I started a social enterprise in 2013 while working a day job (three days a week). It was called Collectees; an online shop where I sold premium limited-edition t-shirts, designed by illustrators and based on drawings from children helped by charities. For each t-shirt sold, eight euro’s went to the relevant charity. I regularly launched a new limited edition in collaboration with a different charity and an illustrator.
I built up Collectees from scratch and launched on January 1, 2014. I was successful regarding the social impact (more than two thousand euros donated to five charities) and customer satisfaction (I got a 9.4 on average), but I was unable to make it financially profitable, and I didn’t see enough growth to continue with enough confidence. Moreover, the business was taking a toll on me. That’s why I had to stop it at the end of 2014.
I learned a lot of business related aspects, like doing finances, selling products, and doing marketing. However, I’ve also learned some valuable lessons.
1. Find out if you love creating or managing
At the start I liked coming up with the whole concept, creating the branding, developing an eCommerce website, doing marketing & communication, and sending packages.
However, some months in, I would not say I liked it as much. It was mostly management. I couldn’t put my creativity in it. I love creating something new, not managing something existing.
It didn’t make me happy, and I had to think more about myself. I prefer to be creative myself as an employee or as a creative professional working for clients & selling products I’ve designed myself.
You have to love the process, even if the results are not there yet.
2. Follow your dreams, but be realistic
I don’t regret starting Collectees, because if you don’t try, you never know. I had the opportunity and gave it a shot. I learned I can achieve a lot if I put my mind to it.
Still, it’s not as easy as it might seem. It takes a lot of hard work and sacrifices. I started with the realisation that it could very well be unsuccessful. It was a calculated risk. I still worked three days a week at my day job so I could still support myself (I also rented cheap, which helped).
Yet, looking back I wasn’t realistic with what it would take and if it would make me happy.
3. Work hard, but not at the expense of yourself
If you want to achieve something great, it’s going to be hard. That’s part of the charm. You have to be willing to put in the work, especially at the start. However, you also have to think about yourself. Your mental health is as essential. If you can’t do this work anymore, you undermine your own business. You are your business. So if you don’t function properly, the business doesn’t function properly. It has to be sustainable.
I find out it’s tough to limit yourself. It was tempting to always work on my business because it’s my own and I put my own money in it. It shouldn’t go at the expense of yourself.
4. Ask help
I did everything on my own (well except the illustrations, production of the shirts, and some help with the financial statements). Looking back, that is something to be proud of. However, also a bit ridiculous and one of the reasons I failed. I’m not the best at asking help and delegating. I probably should have sought a co-founder who likes more of the business, sales and management side.
5. Test as small as possible
In my preparation I read the Lean Startup book by Eric Ries where he introduces the Minimal Viable Product (MVP) concept: you test out a product idea by making it as small as possible and finding out if people even want it. Otherwise, you could develop a full product and then find out there is no market for it. Most of the time people don’t know what they want until they see it. So you can’t just ask what they want.
I did this by creating a simple website explaining the concept with a button to read more about it and then showing a subscription form to get a notification when Collectees launches. This way I could easily measure if people were so interested they would even leave their email to get notified. This MVP was quite successful, and I then went on to create the whole concept of Collectees.
However, I could have done some more MVP iterations to finetune the business model. Plus I should have consulted other experts on my business model. Yet, I wanted to launch in January 2014, and I was not too fond of refining and waiting longer, so I went through with it.
If I had postponed the launch, I could have gotten feedback that my business model was a good start, but needed more refinement to make it sustainable.
6. Go slowly & be patient
I wanted to go too fast with Collectees at the start instead of being patient and allowing it to grow more slow & organic. I was too much thinking about where I wanted to be instead of the small steps that would get me there.
7. Don’t put your products on sale
Because I got desperate, I tried all sorts of things like putting my t-shirts on sale. But I shouldn’t have. It lowers the value of your products. You tell your customers the product is actually worth this price and not the regular price. Additionally, your customers will learn to wait until the next sale is on. What you can do, is reward early buyers by introducing a product at a discounted price for a limited time before it goes up forever. But never lower the price.
8. Make concessions
So I had this image in my mind how Collectees should be. The fault I made was that I wanted too much too early. The t-shirts had to be of premium quality, sustainable, fair-trade & printed with the best eco-friendly inks by hand (screen printing). Of course, it was part of the concept, but I could have skipped the screen printing at first.
Screen printing has a lot of overhead costs which undercut my profits for lower quantities. The more I would sell the less the overhead costs per t-shirt would be, but I never got there. If I had made this concession, I might have succeeded and eventually made the switch to screen printing plus made more impact in the long run.