Last year Teespring sold over 7M t-shirts with “user generated marketing” (and many of their users became millionaires in the process). Jesse Avshalomov founded the growth team over at Teespring, listen to how they did it.
→ He is the director of product and growth at Tee Spring
→ What is Tee Spring about
→ How does the business itself work
→ How does he get this growth team on such a trajectory
→ What was the order of operation
→ His battle does he had to fight to get the growth team to where it is now
→ How important is the core product to growth
→ What’s the biggest growth failure like
→ And a whole lot more
Bronson: Welcome to another episode of Growth Hacker TV. I’m Bronson Taylor and today I have Jessi of Salem of with us. Jessi, thanks for coming on the program.
Jesse: Hey, it’s my pleasure.
Bronson: Yeah, absolutely. Now, Jessi, you are the director of product and growth at T Spring. I know a lot of people have heard of Tea Spring, but for those that haven’t. What is Tea Spring?
Jesse: Sure. Tea Spring is a platform that allows entrepreneurs or artists or fundraisers or really pretty much anybody to create custom apparel and so on the web with no cost of any kind. And some of the ways that we’re different than stuff is out there is that we actually besides the fact that we’re hyper focused on quality, which some folks are, we have a profit margin that makes it really, really possible for people to do all sorts of interesting things. People are starting to make a living on it. Let’s see. But there’s Internet marketers who are using it sort of as an affiliate arbitrage thing. Like, it’s pretty neat.
Bronson: Okay, explain your business model that makes that possible. Because I think of T-shirts, it’s like, I don’t see how there’s all that room in the margin or how you set it up to actually make that work. So how does the business itself actually work?
Jesse: Sure. Well, fundamentally, screen printing is a pretty efficient kind of business. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a screen printing machine, but the way it works is it looks sort of like a giant mechanical octopus with a pizza paddle in each arm. So you set up sort of pans which have ink in them and basically a stamp of what you want to shoot. And then the squeegee sort of pulls across and puts onto a ship. But when this really gets going, like you put a shirt on a paddle, it rotates one over, it squeezes, it dries, it moves to the next, and it’s like this really cool automated thing. The problem with that is that if you’re only printing a very few number of shirts, setting all that up is very, very expensive. So a lot of the folks on the market, the Cappy prices and Zappos are mostly direct garment printing, which is a lot more like inkjet. However, we figured out that if you can give people a little bit more of a crowdfunding model, if you say, Hey, this is available for ten days, if we reach this goal, then these be printed. Suddenly people could aggregate all those sales which otherwise wouldn’t be printed individually and say, All right, at the end of five days, we’re going to print 15 or 20 or 500 of these instead of one offs. And then we can start using this much more efficient mechanism and pass along most of the profit margin to them.
Bronson: I got to say, that makes a lot of sense. So t sprint has become quite massive. So tell us some of the you know, whatever numbers you can disclose, just give us a general idea that this is much bigger than your local t shirt shop.
Jesse: It’s a little bit nuts right now. Let’s see, we we’ve sold millions upon millions of t shirts. We started about one in 50 people in the United States actually on t sprint shirt. Now, whether they really walk down the street and I’m like, hey, you know, you got that shirt that like a button online somewhere. I know exactly where you bought it. Besides that, about ten people last year made $1,000,000 selling on t spring like they’re millionaires now. And I have moments like maybe I should be doing that. But anyhow, and then besides that, there are thousands of people making their living using T spring. I’m much more modest in the million dollars, but there are people who do this full time and that is just like finding passionate people, creating products for them, putting it out there.
Bronson: Yeah. No, that’s awesome. That definitely gives us an idea of growth. So you’ve actually founded the growth team at spring. So all this growth we’re talking about, you were there kind of at the ground level, building the team to make all that possible, which is why I’m so glad to have you on the show today. So tell me, what was your order of operation? You get in there. And like any startup, everything’s probably broken. You know, the processes aren’t set up, the analytics aren’t right. They don’t have a plan. It’s working, but nobody really knows why, you know, like, whatever. What was the order of operation? I just want to try and get inside your mind. How did you get this growth team on such a trajectory?
Bronson: Yeah, I know that’s helping them to be super wise about how you spend your engineering resources. I mean that’s, that’s the battle I fight every day, you know, how to get it all done. So looking back at the growth team, you know, now you’re at this place where things are humming along, going pretty smooth. As you look back, what was the thing that almost killed you guys are was the thing that was, like, the hardest thing to overcome. Like, what was the battle you really had to fight to get the growth team to where it is now?
Jesse: Yeah, honestly, just touching it a little bit. So the engineering resources are a problem, but every growth team doesn’t have engineering built into it is going to face especially early phase growth teams when it’s a couple people who do really scrappy stuff. The thing that nearly killed us was the initial fight of like how well that fight fight makes it sound like we were opposed to them, but like the challenge of making sure that we got the things that we believe are going to have an impact built. But we eventually realized that this is a magical area to be doing this. And because there are so many different platforms that okay allow us to abstract what was previously developer time into an external platform. So like the emails, we wanted to be able to ab test those constantly. It’s such an easy thing if you have a platform for it, but all our emails are powered in the back end and editing them is in the back end and that’s not good. But then another way to company tap this. What was it? Send with us. And they’re like, Hey, can we extract your emails for you so that you can write them elsewhere and ab test them as like, Oh my God, yes you can immediately. So getting as many things like that external to the platform so that non developers can edit them as possible because the ingenuity in this entire team is just like this. There’s so much of it. It’s ridiculous. Like I inherited a lot of really, really smart people. I’m extremely grateful for that. But their ability to get shit done was limited by what we could touch. So like, the thing that nearly killed us was this like, where? How are we going to build these things? Like, we can’t get more developers, like we’re working on that as fast as we can. How do we do it until the epiphany that like, okay, there are a couple of platforms that will let us abstract. So they’ve got to be more like, let’s go find little start ups. We’re just starting about doing this thing like send with us, head to customers, we found them or when they reach out to us and we were like, Oh, this is this is perfect. Where are the rest of these? What else can we abstract and yeah.
Bronson: Do you have any others on the top of your head of like other companies that allow you to abstract data that you guys are using that maybe you can disclose? I don’t know because I know people watching this were thinking, all right, I like the one you already told me. Like, what else can I do to get back my developers time?
Jesse: Let’s see. Pharaoh has some pretty incredible automation stuff. Increasingly amplitude. Mixpanel Ah, letting you send on demand stuff to users. Intercom We’re starting to play with now. I wish we had had that when we got started in terms of sending alerts to people in application or communicating with really directly, honestly, if you spend a little bit of time on product hunt and look down what it is you can find pretty much any like what is the problem? What is the thing I’m trying to do? There is now a product for that because in much in the way that there are new types of startups appearing every couple of years the like let’s abstract this from the core engineering logic is one of the last two years so I.
Bronson: Actually write so a lot of the companies you just named, you know, Xero and some of the Mixpanel tools and Intercom, it has a lot to do with emails and customer communication. Is that like the heart of how you grow? Is email kind of at the center for you guys? And that’s why those are the tools that are you’re exploring and using and that kind of thing.
Jesse: And those were. I don’t know if they’re the center of it for us. The communication with the users absolutely is. And we had a team pretty dedicated to that, doing it via email. Those are just the ones that come to mind because they were like the low hanging fruit. And honestly, the biggest changes for us are in the platform itself. We are in many ways a traditional e-commerce business. Like for every seller that we have, it is our duty to make sure that we have the maximum value per visitor for them. So that means like the intensive AB testing that comes with an e-commerce platform. But also we have a funny situation where a lot of people are discovering to spring through like social platforms. Obviously that’s how you discover lots of things. If you go to our designer and you wanted to create a T-shirt, it is basically impossible. But it’s not for lack of trying. It’s just like, do you have the resources that you would have a computer right now you have like a mouse and the ability to see like a tiny little thing really big, it’s just not super doable. So for us it was much more about adjusting the platform and recognizing when we couldn’t capture and capturing in a different way. So let’s say that you cannot design a shirt right now. You’re just not in a place where you’re on your device on mute. Roll around. Cisco. Um, we actually realized that the conversion rate for our onboarding flow there was it like a percent or lower. It just couldn’t be done. So we just started telling people, Hey, this is basically impossible to do. Can we send you a reminder to try this out later when you’re at a desktop computer, collect their email address, send them an email at like 6 p.m., whatever their local time is, and be like, Hey, I think we were talking earlier, maybe you want to check this out now. So yeah, platform for us is definitely the biggest thing.
Bronson: It’s all sorts of things I’ve seen that you guys have done is this user generated marketing and tell me if I have it right. It’s almost like you give them pre-populated Facebook ads they can run if they choose to. Tell me about user generated marketing in general, because as far as I know, you guys kind of get the credit for that whole thing. Like you’re the name kind of attached to user generated marketing. Tell me about that a little bit.
Jesse: I wish that we could truly take credit for it. We can definitely take credit for expanding it for like taking this idea. But we found the spark of it. The spark of it was brought to us. Like there were folks who would essentially been doing affiliate marketing for a long time and they recognized that Tea Spring could be used like an affiliate program. Early on, they were like, Hey, look, if I can make $14 on a sale and I can do this for like $2, this is basically arbitrage, except that I can create any offer I want. I find people and I mixed something that they want. And very specifically, sometimes I’m sure you’ve seen those ads and they get it out in front of them and we saw that we’re like, Wow, this is incredible. So few people know about this. What have we make the way more effective? They were you know, they couldn’t measure conversion very well. So we start to make integrations for all of their Facebook tracking or for new platforms, making sure that they have the capacity to do retargeting, making sure that like their entire toolset is available to them, and then trying to make it faster and better and then saying, all right, this is worked for a bunch of people. What if we could teach other people? We have so many people coming in with the dream of making a living doing this. What if we start to educate them like this is a possibility? There are people making their living. Here’s how it’s done. So it becomes recognizing those people and then giving them the tools in order to do the job properly and then educating them on how it can be done, teaching them what sort of designs we’re teaching them, all this sort of stuff. We actually have something called Stop Talking Very Fast because they get excited about a Tea Spring University, which is designed entirely to say, If you’re serious about this, here’s how it goes. And from there it leads into potentially a training platform where we have actual one on one coaching with people that are doing it for a long time. Say, if you’re serious about this business, let’s get it done. So it was about recognizing the opportunity, empowering that opportunity through product development, saying, what do you need? What do you not realize that you need that would make your life even better? How could we make this life just impossibly good for you? How do we provide Ojai images that really work? How do we partner with somebody that will provide you with advertising imagery? How do we teach you what the context should be in terms of how to approach an audience and then taking that knowledge, rounding it up and helping bring it to new generations of screen users.
Bronson: No, it’s great. It’s brilliant. Oh, yeah. You’re training a workforce on how to run ads to your product, and they want to do it in their own self-interest because they’re actually getting value out of it themselves, because your margins are so good the way that it’s crowd funded and not just one off T-shirt. I mean, the whole thing is like it’s a system that when you see it all put together, it looks like, you know, like a mousetrap or a bicycle. It’s like just enough parts and nothing extra. But it’s like to envision that ahead of time. I don’t think anybody could have, you know, we all the pieces come together.
Jesse: It’s one of those moments where you realize what you’re building about a third of the way. It’s like, oh, my God, this is so this is going to be really cool. Fun, guys, let’s finish this.
Bronson: Exactly. Now, you’ve mentioned product a few times. You say product is kind of at the core for you guys. It’s really building things into the product to help people to convert better, to give them the features they want to build, to remind them later about creating it if they’re on the wrong device. You know, that’s the thing about test for, you know, product might be the right word or might just be your business model is the right word. But whatever was the first one to the site, it struck a nerve with me. Oh, I can get shirts printed. I don’t have to outlay 300 bucks right now to do it, which is the other model you have to buy a, you know, at least 30 at $10 each to build, you know, get your shirts. And I instantly created one, got on printed, had my friends buy them. It was like the easiest thing ever. It was cool. How important is the core product to growth? Because you’ve done a lot of clever stuff, right? The marketing, you know, that’s created by the people using it, that’s clever. The way you do those email pop ups, it’s clever. But how much of it is just the product really does solve a pain and it unlocks all this.
Jesse: Or the product is honestly and though some people disagree with me on this, I think the product is far and away the most important part. I think growth is a discipline is incredibly powerful at like. Exploding the growth of something that is growing. But ultimately, you cannot take a product that no one is going to get long term use out of and make it get massive just by trickery. You cannot you cannot find the right distribution platform or this and that and make it go. You have to really be solving people’s problem in a way that is ongoing to if you solve people’s problem, they only need you once every three years. You’re not going to have much of a business going, but t spring to solves a problem that is very, very innate and more than we’re realizing actually initially. So I first we I got my original start in like on the internet at all was selling shirts through Cafe Press. I think it was like a college sophomore. And I was doing it. I was making a couple of dollars for shirt. I discovered all sorts of like Internet entrepreneurial opportunities through it, but I was like, This margin is not the best. Like, I’m making a couple of dollars. There must be something better out there. I know people sell shirts everywhere and excited. I was going to go to the opposite direction and have them printed with a local screen printer. And I dumped a bunch of money on like International Beer Day t shirts and printed a bunch of them, stored them in my basement. Like, this can be great. I’m gonna make $20 a shirts would be amazing. And then when I actually had to do the packing, the shipping, the customer service shipping internationally is the worst thing ever in case you’ve ever had to do it. By the time I took my effort and pain into account, I lost money like lots and lots of it. And so I’d done both of these things. So when I started teaching for the first time, just on Hacker News with the Hacker News ship, I was like, Oh my God, no one in the world knows how good an idea this is except me. Well, maybe a few people, but like it, it just strikes that point for anyone who’s done the apparel before. So that’s that’s sort of how I realized how important this product was. And that’s why I think it continues to grow, is it solves that problem for people who know. But I also like whenever I explain to speak to someone new, when I talk to people about one time in three, by the time I’m done explaining it, the person just starts get like a really big smile on their face. I’m like, Oh my God. Like, I have some of the ideas for this. Like, I’ve never, never even bothered because I wouldn’t know how to do it or like I need that so badly. Every time I see that glint in some of these, I am just like I did not even know this was here. And you’ve solve a problem. I know that like this is going to be a huge, huge thing. This is going to unlock potential for so many people who have like even just people who need to use it. Also just people who have lame jobs they don’t like and are really looking for that creative thing.
Bronson: Yeah, no. So let’s talk about that twinkle in her eye, because that’s my next question is how do you know you’re working on a product that has this kind of future? Right. Because I’m sure there’s some telltale signs that show up before the huge we’ve sold millions of t shirts, whether it’s things that people said, whether it’s data that you saw in there that could really be big, like what is it that people can look for to know they’re on to something? That growth can then accelerate even though it can’t create it. You know what I mean?
Jesse: What is is a couple of different things is one that we definitely looked at is when I. Stickiness of the right audience. If you can identify people and recognize like, okay, so, so theoretically with AB testing, a lot of what you’re doing is adding incentive or removing friction, right? But the more the easier product is and the more people are still willing to put up with all that roughness and go through it, the more clear that you’re really solving a problem that needs to be addressed. And of course, you have to continue to to clean up that friction to to wipe it away wherever possible. But teaspoon back in the day was a rough product. Like, you could not you could not add additional stuff to it, additional colors. You couldn’t equities or anything like that. The email, people, things broke all the time, but people kept using it. The people who are serious about it, they send this positive feedback. They’re like, Make please clean this up. But they didn’t go away. So we were working with them constantly, and the enthusiasm of those people, the great passion that they displayed, was a signal for me at least, that like this, this is going to be big because every person who discovers it and wants it is willing to fight through all of this friction to continue to use the product and we can fix the friction. That’s not a problem. The problem is what we’re addressing. So that’s that’s a great moment for me. And also, I didn’t hear this until later, but like the original story of spring was of just like two guys making not even a backend powered platform, just like they were updating the numbers manually for this cool thing like oh, fiber sold, okay, going up the HTML. But then like days later, dozens of people who founded a newspaper like emailing would be like, Oh my God, can we use this thing that you built? And they’re like, Yeah, of course, Chris, you can use the things we built. Give us a day or two. It’s not quite ready for public consumption yet, but like that desire of like seeing I hate to go back to, but like the glint in the eye of like people just like, please, please, please give this to me immediately. And even if it’s a small number of people like T Sprint could have been in a different world, a very small product where it made a very small number of people extraordinarily happy and maybe extraordinarily wealthy. But I think the more we get into it, the further we travel down this path, the more it becomes clear that a lot of people can make use of it. Like people who wouldn’t think to say, I’m an entrepreneur can actually become entrepreneurs. And that’s like showing them that way, having enough people do it. You can be like, Oh man, maybe I should try it.
Bronson: Yeah. No, that’s awesome. So, I mean, you’ve had a lot of success there, which is why I can ask this question. What’s what’s the biggest growth failure like? What was the missed opportunity of all the thing you you wish you had in place? And it wasn’t like, what’s the thing that you regret about the growth, even though obviously you shouldn’t read anything because it’s done awesome. But you know, what is it?
Jesse: Well, okay, try not to list any like tests because failed tests are just like.
Bronson: Part of the process.
Jesse: Like, right. You learn from all of them. It’s okay. There’s there’s don’t count of I. The two major things. One is I talked about getting a lot of tracking in place early on, but it was it was really the minimum testing. There was not a lot of event tracking in there. And we got to the point where things really started getting sophisticated and we wanted to start running regression. You really want to find like we had senses of our magic moment, but we wanted to say, All right, here are the high correlations between successful users and other ones. And we just had to start from scratch in terms of gathering data. And all I could think was, I know better than this. Like, we should have been gathering this data for six months. I felt like a deep sense of shame and I haven’t gotten to the place, you know, you prioritize other things, but eventually we got there. But for me that was just like, we’re ready for this right now. This is the moment where like it is booming and we could be making exactly the right improvements if we knew what it was instead of going on in the data informed instinct. So for me, that was like I felt like a failure of what the growth team should be capable of because we hadn’t gathered exactly what we needed to begin again. You know, you forgive yourself for that sort of stuff eventually. Another one I would say is our referral program. Like you hear it all over the place. Referral programs are an amazing tool, especially for this kind of business. Our referral program is is borderline broken. It just like it is not have the sort of fluidity you need to get people in to make it clear what the value it is to sign people quickly to access their like phone books or their email accounts or whatever it is. Like it needs to be so seamless and it is so not, I swear, we probably have about as much fraud as genuine actual people doing it right now. And it’s something we’re working on. And it’s it’s hard because occasionally the fraudsters are people who are really, really powerful sellers. Like, they just like and they’re like ever eking out a little bit extra on the side seems to be like a hand slap gently, like, okay, well, we’d appreciate it if you would stop, like, leeching money out of spring in a way that’s not technically allowed. But we do so much business that, like, we’re not going to be truly mad at you. Like, Okay, fine, you stop though, so we have to deal with all of those down. To me, that feels like a tremendous failure of what should be a huge opportunity and it just isn’t quite working right yet. So something the next six months will be doing is definitely like cleaning up the fraud detection and making sure it’s more fluid that the people are using it in a more genuine way. Now, our users, like especially the people who are making $1,000,000 in a year, they’re just rascals like they are. They can’t help themselves like they see opportunity and they take it. It’s why they’re so good at what they do to kind of can’t even be mad. It was like, Yeah, I should have known you were doing that. That’s that’s my.
Bronson: Bet. Yeah, I know. Those are awesome examples. So thank you for being transparent about that. Okay. How do you exit from here? And to a lot of companies, it’s easy. Just do anything right and you can tell next where you’re at. You guys are big enough. That’s actually a hard question. Like how do you take exit when you’ve reached this kind of scale? Do you have any ideas of like this? Maybe the next thing we can do to unlock kind of the next magnitude, you know?
Jesse: Sure. In terms of magnitude, I would say. Okay. So like 90% of the apparel sold in the world is not in the United States. And we are super United States centric. We are on the if you go and poke around, if you spring right now, you can see things that we haven’t publicized very well. But if you go down to the bottom right, you can actually set internationalization controls. So we’re starting to do pretty serious localization and localized currency. And the thing is like this is a platform that we can take pretty much anywhere. We will need to be able to do production in various places. Otherwise, shipping gets extravagantly expensive, but everywhere in the world they wear apparel. It’s one of those basic things. What you buy at T Spring isn’t really so much about the shirt itself, it’s about the message on it. And that means that the the ability to reach out to different people is almost infinite.
Bronson: Like because the locals are creating the message.
Jesse: Exactly like where. So it becomes a question of how do we make sure that this platform is smooth in every locale in the entire world? How do we help the people there locally sell to the people who they understand? So that is that is the huge that’s our ten.
Bronson: I think that’s a great example. I mean, that’s exactly what I was looking for. So all right. So here’s a couple of fun questions. And this is what I’ve been asking the people lately, which is what are you working on today right after this interview, whether it’s really exciting and like, you know, cool or whether it’s the most boring thing ever and you’re saying that you have to do it. What are you working on? Right when this is over?
Jesse: Right when I’m done, I’m going to be going to work on a roadmap which is attempting to and I should say the growth team, it’s spring has become sort of like overlapping with the product team at this point. So like we are now ingrained into products.
Bronson: Which is why you’re the director of both.
Jesse: Yep. It’s, it’s pretty cool. But where I was going with that is that our sellers now are approaching a level where. Many of them are professional, like this is what they do. And it’s not like, Oh, I do it on the side and like I make a living. Like people do this 8 hours or more a day. They have teams with the build the teams features so that they could organize teams, which is super cool problem to have. What I want to get to now what what I am working on planning out for the next order is really how do we make their job as easy as possible? How do I eliminate every unnecessary like how do I make it so that spring is a place that they go, like for the easy part of the job so they can go figure out what they’re selling, who they’re selling it to, what their audience is, what their audience wants, all these lovely things and really not at all focused on, okay, now I have to upload a campaign, I have to set these prices. I want that to be like three clicks. Might be some might be a ways off. But absolutely the goal at this point is to just facilitate, facilitate, facilitate and make it so easy that they would never like, even if there were another company that did the production or the customer service or the quality or the profit margin even remotely as well as to bring that, it’s so easy that they would just the pain of leaving would be astronomical. It’s like I could never, ever lead to spring.
Bronson: All right, last question. What is the best advice you have for any startup is trying to grow?
Jesse: Oh, my God. Understanding users. Understanding users. Understanding user is whether you like, whether you’re doing it through the data you gather or talking to them or querying them with like awesome tools, like what’s good one who was fantastic? Like you, you need to understand what is happening with them and understand what they want. Need to understand the difference between what they want and what they need. But if you can, like if you talk to them, if you gather that information, they will frequently tell you what is wrong and what they love about everything. If your product is going to go somewhere, it has to be because people love it. Understanding why they love it is a great way to then broadcast that message to other people. It’s like, I can tell you what I think is great about, but you know who actually knows those people who made $1,000,000 last year? Those people are like, let me explain to you exactly why spring is awesome. And they they are probably more right than I am.
Bronson: Wow, that’s awesome. Well, Jesse, this has been a insightful, exciting I mean, I literally heard ideas today that I’m going to walk out this door and have a meeting about with our team, like, all right, what do we think about this? And we’re going to talk through it because you sparked some things inside of me. So this has been awesome. Jesse, thank you so much for coming on Growth TV.
Jesse: It’s been my pleasure.
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