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How TikTok Helped This Purpose-Driven Business Scale to $5 Million in Two Years

SendAFriend: Tyler Macke creator of SendAFriend

If you were ever in doubt that young people are changing the world for the better, listen in.

When Tyler Macke was only 18 years old, he wanted to start a business with a purpose. He wanted to fundraise for various children’s hospitals. So he embraced his experience as a freelance graphic designer and decided to design his own brand: SendAFriend. In this episode of Shopify Masters, Tyler shares with us the process of building a purpose driven business, designing an experience, and the power of TikTok.

For the full transcript of this episode, click here.

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Show Notes

From designing logos for others to designing his own

Felix: You started this business because you wanted to give back. What led you to this particular type of business specifically?

Tyler: My journey in ecommerce began with wanting to build a brand with a purpose. I come from a graphic design and branding background. When I was very young, I got started in Photoshop and I always found myself really enjoying working with brands that had a purpose. As my ecommerce career moved forward and I got more involved with different brands, I quickly learned just how much I liked those brands with a purpose. That's really where SendAFriend started. One, wanting to start something for myself, and two, wanting to start something that I could give back through.

Felix: What was your background, prior to starting the business? 

Tyler: Early in high school I got started in Photoshop, and just quickly fell in love with graphic design. What's funny is I started in the gaming community, doing designs for YouTubers. I was just having a lot of fun with it and it was something I enjoyed. I was gaming all the time anyway, so it was an extension of that. That quickly grew into me wanting to get more involved in graphic design. By the time I was a junior in high school, I started taking some logo jobs for things that weren't gaming related and started to expand my skill set. I got more involved in Illustrator and the whole Adobe Suite in general and improving my skills.

By the time I was a senior in high school, I'd already had a decent portfolio working with either ecommerce businesses, local companies, or this gaming community. Some stuff just fell in my lap and I got started working with an ecommerce company when I was in high school, and that's what propelled all this and got me really into the ecommerce world instead of just graphic design. From there, it was just a continuation of what I was doing already and mostly just using my graphic design skills to work on the ecommerce business.

Being able to start in the graphic design world allowed me to do a lot in ecommerce. A lot of ecommerce revolves around graphic design, whether it's branding or product design, or website building. One thing led to another and I was working in the ecommerce world.

Felix: What were some key takeaways you took from working with these businesses that you wanted to apply to your own business? 

Tyler: I really wanted to start something with a purpose. One of the big brands I was working with was a dog-based brand. One of the coolest things they did was every Friday they used their Twitter audience to promote GoFundMes. I always thought that was such a cool element of their brand. It got people so involved and so loving into their community. You can build a business, a brand, you can do all these sales and revenue, all this kind of stuff, but at the end of the day, do you have a purpose behind it? Do you have a mission? Do you have something you can believe in? Even when things are tough, can you still believe in that?

I think that was one of the core things with SendAFriend, just making sure I had that mission at the core.

"You can build a business, a brand, you can do all these sales and revenue, but at the end of the day, do you have a purpose behind it? Do you have a mission?"

Felix: A purpose was very important to you. How did you land on the product category of stuffed animal care packages?

Tyler: When I was graphic designing and I was more in the freelance world, It was really fun working with different brands, but it gets to the point where it's like, "Man, I really want to do this for myself." I started focusing on, "Okay, what business can I create for myself?" With my graphic design and branding background, a lot of the time my ideas were starting as logos, names, or the brand itself, because that's what I was used to doing.

When SendAFriend started, it was one of 10 different names or ideas I had thought of that had a ring to it. The more I thought about SendAFriend, the more ideas I had about it, the more the idea came into fruition. It's just the one that stuck. I don't know what moment I thought of stuffed animals as the product, but it started as just SendAFriend. It's very innocent, very young, so toys and stuffed animals came very quickly.

Within a couple of days of me saying, "Oh yeah, this name has a ring to it," I had a lot of these core elements of the brand figured out. The box was one of the first things, it was one of the staples of our brand. Right after the stuffed animals, I created this box and I was like, "Wow, it'd be really cool to have a moment with SendAFriend.” The name SendAFriend already implied you're sending something to a friend or you're sending a friend to someone. What better way to send someone that kind of friend than in a bright blue box showing up on their door that says, "Hey, someone loves you." This is completely out of the blue, "Someone loves you." And you just have that thought like, "What is that? "What is this?" 

That was the whole magic of SendAFriend. From day one, the idea was that the product and the experience came with it. It just came back to the name and the rest evolved off that name. The more I thought about it, the more things made sense with it.

An array of stuffed animals, stickers, socks and cards from SendAFriend.
Turning a passion for graphic design into a purpose-driven business, Tyler Macke created SendAFriend as a way to support children’s hospitals. SendAFriend

Branding as an experience

Felix: What were the pros and cons of taking this approach of building out the brand first? 

Tyler: Yeah, It definitely has its pros and cons. Especially now that I've gotten into SendAFriend and it's started to see a little bit of success, I reflect on, "Could I replicate this? Could I take what I did with SendAFriend and replicate the model? Was that the right thing to do?"One of the pros is domain names, usernames, stuff like that. You can usually start there and make sure your brand's going to have a good social presence or online presence and make sure it matches what your brand is. But it definitely has some cons too.

I started this approach with other brands in my head before SendAFriend really came to fruition, and a lot of the time it just doesn't stick. You'll have a great name in your head or you will have this great idea for a logo or branding or something like that, and you just can't find the product that fits with it, or can't find an experience that fits with it. It definitely has its downfalls. Part of it with me as I had the graphic design and branding experience, that's just what I knew and that's what I started on. It wasn't even really intentional at the time, that's just what I knew.

Another downfall of that was I didn't know how to source a product, I didn't know how to order packaging, I didn't know how to do any of that stuff. It really started with the graphic design and going from there. It was a big learning curve. I had this brand that I already believed in and I had the product behind it, I had the mission behind it, and now I had to figure out pretty much every other piece of the puzzle and learn from nothing with all those pieces. It definitely has its pros and cons. I don't know if I'd be able to replicate it again or not.

A black lab along with some boxes of SendAFriend gifts.
Focusing on the reason for starting a business as well as the experience it provides, SendAFriend was able to define its branding. SendAFriend

Felix: How do you define a brand? What are the key areas for capturing and creating a brand for a company? 

Tyler: A business is selling something, but a brand is more of a feeling, it's more of an experience, a look. It's how you feel when you're experiencing that business. There's plenty of businesses. In ecommerce there are tons of stores that do incredible numbers with just a business that they don't even really focus on their brand or what their core is or what their mission is. But to me, if you go brand first and you're focused on, "What are our values? What are the feelings of people? When they experience our store, what is the experience like for them?”

That's the brand. That's how you keep people coming back. That's how you can even get people in the door sometimes when someone else experiences the brand and says, "Hey, this was really, really cool. You should experience it." That's a brand, whether it's stuffed animals or a beauty product or something else.Branding is that experience that you're giving somebody and not just the product you're selling.

Felix: What is a piece of advice you would have for someone who’s trying to build a brand? 

Tyler: There are definitely exercises you can use to discover it. To me, it was definitely more intuition. This is what I wanted to do, I wanted to have a brand with a purpose and that was the driving force from day one. The brand and the mission and this experience. Especially with SendAFriend, I always say, "We're not selling stuffed animals, we're selling this experience." There are some companies that might really just focus on their product, and that's what they strive at, and that's completely okay too. SendAFriend is an example that proves you can sell just about anything, if you focus on the experience and why you're selling it.

"SendAFriend is an example that proves you can sell just about anything, if you focus on the experience and why you're selling it."

Felix: Is there a way that you communicate this vision of your brand to partners, vendors, new hires, etc to make sure it stays consistent as you scale? 

Tyler: I think that's what the graphic design background gave me. I would say, if you're an ecommerce and you don't have that graphic design background, definitely find somebody that you can trust. Designing and the elements of design can really influence your brand, how it feels and how it's being experienced. Whether that's the logo or the packaging design, or whatever it might be. I would definitely recommend locking that in, whether you're going to do that yourself, maybe that's something you thrive at, or whether you find somebody out there that can click with what you're thinking in your head.

You might not be able to put that idea into Illustrator or into Photoshop, but find somebody that can, so they can send that to the vendors, and say, "This is the look and feel we're going for," or send that to a marketing agency saying, "This is what our ad should look like." That's super important, especially nowadays with so many brands out there, it's really important to set yourself apart, and a lot of that can come from the look and how you present yourself in a design sense.

Felix: What are some tips or recommendations you’d have for someone who doesn’t have a design background trying to effectively communicate their vision to someone who does? 

Tyler: With a background in design, it was really important when clients would come to me, is for them to know what they wanted. If you want this brand or you want this experience, you should know what that looks like or at least what you’re going for, and also have a way to articulate it. Whether that's recording a video of yourself saying, "Hey, this is what I'm going for," or whether that's examples of similar brands that are in similar fields. Again, it comes back to that intuition, it's just kind of like, "This is how I feel about it, so this is how I want other people to feel about it," sort of thing.

As long as you know what that is, it shouldn't be too difficult to communicate that to somebody. Whether that be a little drawing you did on a piece of paper of, "Hey, this is how it should look," or just describing that. 

Manufacturing or wholesale? Determining what’s right for your business

Felix: Once you had decided on the product, what were the first steps to creating these stuffed animal care packages? 

Tyler: Once I had the logo and the brand and I knew I wanted stuffed animals, I was still focused on what I could control, which was the design elements. I started with the packaging, that Someone Loves You box came so early in the creation. That was one of the first elements I created. Even before I sourced stuffed animals, that unboxing experience really came into my head as like, "I want that to be one of the most impactful moments of SendAFriend, is this brand, this experience."

It was then trying to figure out the other pieces of the puzzle and try to figure out, "Okay, I know what my product needs to be, so how do I get that?" That just came down to a ton of research. There are little things too, which is funny to me coming back to Shopify Masters. I had heard people on this kind of podcast and these kinds of articles talk about sourcing products and how to go about that. Early on, I knew that wholesaling was a lot easier than manufacturing, so when I went to actually pick my product, I knew, "Okay, let's try to find something that I can wholesale first that I don't have to go through the whole custom manufacturing process and all that."

I found a supplier in the US that was able to wholesale a line of stuffed animals that kept the brand consistent, kept the products consistent, and I went with that for the first year and a half, almost two years. We stuck with that wholesaler and used that as our product. That was all in an effort to lower the startup costs and make it something that was a little bit more achievable. We had lower minimums so we had less risk and all that kind of stuff. That took a little bit of time too. From day one of having the branding and the name in my head, it probably took at least three months to find that wholesaler after going through trial and error of talking to companies, being on the phone with companies, getting samples, looking at pricing, all that kind of stuff. It definitely took a while, a lot of work actually to really find the product we wanted at the price we wanted with the communication we wanted and all that kind of stuff. Part of that for me was education. When I was looking for a wholesale partner I was totally transparent, I was like, "Hey, look, I have not done this before. I do not know the standard procedures here, I don't know how invoicing works. I don't know how any of this really works." So I was like, "We're looking for this product, I know what I want, but I'm going to need a lot of guidance." 

The partner I ended up finding was really open to that and they understood that this was a learning opportunity for me too. They wanted to be that partner that was able to teach me those ways and say, "Look, that's not a problem. We want to help you. We want to be a good partner here." That was really huge. Once I found that partner to work with, that was a huge moment for the brand too that really just started propelling things when I had somebody that I could trust and that helped me find the right product and all that kind of stuff.

 SendAFriend truck out for delivery.
According to SendAFriend, perfecting a manufacturing process takes time and will be constantly evolving. SendAFriend

Felix: A lot of entrepreneurs struggle with the idea of going to a wholesaler rather than keeping everything in-house and going the manufacturing route. How did you handle that decision? 

Tyler: That's something to keep in mind that's going to be really brand specific or business specific. We aren't necessarily selling stuffed animals, we’re selling this experience. For my business, it wasn't as important to have full control of this stuffed animal and how it looks and how it feels and all that. I just needed to find something that was quality enough, that we all felt like, "Yes, this is quality. We're not going to have any customers that have issues with this or anything like that." We basically just needed to find a product that was good enough for what we were going for.

That’s not the case with a lot of businesses, especially if you have a unique idea where you actually have to manufacture something. In my specific case, we were fortunate enough to find that product through wholesale. Definitely, there's still that perfectionist point of view where it's like, "We want this to be good. We want this to be quality. We want customers to be happy with this." We were fortunate enough to find that through a wholesale partner where we didn't have to go through custom manufacturing. But I think part of me knew like, "Okay, we just have to start with this too." You have to start somewhere.

For the sake of startup costs, risk, and all those kinds of stuff, this route made the most sense for us and I knew maybe later down the road that we would have more control over it if we wanted to, or if something that we weren't happy with, we could always adjust that. That's something to keep in mind too if you're looking to start a business, you're going to want things perfect, but you have to understand that that will come with time. It's almost always better just to get going and get started than to worry about all the perfect details from day one.

"You're going to want things perfect, but you have to understand that that will come with time. It's almost always better just to get started than to worry about all the perfect details."

On picking the right fulfillment partners

Felix: Do you recall anything you learnt in communicating with these wholesale partners that was critical to the success of your business? 

Tyler: Every industry is very different. When you get started in these processes of finding a manufacturer or wholesale partner, you're not going to know what to say from day one, but as you start emailing some of these companies or these partners, really just take notes on what they're asking and what they're looking for. From the first person I emailed, they're immediately like, "Okay, how many are you looking at ordering? What size of the animal are you wanting? Can it have bean bags? Can it not have bean bags? What kind of polyfill do you want?" All that kind of stuff.

They're asking those questions for a reason, so if you're going to keep with that business and keep sourcing products, take note of what they're asking because when you reach out to the next partner, now you know what they're going to want to hear or what they're going to ask. After maybe two or three inquiries and knowing what these companies wanted from me basically and the questions they were going to ask, I was able to put almost all that information into the first email with my future reach out to the future companies I was looking to work with. 

Every industry is going to be different, I can never say there's going to be one thing you have to provide to wholesalers in every single industry or anything like that, but just start somewhere and start taking notes and keep track of what they're wanting to know because that'll help you down the road too.

Felix: Some first-time entrepreneurs are worried about being taken advantage of if they’re too transparent about their lack of experience. Based on your experience, how valid is that fear?

Tyler: It's definitely scary when you say that kind of stuff when you're vulnerable and you're like, "Hey, look, I don't know anything. That's a scary feeling. There were moments where I'm like, "Am I going to get taken advantage of in this situation?" And the way I combated that was just making sure I was diverse in who I was reaching out to, making sure I was getting information from multiple sources, and cross-checking that by getting to the invoice step with every single company and saying, "Okay, is pricing fairly consistent? Or am I being taken advantage of somewhere?"

The thing to note at the end of the day is, any of these partners, these wholesale companies, manufacturers, they're more than likely going to be in it for the long-term just as you are. If they get started with you and your business is doing well, they're going to make more money as you make more money and get more sales if your product is growing. If they're a trusting partner, they're going to get that business. That's something to keep in mind, most of the time it's in their best interest to be honest with you and be fair. 

Don't just rely on that by any means, make sure you're doing your homework, make sure you're checking with multiple sources, because I'm sure there are wholesalers and manufacturers out there that would take advantage of those kinds of situations. That's sad, I wish there were partners out there that just wanted the best for everybody, but it definitely happens. But at the end of the day, they're just wanting the best for both sides, and a lot of the time they're going to be willing to help you, or to some degree, help educate you on what the standards are or what to expect when you go through the process.

"The thing to note at the end of the day is, any of these partners, these wholesale companies, manufacturers, they're more than likely going to be in it for the long-term just as you are.

Felix: Once you picked a partner to work with, what did that first production run look like? 

Tyler: The first wholesaler I found was kind of a middleman of a wholesaler actually, so their minimums were really low and that's what really was positive in the start. We didn't have very high minimum order quantities. Now that I'm manufacturing, I think my minimum order is like 1500 for a stuffed animal of just one design. In the past, it was not like that. When I first started, the minimum I had to order was just a case of like 24 or something like that. It was super easy to get started and super easy to have a large catalog. From day one, we had like 10 animals because I was able to just get like a case or two of each.

That was really important. I know you're not going to find that in every industry. Everything's going to be different, but we were fortunate enough to find that partner that had those low minimums that reduced our startup costs and lowered the risk as we were getting into the business.

Felix: Since then you've transitioned to manufacturing this yourself?

Tyler: Yes. As the business started growing, and this is just something to keep in mind with the processes, we reached the point where we were buying everything from the wholesaler. We were basically making them go out of stock every time we placed an order. It reached a point where it's like, "Okay, now we have to custom manufacture. Now we have to get our own designs made." That happened in March of this year as we really started growing. The process completely transitioned. We had to go from wholesaling and we were comfortable with that, and it was in the US so shipment times were a week or less, to basically going with full manufacturing. We had to do a full sampling process, with 90-day lead times and all that kind of stuff.

So that was a really harsh transition when we came up to it. It was actually a really great learning experience. We already knew the wholesale world, what we wanted, the product types we liked, the fabric we liked, what we were going for at that point. It actually made it a lot easier to go through that process than it would have if we tried to do that from day one.

Felix: Are there any changes you’ve made to the product itself since taking on the manufacturing of it? 

Tyler: With our service, our care packages are always the same size. One of the first things that we did when we custom manufactured was to make sure that every design was perfectly tailored to fit our box. We had some wholesale items that were a little bit too big or a little bit too small etc. Past that, there were some fabric options that we knew we've liked better than others. When you're wholesaling from multiple lines of animals or multiple lines of plush, basically, there were different fabrics that we encountered. We knew which one we liked, and so we were able to tell the manufacturing partner like, "Hey, this is the type we like, this is what we're going for now."

It definitely helped just having that wholesale experience and already knowing what we were going for just so that we didn't have to go through months of sampling or months of manufacturing and changing the designs and all that kind of stuff. Basically, we had the perfect stuffed animals for us from our first-time custom manufacturing. 

Identify your weaknesses: the key to scaling your business

Felix: You hit five million in sales in 2020. Can you talk about the growth the business went through from creation to hit this milestone? 

Tyler: The first and second year of the business was really slow. I was in the graphic design world, I was still freelancing, I was doing a little bit of agency work here and there, and so it was mostly a side project. It was really a struggle for me because I believed in SendAFriend from day one, the mission, the idea. Everybody I had talked to about it would rave about how good of an idea it is. That was really what proved the concept to me. Everybody I mentioned it to thought it could work. There were people around me that believed in it too, my mom believed in it, my family believed in it. It was really hard for me to put it on the back burner and be a little side hustle for as long as it was.

I didn't go full-time with SendAFriend until January of this year. Prior to that, it was very slow, business was really low, there's maybe five to 10 orders a day. I kept trying different things and different marketing efforts. I tried some influencer stuff, I tried some theme page marketing, I tried some Facebook ads. I was trying to do it all myself, which was the problem. Anything I was trying to do wasn't getting me the results I wanted. That was a big struggle for me, I believed in this brand so much and knew that it was a good idea. In my heart, I just knew it was a good idea and knew it could succeed in the ecommerce world. Dealing with those hardships, it was tough.

That comes back to the branding idea and why SendAFriend had a purpose. That's what pushed me through the two years of slow business and losing money on marketing or losing money on ads or this or that. I knew in my heart that I believed in it and that it was good company, and I really wanted to see it do something. So it wasn't until January of this year when I went full-time with it and I tried to do more of my own marketing again. I wasn't taking on any other work, so I needed income from it in some capacity. I finally decided,"Look, I need to stop trying to do everything myself and I need to at least hire out the marketing or something like that."

I came from the graphic design world, I didn't know how to market a product. I was doing the logo design, I was doing the park design, I could build a website, but I didn't know how to acquire customers, that was one of my biggest downfalls really. That was a big turning point. In February of this year, I brought on a media buyer to really help me with my ad strategy, with my Facebook ad account, and just overall business logistics of how to do this and how to grow it, how to scale it. That was one of the biggest turning points when it really started growing this year.

"If you're trying to keep your business as a side hustle on top of your day job, it's just most likely not going to grow as quickly or it’s just not going to grow at all."

Felix: How did going full-time with the business change your approach? Did it allow you to focus on certain aspects? 

Tyler: When you're trying to build a business like this and you're trying to bootstrap it from day one, you're basically doing everything. The fact of the matter is that that doesn't work when you're doing other things. If you're trying to keep your business as a side hustle and you're trying to do 90 million things for your business on top of your day job, it's just most likely not going to grow as quickly or it’s just not going to grow at all. When I was able to go full-time on it and say, "This is my focus now," I was able to wake up and say, "Okay, I'm going to start working on SendAFriend instead of at 9:00 PM at night after I did all my other work for the day."

That's when things really started happening. It wasn't like I had a singular focus, but it's when I just could put my full attention on the business and say, "How can I make this work? What is failing? What is working? What can I focus on? What can I outsource to other people? All that kind of stuff." That was when I quickly realized, "Wow, my downfall here is the actual marketing and paid acquisition side, that's something I need help with." I started looking for freelancers or agencies that could help me with that. Going full-time that really allowed me to have that focus on it.

You really can't be thinking about your business when you're doing something else. I know not everybody has the ability to just quit a day job and do something else, but a lot of the time when you're there and that's the only thing you're focused on and you want it to succeed so badly, that's when it'll happen. 

Felix: What did the process look like between you realizing you needed help with the marketing, and actually sourcing an agency you felt you could trust? 

Tyler: It was definitely a process. A lot of entrepreneurs, especially when they start up, are perfectionists and they want control of everything. You want to make your business exactly the way you want it to be, and so it's really scary when you say, "Okay, hey, I need to outsource some of this or I need to let somebody else take some of this control." It could be a really important step. You need to be honest with yourself and say, "Okay, where are my strengths and where are my weaknesses? What can I focus on in the business? And what do I need to outsource?"

An array of stuffed animals along with blue gift boxes from SendAFriend back dropped by a background with clouds painted.
By hiring for marketing help, Tyler was able to focus on scaling and running the business. SendAFriend

When I did that, marketing was the point that did it. I was lucky enough to have some experience in the industry, in the graphic design world. I had worked with ecommerce in the past so I had some connections that I could start reaching out to and say, "Hey, I'm wanting somebody to come in and do my Facebook ads primarily, or my paid acquisition strategy." I was able to get some connections off that, started having conversations with a lot of those freelancers or agencies and ultimately, decided on one person that I just really clicked with. The important step for me was finding somebody that I could feel like I could actually trust, which was a really huge thing for me.

So the media buyer I brought on was somebody that now I consider one of my best friends really. It was really important to find somebody that I was okay giving up some of that control to. That I felt like they were doing good work and I could believe in and could trust. That, again, took some time too. It wasn't something I found overnight. It took multiple calls with different agencies and freelancers. An intro call, then a follow-up call, then a what would this actually look like. It wasn't quick by any means to do that, but it was a very, very important step for my business and I attribute a lot of the success of SendAFriend to that paid acquisition strategy that we established earlier this year.

"Finding a media buyer was a very important step for my business and I attribute a lot of the success of SendAFriend to that paid acquisition strategy that we established."

Felix: Do you have a specific kind of arrangement with these outsourced people that you would recommend to other entrepreneurs? 

Tyler: Every agency and freelancer is going to have their pricing structure, and you can sit down and weigh the pros and cons of that. Some people will be hourly, some people will have their monthly price, some people will be a percent of ad spend. In my case, it was a percent of ad spend and that was something that worked for me very well early on. I was really worried about the investment in the company and the risk. Again, I knew I believed in it, but you don't want to sink a ton of money into it if it's not going to give you anything. So the percent based off ad spend really worked well for me early on to say, "Look, I'm only really going to pay you when ads are doing well, basically."

It was a two-way street, the media buyer wanted to help us succeed because that allowed them to succeed too. That was a good relationship to establish too from day one. Basically, we're both putting our hearts into this, to both get things out of it. That was good for me, but that might not be good for everybody else. You might find an hourly rate works best, where it's this amount of hours for this amount of work or whatever it may be. There are definitely pros and cons to every pricing structure, and it's just what makes sense for your business.

How repurposed user-generated content helped scale this business

Felix: What were some of the strategies there you guys decided to deploy right away?

Tyler: Earlier this year when TikTok really started to see an uptick in popularity, one of the ideas we had early on was to implement TikTok-style content and do our media buying strategy. That was one of the first things we saw great success with. We would shoot our product ads on TikTok, export them, edit them into the Facebook format and run ads with it. That's what we saw work early on. That just came from me and that media buyer having conversations around what is our brand, what audience responds to our brand, etc. And then saying, "Hey, there's this new style of content that's working well, this UGC style, this user-generated, authentic content that's working well."

So we found an easy way to replicate that. Again, SendAFriend is this experience. It's this unboxing, that's what the product is. It was pretty easy to do that through UGC-style video with TikTok and all that.

Felix: Got it. So you're creating content on TikTok, and then exploring that by running it as a Facebook ad?

Tyler: Yeah. That's what we saw work really well early on. One of our concepts was that people in our audience were most likely Gen Z/ early 20s, and were most likely consuming meme style content a lot of the time. What we did was say, "Okay, instead of creating an ad that doesn't fit that mode at all, what if we create an ad that looks like one of the pieces of content they're naturally consuming." I'm sure a lot of other brands were doing this at the same time and even before we were doing it. We didn't pioneer that by any means, but it really worked well for SendAFriend and saying, "This piece of content that is now run as a sponsored ad on Facebook or Instagram looks the same as the content that is already in that person's feed."

It was really easy for people to stop and watch it and consume it the same way that they're consuming all their other content. We were able to sell this different product through those videos. It worked very well basically from day one.

Felix: Were you creating the content yourself? Shooting it yourself on a phone?

Tyler: Yeah. The first ads that took off and some of the ads that are actually still running were shot here in my apartment at my front door, on my kitchen counter. It doesn't take a studio or hiring an agency or anything like that to create good content these days. It's really just about the idea and the messaging. So yeah, 100%. A lot of that stuff was just in my apartment, in my living room, or wherever it might be. That ended up being some of the content that performed the best, even over content that was more like professionally shot images.

Felix: What is your process for brainstorming and executing content ideas? 

Tyler: Part of my process is just that I'm 21 years old and I constantly use TikTok anyways. I natively know what the trends are on TikTok, what kind of videos are working well, or what kind of videos are going viral. For me, it was fairly easy to say like, "Oh, I was scrolling through TikTok last night and I saw all this concept and we can apply it to SendAFriend." Part of that is just being an entrepreneur, you're always going to be thinking about your business. Anywhere I was seeing videos, memes, pictures or whatever it might be, I was always subconsciously thinking, “How can I apply that to SendAFriend?” Some of the ideas would really stick.

And it was fairly easy. There is this very unboxing style experience that happens when someone receives one of our stuffed animal care packages. That's a trend that works very well on social media. You see that on YouTube all the time. People just unboxing things, and that was something that was picking up on TikTok as well. That was the main trend we went after, it was just unboxing our care packages and showing this cute little experience that you can send to somebody. People seem to really grab a hold of that.

"Always be flexible with the content you're creating and trying new ideas. We're shooting at least a handful of videos every week."

Felix: How many new pieces of content are you creating on a regular basis? 

Tyler: We're creating content all the time. From early January and February when we first started using that TikTok style, it's definitely evolved a lot. That content isn't working quite as well now, but we're definitely finding ways to adjust it and make it work. That's another point, always be flexible with the content you're creating and trying new ideas. I would say we're shooting at least a handful of videos every week. Then there's definitely times, maybe once per month, where we're sitting down and shooting five or six different videos and editing out maybe 20 or 30 different concepts with that. Whether the captions are changing or the messaging is changing or the music's changing or something like that. Little variations to that content were really important to us to test too and see what messages people were responding to the most.

Felix: Is the user-generated content still a main focus for you guys? 

Tyler: Yeah. We're still seeing the whole concept of UGC work very well. The whole idea of instead of a brand selling a product to a person, it feels more like a person selling the product to a person. That whole concept seems to hold true and something that works well on Facebook right now. You're seeing that with a lot of other brands too, I'm sure, where content from users or from influencers is doing the best. That concept is still definitely working very, very well. We've just found little micro adjustments to make to that, different ways to edit it, different messages to sell or different stories to tell that are working well in that space now.

Felix: Is this mostly content you’re creating or are you hiring others to create content as well? 

Tyler: It's definitely a mix now. I would say early in the first three or four months as we grew, we started to realize, "Hey, we probably need some influencer strategy." A lot of our content now comes from organic influencers and people who are creating content for us, and then we'll use that content in our Facebook funnel or other platforms as well. We still create a lot of our own content too. I'd say it's maybe 50/50 now, where half the videos are stuff that we're conceptualizing, we're creating, whether it's in one of our houses, in the office, or in one of our cars. 

Felix: When you are working with influencers or influencer marketing, mostly the ad spend is on TikTok?

Tyler: Yeah. We don't spend much on influencer marketing, we really have a more micro-influencer strategy. We look for people who are up and coming or people who have smaller audiences. We'll message them and say, "Hey, we'd love to send you SendAFriend, all we ask is that you post some piece of content with it." We don't put any rules around it. That's allowed people to be creative with SendAFriend content and not just turn out the same piece of content every time.

Some of our best content has come from that, where people just posted whatever they wanted to post. It ended up being a great basically advertising piece of SendAFriend. That strategy has worked really well for us to get a lot of content all the time, whereas for some people who may be paying for influencer content or spending a lot to get the big-ticket influencers, you're only going to get a few pieces of content doing that. With our strategy, we can basically send free care packages to just about anybody and more than likely to get a video in return.

"We don't put any rules around it. That's allowed people to be creative with SendAFriend content and not just turn out the same piece of content every time."

Felix: Your market is pretty wide, how do you know what kind of influencers to send your product to? 

Tyler: Oh, that's the cool thing about SendAFriend. Anybody can receive a stuffed animal care package, it's not limited to a kid, a girlfriend, a boyfriend, mom, or dad, it's really anybody. When we're finding influencers, it's fun. We can partner with just about anybody in any situation. We've partnered with animals. We have a monkey that creates content for us all the time. We have a set of corgis that create concepts for us all the time.Then we also have the standard, we have family pages, we have mommy blogs, we have relationship pages. It's really cool to work with such a diverse group of influencers and see what content they create, because it feels like almost all of them put their own little spin on it.

I don't know if there are ways to apply that to other brands, but I think at the end of the day, some people's target audiences aren't as narrow as you think. Sometimes anybody could use your product or you really need to think who could use this product and how can I hit more people? I know there are industries that definitely are very narrow, but a lot of the time it can be fairly open.

Felix: What kind of call to actions do the influencers use to funnel prospects back to your website? 

Tyler: The only thing we require with these micro-influencers on TikTok or Instagram is that they either use our hashtag or our “@”. That way we at least get tagged in the video. If people want to learn more about SendAFriend, they know where it's at. The other strategy we use is pretty much with anybody that posts content, whether they're small or large, we always try to comment and engage with that content, whether it's a quirky little comment like relating to the content, or just saying thank you.

We always try to get into that comment section as our brand page so that if people are watching that video and maybe they're scrolling through the comments saying, "Oh, where did you buy this?" Or something like that, our brand is there ready to go. They can click on our page, learn more about SendAFriend and then eventually get to our website.

Why problem-solving skills are an entrepreneurs greatest asset

Felix: What is your strategy when it comes to the paid ads on Facebook? 

Tyler: All of our traffic goes directly to our homepage. Our website's fairly simple, we don't have a very large product catalog or anything like that, so most buyers are taking a very similar buyer journey. That's something I like about SendAFriend, we're able to help customers learn more about our story. Obviously, a TikTok- style video of a quirky unboxing with some music or something isn't really going to tell people the core values of SendAFriend. That it’s about giving back and spreading love, but once they get to our website, that's really where the focus is, "Okay. Now, you came for this video, you're interested, but here's all these other pieces of our brand and this is why you should buy from us, and this is why you should spread some love.”

There's all the good these care packages can do basically. We focus on our mission on the website, we focus on our different partnerships we might have, our charitable aspect, we focus on reviews of customers having these amazing experiences with SendAFriend. That's been a really fun funnel for us as we can pretty much drive all of our traffic to just one page and say, "Here, learn more about SendAFriend, go through the process." It seems like a lot of people enjoy that and enjoy learning about SendAFriend.

Felix: Tell us about what kind of issues you ran into as you were scaling the business?

Tyler: Especially with how aggressive the scaling was, early this year and through the rest of the year, there was bottleneck after bottleneck. It was really just about solving those. In business and in ecommerce, a lot of this stuff really is problem solving. For example, storage was an issue. In the first part of the year, SendAFriend was run out of my brother's old bedroom at my parents' house. My mom was fulfilling every single care package by hand. You can't keep doing that when you scale. It reached a point where, "Oh, no, the bedroom has filled up, and now the extra garage we have is filled up with all SendAFriend's stuff." It came to a point where we couldn’t keep getting products here.

That was in March after a big Valentine's Day push. By April 1st, we had an office space. It was just about moving really quickly and saying, "Okay, what is limiting us right now?" It was literally that we could not store any more animals, and we couldn't hire people to come out to my parents' house and work there. We had a couple of family friends that were helping, but that was about it. That was one of the first bottlenecks. Then it was how can we employ more people? How can we store more products? And how can we get more products out the door with more space basically?

It was pretty obvious we needed an office, we needed a warehouse, we needed somewhere to store this product. We needed to have multiple fulfillment stations, have multiple employees running at the same time, all that kind of stuff. That was one of the first big challenges, finding an office building, finding the warehouse space to accompany that, and finding something that worked for our business and all of our needs since we were doing fulfillment in-house and all the other kinds of things.

Felix: I like how you mentioned entrepreneurship is just a continuous journey or problem-solving. What would you say is the main problem you’re focused on these days with the business? 

Tyler: Now that we've gotten through this year and we've mostly relied on Facebook ads to really push the business forward, one of our biggest problems is how reliant we are on Facebook. We saw that through the holiday season in how expensive Facebook ads were. That was especially true this year with more retailers and buyers online. Facebook's definitely becoming an issue where it's getting more and more expensive to get a customer.

One of our main focuses for 2021 is how do we take some of that control from Facebook, and how can we acquire new customers on new fronts? Now, instead of just doing micro-influencer stuff, we're trying to get involved in more macro influencer things. We're trying to get involved in organic search, we're trying to get involved in other media buying platforms like Snapchat and TikTok, and actually using paid ads on those platforms. It's really about diversifying our marketing channels and acquiring customers on as many fronts as we can so that we're not as reliant on Facebook paid acquisition for customers.

"It's really about diversifying our marketing channels and acquiring customers on as many fronts as we can so that we're not as reliant on Facebook paid acquisition for customers."

Felix: With all these new marketing avenues, how are you making sure you dedicate your time in effective ways and are picking channels with a good return on investment? 

Tyler: Having processes in place is obviously good. We already have our Facebook media buying process in place, we have a good system for approving new content, creating new content, all that kind of stuff. You should definitely have your original channel or your first few channels really locked in and know what you're doing there before you branch out to too many. It's just about starting those new processes on the new platforms. With organic search and SEO work, it’s about, "Okay, now I have to start the process of finding either an agency or freelancer or employee that can help us do that."

I'm currently in the process of having interviews with different agencies and freelancers and figuring out who is best suited for our business and who is best suited for our specific line of work. That's true to everything that we're doing. We have these current processes in place, now we just have to problem solve and get to the next step and how do I get there? It's just one thing after another. Part of it is just being ambitious with it and saying, "I'm not scared of this, I'm not worried about this, I'm just going to dive deep and figure it out." At least that's my mentality with it, and it seems to be paying off so far.

Felix: You mentioned your background in website design, was the website, SendAFriend.co also designed by yourself?

Tyler: Yes. The current website is probably the third main redesign of SendAFriend. The first site was very different from this one. The second one was similar with some changes, and now this new theme is where it's been for a while. Primarily, all the designs are done by me. I do have a development agency now that helps me actually implement the design. I'm not a strong coder, I mostly focus on graphic design. I usually will design the website, how I want it to look, or design certain elements, and then send that over to the development team to let them do their magic on the website. The core theme that's up right now is still designed by me. 

A pair of stuffed animals by SendAFriend backdropped by a forest.
Focusing on bundling and holiday specials will be an area of interest moving forward for SendAFriend. SendAFriend

Felix: What kind of changes did you incorporate in the redesigns on the website along the way? 

Tyler: A lot of it was conversion-rate focused. For the first year of having SendAFriend our conversion rate was less than 1%. When you start looking into standards in ecommerce and in the industry, that's really low. I knew that was a problem. I was trying some different things, I was trying maybe website copy or changing little things like colors of the buttons and stuff like that. I finally reached a point where I was like, "Maybe it's the website itself, maybe it's a theme, maybe something about the customer journey on this website isn't working."

I used services like Hotjar to record visitors and look at heat maps of what people were doing and really found out that like 80% of people were just wanting to get to the Shop All and see all the animals. On that second and third redesign, that was the focus. Just showing people the stuffed animals as soon as possible on the website and keeping them scrolling, keeping them looking through all the new animals you might have or the different cute designs and all that kind of stuff, and really focusing on the product first.

Felix: What are some apps that you use, either on the website or off the website, to help you run the business?

Tyler: For business, organization, all that, we primarily use Notion, which is one of my favorite tools now for organizing your business. In conjunction with that, we use Slack for all communication, and we use Google Drive for all of our stores. That's really our three big tools. Outside of that for design, we use Figma, the email we use Klaviyo, and text messaging we use Postscript. But those big three; Slack, Notion, Google Drive, are the core of SendAFriend and how we manage and organize everything in our day-to-day lives, whether it be emailed design files, new ads, new creatives, or whatever it might be, that's all stored and managed within Notion and Google Drive.

Felix: When it comes to email marketing, and you mentioned Postscript for SMS, are you sending marketing messages? How are you using those channels?

Tyler: We've used Klaviyo for email for about a year and a half now, and that's been one of our biggest channels to keep expanding on as well. We drive about 25% of our revenue from email, with the optimizations we've done through our automated flows and having a consistent campaign, sending schedule. I'm really proud of our email work, we send really cute emails and that's usually how we keep our audience engaged. We personify the animals all the time and act like they're going on a field trip or doing this or that. It seems to keep people engaged and keep them opening our emails. That's been a really good avenue for us.

About two or three months ago, we got started with Postscript for SMS. One of the most up-and-coming channels now for ecommerce is SMS marketing. We've seen some great success with it as well. We on average drive about the same revenue from our SMS campaigns as we do from our email campaigns. On SMS, we only have one-fourth of the subscribers that we do on email. It's been a great channel so far to generate some revenue, recover abandoned carts and things of that nature.

"One of the most up-and-coming channels now for ecommerce is SMS marketing. We've seen some great success with it as well."

Felix: How do these people land on your SMS or email marketing lists? 

Tyler: We use email capture on our website. We have a spin a winning sale basically, where people can win a different discount by inputting their email and their phone numberThat's been a great avenue for as soon as someone lands on SendAFriend. Within the first seven seconds of them being on the website, they get a pop-up. Being in the email world in the past, I had done some email design and some marketing with email agencies, and I learned very quickly how important capturing email is really early on the customer journey. That allows you to do a lot of other things, like send them a follow-up email if they abandon their cart.

It's a really great way to collect emails without just collecting from purchases. That's been really important to grow those email lists and be able to drive more revenue through them from getting their emails so early on in the journey.

Felix: What are your plans for the business moving forward? 

Tyler: Over the holiday season that we started releasing these bundles where instead of just the stuffed animal, we're adding socks, stickers, maybe a food item, maybe another comfort item or something like that to the care package. We’re able to get a little higher of an average order value out of it. That's something that the audience has responded to really well. We see a lot of customers come back and purchase another SendAFriend because of these bundles. That's what we've really been focused on the product side of things for 2021. We want to make sure we have a bundle for every holiday and also have bundles for different events.

We'll have a birthday bundle or an anniversary bundle or something like that, and people can use that as a reason to send a care package. That's been a good product change for us, it's allowed us to increase our average order value, which has helped on the advertising side, helped on the profit side, etc. That's our biggest product development, but at the core, SendAFriend is stuffed animals in boxes and that's what we do well, so I don't see that changing too much anytime soon.

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