8 Things I've Learned from 8 Years of Ugmonk

This month marks 8 years of running Ugmonk. As I was preparing for this milestone, I got thinking about how long 8 years really is. It’s twice the length of my formal design education. It’s two presidential terms. It’s enough to get my infant son, who’s just learned to giggle, halfway through elementary school. That’s crazy to me. I’ve learned so much in 8 years that it feels right to pause for a minute and reflect. So here are 8 lessons that stem from my time “in office.” I didn’t learn these things in school, and you probably won’t, either, but they’ve been instrumental in shaping Ugmonk into the brand it is today. I hope they help as you navigate your own journey.

1. You can do a lot with a little.

Ever since day one, Ugmonk has been very DIY. Whether teaching myself product photography on my living room floor or learning how to efficiently pack and ship items to countries halfway across the globe, I have learned so much at every step. Even though we don’t have as many resources as the “big guys,” I always strive to put out quality on par with or better than any other brand out there. This doesn’t mean we have big budgets and fancy equipment because we certainly don’t—it just means getting creative and making do with what we do have. You’d probably be amazed at how many parts of the business are still very DIY to this day. For example, my mom still hand packs every order that we ship out. Takeaway: Quality is never a factor of size. It’s about commitment.

2. Building a business will take you places you never expected.

When I launched Ugmonk, I didn’t even consider myself an entrepreneur. I had no idea where it would take me. I simply had a passion for design and creating physical products, and I built a business around that. I learned (and keep learning) the ropes along the way. If you’d told me 8 years ago that I’d be on stage speaking at design conferences or taking trips to Honduras to help the charities we would soon support, I would have looked at you like you were crazy. But those things started happening just a couple years in, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to grow in new ways. Ugmonk has stretched me in more ways than I ever imagined, but I’m incredibly thankful for these experiences that have shaped who I am today. I will never forget riding on the dirt roads through rural Honduras, and then getting to see the smiling faces of the kids we’ve been supporting through our charity drives. Takeaway: Uncomfortable experiences reap the most joy and fulfillment in the end.

3. You don’t need everyone to like what you’re doing.

Not everyone “gets” Ugmonk, and that’s OK. Some people don’t understand why anyone would pay $28 for a t-shirt when you can get t-shirts for much cheaper elsewhere. I respect that. But there’s room for the entire spectrum of offerings in any industry, and Ugmonk fills a specific niche for a specific kind of person. I make products for people who value design, quality, and details. I love that the magic of the internet allows me to connect with those people, regardless of geographical location. In fact, several times, we’ve received orders from countries that I didn’t even know existed. Yes, I’ve had my share of haters over the years. I’ve heard, “That’s so easy, I could design that,” but at the end of the day, I don’t focus on those people. I focus on the loyal customers and fans who do “get it” and who share the same mindset as I do. Doing so allows me to create more of what you’re looking for and serve you in a better way. Takeaway: Find your ideal customers, and forget about everyone else.

4. It’s not all about the numbers.

Too many business owners want more sales, higher traffic, more subscribers, and more likes, but those are just vanity metrics. It can be easy to get caught up in the stats, numbers, and analytics instead of the quality of each of those numbers. I’ll take 1,000 true fans over one million semi-interested people any day. Small numbers are not as impressive to flaunt, but keeping things small has allowed me to build an extremely loyal fan base and connect directly with my customers, one on one. In fact, many times there are tradeoffs of getting bigger. Rapid growth often means hiring a big team, but I’ve been very intentional about keeping Ugmonk small. This lets me maintain the business at a scale where I can have the creative fulfillment and flexibility that I love, and ensures the quality and attention to detail you’ve come to expect from our products. Takeaway: The beauty in staying small is often overlooked.

5. There’s always room for improvement.

I designed the Never Settle tee 3 years ago, back when I started to feel like Ugmonk was hitting its stride. It would’ve been easy to get complacent at that stage, but the one theme that kept coming back to me was to always push myself to do everything with excellence, no matter how “successful” we got. I’ve come a long way in the past 8 years of running Ugmonk, but I still have plenty of room to grow and improve. I’ve grown as a designer, as a business owner, and as a person, but I never want to feel like I’ve “arrived” and get complacent. The longer I do this, the more I realize just how much more there is to learn. It's easy to be average, but only the standouts survive. No matter what you're working on, put in the extra effort; take time to make it excellent. Takeaway: Never Settle.

6. It’s ok to share your “secrets.”

Most companies tend to hold their cards close so they don’t accidentally leak their trade secrets. I’m doing the opposite and sharing everything, and it’s had an amazing affect on the business. Not only have I been able to help countless other entrepreneurs, designers, and business owners, but I’ve also built trustworthy relationships with my followers and fans by just being open and honest. I’ve gotten emails thanking me for the unexpected transparency. Rather than see everything as a competition, I’ve committed to supporting other independent makers and businesses that would otherwise be seen as competition. In fact, this approach has even opened the door to some really fun collaborations over the years. Takeaway: Always choose community over competition.

7. Treating people the way you want to be treated goes further than you might think.

Work hard and be nice to people. Sounds so simple, right? From day one, I’ve made it a goal to treat my customers the way I’d want to be treated. It’s easy to say, but harder to do sometimes. We’re human and occasionally mess up an order or ship the wrong product. But rather than make the customer go through a tedious process to ship the product back, we send them the correct product and let them keep the other one. Rather than shift the blame, we’ve always tried to be open and honest. Whether it’s replacing a product for free or personally reaching out to someone who wasn’t happy with something, people almost always respond graciously when you treat them with respect and kindness. Oftentimes, those angry customers turn into lifelong fans and some of our biggest advocates. Takeaway: Most things you need to know about running a business, you learned in kindergarten.

8. You can't put a price tag on doing what you love.

I’m incredibly fortunate that I get to wake up every day and run Ugmonk. There are certainly parts of the business that are stressful, boring, and incredibly frustrating, but at the end of the day, there’s nothing more rewarding than being able to do something I love and that grants me complete autonomy and creative control. Could I be making more money and working less hours doing something else? Maybe, but I wouldn’t trade this for the world. The intrinsic fulfillment can’t be compared to any amount of dollars or vacation time. It’s easy for me to take this for granted, but it’s something I try to constantly remind myself of. Takeaway: Ugmonk is here to stay.
My biggest takeaways in eight years of building my business are not rocket science, and they don’t require you to have an MBA to figure out. I think that’s true of many things that make a difference in the world and connect with people. But these eight principles can be applied to any business regardless of whether you’re just getting started or have been in the game a long time. And like I said above, I’m still learning as I go. I’m excited to see what else I'll learn over the next 8 years of Ugmonk!