Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hey! My name is Josh, and I’m the founder of Plate Crate, a monthly box of baseball gear and greatness. (Think Barkbox for baseball). Each month our small team creates a themed box of baseball gear, training aids, accessories, snacks, and apparel to send to our baseball-obsessed subscribers.
I launched Plate Crate in 2015 while I was playing independent baseball in the midwest. Long story short, I was poor. I was doing odd jobs in the offseason to make enough money to subsidize my minimal salary playing baseball. I was pouring concrete, shoveling snow, doing personal training, and doing hitting lessons in the offseason to make money. I even bought a few vending machines as well! Spoilers…it didn’t work. One night I Googled “Baseball subscription box” and was shocked to see no one has given this a try. These were the golden days of subscription boxes and they were just getting popular. I thought, why not? I have nothing to lose. So I liquidated all $800 of my bank account and savings bonds my grandmother put in when I was born, and bought some inventory and put it in my parent's basement.
After 6 years of working on Plate Crate, we are now doing over $300K a month in revenue. We have a big holiday season where we will do about $500-600K/month in November and December too. People love gift giving, and we are a great baseball gift. We’ve recently launched Soccer Crate as well off the thesis that over 80% of kids under 14 play multiple sports. We’ve seen our early progress in Soccer come directly from our baseball subscribers.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Baseball was always my life. I came from a baseball family and spent the summers going to games at Fenway and playing travel baseball. It was my obsession. I lived in the batting cages. Being a smaller kid I always had a chip on my shoulder, and still do. I played 4 years of varsity baseball in Peabody Ma, about 20 minutes north of Boston. I went to Rollins College in Florida to play college ball, and as the paper quoted me, I’d rather throw baseballs in January instead of snowballs. After I graduated from college, I went undrafted. This essentially meant my dreams were shattered. I never had a backup plan, only baseball. I decided to keep going. I went to every tryout I could to get signed. I eventually signed up with a small independent team in Alexandria, Louisiana. I spoke with them in the morning and they said if I could make it to the airport by night they would pick me up in the team bus on the way to Texas for a road trip. I was in! I had a great first season of low-level professional baseball. I lived off of Tuna fish and peanut butter and spent my summer living in cheap motels and sleeping on buses. It was a dream. I was 22 and had no need for money, no car, nothing. Just baseball.
When the season was over I flew home. My first offseason. What now? I poured concrete, personally trained high school athletes, and gave tons of hitting lessons to little leaguers. When the concrete season was over and the snow started to fall I shoveled snow. Not an ideal job considering the optimal time to shovel was 2-6 in the morning before people woke up and had to go to work. During the day I would train for the next season. I didn’t admit it then, but this was unsustainable. I was hustling…hard, just to make it to the next season. All of this time hustling took away from what I needed to be spending my time on, baseball. I played one more season and when I came home for my second off-season I told myself I would try and start a side hustle to make 2K/month so I didn’t have to shovel snow. Please no more snow.
Like most entrepreneurs, I started Googling things. I noticed subscription boxes were popping up and figured there was one for baseball. I was wrong. I couldn’t find one anywhere. I thought this was strange considering the popularity of baseball in our country. My honest thought was, why not me? I know baseball, and I love to learn. Let’s give this a shot. I really can’t be any poorer, who cares if I lose all my money, I’ll just go back to training and shoveling snow.
I bought some inventory online from wholesalers and set up shop in my parent's basement using my desk from high school. I wrote everything down on a yellow legal pad. Ideas for fist crate, inventory count, invoices, social media channels, and to-do lists…endless to-do lists.
Looking back on how I decided to start Plate Crate is now funny. Knowing what I know now, I would never have started Plate Crate. It was extremely niche, labor intensive, I needed warehousing, product, people…I'm tired just thinking about it. Starting out as an entrepreneur on your first project you have a super-power that you lose over time, naivety. The idea doesn’t matter so much as long as you try something and make it work. When you understand how the games are played later on you get picky and overthink decisions. In the beginning, you are untethered, and this is a superpower. You get to take immediate action, you don’t know enough to talk yourself out of it. And man was I powerful…I knew absolutely nothing!
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
We originally bought wholesale. I would call up small vendors and negotiate deals with them. It looked something like this…
Me - “Hey Jim, my name is Josh, I’m the owner of Plate Crate, a monthly box of baseball gear. I am looking to partner with the best baseball companies in the industry to introduce you to my baseball-obsessed subscribers. I would like to buy 100 of your (insert baseball product) and market your product to baseball-obsessed kids for a full month for free.
Jim - “Hey Josh, this sounds amazing. We can do 50% of retail. Does this work?”
Me - Hey Jim, we would need 70% off retail to be in the crate. We usually charge to be in the crate for marketing. We could do an email blast, and 2 posts of your product to our audience if you can do 70% off instead. I can pay upfront if that’s easiest for you.
Jim - Sure, let's do it. I’ll send an invoice over now.
In the beginning, this was the only way to create enough margin to self-fund as we grew. There isn’t enough margin to buy from wholesalers at 50%. This eventually led us to create Bandit Sports. Today we manufacture all of our training aids, apparel, and even our Stadium Snacks. We can control the quality and branding, and we cut out a few middlemen so we can increase margin and put it back into adding more value to the crate for our subscribers!
Next was the box. I asked a manufacturer how much it would cost to print a box with our logo on it. He said $2000 just for the die to make the boxes. The minimum was tens of thousands of boxes. That idea was out. I had no money to pay for a die. I bought an $80 stamp and bought plain white boxes from Uline and hand-stamped every box. We hand-stamped every box for the next 3 years. I would’ve bought the die earlier if I could do it again. We were shipping 2000 crates a month before I finally bought a die and had boxes custom printed.
I would put on a podcast in the basement and pack 50 boxes at a time. As orders would come in and I would print them on a computer, tape them to the box and then drive them to FedEx. Since I was in a residential neighborhood FedEx wouldn’t come to pick up our boxes. I couldn't do this forever and it didn’t feel like I was building a “business” from my parent's basement. I asked my friend if I could rent space above his family's gas station. They took pity on me and rented me an old office complete with all the previous owner's stuff still in it for $100 a month. I told myself every morning I would step foot in my office at 8:30 and I wouldn’t leave until 5. Going “fulltime” is a mindset. You want to “go full time?”, then work on your idea for 8 or 9 hours a day. Chances are if you are fully committing yourself in that period eventually you can pay yourself a reasonable wage. That being said, I had no kids, no obligations, and was 24 years old. Time? Oh, I had plenty of time.
Describe the process of launching the business.
There was no real launch strategy when it came to Plate Crate. I didn’t know how to launch, or even what a launch strategy might entail. Now we have a template for launching new products or brands, but back then I didn’t know where to start. I took to Instagram. It was a simple question really…where are my customers? I decided to build a baseball community and be as active as possible engaging with every person. I didn’t care if they bought a Plate Crate really, I knew that an engaged social media following was leverage. I could work with other brands, I could get the pricing down, and I could share the story of creating my product. Best of all…it was free. I thought if I were a baseball player what types of content would I be interested in? I posted memes, and baseball tricks I would record myself. Some of these posts did well. We also had products. I would partner with other companies and giveaway products together.
Our first 20 customers came from an influencer deal. In 2015 “influencer” wasn’t a word. I didn’t trust that giving a stranger $20 would amount to anything. Our first time doing an influencer post with got 3 customers. I had an aha moment! That worked. Let’s scale it up. I would negotiate a discounted rate by buying 10 posts from one person. This was our whole strategy in year one. Buy posts from influencers to promote giveaways and product sales, and build a devoted following on social media. From this traffic, we started to learn how to capture more emails and incorporate email marketing as well.
Now, it’s not 2015 anymore. I don’t think this is the best strategy in today’s world, but building a community will never go out of style. There is a difference between a following and community. A following is a group of people you’re talking TO, a community is a group of people who talk to each other. Cultivate a group that talks to each other and provides a virtual place for them to do it. Today it might be Tiktok, tomorrow…who knows! People will always gather somewhere to talk about the important things in their lives. If you want your product to be successful, be a part of that community, don’t just speak to them.
I know what you thinking…Josh, how did you pay for all this with $800. Well the answer as you might have guessed, is credit cards. Oh boy, here we go… Credit cards almost sound like a dirty phrase right? It’s something you put money on that you can’t afford is the common consensus. For a business however it was my first lesson in cash flow. I would pay off my credit card every month in full, not paying the interest. I did this for years. I still do! It gave me 30 days to sell the inventory I bought to customers and pay back the credit card. Now we have terms with vendors, loans, lines of credit with banks, and yes…we still use credit cards. They are a great tool but don’t over-leverage yourself. Use them for cash flow, not for operating expenses. I used them for marketing because I knew every dollar I put into marketing I would get a few dollars back. It’s gotten more sophisticated over the years, but the concept remains the same. I bet on myself to pay back my cards. Just go slow, and use them as a tool in the toolbelt, not a lifeline.
The hard truth is that building a business comes down to consistency. If you are sitting down every day with a mission to learn whatever needs to be learned to be “successful” then chances are you will “succeed”.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Short answer, relentless pursuit of a great product. Long answer, a lot.
We have taken the approach of the test, fail, learn, test, succeed, repeat. There is a great book to teach you how to test called Hacking Growth by Sean Ellis…this is my bible. Bring your thick highlighter for this one.
In the beginning, days, as I mentioned, we were paying influencers to post giveaways and product sales, and building a strong social media presence. I essentially had no marketing budget. I didn’t know my CAC, ROAS, Retention Rate, LTV, or any essential metric of being a successful subscription company. This came with time. Now we use tools like Triple Whale and Google Analytics (GA) to have more visibility into these numbers. Not to mention endless spreadsheets…ohhhh the spreadsheets.
After we gained some customers and some traction on Instagram we turned to Facebook as our next venture. I did not have the capital to hire a paid media company so I learned about Facebook ads myself. In the golden days (pre-IOS-14), you would just toss a pixel on your site and retarget visitors with ads. This was super low-hanging fruit. They were hot leads and usually converted well. But you couldn’t scale this up. How would we get MORE traffic to our site so we would have a bigger pool to retarget? We would need to do prospecting. I would build audiences are people's behaviors or interests. I would build a group of people interested in similar baseball brands or an audience of anyone that liked a social media post in the last year and start to test different types of creativity. We would show photos of what was in the crates each month, or make a UGC mashup (user-generated content) video. These seemed to work well. We started generating more traffic and started converting more customers. Success! (for now).
What next? That's always the question. Well, I mentioned the product, right? I wanted a product so good that our subscribers would HAVE to tell their friends. In the book Purple Cow, by Seth Godin, he says if you saw a purple cow on the side of the road you would tell someone because that would be a remarkable thing to see. Remarkable means someone who remarks on the cow to a friend. We needed a purple cow product. We need to make our product remarkable. We could do this in a few ways. Quality, value, uniqueness, engagement. We still focus on all of these. How would we make this box so valuable, so different, with such great quality, and so many ways for our audience to use the items that they would have to tell a friend right? This part of the story never ends. Your product is never finished. It can always be improved, you can always add or take it away. I’d like to point out a common flaw as well…never, and I mean never listen to your customers…here’s why.
If you survey your customers you will inevitably find that they all say the same thing. They hop on their phone and say the first thing that comes to mind. The problem is I’m thinking about my product 24/7. I read about how to make it better, I daydreamed about it, and I asked other founders how to make it better. It’s quite literally my job. Your JOB is to make your product better. You are the one setting the standards, innovating, and testing. No one in the world will care or think about it as much as you. We’ve recently invented a few new products. No one asked us to invent them, we just are so deep in the process of creating and knowing what people like we eventually came to realize that we are the trendsetters. We say and make what is cool, not the customers. What you can do is watch their reactions carefully and iterate. What the sales and iterate. Watch the conversation and iterate.
Josh, define Product Market Fit like I’m 5 years old….
Product Market fit is when your company is growing organically through word of mouth. Your product is so good you do not need marketing for growth.
I tell every eCommerce entrepreneur the same advice Gautam Gupta from Nature Box generously gave me years ago…paid ads are like crack, once you start, you can’t stop.
Be patient, and make your product amazing. Once you start to see the organic word-of-mouth growth, you can put some gas on the fire with paid ads. If you start spending money on paid ads too early it will mask the deficiencies in your product because you are getting sales. But once you turn off the faucet of the beloved paid ads, your sales will disappear.
Today over 30% of our customers come from a referral. Below you can see where our customers come from. This is a survey filled out by about 75% of our first-time customers asking “how did you first hear about Plate Crate”. Between a teammate or a friend and a family member, we are at 30%. This is our holy grail. We know our product is good because most of our customers come from our other customers.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today we’ve rethought what Plate Crate can be. We decide to take Plate Crate as a successful template to launch other Sports. We launched Soccercrate.co in October of 2021 as a quarterly subscription and are seeing some early wins with the same playbook as Plate Crate. We also saw most of our initial customers came from brothers or sisters of Plate Crate customers! We are planning to continue launching youth sports subscription boxes on the premise that 80% of kids under 14 play multiple sports. We also have a private label sporting goods company called Bandit Sports. Plate Crate and Soccer Crate both have Bandit Sports training aids in every month. Since we can order a big quantity to fulfill our subscriptions we are also launching Bandit Sports as an independent company on Amazon and in wholesale. We are also thinking of this as lead generation for our subscription boxes. Say you bought a Bandit Sports baseball training aid off Amazon…guess what you’ll see when you open it? A nice offer to join Plate Crate.
To continue to see growth as we have over the past 6 years we are getting more granular with metrics that are important to us. Soccer Crate has a terrible conversion rate. Great! What an awesome opportunity to learn Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO). We are learning best practices from one company to improve and apply the winners to all companies. We are also opening up new acquisition channels like Connect TV (CTV). We made these incredible high production ads and are seeing traction on Youtube. We will be launching on CTV in the next month or so.
We currently use a lot of agencies. I’ve found that if you work closely with them and don’t think of them as being completely independent you can get an incredible amount of value from a good agency. Today we working with MCO Mediato handle the biggest chunk of our daily marketing. They run our email marketing, social media, text marketing, partnerships, advertising program, and graphics. I talk to them every day and we have all become great friends. I use Stealth Venture Labsfor paid media. They run our Facebook Ads, Google Ads, Youtube Ads, Pinterest Ads, and Tiktoks Ads. They are incredible and have exploded our growth over the past 2 years. I use Hulk Apps for my development agency. We are always improving the website for conversion, adding order bumps to increase AOV, and figuring out ways to improve every detail of our on-site experience for our customers and our revenue. We are always coming up with new ideas to improve. This is a never-ending process. We recently moved to a third-party logistics center (3pl) to improve the efficiency of warehousing and shipping. They are based in Dallas Texas.
Our in-house team is small. I have a full-time procurement person who handles all ordering and manufacturing. He also is the head of the customer service. Like any person in a small startup role…he wears a lot of hats. We hired a full-time content creator and videographer last year to help grow our community on social and also increase the usage of the items in our boxes with educational videos. After IOS-14 and the loss of a lot of retargeting on social, this has been an incredible investment to drive organic traffic.
We are locked in on our core metrics. New Customer ROAS (return on ad spend) is huge for us. My goal is to be profitable from the very first charge which usually is against the grain with subscription companies. We look for a 2.5 New Customer ROAS. So every $1 we put into paid aids we get back $2.5. This covers our margin for the Cost of goods, shipping, and other operational expenses to fulfill crates. Anything after their first charge is profit! This also keeps our cash flow healthy. Remember those credit cards? We have 30 days to pay them back, so we use the 2.5X ROAS to pay back our credit cards with no cash out of pocket. We float 30 days of ads every month and have them pay for themselves instantly instead of having to wait months and months for profitability. As we grow this becomes more and more difficult to maintain. But we are laser-focused and always testing new strategies to keep our ROAS high.
I could go on and on about the core metrics of our business, but I’ll save that for another blog post. The main takeaway is your metrics are the health of your business. You need to be locked in every day to notice trends, good or bad. If you see things trending down, you need to figure out why and start coming up with new strategies or tests to solve that problem. This never ends. The market and industry are always changing and the people who test quickly and make adjustments are usually the winners. The people who double down and become overleveraged in one area are usually the ones at risk.
We’ve been profitable every year we’ve been in business because we’ve committed to growing responsibly and not being over-leveraged on one channel. If all of your customers come from Facebook ads and suddenly Facebook changes the way you can target costumes (IOS-14), all of a sudden you have no customers. Make sure you are finding new channels and ways to attract profitable customers. This will limit your risk long-term and open up avenues for growth you never would have expected!
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I’ve made a million poor decisions, wrong decisions, expensive decisions, and even stupid decisions. This is part of the process. Learning is painful, but that has always been my top priority. I don’t say this lightly. Creating a profitable business while growing revenue is the by-product of making learning my priority. Plate Crate is a vehicle to learn. It’s a testing ground to make mistakes, and learn what works and what doesn’t. Learn how to lead people, build teams, motivate people, and create an inspiring workplace. I didn’t start Plate Crate intentionally. I started it as a side business to make a few bucks while I played baseball. Six years later my priorities have changed. I started a family with my wife, I started to take notice of the environmental impact of product companies. My hobbies have changed as well since I’ve stopped playing the sport my company stemmed from. The connections I’ve made with Plate Crate, the money I’ve lost, and the mistakes I’ve made are exactly what will help me launch a more fulfilling, more impactful, more profitable business down the road. Test, fail, learn, test, repeat. Keep moving forward.
In every notebook, I break open I write something at the top. Breath, Begin. Anytime I am facing something that feels overwhelming, or anytime I hit a wall and see no way through. I say this out loud, and I do just that. I take a deep breath and I begin. It doesn’t matter where you begin, just start fixing the issues, building the business, mending the relationship, whatever.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
E-commerce Operation System - Triple Whale
Email Marketing - Klaviyo
Website - Shopify
Subscription Management - Recharge Payments
Post Purchase Survey - Enquire Labs
Email - Superhuman
Project Management - Trello
Calendar - Google Calendar
Calendar Scheduling - Calendly
Affiliate Marketing - Refersion and Shareasale
Internal Messaging - Slack
Analytics Platform - Google Analytics
Loyalty Program - Smile.io
Reviews - Judge.me
API Connections - Zapier
Surveys - Typeform
Upsells - Rebuy and One Click Upsell
Graphic Design - Penji
Marketing - Mco Media
Paid Media - Stealth Venture Labs
Development - Hulk Apps
Affiliate Marketing - Tactical Marketing Agency
Commercials - K&C
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
The E-myth Revisited, by Michael Gerber- Work on your business, not in your business.
Steal Like an Artist, by Austin Kleon - Good artists steal from others and make it their own
Hacking Growth, by Sean Ellis - Detailed ways to strategically grow your business through growth hacking
Traction, Gino Wickman - Detailed instructions on to operate your business and set goals
Creativity Inc, Amy Wallace and Ed Catmull - Story of Pixar and the lesson learned from the founder
Let My People Go Surfing, Yvon Chouinard - Uncompromising and relentless pursuit of a more conscious company
Anything you Want, by Derek Sivers - A business is your utopia. Do whatever you want.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
The hard truth is that building a business comes down to consistency. If you are sitting down every day with a mission to learn whatever needs to be learned to be “successful” then chances are you will “succeed”. I put these words in quotations for a very specific reason. You need to define it. What do you want your life to look like in 5 years? Where will you be? What will you do on Tuesdays? Who will be by your side? People often overestimate what they can do in a short period and drastically underestimate what they can do over long periods. Start from the end. Before you come up with a product, define what success is and how long you need to get there. If you don’t do this you will notice “success” will never happen. You will always slide the scale up. My goal with Plate Crate was to earn $2000 a month. That was “success” The second we hit that goal I raised it to $10K then $20K then $83K ($1M/ year), and on and on. Now I see it differently. How do I want to spend my days? What type of impact do I want to make? How can I use what I’ve learned to help other people? How will I use the money I earn as a tool to live a happier life? Remember that money is inherently meaningless until you spend it. I’m going to use the “E” word here…what is Enough? You and I are completely different. Our answer should never be the same. From this anchor, you can start backtracking on a business that will allow you to reach this end goal. I used to think I wanted 100 employees. Now that seems ridiculous. What’s important to me is freedom. The ability to have lunch with a friend on a Thursday, or to go to Italy with my family and eat Cacio de Pepe by the pound. In the future, I’d like to pay for all of my kid's and nieces' and nephews' colleges. That’s what drives me every day. I picture my cabin loaded with family and friends in Maine. I don’t need tens of millions of dollars to enjoy the things I love.
If you’re thinking about getting started just make sure your incentives are appropriately aligned. Are you trying to become a millionaire because you're bored and it seems like a hard thing to do? You will be constantly disappointed. Better off hiking Mt Kilimanjaro or trying jiu Jitsu if you want your ass kicked.
If you want to spend more time with your kids or create a product that helps make people's lives a little better then go for it. If the reward drastically outweighs the risk of not pursuing it, then you need to start your business immediately. It’s a good investment. My advice to you is the same advice I’d give myself. Breathe…then begin.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are currently hiring marketers! As we grow our businesses we are looking for a growth marketer to help us expand our current business and launch new ones. We need someone with experience in e-commerce, data analytics, subscription marketing, and oh yeah… you need to be a good person too.
Where can we go to learn more?
- Learn more at our website
- Follow me at @joshplatecrate on Instagram
- Follow Plate Crate on Instagram
- Follow us on Tiktok @platecrate.com
- Follow us on Youtube @platecrate
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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