Emily Warkentin is the startup founder of Point Two Maps. Her company sells unique maps of popular cities and countries around the world that you can use for your home decor. She and her classmate Owen started the business as they were constantly using maps for their school assignments. After they graduated, they decided to decorate their walls with maps that told a story, so they decided to design their own. Soon after friends were asking about their designs which eventually led to the start of their business. They have countless maps to choose from and even create custom maps for those whose cities haven’t been mapped out yet.
We sat down with Emily to speak about her ecommerce journey so far, so you can learn more about this industry.
What’s been your biggest accomplishment with any of your online stores?
Emily Warkentin: Honestly, the biggest accomplishment in my mind was building up the courage to quit our day jobs and commit to our business full time. It was terrifying to pull the band-aid and rely on selling maps as our sole source of income. We tested the market for several months and through almost every avenue we could think of and with a positive response all around, we felt that with a ton of hard work and thoughtful, we could make this a full-time job with an equivalent income. And we did! We are beyond lucky to get do the work that we do.
Once we officially launched our business, we knew we wanted to handle our product as little as possible. The more that business owners are involved with their product, manufacturing, ordering, packaging, you name it, the less efficient profit margins can be. So, we dedicated much of our time to figuring out how to automate as much of our business as possible. We decided early on that we didn’t want to hold any inventory of our prints. We dislike the idea of producing more than we know we can sell which we feel can be very wasteful and we also wanted to ensure that our customers get the highest quality prints possible. So we set up our business with a print-on-demand structure. We also rely heavily on software. We use software for shipping, fulfillment, task management, and nearly every aspect of our e-commerce store is managed with time-saving software. This allows each member of our team to focus on what they do best: design and customer service.
But each of our biggest successes so far has been the result of letting go of the fear of embarrassment and just asking. Ask over and over and over again until you find your answer, or you fully understand the task at hand. This mentality has lead to our biggest shipping discounts, our best hires, our most efficient fulfillment partnerships and our largest spikes in growth. If you want something, just ask for it. You just might get it.
What has been your biggest challenge?
Emily Warkentin: Biggest challenge? That’s a tough one. Being an entrepreneur and working for yourself is full of challenges. When you make up your own business goals and sales targets, it can be hard to find the motivation needed to keep checking that you’re on the right track. We’ve learned that we need to be constantly regrouping and coming back to our goals. But I would have to say that our biggest challenges have been surrounding finances and marketing. These are two fields that are in neither of our natural skill set, so we struggle to get the numbers right and the marketing targeted.
In terms of finances specifically, we didn’t separate ourselves from the business fast enough. By that I mean, almost every bootstrapped business starts out as a sole-proprietorship, or some derivative of that, and your personal and business finances are one in the same. When we incorporated the business early on, we took longer than needed to separate all the bank accounts and this left us in the dark a little bit in terms of how much of our assets we could dedicate towards expansion projects. We know now that we should have visited our local small business support center for guidance as to how to properly set up a corporation and the whole process would have some much smoother. We’ve also learned the importance of hiring an accountant you trust and who has experience working with other businesses of similar size. A good accountant will not only be able to prepare your books properly but also analyze your number and explain how well you are doing, where you might be able to afford some risks.
As for marketing, this one also follows a similar principle to hiring a professional to handle your books. This year was a huge year of growth for our business. We transitioned from hobby project to a thriving business with assets in the bank. We knew that we needed to take our marketing more seriously if we were to increase the pace at which we were growing. So we were faced with a dilemma. Back in the early days of the business, we had very little working capital and needed to bootstrap every aspect of our work. If there was something that needed to get done, we spent our evenings researching new skills after the regular work day was done. So when the issue of marketing came up, we jumped right into learning all about digital marketing. This was a huge mistake. While we wholeheartedly believe in small business bootstrapping in the beginning as this proves your passion for the work and controls the pace at which you grow and take on risks, small business needs to learn to recognize the value of their time. The deeper we went with our digital marketing research, the more we realized that this was such a huge and complicated task and that our time would be better served designing new products and fine tuning our customer service experience, not learning about Facebook pixels and look-alike audiences. So once again, we handed it over to the professionals. We now work with paxtonprojects.com and Jack Paxton has really changed the game for us in terms of gaining exposure for our business.
What strategy or tactic has been your biggest money maker?
Emily Warkentin: Instead of watching Netflix at the end of the day, one of my favorite things to do it check out new apps and software. I am always blown away at what is available as add-ons to both a Shopify store as well as in-house management tools. Whenever we think we need to potentially hire someone to complete a repetitive task, such as resizing images for our 13,000+ SKUs, we can almost always find some software to help us complete part, if not all, of the task. This has been one of the biggest money makers in our business so far. When you are small, peoples’ time is the most expensive part of running and growing a business.
Similarly, we’ve found that specialization has been one of our most positive strategies. In the early days, we were making, packaging and shipping orders ourselves. I spent way too much time on the phone with USPS hunting down packages for customers, only to get pulled into researching better pricing for our packaging. My days were very inefficient and I should have been spending this time improving our internal communication system or writing better copy for our website. This is just an example, but using service to ship your packages for you is a major time saver, which ultimately saves/make you money. Find people or business that can take over what you are struggling with and that specialize in those tasks. Because they are focused on those tasks, they are most likely getting better pricing and tighter turnaround times than you are. We take full advantage of this efficiency in many aspects of our work.
What’s the biggest piece of advice you’d give to someone starting out?
Emily Warkentin: The biggest piece of advice we could offer to someone just starting out would be to bootstrap your business. I know that venture capital and investment rounds are attractive and sound sexy, but don’t be discouraged if this doesn’t happen for your business. Bootstrapping things, in the beginning, is one of the most sure-fire ways to ensure a level of growth that you are comfortable with that is sustainable for your particular product. We bootstrapped everything and still do. In the beginning, we used every little bit of profit to re-invest into the business, improving one aspect at a time. Some months we would focus on rebuilding the website, others we would use the extra capital to test out a new automation software or hire a programmer to re-formulate our SKU structure when we knew we had outgrown the original. By not relying on investors, we maintain total control of our business and we love having the freedom to pivot our goals, try out a new product line or take time off for a vacation.
We feel that the most important lesson for a small business is to learn to take many risks, but small ones that you can afford to fail. When you are working with smaller amounts of extra capital to test out a new project, if a risk doesn’t turn out how you’d hoped, your business won’t fall flat. At most you’re out a bit of cash and you’re ready to try something different with the new knowledge you’ve gained.
Who are your favorite startup founders? What do you love about them? What have you learned from them? Let us know in the comments section below.