At the risk of burying the lede, let us tell you a story about the first time we attended SXSW. This was March 2011, just after we’d launched the first major revision of United Pixelworkers. UP was showing the first signs of life, but we were still complete nobodies. We had no meaningful clients, no Twitter followers, no industry friends. We’d never even been to a real conference before. Walking around Austin with some new pals we’d met the night before (you know them as Dave Rupert and Reagan Ray from Paravel), we ran into Adam Michela. We introduced ourselves as Jay and Nate from Full Stop, a web design studio in Pittsburgh, PA. Suffice it to say he’d never heard of us. A little while later over beers, Adam casually asked us what kinds of projects we worked on. We rattled off a list of no-name clients, then said that we had a small t-shirt brand called United Pixelworkers. “Whoa!” he replied. “You’re the United Pixelworkers guys?! Forget your other company. From now on, you should introduce yourselves as United Pixelworkers.” It’s not much of an overstatement to say that that moment forever changed the course of our business.
If you’re reading this blog post, you don’t need us to tell you what came next, but let’s do it anyway for posterity. Over the next three years, United Pixelworkers became an industry phenomenon. We sold tens of thousands of shirts (and hats, and notebooks, and patches). We got to team up with our heroes on awesome t-shirt designs, people we’re lucky enough to now call friends. Aaron Draplin designed our killer logo…something we still can’t believe. We started our own podcast, job board, blog, and even a massive March Madness pool. We’ve given talks all around the country (hell, we even told our story in Sweden). We can walk into any design conference on the planet and see people wearing our shirts. Along with our friends Bearded Studio, Brad Frost, and Web Design Day, we put our hometown of Pittsburgh on the web industry map. United Pixelworkers—more than anything else we’ve ever done in 5+ years of being in business—is responsible for our success. It’s so important that we founded a completely separate and far more successful t-shirt company on the back of UP’s reputation. All because of a dumb little idea Jay had in the car driving across Pennsylvania in early 2010. A t-shirt brand for a fake web design union.
Alright, enough stalling. Today, we’re bittersweetly announcing the end of United Pixelworkers. We’re closing up shop, and Cotton Bureau will be our sole business focus.
All things—especially good things—must end. United Pixelworkers could have ended years ago—or it could have gone on indefinitely—but it didn’t and it won’t. The time for it to end is now, and the rest of this post will hopefully explain the why and how. Let’s answer some questions.
Yeah, we know this probably comes as a bit of a shock. The truth is, United Pixelworkers was never as big as you probably thought it was. At its absolute apex (a time period we’d pin somewhere around mid-2012), it maybe—maybe—earned enough profit to support one of us full-time (and there are 4 of us over here). It was a side project for Full Stop, and when we closed that, it became a side project for Cotton Bureau (and for comparison, Cotton Bureau is currently 2–3x as big as United Pixelworkers was at its peak). UP’s brand momentum has slowed significantly. Sales have certainly slowed, we can tell you that. Here’s the thing: business is a grind. People get tired of hearing about your thing. They don’t share it with the same enthusiasm they once did, especially if you’re not giving it 100% of your time and effort (and we never were…not even close).
So what’s going to happen to United Pixelworkers?
United Pixelworkers the store is closing Dec. 18th. That’s the last day we can reasonably expect to get orders shipped in time to be there for Christmas domestically (and we’re stocked up for the holidays, so if you want to buy something, we wouldn’t wait). The blog and podcast will stick around. Mockup templates will remain available for sale through Creative Market. We’ll almost certainly replace the site with a note to remember us by. The Twitter account and mailing list will go quiet. The legal entity, United Pixelworkers LP, and all associated intellectual property will continue to be owned by us in the event some future incarnation of United Pixelworkers rises from these ashes. We’re not ruling out a comeback someday if circumstances change, but this certainly feels like the end.
I understand that UP has slowed down, but does it have to die?
We hate to walk away from this. We have to, though. We have to walk away or we will never know if Cotton Bureau can be a company that provided for 10 people (or 100 people) instead of five people. If we can build something that lets us stop living paycheck-to-paycheck like we’ve been doing for 5+ years. If we can touch 100,000 people a year instead of 10,000. Maybe we’re doing this all wrong, but we’re doing it our way. Truth be told, we could probably keep United Pixelworkers going for another year or so, churning out a new product or two every month, realizing a steady but ever-slowing trickle of not-quite-passive income. But that’s not what we want, and neither do you. None of us want to see UP die in a hospital room, hooked up to life support. If it’s gonna go out, let’s send it out with a bang. Let’s drive it off a goddamn cliff together, like Thelma & Louise. Whaddaya say?
OK sure. How do I help?
This part is easy. The most important thing you could do is follow us to Cotton Bureau. Follow us on Twitter, on Instagram, on Tumblr, and sign up for our weekly newsletter. As far as United Pixelworkers goes, we’re leaving you with a sweet gold foil-printed tee to remember us by. It’s called UP Forever and it comes in black, white, and a black crewneck pullover (available for pre-order until November 19). It’s the last United Pixelworkers shirt we’re ever gonna make, so don’t miss it.
We also have shelves full of stock for the holiday season. If you’ve been eyeing a classic UP tee, hat, beanie, or notebook, now’s the time to grab it.
Why don’t you sell United Pixelworkers?
Nobody has ever asked. Maybe that’s because it’s not worth buying, maybe it’s because we haven’t made an effort to talk to the right people. We have no plans to sell United Pixelworkers, but we would consider it if the right person or group of people was interested. Whether we’re not particularly good at running this business or the stars just haven’t aligned, we can honestly say that we saw a future where United Pixelworkers was 10x bigger than it currently is. We talked internally about making sure everyone that worked with pixels felt like part of the club, we talked about bigger and better apparel products, what we could do if we had money to advertise, membership programs, union benefits, conferences, co-working spaces, and, frankly, many other equally fantastic things. If someone wants to follow through on those dreams, we know that the smartest, most talented, most attractive people on the Internet are subscribed to our newsletter and follow @pixelworkers on Twitter. The Aaron Draplin mark is absolutely killer. The name is great, the domain is great, etc. If you want to talk to us about how to keep United Pixelworkers going, email email@example.com.
We want to thank the following friends for their support over the years (in alphabetical order): A Book Apart, Aaron Draplin, Bearded Studio, Big Cartel, Bobby McKenna, Brad Frost, Build Responsively, Chris Glass, Colin Miller, Creative Market, Curtis Jinkins, Cute Fight, Dan Cassaro, Dan Mall, Discourse, Dribbble, Erik Marinovich, Ethan Marcotte, Evan Stremke, Gerren Lamson, Happy Cog, IA Summit, InVision, Jeffrey Zeldman, Jessica Hische, Jez Burrows, Jon Contino, Jonathan Snook, Jory Raphael, Kyle Steed, Letterpress, Loren Brichter, Lost Type, Mat Marquis, Matt Stevens, Meagan Fisher, Mig Reyes, Mike Monteiro, Mule Radio, Naz Hamid, Nishant Kothary, Offscreen Magazine, Paul Armstrong, Phil Coffman, Rdio, Rick Murphy, Ron Lewis, Ryan Clark, Ryan Katrina, Sarah Parmenter, Sergey Shapiro, Shopify, Studio Neat, Tattly, The Clink Room, The Manual, Tim Boelaars, Tim Van Damme, Tyler Galpin, Virb, and anyone who ever sponsored a local tee (with a very special nod to Eric Meyer and An Event Apart).
If you helped support us by buying our stuff, there’s no way we can ever thank you enough for everything you’ve done for us over the years. We thought United Pixelworkers was a match, but you turned it into a bonfire.
Jay, Nate, Matt, Sara, and Laura
United Pixelworkers (2010–forever)
We’re thrilled to finally have Palm Beach represented on the Pixelworkers team. Originally a resort town, Palm Beach is now a bustling community on the Easternmost edge of Florida. With a motto like “The Best Of Everything” it reasons that some of that everything would be web workers. Represent your profession and your city with this iconic tee!
A huge shout out goes to our sponsor, and undying supporter of all things web and Palm Beach related, Steve Shreve. It was his drive and determination that made this shirt a reality. Steve recently started a local Dribbble Meet Up for Palm Beach as well. For more information, reach out to him on twitter!
Hello, again. We come bearing gifts.
Do you design things? Are you familiar with Macaw? Look here, Macaw lets you design real, honest-to-goodness websites not pictures of websites. You work visually but you see the code, and, lo, it was good. That’s all we’ve ever asked for.
We are authorized to give away two completely free Macaw licenses (retail price: $179!). If you’ve been paying attention, the way we give away licenses is utterly private, spamless, and doesn’t require you to nag a single one of your friends. Just go here, enter your email, and wait. Since Macaw is crazy awesome and we want everyone to have a chance to sign up, we’ll do the drawing Friday morning. How’s that?
One more thing. The guys who make Macaw are terribly friendly and make money by selling products directly to you, the customer. What a novel idea. If you want to support Macaw, go buy a license when this little contest is over. We have a fantastic discount for you: get Macaw for just $99 when you enter the code “UNITEDPIXELWORKERS”. That’s a steal.
Standard disclaimer: these email addresses will be used exclusively for the purpose of selecting contest winners.
In juuust about a week (Oct. 2–3) our friends at Evernote are putting on a pretty swinging conference in San Francisco starring Adam Savage, Jamie Hyneman, Reid Hoffman, Tim Ferriss, and other people.
If that sounds like your kind of thing—and you promise you can make it—drop your email address in this here bucket. We’ll be randomly selecting two winners at 2:00 PM EDT TODAY, so don’t delay. If you just can’t wait (or aren’t selected) Evernote is offering Pixelworkers a special deal: get 50% off your ticket by entering UP50 at checkout.
Standard disclaimer: these email addresses will be used exclusively for the purpose of selecting contest winners.
Oh, sure, Symbolicons: the versatile, always appropriate icon mega-set from
comedian illustrator Jory Raphael. Three copies, yep. Jory has lovingly donated three free Symbolicons MASTER BUNDLES for some lucky Pixelworkers.
As usual, to qualify for the master bundle drawing, we just need an email address to contact you when it’s all said and done. (Standard disclaimer: these email addresses will be used exclusively for the purpose of selecting the three contest winners.) Ready? Enter your email address right here. We’ll pick a winner in a few days so everyone has a chance to sign up.
P.S. If you just can’t wait, Jory also hooked us up with a sweet 20% off discount code (master bundle only). Go to symbolicons.com and enter the code “AWESOMESAUCE” at checkout. What do you think he means by “awesomesauce”, probably maple syrup, right?
Hey, everyone. Our friends at Shopify (affiliate link because Shopify are awesome) are hosting a brand-new conference in just two weeks dedicated to exploring and growing the contributions of women in the world of technology. The conference—Beyond the Code—is scheduled for September 19th at the Ottawa Convention Center. We’ve got one free ticket that we’d love to give away. If you or a friend would like to attend, please drop your email address in our survey box. A winner will be randomly selected tomorrow afternoon. Like last time, these email addresses will be used exclusively for the purpose of selecting the contest winner. Do us a favor and help spread the word on this one, eh?
(Comments on this blog post are not considered to be contest entries. Please use the Google Form. Thanks.)
We’re giving away two free-for-a-year CodePen PRO accounts. CodePen is a fantastic code sharing and discovery tool from Chris Coyier, Alex Vazquez, and Tim Sabat. While CodePen is great out of the box, PRO takes it up a notch with Collab Mode, Professor Mode, asset hosting, private pens, and more.
If you’re a front-end developer/engineer/dabbler, you probably already know and love CodePen. To qualify for the PRO account drawing, we just need an email address to contact you if (when?) you win. (We also want to make sure that the winners truly want/need a CodePen PRO account. That’s why we’re asking you to jump through this one, tiny hoop. Also, it should go without saying, but these email addresses will be used exclusively for the purpose of selecting the two contest winners.)
That’s it. Just enter your email address right here. We’ll pick a winner in about a day to let everyone who wants to participate sign up. Thanks, everyone. (And a special thanks to Chris for donating the memberships.)
We got to thinking the other day that there’s no reason we can’t share some of our sales figures here. Maybe you think we rake it in, maybe you never gave it a second thought. Either way, this should be interesting.
Here’s the big picture, August 7–15, 2:00 PM (that’s almost nine days, so more than a typical week):
- Total sales revenue (does not include shipping & handling): $6,022
- Total cost of goods sold (COGS): $3,648
- Net profit: $2,374
That’s… not great. Ideally we’d like to be at 100% markup, just like any other retailer. Because we’re dealing with such small quantities, however, and because we are printing with water-based ink (expensive) on tri-blend tees (really expensive), a $25 tee just isn’t going to hit that ratio without selling in the triple digits. That said, let’s break down our sales for the week.
Units Sold, Pre-Order:
- Futura Series Standard Issue: 54
- Futura Series Boston: 18
- Futura Series Chicago: 24
- Futura Series New York City: 15
- Futura Series Philadelphia: 28
- Futura Series Pittsburgh: 18
- Futura Series San Francisco: 17
- Total: 174
A normal week for us sees only one new product. The six locals are somewhat of an exception. We know they’re not going to go over 50 sales per tee unless we catch a break. In some ways, they’re sort of like a loss leader: we hope they bring people to the site and, more than that, we hope people like ‘em even if we can’t keep them in stock.
By the way, here’s something you should know about t-shirt sales: you need to print at least a few dozen—preferably way, way more—to make it worthwhile. You’ll notice only three of our seven pre-order shirts are in that range… which means we’ll need to order extra tees, cutting into profit until we can move them. It also means that while we love the new designs, next week will almost certainly be our last run. Don’t worry, we’re going out with a bang. (If your city didn’t make it, we sincerely apologize. The long tail of cities is… long.)
Beyond the pre-order, we were able to sell a number of in-stock shirts, hats, t-shirt mockups, stickers, etc. that amounted to a little over a third of our profit during that span. Those items have some additional costs like storage, guest designer cuts, and having capital tied up in the original inventory purchase.
Speaking of costs, we’ve got a whole bunch that didn’t make the above COGS list.
For example, we’re four people (Nate, Jay, Matt, Sara) putting in a total of about 15–20 hours / week coming up with the shirt concepts, creating mockups, adding products to Shopify, building the website and keeping it up-to-date, writing the newsletters, packing and mailing products, answering customer service emails, rounding up tickets and other goodies to give away, corresponding with you all on Twitter, and writing blog posts. (If you‘re wondering where the rest of our time goes, do you know about our sister site, Cotton Bureau?)
Then there’s the software we use like MailChimp, Shopify, Linode, Dropbox, and Slack. We’ve also got rent, parking, accountants, lawyers, shipping supplies, ad nauseum. Some of those costs are shared with Cotton Bureau, but not all of them. How do we quantify the 4+ years of developing a reputation as trustworthy, handsome, and stylish?
As far as promotion, we sent out two newsletters for this run and tweeted directly to the home page or product page at least 20 times, fretting each time we were making a nuisance of ourselves but equally worried that because these weren’t coming back, we’d hear for months from those that missed out.
So that’s a week(ish) in the life and sales of United Pixelworkers. Were these numbers bigger than you expected? Smaller? They fluctuate with our efforts and, of course, with the unpredictable winds of external publicity. Sometimes it seems United Pixelworkers has exceeded our wildest dreams; other times, we wonder if there isn’t another 10x it could grow if we just pushed all the right buttons.
Yeah, it’s all a little “to sell t-shirts you must first invent the universe”, but… it’s true. Retail is hard (like anything else worth doing, right?), but we like it, we’re getting better at it all the time, and we’ve got lots of buttons left to press.
We’re so happy to welcome Surf City to the Pixelworkers team. Once a Spanish Mission town, Santa Cruz is now a budding seaside community just south of San Jose. Santa Cruz is one of the best surfing spots in the entire world and home to a design community that loves to take advantage of all that it has to offer. The Surf Museum was the only logical choice to be featured as our pixelated icon for this tee.
We’ve got to send a big shout out to our Santa Cruz sponsor, Cosmic Studio. Not only did they sponsor this tee for you, they designed it as well. Cosmic was founded by Eric Ressler in 2007 and his team has been producing beautiful (and responsive) sites for clients ever since. Some of their client work has included sites for PlanGrid and The Grateful Dead Archive Online. Thanks for making Santa Cruz happen, Team Cosmic!
This week’s conference giveaway is for Steel City Ruby Conf in our hometown of Pittsburgh, PA on August 15–16. We have two passes to give away, so if you want one, leave a comment below and we’ll pick a winner next Monday.