It is normally our tradition on Wednesdays to share five fun links from around the web and other assorted witticisms intended to provide an entertaining boost to help power you through until the weekend. That will resume next week, but this week I actually just have one thing I really want you to check out, and it's our recent guest appearance on a new episode of the Conversations With People Who Hate Me podcast
Heads up: the rest of this is pretty long — approximately one 'Purple Rain' or 'Stairway to Heaven,' depending on how much you like to savor the act of reading — so if you're short on time, just click the link above for now and, uh, "circle back" to this at a more convenient time. Doom scrolling about War & Pestilence will still be there for you, promise. (Worst buddy comedy ever? They should subtitle it "The Two Horsemen of the Half-pocalypse.")
You might be wondering "What the heck is a conversation with someone who hates you?" It's kinda what it sounds like.
I stumbled upon Dylan Marron's podcast a couple years ago. It's truly one of my all-time favorite things, and Dylan is one of my favorite creators. Dylan started his podcast when he found himself collecting mean comments from strangers on his YouTube channel. He wanted to talk to these people and try to understand them as humans and what their motivations were for saying such nasty things online about a person they'd never actually met. His show has since evolved to facilitate conversations between mean internet commenters and the people on the receiving end of those mean comments.
If you've been following Boredwalk for a while, you probably know we are a constant target of mean internet comments. They frustrate the hell out of us, and being a guest on Dylan's podcast gave us the opportunity to try to understand one of them.
One of the things that comes up on the podcast is Boredwalk's pricing. This is something we get criticized for often in the comments on our social media ads — you know, that hotbed of nuance and decorum. I know we are not the cheapest brand on the internet, but I don't think most people understand why.
Some of it has to do with the experience we want to create for the people within our company. Every employee at our company gets about 20 days of paid time off per year, plus 7-8 paid holidays annually (Election Day is a paid holiday at Boredwalk, but that only occurs every two years), health care benefits, 401K with matching, and our starting wages are $17+/hour.
Could we get away with doing the bare minimum for our team and shave a little off our pricing? Sure. We don't want to do that, though. We want to do a good job for the people at Boredwalk that print your tees & hoodies, pack and ship your orders, and answer your customer service inquiries. I wish we could do even more. Unfortunately, though, there are months Boredwalk barely breaks even. There are also months Boredwalk loses a stomach-turning amount of money (January and February have been back-to-back examples of this, actually). If we were consistently swimming in Scrooge McDuck amounts of cash we would do even more for our team, and there are plenty of days that I beat myself up about not being able to do more.
The other reason we are not the cheapest has to do with the experience we want to create for our customers. Boredwalk co-founder Matt and I are perfectionists. If an order goes out wrong it drives us crazy. We want every one of our customers to get their order in a timely fashion, and we want them to be thrilled with their purchase.
Because of this job I end up talking to a lot of other people who run e-commerce businesses. Very few of them are as neurotic as Matt and I are about quality control. Only members of our team know the behind the scenes work that goes into making sure your orders are as close to flawless as possible.
We inspect and measure every bag, kitchen towel, and shirt that comes into our building because about 5% (or more) of them arrive defective (holes, wrong measurements, stains, sewing defects, etc.)
We open and inspect every book that comes into our building because a minimum of 5% of our Grievance Journals come from our US manufacturer* with serious manufacturing mistakes. Putting hours on these tasks is expensive, but we do it because we care about what Boredwalk ships out the door to you.
*Note that I am telling you our books are printed in the US because I can already imagine the email I will get from someone — not you, of course — telling me the books are defective because they are being made by underpaid overseas factory workers and telling me I deserve this problem. They will send this email from a device made by underpaid overseas factory workers because they are immune to irony and self-assessment.
We offer free exchanges because we want you to have a great shopping experience. That doesn't mean they are free for us; it means we pay for them. Those shipments are expensive for us. We offer the option to order off-menu shirt styles that we don't normally carry because we want everyone to have the best art on the best shirt for them. That stuff all has a cost to it.
Disappointing customers causes us a HUGE amount of anxiety. I am beyond thankful to have a customer service team who keeps me away from the Boredwalk inbox because I know how hard everyone at Boredwalk works to create a great customer experience, and I hate when people are unreasonable jerks in our inbox.
In fairness, 99% of the folks who drop us a line every now and then to inform us that despite our best efforts as an organization we did make a mistake and failed to catch a product defect before it went out the door are gracious, understanding people who are exceedingly polite and forgiving. However, Matt and I both grew up around chaotic people who would beat the hell out of us for the tiniest mistake (real or imagined), so even as adults we still deal with a visceral dread around failing, even if we can rationally understand it's an overreaction.
There has been a LOT of talk in recent months about inflation driving up the cost of goods and services. That's because it has! There's also been a lot talk about how this inflationary moment is purely a symptom of corporate greed and capitalism run amok. This is probably true in the case of some (OK, a lot of) businesses exploiting the historical moment we all find ourselves in, but it definitely isn't for most, if not all, small businesses in the US over the last two years.
In the last year shipping costs have gone up dramatically. Our material costs have gone up dramatically; in some cases we have seen an over 100% increase in the cost of blank shirts, hoodies, bags, paper, etc. We had to raise raise our prices in January and it caused me so much stress. I wish we could sell our products for lower prices and still afford to do a good job for our team and our customers but we literally can't. If I'm being totally honest, we probably didn't raise prices enough; our price hike didn't come close to keeping pace with the increases to the aforementioned costs.
Please note that this isn't intended to be a "woe is me, pity the poor business owner" missive. My only goal in writing it is to peel the curtain back and reveal that there is no great and powerful wizard behind the curtain here at Boredwalk making capricious pricing decisions so they'll end up with a few more fat stacks to count. It's just a neurotic pair of misanthropes with an aging cat and a penchant for acerbic banter. The only thing I have in common with a wizard is that we both look good in a cloak.
It does frustrate me that I can't do the things I want to do for the people who buy our stuff and work here AND make our pricing as accessible as possible. I constantly struggle with thinking that people have the impression we are these capitalist monsters who are charging people an unreasonably inflated rate while sipping Moët by a pool. That's soooo not our life. That is kind of our cat's life, but it's more sipping ice water by a bundle of soft fleece-y throw blankets and cushions — his version of Moët and poolside lounging. He is living better than all of us. (Literally, my cat makes me serve him ice water. I am completely in the thrall of this majestic furry goblin.)
I do know what it's like to not be able to afford stuff. That's how I grew up — used clothes out of trash bags, food out of food pantries. I didn't have the nerve to start Boredwalk until I was in my 30s because I spent my 20s desperately trying to achieve the stability and security I never had as a kid,* and doing something as risky as leaving my stable job to start my own art-based company felt too tenuous and potentially chaotic.
*This is not me saying I am better than people who grew up in circumstances like mine and are still in those circumstances. We all cope with our trauma differently and take different paths to distance ourselves from it.
Spoiler alert: I was right! There are so many days I'm not sure I even made a good decision, because my previous career in tech was so much less complicated (albeit frustrating in other ways, much less interesting, and in many ways less gratifying).
Running Boredwalk is amazing and heartbreaking every day. Hearing from so many strangers that I made them laugh, that something we designed or wrote made them feel seen, that a product we designed brought them joy — I can't begin to explain how meaningful that is to us. The world is so painful to exist in, and knowing that something we did acted as a momentary pain reliever is a sense of accomplishment that's pretty unbeatable.
I've heard it said that you can't experience gratitude and pain at the same time. Maybe I'm an unusually adept emotional multi-tasker, but that's not been my experience. In my experience the only thing that makes pain stop for a few seconds is a laugh, and that's why making a stranger laugh is so meaningful to me.
I should take this moment to mention that not every month at Boredwalk is break even or money-losing. We do have some successful months sprinkled in here and there; sometimes, if we're lucky, we may even be fortunate enough to have 2-3 of those sorts of months in a row! But as I mentioned above, on the other end of the spectrum we have months where we don't make money for a host of reasons, some self-inflicted, some not:
Sometimes we can't run ads profitably due to external factors (like right now, cough cough).
Sometimes supply chain problems make inventory unavailable and we can't fill orders as expected and are forced to refund disappointed customers*.
*We still have to pay the credit card processing fees on those orders, even after issuing refunds.
Sometimes a vendor rips us off for a significant amount of money but the cost to sue them is too high for it to make sense to pursue.
Sometimes Matt and I flat out cannot do what's primarily our jobs — which is to bring in orders by creating fresh art and products and working on new marketing ideas — because of issues going on internally in our organization or externally in the world.
Maybe a bad hire didn't work out as hoped. Perhaps a good hire did work out as hoped but they're moving on for an amazing opportunity elsewhere. Malfunctioning equipment. Multiple team members out for extended periods due to illness (thanks, Covid) and requiring one or both of us to step in and cover until they return for weeks or months, etc.
These are all just a few examples of some of the things that take us away from working on new art for shirts, or writing our next fun book, or the myriad other products we're trying to bring to life to delight folks like you, dear reader.
Sometimes we have to spend money we don't have to hire people we can't really afford in order to get the help we need to get things off our plates so we can do our jobs better. Sometimes that doesn't work out and we end up spending a lot of time and money trying to get help and end up with nothing to show for it.
There's also the nauseating amount of money we lose every month to people pirating our art. We do have team members who try to tamp this down by scouring the internet for it and sending trademark and copyright infringement notices, but it's like trying to take out an ant infestation with a hammer. You can slay a lot of ants with a hammer, but it's ultimately an un-winnable war. It's not just happening to Boredwalk, either; this is happening to every creative person whose work you enjoy, and most of the time it really feels like no one gives a damn. I mean, I believe YOU do. But Bezos? That talking lizard in a human suit sure doesn't; in fact, that's precisely why Boredwalk left Amazon in 2016 and has never looked back.
Sometimes people rip off our work just for internet points. It would cost them nothing to credit us, but they choose not to. I once found a therapist plagiarizing one of my Tweets for an ad he was running for his practice. To what end? So potential clients can see that writing and think "this guy gets me" and hire him because of it? No wonder I hate it here.
There are so many days that I feel like I'm failing and hate myself for it. Why haven't I solved problems faster? Why didn't I deal with some technical, complex bureaucratic requirement with more accuracy or speed? Why did I make a hiring mistake? Why did a joke I wrote not land? Why didn't we execute a design better so it would resonate with more people? Why can't I be a better creator, better boss, better executive, better person? A less embarrassingly mentally ill person?
And the cherry on top of all that heartbreak are the random trolls who pop up in our comments and try to ruin our day. They get to appear out of the digital ether and figuratively punch us in the face with no consequences. Seems familiar, reminds me of something I wrote earlier...
Rationally I know their behavior is a reflection on them, not us, but it doesn't make it suck less to be on the receiving end of a stranger's unprovoked belligerence. I wish I could reach Dylan Marron's level of zen about people who behave this way. Maybe someday.
All of this is to say check out Dylan's podcast; it's the warm hug you didn't know you needed, and his humor, empathy, and humanity shine through in his content in a way you rarely see in people, much less the internet. I've been rooting for him and recommending his work since I first found out about him. I think you'll love him (and this episode), too.
I promise next week I will be back to our regularly scheduled snark. Time to go throw up now and imagine all the angry email I'm going to get for accidentally saying the wrong thing(s) herel. I may hate it here, but for my anxiety every day is Christmas!
Peace, love, and conversations,