Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi, my name is Melanie. I’m an outdoor soul from Germany (grew upright in the middle of the German Alps) and business owner of alpengraphics - a zero plastic startup for minimalistic & durable campfire mugs. The company was founded in April 2019 and makes approximately 500 - 3.000€ a month, depending on the season.
I design & print in Germany, and source the mugs from across the EU. Even though local production is significantly more expensive than getting the finished product shipped from Asia, keeping a low carbon footprint takes priority over a big margin. From production to shipping, everything I do is in accordance with environmental practices, but I’ll write more about that in a later section.
What I love the most about this business is the people I get to interact with. For example, my favorite moment so far was designing a date mug. A guy ordered a cup for a girl he wanted to ask out and asked if I could write a customized text at the back and send a note along with it. She was his hiking buddy and the note asked her for a cup of coffee. So cute!
Source: @travelwithmelody / Wanderlust & Go Explore mug
The great reviews from customers and their willingness to share their special mug moments on Instagram have been one of the most powerful tools to grow the audience so far.
I’ve also worked with various Instagram influencers. It was (still is!) really touching that all of them were willing to support my business without getting paid. They believed in the product, in the vision, in the sustainable approach, and were willing to go out of their way to create beautiful content with nothing but a mug in return and a lot of them still do. I’m still super grateful to all of these incredible people.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I grew up and live close to the German Alps (south of Munich). I used to be a professional cross country skier, so nature and its beauty are deeply entrenched in my value system. Recently, the outdoor trend on Instagram has changed our mountaineering culture a lot. This increasingly worried me during the various hikes I did every week. But somehow I didn’t really know what to do about it.
That changed when I joined Tesla as the marketing manager for energy products in the DACH region. After a career in marketing in a few other sectors, this was the first time I was confronted with so-called “Green Marketing” and was immediately hooked on its potential. Not because things sell better when they’re labeled green, but because it opened the door to promote more sustainable materialism.
If I can make people buy a truly sustainable product, which was produced eco-friendly and is made of materials that last a lifetime, instead of disposable or plastic goods, I could feel much more peaceful about my profession.
So after Tesla, I started experimenting with green marketing & simultaneously went through a life-changing transformation phase from a super materialistic, excessive lifestyle to selling/donating almost all our possessions and living extremely minimalistic.
And that’s how alpengraphics was born. I wanted to create a minimalistic mug that lasts a lifetime, can be used in all outdoor, travel and recreational activities (and therefore replaces plastic bottles & mugs) and is produced and shipped in the most eco-friendly way possible.
Once I started going to networking events, I realized how many smart people are out there who have great ideas. I tried to surround myself with them as much as I could.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
In general, I took the “prototyping” approach to start alpengraphics. I started with a very rudimentary product, kept testing it and gradually improved my product by reinvesting every Euro I made.
In the beginning, I hand-painted every single mug with ceramic pens and used my kitchen oven to burn the paint for 30 min at 160° C onto the cups to make the design last longer. The mugs were sourced from a manufacturer in Europe. I generally love using my hands to create something, even if it takes me 2-3 hours to finish the product. In fact, this is how I still handle small and customized orders.
However, once I went online with my shop I realized that it’s neither feasible nor efficient to do everything by hand (we Germans love efficiency 🙂). So I started looking for print shops that print on EU sourced mugs. It wasn’t easy, because most print shops buy their products from Asia to maintain a reasonable margin, which is understandable. However, I didn’t want to compromise on the “green-ness” just to lower the margins.
After I found a print shop, I sent them my 8 best selling designs and they printed a small batch of cups for me, which I put online to test things out.
Wanderlust mug / Adventure time mug (Source: alpengraphics.com)
Once I saw an increased demand for those printed cups, I decided to improve my product with a higher quality cup and got in touch with another German print shop. Although they only produced in larger batches, they had the machinery to actually burn the design instead of printing it on the mug. That makes an enamel mug bonfire & gas stove proof, which was something I really wanted to offer to my customers.
Around that time the first requests for licensing my designs came in. So I hired a design lawyer who registered my designs with the German brand & patent office. I’m happy that those requests came in early on in my business, otherwise, I would have never realized how crucial it is to get designs protected (especially as a small business).
Describe the process of launching the business.
In the beginning, I actually wanted alpengraphics to be a postcard business and went to various artisan and flea markets to sell my different card designs. In general, it went well.
But at one of the markets where I went, the weather was really bad - snowing & wet! Not really the best weather to sell postcards! That day I decided to offer my mugs instead. People loved it! That was when I realized that it’s much more feasible to focus on mugs, and as a consequence started building my Etsy store.
I didn’t know much about keywords and Etsy marketing, so I just looked at other accounts and copied their keywords, and that worked. The first customers came in and after just 3-4 weeks it was almost impossible to draw all the mugs & ship them alongside my normal job.
Around that time, my husband and I decided to go on a three-month “work & travel” through Canada, the US, and Chile, which meant I had to pause my Etsy store. However, this was a great opportunity to spend some time learning more about Etsy marketing and designing professional mockups (I couldn’t afford an expensive product photographer & didn’t have time to learn it properly myself). And that really paid off. Once we were back in September, I ordered my first batch of printed mugs and my shop was ready for the Christmas season and that was when it started getting some real traction.
Every step I took, I always financed it with the money I made before. For instance, to set up the alpengraphics website and online shop, I waited until after Christmas and invested parts of that money in a nice Shopify page. With the rest, I financed the better quality mugs which I sell today.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
alpengraphics really benefit from the organic traffic Etsy brings. Over the last year, 60% of the traffic came from Etsy and the rest from my marketing campaigns. So far, I haven’t invested any money in ads.
As mentioned earlier, during our 3 months travels my shop was offline. But I had spent a lot of time improving keywords and imagery. Looking at the graph below, that really paid off, as my sales immediately spiked upon our return in September.
When the traffic dropped again, I started working with influencers on Instagram. I selected about 20 outdoor influencers (2-10K followership) and sent them alpengraphics enamel mugs for free, asking if they would like to post photos/stories using those mugs. All of them participated and created amazing content! Since these influencers were based across the globe, I timed sending the enamel mugs to ensure that all influencers in a given region receive their mugs at around the same time. As a result, they produced beautiful stories and posts about alpengraphics campfire mugs at the same time and created a buzz.
From then onwards, alpengraphics saw a steady increase in traffic which peaked around Christmas. I felt that this was a really nice way to generate some buzz using organic means.
It was also the beginning of a conversion rate between 2,5-6%. The conversion rate hasn’t decreased until today even after the visitor rate dropped in January.
However, due to the Coronavirus, I do see sales slowing down because people aren’t traveling or hiking that much. But I try to bridge that period with an interactive engagement campaign, which seems to work. My follower-count on Instagram has increased and sales have started to slowly go up again.
I learned that a product doesn’t necessarily sell great across all channels. For example, I tried working with retail (big retailers and small businesses, like climbing halls), but inside stores, people somehow didn’t buy the mugs that much.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
I have a part-time job as a product designer and work on alpengraphics on the side, which in a way determines the speed at which I grow this business. I’m proud of growing it organically and am fine with the fact that it grows slower than traditional VC-funded businesses.
However, I still like growth 🙂 That’s why I now offer graphic design services. I support businesses with logos, print designs, and online graphics to add an additional revenue stream to my alpengraphics business.
In 2020, I would like to step more into the B2B side of things. The idea is to equip company coffee bars with our long-lasting enamel mugs or approach HR departments to gift alpengraphics mugs to new hires. Other possible customers are event organizations who can put alpengraphics enamel mugs into gift bags or outdoor companies (like van rentals) who can expand their gear with unique alpengraphics mugs. They can either choose an existing design or create a customized one for their company.
I already had a couple of projects where I created unique designs for companies and got them printed on enamel mugs, bottles, and other merchandise. This is a path I really want to push for in 2020.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Oh, I’ve learned so much. I have the deepest respect for people who work in logistics and supply chain now. I found it incredibly tough to find out how I can ship my mugs in the most cost-efficient way, who to work with and where to source my shipping material from.
I also had to learn that a product doesn’t necessarily sell great across all channels. For example, I tried working with retail (big retailers and small businesses, like climbing halls), but inside stores, people somehow didn’t buy the mugs that much. At that time, I really started doubting my enamel mugs. But at the same time, the alpengraphics online shop was flourishing. So I decided to focus all my energy on online sales.
But by doing that, I had to learn my second lesson: stocking up. Since I invested only what came out of previous sales, I was trying to be as frugal as possible and stocked up extremely conservatively. However, I underestimated the growth of the online shop and was consistently understocked. Around Christmas, that became a real problem. That was when I realized that I had to order bigger batches of mugs, shipping material, basically everything. Not just to be prepared, but also to save money. Bigger chunks are always cheaper.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
My main platform is Etsy. This is where I get most of my reviews and sales. The alpengraphics Shopify webstore has been online for about 2 months, but sales are still mostly coming through Etsy. I hope to push my online shop more in 2020 to increase sales over that platform.
The main social media drivers for alpengraphics are Instagramand Pinterest. Honestly, I’ve underestimated Pinterest. While maintaining Instagram is a huge task, I simply uploaded pics of all alpengraphics enamel mugs to Pinterest and see a constant stream of customers coming from there every month. It feels like it’s considerably less work, but drives great results. I will surely focus more energy on Pinterest this year.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
My most influential non-fiction books are Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday, Lost Connections by Johan Hari and How to Win Friends & influence People by Dale Carnegie. All three books made me a better communicator and equipped me with a humble approach to work and doing business.
The most influential fiction book is Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie because she manages to put hardship in perspective as few other authors can. Very humbling novel!
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
The two things I wish I had understood earlier: attitude doesn’t get you anywhere & it’s okay to take things to step by step.
I’ve been there, done that: we’re so convinced of what we do, that we take little critique and don’t want to ask for help, because we believe we know best. The thing is, other people almost always know more, because they bring in different perspectives. They will challenge your position, but that’s great because it makes you look beyond your own limitations.
Once I started going to networking events, I realized how many smart people are out there who have great ideas. I tried to surround myself with them as much as I could. Just interacting with them showed me what my weaknesses were and where I was stuck. Don’t forget that people love sharing their knowledge. Utilize that!
Naturally, most of us prefer to surround ourselves with people who look up to us. While that soothes our ego, it’s not really helping us advance our business. Spend time with people YOU can look up to and learn everything you can from them.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
At the moment I’m mostly looking for an advisor/coach who can help me clarify the next steps to scale the business and someone who can help me create SEO-optimized content for the upcoming alpengraphics blog.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below or reach out to me on Instagram!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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