Survey Results

The survey results are in. Before we talk about them, however, we need to warn you that this post is going to be long and scattered. It’s fascinating to read the feedback you all were kind enough to provide. We want to answer as many of your questions as we can. Let’s get to it.

The clear favorite was United Pixelworkers. While we’re very proud of the community we’ve built as United Pixelworkers, we expect (and need) that number to ultimately be a drop in the bucket.

Slight footnote: this survey was seen primarily by people who follow Cotton Bureau on Twitter or subscribe to the email, so we know it’s not exactly unbiased. With 278 responses out of more than 10,000 customers, we got a reasonable sample size, but we probably shouldn’t consider the results of this particular question representative of the population at large.

Uh oh. We accidentally made answering this question compulsory without providing a “not applicable” option which means it looks like we got a bunch of junk data for May 2014. We’re going to throw that number out and concentrate on the earlier months. The good news is that almost 20% of respondents said they made their first purchase the month we launched. To that we say: thanks for sticking with us! We’re equally happy to see a steady 5–9% each month in between.

Woo-hoo! Eighty-seven percent of people filling out the survey have either made multiple purchases or intend to make another purchase in the future. How’s that for loyalty? (For comparison, around 20% of customers have actually made multiple purchases which is a pretty clear indicator that the self-selection bias in this survey is strongly toward happy, satisfied customers.)

Customer acquisition (or, in this case, retention) is a tricky subject and one about which we certainly still have much to learn. Our strategy to this point has been straightforward: execute on shirt quality, website experience, and customer service while trusting that friendly and honest communication in a select number of channels (weekly newsletter, direct email, Twitter, and Instagram) will be compelling. Our sincere goal is to avoid anything remotely shady or spammy. (“Whose isn’t?”, you might be asking yourself. You’d be… surprised.) We had also been posting to Facebook and Pinterest, but with limited success and limited time we’ve decided to pause our efforts in those places. (Not that you should stop!) Going forward, we expect to continue doing the same while hopefully mixing in even more content on the blog and in—dramatic pause—other places.

On the advertising side, we tried a brief run of Facebook ads. Our efforts in that direction have been disappointing at best. We’re going to continue looking for appropriate opportunities to advertise and the best ways to, clears throat, communicate the unique Cotton Bureau experience. We’ll keep you posted.

Lots of stuff to unpack in this question, not all of which we’ll be able to do in this particular post. But we do want to address some of the high-level stuff.

“The designs don’t interest me” — That’s fair. We’re constantly reaching out to amazing designers and we accept designs on nearly anything as long as they’re awesome.  We’re open to tees for everything from aliens to zeppelins. Ultimately, however, we have little control over which designs come in the door. The good news is that more designs are coming in every day, and if there’s something we’re missing nothing is stopping you from filling that gap.

“Pricing is too high” — Whew. This is a tough one. Nothing would make us happier than being able to lower prices. In order to lower prices, we’d have to do at least a few of the following things:

  • Switch from American Apparel to a less expensive shirt
  • Reduce the amount a designer could add on to the shirt cost
  • Reduce the amount we add as a surcharge for our own labor and expenses
  • Absorb some of the shipping costs ourselves

These are our realistic alternatives. We’d lose money in the short-run (most likely) with the hope that we make it up on volume and/or in the long-run. As we’ve mentioned in the past, this is a bootstrapped business not a VC-backed business. It should go without saying but we’re gonna say it anyway: we need money to stay in business. The exact price intersection of supply and demand for premium tees is anybody’s guess, but prices are what they are right now because that’s what we’ve found to be sustainable. We’re going to keep tweaking the model in the hope that we can find numbers that work well for everyone.

Here’s the reality of starting a business like Cotton Bureau with rent and health insurance and a family depending on your success: it’s scary, it’s frustrating, and sometimes it’s discouraging. We are completely dependent on dozens of designers and thousands of customers to pay our bills every month. Guess what? It’s exhilarating when it works, and we would’t have it any other way. We relish the ownership, control, and freedom that comes with being the ones at which the buck stops. Yes, it means we’ll grow more slowly than we could otherwise, but it also means our empathy for customer needs is genuine, our decisions are calibrated to be beneficial to everyone, and the insane pressure to grow at the expense of everything else doesn’t warp our perspective. Shirts won’t be as cheap as they would be if we didn’t need to make money and not every feature we’d like to have will be built immediately. So what. Slow and steady, we say. The bottom-line, for us, is helping designers make quality shirts available to a discerning audience. For now, that costs what it costs.

“Sizing issue” — This is something we’re actively working on improving. Better size charts, more fit options, exchanges. Because everything (currently) runs on a pre-order model, it’s imperative we help people get sizes right the first time since there may not be a second time. Also, handling exchanges is a time-consuming and expensive proposition for a company our size. Measure twice, cut once, as they say.

“Shipping costs were too high” — Same deal as above. We can’t change the price of shipping, not at our scale. We already use the cheapest option from USPS. There’s some margin built-in for handling, but the same logic applies. We cut that, we’re hitting bone. We could incentivize multiple purchases by discounting shipping on more than one shirt. That’s a solution a lot of people would be happy with, but it’s not a silver bullet.

Everybody else who said they wouldn’t change anything, we love you!

Not gonna lie, this was our favorite question in the survey. Cotton Bureau has always been about—and will always be about—helping independent designers make awesome, one-of-a-kind shirts. We’re glad you agree!

We’ve already addressed pricing to some degree—and we’re going to have a good bit more to say about that in the future—so let’s talk about some of the other areas we’re working hard to improve.

“Sometimes I miss out on shirts during the pre-sale period” — We’re hoping to come at this one from both sides. On the one hand, we’re exploring ways to make sure you don’t need to come to the site to see every shirt that’s released, maybe a Twitter firehose or, gasp, RSS. On the other hand, if you do miss a shirt, be sure to use the handy notification feature to make sure you get an email if it comes back. For the foreseeable future, however, Cotton Bureau is always going to run on a pre-order basis. We can try to smooth some of the rougher edges, but Cotton Bureau isn’t a store, it’s a platform to help designers get shirts printed and shipped. That’s an intentional choice and one that has some unavoidable consequences to go along with its many, many advantages.

“How long it takes to get my shirt” — That’s a tough one as well. (Maybe you’re sensing a theme here?) We’d love to get everyone their stuff faster. Here are a few ways that could work:

  • Less time live on the site
  • Quicker turnaround at the printer
  • Expedited shipping

To take them in order, less time live on the site means fewer people have an opportunity to purchase. We might enable that option on a per design basis in the future, but, having done everything from a day to a month in the past, two weeks feels right to us. It’s enough time to scrape the money together for a shirt you just have to have but not so long that the season changes while you wait. And, most importantly, it’s enough time to make sure as many shirts as possible get printed.

Can we turn things around more quickly once it’s clear that a shirt is going to make it? Yes, to a point. We already have a terrific relationship with our printer. They bend over backwards to accommodate 12 shirt runs for us and make sure we’re always at the top of the queue of orders being run. There’s still a little fat to trim in the overall order process, so we do look forward to ship times being cut down by a few days in the long-run. A few people suggested that we start running smaller quantities as soon as possible. While we’d love to do that, the margins are just too tight at this point to prioritize ship time over cost. And judging by the survey results, if we can pass any of the cost savings on to customers, that’s a more pressing need than faster shipping.

For simplicity and cost reasons, expedited shipping is not something we currently offer. We’ve offered it in the past (not on Cotton Bureau), but it’s almost never worth the cost to the customer. We may offer it eventually, but given the 2–4 weeks already spent waiting for a shirt, the one day saved by faster shipping is negligible.

“The quality of the shirts (comfort/fit)” — Quality is something we are absolutely unwilling to sacrifice, so we’re glad to see it wasn’t high on the list of complaints. We use American Apparel right now because it’s the best blend of price and quality. We’re always looking at alternatives. To this point, we haven’t been persuaded something better is out there. Some people prefer a thicker tee, and, while that’s not our preference, we aren’t ruling it out for the future completely if we can find a way to make it work. As far as fit goes, we would love, love to have better size options for women. We’ve scoured the internet for years to find a solution and have come up empty. If you have any suggestions, you know where to find us.

Thanks, guys. That means a lot to us and, frankly, is the only way we get to keep doing this at all.

Whoa. Okay. So, hoodies. We are definitely not planning to introduce non-shirt apparel or even different types of shirts soon (read: in 2014), but everything on this list is under consideration for the future. To be honest, it really feels like a matter of when and how, not if. But we’ll leave it at that for now.

We’re big fans of Real Talk™ around here, so let’s have some: it’s not your problem shirts cost so much and take so long to print and ship, it’s ours. We understand if you don’t want to pay and don’t want to wait—neither do we. But we have some news for you. WE ARE NOT RUNNING THIS HERE BUSINESS ON ROCKET FUEL. We are using plain, old American dollars with which we pay our one, part-time employee (hi, Sara!), our fantastic designers, our printer (this guy, remember?), and, when we have enough left over, ourselves. (These three guys here.)

Our business model is simple: we have a product, we sell it for more money than it takes us to produce it. We happen to think it’s a pretty good product. So far more than 12,000 people have spent their precious time and hard-earned money to indicate that they agree with us. That validates the decisions we’ve made to this point and gives us hope that many, many more people out there also agree and just don’t know it yet. As usual, that’s where you come in. Please help us spread the word about this upstart t-shirt platform. We’d be awfully grateful.