How We Started A $1.5M/Month Custom Canvas Prints Business Online

$1,500,000
revenue/mo
2
Founders
180
Employees
product
CanvasChamp
from Georgia
started March 2012
$1,500,000
revenue/mo
2
Founders
180
Employees
127K
alexa rank
14.8K
followers
1.13K
followers
571
subs

Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

Hello, my name is Jainam Shah, and I am one of the founders of CanvasChamp. We make a variety of custom photo products for home decor and gifting purposes, most notably canvas prints, acrylic and metal prints. We have a lot many other products already launched and soon will introduce even more.

Our top selling product is Canvas prints, and that’s also with the only product that we started our business with back in 2012.

We have a lot of varieties when it comes to canvas prints on our website. We let people design their favorite photos and images into single canvas prints, split photo canvas, multi-panel canvas, hexagon canvas, and many more ways.

The idea is so that we want people to be able to know and feel that the power of creativity is in their hands and not in the person who they give their photos to make a canvas for their homes.

We have a state-of-the-art design tool for all the photo products to let our customers design and adjust their photos on a product the way they want. By adding a custom message to the products, they become an excellent product for gift-givers.

We started in March 2012, with just canvas prints and now have more than 60+ personalized photo gifts products with revenue of 1.5m$+/mo. We still have a long way to go with the potential of scalability and growth.

how-we-started-an-18m-custom-canvas-prints-business-online

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

It’s so happened that one beautiful day, I was just hanging out with my father an evening while we were discussing our family photos. My father suddenly picked up one photo from the album and said, “This is one of the best photos of us. How amazing would it had been that we could find a way to frame our favorite photos artistically.”

I had zero experience, but I did know from my previous job in college that I was good at learning and collecting from data, setting up and building experiments over and over again, and making business decisions with the information provided to me. I believe that this is one of the most important qualities you can have to be a successful entrepreneur.

Suddenly it dawned on me that I should get the photo that my father likes so much, framed. But I checked out the market and saw that the market had split between low-cost providers that would personalize your products very cheaply (of questionable quality) and designers who would personalize your products very expensively (and still of dubious quality). And I only found an opportunity for business in personalized products that way. So I thought to focus on filling a gap which delivered more premium products but well below the designer prices.

Anyway, I had some amount of money saved up from working at my father’s business, and both my father and I put around 10,000 USD each into the company. Hence, we started with an LLC, a bank account, and contracted one of our contacts to start making us a website.

I had zero experience in e-Commerce, but I did know from my previous job experience back during college times that I was good at learning and collecting from data, setting up and building experiments over and over again, and making business decisions with the information provided to me. I believe that this is one of the most important qualities you can have to be a successful entrepreneur.

how-we-started-an-18m-custom-canvas-prints-business-online

Describe the process of producing the product in the early days.

I want CanvasChamp to sell all types of items that are the true essence of personalization. Hence I needed to figure out two things: make the most high-quality products at the lowest prices and a very friendly, responsive website to guide people to their satisfaction with my products.

how-we-started-an-18m-custom-canvas-prints-business-online

Production

Since I started with only one product and that was canvas print initially, I had to go through a lot of companies that could help me get my canvas prints done since I didn’t have enough capital to purchase my printing tech machines for it.

how-we-started-an-18m-custom-canvas-prints-business-online

But it came at such an incredible cost that I was left with no marginal cost to sell it. And also many people in this industry take most of the share of the sale, and hence for the first initial months, I had to make a hit below the belt in terms of money.

how-we-started-an-18m-custom-canvas-prints-business-online

But the more important thing for me was not how to balance my profit margins but to attract people to my website. And by the time I was getting enough orders to make even a little margin, I despatched functionality in-house.

Bringing things in-house

I bought two second-hand machines at a low price than the new ones to get me going. Though they were old machines and crashed almost like 100 times a day, I managed to squeeze as many orders as I could to increase my quality process and satisfaction towards my product.

Soon we had better, and new machines, technicians and our very own in-house artisans to help us out make a better and a faster product as production wasn’t the only concern but also was the packaging of it. Since canvas prints are of cloth and over a large frame (or no frame), they are prone to damage if lightly packed to ship it away.

Also, you can’t pack it too heavy for the inconvenience to the customer while unpacking it. So we went out to find the best optimizing packaging solution and came up across the idea as to make why not pack it mount-ready itself to make it hassle-free for the customer? That’s where our in-house production magic then began.

Website

As for the website, I had zero knowledge at first about how to build a website, so I hired someone to do it. Costing for the site mainly depends upon how fast and how far you want to reach your customers.

how-we-started-an-18m-custom-canvas-prints-business-online

Luckily, I was able to set a budget of $10,000 to cover brand identity, web design, and e-commerce functionality. I don’t regret the price and never have looked back since — the best decision I ever took.

Describe the process of launching the online store/business.

When website launch was coming closer, I was more of like freaking-in with creating website content and getting everything working. Because I wanted everything perfect to let the customers feel in flow rightly from the moment they open the website to the doorstep they get their products delivered.

Take calculated risks and stick to realistic goals. As an entrepreneur, I know how we start exceeding our expectations, and the next thing we realize is that we are walking on earth like a rampant.

I had a clue a bit about Google Analytics as the guy I hired talked about it a lot, but none of it made sense to me as I was not even remotely a tech guy, but it came with a price, so I didn’t bother for it. And it did come with a price later on though.

I thought with so many millions of people surfing the internet, someone or the other will eventually stumble upon my website and spread the word. But this isn’t the real world. I started to think that maybe my site is not working or my entire business was just not attractive enough to people.

I told the tech guy to explain to me the nitty-gritty on how to attract people to my website, and I came across Google Adwords that way. No sooner we were selling products through the roof- albeit at a considerable loss at first but things turned out well soon for me.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

Since launch, I knew as I am into e-commerce business, I will need tons of tech guys to get me the right sales and market my products on the internet to attract more people to our website.

After some success with Google Adwords, I thought about dedicating more resource to that channel hence. So I went around searching to find me an Adwords manager but boy was it so hard… This industry is full of pretenders who let you know they are experts but just deliver empty promises.

By the time I already had a couple of negative experiences with Adword experts, I had learned a lot about Google Adwords myself. By the time I came across the right agency to help me with my Google Ads, I was soaring through ideas on how to find value in specific keywords to scatter over the internet than more established competitors had. After a few meetings on which strategies to use, we decided to work on SEO marketing and Paid Search Marketing. The main challenge was content creation and driving organic traffic from competitive keywords. We were looking for some effective organic strategies that would impact our business in a measurable way.

Initially, it was hard as we had to revamp our major product pages like canvas prints and Home page because our then current page structure was UI/UK. Hence, the content section was not able to generate the best average time duration. So we prepared on site analyses document, put it up for comparison and came up with storing plan to get a rank on SERPs (Search Engine Results Page). We created better landing pages to push the main keywords rank in SERPs. We defined our content marketing plan into a strategic approach in order to engage audiences, generate leads and overall improvise branding. Within 2 years, all these complex words resulted in skyrocketing high-quality sales.

So per se when we started out in 2012, we hardly had 3000 organic search traffic a month. By 2018, our organic traffic increased to 5000% per session! We grew 9000% in terms of transactions and 14000% in terms of revenue as compared to back in 2013! That was huge for me! Our rankings improved over the years in Google search which led us to a huge success. We also started putting out a lot of blog posts to rank up our targeted keywords. We have steady traffic of 1,60,000 visitors through organic search because of it now.

The same way we also worked our way with Paid Search Marketing. Before that, we used to struggle with getting ROI and conversions. On average, the client’s order value was about $64 which product price starting from $4.25, so it was very hard for us to achieve the best ROI due to low price value. So we set goals to optimize and increase the number of conversions from Paid Search channel or Pay-Per-Click (PPC) activity.

We discovered thousands of keywords from various shopping campaigns to help us utilize them according to our products for sales on the basis of demand, price, and competition. Our conversions have had an average increase of over almost +50% with regards to year-on-year conversions. In the first two months of 2019, an increase of over +103.56% in conversions and +46.41% in conversion value during the Christmas season. Our average cost was reduced by -47.02%, return on investment (ROAS) improved from 154.34% to 200.89% and an increase of over +65% in conversions.

We also tried a few paid Facebook campaigns. Which made it difficult in the beginning to identify the correct audience as gifting is all about the recipient’s interest, not your own. Nevertheless, we manage well from Facebook campaigns and are keen on trying Instagram these days.

So in short, e-commerce business highly depends on digital marketing. If you have the right SEO strategies to bring organic traffic, the company will build profitability eventually.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Our trajectory over the past few years has been very pleasing actually. We do everything we can to give excellent customer satisfaction and happiness, and we are building an outstanding reputation for delivering superior quality personalized photo gifting products and the experience with it.

Of course, we didn’t just instantly got loved for the business though. Ultimately, personalized gifts is a volume industry with high gross profits but low net margins. But our costs are significantly higher at this stage; but. Encouragingly, our net margin has actually been pretty comparable of late.

In terms of absolute profit, it was difficult at first when we catered to only one product; but when you start to make hundreds of sales a month of different products, then it makes a big difference in your books.

We are exploring email marketing, PPC now. We have amassed about 5000 subscribers over the years so have recently started to send them newsletters regularly. We mostly believe that we will do good through this channel over time during the festive seasons of the year.

In terms of SEO, three years ago we had difficulties in getting an organic impression on Google. Ever since this has been growing steadily to over 5000 organic impressions sometimes in a single day, that is enormous numbers as compared to Adwords performance.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

I have learned tons of lessons since the beginning of my business. I found out my strengths and weakness and what I like; don’t like. You can be lucky with the timing and unlucky despite all the hard work. Recessions and inflations will hit you at just the wrong time and knock you out. Now I realize why nobody sets up a business in the first place- there are so many factors to make it fail!

But growing a business does help you out to know how to make things work and teaches you patience- lots and lots of patience! First of all, I had a hard time finding good people into my business because you can’t do it alone. I had to spend most of my time working IN my industry when I should have been working ON my business. But you just need to pick the first one right, and the chain reaction of attracting the right people starts from it. So my lesson was finding the first one right and the rest good ones followed to help me build my business today.

Next big lesson I learned was maintaining those people that you hired. Making personalized products is time-consuming and difficult. I had to churn a lot of people by continually training them to get the things right according to the SOPs to get the maximum efficiency. Plus we were competing with way more prominent organizations from our field, so it was hard to get a hold on the market.

Also, having had heavily focused on digital marketing to convert customers, for over the past 2 years we are facing production backlog. I should have prepared to expand as quickly as well and we already have expanded to 2 more production houses from only one existing one. So I learned this lesson to timely plan and stay prepared for ongoing expansion opportunities as well.

As an entrepreneur, there always comes a phase- always, where you taste success in making an SOP you want to start growing exponentially by taking on new products in the smallest time. Biggest mistake ever. It’s only going to turn out to be chaotic. I may be guilty of this with the push to international markets. I should have chosen one model at a time and stuck to it. But I managed somehow over time- a lot of time.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

We work through the Magento software platform on all of our websites and are soon thinking of shifting to a better version of it that the founders are working on- Magento 2.0.

We use Woopra and FullStory for customer journey analytics to help us convert customers fast.

As regards with launching apps, then we are still working on it. We use Shopper Approved and Power Reviews for customer reviews and find that to be very excellent. We use MailChimp for emails which is a better way to help us understand how to connect to our subscribers at a given budget.

We also greatly use Google Drive for storage, Grammarly to help us make flawless and authentic blog content. We also use social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Youtube, Instagram, and Google+.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

I don’t get enough time to read books like I used to back in my college days. Yeah, I kinda miss that. I mostly read business when I do get time or hardly anything at all.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Take calculated risks and stick to realistic goals. As an entrepreneur, I know how we start exceeding our expectations, and the next thing we realize is that we are walking on earth like a rampant.

So keep a check on your goals and expectations. And yes do not lose hope if things start turning south. And the warning is that 70-80% things are going to STAY south the whole time..you will have to care about your business like as if it were your baby.

So don’t lose hope and abandon the idea midway. Know ways to finance instead of doing it through debt and mortgage. I am not saying it’s a wrong way but if you can find ways to approach the funding your business idea from someone else’s pocket then keep your savings as a last resort.

While during all this, do try to enjoy doing business--the feeling is fantastic and entirely different.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

Yes, we are always hiring. If you read my story above then I mentioned before as well that we need tons of people. We need more people in Digital Marketing to handle our Social Media as experts, we need more Customer Executives to manage our Customer Support, Production Executives, Product designers and many more. With full time and paid well designations.

Where can we go to learn more?

Our websites:

-  
Jainam Shah,   Founder of CanvasChamp

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