Tell us the story of Awesome Merchandise - how did it begin?
Way back in 2005, I decided I didn’t want a real job to help pay my way through university. So I went on eBay and bought a handheld badge machine (and some badge pieces) for £350.
I didn’t have a clue how to make badges but I built a website and posted on a music message forum and got my first couple of orders from bands. I spent the next two years knocking out half a million badges from my student housing and running to the post office at 5pm each day. Things kind of escalated from there and I ended up having to quit uni, find premises and staff etc. and from there, Awesome Merch was born. We started adding products and getting a little more serious. I didn’t really intend to build a ‘proper’ business when we started but I’m really thankful that we live in a time where a little idea can become something way bigger and change the course of your life.
Do you think that there is an advantage to learning as you go along?
Totally. If you think about anything, whether it’s learning an instrument, getting good at a sport, becoming knowledgeable around a subject or being an expert in a certain job, there is a process of learning and improving as you go along. This is true with starting a business. There are so many stages from starting to scaling a business that mean you are constantly learning as you go along. I’ve probably learnt as much in the last year as I have in the previous 13 years of running Awesome Merch. I think this openness to learning and improving is what makes life interesting and is a necessary ingredient for being ‘successful’ in whatever it is you are doing.
We met at SXSW in Austin where your newest factory is. What was it about this particular city that drew you to opening up the second location for Awesome there?
In 2011 I visited Austin and SXSW for the first time. It changed my life in many ways. When we started in my bedroom, building an online business and utilising social media wasn’t really that much of a thing. It was kind of confusing. We had a website selling badges and stickers to people. Is that a business? So when I first came to Austin and SXSW it kind of clicked for me; what Awesome was and what it could be. Seeing people talk about how they created Tumblr or took a family wine business from $3 million revenue to $60 million was super inspiring As well as being a fun place to be, Austin is a hub of creativity, music and independent business, as well as having a tonne of interesting things going on all the time. It has some parallels with Leeds, where our UK operation is based; it’s pretty central which is good for shipping orders out, and it’s also extremely sunny, so it really ticked a lot of boxes for us when we were choosing where to be located in the US.
You sponsored a number of different showcases at SXSW including Big Scary Monsters x Polyvinyl, The British Music Embassy, and Topshelf Records, and also held a live screen printing workshop at the Flatstock Gig Poster Exhibition. Beyond the fact that bands always need t-shirts, posters and badges, what’s the relationship between music and Awesome Merch, and why is that the case?
Awesome was really born out of the UK punk scene. When I was 16, I was in a band that played a lot of shows in Birmingham and Wolverhampton and so the initial idea in starting Awesome was to make badges for bands and people I knew. The first couple of years, we were largely just focusing on making stuff for bands as we advertised in places like Punktastic, Myspace, NME and Rocksound. This early focus and customer base has been really important to the company and has developed over the years as we’ve added products that are music specific. A lot of our team have played in bands, promoted shows and club nights etc. so music, along with art and other creative areas, are what really interest and inspire us.
What albums got you through that first 80,000 badge order?
It was way back in 2007 so I’ve had to rack my brains to figure this out. I was listening to a lot of Oh! Calcutta by the Lawrence Arms, New Wave by Against Me! and Career Suicide by A Wilhelm Scream back then. The last title is pretty apt as I had to ring my mum and tell her I’d quit university for the second time in two years to make badges… I’d gone to uni to become a lawyer so it was an interesting conversation!
It’s evident that Awesome Merch was born out of a real DIY operation so how do you stay in touch with your DIY roots and humble beginnings? And do you think it’s important for other businesses to do the same?
This is something that is really important for us as a business but also to me personally. We try and make sure that we tell our story so that new customers and people coming into the company understand our background. Our operation now is becoming more professional because it needs to, but I think our approach to most things reflects our DIY beginnings and helps us stand out and do things differently to others in our space. We are also really lucky in that a lot of our clients and staff have other projects that are either DIY or in their early stages so we try and respect this in everything we do. In terms of other businesses doing the same, I think it really depends on the business and what they are setting out to do. For me I want my business to be authentic, personable and transparent whilst meeting the needs of our customers. I think authenticity and being customer focused are the key ingredients for any business that wants to be around for a long time. For me I don’t want to run a faceless corporation as it would bore me. So we set out to be interesting, different and hopefully keep everything as fun as possible.
I love the content on the Awesome Merch blog and the platform it gives to clients, artists and staff alike through interviews, visits, features, etc. With that in mind, what does community mean to Awesome Merch? What role does promoting other independent designers, bands and businesses on your social pages play in that?
Community means everything to us at Awesome Merch. We’ll be eternally grateful to our customers and community for helping us grow through all the word-of-mouth recommendations we get. It’s not only a really powerful catalyst for growth, it makes life and work way more interesting. One of my favorite things in my life is when I meet someone that used us back in the early days and I get to talk to them about it and what they were up to then. It’s almost always something fun and creative and we got to play a small part in bringing their art or name to life. In essence, we sell products that could potentially be considered commodities. We work to group and launch new products that will hopefully be useful to certain communities. It could be business, bands or artists but we try and consider this in our product launches, marketing and the events we support. Promoting designers, bands and business across our socials has been key for us on social, but because of where we come from it’s really natural for us. It helps to not only showcase the products that we make in our factories but it helps to inspire others as well as strengthening the idea of community.
Tell us about the Travelling Canvas collaborations - I love the bag I picked up in Texas and I think it’s such a cool idea!
Thank you! So basically we decided that it would be a fun idea to commission 12 artists and do a series of unique prints onto a tote bag. Because a bag is such a usable product and people tend to take them a lot of places we decided doing an art series on canvas bags would be a unique creative project. Over the last year or so we’ve printed 30,000 bags and given them away to our customers for free with orders. If someone goes to the supermarket or shops on the tube we figured that each bag would be seen by a whole bunch of people. We can’t work out exactly how many impressions these art pieces will have had but because of the scale of the project and the fact they are so visible we believe that we will have had several million pairs of eyes see the bags and art. It’s been really cool; we got to collaborate with 12 great artists and people have tagged us in pictures from all across the world. We are planning to do a little exhibition later this year to show all of the bags together and celebrate the project.
It’s a toughie … but what has been your favourite collaboration/design that you’ve worked on?
I’d have to say The Travelling Canvas has been my favourite. It was just cool for us to come up with an idea that was pretty ambitious and then get some really big and varied names to contribute. We were lucky to work with Draplin, Rebecca Vincent, Mike Perry and a bunch of other very talented people.
What three things have you learnt in the years running Awesome Merch that you think are most important?
If you want something don’t give up. There is a misconception with today's startup and Instagram culture that you can go from zero to a hundred in a very short amount of time. For most people or companies this is a complete falsehood. A lot of people that come across Awesome think that it’s a fast growing start up. The reality is that it took us 14 years to get to the point where we feel like we are beginning. So for me it’s about enjoying the journey and making incremental improvements. I think this holds true for almost anything, whether it’s a business or a creative endeavour.
It’s boring, but get an understanding around your finances and stay on top of them. This is difficult for many small businesses that have a lot on their plates. I’ve learnt the hard way a bunch of times that you need your back office process and finances in good shape if you want to be able to focus on the more creative and fun elements of what you are doing.
Don’t settle for good enough. Naturally there have been times where we’ve plateaued and gone through periods where we have not been leaning into creativity or making improvements. For me, at least, a plateau goes hand-in-hand with not being focused on pushing or challenging our limits, assumptions or creativity. I am not a perfectionist by any stretch of the imagination but looking at things and trying to figure out how they could work better or be more interesting has really helped both myself and Awesome to improve over the years.
Awesome Merchandise US is now up and running, so what’s next?
We are really excited to be up and running! It was an epic journey to just open the doors to the factory in Austin and launch our website. The road for Awesome in the US looks like it is going to be pretty long and arduous. So to answer the question, getting the US to a level that is somewhere close to the UK is going to be our main focus for probably the next three years or so. We’ve got a great team in the UK that will be working on launching hundreds of new products and this year we are doing a tonne of exciting events and festivals which we are excited about.
We are constantly coming up with a bunch of ideas and schemes so maybe some of those will bubble up and see the light of day, but time will tell! Hopefully Awesome continues to grow and that’ll likely consume most of our focus.
Visit the Awesome Merchandise website here, or follow them over on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.
Luke Hodson was talking to Sophie Porter.
Sophie Porter is a musician and artist based in Norwich, UK, and writes, interviews and publishes for Gorilla.