A. Always.

Two years ago, long before Cotton Bureau existed, we reached out to someone about a possible job for our now defunct client services company. It would have been a very high profile job, and we had good reason to believe we had a shot. The owner (someone with whom we had previously had positive contact and with whom we believed we had much in common) had publicly expressed interest in having the site re-designed making our offer not, we hoped, completely unsolicited. We composed a short, pleasant, to-the-point email that did not receive a reply. Chalking it up to anything but malevolence, we moved on as we always do. It wasn’t the first time we’d didn’t hear back from someone, and we knew it wouldn’t be the last.

Nearly a year had passed when a new idea occurred to us for the same person.  We again reached out by email, this time to suggest that making t-shirts with us might be of interest. At the time United Pixelworkers had a well-established partnership program, having run shirts for industry heavyweights like A Book Apart, Dribbble, and Rdio. No luck. Maybe our email was eaten by a spam filter? Maybe our advances were unappreciated? There was no way to know. At that point, exasperated by the silence, we could have been persuaded to move on. The last thing we wanted was to be an irritation. In the land of the Internet, however, there’s no body language to read, no clues to investigate. As business owners, writers, and website makers, we’ve always considered ourselves peers of the people we contact, regardless of their celebrity status. We’re not too proud to admit that the silent treatment stung. Writing a decent email is table stakes for running an online business. After 3-4 years of practice, we had a pretty strong batting average at this sort of thing. Nearly everyone else we had emailed previously had been responsive and, usually, interested.

Four months later we reached out again for what we hoped would be the last time. Mixing it up, we added a few additional people to the email who might be better positioned to at least return our email and, ideally, to give us an unequivocal yes or no. We got a reply, thankfully, with something resembling interest (though not from the original recipient). By this time, we had spun our partnership program off into the site you see today, Cotton Bureau. Maybe the delay had been for the best. The new site would have been the perfect vehicle for a limited run of shirts for a popular and beloved project.

Time passed (slowly) as we waited to hear whether the shirt we knew would be a monster would land on Cotton Bureau. Five months later it became clear (publicly) that t-shirts were a priority once a satisfactory design could be found, place of sale TBD. With nothing to lose at this point, we sent a last plaintive email: we’ll help with artwork, we’ve got the experience, the credentials, the contacts to make this a fantastic shirt. Just give us a chance. No answer.

This story does not have a happy ending.

Four months later, it was announced that the shirt would run on a competing service. It sold over 1,000 tees—twice as many as our most popular shirt ever. We had spent nearly a year pursuing this shirt, and there it went, without an explanation. What could we have done differently? Was our service considered and rejected? Were we too aggressive in reaching out? Who knows?

There’s a powerful idea about the Internet, embedded in the deepest recesses of our psyche, that excellence is all that matters, that the world we’re building is purely meritocratic. We know this isn’t true, of course. Anyone can see that just by looking around. It should be obvious that simply being good isn’t good enough; in fact, it isn’t even close to being good enough. Why?

You should be familiar with David Sherwin’s Tipsy Triangle of Software Startupdom. If you aren’t, become so quickly. David argues that every startup needs to divide its focus among three core areas: user experience, tech choices, and business model. Let’s use Cotton Bureau* as an example.

User Experience: Our website is responsive, reasonably performant, easy to navigate (we hope), and has a delightful checkout experience that we haven’t seen anywhere else.

Tech Choices: We use a basic LAMP stack running on a super-cheap Linode. We take advantage of third-party, open source libraries (like Sass, jQuery, and Laravel) whenever possible to minimize development time. Nothing fancy is happening here. Our goal is to build a reliable e-commerce site, not push the technology envelope.

Business Model: The entire reason Cotton Bureau exists is because the business model is relatively new. By creating a pre-order t-shirt platform, we enable transactions that previously couldn’t happen.

*Technically Cotton Bureau isn’t a startup. We’re a five year old small business bootstrapping a new product. We’ll talk about why we made that decision in future post.

It’s easy—terrifyingly easy—to get fixated on any one of those variables. The user experience on Cotton Bureau is good, but it’s so far from what we would like it to be that we cringe each time we look at it. Our friends and colleagues work on the sites and apps we use every day. It’s essential we remind ourselves that we don’t have the resources of an Instagram, Twitter, Google, etc. That we have to balance our urge to perfect the design with the reality of staying in business.

Our technology choices are practical, but are they exciting? Hardly, and that’s intentional. Nobody jumps out of bed eager to fire up their PHP virtual environment, and we have hundreds of improvements and refactorizations we’re itching to make.

The temptation to tweak the business model is constant and one to which we’re particularly susceptible. What if we added stock? Is direct-to-garment good enough yet? Will it ever be? How much should designers make? Can we lower our cut to spur sales, i.e. make it up on volume? Is it fair (and profitable) to curate designs rather than letting anything and everything on the site? Certainly there’s value in examining and re-examining the assumptions of your business model—but not every day, not to the exclusion of work that needs to be done on the site.

And yet, there’s a hidden, fourth dimension (if you will) to David’s triangle that we would do well to observe. Here it is: Sales. Marketing. Public Relations. For sake of mnemonic ease (and geometric validity), let’s call our new shape the Cotton Bureau Not-So-Tipsy Pyramid of Staying in Business.

I suspect we’re all thinking the same thing right about now: ugh. For anyone who isn’t naturally extroverted or whose skin isn’t leathered to an impermeable hide by years of failure, the fear of putting oneself out there for rejection is very real and the rejection itself (even when unintentional, as it so often can be) is agonizing.

But I have news for you. All the effort that’s been put into making your thing special is useless and, worse than useless, irrelevant if nobody is coming to see your thing. We’ve had many conversations about this topic on Skype and Twitter and even in person with people who are very good at what they do, and there is real frustration and confusion about the lack of attention being paid to products and businesses that lie outside the traditional venture capital narrative. These people might appear to be successful and profitable, but behind the scenes, staying afloat is a continual, painful struggle, which makes getting to the next level feel like it might as well involve flying to the moon.

I don’t know about you, but we don’t have a wheelbarrow of VC cash in the corner. We can’t buy attention. We’re a small, bootstrapped business trying to make it work from humble Pittsburgh, PA. If we’re going to do this, it’s going to be the people in the room. TechCrunch, Fast Co., etc. won’t come calling (at least not if we don’t call first), and as far as meeting payroll goes, Ben Horowitz isn’t walking through that door.

So what’s the answer? Relentless sales. For real. Like I said on Twitter, if you look around the office and don’t see “the sales guy”, you’re the sales guy. Roll up your sleeves. You’ve got some work to do.

Sure, we all get the occasional shot in the arm—an out-of-nowhere link from swissmiss (thanks, Tina!) or a kindly tweet from another well-intentioned friend with a bucket of followers—but those waves crash on the shores of your website and wash maddeningly right back out to sea. Some people stick around to be customers. Most are gone forever.

That’s why May is Cotton Bureau Awareness Month around the office. We’re reaching out to anyone and everyone, brainstorming ways to bring people to the site. Our product is successful. We make money on every transaction and enough of it to meet payroll for 3.5 people. The last 10 months have proven that there’s a real desire for our services on the designer side and for t-shirt sales on the customer side (yeah, no kidding). We’re pretty sure we’ve got the ol’ product-market fit locked down. Now’s the time to take the vision to the people, not spend time twiddling knobs behind the scenes. Here’s to us (and you) making this month the month people hear about your thing.

Can we help? Let us know what your thing is. We’d like to shine a little spotlight in your direction. Let us know what’s worked well for you in the past, or what you’re hoping to try in the future. We’d love to follow up on this blog with some encouragement for people out there trying to make this all work on a shoestring. Email us@cottonbureau.com.