It’s only February and 2018 is already proving to be an exciting year at Launch22. As a startup incubator, we’re always ready to celebrate the achievements of our members and it is amazing to witness them happening here in our shared work space. This week our spotlight shines on Phil, a web designer at Ballyhoo Designs, who joined us in April of 2017 with an entrepreneurial project up his sleeve. Phil began quietly selling T-shirts through Amazon a few years ago, which quickly evolved into something far beyond what he ever expected. He took the time to sit down with me and share his story so far.
Sitting in the communal kitchen of Launch22, it’s easy to turn a quick, ten minute lunchtime chat into a one hour conversation about… well, anything and everything. Especially if it’s with Phil. He is renowned at Launch22 for taking the time to talk with people and having a genuine interest in their goals, interests, and life experiences. So, when I ask him to start off by telling us a bit about himself and what he does, he replies, “oh, well you know that’s a can of worms!” Cue the can of worms, but insightful ones at that.
“Being at Launch22 has given me practice doing this,” he starts, talking about being able to share information about his personal life and work, “which I think is what I needed. I needed this particular time to move forward. In 2016 I was diagnosed with cancer and that just veered my life off. At first I didn’t tell people, because I didn’t want to be that person, you know? But I realised I had to get used to talking about it.”
There have been a number of moments throughout Phil’s life that have had a significant impact on him. Being diagnosed with and overcoming cancer caused Phil to completely rethink his lifestyle and what he wanted to do, which lead him to go down an entrepreneurial career path.
“15 years before I was diagnosed, I was exchanging time for money doing web design work. I still have a couple of those clients today, mainly because I enjoy interacting with them. If I don’t get on with a person, I won’t work with them. I’ve done it in the past and it eventually ends badly, which I obviously don’t like,” he explains, “I moved to the internet just when everyone was wondering, ‘what’s this internet malarkey?’ and started doing web design and reprographics. I was earning a lot of money, but it was unfulfilling, and before I knew it 15 years had gone by. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy the work and working for myself. However, after the diagnosis, my brain was a little fried, as you can imagine, and I was asking myself, ‘am I doing what I want to do? What am I actually doing?’ Obviously I also started thinking about not being here at all, so I just sat around for a couple of months and did nothing. I watched a lot of TV and thought, ‘this is what I want to do right now,’ so I did nothing.”
During this period of taking time out for himself, Phil was drawn back to T-shirts which, in one way or another, kept appearing on his radar: “I went back through my bank statements and realised that Amazon had been paying me for this thing I’d set up a year previous, and I’d done very little to earn that money. My dream is to set up a recurring revenue of some sort, and the even bigger dream is a passive income source where you’re not actually doing anything. You set it up and it just runs by itself, because then that money will give you freedom to do whatever it is that you want to do.”
Phil soon returned to his web design work, but couldn’t shake the need to start something fresh and new. This lead him to join us at Launch22. After trying out cafes in Liverpool, he realised he wanted to join a space that was built specifically for co-working.
“I went over to Liverpool to test some different coffee shops and get a bit of a vibe from. I did that once [laughs]. I needed the toilet and realised I couldn’t leave my seat and my laptop. These are First World problems we’re talking about. Thankfully on that same day I messaged Cynthia, who was interning here at the time, and she told me to come over for a visit. Georgina showed me around the space and said, ‘there’s free beer in the fridge, help yourself, and we’ve got beer pong here next Monday, free pizzas, super fast WiFi…’ and she went through everything with me and showed me the roof terrace, and then asked me when I wanted to start. I was like, ‘can I come back tomorrow, please?’ [laughs] The rest is history.”
I ask Phil a bit more about how he sells his T-shirts on Amazon and how the line has grown over time. He tells me that the T-shirt community was the most surprising thing that he came across and was something that significantly drove him to continue his sales. When he first joined Launch22, Phil was still finding his feet and spending more time on his web design work.
“I was a little embarrassed about doing T-shirts to start off with, so I was doing web design here during the day and then at night I was doing my T-shirts secretively. Since then I’ve been doing T-shirts every single day uploading and designing for over six months now. I was also drawn into the T-shirt community who encourage each other to make sales and share what niches to target. I was completely filled with self-doubt and they really boosted my confidence,” he explains. “Whatever I’m allowed to upload to Amazon, I make sure I max it out, and then the next day I get a new empty batch of uploads. The more you sell, the more uploads you get a day. In the first week of January 2018, I got 2000 slots from Amazon, so that’s 40 uploads a day! But that also means 40 designs a day. That’s a lot.”
Where do you find your inspiration for 40 designs a day!?
“The way I create so many T-shirts, and here’s my now not-so-secret weapon, I’ll find funny sayings which normally relate to cats or dogs. If you type ‘funny cat T-shirts’ on Amazon, there are over 50,000 results. You’re lost. So I thought, ‘what if I put breeds of dogs instead to niche it down?’ I just got a list of dog breeds together and that’s how I fill my quantity at the moment.”
There came a point when Amazon were struggling to fulfil orders in America, so they started hiding the T-shirt designs in their search results. Phil sought other online marketplaces so as not to rely solely on Amazon for his income. He tells me that, “luckily, on Etsy, they’re bloody dog crazy, so all my sales are dog T-shirts. There’s a bit more work involved when selling through Etsy, but that’s quite nice. I like communicating with my customers and I can create mailing lists and send out coupons and vouchers.”
As the conversation continues, it is clear to me that being part of communities and interacting with people is key for Phil. A year before being diagnosed with cancer, he joined fellow entrepreneurs and business owners at a live event in Mexico, hoping to meet one particular woman who had inspired him to take action.
“I met all these amazing people, it was an emotional release, and was absolutely mindblowing. I joined this particular Facebook group, because I admire this woman who is an entrepreneur selling posters. I met her in Mexico and she’s this quiet Irish woman, and I was like, ‘you’re like a celebrity to me!’ It was a bit sad really. I was just watching what she was doing, making these posters and detailed pictures of watches and cars. Whatever she did, she just understood the right way to do it, and I admired her focus and her action taking. At the end of the course, everyone had an envelope with their name on it and anyone who interacted with them could leave a note inside. I opened mine on the flight home and was a bawling wreck of emotions. She left an amazing note that said at the end, ‘stay authentic.’ That was the year previous to being diagnosed with cancer and that statement came to mean so much to me, I even made a ‘stay authentic’ T-shirt.”
Fast forward to the present day, Phil wants to use his own entrepreneurial journey to inspire others. He says, “I realised I could use the T-shirts as a way of inspiring people into entrepreneurship, or at least eliminate it as a possibility. It isn’t for everyone and that’s OK, but I just want people to explore other possibilities. I want to build a community and help people start selling T-shirts to give them the freedom to do whatever it is they want to do in life. After I was diagnosed with cancer, I just stripped everything away. The T-shirts came back to me, it felt like the right thing to do, and it fits in with my lifestyle. Someone with a job and kids can do this, even for just a couple of hours a day. I wouldn’t consider myself a successful seller, however I am successful at setting up an online market and earning money. I’ve started setting people up on Etsy and I want to run an online course so I can offer advice and give people the ins and outs.”
“I don’t give myself a lot of credit for the things I do well and my achievements. We all compare ourselves to what other people are doing, but the bottom line is that I really enjoy what I’m doing. I work, deal with some clients, do a bit of my web design, sell some T-shirts, and have some positive interactions with people at Launch22. If I’d stayed working from my bedroom, yes the work would have continued, but it’s the people and interactions that have really pushed me forward. Launch22 was a breath of fresh air that came at the right time.”
I ask Phil what would be his advice to anyone who feels stuck in a rut with their life or career. He replies, “if you’re doing something which isn’t giving you the desired results, do something different and see if that changes things. That’s what I did. I stopped when I realised it wasn’t working for me. There’s that quote that everyone thinks Einstein said, but he didn’t actually say it: ‘insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’ Not sure who actually said it, but it’s true!”
Visit Phil’s latest project here