January 11, 2014
I'm a busy single dad, with extensive background in design and product development and an partner in Science, a Santa Monica, California based tech studio. I want to share with you my story of how I took my side passion project and married it with the Internet to create a business that is now being featured in the Apple Store within just one year. It's my hope that sharing my story with you will help act as a guide for anyone else interested in pursuing their hobby and turning it into a business. In my case, it was a love of design, a belief in quality, and the drive to create lots of round leather disks, cut by hand.
The origin story of the Cord Taco
A little over a year ago, I was dining on tacos with a friend at a Mexican restaurant in LA called Loteria. Later that day, Heather Lipner asked if I could design something to organize tech cables for an interior design content piece she was working on for Refinery 29. The next morning, in a lucid but dreamy state, inspiration poured in my Los Angeles surroundings and the Cord Taco was quickly born. Within a couple weeks it was a product for sale on the Internet and my nights, weekends, and loft were soon to become a home-based factory. Less than a year later, Apple decided to sell the Cord Taco in their online store.
Handmade in downtown LA
I had been living in downtown Los Angeles for over a year. I was inspired by the the maker movement and the fury of the makers, supplies, manufacturers and all the artistic supporters. Around the middle of 2012, I had an urge to make a leather keychain which lead to designing and making iPhone wallets and iPad cases, all by hand. I didn’t feel these were extraordinary, just simple and clean designs that were functional and well-made. At this point in my life, just about everything I had designed was digital for brands large and small from AOL to MySpace to new digital startups that I helped develop. So learning how to construct leather goods by way of sewing and other craftsman techniques was a new experience for me. I spent many hours scouring YouTube for how-to videos, and learning. Soon enough I was ready to join in on the fun. Touching and using something that I designed and crafted was and is an incredible feeling – something I was truly excited about.
I taught myself how to sew, construct, and style leather goods.
When I prototyped the Cord Taco, my first thought was that the design was simple. In fact, I was worried it was too simple. Once I cut the leather disc, punched the hole for the button, and screwed the button in, it was almost like I needed to do something else. To satisfy my insecurity I actually made 2 versions for the Refinery29 photo shoot, the Cord Taco and a simple strap. I ended up going for the Cord Taco because it was simple, unique and fully enclosed the cords.
Formula for success
When I was first cutting the products by hand, I saw that I had a good formula for success. I was happy that the cord taco was a simple design, that it was solving for a universal problem in a unique and sophisticated manner, yet I still had room to explore utility improvements due to the healthy margin. The COGs were favorable and the initial focus on online sales allowed me to not have to spend much money. Instead of spending money on advertising and retailer commissions and point of sale collateral, I focused on growing the brand with the help of social media & influencers direct to consumer on my Etsy channel.
Soon enough the business began to grow rapidly.
In the beginning of Dec 2012, the Cord Taco had been born and soon got its first blog exposure on Refinery29, selling for $24.99 for a 5-pack on Uncovet & Etsy.
I was cutting each one myself. So far, so good.
Online it went like this:
December 2012: Cord Taco + Etsy
January 2013: The Cord Taco appears on Uncovet + Pinterest + Refinery 29 post ran
With the help of Uncovet, Etsy, and Pinterest, the product started to be sold online and made it around to some blogs. I was passionate about the product — I invested my own money and my own time. People who knew me appreciated that part, but the product had to speak for itself and fill a need or it wouldn’t go very much further. The response from the internet was swift, in Dec 2012, the first Cord Taco shipped. It was an amazing feeling of satisfaction to ship that first order.
Feb 2013: The Taco appears on Apartment Therapy & Cult of Mac
Mar 2013: Swissmiss post
Each time a blogger posted a review, I immediately reached out publicly to thank them and send them samples of the product.
While I was juggling this side project of hand-cutting leather tacos, a full-time day job, a life as a single dad — making a real connection to the people who liked my work was paramount to me. The public’s real interest in my product was pushing me along so thanking them was incredibly meaningful to me. It helped to build an army of cord taco fans and followers. For example, the Tech Cocktail team sent their love by creating this short little Cord Taco song that underscored the importance of having your cord taco on you at all times. I nearly fell out of my chair with joyous laughter the first time I heard it. You can play the song here (or with the player below).
The turning point
Mar ’2013: On a Monday morning in March the Etsy cash register alert on my phone went ape shit. Sales peaked that morning. I checked the traffic source and it was all coming from Uncrate.
Days later, my focus shifted to scaling production. I turned to a die maker in LA named Alex who had been making dies since the 70's. Using the die in conjunction with the mechanical press to stamp out the round discs allowed me to make my Cord Tacos 30 times as fast, and therefore was able to keep up with all the orders. This was a game changer as cutting the Cord Tacos one by one with the Olfa blade, including cutting fingers here and there, obviously didn’t scale and hurt like a mofo.
Customer acquisition was 100% fueled by bloggers and social media
We continued to receive really positive posts by SwissMiss, Cult of Mac, and an interesting mix of design, tech and fashion blogs. While Uncrate brought a huge male audience, the solution was designed to be unisex and universal and that intention was proving itself in the wide mix of interest.
A taco by any other name
Of all the leather products I had made, the Cord Taco became the hero. It was even knocked off in China which was both concerning and flattering. The concern was less about the competition and more about my own fear that the product had already existed. After some research I realized that the version spotted in Hong Kong was based on my design which was really flattering. A key differentiator was in fact the name, Cord Taco. That name became the foothold on the overall product’s uniqueness. Yes, I trademarked the name.
Later that spring it became clear that I was carving out this nice little space to solve for the universal problem of tangled cords. With all of the traffic I was receiving for the Cord Taco, I decided to create a follow up which would handle multiple cords. It was inspired by tool and knife rolls and with some modifications, it became a way to stow a few cords and a couple of plugs. It was different from the Cord Taco. When it came to the name, I started with Cord Cubby, Cord Blanket and a few other names using the word Cord as I did with the Cord Taco. When asking for feedback from a friend, he scoffed at the options and said I was an idiot if I didn’t stick with the Mexican food theme. He was right and he actually coined the name “Cordito,” thanks Grant.
With the prototype, new name and a picture, I was able to test it on Etsy. After putting it up on Etsy, Pinterest and Facebook, it was almost immediately picked up by a few notable blogs and started selling within the first week. The first batch of about 12 were all cut by hand. I quickly had enough confidence that the product would sell so I commissioned another die so that I wouldn’t lose anymore skin making them.
My hobby, my loft party
With about 10 SKUs in my Etsy shop and on a few other sites, I had established a decent little revenue stream but realized I had a legit issue, my day job. I had co-founded a tech studio called Science about a year and half prior to this home business and was fairly encumbered with all of the projects going on there. Leaving that job wasn’t even a remote thought so I decided to hire some people to work out of my loft. I started with Dan Martinez who had just graduated from the architecture program at RISD. Dan was hired to help with production and new product development. My second hire was Wendy San who was brought on board to focus on fulfillment and customer service. They both worked out of my loft for the next few months.
The name game
While most of the sales came from Etsy and Uncovet, it did make sense to establish our own online store and a strategy for the brand. When coming up with a name for the business, I landed on This is Ground for a few reasons. One of my first jobs was with the ground crew of a blimp and I had to communicate with the pilots over a VHF radio by saying:
“560 alpha-bravo, this is ground…”
A song close to heart, David Bowie’s Space Oddity, lyrics are:
“This is ground control to major Tom, you’ve really made the grade, And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear, Now it’s time to leave the capsule if you dare.”
At this stage of the brand, everything that was being delivered and presented to our customers was really coming solely from me and a very personal place. What I received in return was a feeling of being grounded.
From my loft to Science
In July, it became clear that this business was growing beyond my ability to manage it on my own. While we were receiving steady organic press, predictable consumer sales, and custom bulk corporate orders — it all became too large for me to handle on my own. I needed to get out of the day-to-day of order management, partner up with retailers, and expand my product line while being successful at my day job at Science. So in July, I brought this little side project into Science.
One of the first things we did at Science was a Kickstarter campaign. It was time to raise capital and launch a new product — the Cordlupa. Kickstarter allowed us to reach the early adopters, get feedback, and make improvement in real-time. After the 30 day campaign, we ended up doubling our goal with roughly $30k in pledges.
About 2 weeks after bringing it into Science and some specific help from Peter Pham, we were able to get a meeting with Apple.
Steps Along The Way
Taking a hobby into the real world seems simple on paper. But for me, designing something that wasn’t coded, loaded or involved usability on a screen was a little scary. From worrying that the Cord Taco wasn’t special enough to being able to ensure I was dedicating enough time to make the whole thing work — there were a lot of major challenges.
Overall, taking special care to keep my team involved was important to me. It kept enthusiasm up as well as helped me stay motivated. But really allowing the whole team — including the backers & customers to share in the company’s small triumphs and defeats along the way — was priceless and perhaps the key to our wins so far.
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