Paul talks to Jeff, founder of Ugmonk and self-described “entrepreneur by accident” about what it’s like to start a business when you’re not all that crazy about, well, business. For Jeff, that means writing his own rules.
Call Paul Season 2 Episode 7 Making Your Own Rules Transcript
Paul: Hello friend, I’m Paul Jarvis. Welcome to Call Paul, a show where I get to ring up some of the most interesting minds in small business and have thoughtful conversations about their unconventional approaches to commerce. I’ve run my own small company for the 21 years and I’ve written books on how bigger isn’t always better in business.
In this season I’m talking to folks who are prioritizing doing the right thing over just the most profitable. Some are starting something brand new, standing up their businesses in an entirely new environment. Others have been at it a while, working to ensure their continued sustainability through turbulent times. And there’s lots to learn from everyone.
Jeff: I just think there's so many different ways of building businesses that right now it does feel like we're just beating our own drum, but in a good way. We don't have to follow a playbook. Nobody has to follow a playbook of business anywhere, but for some reason, we get categorized into like, "Oh, you are a blank. You are an e-commerce business. You should do this." And then you find out there's tons of people out there doing things differently, and just making up the rules as they go,
Paul: That’s Jeff Sheldon, founder of Ugmonk, a design studio in a small Pennsylvania town making thoughtfully designed clothing and desktop products. While the product line has changed and grown, the focus has always been on making better versions of things that he wants to exist. And, while Ugmonk has been around for thirteen years, and definitely aren’t what you’d call beginners, they still jumped into the unknown, launching a brand new product in 2020 called Analog… just as the pandemic hit full swing in the West. And what happened next was something -- even with his years of running Ugmonk in the bag -- Jeff couldn’t have imagined…
Jeff: I call myself a designer by trade and an entrepreneur or businessman by accident. My love for design and making things better is where Ugmonk was born from, versus I want to start a company, I want to sell products. Sales and marketing to me actually are like big turn offs. So it's funny that I have to put on those hats and do that as well to make things work, but I love the creative process, and when I see something that can be improved or optimized or more efficient, I want to make a version of that thing, especially tangible physical things, because that's what really exciting, is to have this finished thing that I get to hold.
Paul: Did you start out doing mostly digital like me and then moved into physical things when you started Ugmonk?
Jeff: Yup. I grew up doing fine art, so I was sketching, drawing. I was always making something, whether it was legos or any type of building block toy. I thought maybe I'd be an architect, and then I realized it's way more technical and it's not just drawing pictures of pretty houses. I have a really weird mix of math and logic side of my brain, which I enjoyed math and thinking through those things versus just straight art and literature and creativity, but I also really enjoy certain aesthetics and the way something looks, the idea, form combined with function.
Paul: So you said you were an entrepreneur by accident. Do you think there's a better word for you or for somebody like you who didn't start a business because they wanted to start a business, but started a business because they wanted to do the thing that the business does?
Jeff: Yeah. Maybe creator. A lot of these terms have connotations, right? So if you say maker, you think, "Oh, you must be a woodworker on Etsy or something." Entrepreneur is probably the right word to use, even though I don't love calling myself... walking around saying, "Hey, I'm an entrepreneur." Because when people hear that, a lot of times, they think, "Oh, you start a lot of businesses." It's like, "No, I don't necessarily like to jump around and start all these businesses. I'm not in the startup world. I'm not in the venture capital world," but there's something about when you have an idea of seeing it through, executing it, and owning that entire process, whether it's a digital idea or a physical idea, that is, whatever term you'd call that, that's what I am.
Paul: So let's talk about that process, and specifically as it relates to your latest product Analog. What was it that you wanted to exist that didn’t exist?
Jeff: Analog being a physical to-do list, a paper to-do list, is not anything new, right? People have been writing things down, using scratch pads, using the back of an envelope, using index cards, post-it notes, whatever it is, forever. What I saw was the opportunity to adapt to that, to help me to work better. And I was taking regular old index cards and I was creating a little bullet system. I was using one per day. I was using it only for tasks that, as I started using a regular index card, it's like, "I think this can be better." And it sent me down this path of like, "I think I can make this into a product, because it really helps me focus," having this small card with a limited amount of things on my to-do list versus this entire 53 things on my list that I used to keep a big 8 point 5 by 11 sheet of paper with all these things. And I started to see how it was affecting my work and how it was helping me.
And the way that I use it is having three separate buckets. So today is the tasks that I'm going to work on today. Next is my on-deck circle. It's like what's coming up next, stuff that I need to get done, but I really don't need to look at today because I can't do anything about it. And then someday is the ideas that pop into my head like, "Maybe I should someday design X," or maybe there's a book I wanted to read, or maybe it's a goal that I'm trying to reach. And all of my tasks and ideas get captured on these three different cards. And the today card is the only one that is propped up in front of me in this wood card holder on my desk. As I complete each task, I'll cross them off. And everyday I start with the new today card and I just go through this cyclical process of taking the card out, propping it up, taking the used one from the day before, and placing it in the back of the card holder to store all of my used cards.
Paul: What do you do with the someday cards?
Jeff: So, the next and the someday cards sit on top of the metal divider in the back of the card holder. So that if I need to quickly grab them, I can capture an idea and it's not opening up my phone because if I do that, I'm probably on Instagram or distracted by some notification, by the time I even remember to write it down. So I use them as these little buckets to capture things and then I'll go through them, maybe like once a week and look through those ideas, and sometimes look at the idea again and say, "I don't want to pursue that." So I'll cross it off. And then other times, it'll spark something that inspires me to pursue a new product idea or finally listen to a podcast that I wanted to listen to. But it's like these holding tanks, that's kind of how I see it.
Paul: When you're doing something, and then you think, "Okay, I can make this better in some way, more elegant in some way, better looking," are you like, "Oh, no. Here it goes again,"
Jeff: For sure. I mean, my wife gives me a hard time about it because she knows when I get in one of these series of thoughts where I'm just going diving headfirst into a new idea, and she's not going to hear the end of it until I've actually seen it through. And that process, I take the learnings from the previous product and I'm able to apply it to the next one, and take the previous one and apply it to the next one. So I think it's just the cyclical process more than the dollar signs and the money coming in. I just love that creative process and being able to see the next idea through.
Paul: You’ve seen success in your past projects, and it seems like you kinda don’t need kickstarter. So why crowdfund for Analog?
Jeff: Kickstarter is an interesting platform. Super grateful it exists because there's a lot of factors that bring me back to crowdfunding, and specifically Kickstarter, to launch these products. Launching a product to your own audience is one thing. You can reach the people that follow you on social or email. Launching a product on Kickstarter is almost like this, "I'm pulling back the curtain and showing you everything, and I really want to make this thing, and I want you to be part of it." It's less transactional and more of like, "Hey, let's support this idea and I want to see it happen. Oh, and by the way, I also get one."
A little bit of that has changed where people see it more as a pre-order platform and it can get messy, like things like now, where we're still shipping out Kickstarter rewards and we are months late according to what we estimated. We also didn't know we were going to have $450,000 of orders to ship out when we launched back in June.
So I think the idea of launching on a platform, that's just so open, allows people to really come alongside you as a creator, to help you see the idea through. There's also the social proof to say like, "Hey, if this is raising all this money, maybe this thing is legit," Then there's the early adopters that also like to be there. They want to get it first, and Kickstarter really attracts those people. So I think there's a lot of factors that really combined into making it work for the type of products that I'm launching, and it's worked well two times, and I plan to return again and be a glutton for punishment again, and see what happens the next time
Paul: So what was it like to launch a product in one of the most difficult times in recent history?
Jeff: I almost didn't launch it. Yeah, I wasn't sure if it was right thing to do. I delayed the launch multiple times. We were actually thinking of launching it in March. That's when COVID and pandemic are really starting to become a thing, like, "Okay, let's put the brakes on." I had to cancel all my plans to go shoot a video with a crew down in Austin, and it sent us in a spiral of like, "What should we do? Do we even launch products? Is anyone going to even want this thing anymore?" because there was so much panic.
And what actually ended up happening was not only did I delay the launch, I ended up having to shoot the video myself, in this office, at my house and just pulled out my video gear, and I was like, "All right. Well, I can't travel anywhere. I can't have a whole crew come over into my house. So I'm going to figure out, 'How do I make this video? How do I launch this thing'?" with those constraints in place? And spent like... that must've been most of the month of May trying to brush up on my video skills, and my editing skills, and talking to people, just trying to figure out, "How do we make this thing?" And then we finally launched it in June, but it was not the original plan at all.
Paul: Why do you think that it did well in spite of all of those struggles and the global struggles that happened last year?
Jeff: I mean, I could be projecting, but I think, because Analog helps people focus, and the idea is to help people focus and really to feel that calm and feel that they're doing enough each day, it really just worked against all of the stress that the pandemic and working from home... and so many people that were like, "I don't even know how to balance my home life or my work life, and my kids, and all this stuff." I was already going to launch it anyways before we knew that we would be in this weird scenario where everyone's working from home and trying to figure that out, but then it definitely made me double down and be like, "I think this is really going to help people. Even though it's a really simple product, I think it can help people because of the scenario and the circumstances.
Paul: What do you think it is about a physical product, or the act of doing something with pen and paper and then putting it in a wooden holder versus digitally?
Jeff: Tangible progress is something that... it triggers something else in our brain that we don't get from digital. So when you swipe away something on your phone, you might feel a little vibrator, the buzz, on the phone and it goes away and it's gone and it's disappeared, but when you can see tangible progress, our brains actually release different dopamine, or it creates this habit loop differently.
And I think the tangibleness of it is also just satisfying, because at the end of the day, if I've completed my card, you might've only had four things on it. It's like I take that card, I slide it in the wood holder, and then I can put it away for the night, whereas digital, I mean, I could just keep adding and swiping, and adding and swiping, and there's... You never catch up, right? It's like inbox, zero. It's not that satisfying.
Paul: Do you ever go back and look at the cards that you... from previous days?
Jeff: I do keep them. There's something satisfying to say like, "I did do something. There was progress made. Products were launched." And so, I think it's less important about seeing what was on the card for me, and more important to say like, "Yes, this month, I accomplished these 30 cards." I might've not accomplished everything on them, but there's a stack here that's saying like, "I'm moving in the right direction. I'm getting things done. I'm pushing the ball forward."
Paul: How do you feel, or how do you deal with the rip offs of the products that you make, right? Because you spend all of this time and put so much intention, and thought, and care into making something, then the next person comes along and says, "Oh wow, this did really well on Kickstarter. I'm just going to copy it and sell it."
Jeff: To me, imitation is the most annoying form of flattery. It is not the sincerest form, and it's also just really frustrating, because we did put so much into what we do as designers and creators, that when somebody just tries to take the shortcut and say, "Cool, me too. Let me make this out of a cheaper material and sell it on Amazon," I think it cuts to the heart for us that are artists and creators.
We actually started receiving another company's returns, t-shirts because they copied our whole site and they lifted our FAQ and they forgot to change the return address which is how we found them. And we were like, "Why are we getting these products," and went to their FAQ. So yeah, it's laziness. It's hard to run a company. It's hard to make new things. Yes, we are all inspired by each other and what we see out there, but just don't take the shortcuts. It doesn't get you anywhere.
Paul: How do you deal with, I guess, the stress and the weight of running a business?
Jeff: Some of it probably goes back to really just the way that I've been running Ugmonk, and the ethos, and the style of business that I'm building. It's not a typical e-commerce scale, fast, VC backed business, turn and sell. I don't know if I'll ever sell the business. I don't know if I can. It's selling myself at that point. I could sell the intellectual property, but the business has been built for a slow growth, methodical approach brick by brick, long-term, mom-and-pop hardware store kind of business, right? We're not here to revolutionize the world, I want to be here making beautiful products for the next... as many years as I can.
So pre-pandemic, that was already how we were operating.And I think that takes a lot of the pressure off as far as we need to double revenue this year, we need to hit these sales goals. "Oh no, the pandemic happened." There goes all up our sales. We run such a lean, tiny little business. We're super small. We just want to do things with excellence and compete with the big guys in that sense, that doing it among changing conditions in the world and things that we can't control, didn't really change a whole lot of how we operate.
Paul: One thing you did change is that you bought a warehouse. Talk to me about, I guess, what led to you thinking, "Okay, we need a warehouse."
Jeff: Up until this past October, the Ugmonk fulfillment center was my apartment and then my parents' basement. We did work with a third-party logistics company for our first Kickstarter, and we had all sorts of issues. we couldn't do quality control, and there was missed shipments and miscommunication and bad customer service.
And ultimately it falls onto the customer, if that happens. And we really wanted to not have that happen with this Kickstarter and keep things the way we've done it for all of the rest of the Ugmonk product launches and do it in-house. I knew that I wanted to do our own fulfillment for the Kickstarter, and I knew I couldn't do 5000 orders out of my parent's basement, and then this building that's local here in Downingtown, that we ended up coming, just really in a roundabout way, was still being renovated from an old paper mill. And I think 12 years of putting it off and not feeling good about jumping into a physical space, here we are, in our first ever warehouse, and it's been amazing. It's been really fun to just have everything under one roof.
It's a lot more work, it's expensive, but ultimately it allows us to QC every single product that comes through the door, get our hands on it, we can directly talk to the customer about their shipment, about a return, about an address change. You just can't do that when you're remote and you've got a support person halfway across the world, and your third-party logistics is somewhere else, and you're somewhere else. Selling physical products that way, while it's normal, it's really hard to do it well, if you want to lead to that really good customer experience.
Paul: Does that feel like a new beginning in a way?
Jeff: It does feel like a new beginning. It feels like a new chapter or a new season for us. And it's opened up a lot of opportunities already from a production side where we're trying to manufacture our products as local as possible.
Paul: Opening a new warehouse was a new endeavor, but so was selling masks. How did masks come into play with your business?
Jeff: The face masks really came out from our small manufacturer in Los Angeles, who makes all of our t-shirts. He got shut down early on, but he was allowed to open if he could make masks. He pitched the idea to me, "Hey, I'm making masks now. Do you want to sell them to your customers?" Initially I was like, "No, I don't think that's the right move." It was awkward because nobody knew it was happening. It felt weird to try and capitalize on it. But then I was thinking on the flip side, "I need him to stay in business. I need him to keep making shirts because that's our bread and butter for so many years." And I can't even really take credit for the design of the mask, but the product itself was so good and so soft that people just started telling their friends. People were like, "You don't like your mask? Go get an Ugmonk one. They're so nice, and you can wash them, and they're ultra soft." So that snowball effect, again, was not something that I planned, or had some strategy behind, like, "Let's sell face mask and let's run ads." We didn't do any of that. It was truly just, "Let's make good products. Let's keep them in business. We're not going to mark them up like crazy." But the side effect of the mask is that it brought thousands and thousands of new customers to our site who had never heard of Ugmonk, didn't know we sold workspace products, didn't know we sold shirts and desk accessories.
So all of these things started compounding on themselves and then launching Analog was the cherry on top for us to have a really great year. But if you had asked me back in March, in February, I didn't know what the heck I was going to do. I mean, it was not looking good. We didn't have any of these things rolling, and I didn't know if I'd still have a business. So things can change really fast, and I think part of it is just adapting to whatever comes next and being willing to keep zigging zagging and riding that wave, but doing it in an authentic way.
Paul: What strikes me the most about Ugmonk is that Jeff does things the way he believes his company specifically should do them, and not just because “this is the way a business like this does things”. The rules are that as business owners, we get to make and change the rules to suit us.
Ugmonk is the perfect example of what it means to have a beginner’s mindset-- to constantly challenge ourselves and start new things, even if we’re a business that’s been around for a while. In the next few episodes of the season I’m talking to more established companies about what makes a business sustainable in the long term. Next Friday I’ll be chatting with a CEO who took over an established business and is questioning what it means to grow, be sustainable, and protect the natural world in the process.
Part of what I hope that people get from Juniper Ridge is really a little bit of nostalgia for places that they might have had experiences with in the past or intrigue and the desire to want to go to those places or protect those places. So I think that each one of our products and each one of the regions they come from, I think they can have an effect on different people for different reasons. I hope you’ll join us.
In the meantime you can listen to the small business spotlight, sharing with you a behind the scenes peek at the day to day of running a company. These stories are from folks who are doing amazing things, I think you'll really enjoy them. They’re also in the Call Paul feed.
Call Paul is wonderfully produced by Ruth Eddy and is a Mailchimp Original Podcast. Subscribe now on your favourite podcast player, so you can check out all our other episodes and seasons. And if you want more awesome content, go to mailchimp dot com slash presents.
Things are returning to normal – but that doesn’t mean we should go back to the way things were. Paul Jarvis is back, interviewing entrepreneurs who prioritize passion over profit and renegotiated the status quo.
Things are returning to normal – but that doesn’t mean we should go back to the way things were. Paul Jarvis is back, interviewing entrepreneurs who prioritize passion over profit and renegotiated the status quo.
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Adena and Chad, owners of Another Lane, on understanding your customers.
Laura, owner of Adventure Cats, shares a peek at a company’s day-to-day.
Benedicte, creator of POW!, discusses sustainability over scale.
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Akoto and Lauren, co-founders of Capital B, discuss building customer trust.
Kyle of Totally Good Time shares a behind the scenes peek at running a company.
Listen to the leaders of Real talk about revolutionizing mental healthcare.
Latosha of Proper Gnar shares a behind the scenes peek at running a company.
Jeff, owner of design studio Ugmonk, and a new way of doing business.
Tiffini of Latched and Hooked shares a peek of a business’s day-to-day.
Leah, the COO of Juniper Ridge, discusses sustainable business.
Brandi of Just Add Honey shares a behind the scenes peek of running a company.