🚀 Playbook: Build an automated swag store
How I built an automated swag store for my startup
How (and why) I built an automated swag store for Livecycle
How I used my “3-hour build vs. buy” assessment to decide to do it
Swag is part of startup life. But it can also be a pain - designing, creating, and shipping it to users, fans, and investors. It’s a process that can quickly take up precious time and focus resources that a small, early-stage company doesn’t have to spend.
So when I first joined Livecycle to lead their GTM team, I knew I needed to find a way to make life easier.
A creative alternative
I knew what I wanted to achieve:
The ability to design new products easily, on my own (I am not a professional designer)
Avoid any involvement in the time-consuming printing, fulfillment, and shipping processes
I was reminded of people on social media bragging about how easy it was to create a private, online apparel store, so I wondered - what if I could do the same thing for our company brand? Unlike the social media stars, I wasn’t looking to generate revenue from this, but perhaps this could be a creative option for addressing my design, fulfillment, and shipping needs.
Conceptually, it seemed simple enough. Create an online storefront, connect it to an apparel fulfillment service, create some designs, and have stuff shipped to the relevant folks around the world as needed (perhaps even automatically, with some defined sequences and triggers).
The 3-hour build vs. buy assessment
My main objective was to save time. So I needed to make sure that my idea for an automated swag store wouldn’t become an ongoing babysitting job for me or anyone else on my team.
To complicate matters - I had very little experience building e-commerce entities from the ground up on my own, so there would almost certainly be a learning curve.
Was it worth the risk? Maybe I should just hire someone on Fiverr to do it all for me.
Enter the 3-hour build vs. buy assessment.
It’s a simple guiding principle (that I made up) that states that it takes up to 3 hours to assess your ability to set up a new system with which you have zero prior familiarity.
If, after 3 hours you managed to research and set it up to at least 80% functionality - it’s worth completing the job on your own. If however, you can’t manage 80% of it in 3 hours on your own, then it’s worth buying it off the shelf or hiring someone to build it for you.
3 hours later, I had a basically functioning storefront with a few branded products.
Here’s how I set up:
The step-by-step playbook
Create a Shopify storefront - First, I created a Shopify account and set up a storefront where users can order their swag directly with a gift card (more on that in a minute). Shopify has a bunch of themes to choose from. I opted to stick with a free, basic theme because I wasn’t trying to optimize for the ultimate in-store experience. I just needed it to be functional.
Create a Printful account - The next step was to set up an account with a print-on-demand service. I chose Printful, but there are other similar options out there to choose from. Printful deals with the catalog of products, printing, fulfillment, and shipping.
Create products in Printful and Sync them to Shopify - Once Printful was set up, I chose a few products and designed them with the drag-and-drop design features (I suggest you pick one or two products to start so you don’t get carried away with their catalog). I then synced the products to my connected Shopify storefront
Create a subdomain to host it - We chose something simple: store.livecycle.io
Expose the store on our site - Once I had a few products, I exposed the storefront on our site
Issue coupons and let people do their thing - When I want to send someone swag, all I need to do is go to Shopify and create a gift card for them. I can give them a specific amount of money or gift them a specific product. I send the user the digital gift card code, and they order the merch to their preferred location.
Further automation - This can be automated further by issuing a series of gift cards and distributing them based on some user sequence.
A few caveats and notes:
As mentioned above, we were not looking to make tons of revenue off of this. We just wanted a convenient way to ship cool swag to people around the world. If you are just looking to save (or make) money off of this, there might be better ways to go.
I suggest you read reviews from the Printful/fulfillment catalog. I tried to get fancy with some of the t-shirts and was disappointed with the quality. For me, it was better to stick to the basic, highly-rated items on their list
Check out the final product for yourself: https://store.livecycle.io/