Brand New Year.

Happy New Year. Let’s have a quick chat about what Cotton Bureau was able to accomplish (or not accomplish) in 2023 and where we hope to go in 2024.


The Audit. 💼

On March 28, 2023 Cotton Bureau received a letter from the Internal Revenue Service advising us that our returns for 2020 and 2021 were “selected for examination”.

If the IRS ever decides to, for no particular reason, review your tax returns, you might think that what really matters at the end of the day is that your returns were filed accurately. You would be correct, of course, and you will be very thankful that you have been diligent about doing it The Right Way all these years, but what you will quickly find out is that the auditor does not care whether your returns were accurate. All they care about is requiring you to prove that they are correct in tedious, painful, and incomprehensible detail.

Your particular IRS agent might not understand how ecommerce businesses work and insist that you explain it to them from first principles. How, for example, do you know that the person who bought the t-shirt actually received the t-shirt? When you politely suggest that they talk to their compatriots at the United States Postal Service about that, they are not amused.

For six months, you, your expensive (and lovely!) Certified Public Accountants, and the government’s appointed inquisitor will debate the finer points of the law surrounding such things as receipts for lunch at the local pizza place and whether money transferred between bank accounts via well known and banal mechanisms like ACH count as revenue or, just, you know, relocating money to a different account.

Thankfully after innumerable conversations, the G Men and Women will begrudgingly admit that, yes, in fact you do run a perfectly legitimate business, and that, other than a difference of opinion about whether certain expenses can be entirely substantiated which is not worth appealing because it will just cost you more money, you are Good. You will then cut a check to the government for less than you paid your accountants in the last half year complying with endless nonsensical document requests printed on honest-to-goodness-I-am-not-making-this-up pieces of paper, and everyone will go their merry way to celebrate Christmas in Peace.

Meanwhile…

A Year of Shipping. 🚀

Life goes on. While [redacted] was squinting at numbers and quibbling about nachos, we were busy as bees building a better business. If you missed our emails or just can’t recall (to be honest, we can barely remember ourselves) here’s a quick chronological recap of what we shipped in 2023.

Stock Products for All — January
Cotton Bureau accumulated quite a pile of stock products over the years. We loved helping people sell and ship their goods, but costs were adding up. We needed to make some changes to make sure that part of the business was sustainable going forward. We put together a lightweight billing system and added a new Pro tier for anyone who wanted to sell items that were neither on demand nor pre-order campaigns. We’re happy to report that’s worked out perfectly and no changes are needed to that system for 2024. If you have enamel pins or posters or anything else you would like to add to your store, please get in touch.

Price Changes — January
Everyone’s least favorite topic, surely, and ours as well. In early 2023 it seemed like inflation was just about done. We took a look at our prices and adjusted them as necessary to continue operating a healthy company. Thankfully that trend continued, prices stabilized, and we do not see any areas that need to be addressed in 2024.

New Profile Link Options — February
The self-combustion of Twitter prompted us to sit down and review which social networks were available to Cotton Bureau profiles. We were able to add official support for Facebook, Twitch, YouTube, Apple Podcasts, Dribbble, Behance, Github, Patreon, and Mastodon. Later in 2023 we added Threads and LinkedIn as well.

New and Improved Sales Reports — February
Still below standard if we’re being honest, we were able to improve account analytics slightly with aggregated sales data on a per product basis. We intended to get back to that later in the year to provide even more ways to slice and dice the data, but in a recurring theme, we ran out of time. It’s safe to say that addressing creator dashboards is again on our list for 2024.

On Demand Embroidered Hats — April
Genuinely a thrill for us, we’ve embroidered tons of hats over the years, but doing it on demand was only a dream until now. We were able to team up with the same people who screenprinted every Cotton Bureau shirt and embroidered every Cotton Bureau hat to offer a solid thread color palette and a strong mix of hat styles and colors available on demand. It would be several months before we could expand the available styles and colors and make the whole thing self-serve, but embroidered hats on demand 1.0 was a huge milestone for us and something we remain proud to have shipped in 2023.

Updated Mockup Rendering — May
We’ll spare you the technical mumbo jumbo. Just know that before May 2023 every mockup image on Cotton Bureau had to be generated at the time of product creation. That led to a solution that required a lot of hard drive space to store images and a lot of processing any time changes to products needed to be made (see, for example, adding long-sleeve tees like we did in December). The new system of on demand mockup generation in the browser was more complicated to implement but gave us infinitely more flexibility and significantly reduced our overall operational cost for serving images. It’s something that under ideal circumstances is completely invisible. We have a few tweaks that we would like to make, but overall the system worked exactly as intended. We are quite happy with the results.

Cotton Bureau’s 10th Birthday — June
When we started our little web design agency Full Stop in 2009, it was a real fools-rush-in-where-angels-fear-to-tread situation. We knew we were good at making websites, and we were confident we could run a better business than the one we were leaving. We were right about the websites, and, so far, we’ve been right about running a business as well. (Our alma mater went belly up a few years after we walked.) While Cotton Bureau itself didn’t start cooking until 2013, the DNA was all there from the beginning. It’s incredibly humbling to still be here doing this lo these many years later. Thank you for indulging a little celebration from time to time. We received many kind messages on the occasion of our company launch anniversary, and we appreciate every one.

P.S. You can still buy a commemorative metal card if you like. We may have overestimated how many people love Cotton Bureau as much as we do.

Feature Friday Kickoff — June
Getting back to something else we love, 2023 saw the reboot of our series of designer interviews. Internally, our goal was to ship a new interview every two weeks. We ended up with 10 complete which, while a little below where we wanted to be, is still quite respectable. Here’s the full list if you missed one: Virginia Poltrack, Steve Habersang, Amanda Weedmark, Tim Van Damme, Christopher Michon, Andrew Griswold, Justin Van Genderen, Sheri Roloff, Josh Hara, and Chiara Mensa.

We’ve got plenty more lined up for 2024. If you know someone that would make a good interviewee, tell us!

Referral Codes — July
So, look, we’re not going to sugarcoat things here. We’ve long wanted to offer a way for people to earn Cotton Bureau credit by helping us spread the word. It seems like a scenario where everyone wins. Plenty of other websites have (presumably) quite successful referral programs. In order to ship an MVP referral program, we decided to rely on the existing discount engine we built. In practice, whether because this is a feature that nobody wants or one that has been inadequately promoted, referral program uptake has been far less than we hoped. If there’s one thing you can say about us though, it might be that we, uh, don’t know when to quit. The referral program isn’t going anywhere. We’ll do our best to improve it and make sure it’s more visible than it has been so far.

If this is the first you are hearing about the referral program, you can get started any time. Just visit the discounts page in your account and find your public referral link.

YouTube Shopping Integration — September
A fairly niche feature, we did add support for connecting Cotton Bureau profiles to YouTube in September. The story behind YouTube finally granting us access is epic and sadly just another of the many painful examples we have of working with large companies.

If you have a YouTube channel with monetization turned on, email us with your channel ID to get connected. Hopefully we can find a few minutes to make that self-serve in 2024.

Self-Serve Embroidery on Demand — November
Just in time for holidays, on demand embroidered hats can now be created as easily as t-shirts and phone cases. It’s our third official self-serve on demand product. In concert with releasing the self-serve tool, we more than doubled the number of available colors and styles. On demand hats are now a true Cotton Bureau product. We had originally expected to ship support in the first half of the year. As with everything in life, double the amount of time you think it will take. Then double it again and you will still be short. From simulating stitching and warping to getting all the necessary pieces in place for the API, it was quite a process.

Long-Sleeve Tees — December
One final product update for 2023. Long-sleeve tees were one of the most requested apparel types from customers. While adding support for long-sleeve tees is not particularly challenging technically, it did help to have laid the foundation for it with the on demand mockup image change we made earlier in the year. Long-sleeve tees immediately become one of our best sellers, which makes us think… maybe we should add more shirt styles? 🤔

Near Misses in 2023 / Plans for 2024. 📆

Looking back on last year, we hit about 70% of the goals we set for ourselves. That’s really not bad. Still, the plans that didn’t quite come through somehow take on a bigger aspect in our memory than the ones that did. We had every intention of releasing on demand drinkware. We fully expected to add support for multiple print locations and on demand totes. We made excellent progress on some of those. If you read the recap above though, you’ll see that for the second half of the year announcements slowed considerably. Part of that is simply the reality that pushing a project across the finish line elides all of the work that came before it. Even if a project is 80% complete, it doesn’t exist yet for public consumption, so we can’t take any credit. The other simple fact is that life gets in the way. There was paternity leave and summer vacations and holiday madness. The second half of the year just beats you down and the best laid plans seem destined to go awry.

So, here we are. The Year of Our Lord 2024 has arrived. It is positively deranged to talk too much about the future. It always looks different than you would like and never arrives when expected. Yet, well, we’ll let you in on a few secrets. Maybe some of these happen this year, maybe some happen next year, inevitably some are even further away or may never happen at all.

There’s a whole world of on demand products waiting to be added beyond what we have already. The trick is finding the right partner to execute them with the quality and consistency that we expect. We’re actively evaluating several new exciting opportunities, and there are actually quite a lot of products we have yet to tap into from our existing partners. In no particular order, we’re looking at stickers, towels, totes, mugs, insulated bottles, blankets, and prints, as well as more embroidery and apparel options. If any of those sound interesting to you — or we missed something critical, please reply to this email and let us know what you like. We won’t necessarily be able to juggle the schedule as we’re already shipping as quickly as we can, but it makes a huge difference for us to know what you are thinking.

Other than new products, we will have some infrastructure needs to prioritize. Various code libraries are approaching end of life and need to be updated. Our mailing list provider costs too much and does too little. We’re also painfully aware that account tools need to be improved. We would love to make more features like discount creation and pre-order campaigns self-serve. To be honest, the list is quite a bit longer than we can possibly address. Here’s to another year though of chipping away and making things a little bit better every day.


End Notes. 🎬

We’d like to take one last opportunity to thank you before we move on to the business of 2024. Thank you for working with us. Cotton Bureau only exists and has only ever existed because we help people solve a problem. The problem is simply one of getting stuff made and getting it where it needs to go. We don’t personally make the things, we work with other people who do that. We don’t deliver the things, we trust USPS and FedEx to do that.

We don’t bring the people to Cotton Bureau, we don’t design the shirts, hats, and phone cases. We do very little other than provide a safe and reliable platform to take care of the irritating logistics of connecting people to each other. Without you doing the hard work of designing products that people want to buy and building communities that want to support your effort, our solution is useless. We very much enjoy doing what we do and hope to continue doing it for a long time, so thank you for trusting us to be your partner in making people happy.