This is a follow up story for Penny Portrait. If you're interested in reading how they got started, published over 2 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 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?
Things have been going well! We are still the world’s leading purveyor of presidential portraits made of pennies, well be anyway.
One of my favorite things about my business is that I own the business and the business doesn’t own me.
What I mean by that is I have a lot of flexibility as to when and how I can try and improve my operations. If I’m busy with my “real” job, Penny Portrait tends to run on autopilot generating mailbox money. If I want to work at it, run some ad campaigns or reach out to new vendors, I can do that on my own schedule.
Think about how your business can scale. If it takes another hour to make another dollar, you’re going to be in a tough spot as your business grows.
Overall, sales have been down a bit this year for several reasons. Amazon has essentially become pay for play and I don’t fully understand how that system works well enough to not feel like I’m wasting money on advertising. A lot of sales happened earlier this year, so comps to previous years were tricky. I think people realized that waiting until the last minute to order holiday gifts would probably not get them there on time. I had several packages in mid-December that I shipped off on time, but were held up by issues at USPS.
I recently had Amazon reach out to me saying they would create and tweak ads for me, so I’ll be curious to see how much effort they put into that and if I see any ROI from ad dollars spent on what they come up with. The neat thing about my product is even after 12 years, not a lot of people know about it, so it’s still a pretty unique gift. If I find advertising that works, I’m happy to scale up my advertising budget to hit new customers. In the past, I’ve found that the profit from any additional sales barely covers the cost of the advertising to get those sales. It just ends up in more work for me, without any additional profit. I’m sure this has more to do with my execution than the failure of the advertising mediums I’m using, but as of yet, I haven’t been willing to put in the time commitment to maximize conversions.
I tried running a few giveaways via Twitter and Facebook this year but got zero engagement so I must be doing something wrong. I think I had 4 people retweet my promotion so the odds of winning ended up being 1 in 4, ha!
What have been your biggest lessons learned in the last year?
2020 was a bit of a challenging year for many folks, and Penny Portrait was no different. For starters, pretty much all of my retail outlets (museums, gift shops, etc.) were shut down over the summer. I had recently landed the U.S. Mint gift shop as a vendor and shortly thereafter they closed their doors due to Covid.
When Covid first hit, I ran an ad saying, “You know what kills Coronavirus, Copper!”
It was a bit tongue in cheek as obviously, creating a Penny Portrait was not going to protect anyone other than maybe keeping them indoors. (It just so happens copper IS an antimicrobial surface that kills viruses on contact.) That said, a couple of folks got really worked up by my advertisement and accusations flew of false and misleading advertising. The ad ran on Facebook, so before you know it, I had a TON of engagement on this ad. More views, clicks, and comments than anything else I’d ever posted. I ended up extending the ad run, ha! Wasn’t what I’d intended, but I can totally see why the media relies on clickbait headlines if they are looking to drive traffic. It was a perfect example of Cunningham’s law in action. (Cunningham's Law states "the best way to get the right answer on the internet is not to ask a question; it's to post the wrong answer.") It won’t be an advertising tactic going forward but was a fascinating look into what engages viewers.
An extremely unique challenge very specific to our business was the fact that for the past year there has also been a coin shortage! Folks probably weren’t eager to buy a product that needed a lot of change when the change was hard to come by. Suffice to say, these aren’t the kinds of things you plan for when running a business.
That said, there were quite a few folks stuck at home looking for fun activities and home school projects, so I’m guessing we had a bit of a positive bump from those as well. I ran a few ads pointing out that this particular gift could keep kids entertained for a few hours not staring at a screen. As a parent myself, that seemed to resonate with folks.
What’s in the plans for the upcoming year, and the next 5 years?
I would really like to explore doing some fun advertising. I have a fun product, but my advertising tends to be a bit bland. It’s a big effort to do any type of photoshoot or video production on a limited budget, but it would be cool if I could run a Facebook ad that at least kept people from scrolling by immediately.
Also, I’d like to explore doing some A/B testing on landing pages. It’s hard enough to create a landing page that is responsive and doesn’t break somewhere, so I’ve put off creating even MORE of them, but it would be fun to do some experimentation to drive sales.
Oddly, in 5 years, I still hope I have a business! Now and then you hear rumblings of the government doing away with the penny. Even if they got rid of it, my biz would still be viable for a bit. (They mint 30 million pennies a day, so there will still be pennies around for a while.) That said, it’s always in the back of my mind that my mailbox money may someday disappear.
Have you read any good books in the last year?
I devour books and podcasts. Just finished reading Range - Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein. As someone who had 6 declared majors in college, it was nice to see a book that considered my meandering path through life as a benefit vs. a drawback. (Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers basically made me feel guilty for not putting in at least 10,000 hours on particular disciplines I walked away from.)
In the past few months, I’ve read: The Body - A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson, The Ascent of Money - A Financial History of the World by Niall Ferguson, and The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion, a rare fiction read for me that was recommended by Bill Gates and is highly entertaining.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who might be struggling to grow their business?
Think about how your business can scale. If it takes another hour to make another dollar, you’re going to be in a tough spot as your business grows. In my business, even something as simple as assembling and shipping the product, (rolling posters, inserting steel pennies, rolling up booklets, printing postage) tends to be a time suck. One of the best moves I made was doing FBA (Fulfilled by Amazon) in that I can ship off boxes of completed products and just have Amazon deal with fulfillment.
That said, not all rewards are monetary. Nothing makes my day as much as when some happy kid sends in a photo of their completed Penny Portrait.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Not looking to hire at the moment. It’s pretty much a one-person operation still.
Where can we go to learn more?
- The Penny Portrait Blog
- Always happy to respond to email at [email protected]
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Penny Portrait has provided an update on their business!
About 1 year ago, we followed up with Penny Portrait to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
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