How do you talk to someone when neither of you speaks the same language? When you’re traveling in a country where you can’t communicate, what do you do when you need help? What do you do when words fail?
Georg and Florian, co-founders of Iconspeak, have experienced this exact language barrier in their travels. It’s what inspired them to launch their business and start their unexpected journey into ecommerce.
I talked with Georg about launching Iconspeak, going viral, marketing to a global audience, and top lessons learned. Read on if you want to learn advice from a business that got to where you want to be – it’ll leave you with motivation and a healthy dose of wanderlust!
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
In 2013, Georg and Florian were traveling through Southeast Asia. When they got to Vietnam, they decided to buy motorbikes and drive around the country.
Georg continues, “at some point, our bikes broke and we had to talk to locals about getting them fixed. In the backcountry of Vietnam we were left with just sign language and hand gestures because we had no common language with the local residents. So we started to draw icons on paper to communicate with locals and tell them what we needed to fix our motorbikes. And we realized that we needed those paper cards over and over again because we were having issues with our motorbikes on a daily basis. Then one funny evening involving the local drink travelers might know as a Mekong Bucket, we decided that the easiest way to have these icons with you wherever you are was to put them on a t-shirt.”
Although Florian and Georg didn’t realize it at the time, they had struck gold. They discovered a niche (travelers) with a need (an easy way to communicate when words failed). And while they discussed making an app, they decided “the low-tech aspect of a t-shirt is really nice and it makes it much more interactive. Because an app is only there when you take it out of your pocket, but a t-shirt is always there. Even people who aren’t wearing the shirt can interact with you by pointing at your icon so it’s more interactive and more fun to use.”
Florian and Georg discovered a need while traveling. And if they needed it, chances are other travelers did, too.
Their icon t-shirt idea was tabled while each went back to their studies and jobs. “Then Florian called me up in late 2015 and said, ‘Hey remember that t-shirt idea? Maybe we should just do it.’ And then we just did it. Through simple prototyping and icon testing, we managed to launch a product with little risk just to see how it would go. And of course, the success was way beyond our expectations.”
Georg and Florian launched their store on Shopify and set up in a friend’s garage in Bern, Switzerland (Georg laughs and swears they weren’t trying to be cliché working from a garage). They both started out wearing many different hats and doing everything at once to get things going.
They maintained a regular order flow with about one order per week, usually coming from supportive friends or family. “This is really how you start. You set up a store, you launch it, and basically nobody cares about you.” Their goal was to launch a good product and have fun with it, so they didn’t have a serious marketing plan or strategy at first. But then, “we had viral phenomenal growth that we could not anticipate and which you could not plan for.”
With persistence and a little bit of luck, Iconspeak became a viral phenomenon.
You never know when or if you’ll hit that viral wave, and it’s often something you can’t foresee. Georg started writing to some blogs and publications about Iconspeak, but they were rejected over 90% of the time. When they were rejected by Australian blog, Lost at E Minor, Georg revised his pitch and wrote them back with a few new photos, insisting they take another look. This persistence paid off – Lost at E Minor published their piece and that’s what set off their massive popularity. The piece was taken down in the meantime.
In the blink of an eye, Iconspeak went from one order per week to 6 or 7 orders per minute. They were flooded with questions and requests, and even gave an interview on CNN. Georg says “the viral wave was so big all we had to do was respond to media and customer inquiries for about 3-4 months. We had no time to be proactive and develop or execute any strategy. We were simply coping with the wave.”
Lesson learned. When it comes to pitching your business, “you don’t have to take every no as a definitive no.”
Once all the media attention settled down, Georg and Florian had more time to hone their marketing and message. They were clearly onto something, so how to think strategically and maintain momentum? Who is buying these shirts and how do they keep them engaged?
Iconspeak’s audience is largely made up of two groups: “One group is travelers who buy for themselves. They want to travel the world, usually not just for a week, but on longer trips. So it’s backpackers that go for a month or longer to classic backpacking destinations like Latin America or Southeast Asia. The second group is people who give it to these travelers as a present. This group is harder to identify – this can be grandparents, parents, friends, or anyone that knows a young adult that travels.”
These adventure-seekers are located all over the world – Iconspeak has sold products to customers in 80 countries. When they first launched, 60% of revenue came from the US, since it’s a huge market and they got tons of traffic from media attention there. But the numbers have evened out more, “the US is now less than 40% of revenue, and there are other countries that are quite significant for us such as France. French people seem to like us (and we like them a lot, too).”
When it comes to targeting their niche, they have to get creative. “There are so many companies using travel-related keywords for online advertising, so if you want to play that game, you have to invest a lot or you have to really target your keywords and your ads to a very specific, narrow segment of travelers, which is not easy.
“In the beginning, we started to differentiate advertising by country because that’s what many people advise you to do, but it didn’t work for us too well. If you look at traveler groups and travel-related pages on Facebook, they aren’t bound to one country. So we focused more on the type of interest that people have.”
Depending on your niche, targeting by country might not always be effective. Look at what else you can target, like interests.
“We’re experimenting a lot with Facebook Ads and Google Adwords. This is a long process of trying to get better at it. To be honest, we don’t think we’ve fully figured out the most effective strategy for those tools yet.”
Perfecting your Facebook Ads and Google Adwords strategy takes time. Keep experimenting with new audiences, copy, and creative.
Iconspeak has created a community of travelers behind their brand. Fans are eager to share photos of themselves wearing their Iconspeak shirt. This makes for inspiring social media content (seriously, check out their Instagram), and builds more social proof and trust for new customers.
Georg and Florian encourage engagement through photo contests and sponsoring events. “For certain time periods, we do contests where people have to take pictures with our shirts in front of some sites with the hashtag #Iconspeak. And then we look at all the pictures and reward the best with discounts and free products.”
Host contests and giveaways to get your audience involved with your brand.
They know which social media channels work for them and don’t spread themselves thin. “Instagram certainly is successful and is working well. So is Facebook because you can get more engagement. People share, comment, like much more on Facebook than on Instagram.”
Growth for Iconspeak was a whirlwind, and both Georg and Florian are also successful in their other projects. But growth hasn’t always been easy. Their biggest obstacle has been dealing with knockoff Iconspeak products.
“There are many, many platforms where you can find fake products of ours. We try to get those products down, but the way you as a small company are treated by Amazon and others is sometimes a negative experience because you have to talk to bots and fill out forms before you get to talk to a human. So it’s a large effort if you want to fight fake products.”
Iconspeak is an internationally registered trademark and their designs are also registered, so it gives them the ground to fight against counterfeits. Registering took a long time while paperwork got processed, but for them it’s been worth it.
“If you launch a new brand, I recommend to actually register it. Because at the end of the day, if you’re an ecommerce business, a brand is all you have. You don’t usually have many processes or intellectual property that you can sell, so your whole company value is tied to your brand.”
Your company value is tied to your brand, so protect it.
If you’re thinking of launching your own business, Georg’s main piece of advice is this:
“Reduce the risk in your business (through prototyping and testing) to an amount where you basically don’t have risk anymore. If you have no risk, you should just do it and don’t worry about the upside. Because the downside is covered since there’s no risk. The upside can be as positive as it was with Iconspeak, or it can be none at all, but why would you care if you have no risk?”
This is where Printful can help. Since everything is printed on-demand as orders come in, you don’t have to invest in inventory upfront, which helps minimize risk.
Following its viral success, Iconspeak has become a global brand, with a remote team, more structure, and big goals.
Florian and Georg have more defined roles in the company, with Florian taking care of marketing and Georg handling business development. They also brought on a new member to the team – Justine – to handle customer service and related tasks. The three of them work remotely from different locations, with Georg in Munich, and Florian and Justine in Switzerland. They don’t have a space where they’re all together, so they rely on tools like Skype, Slack, and Trello to communicate with each other and manage projects with freelancers.
Georg and Florian also try to meet in person every now and then to figure out their strategy and what’s next for their business in the long term. Since they’re both working on developing other startups, they try to make their meetings about Iconspeak intense and efficient.
“It’s like when you rip apart a pillow and you suddenly have so many feathers flying around, this is how it looks when we brainstorm. The number of ideas is probably equivalent to the number of feathers in a pillow. Then we try to figure out which ideas are actually going to work and have an impact on our brand. You wouldn’t see any structure in this, but Florian and I did our Bachelor studies together and we have a long history, so we know each other well and we can brainstorm effectively even though it’s complete chaos.”
When it comes to goals for the future, the Iconspeak team has high ambitions. “We have several B2B relationships and we are selling corporate, customized designs. We also sell our products to retail stores. This retail branch is still underdeveloped and we want to push that further because we see that there’s a lot of potential and a lot of small, cool shops that are a perfect fit for our brand.”
Florian and Georg’s adventurous spirit clearly translates into ecommerce. They’re going to keep growing Iconspeak and exploring uncharted territory. Bon voyage!
Nora has been part of the Printful team since 2015. She has spent the last several years writing content, coordinating communications projects, and helping customers learn about ecommerce. Now as Printful's Brand Manager, she gets to use her experience and knowledge in new and challenging ways.
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