A Year In Review
The experience of creating a business from the ground up, launching it and growing it to where it is has been incredible. If you've wondered about the process, what people encounter in setting up a business, or even just how to get started, I've drafted up a summary of the last year.
On May 7th, 2018, we soft-launched Dual Wield Studio. There was an internal debate about what would be better: a soft-launch where we worked on an invitation-only basis or a full launch where we simply made the site open for everyone. Ultimately, we decided on a soft-launch where we allowed a set number of people to access the site in order to make certain that there were no issues with site performance, shipping, handling, or anything else. Plan for the worst, hope for the best.
We were working with YA author Tamora Pierce at this point and were able to drop teasers about a potential collaboration through her social media in order to build to a later launch.
We also dipped our toes into the idea of influencer marketing; we partnered with author Sam Maggs, sending her one of our bags to demo for both feedback and additional visibility.
- The soft launch allowed us to test everything on the back-end and prevented any customer service issues that might have occurred within a larger launch. Our partner facility has been invaluable; I cannot stress enough how our initial success was supplemented by not handling our own fulfillment.
- Soft-launching with a specific group of people allowed us to solicit feedback on a schedule we made for ourselves.
- Creating a little mystery behind what we were doing as former employees of another company where clients and fans knew us made for an increase in talk about us as a company. The resulting desire to be “in the know” meant more people were interested in the soft-launch, which translated to higher initial sales.
WHAT WE’D CHANGE:
- Our launch went exceptionally well but could have gone better in terms of the products we launched at the start. We are thoroughly immersed in fandom as a whole but particularly in the creative side of fandom. Our goal was to present a variety of merchandise at lower price points to allow for people to support us at a level with which they were comfortable. While this plan worked well, the resulting merchandise is not ideal for an online storefront for a new business.
- The pins with holes for charms are an item that will sell better in person when people can understand what the intended purpose is. These pins are also an incredibly niche product, which will appeal to people in that niche, but again people who are primarily accessible through in-person transactions rather than online.
- The logo and other branded items sold decently but are a better item when a brand is established.
Coffin Ita Clutch: $55
This initial month of success is thanks to:
- Erica Leong worked with us on our branding and logo.
- Our fulfillment center.
- Our artists (listed on our creators page here!)
- Our friends and partners who took a risk on a brand new company.
One of our goals with Dual Wield Studio is being a force for good, whatever form that may take. In June, this mission took the shape of us donating a portion of our profits to Gay City Seattle. We were able to utilize our launch to support an LGBTQ+ friendly charity, which set the stage for many of our other projects in the coming months.
We also published a hiring post seeking freelancers to design apparel for us in the coming months. Traditional methods of hiring (Indeed, Monster, recruiters) historically aren’t the most effective in our niche, or the most inclusive, which means turning to social media often achieves the largest response.
June was also a restock period for us. Our initial line of apparel had sold out, so we ordered in greater quantities and launched alternate versions of our Feral Constellations collaboration.
- Our launch and subsequent sale benefiting Gay City went extremely well and allowed us to give back to the community.
- Our hiring post did wildly better on social media than we anticipated; we ended up receiving 247 resumes during this short period of time.
- Working with Zoë is always a pleasure. That month especially, we wound up with so many photos from friends and customers wearing their apparel. Seeing something you worked on in the real world is such an incredible feeling.
WHAT WE’D CHANGE:
- Doing sales to benefit charities works best and is most effective when charities to which you are donating also coordinate with you. Because we weren’t coordinating with Gay City (we just went through a donation link on the website), we didn’t receive as much of a response as we could have gained.
- Twitter (social media in general) may be the best way to source creators for work, but you also wind up having to sort through many messages that aren’t directly related to what you’re hiring for. This is partially due to freelancers applying to anything and everything that could fit their needs, and also due to the less specific nature of our job post. In the future, publishing a job post and specifying expectations, such as a history of apparel design, and asking for a few examples of previous work will help us narrow down our results.
Through a stroke of pure luck, I happened to remember that SDCC was happening a month before and managed to check at the exact instant where all of the extra hotels were available. We were able to grab a hotel semi-close to the convention center for a reasonable price. We are also lucky enough that we’re based out of Seattle which means flights are generally inexpensive, even on short notice. (Note: this is one of those moments where our Alaska Airlines credit card is invaluable! Those miles make short-notice trips less expensive).
We’ve attended SDCC before and wrote up a quick guide in advance, which can be found here. Both of us were invited to be on panels that offered a panelist badge, but we’re lucky enough to work within the industry that offers a guaranteed badge if you submit all of the requisite paperwork for it.
- SDCC is what you make it. It’s a hot, intensely busy convention that can be overwhelming for first-timers but is a genuinely fun time. The parties are plentiful, there are countless events on and off-site, even if you don’t have a badge.
- SDCC has a little of everything for attendees; Adrienne was able to attend D&D themed events while I participated in Voltron ones. We'd recommend trying to coordinate meetups and dinners after you leave the convention center (generally once you're .5-.7 miles from the convention center it's much easier to send and receive texts, DMs, etc.)
WHAT WE’D CHANGE:
- Ultimately, SDCC is worthwhile from a business perspective if you’re already acquainted with people in the industry. If you’re not, it’s extremely difficult to receive invitations to exclusive parties, events, etc. While this exclusivity factor is not something we, in particular, can change, it is a hazard of the industry, often proving difficult for new people to break in without someone else to guide them.
Chamomile Plush (Client Commission) - Sold out
June, July, and August are the busiest times of the year with conventions. While we don’t attend multiple conventions per month like we used to, the major hitters in our industry all take place within those three months. As soon as SDCC ends, there is preparation for Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) Prime. And, if you’re especially ambitious, PAX Australia happens shortly after.
During this time, we were also coordinating plush development projects for one of our clients, Ysbryd Games to launch in time for PAX. The launch went smoothly, and we were lucky enough to spend additional time with our clients, helping them set the booth up and, in Adrienne's case, work the booth itself during the con.
- Very quickly it became clear we were in a perfect position to help businesses get product in place for high-traffic conventions. Our experience with creating products on tight timelines as well as our experience in selling at tradeshows allowed us to have client-focused merchandise within just a few months of launching our business.
- Debuting merchandise at a PAX is a great marketing tool; you gain a countless number of eyes on product along with a fanbase who goes there specifically to spend money supporting developers.
WHAT WE’D CHANGE:
- Weirdly, nothing! For all that August was an utterly insane period of time, we were lucky enough to have wonderful partners, projects we were passionate about and experience in all of this to make this process pretty painless!
Jill Plush (Client Commission) - Sold Out
Penny Arcade Expo happens over Labor Day Weekend, the same time as DragonCon, generally. While DragonCon is a massive convention that takes place in Atlanta, GA and is a wonderful time, we had previously discovered that it wasn’t necessarily beneficial for networking. Assessing conventions we attended for fun vs. attended for work when we’re on a budget became a vital process in order to make sure we were directing our efforts to the most business-beneficial events.
Our first client project launched at PAX and did exceptionally well. The demand for Jill plushies ended up being huge; our client sold out of the first wave within hours of posting.
We also launched the first of our Artist Spotlight series, where we work within our communities to purchase unique items crafted in a sustainable fashion. We launched another project we had been working on for months: a grid-lined notebook with gold embossing on the front.
- Plush development is a time and labor-intensive project that takes 6-8 months, generally. Having plush launch at one of the largest gaming conventions in the country is great for word of mouth and building hype behind products.
- Launching this plush at this point also benefited us in other ways we weren’t expecting; we had a number of potential clients reach out to us after PAX hoping to have plush designed for them as well.
- Working with artists to purchase short runs of merchandise helped increase our product offerings without us needing to invest thousands of dollars in new product with large minimum order quantities.
WHAT WE’D CHANGE:
- Originally, the notebooks were intended to be part of a bundle - stickers, washi tape and other items that would be included together and sold as a “writer’s bundle” specifically tailored to creators using bullet journals to draft writing. This changed during the process because the customized metal plate we used to do the embossing ended up being around $600 extra. We could have left it off but it wouldn’t have had the same effect. Instead, we dropped the sticker projects and launched the tape later. Notebooks/bullet journals are a great product, but because we’re making them from scratch it wound up being expensive and time-consuming with lower margins than originally intended.
- The Artist Spotlight launch went well, but in the future, it will make more sense to try and launch with more than just one artist to ensure we establish a wider range of products.
Celestial Wolves Journal - $16
OCTOBER TO NOVEMBER
The time leading up to the holidays is also the busiest outside of conventions. Between trying to launch our own products in time to capitalize on the holiday rush and coordinating client orders, these two months tend to blur together. It was our busiest period of time for product launches, as we launched a slew of new merchandise to prepare: the Die Mad About It pin & patch, original design ita bags, washi tape, our licensed Tamora Pierce line, a client product.
We received over 50% of expected social media impressions and sales to these products. Launching these products in advance of the holiday season ended up being one of the smartest decisions we’ve made, with the caveat that it was also one of the most expensive. Manufacturing and importing both take ages during the holiday season, and we ended up paying a premium to receive products early via air shipping rather than 100% slow-boat.
- The product launches went without a hitch and the response was fantastic. We were able to use feedback on our first ita bag to make edits to our new one to ensure the straps were more secure. The addition of a swappable window has been a great selling point.
- Our Chamomile plushies sold out on the website the same day.
- The Tamora Pierce launch went exceptionally well, and apparel likewise sold out on the same day launched.
WHAT WE’D CHANGE:
- We paid extra to have a portion of our bags imported via air freight rather than slow boat, which is almost 2x as expensive. In the end, it wasn’t really necessary and resulted in more expense, which had an effect on our margins as a whole.
- We launched the Tamora Pierce line with a very conservative estimate; no merchandise has really existed for this IP before, which meant there was no sales data to lean back on. Book merchandise is also pretty rare. There was no way to know the response, which meant when we offered limited lines, some fans missed out. This led us to launch alt-color variants in higher quantities to keep the exclusivity originally offered but still cater to Tamora Pierce’s fans.
Die Mad About It Patch - $10
December is always a weird month for merchandising. Most products intended for Christmas/holiday sales should be launched already by this point, but we had a few holdover products that arrived a bit later which resulted in a last-minute push to get everything out. We did another Artist Spotlight featuring a second run of a wildly popular pin by the artist Buboplague and launched a collaborative pin with Marie Enger.
We were also contacted by a (then potential, now current) client about a plush for their Kickstarter campaign.
- Quarter 4 (October-December) is often one of the most profitable periods of time for any business due to holiday shipping. Generally that spike of sales dies down around 2 weeks before Christmas.
- Our product launches went without a hitch, as we’re far more into the swing of things by this point.
- December is always pretty calm - most folks are out of town, which means it’s the optimal time to take a break or focus on other projects.
JANUARY TO MARCH
These months are combined because they were a brief period where we focused more on internal work rather than external. We plotted projects into the future, worked heavily on a project that will be on Kickstarter soon (!!), and mostly focused on backend functionality.
In January, we celebrated our business by going to Hawaii for a little over a week. While there, we received word we were accepted into Katsucon, which takes place in Maryland. Normally, when we’re planning for conventions we try to do so a quarter in advance. Someone likely canceled their spot, which allowed us to attend, but due to the short timeline, attendance wound up being very expensive to make it happen.
At the end of March, we were lucky enough to work the Ysbryd Games merchandise booth at PAX East, which had the best weather of any PAX East in the last few years! While at PAX, we also received some very exciting potential news…
- One of our products was featured at PAX South after selling out online due to crazy response. While we weren’t in attendance (Hawaii!), it was wonderful to see our products at another huge show.
- Attending two conventions boosted our presence and brand awareness; there were so many people who recognized us and our products and made purchases due to that.
- We launched seasonally appropriate merchandise, which boosted sales (hoodies in early Q1).
WHAT WE’D CHANGE
- Our Tamora Pierce shirt was printed on a lovely triblend but was a gray-white color that doesn’t sell as well as other colors. Typically, black sells the best with other darker colors following up and white/gray/pastels sell the worst. In the future, we’ll stick to colors that sell better.
- Not that this was really within our control, but being accepted to a convention less than 4 weeks before meant we spent more money on the convention than was strictly necessary. There aren’t other options when it comes to participating; you can’t purchase a booth to hold the space and then not attend. If you don’t purchase the booth, there is no guarantee you’ll be able to get one again next year. This is an issue with conventions as a whole rather than something we can directly change.
April has proven to be one of, if not the craziest months for us. Adrienne was hired by Critical Role as their new Project Manager of Licensing and Consumer Products, and moved to Los Angeles less than a week after we returned from PAX. It was an exciting time to be sure, but it’s been a challenging adjustment balancing everything and starting new opportunities, as well as handling all the initiatives we’ve been working on.
April’s focus has been on what I viewed as the most important parts to solidify our business now that we’re at a place where the storefront is "finished":
- Reassessing our client commission process based on the work we’ve done so far.
- Reassessing actual cost vs. profit on the products we’re making now that we have an idea of the full extent of costs.
- Reassessing our royalties program with our licensed IPs to ensure calculations are correct and the process doesn’t take hours.
- Drafting a list of projects out into end of year to prepare for the holidays.
There’s no good/what we’d improve in this area because a lot of it was reaction rather than action; Adrienne and her husband moved to LA, I moved into their old apartment, and the month progressed much faster than we anticipated.
DUAL WIELD STUDIO NUMBERS:
- With your help we’ve been able to provide freelance work to 23 artists, writers and other creators.
- 1500+ orders in a year
- 40+ product SKUs added
- Dual Wield Studio ranks in the top 4% of stores that launched at the same time.
That brings us to May and with it, one year of Dual Wield Studio.
Adrienne and I can’t articulate just how much we’ve loved pursuing Dual Wield Studio and how much it means to us that we can say we’ve been in business for a whole year. Not just that, but we’ve been successful past our wildest dreams and a huge portion of that success thanks to our clients, our friends, and our customers.
Dual Wield Studio is meant to be a force for good in our communities. Part of that is leveraging our experience, connections, and ability to help reach a hand out to others to bring them to where we are. I’m happy to announce there are a few initiatives that we’re launching to celebrate our company birthday.
- Merchandise 101 - Merch 101 is intended as a guide to help you get started on making merchandise and to give you the basics we’ve learned from years of experience in merch creation. The guide won’t walk you through every single step of the way, but it gives you details on important dates, product guidance, and help with some of the trickier aspects of merchandise creation. This PDF is available on our storefront for $10 USD as a digital download. We welcome feedback on it as this is intended to be a living document that we update intermittently with relevant data and information.
- With Merch 101 out, we’re also opening up three more slots for merchandise creation. We offer a sliding scale approach to merchandise creation for businesses, creators, and general fandom folks who might want to make merchandise but not want to handle the whole process, or who might not know how to start. You can check out more information at our Partnerships page found here.
- We now accept wholesale purchases of our products and are looking for partners who might want to stock Dual Wield Studio items. If that sounds like you, we have a document listing all of our wholesale prices and would love to talk to you! Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Over the next few months, we’ll be creating more help and resource documents aimed at making merchandise more approachable from every step of the process.
The community as a whole has been so wonderful to us, and it’s very important that we share the success where and whenever possible. What does this look like in the coming months?
- We work with freelance artists on all projects with a contract custom drafted by our lawyer to be as clear and easy to read as possible (not all creators can afford a lawyer!)
- We’ll be working with more creators within the community to develop guides, resources and other items for creators to reference to assist in their merchandise creation process.
- We’re working on setting up monthly networking meetings within the Pacific Northwest, for in-person chats to get to know other artists, game devs, and anyone else to further build the community around us.
- We’ll be working with other creators, authors, and friends to purchase small amounts of their product to sell on our storefront to further promote the incredible work being done.
- We'll be launching more artist partnerships to help artists fund their merchandise. Keep an eye out for our Kickstarter coming soon!
Every purchase you make through our storefront helps us keep the lights on, allows us to make new product, partner with nonprofits, charities, and other important organizations and helps us give back to the community around us. We can’t thank you enough for one year of Dual Wield Studio, and hope to celebrate many, many more.
Rowan and Adrienne
This is not a wholly inclusive list of all of the resources that made us successful and made starting a business possible, but it’s a start! We hope this helps.
- Shopify is our storefront system; out of all of the available options, we went with it because it’s what we’re most familiar with. Out of all the various systems, it fits our needs the best.
- Alaska Airlines (based out of Seattle) offers a credit card that fits our needs perfectly, giving us reward miles for purchases paid off quickly, as well as an initial signing bonus if we spent a certain amount in the first few months.
- MailChimp and Privy were the two email marketing applications we used; MailChimp distributes our email campaigns and Privy syncs to it, collecting emails from people who visit our page if they opt in.
- As of May 2019, MailChimp has been dropped as a vendor for Shopify which means we’re effectively just using Privy.
- IncFile allowed us to set the business up as a legal entity.
- Mazuma is an online accounting and bookkeeping company that works across the US; it’s a good fit for small businesses.
- The Points Guy, Million Mile Secrets, and TravelZoo are all incredible resources for sourcing cheap, affordable travel, especially with conventions/trade shows.