Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi, my name is Jeff and I live in Denver, CO. I started LEVdisplay last year after becoming fascinated with levitating magnets.
I am currently selling 30 units/month with 50% margin and ramping up to sell 100/month during the holidays.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I moved to Denver in 2011 after graduating from college and started working in software sales.
My goal was to pay off my student loans as quickly as possible and then start my own business. Entrepreneurship was always the end game, but I wasn’t sure about what business I wanted to start yet.
By 2014 I had paid off my $30K student debt and was feeling pretty burned out. I quit my job (I was working for a company called Autodesk at the time) and got a part-time bartending gig. I had worked in restaurants through college and knew that bartending was the easiest way to earn cash while figuring out what kind of business I wanted to build.
My first business idea was selling custom wood signs on Craigslist. Here are a couple examples:
It was a fun creative project, but I didn’t really see a way to scale since each sign was so unique, and the shipping cost could get out of control.
I stumbled across the Lyfe planter on Kickstarter back in 2016 and thought it was really cool.
After doing some research, I found that other people were building their own version of the levitating planter (this one is my favorite). I wanted to try and build something similar so I bought a few magnets on Amazon.
Describe the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing the product.
The cheap design and poor quality of the units that arrived from Amazon are what motivated me to find a better one. For example, this unit had paint that chipped easily, the levitating disk was unstable, and I did not like the LED lights that were embedded in the base.
I knew that the hardware used in the Lyfe brand planters would be high quality since they had excellent reviews on Kickstarter and Amazon, however, they did not sell their hardware anywhere online. I would have to do some digging on Alibaba to track down the supplier.
I searched for “levitating plants” and “levitation display” and emailed a few of the companies on Alibaba. Eventually, I found the company that manufactured the hardware for Lyfe Planters (A company called HCNT- they are great to work with by the way) and ordered some samples. A couple weeks later the samples showed up at my door and ended up being exactly what I was looking for.
Initially, I was importing the raw hardware without a base enclosure, it looked like this:
I didn’t know much about selling on Amazon but figured it was the best place to start getting some sales. I took several pictures with my iPhone 5 and slapped them up on a product page. I ended up selling about 150 of these on Amazon over the holidays last year.
My first sales came from a project that was published in Makezine. They found a project that I posted on Hackster.io and asked if they could publish it in their magazine and online.
Earlier this year, a buyer from Touch of Modern reached out and wanted to schedule a flash sale with LEVdisplay. They requested that I change the design to include an enclosure since many of their customers are not the “hardcore maker” type. I decided to go with a dark brown enclosure.
I ended up only selling 20 units with Touch of Modern, but it was still a good experience and I would recommend working with them.
As far as launching the online store, I pretty much did the bare minimum in launching my Shopify store (free theme, basic photos). It definitely needs some work and is a major area of focus for me right now.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
About 80% of my sales come from Amazon. Good, or bad I do not see this changing anytime soon. I will be diving into FB and Google Adwords in the near future in order to capture leads, but Amazon is a necessity at the moment. I have very little experience with FB and Google ads, and am on the fence right now if I want to learn it myself or hire someone to do it for me. It is not my favorite thing in the world, but being bootstrapped means doing grunt work sometimes.
A few of the opportunities I have stumbled across have been the result of posting my projects on Reddit (r/DIY and r/woodworking to be specific). The owner of Crafted Workshop (YouTube Channel) reached out to me after I posted this, and is going to make a project video with LEVdisplay next month.
I've never worked with YouTube influencers before, so I am excited to see what happens. I am also experimenting with posting my own “levitation projects” on YouTube as a way to connect with makers (Here is a recent one).
Lastly, I have tried some unconventional advertising at my day job. I am still bartending in Denver and my managers let me put the planters on display in front of customers (it has led to a few sales).
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
A lot of my focus is on connecting with my customers. I am thankful for the moderate success I have had on Amazon, but I recognize the risk in letting them control EVERYTHING.
There are too many horror stories of Amazon shutting off a listing randomly, or maybe even starting to sell the exact same product that you sell (at a much lower price).
Website traffic is extremely low (around 10 uniques/day!) and is a top priority, along with growing the LEVdisplay email list (70 subscribers currently).
If sales continue to grow, I will be profitable by Christmas and will expand into 2 new products next year (accessories for LEVdisplay).
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
If you are an Amazon seller, I highly recommend participating in FBA and PPC campaigns.
FBA is where you send Amazon your inventory and they fulfill the orders as Amazon Prime. I run an Auto PPC campaign ( $10/day with 11% aCoS).
Their algorithms definitely favor sellers who are paying to play. But at the same time, try to build a customer list outside of Amazon.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
- Amazon: enormous customer reach and 80% of LEVdisplay sales
- Shopify: easy website editing and lots of useful apps
- MailChimp: easy email list building with some good stock templates
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Most of the books/podcasts I listen to are about creativity. I find that I need creative inspiration more often than hardcore business advice in order to stay motivated.
My favorite audiobook about creativity is The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.
I recently discovered the Candy Japan Blog, and have been really inspired by how much he is willing to share. I hope to imitate his business transparency as LEVdisplay scales, and help budding entrepreneurs in whatever way possible.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
My day/night job is bartending in downtown Denver at a coworking space called Galvanize. It is a coworking space for startups as well as a web dev school. I really enjoy working there and being around people who are trying to build businesses and grow new ideas.
Being an entrepreneur can get lonely, especially when you are first starting out. I have found that it helps a lot to be part of a community of like-minded people.
Where can we go to learn more?
- Jeff Olson, Founder of LEVDisplay
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