By 2017, nine years after launching his t-shirt company, Ugmonk, Jeff Sheldon had expanded into posters and workspace products. Gather, Ugmonk’s modular desk organizer, had just completed a successful Kickstarter campaign with two shipping containers of custom manufactured organizers en route, to send to customers.
“There’s no way my parents were going to let two shipping containers show up at their front door,” Sheldon told me. “So I used a 3PL. It was a very bad experience. We ran into every problem imaginable.”
Fast forward to 2020 and Ugmonk has its own warehouse and fulfillment center, where it ships beautiful apparel and productivity items.
I spoke recently with Sheldon about the company, his passion for design and productivity, and, yes, the decision to fulfill in-house. What follows is the entire audio recording of our conversation and a transcript, which is edited for clarity and length.
Eric Bandholz: You’ve always fulfilled your own products.
Jeff Sheldon: Pretty much, except for a brief interruption in 2017. We’ve done all fulfillment in-house for the past 12 years, from my original apartment to my parents’ basement, which later became the Ugmonk warehouse. And now we’re moving into a real warehouse, which is pretty cool.
Bandholz: Tell us about your background.
Sheldon: I started Ugmonk in 2008 right out of college. It was a side project of designing t-shirts to keep my brain and hands busy. I didn’t see myself as an entrepreneur. That came later. After making the shirts, I needed a way to sell them. So the side project of designing a few t-shirts and trying to sell them slowly moved beyond a few employees and t-shirts into what I’m doing today.
I started by borrowing around $2,000 from my dad to buy my first 200 shirts. Thankfully he took a risk on me. I was able to pay him back pretty quickly. This was way before social media and ecommerce as we know it today. I wasn’t sure if anyone would buy what I made. But slowly the customers came. I put all the money back into inventory. I’ve bootstrapped it since then.
I entered contests like Threadless and Design By Humans, which sort of a Threadless clone. That’s where I started to see success, and that’s what really got me into designing t-shirts. I knew I wanted to design things. I’ve always done art since I was a kid — making and creating things. But winning one of those contests was one of the first times where I saw that what other people would buy. I got addicted to seeing other people buy my creations.
Bandholz: Do those companies pay a commission, or was it a one-time fee?
Sheldon: They’ve changed structure over the years. I don’t know what it is now. It was a one-time fee — $400 or $500 — when I won as a college student in 2007. I was stoked — $500 for designing a t-shirt. It seemed like I had made it. But then I quickly realized those companies were selling thousands of that one shirt and all I had was $500. It didn’t make a lot of sense long-term.
Bandholz: Twelve years ago Shopify didn’t exist. How were you selling the products?
Sheldon: Our website used ecommerce software called Big Cartel. I think they’re still around. And then my brother, who is a software developer, partnered with me and coded and customized it.
Bandholz: How did you drive people to the site?
Sheldon: Looking back, it’s weird. How did anybody find me? There were fewer ways to get the word out. I used t-shirt forums and design blogs. Then a lot of the people saw me on contest sites. I was frequently able to obtain their email or contact information. Or I’d leave a comment in the section there on my profile, such as “Started my own brand” or “My own thing over here.” And people could find me. And, again, there were t-shirt blogs, design blogs, typography blogs that would mention me. The internet was different then.
Bandholz: How long were you solely a t-shirt company?
Sheldon: For the first couple of years. We then moved into screen-printed posters with the same designs, and then into leather goods, and then into hard goods and workspace products. Then, in 2017, I launched the Kickstarter campaign for Gather, which is a modular desk organizer. It went bonkers on Kickstarter and set us into this fast-paced growth. It was and is a very successful product. It led me to where I am today, getting this warehouse here in Pennsylvania.
Bandholz: Why fulfill in-house when there are so many third-party fulfillment companies?
Sheldon: It’s a multi-faceted answer. Keeping it in-house allowed us to touch on the quality control that many of our products require. As we’ve moved from screen-printed t-shirts into natural materials like leather and wood, the products have variances and differences in terms of warehousing, fulfillment, and shipping. It’s difficult to troubleshoot through a 3PL. It becomes hard to control if we’re never seeing what’s happening.
In an ideal world, those things are manufactured 100-percent perfect. They would go to the 3PL, and we would never touch them. I moved in that direction when we launched Gather in 2017. There was no way my parents were going to let two shipping containers show up at their front door. So I used a 3PL. We had a very bad experience. We ran into every problem imaginable — wrong orders, picking problems, delays, incorrect shipping rates, overcharging us, things like that. It soured the whole experience for us. We had never run into any of those problems previously, in nine years.
It got us thinking. How do we operate? How do we manufacture? What do we want Ugmonk to become? How big of a business? What parts do I enjoy? We’ve come full circle and realized that we want a physical space to become more of a boutique, lifestyle brand — similar to a design studio — where we can work directly with the manufacturers and control everything from the time we receive it to when it gets shipped to the customers.
Bandholz: How are you building out your fulfillment center?
Sheldon: We’re looking now at warehouse management systems. We still use ShipStation to print labels and for inventory management. But we want to get to a point where things are more automated so that we’re not doing it by feel or memory because we know where products are. And we have so many SKUs right now that we need a better system in place just to control that inventory.
Bandholz: At Beardbrand, we’ve had our issues working with a 3PL. The communication, the expectations. Doing it in-house likely creates a lot more efficiencies.
Sheldon: The scalability is something that doesn’t work in-house. If I go from 100 orders a day to 1,000, there’s no way of doing that other than hiring more people. But then we run out of space. And there may be ceilings where we can’t keep up with demand. But those efficiencies can be made up by systems and processes.
And we’re not trying to acquire customers really fast, which seems backward from a lot of businesses. But I enjoy our growth pace and how that attracts quality customers. And the customers that we’re bringing in — whether it’s word of mouth or just seeing an Instagram post — they stick with us for life. And I like this idea of building an old-world business in the digital age. Like a mom and pop — such as the local bakery or the cobbler, where people trust and go back to over and over and over — but in a modern way.
Bandholz: That approach has to be good for your bottom line.
Sheldon: Yes, it is.
Bandholz: Let’s talk about Analog, your new product on Kickstarter.
Sheldon: The Kickstarter campaign is over. That means the hard work gets started now of fulfilling the Kickstarter orders. So we’re in the manufacturing stage now.
Bandholz: You’ve sold about 5,500 units. They’re beautiful.
Sheldon: Analog is a simple, tangible productivity system that is based on 3-inch by 5-inch cards. It divides tasks into three categories: today, next, and someday, which is similar to a getting-things-done system. A lot of people are using this method through digital apps or just on paper. But I wanted to create a beautifully designed, self-contained system with these cards, the wood holder, a place to store the cards, and an overall system of how I get work done.
Analog is a culmination of all the things that I love about running Ugmonk and design and productivity as well as form plus function. Why I started it was because every time I open my phone, I check my to-do list or my calendar. But I get distracted by those red badges or notifications. And before I know it, I’m staring at my phone, thinking, “What was I going to go look at?” The same thing occurs with a browser tab. I can look at Asana and then as soon as I switch away from it, I’m distracted.
The Analog card sits in front of me in a wood holder. It stares at me all day and says, seemingly, “Jeff, this is what you need to be doing. These are the few things you need to do to move the ball forward.” Even before it was a product, I used regular index cards, which helped me work on the right things.
So Analog has a single purpose. It sits on a desk and is designed with bullet points to fill out for each completed task.
Bandholz: It’s exciting. You’re going to become a productivity company, in addition to your other products.
Sheldon: Yes. I love this direction because it hits on what I am passionate about and enjoy. It applies design to the productivity industry — workspace products, monitor stands, organizers — carving out a niche with taste and minimalistic sensibilities.
Bandholz: You have a beautiful website with stunning photography. Your company is a benchmark for how to create great products and communicate with an audience. Where can our listeners learn more about you? How can they buy?