ECommerce Brand

July 2020 - Now


Note, this page is under revision and has to be edited.

The start of the pandemic really left us with an entire vat of free time- what better way to use it than to start an online business!

How it all started

Looking at my bank account was quite tough: no more than $2,000 bucks at any given time. After school ended in June of 2020, I knew I had a lot of extra time, and without enough wits to get a job, my mind settled on “oh well, looks like we have to start a business!”. Soon after summer break started, I began brainstorming ideas and chose to improve upon the often cheap generic car enthusiast keychain.


The problem

My older brother, Henry, is a car enthusiast. From his first Mitsubishi lancer to a BMW 335i, he always kept his car in great shape: frequent washes, interior details, and always waiting for the full five to ten minutes for the car to warm up after he started it. I also noticed that Henry liked to customize his car and make it feel special to him. Custom-painted brake calipers and specially-wrapped interiors were some of his favorite things to do. Now, I noticed that once Henry left his car, it didn’t stay with him, but his keys did. The competition for car enthusiast keychains at the time consisted of plastic turbo keychains and maybe a generic rim if the owner had more taste. I thought this wasn’t enough and thought car enthusiasts deserved better, so I set out to change that with a customizable LED keychain for car enthusiasts.


First prototypes

I thought long and hard about how to customize a keychain: should it be printed? engraved? Maybe I could somehow use LED’s to achieve a similar effect? My first prototype involved using my grandma’s old printer and a 3D printed template to load a small plastic part through the machine and test printing. Needless to say, this didn’t work out; shortly after pressing print, the machine spat out a wet blob of various inks on top of the plastic. I was determined to continue, however, and went back to the drawing board to find a solution.


I quickly remembered a light-up F-22 fighter jet from Henry’s room and thought of ways to replicate this. A few google searches showed me that the process of engraving the surface of acrylic could achieve the same effect with light. Shortly after, I stumbled across the glorious K-40 laser, the extremely safe, US-inspected very-low power laser that passes all of it’s inspections- not.


After receiving the machine, I performed several safety mods to ensure that I didn’t zap my hand with the laser, or worse, have the beam hit my eye and permanently blind me. Quickly after, I tried engraving on several materials and had seen my first micro-victory! The car I had designed on my computer was accurately plotted on this piece of acrylic and it looked great.


Finding suppliers and testing the product

Now that I had the customization part of my product down, I needed a way to shine a light through it while also making my piece of acrylic a keychain. I stumbled across a supplier based in Shenzhen on google who provided exactly what I need: a plastic, battery-powered LED base for light-up acrylic keychains. Luckily for me, David from this new supplier spoke great English and worked easily with me to get a sample order of 100 keychains ready to ship


Keep in mind, at this point, I had somewhere in the vicinity of $1,200 dollars left in my bank. I had bought a laser cutter, basic eCommerce essentials like Shopify, and a bit of extra material for my laser engraver. It was my go-big or go-home decision: spend the rest of my savings on an order of 100 units or pause where I was and re-think my decision of starting a business. It really was a no-brainer given a few minutes of thought, though, and I knew that even if I lost it all, I’d easily be able to refill my bank via flipping items or working a part-time job.


After dreadfully waiting for the last bits of inventory to arrive, I made my first ever DupedWhipz keychains available online. Funny enough, my first sales goals were something in the realm of “Okay, if I can just sell three or four items a day, I’ll be set and I can go from there”. After trying both direct message advertising and a bit of family-friend support, I quickly realized I’d have to change my marketing strategy if I wanted to achieve that goal. I did know that my products had merit, however; lots of car owners messaged me with interest in my products and asked me how they could order one. It was around this time in early August that I knew I could take my business levels higher than it was now, and I placed an order for a total of 300 units, nearly again using up the entirety of my bank account.


Scale, scale, and scale.

Spreading too thin

Discovering how to utilize Instagram pay-per-click advertising was truly what jumpstarted DupedWhipz. On a normal day, I’d expect to see around cost per result, or how much I paid to acquire one customer on average, sit around $4 or $5 USD. With a total product cost of just under 4 dollars at the time, my net profit margin was over 50 percent. It was easy to scale advertising at this level: just increase the budget! I quickly ran into a problem, however, especially with the rapidly approaching holiday season: sales had almost gotten out of control! This was the last of the problems I thought I would have encountered anywhere in the near future.


Increasing fulfillment capability via robotics

I have always been an engineer- My earliest days involve some experience with my granddad’s Hydrodynamic deluxe building set or clicking together Snap-Circuits on my kitchen table to make a speaker play a tone whenever I pushed a button. Safe to say, I’ve always been a firm believer in building and creating to solve problems.


In the case of DupedWhipz, my 3D printed fixture which could only hold one keychain at a time was extremely inefficient. I would often have to manually load and unload keychains for hours at a time with no breaks in-between. At the time, my first solution which I ended up pursuing involved designing a five-axis robot arm from scratch and utilizing it to load and unload keychains for me! I set out to design Geoffrey later that day and had the arm completely built and programmed within about three weeks.

Read about my five-axis robot arm here:

Long story short, however, Geoffrey was just on the cusp of being reliable enough, but repeatability lead me to not trust the robot to run thirty-five keychains or so unattended overnight.


A more practical approach (Thanks Manvel)

Just because a solution matches your skillset doesn’t mean it’s the right solution.

Manvel, one of my close friends who also takes a similar interest in STEM and business topics like myself, recommended a much more practical topic: Why not just print a gigantic sheet which has slots for 40 or even 50 keychains? There’s no motion systems involved and it’s extremely reliable, and a system like this can even handle more capacity than the robot arm without being reloaded.

It took me only a few hours to 3D model and I had a version 1.0 of the DupedWhipz cookie sheet printed within a couple of days. After running this cookie sheet for the first time and realizing how effortless this was compared to my robot arm, I learned a valuable lesson: Just because a solution matches your skillset doesn’t mean it’s the right solution.


Merging with software to scale

Of course, I couldn’t manually create hundreds of files for this laser machine to run efficiently! I set out to develop SoftBox, our internal fulfillment software that DupedWhipz used to fulfill over 250 items in a single day.

Read about SoftBox here:

Conclusion and Lessons Learned

At it’s peak, DupedWhipz hit an astonishing $216,000 USD in annual revenue and sold over 9,000 units. With school coming back into session and my heavy participation on the robotics team, our fulfillment and sales volume has dramatically decreased, but this was a sacrifice I was willing to make to take advantage of my last year on the school’s robotics team.


Important lessons:

  • Have backup suppliers, always, for everything you buy.
  • Just because you’re good at making a solution doesn’t mean it’s the right solution.
  • Amazon’s two-day shipping creates an expectation from the consumer that your items will arrive in a similar time frame. Ship out orders as soon as possible.
  • Powerful software is essential to scale
  • Balance complexity and simplicity. The right amount of each gives you a competitive advantage over the competition but doesn’t hinder efficiency due to poor reliability.
  • Like what you do for the company. Marketing isn’t for everybody, similar to the technical side of the company.