We talked to Mikey Dorje, co-founder at ToneThreads about trending merch and he had the following to say about it.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Mikey Dorje: It’s certainly been a very difficult and challenging year for myself, my family, my friends, and everyone I know for a variety of reasons, but thankfully everyone is safe and is managing as best as possible, and being supportive of one another as much as possible.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded ToneThreads.
Mikey Dorje: I co-founded ToneThreads with a small beta launch in 2015 that came out of a genuine need I saw in the music industry; a print-to-order band merchandise (apparel) solution platform for musicians. As a life-long career musician and music producer, I searched online for this exact thing for a project I was working on and really couldn’t find what I was looking for, so I decided to create it.
How does ToneThreads innovate?
Mikey Dorje: We use Direct-To-Garment (DTG) printing, which is a modern technology to print graphics on apparel, rather than the “traditional” method of screen printing, which people are most used to. DTG allows for affordable, one-off prints, something that is too costly with screen printing. This is why, traditionally, apparel had to be printed and purchased in bulk, requiring large up-front costs. In our case, the reseller, a band, musician, or record label, would then have to manage inventory, storage, shipping, and countless other details themselves. Instead, ToneThreads takes care of everything. This in itself is not particularly innovative, as DTG printing technology is now widely used and dropship style companies are commonplace. In addition to this, we created a very comprehensive and in-depth online platform with simple-to-use tools and features designed specifically for the music industry to create and sell merch. For example, most drop-ship style apparel companies offer Shopify integration, whereas we offer Bandcamp (https://bandcamp.com/) integration.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Mikey Dorje: The music and related industries were some of the earliest to be affected by Covid when the first things to get cancelled were large gatherings. This obviously included music concerts and performances, and online merch sales were one-way musicians could try to recoup lost revenue from cancelled tours. At the same time, music fans were also losing their jobs. So, we weren’t really sure what would happen at first. But overall, sales have definitely been up, which seems to partly be a general reflection of the fact that online shopping has increased worldwide. We’ve also seen a big increase in musicians that have joined the site in an effort to make up for this lost revenue. But there have certainly been numerous difficulties due to Covid, particularly with shipping. We’ve had major shipping delays and complications, both in getting items to our customers and receiving inventory from our suppliers. Shipping costs have also increased worldwide.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Mikey Dorje: We’ve had to improvise a lot this year, essentially scrapping a lot of what he had originally planned in terms of growing the business and moving forward. Throughout this, however, we’ve learned to become even more organized and scalable than before. So, it’s been tough at times, but becoming more flexible as a company is a very good thing. If you’re too rigid and can’t function well outside of your predetermined plans, you might have a really hard time adapting when you need to.
We have what I call a “musicians-first” business model. Towards the end of 2019, after 4 years of dedicated hard work, we were finally in a pretty great position, so when covid hit, there were numerous things we did in keeping up with this business model. We extended a discount on merch for a few months to all of our artists and shoppers. We extended an “introductory” price for merch for our musicians who opt-in for our “Pro Subscription” for all of 2020. We shouldered all the costs of the aforementioned increased shipping prices that happened this year. If we hadn’t done these things, our profits might have been higher, but I firmly believe we made the right choices. Without musicians, bands, record labels, and their fans, we can’t survive as a business. Even during a pandemic, their interest in our interest.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Mikey Dorje: I’ve been doing a morning meditation and yoga session almost every day pretty much since April. The yoga part has been fun because I’m a total newbie and have been teaching myself with an app. Other than that, reading, going for walks, composing music and playing guitar, and most of all, chatting with friends online and in-person when possible.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Mikey Dorje: There are a lot of print-to-order apparel companies out there, so in one sense, there is a lot of competition, but as mentioned, we offer a lot of services geared toward the music industry, which is not that common in the apparel industry. I imagine that companies believe that if they have too narrow of a market, they’ll be missing out on potential revenue. But we have a different approach, which is definitely a “quality over quantity” view. This goes for almost everything we do. For example, we don’t offer an endless variety of apparel options. We just have a unisex t-shirt, a women’s t-shirt, hoodies, and kids’ size t-shirts at the moment, and not multiple brands of them, just one high-quality version of each. It’s a less-is-more approach that offers simplicity and clarity for both our musician partners and our shoppers. This also translates to less administrative and dev work, which keeps our overhead low, which allows us to offer very competitive prices.
In addition to that, we know the music industry well. It’s an extremely complex and ever-changing industry, so without years of experience in it, it’s not likely one could keep up. As I mentioned previously, with our “musicians-first” business model, we believe a healthy music industry is the foundation of our success as a company. Something that’s increasingly difficult these days, in large part thanks to online streaming services, which notoriously pay musicians unfairly. So we’re quite happy to see some of our artists make a significant portion of their revenue directly through us. This, in turn, helps us. Word spreads about ToneThreads, and our business grows. We’ve had steady, organic growth since day one. Other than a relatively minimal amount of time on Twitter and Instagram, we haven’t had to put huge efforts or any financial investment into our marketing.
Your final thoughts?
Mikey Dorje: I just hope we can soon all get back to all the amazing things we may have taken for granted before, like traveling & live music!