Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi, I’m Josh Bluman and I’m a marketing professional turned ecommerce business owner. I started VIVO Masks with my business partner, Jackson Cunningham, over 6 years ago. We started dropshipping masquerade masks from Italy to people looking for unique and high end masquerade masks to wear to their masquerade parties, balls or fundraisers.
Today, we work directly with some of the world’s finest artists and mask designers to produce and sell authentic Venetian masks that are handmade in Italy, and making this art accessible to the North American marketplace.
We sell everything from simple party masks to exquisite high-end masquerade masks that often win ‘best of the ball’. In just our third month in business, we did 30K in monthly revenue, and now we have set up established processes and systems to continue operating the business while we explore new products and ventures.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Prior to VIVO Masks, Jackson and I were online marketers, working at various agencies and marketing different small and large businesses. We were both also very entrepreneurial, having had some small successes with other endeavours, but had never committed to growing a full-on ecommerce company.
Being well versed in online marketing, we were already familiar with the tools to evaluate potential business ideas and while looking for product ideas we came across an unusually high number of people searching for masquerade masks (using the Google search tool). And when looking at what was being sold, we thought we could do much better. They were for the most part cheap, plastic, mass-produced masks.
It may not be a success, but just taking some action, and trying to get something going is key.
So, we searched and searched and eventually found manufacturers in Italy producing some of the nicest masks we’ve ever seen, which we then were able to partner with and bring to the North American market.
While we had online marketing skills, prior to starting this business we had no prior experience in selling masks. We both had full-time jobs, and we both had never started our own ecommerce store.
When looking at the potential opportunity, we just thought to ourselves, ‘if we were attending a masquerade party, what would we want to wear?’. So we placed our first small mask order and turns out our assumptions were right. We sold them right away and a month later we were ordering more.
Thankfully, because we were both still working at the time, we had the cash flow coming in to support the inventory costs of getting the business going.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
When we first started we did not design our own products. We simply found other products that weren’t available in North America, purchased them, and brought them here. Once we started figuring out what was working and which products were selling well, we would work more closely with our manufacturers, tweaking specific products and adding styles that we saw selling well in the market.
Still, the highest cost for us in starting this business was inventory. We had to order a ton and take a big gamble on how much we were going to sell, as the business is very seasonal - with most sales being around Halloween time.
Describe the process of launching the business.
We took a very lean method in launching the business. We did not strive for perfection and we did only what we needed at the time to grow the business, and only invested in things that were really worth it.
One of the biggest challenges for us when launching the business was finding a fulfillment center that could handle our orders. The first center we used turned out to be very unreliable, with missed orders and products going missing, and caused a huge headache especially when we were just getting started. Eventually, we switched fulfillment centers and things have been much smoother since.
Aside from shipping, another big task was setting up the website and marketing. We used Shopify for our website and being online marketers, we were able to handle most of the work ourselves.
One thing we invested a lot in was great photography. We felt our products are so much nicer than the competition and we wanted great photos to show this. So we found the best local photographer we could and did an incredibly fun photoshoot.
Because we did so much of the work ourselves, our only major cost in starting the business was placing our first mask orders, which were in the $3K range. On top of that, we had some standard smaller expenses such as incorporating, insurance, and web hosting fees, and the photoshoot which came a bit later.
Looking back, I think we ran a pretty tight ship and this is probably how I would do it again if I were in the same situation.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
We’ve focused most of our efforts on PR/content, partnerships, and branding. For each of these, we’ve employed different strategies and people to help us out.
For PR/Content, we’ve invested in creating some of the best party resources available for people attending masquerade parties, and promoted this content to people who might be interested in our party. This, in turn, helped our SEO and also drove direct sales for us.
For partnerships, we collaborated with some major influencers to get them sharing our product with their followers. We kept it really open as to the types of partners we sought out, as we found our product was relevant to so many different types of customers - from prominent everyday fashion bloggers to niche goth and cosplay bloggers. We didn’t really put any limits on ourselves here. We just aimed to get as many as we could and the main question we would ask when forming a partnership is - do we see this partnership actually driving us sales?
For branding, we’ve focused on creating a remarkable experience so people who buy from us also encourage their friends.
The reality is we have such a great product that speaks for itself, so when people wear them to parties they are always asked ‘Where did you get that?’.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Even though masquerade parties are not as popular as they were a few years ago, today the business continues to operate at a profit. And because so much of the business has established processes, we continue to manage/oversee the business while also launching new products and ventures. It currently takes about 4-8 hours/week to keep things running, which includes things like accounting, ordering product, and overseeing contractors.
In the long term, we want to continue improving and growing VIVO Masks, ensuring our products are top notch and focusing on our customers who value a quality product.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
We’ve learned soooo much starting this business. And as marketers, one of the biggest lessons we’ve learned is how important good finance is. When it comes to forecasting, placing orders, and even planning marketing, having a solid understanding of finance is key to a successful business in the long term.
Another thing we’ve learned is how important it is to ‘focus’. Just on one or two things when getting started. Like, even just one product category, and one marketing method to start. If we do too much at once, then we get distracted and our efforts are less impactful. While staying focused lets you flourish super quickly in the area you chose. So keep it simple!
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
To run our business, for the most part, we just use a third party fulfillment center, Shopify (with a couple of apps - like reviews and discounting), Google business suite, Google analytics, and Mailchimp. It’s a pretty lean business.
For hiring, we’ve found Upwork to be super helpful in finding great talent.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
There are so many unknowns with any business, and I think the most important thing is to get started. It may not be a success, but just taking some action, and trying to get something going is key. So many people don’t do anything, so just taking a step forward is a huge thing.
Also, be careful with your investments. Sometimes it’s tempting to spend a lot of money right away, but from our experience being very careful with where cash goes and ensuring there is a direct return for your spend is key in the long run.
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