Collaborating with artists can be a great way to produce unique design-centric products. But finding talent you can actually work with comes with challenges that you might not anticipate.
In this episode of Shopify Masters, you’ll learn from two sleight-of-hand magicians who collaborate with artists to create new playing card products every single month.
Twin brothers Dan and Dave Buck are the founders of Art Of Play: a curated collection of designer playing cards for magicians, cardists, gamers and collectors.
We use playing cards on a daily basis, as magicians, as sleight-of-hand artists—we’ve seen more designs and shuffled more cards than anyone on the planet.
Tune in to learn
- How to collaborate with artists when creating your products
- How to protect yourself when working with freelancers
- How to source products by walking into retail stores
Listen to Shopify Masters below…
Download this episode on Google Play, iTunes or here!
- Store: Art Of Play
- Social Profiles: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram
- Recommendations: Behance, Shipstation, Klaviyo, MailChimp, HeyCarson
Felix: Today, I’m joined by Dan and Dave from Art of Play. Art of Play offers curated collection of customer designer playing cards for magicians, cardists, games, and collectors. It was started 2013 and based out of San Diego, California. Welcome, Dan and Dave.
Dan: Thanks for having us.
Dave: It’s good to be on the show, thank you.
Felix: Yeah, excited to have you both on. So, pretty interesting, this audience or niche that you guys are going after. What, talk to us about this. How did you choose this industry to start a business in?
Dan: Yeah, you know, you would say it’s niche, but you know, we’re in a huge niche market. Magic and cardistry are two very popular, diverse, global art forms, and one of their main tools is playing cards, so they go through a lot of playing cards, and that’s ultimately how we got into it, were we’re magicians-turned-brand owners, and we’ve always loved playing cards, I think since we were 12 years old. We each carried a deck with us everywhere we go. I don’t know if, Dave, if you want to chime in, Dave, and give a little more info.
Dave: Yeah, I couldn’t really have said it better. I mean, that’s sort of how we got started with Art of Play. It was just out of love and passion for playing cards. I think in 2008 was the first year we put out our own deck of cards, and that was long before Art of Play. We actually had another website, which we still have, dananddave.com, where we would explore different ideas, we would release playing cards, instructional videos for magicians, apparatus for magicians, and then, eventually, playing cards sort of took it over, right. We were seeing more and more interesting playing cards, and eventually we were like, “Hey, we should start a playing card-only store,” and that kind of planted the seed for Art of Play.
Felix: So, you both are professionals, already, in this space, and you decided to start creating your own tools, essentially, right? Your own playing cards. How did that happen? How did you decide that … You know, that you guys are, of course, the target customer? How did you take that step, that leap towards designing and creating your own cards?
Dave: It was, I think, 2006 or ’07, and David Blaine, a world-famous magician, had just put out his own deck of playing cards, and as young teenagers we were like, “This is amazing. We have to get this deck, this is David Blaine’s personal deck.” At that time, we were growing as artists and magicians. We had our own brand, it was very small at that point, but that’s ultimately what gave us the idea that, you know, if David Blaine could have a deck, why can’t we have one? From there, we saw an artist that we really loved and we reached out to him. He was a UK artist, from the United Kingdom. His name was [Si Scott 00:03:53]. We pitched to him the idea, and he was into it, and we, I think about a year later we released two decks … Since we’re twins, we released two decks and called them “Smoke and mirrors”. One was black, and one was white, and that’s really what started it, and that was back in 2007 or 2008, and today I can’t even count how many decks we’ve done. Probably close to 100 unique playing cards over the years.
Felix: So, you found a designer to work with. Did this designer also have experience in the industry, or were they a designer from another industry that you essentially taught how to design for your industry?
Dave: Yeah. We actually discovered Si on a blog. I couldn’t tell you which blog, but we used to follow a lot of design blogs, and his work just really stood out to us, and we went to his website. He had an email address, so we just emailed him; but, nowadays, I mean, it’s so easy to discover artists that work for freelance. We use Behanced.com to discover artists, and a lot of the artists we work with have profiles on Behanced, so it’s a great resource to go and just type in some keywords that you have brewing for an idea, and find the right artist for the job, and then start a conversation. That’s really how it’s works: it’s just a casual email that says, “Look, we have this idea for a deck of cards. We think you’d be perfect for it.” Then, you know, if they’re into it, they’re into it, and it just goes from there.
Dan: Or better yet, Instagram, which is what we use now. We find so many unique artists on Instagram. It’s just such a great platform for anyone to post their work, and it just makes it easy and convenient and fun to find new artists out there.
Felix: So, you guys are not just working with one artist anymore, you’re working with multiple artists who have released all of these different playing cards?
Dan: Absolutely, yeah. We’ve worked with dozens of artists from all over the world. I mean, the way it works for us is if we see an artist and we’re into their style, and we’re into their art and their work, you know, why not reach out to them? Why not collaborate on something and make something physical, tangible?
Felix: Yeah, I think that’s a great approach to add new angles, new flavors into your product, because you’re essentially selling the same product, but very different approaches, right?
Dan: Yeah. What’s great about playing cards is it really is a blank canvas, wherein you can browse our catalog of hundreds of different designs, and no two are the same. We have a deck named after animals, and we have a deck themed after the Sons of Liberty. We have so many I can’t even think of any right now.
Felix: Now, how do you, because you’re working with so many different designers, so many different artists, how do you just keep a cohesive … I think that’s a concern that some entrepreneurs and brand owners have when they’re collaborating with so many different artists, so many different people that have different opinions, or different approaches to the art. How do you work with them to make sure that everything is aligned with your brand?
Dan: One of the great things about playing cards is it really promotes individuality: each deck is almost like a book, like a coffee table book, you know. It doesn’t have to follow a format, it doesn’t necessarily have to fit within our own branding. It can live on its own, in its own world, with its own aesthetic, and we love that idea. We love this approach in just allowing the artist to express their own ideas in the cards and themselves, do not hold them back to any kind of limitation. That’s why our cards, I would say, are some of the most unique from deck to deck. I mean, we have cards spanning a wide range of styles, from vintage to western to modern to classy. It all depends on the artist and the idea we have.
Felix: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Now, what’s the best way to work with artists, in your experience? What’s the … what kind of tips do you have to offer for people out there that want to have a brand, that maybe they’re the sole voice and visionary of the brand, but now they want to consider collaborating with other artists? What’s the, what kind of tips do you have to offer?
Dave: I think it’s very clear. I mean, we work with artist from, like I said, all over the world, so it is, it’s very much through email, or through Skype. There’s very little direct contact with the artist, just because it’s not possible, it’s very impractical, but I think having a clear vision and a clear idea, whether it’s your idea or the artist’s, and sticking to it, because, you know, as these projects go on for months, sometimes over a year, like, the direction can totally change, and it just never ends. It’s like, “Oh, we can go this way, or we can go that way. We can change that, we can change this.” I think having a clear concept from the start, and just going with it is, it’s what we’ve learned over the years, because there’s just so many options, there’s so many ways you can swing this, you know?
Dan: The other thing is, like, when you’re looking for artists, like Dan said, it’s important to have a vision, because it’s, every artist has their own style they specialize in, and if you’re looking through an artist’s portfolio and you want something different than what they’ve represented themselves as and what they’ve shown in their portfolio, it’s going to be a challenge, and you likely won’t be able to get that, so it’s important that you hire an artist whose style is what you’re going for. I mean, you get what you get, so just try to find the artist who has the style in line with your own vision, and then I think you will be a success.
Dave: Yeah, I think that’s why we’ve worked with just so many different artists over the years, just because every idea, every concept, every scene kind of requires a different style, and you know, if there’s an artist out there that is the best there is at that particular style, then use them.
Felix: Yeah, I think that’s a great point, that, you know, when people are going out there looking for freelancers or contractors for design work, they sometimes gauge it on, base it on things that, the budget or maybe based on how well they work with the artist or the freelancer, but they don’t think about “Is this artist already creating the style that I want?” You know, it’s much harder to kind of force that aspect rather than work around the budget, or work around how do I communicate with them, so now when you do find artists that you do like their style, how much input do you typically give yourselves, or do you kind of just let them run with it, with the initial designs?
Dave: You know, we have an arrangement with the artists who, you know, make revisions, to give feedback. We prefer to have a role of art director. You know, it is our vision, it is our product, and I think we do understand, you know, the market and what we’re trying to achieve, so it’s important we have that relationship with the artist, and it’s also extremely important that they know that that’s the relationship you want up front. We have, we’ve worked with artists, many, many, many times where it wasn’t clear that that’s their position and that’s the role we wanted to play in the process, and when you work with artists that are just set on their own vision and they don’t understand that they’re actually being hired, and it’s somebody else’s vision, it’s a challenge. I mean, it’s not easy to work with every artist, so it’s important to be clear up front where you stand, and what you want, and how the relationship is going to work.
But, once that’s set in stone, like, once you have an agreement like that, it’s so much fun, because then you can really bounce ideas off one another and really just jazz with different approaches. It actually frees up a lot of the creativity, knowing … I don’t want to say “knowing who’s in charge”, but in a way, knowing who’s in charge and who makes the final call allows for some creativity. You know, it, they’re no longer afraid to show you something because, who knows, it could work out for the better.
Felix: Yeah, that’s a great point, but how do you know that that particular artist will be amenable or flexible in their way, where they will take direction from you?
Dave: You know, we always ask for it up front, and then it’s just, in our experience with working with certain artists, you know, we might not work with them again. That’s just how it is. And then, some are absolutely great, and we’ve used them many times, so.
Dan: Yeah, there’s really no way of knowing up front. You’ve just got to have great communication. Interview the guy. You’ve got to like them, you’ve got to like their work; but, to be honest, there is, I would say there’s a dozen or so projects of ours that, you know, didn’t make it to the finish line, so to speak, just because of, you know, the relationship with the artist wasn’t what we wanted.
Felix: How do you back out of those situations when you do find that you’re running into a brick wall, and they’re difficult to work with, which I’m sure a lot of entrepreneurs will run into, whether they be artists or any of the other kind of freelancer. You’re working with someone that you’re just having a very difficult, you’re having a lot of friction in the work relationship with them. How do you back out of that in the best way possible?
Dave: Well, you know, we always try to be as tactful as we can, and, you know, sympathetic. However, it is important, I would say, to have that conversation up front, and in a lot of the contracts we have with artists there’s a kill fee. For example, you know, say after the first, or maybe the second round, usually our cards are completed in stages. We don’t just say, “Hey, tackle everything and then show us the designs”. We like to see the work in progress. You know, say the second round comes around and, you know, we’re just not happy with the direction it’s going. Our direction isn’t, we don’t feel is being communicated, or, you know, it’s just not coming off in the way we imagine, and that’s the good point to back out and say, “Hey, you know, we’re going to go in a different direction with this, and thank you.” We’ve done that a couple times.
Sometimes we’ll just give them free reign and say, “Hey, you know, maybe you’re right. Go for it.” It actually turns out sometimes, so it really depends on the project, the scope of the projects. If it’s a big budget, obviously we have to be more careful, but if it’s a smaller project, than it’s really not at a loss. You know, they just complete it and we don’t like it and we don’t end up using it, and we have a lot of artwork that’s never been shown, so.
Felix: Now, when you are going through this process of finding an artist, finding different styles that are catching your eye, how do you decide that, you know, this is a new style that we want to turn into a card?
Dave: You know, we’ve been looking through, like, graphic design books and design blogs for years, and I like to think we have a trained eye and a good sense of design. I don’t know if that’s true. I think we just have an opinion, but if we both really like something, I think it says a lot. You know, sometimes I like something and Dan’s like, “Nah, I don’t know what you see in that,” and I think what’s really beneficial in our relationship, our partnership, and I’m talking about Dan and I, is we have this unique privilege where, you know, we can both work together on something, and when we share a similar idea it’s usually a sign that we’re going in the right direction. It’s usually a sign that we’re both going to be energized, and enthusiastic, and excited about the project, and that helps drive the overall vision.
Dan: And, I think the fact that, you know, we use playing cards on a daily basis, as magicians, as sleight-of-hand artists, like, we’ve seen more designs and shuffled more cards than anyone on the planet, I can guarantee that, and I think that’s important to really understand, and know, and love, you know, what it is you’re creating. In this case, it’s playing cards for us. So, with that said, you know, it’s very different to see a piece of art, or a design on a wall versus shrunk down to a tiny, three-and-a-half by two-and-a-half piece of paper, you know. With that, we really know what works on a small scale, if that makes sense.
Felix: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Do you look for the validation elsewhere, outside of … Obviously, you two, like you were saying, you two are the perfect kind of filters for what’s good and what’s not because you are the target customer, and you’ve seen so many different designs. You know the business behind it. Do you also look elsewhere, outside of yourselves, to validate whether a particular design’s going to sell well or not?
Dan: Absolutely. Like, all the time we are straight-up stumped. Like, there’s … Kickstarter is very popular in the playing card community. There’s new decks released on Kickstarter all the time. Some of them, you know, we scratch our heads and be like, “How is this funded? How is this so successful?” You know, I mean, yeah. It’s just personal taste, I guess, at the end of the day. We like to think we have good taste, but sometimes people don’t like it.
Dave: There’s a team … Like, we have a team of seven, and out of those, our older brother is one of them, we’re always asking him for his opinion. We have a couple of friends who I think have a really good sense of design, so we’ll ask them. We ask one of our team members, Adam, what he thinks, so we have our go-to people that we use to sort of validate our direction and our vision, but at the core of it, if it’s not something we’re really excited about, like, it doesn’t matter what anyone else says. It’s like, “We’re going to do it, or we’re not going to do it.” It’s really, it has to be up to us.
Felix: So, even if you do see a particular design or style that is very popular, and you know that it’s going to sell, but the both of you just aren’t excited by it, you aren’t into that particular style, you won’t release it?
Dan: No, and I think that’s an important distinction. When you fall, like, it’s a trap, in my opinion. When you start doing that, you’re going to lose your passion. You’re going to … You might be able to ride it out for a long time, and you might have some great success, but looking back, there won’t be any purpose to it. There’s a lot of purpose in what we do, and a lot of passion drives what we do, so we never want to take on a project for the sole sake of appealing to the masses. That’s not at all what we’re into, and that’s why I think our cards don’t follow any particular template. You know, they’re not, they don’t look the same from one to the other. I mean, you probably wouldn’t know it’s an Art of Play deck looking at it on the shelf in a store, because it’s so different from the other one, but it allows us to pursue our own vision and to be excited about it, so I think it works in that benefit.
Felix: Right, that makes sense. Now, when you do have a new … Talk us just through the timeline. Let’s say that you find artists, how long does it typically take for them to create a design, I guess the final version that’s ready to go to print?
Dave: It really depends on the artists and the scope of the project. We’ve had projects go on for two years, and that’s fine. It’s been fun working on those projects. They end up to be truly great projects that we really love. We’ve had artists deliver complete designs in a couple months. It really depends on the scope and what we’re looking for, but after we received the artwork and it’s ready to go, basically it’s about an 8-week turnaround until we see a physical deck of playing cards, and our process is kind of involved. You would probably never imagine this, but there’s a lot of steps, at least for us to do it with the quality we uphold to to get a finished deck of cards.
We start by printing just the playing cards, through the United States Playing Card Company. They’re based in Kentucky. In our opinion, they’re the best there is at printing playing cards. They’ve been doing it for over 130 years. The quality is better than anything we’ve seen. For the boxes, we use … The packaging, I should say … We use a local letterpress printer in San Diego, Cloak Street Press, who does phenomenal work. This allows us the creative freedom to really do whatever we want, like all the printing tricks: embossing, foil stamping, letterpress, debossing. Custom paper, die cutting, and … It’s crazy what we’re able to do, and I think that’s what really sets us apart from the rest of the playing card community.
From there, from there, and then everything … So, we get the cards from the US Playing Card Company, boxes from local letterpress. Then, everything has to be hand-assembled or packaged and Celo-wrapped before it’s delivered to us. So, it is a lot of steps for just a single deck of playing cards.
Felix: Did you have experience in this industry before, or how did you know how to do, piece together this entire supply chain?
Dave: It’s just something that we learned over the years. You know, we’ve been doing this since 2008, and I think it took us until 2013 to figure it out.
Felix: What kind of mistakes can you share that you’ve made along the way, during this discovery process?
Dave: I don’t know if I would call them mistakes. Lessons, maybe, because it’s not a mistake if you don’t know, and we just didn’t know, you know. We sort of … We’re always wanting to improve, and, you know, our next project is always our best project, and with that, research and finding better ways to do what we’ve done in the past, and that’s ultimately what let us to using this local letterpress instead of having, you know, a factory print out boxes. That what had us hand-assemble all the decks, which is just a better way to do it, in our opinion, and the quality turns out better. So, it has just been a learning process over the years.
Dan: I think, one of the mistakes I remember early on, was opting … We were on a tight deadline. We wanted to release a deck, I think, for the holidays, and we had normally opted to receive a printed proof; however, we were on such a tight deadline that we said, “No, we don’t need the printed proof”, we had [inaudible 00:23:29], and that was a huge lesson. We will never again print a deck of cards without receiving a physical printed proof, because the colors are never the same as what you see on your computer, or even what you see, like, in a Pantone color book. Like, the paper has a lot to do with the end result, so for this particular deck the colors came out just terrible.
Dave: That was a sad, a sad day.
Dan: We had, like, 2500 decks, and, I mean, granted, nobody knew they weren’t exactly what we wanted, and I don’t think anyone questioned the color was off, but for us it was not at all what we wanted, and it was always, like, a dissatisfaction, and it was a huge lesson to, you know, don’t rush things. This, your products are the most important thing you have. I mean, it’s everything. It’s why you have customers, so you need to spend the time on them and make sure they are what you’re intending them to be.
Felix: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Now, you have a pretty large catalog, now, of different playing cards. How often are you releasing new products these days?
Dan: Playing cards, we, on average, I would say, release a new deck every month. Last year it was a bit more ambitious. I think we had about 16 new decks that we produced that year. We toned it back a little bit this year, but we try to come out with something new every month, and then, just last year, we started integrating games and puzzles, and unique curiosities into our catalog, which has been a whole different learning curve for us, and it’s so fun sourcing all these unique items. Just last month, we traveled through Japan for two weeks, just with the sole purpose of sourcing cool stuff to bring back to our shop. It was a lot of fun.
Felix: And now, when you are releasing once a month, that a pretty, even though these are decks, even though you have the experience of releasing them, it’s still pretty high-frequency and a lot, a ton of work to squeeze into a new release every month. What’s your process behind it? How do you, what is a launch process for a new deck?
Dan: It depends. Certain decks get more, more hyped up.
Dave: Yeah. As soon as we get the cards, we’ll send them to our photographer. Our photographer lives on the other side of the country, on the east coast, so he’s taking the photos. As he’s taking the photos, we’re working on the copy, we’re adding the product to the website, we’re starting to tease the cards on Instagram. And then, you know, we’ll usually announce a release date and hype it up until that day, and then when that comes everything’s hopefully ready to go. So many times, though, we have released a deck of cards when we’re still expecting them to arrive, which is a little scary, but, you know, those are days like Black Friday, or, you know, where you have to release the product. There’s no question whether you have the product or not: if it’s going to be there in a couple of days you just have to do what you have to do.
Felix: What’s the process to decide or to gauge how many units you should order?
Dan: Honestly, it’s a hunch. Dave and I just said, like, right before the order. I don’t know, it’s a good question.
Felix: Do you, does it, do you have photos and everything, or are you hyping it up prior to placing that first order? Like, do you have an idea of how people are responding to it?
Dan: Some decks we release as limited releases, like we’re going to print a certain amount, we’re going to release it, and then, once it sells out, that’s it. We’re not going to reprint them. Where, other decks will live on, so, but that’s, once we decide that, that determines the quantity we print, and whether or not we’re going to just continue to reprint it, you know.
Felix: Got it. Now, do you ever remove products from your catalog?
Dan: We don’t … I mean, they sell out. I don’t … We allow them to sell out, and then we’ll opt not to reprint them, but I think everything that we’ve produced is on the website. I don’t know that we’ve actually removed anything.
Dave: Yeah, you can still see it. It’s out of stock, but it’s still there, as, like, you know, a catalog.
Felix: Got it. Do you make, what kind of decision do you make, or how do you make that decision on whether to restock or not? Is it just based on the success of that particular product?
Dave: I guess it depends, I mean, how well it sold initially versus how well it sold long-term, how well it was received with the community, if there’s lots of photos of it from other people on Instagram is a huge factor. If lots of people loved the deck and they’re posting photos of it, then, yeah, we absolutely want to continue selling that deck because it’s like free advertising.
Felix: Right, that makes sense.
Dave: We did have something interesting happen, though: years ago, we printed a deck of plaid playing cards, they had a plaid back design. They were very simple and vintage-y, and when we put them out they didn’t sell. Like, nobody wanted them, and Dan and I thought they were the coolest thing, and that was in 2012, when vintage wasn’t overplayed, so we thought they were perfect, and nobody wanted them, and it wasn’t until 2016 or 2015 that people started catching on and we got a lot of exposure on different blogs, and then they all of a sudden started selling like crazy and we had to reprint them, which is interesting to … Sometimes when something works, or if it’s just a delayed response, or … We really have no idea.
Dan: Speaking of blogs, though, I mean, since we have such a unique item that’s very designer-y, for lack of a better word, there’s so many cool design blogs out there, like UnCrate, or Cool Material, [inaudible 00:29:41], or [NotCot 00:29:44]. You know, you could name 100 of these blogs that are well-visited and [trafficated 00:29:49] … Is that a word? Not saying that right. Anyway, because of that, a lot of them post and repost our playing cards because they are so unique and cool, you know, so that’s been a huge help in, you know, at least the initial sales of the deck, and that’s ultimately what I think sparked everyone’s interest in plaids. It was UnCrate, which is arguably one of the biggest men’s blogs on the internet, blogged the vintage plaids and sales just soared through the roof, and they’ve continued to sell ever since. It’s crazy.
Felix: Now, the intro, I introduced your company and all the different types of customers that are coming to your store, buying from you, but they’re different, right? There’s demographics, they all want these playing cards, but they, at some points there’s not a whole lot of overlap between the different audience, the different types of customers that come your way. How do you reach all of these different types of people that are all into playing cards, but might not be using them for the same purpose?
Dan: Honestly, we treat them all the same, as sad of an answer as that is. You know, we have cardists, and magicians, and collectors. They’ve continued to buy from us on a regular basis, especially the magicians and cardists. You know, they need, they’re the guys that buy, like, a dozen of the same deck at a time because they use them, and since they’re paper they do get old, and they need to replace them. Collectors will buy a few of each deck, and that’s it. They’ll wait until the next one comes out, and then we have just, you know, the layman out there, the novice who just sees a deck and wants one to play with on game night, and they’re only buying one deck. They might come back later and buy another deck, but it’s typically only one at a time because, let’s be honest: if you’re not a magician or cardist, you really only need one deck. Maybe not you need them all. Actually, maybe I shouldn’t say that.
Felix: Yeah, I’m neither of these … I’m not your target customer, but just looking at the products makes me want some of these cards, just because of the design factor. It looks like a really unique product, and I think it’s something that anyone who appreciates any art could certainly get into, even if you’re not into playing cards themselves.
Dan: That’s been a challenge for us. I mean, this is a great example, because we, we are well aware of your demographic. Like, what you just described is a customer that we would love to market to. Like, how do we reach you? That’s one of the things we’re struggling with. We have a grasp on the magicians, and the cardists, and the collectors, but there are millions of other people out there who might think our products are interesting, so that’s been a challenge, and will probably always be a challenge.
Felix: Yeah. I mean, the style and the design itself is what’s attractive to me. Have you … You mentioned that you branched out to puzzles and games. Have you thought about, just essentially, blowing these up into prints, or is that an avenue that you’re considering going down?
Dan: We’ve thought about it: we even have some prints in our warehouse hanging. It’s just another really niche market that we’re really not … It’s a totally different industry, and I don’t know if it’s one that we want to get into. Right now, we’re more focused on games and puzzles.
Felix: Right. Now, what made that decision … How did you make the decision to expand that catalog into puzzles and games?
Dan: I think it comes from our magic and sleight-of-hand background. We’ve always been fascinated with mystery and figuring out ways to achieve the impossible, and a puzzle is the perfect example of that. We’ve always liked puzzles, and there’s just so many unique puzzles out there that aren’t really popular. When you say “puzzle”, you probably think of just basic jigsaw puzzle with the cheesy photo on it, right? That is the total opposite of what I mean by puzzle and what we sell in our shop. We sell really cool puzzle boxes that are hand-crafted in Japan and just look amazing on a shelf, and then you pick it up and it actually does something, and it’s fun to play with, and when you figure it out you’re just filled with delight and joy. It’s a lot of fun.
Felix: Now, you mentioned that you source a lot of these products, which is different than your experience, which has been to, essentially, manufacture your products yourselves. What kind of difficulties, what kind of challenges have you encountered, now that you’re into this new territory?
Dan: A big challenge is having a great seller, and then going to place a reorder, and then hearing from the manufacturer that it’s out of stock, or that it’s no longer being manufactured, or that there’s a four-month waiting period. That happens to us quite a bit, especially because we try and source very unique and exclusive items. That’s really unfortunate.
Felix: Yeah. What’s your process for that? You mentioned that you went to Japan recently and just looked for cool products. Is that literally walking into stores and trying to find products?
Dan: We literally walked into every store we thought that looked cool. Didn’t matter what they were really selling. For example, we walked into this home design store: in the window they were showing tableware, and linens, and, you know, little home knick-knacks. We walk inside, and they had a whole corner of Japanese puzzle boxes, probably 40 different puzzle boxes, and the shopkeeper was a huge fan of puzzle boxes, and also spoke great English. It was like, we immediately became friends, we told him all about our business. He loved the magic, we showed him some card tricks, we exchanged contact information.
We bought a bunch of puzzles from him, of course, but now he is, like, our guy, our go-to guy for puzzle boxes in Japan. Before, we were going through the manufacturer, and the language barrier was causing some delays, and we weren’t always getting a response right away, but now we have this relationship with this shopkeeper that we have something in common with, and we met him in person. He knows who we are, and it’s just been great. We have a huge order on the way for the holidays, and we’re just stoked, so I think it was hugely beneficial for us to take that trip and make these personal connections.
Felix: Then, when you walk into a store and you see a product that you know you have to get into your own store, how do you … Obviously, a lot of times the store owner’s not the manufacturer. They’re probably sourcing from somewhere else. How do you approach them to work out an arrangement where you get to, I guess, their source?
Dan: Honestly, it, for Japan it was hard, but in the States, if we see something we like … We do it all the time in the States. There’s so many unique shops in every major city, and every once in a while we’ll come across something really unique. We’ll just buy it and, you know, do our best job to find it on the internet.
Felix: Yeah. I guess you could always do your own research.
Dan: Yeah. Sometimes it doesn’t work out that way: sometimes it just, there’s not box, there’s no website listed, there’s no manufacturer listed, so it does become a challenge, but, you know, there’s ways.
Felix: Got it. Now, you mentioned earlier that blogs and websites on UnCrate have been a big boon for your, to bring attention to your business. Is that the biggest driver of traffic to your store, these blogs?
Dave: I think so. Like, we try to collaborate with a lot of different sites. We have a really cool video coming out later this month with GreatBigStory.com, so that will be a nice push for Art of Play. We just collaborated with a very popular YouTuber with almost a half million followers, who ca- we flew out to San Diego to do a tour of our showroom in San Diego, and that was a huge push, I think, from that. We got about 6000 new Instagram followers, which is insane. I think for us, our key marketing strategy is just influencers, whether it’s on Instagram, or YouTube, or all these blogs out there. We try to make friends with as many people as possible and sort of get them to help us get the word out.
Dan: A lot of designers we work with, too, also have large followings, so that … I mean, that’s not a deciding factor, whether we work with a designer or not, but it is a huge push. You know, we’ve done a deck, done two different decks with DKNG, and they’re all over the internet. Their work is blogged everywhere, consistently. They’re just at the top of their game, so that was a huge push in our recognition within the graphic illustration poster community.
Dave: And also brands. Like, you know, we’ve collaborated with some really cool brands. A couple years ago, we worked with Bruce Lee, and we worked mostly with his daughter, Shannon, to produce the official Bruce Lee deck of playing cards, and it turned out really cool. It was, of course, blogged on all the blogs, and that was a great push, and exposure.
Felix: Mm-hmm (affirmative). How do you collaborate, you know, with celebrities like this? How do you get in touch with them, how did you tend to agree?
Dave: It’s very simple: you just send out some emails.
Dan: You just have to ask.
Dan: We’ve been blown away by … You know, it’s the greatest feeling when, like, someone just says “Yes” from a simple email. It’s like, that’s all it takes. It really puts things into perspective: it always begins with the question, and more often than not, you know, we would consider ourselves very lucky.
Dave: Yeah, and honestly, we’ve gotten a lot of no’s, but persistence is key. We’ve turned those no’s, maybe two years later, into yeses, and finally done a project with them, and that’s happened a couple of times. You know, we’re just … If we’re, you know, if we love a brand or an artist, you know, we really want to work with them, and why not? We’re going to make an app, and maybe not this year, but eventually.
Dan: that was exactly the case with DKNG. We had reached out to them, they were interested in doing a deck of cards. We would follow up every couple months. They were super busy, they always had tons of work in the pipeline, and it wasn’t until, like, two years after our initial email that we actually released a deck of cards, so you have to be persistent. Even a yes, or even a no, is just a “not right now”, in my opinion, so I will follow up with people that say no.
Felix: yeah. When you’re working with other celebrities or big design studios that will most likely, you know, essentially slow things down, right, because they have other projects, or they have other priorities, how do you kind of keep things moving along and not prevent it from stalling out, essentially?
Dan: I think once the project kicks off and officially starts, there is a deadline. It’s very important to have a deadline, because projects can go on forever, and we try to stick to that deadline. You know, it’s rarely met, but it’s pretty close.
Dave: It’s also … I mean, one way you can influence this is just your payment structure. Like, you know, you never want to pay upfront for everything, you want there to be a [crosstalk 00:41:54]-
Dan: That’s another-
Dave: Incentive for them to finish a project as soon as a contract’s been signed, so for our larger projects, you know, we can even break this up into stages, like, you know, “Finish round one, we pay you this, round two we pay you this, round three we pay you this.” There’s always a payment at the end, when deliverables are sent, and that way, you know, it’s in their interest, as well, to finish the project, financially, at least.
Felix: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Now, influencers, influencers are definitely an opportunity, but also a challenge for a lot of entrepreneurs to find the right influencers, think of working with them in a way that actually makes sense to drive the traffic, and eventually sales to your store. What’s been your approach, and how do you identify which influencers to work with, starting there?
Dan: That’s, I can imagine that being really tough. Like, if you’re, especially if you’re in a niche market, how do you branch out, you know? How does your niche fit in line with anyone else? It really doesn’t, but you’ve got to figure out ways to make it fit. Thankfully for us, since we come from the magic background, and puzzles and games being loosely related, I guess, at least interesting, we work with a lot of popular magicians that have huge followings and cardists, so that’s a huge help; and, just with Instagram, it’s very easy. I don’t want to say “easy”, but it’s easier than it was before Instagram for anyone to have a huge audience and to have an influence within any community. You know, we have friends that have Instagram accounts with their millions of followers, just because they’re persistent on what they post, and they have great content, and now they’re able to be influencers and get work because of that.
Felix: Now, we’ll talk a little bit about actually running the business, running the store. What’s the day-to-day like? What are your key focuses when you come into work for the day?
Dan: It depends. I mean, I’m in San Diego, and Dave is in Las Angeles. We both live on our computers, so we can technically work forever. We do have a warehouse and a team of guys that run the logistics and the shipping. Our focus is more on product development, management … What else? Marketing, strategies, dealing with manufacturers, dealing with artists, all that stuff. All the fun stuff.
Felix: Mm-hmm (affirmative), definitely. So, when you are working together, running the store, what kind of tools, what kind of applications do you guys rely on to bring the whole thing together and keep everything organized?
Dan: I guess I should say, since this is a Shopify podcast, that prior to Shopify we had gone through some other e-commerce platforms, which, I don’t need to mention, they’re terrible. Shopify really is the best. It’s a lifesaver, and I’m not just saying that. We have three shops, all on Shopify, and it just makes everything simple. In addition to that, our guys in the warehouse, we’ve ShipStation, which is an amazing platform that just makes shipping easy. It’s click of a button shipping. In terms of other features, I don’t know. We, what kind of info do you want on this question?
Felix: Actually, I want to … I guess, well, ShipStation, you mentioned that. Are there any other apps you use from the Shopify app store, or even off Shopify, that you recommend?
Dan: I mean, outside of Shopify, we live in the photo, like, the Adobe-created suite. You know, we’re using Photoshop and Illustrator every single day, whether it’s designing our own design or tweaking designs, or getting things print-ready from artists. We use Gmail and Gsuite, like, Google pages and Google sheets, our lifesaver. That’s pretty much it for me. I mean, just Adobe and Google are my go-to applications.
Dave: Yeah, for, for newsletters we use [Clavio 00:46:15], which is amazing, as it feeds right into Shopify, and everything is automated, from the customer … What is it?
Dan: I was going to say, I use both. You know, I use Mailchimp for another website of ours, and I use Clavio for, I guess, all three of our Shopify websites, and they, they’re both really good. They have their pros and cons. I would say, though, if anyone is running an e-commerce site, the features in Clavio are superior to Mailchimp, in my opinion. Just seems to be more seamless, especially with Shopify.
Felix: Yeah, this is definitely a common question I see, or Clavio versus Mailchimp, or some other email provider. What is, what kind of features or tools within Clavio do you find particularly useful for e-commerce stores?
Dan: We use the abandoned cart feature. That works wonders. It absolutely works, and it’s really easy to set up. I would say any of Clavio [inaudible 00:47:28] flows or automated emails that come from Shopify, whether it’s the order invoice, the tracking number, the submitted review after you purchase an order, the customer win-back after they abandon the shopping cart. There’s so many automated emails within Shopify that connect to Clavio, that you can customize and really take advantage of upselling future product in your website and your brand.
Felix: That’s pretty much all set up once an automated for you guys.
Dave: Set it and forget it. It’s-
Felix: Yeah. Definitely, one of the best ways to build systems for your business, creating this kind of sales engine that just runs itself. Now, one other thing I noticed about, that I really like, is the design of your, of your website, artofplay.com. Talk to us about this: did you hire a designer for this? What went into building this site?
Dave: This is actually a theme on your theme shop. I can’t remember what the theme is called, but it really stood out to us, because it’s super clean, it’s on white, there’s lots of room around each thumb nail, which just makes it, to me, kind of like a museum, and we really want our cards to be like individual pieces of art, so this, that’s why this theme in particular stood out to us, and it just has a nice flow to it. It looks great on mobile, it looks great on any platform, actually.
Felix: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Do you, have you made any tweaks to it, or do you, have you experimented with finding ways to improve?
Dave: Yeah, we actually … It’s HayCar- Is that what it’s actually called? HeyCarson, Dan?
Dan: Yeah. HeyCarson has done a lot of tweaks, actually, to sort of customize it to our needs. I couldn’t tell you at this point what all those are, because it’s … It’s just been a process of improving over, I think we’ve had this theme for about a year, now, but we’ve sort of made it our own with the service called HeyCarson, which is on-demand development within, like, 72 hours, and they’re really good.
Felix: Yeah, definitely heard good things about them. Do you remember any particular experiments or changes that you’ve made to the site that had a significant boost to either sales or conversions?
Dan: Hmm, that’s a good question.
Dave: Most of our tweaks to the website are more for aesthetic preference. It’s just, like, a lot of the tweaks we’ve made are because we didn’t like the way something looked, so it wasn’t necessarily, “Hey, how can we sell this better,” although maybe that would be smart.
Felix: I think you’re on to something, where if your audience cares about design, and that’s why they’re coming here to buy your products, that should be the main focus, not on “How can we put a pop-up up that will generate us more emails”, or anything like that. I think you’re onto a good point, because a lot of times everyone thinks, “Okay, let me try this experiment that everyone says I should do, that everyone says is going to increase my conversions,” and they go down a direction that doesn’t necessarily make sense for their target customers, and I think for you guys, because design is so important. You should approach it with “How do we improve the aesthetics of the store”, and I think that’s definitely the right approach.
Dave: Yeah. The user experience is key. Like, so often we go to website, and you just feel bombarded by sales tactics, whether it’s a popup, or an up-sale, or a little window at the bottom, or, you know, like even if you try to click the back button you get another popup, which I think we actually use, but there are so many, and I think the point is to choose them carefully, and don’t use them all, because if you use them all, I mean, at least in our opinion, we’re going to annoy our customers.
Felix: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Dave: We would much rather have our customers have an enjoyable, pleasant experience, and maybe they don’t purchase with us the first time, but if they’re going to come back to us, then they’re customers for life. At least, we think so. That’s our intention. We really try to give them the best possible experience.
Dan: One of … I’ll say one of the obstacles we’re currently trying to overcome is, for example, if you go to our amusements collection on the site, it’s filled with really cool things, like hand-spun spinning tops, a chess set, a brass [inaudible 00:52:13], these tippy-top things, a wooden dice. They were great online, but we had this showroom here at our warehouse, and it’s not until you come and actually see it and feel it in person that you can truly appreciate it, and I think once that happens you want it even more, and so trying to transcend that to a 2-D piece of … On the web, basically, is difficult for us. We think if we can figure out a way to get that across, you know, sales will be improved significantly, but until then, they’re just photos. We promise they’re so much cooler in real life.
Felix: Yeah, I think that’s the ultimate challenge of being online, is that you lose out on the ability to pick up a product and to feel it in your hands, and I think that’s where a lot of the value, especially when it comes to these kind of products, that’s where a lot of the value is: feeling the weight of it, feeling how the texture of it, and all that. I think that’s a good point: it’s definitely a challenge that I think a lot of entrepreneurs face.
Dan: Yeah. One of the things I guess we’ve done to sort of improve that is our lifestyle photos. We really take great effort into showing the product in unique, nice lifestyle settings, you know, whether it’s on a coffee table, surrounded by other cool objects, or on a bookshelf, or in someone’s hands, playing with it. That’s helped us significantly.
Felix: Awesome. Cool. So, again, thanks so much for your time, Dan and Dave. So, artofplay.com, A-R-T-O-F-P-L-A-Y.com. So, by the time this episode gets released, actually it will probably be in the holiday shopping season, so I think your products are prices and are just perfect for gifts. How do you prepare for the holiday shopping season? What do you guys have planned?
Dan: Lots of cool stuff. We’ve just recently started manufacturing our own games and puzzles, so we’ll be releasing a couple of those just in time for the holiday season. We have some really cool new decks coming out: we’re always coming out with decks, but we always save the best for the end of the year, for the holiday season; and we typically drop everything on Black Friday. We have, every year we have an epic release of 20 new products. I’m not even joking. It’s crazy, it’s insane, we have a sale, so Art of Play is definitely the place to go for all your holiday gifts, really.
Dave: One of the cool things that I’m really excited about, this will be the third year we do it: we call it the 25 days of Christmas, and if you get on our mailing list, we have this special promotion where every day … I know it sounds crazy, but every day we offer something new, whether it’s a brand-new release, or a rare, one-of-a-kind item, or a crazy discount, or a freebie. Every day, for 25 days of December, there’s something new, and only people on our newsletter have access to this special offer.
Felix: Awesome. Definitely going to get on that newsletter, then. All right, thank you again so much for your time, Dan and Dave.
Dave: Thanks for having us.
Dan: Yeah, this was [inaudible 00:55:34], thank you.
Felix: Here’s a sneak peek for what’s in store the next Shopify Masters episode.
Speaker 2: Honestly, on a daily basis, I like to have one sample come in to see if I like it personally before I even put it on the shelves.
Felix: Thanks for listening to Shopify Masters: the e-commerce marketing podcast for ambitious entrepreneurs. To start your store today, visit Shopify.com/masters to claim your extended 30-day free trial. As for this episode’s show notes, head over to shopify.com/blog.