Autopsy of a T-Shirt Brand

Pixelivery—our line of simple pixel art tees—is dead, and we killed it.

The Beginning

Before we get to why, let’s talk about how. How was Pixelivery conceived? Having accumulated gigabytes of pixel art (the file size irony isn’t lost on us), we had to ask: wouldn’t our friends outside the industry like a nice pixelated graphic tee? After all, everyone we knew grew up playing 8-bit video games and watching blocky videos on VHS. Maybe a line of shirts based on nostalgia and designs we already had in the can would be a hit. Pixelivery tees could be for anybody. A real t-shirt brand! Surely we’d sell thousands and Urban Outfitters or Target would be calling any day to take the whole thing off our hands.

Still, we had other priorities, so Pixelivery (or whatever it was called then) never really got off the ground—until our pal Dave Rupert said he would be first in line to buy a pixel Texas tee, and, hey, why aren’t you selling those anyway? With that kick in the pants, we began plotting.

We previewed the brand on United Pixelworkers last summer with three shirts—the Bike, the Anchor, and the Ampersand—then launched Pixelivery as a standalone site with a 50 states series of its own. Things started off well enough. The Bike tee sold like crazy, the 50 States series moved about 1,000 shirts in two weeks, and we were linked by Swiss MissNOTCOTTypekit, and Laughing Squid. Not a bad beginning.

The Ending

But after the launch rush, and once we took the Pixelworkers training wheels off, traffic—and with it, sales—slowed to a drip. We’d sell a few dozen shirts per month, punctuated by intermittent rushes from the odd link here and there (looking at you, Uncrate). We ran flash sales on MightyDeals, Huckberry, and Fab (an experience that warrants a blog post of its own) trying to goose our numbers, but the sales didn’t cross over. We advertised on The Talk Show, Evening Edition, Let’s Make Mistakes, and Fusion Ads, but none made a long-term difference in traffic. When we rolled out a new 50 states series a few months ago to a chorus of crickets—a move that historically brought tons of traffic—we knew the end was nigh.

The problem was, building a brand takes real work, and Pixelivery was last on our list of priorities (with client work, United Pixelworkers, and the brand-new Cotton Bureau ahead of it). We were never able to give it our full attention, and we always hoped in the back of our minds that maybe it would take off on its own. We didn’t develop many new products. We didn’t put much effort into a blog, our email list, or Twitter/Pinterest/Instagram/Facebook. We didn’t perform any meaningful outreach to bloggers. We didn’t offer wholesale to brick-and-mortar shops. We certainly didn’t adopt any more aggressive online retail strategies like re-targeting, emailing people about abandoned carts, or blanketing the site with share buttons. In retrospect, we kicked it out of the nest and crossed our fingers. It’s no surprise that it didn’t fly for very long.

What now?

Just because it wasn’t working doesn’t mean it couldn’t have worked. And we weren’t without our successes, namely the Jolly RogerHeartCamera, and Coffee Mug tees. We still think Pixelivery is a monster concept; we’ve simply decided our time and effort are better spent elsewhere. So starting now, Pixelivery is back home on United Pixelworkers. We’ll be phasing out the “Pixelivery” moniker from all products—replacing it with the simpler “pixel” prefix. We think anyone who likes pixel art tees is welcome to come to United Pixelworkers to buy ’em. We’re betting most people won’t even notice there’s an entire story behind the store. For the rest of us, it’ll be our little secret.

We’re not finished with the transition, but we are currently running our annual 50 states sale—this time in full-color—and there are only a few days left. Don’t miss out.


Vital Stats

  • Conceived, April 10, 2012. Born, October 5, 2012. Killed, July 4, 2013.
  • Traffic: 75,723 visitors, 258,863 page views, 2.72 pages / visit, 79.49% new visits.
  • Conversion: 1.81%, 2,040 transactions
  • Social: 1,153 MailChimp subscribers, 1,069 followers on Twitter, 213 likes on Facebook.
  • Money: $55,108.92 in revenue, $7,500 ad spend, ~$40,000+ inventory.
  • Bottom line: Big time commitment, negligible profit.

Even on cruise control an online t-shirt store has orders to fulfill, customers to service, inventory to buy, and a site to maintain. We could have limped along for years. Maybe we would have caught a break or made a splash before the holidays. We chose not to take that path. We sold our byproducts. Now we’re pruning the dead wood.

What do you want to know? Ask us anything. And while you’re at it, tell us what we did wrong.

Here are some comments

  1. Thanks for the honest account of the process. Your humility and openness has not gone unnoticed by this customer.

  2. One thing I’ve come to love about the Full Stop brands is that you’re actually giving it a go – so congrats on taking risks in this rocky economic time we live in and consistantly exploring new products. Pixelworkers and Cotton Bureau are both fantastic creations, but from the onset, I was a bit confused about Pixelivery. As a consumer, I didnt find the product different enough from the Pixelworkers gear to merit its own brand and separate website. Maybe its just the circles I find myself in, but a lot of the buzz around Pixelivery seemed to be from the same folks who support Pixelworkers – and obviously the design aesthetic, both with the site and the shirts – screamed Pixelworkers. Maybe a failure to differentiate the products led to a more narrow audience than expected?

    Just some thoughts from a consumer perspective. Regardless, the other new product, Cotton Bureau – seems like a wonderful and much needed website. A great resource to get other designers thinking about selling products alongside of services. Bummer to hear about Pixelivery, but props for talking about the issue, and not just “giving up” and sweeping it under a rug. Keep up the great work.

  3. Just wanted to say that I love the blog entries here. The writing is great. I enjoy reading the candidness of your experiences. I had a t-shirt business in the past that now just consists of two massive orders per year. Everything discussed is relatable to me.

    Keep up the great work and keep writing about your experiences.

  4. Thanks for the details and candidness. The beauty of having your design and t-shirt “infrastructure” is that you can take a shot at things like Pixelivery and Cotton Bureau without starting from scratch. Kudos for giving it a shot and for “quitting” (in the Seth Godin, Dip-ish sense of the word) the good in favor of the best. I can relate to some of this, having started a t-shirt brand, rebranded it, and now putting it on hiatus for a while. Like you, I still think my brand/concept is strong, but I need to regroup and do it differently going forward.

    Keep up the good work, AND the experimentation!

  5. Maybe a silly question, but why not let the concept live on in a site like Spreadshirt? There’s an initial setup, sure, and less profit (you choose the commission amount for each design/item), but virtually zero legwork once you go live. Any time spent on social would certainly help, but a marketplace like Spreadshirt means raking in when other sellers sell your designs in their store. You could start an “extra vacation fund” with those commissions.