12 months ago I left the rough grind of working in New York City restaurants to stay with my family in Connecticut. I was exhausted, drained by the intense work of staying up late every night for a minimum wage pay. I had recently dropped out of college (to my parents' dismay) and was trying to justify my decision by taking up as much work as I could. For some reason, I chose to remain in NYC. A few months in I lost steam, burned out, and with a twinge of shame asked my parents if I could live with them for a bit. I had no plan, and the future seemed bleak.
Today, roughly a year later, I write these words from a bungalow on the shores of an island in Thailand called Koh Phangan.
It is possibly the most chill place on the planet. As I listen to the waves crashing on the beach and feel the incessant wind blowing against my face I sit back in awe at the wild, raw beauty of this tropical paradise. Back home in the US my mom, dad and brothers were chilling their pants off. “How on earth did I get here?” I mused. Here's my story.
This is my boss.
Or ex-boss I should say. His name is Dante, and he is a badass. He makes some of the best pizza I have ever eaten. I am very grateful to this day that he & his wife hired me back in early 2017 while I roomed in my parents’ basement, recovering from the city burnout. I would work in this pizzeria for the rest of 2017, and the calm routine of small town work was very welcome following the big city grind.
Rewind back to late 2016. It was October or November, and I was digging around the internet, trying - like so many of us do at some point - to discover how to make money online. I was getting tired of my inconsequential, minimum wage jobs and was seeking alternative sources to my income. I slowly but surely, as the days went by, became driven by this mission: I will make money online. I saw countless examples of people working remotely, on their own terms and on their own time, detached from the 9-5 cycle most of us are stuck in. But frankly, I had no idea what I was doing.
During this experimental period I tried a lot of things for the first time: affiliate websites promoting cold shower therapy, ecommerce stores dropshipping cat iPhone covers (sigh),
ranking my client-consulting marketing agency website using search engine optimization (no point to this as I was too scared to take on real clients), email list building & funnel creation, growing a YouTube channel - the list goes on. In this mad hunt to make money online, starting so much and persisting with so few, I stumbled on a platform called Merch by Amazon. It was a print-on-demand division of Amazon that could put your design on a t-shirt, host it on www.amazon.com and distribute a royalty to you if that shirt sold. I was intrigued, and signed up. I received a message something along these lines:
Nice! I hoped to get started over the next few days. Little did I know the current waiting period was anywhere between 3-8 months. I slowly, but surely, forgot about it.
Fast forward to early 2017. I had given up on my internet-money dreams and had begun restaurant work in the big ol’ apple of New York City. It was at this point that I burned out and went to live with my fam. Shortly after, I was hired by Dante to work at his pizzeria in town while I gathered my thoughts and tried to get a sense of my future. I was working this new pizza job for a few weeks or months (I lose track of time) when one day I receive an email.
Sweet Mama! I had been approved for the Merch program. I scratched my head. It was almost 6 months since I applied, and I had completely forgotten about this platform. At first, I was not sure what to think of the email. So I did some googling. I gradually began to find particular resources (namely, a blog & a podcast) that validated the platform and made the impossible dream of making money online somehow become more real.
Over the next few days, I had downloaded and listened to Elaine Heney’s Merch Entrepreneur podcast & began reading Neil Lassen’s Merch Informer blog, and was consumed by a surge of motivation. Here were two legends in the MBA (Merch by Amazon) space, making over 5 figures a month, sharing what they knew freely. This was possible. I could make this work. I had nothing else going on in my life. I was working long, lazy hours at the pizzeria every day and had money to spend as I lived at home with my parents at no expense (thanks mom & dad!) I thought, let’s give this a real shot. And suddenly out of the swirl of my vague and hazy future, emerged a crystal clear vision. I would figure out how to succeed with this program, and I would not quit my pizza job until I tasted success. And so it was, in April of 2017, that I became a new man rebuilt with purpose. After work every day I would study Neil’s blog & listen to Elaine’s podcast and become completely immersed in the culture of Merch by Amazon.
Let me give you an idea of how the program works.
New members are given 10 slots they can upload designs to and have that t-shirt hosted on www.amazon.com. This is the first tier. We call it Tier 10 as that is how many designs we are allowed to have up.
Once you make 10 sales overall, you get magically and unpredictably bumped up to the next level, Tier 25. You now get 2.5x as many slots as you did before, and your odds of making a sale organically, that is, from a passerby on Amazon, increase.
Once you make 25 sales overall, you get bumped to the next level, Tier 100. You now have 4x the available slots as you did before, and theoretically 4x the chance of getting organic sales.
The next level is Tier 500, then Tier 1000, then Tier 2000, then 4000, 6000, 8000, 10000, etc. And so on so forth. I know, these are lots of numbers. Here is cute picture of my dog to keep the focus.
Ok, so back to where I was. I had 10 slots, disposable income, and a few hours each day before and after my pizza job to make this work. I got introduced to the idea of “buying your way out” of the first couple tiers. Essentially you create designs you like and buy them for yourself, friends or family in order to gather the necessary sales to get upgraded to the next tier. The big players (Elaine & Neil) all agreed how small your chances were to make sales with 10 or 25 designs up, so it was critical to get to Tier 100 and beyond. And that is what I did. I priced my shirts at the minimum possible price allowed on the platform ($11.53, which is what Amazon took home) and over the course of a month bought 25 of my shirts. This cost me somewhere between $200-$300, but I considered it a business expense, and I had pizza money to spare.
Weeks went by and there was no movement on my account. Not one sale. I had maxed out my 10 slots, and was unable to upload any more designs - I was not sure what to do. All sales up to that point were purely my own. And it was during these times of uncertainty that one day, a magical thing happened. I got tiered up to Tier 25. Euphoria! And the next day, I got tiered up again to Tier 100, as my account was eligible for this with 25 sales. This was huge. It is hard to describe the ecstasy of the moment. My dreams were slowly becoming reality. I went to work that day with a big stupid grin on my face and a spring in my step.
Now that I had 100 slots to fill up, I proceeded to the next challenge: outsourcing designs. Up to that point, I never had to hire a person in my life and was extremely nervous about it. Today, it is very natural and comfortable to do. I guess growth pains are a critical part in anyone’s journey in making money online. I followed a guide on the Neil’s Merch Informer blog about the process, which used Upwork.com, and the next day I had hired a Ukrainian designer called Dima. We agreed on $5 per design. I would give him references as inspiration and he would submit an original illustration. Phew! The first few weeks were stressful. We had a communication gap, and there was a lot of handholding in the process. Certainly not the automation I had hoped outsourcing would afford my budding business.
That said, over the next few weeks, my very first organic sale came from one of Dima’s designs. It was another ecstatic experience. I logged into my account and saw a single number - 1. I blinked. Then I ran to my mom and asked if she secretly had one of her friends buy the shirt. She said no. Glory of the Lord! This was huge. I had been plodding away for months now with no results, blindly trusting the methods & process provided by Elaine Heney & Neil Lassen. And it was in this fine month of July, 2-3 months after I started this journey, that I began to get my first organic sales.
Briefly back to the present in Thailand. I pause writing for a moment and step outside. It has started to rain thunderously and the ocean has begun to crash furiously, relentlessly & majestically against the shore. I taste the wet spray of the wind on my face, nestle my feet into the soaked sand and take a deep, warm breath. Incredible. Okay, back to the story.
It’s important to note that in the first few months of starting Merch by Amazon I was painfully riddled with doubt and anxiety. Here I was spending all my time on this venture with no success to show. Moreover, my father had already experienced my former internet-money attempts, which had not worked out. He was skeptical. I have two brothers, one at the time was in high school (which means nothing much else mattered to him then) and the other had recently graduated college. The latter, who I talked with more frequently, was not convinced by my daily toils. I poured my heart out every day struggling to internalize the methods & formula for success that Neil and Elaine preached, and told him about my challenges, to which he would (understandably) scoff and walk away uninterested. There was nothing to show for my efforts, so I understand. My mom, on the other hand, was an ocean of support. Even though she barely understood the program, she would give me hi-fives of joy every time I shared any small glimmer of progress. Thank you, mom! Anyway, my dad eventually came around. So did my brother. He actually started uploading shirts too!
The month of August was a big game changer for me. I started working with a VA (virtual assistant) to automate some of the research & design work. This was a steep learning curve but luckily I got a very high-level assistant (a biology major from the Philippines) to work for me at the incredibly competitive wage of $3/hour. I would wake up at 7.30am EST, when it was 7.30pm in the Philippines, to work with her for a couple hours. At this point, I had to go to work. My pizza shift would be 9 to 11.5 hours. Then I would return home, upload some more shirts, pass out, and repeat the process. It was quite draining, but the progress achieved in August was intense. I actually bumped up to Tier 500 during this period!
The August Growth Phrase
Week 1: Averaging around 4-5 sales per day
Week 2: Averaging around 7-8 sales per day
Week 3: Averaging around 9 sales per day
Week 4: Averaging around 14-15 sales per day & Tier Up
At this point, I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Q4, the biggest quarter of the year for retail sales, was on the horizon, and my goal was to replace my Pizza Cash™ with Merch Money™ by that time. In September, the first Merch by Amazon conference ever was put on and I impulsively bought a ticket. Based in Seattle, it went on to have the head of the Merch program do a presentation, along with the one and only Neil Lassen (although in fact Neil had to cancel which was a bummer as I pretty much flew across the US just for him). Love ya Neil (no homo) ❤️
I actually credit Neil for a lot of my success as he began to do a case study with his girlfriend. He grew her account from scratch to a healthy income in just months. Following his transparent process made Merch Money™ feel possible.
At this point, things were picking up and milestones were being reached.
Mid-October I had my first $100 profit day.
I started to work less hours at the pizzeria & spend more time on Merch. At this stage I was trying to fill as many slots as possible before December, when all hell was said to break loose. One could expect 5x normal earnings in that period. Additionally, the rumor of a freeze was being preached in the Facebook groups. The year prior the Merch program froze submissions & uploads during December when demand far exceeded their capacity. It turned out this year would be no different. But we could not know at the time.
Late November things get even more intense. At this point I have completely scaled down my pizzeria shifts. I am maybe pulling 6 hours a week total. Shirts are taking all of my time as I work with designers & researchers to fill up my slots. Also, I’m preparing for Black Friday. This is a huge day of shopping in the US. Being originally from Europe I did not realize the magnitude of scale in which buyers across America proceed to buy tons of shi-... I mean useful items on this day. It was crazy. I made over 900$ profit in one day. Absolute bananas. But hold up. The shitstorm did not stop. My boss Dante would playfully joke about my shirts here and there, and as I went into work riding the laurels of my Black Friday glory he asked if I was ready for Cyber Monday.
- “I honestly totally forgot about it,” I replied. “Is it big here?”
- “Dude, yes. It is huge. Literally everyone is online for it. That’s where your shirts are, isn’t it?”
Fast forward to Cyber Monday. I make over $1300 in profit. I’m reeling. Amazon holds a Cyber Monday promotion for a week after that, and the sales continue to come in.
At this point, I am truly, truly stunned. And suddenly flush with cash. I finished November over $10,000 in profit. As December approached I didn't know how it could exceed the madness of Cyber Monday, but it indeed continued to go bananas. In the first week of December I make over $9000. On one day alone I pull in $1700 profit. This is madness!
Week 1 of December: Shaping Up To Be Epic
But then, the freeze came. We were shut out of uploading and could only sit back and watch sales. No more edits. It was at this stage that the throttling began. What is throttling? Well, the Merch by Amazon program simply did not have the capacity to print all the shirts customers wanted. They were after all a small program, only 2 years old, growing 96x in capacity since launch. Customers were thirsting madly for Christmas gifts that MBA could simply not fulfill. So they hid our shirts from their website. Rather than have unhappy customers, Merch made our shirts unfindable. They literally could not be found on www.amazon.com. And it was then, around December 13th, that the glorious tap of Q4 money turned off. And shortly after that, I barely made two-digit sales daily, down from 300-400 just a few days prior. That being said, I was on track for a $30,000 month and had pulled in just over $13,000 before the throttling had fully kicked in.
It is a week before Christmas, and I buy a ticket to Thailand for mid-Jan. I tell my boss at work about this. He smiles and accepts my decision, only if I learn how to cook pad thai upon arrival. I solemnly agree to his terms. After a month of happy family times, eating great food & enjoying the winter chill, I board a flight headed across the world. The trip from NYC to Thailand will span 2 days. That is a long one! This is because I got an epicly cheap flight at $450 round trip. I think we all agree that is a very reasonable amount and the U.S.A should chill out with their flight prices. Anyway, two weeks later here I am writing this post.
I was introduced to Steemit by a friend called Colin (https://steemit.com/@keephy) who encouraged me to write about my story. We are both in a Merch Mastermind Slack Group filled with awesome people trying to make Merch work for them. I am truly grateful for 2017. Working those late, slow hours at the pizzeria, growing a t-shirt business on the side, the Q4 madness, and now tapping away at my keyboard on the coast of a tropical island. The smell of palm trees, the warm salty wind and the swaying, crashing waves dance together with beautiful synergy. I am really grateful to be here.
P.S Two weeks ago, mid-January of 2018, Merch by Amazon changed the royalty structure and our profits took a 35% hit, permanently. They are expanding at an alarming rate and need to cover costs. I completely understand. My store currently makes a steady $100/day in profit, great for living in the cheap, gorgeous lands of South-East Asia. Not as great for NYC life (sweet lord those prices) but still, no complaints coming from me! I learned during the Q4 rush of 2017 that Amazon can turn the tap off at any time. The game is being played in their playground. I'm beginning to crave more security and control around my online income. And so, sadly, I am gradually shifting away from Merch by Amazon for now, and moving into the Shopify/eCommerce world. I must admit, I grew very close to the Merch community; most of 2017 was consumed by that project. As such, I feel a bit empty putting it to the side. But I believe my future for now lies with Shopify, and I am working hard here in Thailand to make it work (10+ hours/day, if you can believe). Surprisingly the heavenly setting of white sand, blue water and misty islands in the distance is far from distracting. I am incredibly focused and productive, I think because no one calls my phone asking me to grab a quick drink. It’s just me, the sand and the sea.
If you got this far, I applaud you! That is quite a read, and I am grateful you took the time out of your life to read this post. Time is the one abundant and paradoxically non-renewable resource we have and I am trying to treasure every day of it.
If you are curious about the Merch by Amazon program, here is the link: merch.amazon.com
The opportunity is still very much alive, however I realize I put in a good 6 months of dedicated work to get these results. So this outcome is, shall we say, atypical.
If you have any questions about it, hit me up. I’m currently at the Tier 2000, though in terms of sales eligible for the Tier 10000 now, if you can believe it.
Here is a final picture of where I’m at (it is so epic it looks fake!) 🌴 I wish you all the best in your journey, and look forward to meeting you in the future!