Robleh Jama likes to build things.
If that wasn’t enough hustle for one person, Robleh also built a successful Shopify store called Busy Building Things. His store has made waves with tech and design bloggers for selling original prints with illustrated quotes that encourage others to start building their own things, too.
When Robleh’s app studio Tiny Hearts was acquired by Shopify in December, his motivational prints found a new home here on The Stockroom. In recognition of all of the beautiful products we’ve inherited because of Robleh’s hard work, I sat down with him to learn what made his online store so successful.
This is Robleh Jama, Founder of Tiny Hearts and Busy Building Things. Now a Product Manager at Shopify.
What was happening in your life when you came up with the idea to start Busy Building Things?
It’s kind of a weird story, actually. I didn’t start out selling motivational prints online. At the time I was focusing on creating apps, for what would become my mobile app studio, Tiny Hearts.
I was building apps in my spare time— evenings and weekends. I spent a lot of late nights building things. I remember late one night thinking to myself “busy building things”. I thought it was a cool idea that was simple, yet encompassed so much. I thought it could be a motto for people that make stuff happen and turn their ideas into tangible things.
I went online and searched for the domain. It was available, so I bought it right then but didn’t end up doing anything with it for a while because I was still focused on building apps.
As a creative person and an entrepreneur, I also recognized that there wasn’t an existing brand for people like myself. There was technology that we use—like Apple products—but there wasn’t a lifestyle brand like Nike is for sports, or Burton is for snowboarding. I remember thinking that Busy Building Things could be this brand for the subculture of Entrepreneurs that I identified with.
How did you decide on motivational prints as the product you would sell?
I thought about a lot of different products I could create for the Busy Building Things brand. I wanted the products to be motivational and to inspire people since this is where the “things” people build begins.
Ultimately I landed on posters and prints because they were lightweight and light-touch. I figured it would be easier to manage, from an inventory standpoint, than something like clothing or shoes.
Once I paired together the motivational aspect and the prints, it began to make a lot of sense. We’re all Busy Building Things, sitting in rooms with walls around us. Why not make these walls a bit more interesting and inspiring?
When you talk about the brand you say things like “we” a lot. At this point did you start doing market research around who your potential customer would be?
I know market research is important but to be honest, I didn’t really do too much of it. I more so looked at this product as something that I would want for myself and deep down I knew that there are people hustling everyday to make things happen, and they might want this too.
Did you look at existing motivational prints to decide how yours would be different?
I looked around the poster space briefly and saw that most of the companies making them focused on pumping out as many posters as possible. If I went to google images and searched “inspirational prints” most that came up were photos of big mountains with a corny quote at the bottom.
I had some specific quotes and messages I wanted to produce that I didn’t see being executed elsewhere. Design was also very important to me and most other companies making prints didn’t focus on design. For me, it wasn’t just about the words and the quotes, it was also about how the visuals were used to communicate that message.
Once you had your product idea, how did you make them?
I began by putting together a moodboard to try and visualize what the end product would look like. I did the creative direction, but since I’m not a graphic designer, I had to find someone who could execute on the artwork.
The first places I started looking for an Illustrator was on Dribble and Behance. I was focused on finding someone who was producing interesting original typographic prints that matched my creative vision.
I ended up finding a design I really liked that said “Make it Look Nice”. I could tell the typography was custom and that the designer was really talented so I reached out to him.
How long did it take to produce one of the products with the Designer?
It varied, depending on the print. Sometimes I had a super clear vision of what I wanted it to look like. For others, we had to go through several options before finding the one that worked.
One example is the Real Artists Ship print. That’s a quote from Steve Jobs that really resonated with me. I liked the idea of using a ship and anchor to visualize this. I began by sketching it out, with the ship positioned above the water and the message below with the anchor running through it. After the sketch was done I gave it to the Illustrator and he would just take it to another level of fidelity.
Similarly, with the Just Ship It poster, the idea for the quote came from Nike’s Just Do It. For this print I began by folding up a piece of paper into a boat and then unfolding it, revealing these crisp fold lines in the paper. I scanned the paper and those lines became the background for the design.
I really liked thinking of these little details and including them in the prints. They aren’t obvious at first, but once you discover them they make the product much more interesting.
What about manufacturing? Did you do bulk runs or print-on-demand?
When I was ready to launch Busy Building Things I did some googling for printing fulfillment centers. This was before Printful was on Shopify and there weren’t as many print-on-demand apps as there are today.
I ended up working with a printing company in California called Jondo and a developer to create a custom API that would connect their fulfillment center to our Shopify store. This introduced them to the market for print-on-demand and they eventually launched Printhouse.
By the time you launched your website, how many prints did you have in the collection?
We had one series with about 8 or 10 when we launched. That initial series was very type-focused, with the idea of making stuff happen being central to the collection. They focused on the idea that there are a lot of dreamers, but then there are those who actually turn their dreams into reality. This is who those posters are for.
The second series we produced went a slightly different route. We explored the experience of building things, and the journey you go on, the problems and hurdles you face as an Entrepreneur.
The posters were not only to inspire you to get started, but I also wanted to encourage people to finish.
Do you remember getting your first sale?
I know a lot of people talk about their first sale, but honestly I can’t quite remember it. It might be that my memory sucks, but also, what sticks out more are those weeks when we had tons of sales.
Remember, while all this was going on, Busy Building Things was still a side hustle for me. Most of my time was still spent making apps for Tiny Hearts studio. In 2011 my app business experienced an unexpected dip in revenue, and if it wasn’t for this side hustle— Busy Building Things— Tiny Hearts would have gone under.
There were weeks where we made over $6,000 selling prints. These are the weeks I still remember to this day because they allowed me to continue building apps full-time and made me realize there really was a huge opportunity for these prints.
What marketing were you doing that led to these weeks where you were selling tons of products?
One thing that worked really well was offering the prints as free digital wallpapers, in exchange for email addresses. This is how we grew our email list and were able to market to people through emails.
Another thing that offering free wallpapers did was create word-of-mouth marketing and buzz for our products. I remember meeting people and seeing that they were using our wallpapers on their phones, and they didn’t even know that I was the one selling them. That was really cool because it allowed us to spread this positive message through our prints for free.
At the time there were also a lot of marketplaces that curated products. One popular one was Fab.com, which was a flash sale community that grew very quickly. I was able to get in there early by sending some prints and a note to the founders and they ended up putting us in a couple different flash sales.
What about press and PR? You were mentioned in some pretty big blogs and publications.
Yes. One blog that brought us attention was Swiss Miss. I was a big fan of Tina’s (the founder of Swiss Miss and Creative Mornings) blog and reached out to her by sending a product and eventually building a relationship with her. She liked the free digital wallpapers we offered and recognized that it was valuable for her audience.
The same thing happened with Life Hacker. They wrote about The Year of Hustle Calendar because it was related to a productivity method inspired by the Seinfeld TV show. I reached out to them because I thought our products would resonate with their following, and they ended up writing about us.
PR is a really valuable skill to have. What I learned through doing PR, was that if your product or story brings value to a blogger’s audience, they will write about you. When the content is relevant it becomes a win-win situation because it will drive traffic to your website, for months and even years following the original post.
Your prints eventually ended up in the offices of Google, Mailchimp and Shopify. How did that happen?
I think it goes back to Doing Things and Telling People. People who work in those offices read blogs like Swiss Miss, or publications like Next Web and Life Hacker. There was an overlap between the PR we were getting and the tech community that worked at those companies.
The prints themselves are also conversation starters. I attribute this factor to their reach, which eventually got us into these offices. When someone would see one on the wall, they would say “hey, where did you get that from?”.
The key to sparking organic word of mouth is having a product that is worth talking about.
Are you ready to start pitching your product to the media? Download 3 free pitch email templates you can copy, paste and customize.