This is a follow up story for Penny Portrait. If you're interested in reading how they got started, published almost 5 years 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 unique portrait of Abe Lincoln out of old pennies they have lying around. 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 8,000 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 an immersive learning experience about coins, art, history, etc.
We include a booklet with info about coin collecting, Lincoln history, and 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?
I still need to do the books for this year, but I’d guess things have been about the same regarding sales. Amazon continues to take a larger and larger chunk of my revenue, so probably the biggest change this year was I bumped the price of my kit up 10% to $22 after 12 years of keeping the price at $20. It feels like Amazon has a set amount of money they’ll let me make each year.
I have a hard time quitting, but sometimes ditching an approach that isn’t effective is far better than burning yourself out with minimal rewards.
If I increase my ad budget, I’ll get more sales, but those end up being almost break even with how much I’ve additionally spent. I cut back a bit on my Amazon advertising budget this year. Regardless, I still get quite a few sales, especially Nov/Dec, so I’m not sweating my optimization too much. This has always been a side hustle for me, so I’m cool with making a little less money if it means a lot lower effort.
What have been your biggest lessons learned in the last year?
In one of these updates, I’d love to say I learned the key to online advertising, but alas, another year has passed and I’m as confused as ever. This year I threw money primarily at Pinterest, Amazon, and Reddit. I generally have a small year-round budget for Google Adwords. Pinterest is expensive, but I love that it is so visual and my product is well suited to getting re-pinned elsewhere. You pay more, but those pins tend to be a bit more evergreen once they are out there in the wild.
I also learned that no doesn’t mean no forever. A rather large distributor years ago carried my product and then heartbreakingly stopped. My product was PERFECT for their stores (museum stores and presidential libraries). They were one of my first vendors and if I’m being honest, my packaging at the time was pretty lame. (I do almost all my orders via mail, so my packaging was essentially a white cardboard tube with a sticker, see above.)
Since that time I drastically improved my packaging. It’s now in a clear tube that shows the product and you can easily tell what you are supposed to do by looking at the label, so no need for a point of purchase display.
This vendor recently reached out to me again. There was a new person in the buyer role and they saw my product and agreed it would be perfect. I’m guessing this time around the product gets a bit more traction due to having more shelf appeal.
What’s in the plans for the upcoming year, and the next 5 years?
I have one goal this year, and that is to improve my Amazon listing. The turnaround to do anything with Amazon is MONTHS. Every year I start around October and realize that I’m never going to be able to make changes that will get approved in time for the holidays.
Alas, when I submitted my last changes to them, they not only didn’t approve them, they removed other parts of my listing as well.
Another problem is that Amazon insists on listing my product in office supplies. I’ve tried for years now to get them to change, but with no luck. I’ve also paid to get a trademark so I could be a brand manager and have more control of my listing, but every time I make a change it gets rejected for some unknown reason. Of course, Amazon is of no help and it is nearly impossible to reach an actual person. I would welcome the day Shopify or some other marketplace provides serious competition for Amazon as it is just a horrible selling experience for a small, part-time retailer like myself.
Ideally, I’d love for my product to show up in the Toy section (there is a category for mosaic toys) but they seem to be dead set against that despite showcasing my product in their online Toy Catalog a few years ago. (They were highlighting successful Kickstarter campaigns that were then for sale on Amazon.)
Have you read any good books in the last year?
I’ve probably listened to more podcasts than anything. Most of those are related to my “real” job, but I’ll occasionally fire up a podcast that focuses on online retail. I tend to feel overwhelmed when I do, as I realize there is just so much more I should be doing. That said, as I make more money in my real job, those efforts, for lack of a better phrase, would probably be penny-wise, pound-foolish.
One book that I really love and recently re-read is The Max Strategy by Dale Dauten. A great, short read on the importance of experimenting in business.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who might be struggling to grow their business?
People stress persistence, but the more I’m in business, the more I notice successful folks tend to cut bait pretty quickly if something isn’t working. No law says you need to stick with your original great idea and grind it out. I have a hard time quitting, but sometimes ditching an approach that isn’t effective is far better than burning yourself out with minimal rewards.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Been going solo for about 12 years now, so will probably just keep keepin’ on until they finally decide to ditch the penny, ha!
Where can we go to learn more?
- The Penny Portrait Blog
- Always happy to respond to email at [email protected]
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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