if you have something that works, you’ll know when to scale up. You don’t need an LLC to start off and you certainly don’t need the expenses that come with it.
Also, don’t focus on the bad things that could happen. (Some of them inevitably will.) Too often people focus on the negative when what they don’t realize is that just as many unforeseen good things will happen when starting a business.
When starting Penny Portrait, I mentioned to a friend I was going to include a 1943 steel penny with each kit as I had about 50 of them and figured it would be a neat incentive for early buyers. Ends up my friend had gone through an “eBay phase” and had acquired over 5,000 steel pennies that were just sitting in storage.
He sold them to me for a modest profit and I now include a steel penny with each kit sold. Sometimes things just work out that you can’t foresee.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
If anyone has clever ideas on how to drive traffic to my website or generate sales via Pinterest or other social media, I’m all ears, (just like Abe!) The compensation model would need to be based on earning a percentage of the results as too many of my advertising efforts have just been throwing money into the wind without seeing any return on those investments.
I know there is a lot of room for me to improve in this area, particularly social media, but the learning curve tends to be tricky as the tools are constantly changing. Perhaps someone just needs to create a course on how to optimize advertising for Amazon.
Where can we go to learn more?
- The Penny Portrait Blog
- Always happy to respond to email
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Want to start your own business?
Hey! 👋I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
We interview successful business owners and share the stories behind their business. By sharing these stories, we want to help you get started.
Interested in starting your own business? Join Starter Story Premium to get the greatest companion to starting and growing your business:
- Connect + get advice from successful entrepreneurs
- Step by step guides on how to start and grow
- Exclusive and early access to the best case studies on the web
- And much more!
Are you ready to boost your revenue?
Using Klaviyo will open up a massive, untapped sales channel and bring you closer to your customers!
Level up your email marketing with Klaviyo!