Survival Mode: Launching a Side Hustle During A Life and World Crisis
Life can sometimes feel like it's dictated by Murphy's Law.
It was problem after problem for Laura and Albert when the coronavirus pandemic hit. In addition to both of them being left jobless, Laura also suffered a horrific accident in which she broke her neck and back.
Faced with such adversities, for most people, it'd be easy to just throw in the towel. But that's not Albert and Laura. Instead of letting these traumatic experiences knock them down, they stayed resilient and (in their own words) "turned that negative into a positive."
Today, aside from having to take care of three kids, which is already a fulltime job in itself, and 11 animals, the entrepreneurial couple is also running two online stores they've launched during these trying times.
Here's their inspiring story about how they failed to let desperation and helplessness take over and worked together to start their online businesses.
Short on time? Here's a five-point TL;DR summary:
- The experience of doing something you enjoy and are passionate about is healing in itself.
- The transparency on their About page played a role in the success of their store because it humanizes them and adds personality and authenticity to the brand.
- Their aim isn't to just sell products that are cool and funny, but also for their customers to have a good purchasing experience.
- When you have an angry customer, that's an opportunity to earn them as a customer.
- According to Laura, the couple's business partnership works so well because they like to be together and do stuff together, which is key to doing business together.
Start Yours is a podcast about ecommerce, dropshipping, and all things launching a business.
Join us as we meet entrepreneurs who have gone through the triumphs and headaches of running an online store, and learn how they managed to survive and thrive.
The Unexpected Start of Their Ecommerce Business
Aleisha: Albert and Laura, you are a husband and wife team, you are working together. But probably under circumstances that you were not planning to initially work under. Can you tell me a little bit about how you came to be online business owners? And gee! It sounds like it's been a real ride.
Laura: It has been a ride. Do you wanna take that one? Albert?
Albert: Yeah, yeah, I will.
Albert: So both me and my wife have been out of work since March due to the Coronavirus. And sometime in April, something really bad happened. My wife had a seizure and she fell and broke her neck and back.
She had to be hospitalized and it was obviously during that pandemic where I couldn't even be with her. It was a really, really traumatic, scary experience.
And after some days of her being in the hospital, we thought, first of all, I'm just wanting her to be okay. Second, we're thinking, like, "What are we gonna do? We just racked over $30,000 in medical bills. We're both out of work."
Now, my wife, who was a massage therapist, and I was working in marketing before, "What are we gonna do?" She can't work for a while. She can't drive. I can't leave her alone to go get a regular job when things get normal. So it was a few days of near panic setting in for the both of us, I know, because of what just happened, and also just, "What are we gonna do?"
But my wife and I, we both love animals, we have 11 animals here at home. She's always been an animal lover. And we put this idea of like, "Why don't we come up with some funny apparel for animal lovers? People that love animals. Some funny shirts, funny clothing for them." That's how this whole idea started.
Another Shopify owner told me, "You have the skills to do something. Why don't you start your own thing?" And that pushed us over, and we came up with the idea for Gorilla Vibe.
Aleisha: Laura, when this sort of was happening, this is incredibly scary. You were both so cool three months on to be able to talk about this. And I imagine it would have been hugely traumatic for you and your family.
But the fact you had the energy and spirit to rise above it and go, "What are we gonna do? Let's problem-solve." A lot of people would have just gone to bed and just given up a little bit. What was that drive for you to go, "Come on, we've got to do this. Let's come up with a solution."
Laura: So, I honestly think what it was was that obviously, it was survival mode initially. We have to get through everything, make sure everything's good. But after that, it was kind of like, "Okay, what are we gonna do from here forward? But what can we do that we actually enjoy that is also healing in itself through the experience?"
It's healing to laugh and to make funny things and just do something you enjoy. And so, I guess that kind of fell into place really because we just started goofing off and it took off. And we were like, "Okay, we can actually do this."
Aleisha: It's really good you mentioned that. We have a lot of people that are dropshippers and they're doing print-on-demand work, which is great. But also, I do think one of the things that sometimes is lacking in people starting online businesses is a passion or something that they are gonna sit down at the computer and actually enjoy doing each day.
So it's so good you mentioned that because yeah, you control the Google Trends and you can go through all the spreadsheets, but sometimes, I think that's a big part of your day that we've been missing if you don't sit down and have a little laugh or go, "I'm really motivated by this." So it's a really good point that you have a passion for animals and you've been able to translate that into a business.
So tell me, what was the step then, Albert, when you came up with this idea, you talked to another Shopify owner, and then you're like, "Damn! Let's do this." How long did it take? What was the process? And how did you actually then settle on the business that you've actually launched?
Albert: So that's a funny question in itself because I've been meaning to do my own Shopify-product-based business for a long time. I've run Shopify stores before. I've built Shopify stores for clients. And this just pushed me to do something.
I started by designing some... First of all, I made up my mind. I said, "We're gonna do something. We're gonna create funny apparel for animal lovers. This is something that I think we could do." And so, I just got busy designing funny shirts. We're doing research, seeing what kind of animals we wanted to do first, but I just started getting busy.
Within a few weeks, I had almost 100 products.
And now, we're at almost 200 products, just doing the graphic design, then building the store, putting the products in there, and launching the store, and then telling people our story and what we were doing.
Turning a Negative Into a Positive
Aleisha: Do you think the transparency of why this has happened and why you launched has actually helped? As a marketing person, this is probably disconnecting... Sorry, Laura, disconnecting your...
Laura: No, you're fine. No, no worries. You're fine.
Aleisha: "Do you think this has worked for you?" But that sounds like a terrible thing for me to say.
Laura: No, no, I understand.
Aleisha: But do you think that this has been a push and a driver for promotion to be able to say, "Look, this really bad thing happened to us, but we have found a potential solution to the problem." Do you think that's something that has worked?
Albert: Yes, I do.
Laura: Yes, I agree.
Albert: And I think that people respect the transparency. First of all, we have a lot of people that love us. We have good, great friends and family. But when you hear something like that, you only hear the bad. You never hear, "Well, what's gonna happen after? How are you dealing with it? What are you gonna do?"
And so, I shared our story initially with some groups that I'm in, some veteran groups. I'm a marine corps veteran. And the support I got there was the first push through the store. But it was inspiring to other people to see that they were going through some really hard stuff and to see how we're going through some really, really tough stuff, and what kinda things can you do to adapt?
People resonated with that, people shared it, people went to the store and made a purchase, that kinda thing. So in a way, I understand how you framed it, how you feel it might be a bad question, but it really isn't. We're turning that negative into a positive with what we're doing.
Aleisha: It's good to hear that. And I also think that a lot of people can take, and not to say everyone has to put their personal stories into everything they do. But I look at some stores and I go to the About page, and a lot of them are independent stores, and I think, "Man! Just tell me more about how you got into this," or, "I wanna know a little bit more," because for me, as a customer, it drives me to invest in the product or invest in the story if I know that someone's working through side jobs.
And not to say, again, it's not about feeling sorry for anyone, but it's going, "Yeah, I wanna support a team or an independent person that is really kicking ass and trying their best to get something out there." So I think it's a good point to say if you have a store and you have an About page and it's just generic, and you've got some reason or something to really sell the authenticity of your story, you should definitely... I was gonna say, "Put pen to paper," but we don't do that anymore, so put finger to key, and really boost the About page 'cause your About page is excellent.
Albert: Thank you.
Laura: Oh, thank you.
Albert: I wanted people to know that there were real people behind this brand, it wasn't just because the store looks nice. I've been in marketing, I think I'm pretty good at graphic design. So I didn't want it to be super... It is professional, but I didn't want people to think like, "Oh, here's this big brand trying to sell some funny stuff."
I wanted people to know there are people behind this brand that when you look at our products, we're trying to do something, we're trying to spread love and laughter, but there's also a person and people behind this brand. I want people to know who we are, and not just the brand, Gorilla Vibe, and funny stuff.
I want people to know that we're actual people, and we understand and we have empathy for them in whatever they might be going through as well.
The Process of Launching and Ideation
Aleisha: Yeah, I think it's really important and it's obviously working for you. Let's talk about timing. So you said you've got, now, over 200 SKUs or 200 items that you sell. How long did it take you to launch the store? When you said, "I've got the idea," and as you've mentioned, you have designed a Shopify store before, so you weren't a complete newbie. What was the timing from the idea to hitting go and launching that store? And what was it like to launch the store? Did it feel good?
Albert: Yeah. So I think, if I remember correctly, I launched with maybe 20 or so products in there. I didn't want it to be like, "Oh, I need to finish everything perfectly," 'cause I have that habit of trying to be perfect and perfectionist. I wanted to have some products in there and launch it. And as it was being launched, I was continuously adding products, adding products, adding products.
It was probably a week, maybe, max before I launched the first store, which is Gorilla Vibe. So yeah, about a week is what it took to get the products. And then obviously, it's continuous work since then.
Our second store, which we branched out and did funnydogshirts.com for dog lovers because we're dog lovers and we know that's a whole different niche. That one took even less because I used the generic Shopify minimal template. And that one, I launched with fewer products. That was a few days because I had just gone through the process with Gorilla Vibe.
Aleisha: Right. You had the experience, you know how to then, well, not clone it, but you've already sort of gone through that process. Tell me about the creative process ‘cause they're really funny shirts. I've gigged a lot looking at some of them and I can totally see how accessible they are to a bunch of different people. You've got a product that is obviously really marketable and your audience is broad, I suppose, 'cause who doesn't like animals?
Do you work together to work out the designs and the cute little catchphrase or the slogans that are on each shirt?
Laura: I usually do quite a bit of just looking for new designs, new ideas. And then I come to him with, "Here's what I have. What can we do?" And so, I feel like it's like a teamwork effort, and that we both just...
If we see something, hear something, come up with an idea, we just collaborate together to see what we can do and how to make it as good as possible.
Albert: Yeah, we feed off each other.
Laura: Yeah, definitely.
Albert: She's being a little humble. She's got a great sense of humor. She's very funny. And so, I will have an idea. I get these ideas and I run with them, I'm like, "Hey, is this funny? Do you think this is funny?" I'll show her. Or she'll show me something, I'm like, "Oh, I can add this. And we can add this."
And so we're not copying anybody, but we're just looking at what we find funny. My wife has been a collector of funny memes and animal pictures and stuff for years, and so, we just put our ideas together, but she's the one... If you knew her personally, you would see her brand of humor. You would know that some of our products carry like, "That's definitely Laura's sense of humor."
Aleisha: Have you had any issues with people ripping your designs off or replicating them yet?
Albert: Not yet. I don't think so. I'm sure it might eventually happen, but again...
Laura: Or maybe, we don't know.
Albert: Yeah, maybe we haven't seen it. I don't see it being a big problem. But if they do, it's not very much you can do, actually. It's kind of, what is that saying? It's like the best form of flattery is copying someone?
Aleisha: There are people ripping you off, yeah.
Albert: They obviously couldn't take our exact design because those files aren't available anywhere.
Managing Two Businesses, Three Kids, and Eleven Animals
Aleisha: Yeah, yeah. Tell me a little bit about your family life, and also time management. Because one thing that we talk about in Start Yours quite a lot is finding freedom in running an online business, but also not making it your whole existence. Now, you've got a tribe. You've got how many kids?
Albert: We have three.
Aleisha: And how many animals?
Albert: Four chickens. Three dogs, a frog, a cat, a bird, a dragon, a bearded dragon. We have a lot of animals.
Aleisha: Okay, well, let's talk about time management then, and how you manage all of your people and animals, versus now running two online stores. How does it work and how is it affecting your relationship because I think that's always fascinating when you're working with your partner all the time?
Albert: So, I spend a lot of time working on this stuff. After my wife got hurt, it was, obviously, all about her. It was basically like, if I wasn't taking care of her doing something at the house, taking care of the animals, or doing something, then late at night I would stay up all night working on the store, right?
And it's been like that for the first part of it. Our sleep schedules are still kind of off, and I do spend a lot of time still working on the store, or working on SEO, or doing something for the store. I'm also in college attending online school, so there are so many different things to juggle. But my wife has been really, really understanding.
She's been really patient with me spending so much time doing this, but I also have to pay attention to when she needs something or the kids need something, or the animals need something. So it's kind of just a juggling thing right now.
Aleisha: Tell me a little bit about that first sale. What happened and how did you celebrate?
Albert: I have the Shopify app on my phone, and it makes this really cool cha-ching sound.
Aleisha: Love the cha-ching.
Albert: And so, I love that sound.
Laura: We never hate that sound.
Albert: Yeah. So believe it or not, our products are not expensive. They're like in the $20 to $25 range each one. So we started getting sales pretty quickly after we started sharing this stuff on Facebook and stuff.
But that first one, I was super excited. I came running to my wife, I'm like, "Hey, we made a sale."
And then it just kept coming. That sound kept coming and coming and we were just like... Each one progressively let us know like, "Hey, this is something we can actually do. There's a future in this."
Aleisha: What a sexy sound.
Aleisha: What a sexy sound that cha-ching is.
Laura: It is.
Albert: Yes. Yes.
Aleisha: Yeah. Yeah. I still remember hearing a story about when they launched Amazon, and when they were in the garage, and Bezos, apparently, they had a cha-ching attached to the computer that would go off when they were selling all the books originally. And he said, "I wanted that cha-ching to become so annoying we had to turn it off."
And of course, eventually, after a very short period of time, the cha-chings were really annoying them, so they turned it off. And I always think about that when we talk to our lovely merchants, to think, "Yeah, you want that cha-ching to be just driving you nuts, so you don't have to hear it anymore."
Albert: I'm good with that.
Laura: Yeah. I'm good with it too.
Dealing With Customer Service
Aleisha: This is good. So you had some consistency in sales. Now, let's move on to customer service 'cause that really interests me and I think a lot of people underestimate when they're launching a store that you then have to communicate with customers. They're not just going to be just little quiet wallflowers. Tell me about who manages that and what was it like when you first started to receive correspondence from customers?
Albert: So I'm the one currently managing customer relations, but I'm about to show my wife how to do it because I finally got a decent app.
Aleisha: There you go Laura, you're about to take on customer service.
Laura: I did not even know that.
Albert: Yeah, I've been saving that one. So this is the first she's hearing of it. It's because we have a chat app. She's so much sweeter and nicer than I am, right?
Laura: Most of the time.
Albert: Yeah, most of the time. I finally found an app that I like that allows for the chat. Otherwise, before, people were just messaging me on Facebook, or wherever I shared it, asking questions about their order, that kind of thing. And I'm just super grateful that people are supporting us, that...
I don't wanna just sell products that are cool and funny, but I want people to have a good experience when they buy them, right? So because of all this stuff going on shipments were taking a lot longer, right? And so that's something that I was just worried about, like, I'm waiting for people to complain about the shipping times. Luckily, nobody has.
I wanted to go to all the customers that already purchased, and say, "Hey, I wanna give you guys like 20 percent off just because you've been patient." I offered a couple of them to send them another free item because they've waited so long and they all refused. They all were like, "No, I don't want anything for free." But I wanted that.
So I definitely wanna bring that to dealing with customer service, I want people to have a good experience.
And I was waiting to have this app, this chat app that we can use, that I can show Laura how to use to where she can answer questions, help me answer questions, take a little bit of that off of my plate right now.
Aleisha: So you're talking about a chat pop-up that comes up on the screen and then you can ask a question?
Aleisha: Yeah, right.
Albert: Correct. Yeah, like live chat. Yes.
Aleisha: That's good. And so do you find... When you said that Laura's a little bit more... I don't wanna put words in your mouth. What did you say, she's?
Albert: She's sweeter and nicer than I am.
Using Kindness as a Weapon
Aleisha: Have you experienced any sort of rage-y customers? 'Cause I think one thing we have noticed with some of our interviews, that people are saying, "There are people that absolutely understand during the COVID, the crisis, that yeah, shipping is delayed, there are going to be issues.” But some people still are like, "I want my product. This is happening." And you're like, "Oh my gosh, we’re all just trying to do our best." Have you experienced people that are a bit... We would say in Australia are a bit shirty, a bit unhappy?
Albert: No, not really. People have been really good. There was one person who was kind of a little bit pushy about their order status. But I just answered it kindly and I found the UPS thing and sent it to them. UPS messed up the delivery. They delivered it a few days late.
But I understand. When I order something, I wanna get it. I try to put myself in their shoes.
But I do understand what you're saying because I've had other businesses dealing with other types of customers, in particular, where they used to drive me insane. They were with impossible demands, just things that were just absolutely impossible.
You kinda have to take it from their perspective, but sometimes... I was in a service-based industry where I was doing creative work for clients. Those people tended to be, some of them, or a portion of them tended to be really abusive. And that gets tricky. I haven't experienced that on the product side yet. I'm sure there will be somebody that comes along that will be unhappy.
I think that whenever you have an angry customer, I think that's an opportunity to earn them as a customer, because how does everyone else deal with people angry at them? Well, they kind of snap back. If you're really angry at a company and they go above and beyond to do something for you, you kind of dismantle that anger.
Laura: You kill them with kindness.
Aleisha: Yeah, you're right Laura, you kill them with kindness. It's exactly what I was thinking. And I think if also going back to that idea that you have an About page where we see your beautiful faces and we hear your story, people are less likely to be jerks when they realize, "Oh, that's Albert, that's Laura, and they're writing back to me in person, it's not some sort of corporate type thug, just sort of like a robot.”
Laura: Right. No, it's true, that's very true that one though. And I think that's why it's so important to have that page and be a little bit more human to other people. You know, I think that's a very important thing because I know if I'm shopping or if I'm looking for something and I see that, I'm going to go for that 100 times over not knowing anything about the business, the people that run it, nothing.
I will always go for smaller business or a story that I can maybe just relate to or understand, they feel like a person and not that you're just buying the product.
Sourcing Suppliers and Doing Quality Control
Aleisha: We have an episode specifically about printing-on-demand in a couple of weeks, but I was just interested in learning a little bit more about your experience about finding a supplier and then making sure that the quality control is up to scratch with your products.
Did you find that challenging, figuring out which company to go with or was it fairly straightforward for you?
Albert: So it was pretty easy for me. I've done it... I've used a few different suppliers in the past, but I went with one of the top that I knew of in the industry. And before we sold anything, we ordered samples, right? I wasn't going to put our name on it and say, "Hey, buy this or market this." I wanted to test the quality first.
So we made an order of our own products immediately. We had to wait for them to come in. And we were so impressed with the quality, like, I was blown away at the print quality, I was blown away at the shirts. I was like, "Yes, we can sell this. I feel good pushing this." And we continuously will test different shirt brands and stuff like that, but we already have some go-to brands that we know are going to be good.
And I always ask our customers when I know they're getting their orders, I always ask them, "Hey, how is it? Like, tell me if there are any issues." I want to know because I want to make sure that what we got is the same as what they're getting or if they're happy with the quality or if they kind of have any second thoughts. I definitely don't want to have a low-quality product, and we could sell cheaper shirts, our shirts are like in the medium end, price-wise.
I didn't want to be a cheap funny shirt company. I wanted to be a good shirt company that you could wash it and it would last and you could wear it for a long time.
Aleisha: That's good, 'cause hopefully it means it encourages people to come back again. Are you remarketing to previous customers?
Albert: Yes. So I'm doing all kinds of different stuff for marketing. I just set up email marketing sequences like welcome series, when they sign up for our newsletter, I have Facebook Pixel, so we can re-target people who were looking at a product, things like that. So yeah, that's definitely a big part of it.
Well, some people will come and look at something, they might like it and they might get busy, right. So being able to get back in front of them and saying, "Hey, were you interested in this thing?" It kind of brings you back to mind. And I've had a couple of purchases that were re-marketed purchases where people came and looked at something and they liked it, they might have pinned it on Pinterest or whatever, but it was the retargeting that actually got them to actually make a purchase.
In It for the Long Run
Aleisha: 2020, for most people in the world, hasn't potentially gone the way we all thought it would. But for you, in particular, as a couple, I suppose you have had a huge sense of highs and lows with what's been happening.
Tell me about the business, do you see this as a long-term business or is it a bit of a short-term quickie fixie job? How do you see the goals being achieved?
Albert: I definitely see this as a long-term business. It was just… The concept was proven. But I definitely, once we started getting sales, once we started getting support, I definitely saw that, "Hey, this is something we can do. There are other brands doing stuff like this. There are other businesses selling funny apparel, if they can do it, why can't we do it?”
But I definitely see the future in doing something like this. If I have to get a regular job when things settle down, I can because the great thing about this kind of business is I'm working really hard right now creating the assets, creating the creative, setting up things, but it doesn't take a lot of maintenance afterward.
The product's already made. I can repurpose the same products into different types of products. I can turn a shirt into a phone case.
So it's kind of like an asset that I'm building for the future that I can resell over and over. So regardless of what happens financially, I definitely will be sticking with this long-term. Animals, funny animals, I don't know. We're going after animal lovers, people who are really passionate about animals.
The funny dog business is funnydogshirts.com. We actually nabbed that amazing domain. People are fanatical about their dogs, their dog breeds. There's so much we can do, that I just see too much potential to just leave this alone and look at the short-term. I'm thinking more long-term, what we can do with this.
Aleisha: Laura, how are you feeling now? I'm sure everyone would like to know how you are coming along now, a couple of months after this all went down?
Laura: Surprisingly, every day is a little bit better, which is fantastic 'cause you don't really know when something like this happens, how it's gonna go. It's kind of a wait and see, like anytime you get sick or have an injury, you don't really know where it's gonna go in the future. And so thankfully, I really have improved in a massive amount.
I still have a long road ahead, but I'm pretty hard-headed, and so I don't let things take me down very quickly.
Aleisha: Yeah, it's great. Well, it's great. And I think as a team, you both sound really determined and that's admirable in this circumstance. As I said before, so many people would just be like, "Ah, this is too much," whereas you have turned it around.
Laura: Yeah, we get along pretty well. So I think that's a big part of it, that we like to be together, and we like to do stuff together, and so that's a huge thing when you're doing anything but especially when it comes down to business or anything stressful, it's you've got to like each other.
Aleisha: Yes, you do. We generally like to ask at the end of each interview if there's something, if it's a piece of media or a website or a book that has inspired you, that you would recommend to our listeners to check out.
Is there anything that comes to mind throughout your careers, it doesn't even have to be associated with these businesses, that you would pass on to some of our Start Yours listeners?
Albert: So I'm currently reading Traffic Secrets by Russell Brunson. I'm a big fan of Russell Brunson. That comes to mind. I've read so many different books. There's not one in particular that I can tell you right now.
This podcast is good, I started listening to it, this is a good resource. I really think it's got a lot of valuable stories and information. It's something I'm gonna keep following up with.
Aleisha: Oh thanks, Albert. That's a nice little plug, we appreciate it. Laura, do you think you'll be going back to massage therapy in the future or do you think that's something that you won't be able to do for a while?
Laura: I'm not quite sure. It's gonna be a while before I'm able to do it. I don't wanna completely write it off that I can't do it again because I love it. I am very passionate about it. I'm hoping so. I do have my own business in massage therapy as well, so I do have that and I probably will go in a direction where I will start working and focusing on that business instead of going back full hours and maybe just start slowly.
Laura: But I have to be cleared by the doctors and everything before any of that happens, so we still have a little bit of time. But you have to have a passion for that to go into it and I definitely have it. So, even if it's just massaging my friends, which I'm sure they would hate.
Aleisha: Oh, terrible. We all hate doing massage therapists, it's such a terrible friend to have.
Laura: I know, exactly. Yeah, it's just kind of a... I'll have to see. I'll have to see when I feel up to it and when I can get back into it.
Aleisha: I have a feeling we'll be talking to you again, and I have a feeling you'll be having lots of more stores under your belt by the time we catch up again. Albert and Laura, just give a little plug. Where can we check out your stuff and buy some great T-shirts?
Albert: So, it's gorillavibe.com and it's all kinds of funny animals. And then we have funnydogshirts.com, which is all about funny dog shirts. It's in the title, it's in the domain.
Aleisha: Love it.
Albert: If we don't have something for your specific breed, we just wanna hear from you, we'll add that breed to the store. I don't have a million breeds, but we definitely wanna add the breeds that people are looking for.
Aleisha: See, that's good customer service. And obviously, when you pop on and you visit those stores, jump on the online chat and have a chat with Laura. She'll love it.
Aleisha: Thank you very much for being on Start Yours and really good luck for the future. I think your story is fantastic and I just wish you all the success.
Laura: Thank you so much.
Albert: Appreciate you having us.
Want to Learn More?
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- Success Despite Multiple Failures: Why This Entrepreneur Never Gave Up