The #1 Challenge when Working with Your Kid (or Your Mom)
On March 1, 2020, My First Sale podcast host Arjun Devarajan welcomed us onto his show, which takes you under the hood to see what's involved in starting your own e-commerce business. He looks for people who are "in the thick of it" to share their stories.
Arjun himself is in the thick of building a business with his cofounder, Vishnu Menon. They started Toucan AI while they were still Duke undergrads to offer e-commerce AI tools that are easy to use. Their first offering is an AI salesperson to help customers navigate the online shopping experience. It can be set up in just three clicks.
Sebastian was immediately at ease with Arjun. Not only is he not that much older (the two made the same 25 Under 25 list last year), but his easy conversational style coaxed us into opening up about:
- what irritates parents, including me, and how OctoGifts addresses it (09:06)
- how being trapped at kids' sporting events can be a good thing for customer discovery (11:00)
- the challenges of working together as parent and child (16:59)
You can listen to the podcast here. If you prefer reading, check out the transcript below.
Many thanks to Arjun for the opportunity to share our story, and to Taziki's Cafe of Alpharetta for letting us use their event room for the interview!
Hi everyone, I'm Arjun. And welcome to season two of My First Sale, the podcast where I take you under the hood to see what you need to do to start your own eCommerce business. We're going to hear from people who are right in the thick of it, and I'm honored to welcome my next pair of guests to the show, Sebastian and Melanie Flores. Also keep in mind that this interview was recorded before the COVID-19 pandemic and things may have changed since this taping.
Well, thank you so much for being here. It's a pleasure to have you guys. I'm here with Melanie and Sebastian. Thanks so much for being here.
Thanks for having us.
And if you guys want to maybe just start by talking a bit about what your company does and what it's called.
Okay. So we are OctoGifts. We make handmade greeting cards that also act as candy dispensers because in this day and age, a lot of times for your birthday you just get a text or you get something on Facebook or Instagram that says happy birthday, or someone just gets a card from Publix or the dollar store. And then you read it once and you throw it away and you never think about it again. So we're trying to fix that by making gifts people can give to each other that leave a lasting impression. Something that someone will keep. And then whenever they look at it, they'll be reminded of you and how much it meant to them.
Very cool. How did you think of that in the first place? Was that something that you had always felt whenever you got those cards?
Well, when I was eleven I had a friend who loved candy and his birthday came. He never got candy much at home. So whenever he came to our house, he would always have his hand in the candy jar.
We were probably giving him forbidden fruit, but his parents didn't say he can't have any. He definitely took advantage when he came over.
So for his birthday, I knew exactly what I wanted to give him. I wanted to make him a candy dispenser he could have at home, so he wouldn't have to use our candy, but I couldn't find anything online on how to do that. So I came up with one myself. I built it out of stuff I found in the recycling like an old candy box and a paper towel tube and a water bottle. And I gave it to him and he loved it. He kept it. So even though we live in different cities now, it's still something we can both think back on and remember.
Yeah, that's really cool. I think the idea of having something that you do reuse over time makes a lot of sense, especially when you think about greeting cards. I mean, literally every greeting card I get, after the first couple of weeks or something like that, you have no idea where it ends up going. Something that you continue to use makes a lot of sense. You would think about it more and care about it more. When you gave it to him, how did you decide what you wanted it to look like and what you wanted to put in it?
I wasn't sure what kind of candy he would want. So I just put beads in it. I modeled it after just the standard gumball machine. So it was just red with like the silver on the top. It just looks like a normal candy dispenser.
But it took a couple years after that for it to become what we do now.
Sure, sure. Okay, just also to clarify for listeners out there, how old are you right now?
I am 14.
All right. So he's by far the youngest guest we've had on the show right now, probably one of the youngest entrepreneurs I've met actually. And you're here with your mom [Melanie]. So I guess when you did this for your friend, at what point did you realize, this is something that I want to actually go ahead and turn into a business? Or was there some time in between?
There were a couple of years in between. I gave this to him, but it was just another thing I had made then. It's an idea I had in the back of my head, something I wanted to try again, but I didn't do anything about it until last year in January for Valentine's Day. I was saving up money to buy a new drum set. So I thought back to this and I said, Hey, I could make a heart shape out of that, the same basic thing, but for Valentine's Day. So it'll be like a box of chocolates, but instead it’s a candy dispenser.
Yeah. And you said, let me see if I can start selling it to people.
Yeah. I had an Etsy shop from about six months before that.
Arjun (05:21): For something completely different.
Sebastian (05:22): Well I opened it to sell art I had made, but nobody bought it [laughter]. So I just had this Etsy page and I decided, Hey, I should post to this.
And that's when people started buying stuff.
So yeah, he was working, he was spending so much time in the basement, like sketching. And we were finding heart shaped pieces of paper everywhere. And I remember my husband saying, what is this? Sebastian had gone to bed, but he'd left some heart shaped papers on the counter. And I'm like, I don't know, he's working on something. And then he finally comes up with, he says, What do you think of this? And it was this heart shaped card. It was actually like this [holds up heart card]. And he asked if he could try selling online. I'm like, Oh sure. Gosh, go ahead and find out how. Maybe someone will buy it...just research on how to do it. And so he just ran with it.
Just so we can translate this into the audio form...describe what it looks like and what different forms it can take.
We have the heart, which looks like a box of chocolates, but it has a window made of clear plastic in the front. And then there's a little knob, like a dial. And when you twist that, it comes out the flap in the bottom. And then there's one shaped like a gumball machine. So it's like if you go to the grocery store and they have those candy machines, you just put a quarter in and you twist the knob and candy comes out. And then we have some that are like spinoffs of that. So there's one that's like that, but has a cap and gown on. So it's for graduation. There's one that looks like a little person with a tie for Father's Day. There's one that is shaped like a person, the dial is shaped like a heart.
That's nice. So right now you have the fully made OctoGifts that you're selling. And the next stage of this business is to really be able to allow people to have that experience of building them with their child or parent. So that brings probably a lot more complexity, right?
We've been investing a lot of time and we still are in making the kits. One of the things we discovered during customer discovery is people were asking, Wait a minute. You invented this. Wait, how old are you? Wait a minute. So if you built this and I have a child that's not that different in age from you...I think he or she would enjoy it. I am so sick of seeing him on his phone or she's always got her face in her phone. And I think they would actually enjoy building this. Why don't you sell this as a kit? It's clearly something a child is capable of doing. So that's when we decided to pivot from the main product being a fully assembled card into something that is actually build it yourself.
How did you figure out who your customer base would be? How did you start to get your first customer, even maybe the very first one? I'd be curious to hear the story of how you got that first sale and you said, okay, this is a purchase.
He put it online. When he posted it on his Etsy shop he asked me to put the word out on Facebook. So all of my friends on Facebook are moms with kids who are still in school. As soon as they found out, that's when the orders started coming. So our first customer was actually an old friend of mine from back when I was working for Corning. And she's a mom as well. And so she was the first customer. Actually almost all of our customers have children. So that's when I kind of figured, okay. And I thought of the same things that drive me nuts. When I see the boys [Sebastian and his brother] just sitting there on their phones, it rankles me. [laughter]
And I'm not the only parent [who sees their child on the phone and thinks] you could be doing something else. And I just started seeing that people wanted something different. They didn't want to have the same old grocery store card that you just kind of grab that looks halfway decent. You just grab something, you sign it and give it for Valentine's Day. They wanted something that was a little more meaningful. And then I was seeing that the people who seemed to be really interested in the product were people who are parents, because they loved seeing kids who were doing something unusual with their hands. And so with the kits, it's the same thing. When I did customer discovery, I was talking to parents and the same themes kept coming up: I'd like to get involved with my kids, like when I get home from work ...building puzzles or Lego. I like doing something that is face to face, screen free with them. I like seeing them doing something that is not staring at a screen.
Yeah. And I know it's something that we had talked about previously that you mentioned. Both Sebastian and your brother as well, swim, right? Maybe you can describe it more. It sounded like that provided a really good opportunity to do some customer discovery with some of your potential customers.
Oh yeah. So Sebastian and I actually, over the summer of 2019, went to ATDC because they have the Customer Discovery series of courses. And one of the things they stressed was to understand...if you have a business idea, just talk to people and understand what the frustrations are and how are they currently addressing those frustrations in whatever area you're thinking of probing with your business idea. And because they both swim, that involves spending usually three to five, sometimes six hours in bleachers. You spend pretty much your entire morning on a Saturday or Sunday sitting there. And meanwhile your kid actually is only in the water probably a grand total of five minutes for the whole thing. [laughter] So you have all this time in between their events where you're just sitting there.
So you see all of us, like I myself...you sit there. They're on their laptops. They have this book, they’re killing time. At ATDC, they stress that you need to talk to at least a hundred people. I thought, well, shoot, I have a chance pretty much several times a month where I'm surrounded by hundreds of parents and they're all just...we're all just waiting. And so they were kind of like a captive and ready source of interviewees for customer discovery. I told Sebastian, you know, we should be doing this together, which you did. Right?
He's, he's looking super reluctant right now. [laughter]
How many did I make you do?
So he got off pretty easy. I did 98 of them.
Oh my God.
And he did two. I said, you need to know at least what's involved. He's pretty introverted, whereas for me, I don't mind striking up a conversation. But for him it was actually a big deal. I said, can you do two interviews? And he actually did them.
How did they go?
It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be.
Do you remember what you did? Like how you started the conversation?
Sebastian (time 13:37):
Well, both of them were parents of my brother's friends. So they weren't complete strangers, I guess.
You had your laptop and you had your questions on your laptop. I remember your notes. And it was like half a page, if that, and I think there were probably less than 50 words on his notes, but I was proud of him that he actually did do it.
Yeah. And I love that story just because it's something that a lot of people experience. I mean obviously there are a lot of people across the country and across the world who engage in their children's sports activities and probably do spend a lot of time waiting around until their child is actually the one performing. And I just feel like that is such an untapped opportunity that I never thought could be something that you could do some customer discovery with until you told me about that the first time. I thought that was really cool.
I have a friend who was doing customer discovery and he was basically stopping people at an intersection right near Georgia Tech. He was able to actually get people to talk to him, but that is so much harder. I mean, people are just trying to get from point A to point B or to the bookstore or something. It feels like you're inconveniencing them, whereas at a swim meet, maybe you’re inconveniencing them but chances are, most of them are there anyway and they're just scrolling on their phones.
Yeah. Probably gives them something to interest them. So what is the breakdown of responsibility between you guys and the other people who work behind the scenes?
I design everything. And then I also have experience with graphic design. So I did the logo and I make all the visual stuff. And my mom does all the boring business side of things. [laughter] So she does the paperwork and she's the one who's been talking with lawyers and others...all business.
All the boring stuff like you said.
He's the idea guy. He does all the R&D. He's the one who has ideas. He’s the one who disappears into the basement for days sometimes. It feels like he disappears and he comes back up with prototypes. That's where he's happiest is just down there in his workshop.
And now making stuff that lets other people make stuff. So what will the kit look like when it comes out?
It'll probably just be an envelope that says OctoGifts on it and then inside will be a set of instructions and all the pieces you need to make it. And then maybe a code that you scan that takes you to a YouTube video walking you through it.
What are some of the difficulties that come with working together as mother and son?
Well, one thing that has come up is that he and I are working together on this and sometimes he'll say it's almost like I'm in mom mode instead of business partner mode. So that's something that's this fine line we have to walk. I remember last year for Father's Day, we had a bunch of orders. And I was handling some things and I needed him to handle other things. And at first, it was just me verbally saying, Oh, by the way, can you print X, Y, and Z and you need to do this. And then he would forget to do it or something. So then it was, How can we do this so It doesn't feel like me nagging?
We ended up thinking, well, maybe we could put a white board where you write down what needs to be done. And I'll just look at the whiteboard instead of you always having to come up to me and say, can you please, you know, do this?
Yeah. That makes sense. That's the thing I've talked about. I think you may have heard this in another podcast, as well. A surprising number of people that I've interviewed have been working with family members on their businesses. And I know that there are obviously a lot of pros to that. Primarily around being pretty direct with one another. Like at the end of the day, if something hasn't been brought up, it's going to be brought up. But also there's a lot of difficulties that can come with that. And it's always interesting to hear about how people create processes to separate those aspects of their lives. How does it feel to be a co partner with your mom?
Sometimes it's annoying because when I just don't want to think about that kind of thing, she'll bring it up. And then I have to say, can we not talk about that right now? Cause I'll be, I don't know, maybe I'm working on homework or something and I'm just trying not to, or we're in the car on the way to practice and she'll bring it up. Or she'll ask me to do something and it just sometimes just feels like nagging.
Yeah. We have to compartmentalize. Definitely. I think about it a lot, but then I recognize at times that he's not in that mode right now for me to bring it up because it just throws him off of whatever train of thought he’s on.
Right. That makes sense. You mentioned your brother and dad/husband have done some stuff in the back. Have they ever been interested in being more involved or being at the same level as you guys? Or has it been like, Oh, we see that and it’s not for us!
They don't have the bandwidth. They don't have the time. I think what both my husband and what TJ are doing are really valuable, the support they do give, we definitely appreciate it, but I think it's really on me and Sebastian in our family to carry the lion’s share.
Yeah. That makes sense. Do you think you’ll want to continue doing this through all of high school and past?
Yeah. Definitely through all of high school. Because I want to see if I can use this to pay for college.
Fair enough. And you said originally you were doing it because you wanted to buy, what was it again?
A drum set.
Did you end up buying it?
Nice. That's awesome. I guess the last piece that I usually do in these is something like a rapid fire round. So basically the idea is I just put a topic out there and try to hear you guys’ immediate thought on it. Your favorite OctoGift?
It's the first one. It’s the original.
The one you think needs the most work?
The graduation card.
Because it doesn't look as original as the other ones.
The thing you're most excited about that you haven't released yet?
The last time you actually bought a card, like a real card?
A long time ago. I've always made cards for people.
Well, even when you were selling them...even when you were giving them to people…
Yeah I would just fold paper and then draw something on it.
Man. That's what my parents would always make us do. [laughter]
Yeah. He never wants to buy a card ever.
Yeah, literally, anytime it was anybody's birthday, my parents were like, okay, my sister has to do the drawings and you have to do the writing. And we would just recycle the same thing every single time [laughter], but probably should have started something like OctoGifts. Doing school versus doing business work?
You prefer it. Do you get enjoyment out of school at all or are you mostly just thinking about OctoGifts?
I enjoy school. I like math class and science and ELA and social studies. I like all my classes, but I do feel like I'm more creative when I'm doing the business work.
What's your favorite subject?
Selling on Etsy versus selling on Shopify
I think I like selling on Shopify because we can actually brand ourselves. I love that they give us some tools so we can create our own website, but it has all of the tools that they have available. All the security, the shopping cart functionality, everything. Whereas in Etsy we were just one of [many]... it's hard to stand out.
Yeah. That makes sense. It sounds like a lot of the traffic and the sales that you guys were getting were not actually because of anything that Etsy in particular were doing, right? You were talking about people sharing it on Facebook and then their friends sharing it and then buying it, et cetera, et cetera, or people having them in real life and then referring to other people could do that just as well with your own brand on Shopify.
Exactly. With Etsy, of course, it was cheaper. I think we were spending 20 cents every three months per listing so it was nothing. Whereas with Shopify we have monthly fees, but it’s worth it.
Yeah, that makes sense. Where do you guys see this going five years?
I'd like to see this as something that...instead of buying cards, parents and children are engaged together, making cards for other people. And there are multiple holidays in a year. So I can see many occasions upon which they would construct something. So we could just have kits with different holiday themes. There are many ways we can create a variety in these, to keep things fresh. So I’d love to see this as something that could be as ubiquitous as Lego. Greeting cards aren't going away. Even though everyone can just text, there are certain people where texting isn't going to cut it...where you really need to give something tangible that will never go away.
Yeah. What do you think about e-cards?
I've never been a fan of them. I have friends and family who have sent them to me.
It seems so lazy to me.
I appreciate the sentiment, but really, I never keep them. I don't keep them, I read it. It's a canned greeting. And then I delete it.
Yeah. That sounds about right. Do you think there's a market for business relationships, as like a gift that you would give to somebody? Even like this kind of counts that way [motions towards an OctoGift on the table]. You guys gave me one of these. Do you think it's something that people could be interested in, actually a market you would want to talk to more?
Yeah, actually I do think there's a market for this, more than just for families. I think that there is definitely potential for this to be used in a commercial setting.
Yeah. Nice. Cool. Anything else you want to get out there to the world? How do people find you guys?
Yep. That’s the best place to reach us.
Awesome. Cool. Well thank you very much. It was a pleasure having you guys.
Thank you. Thank you for having us.
Thanks everyone for listening. Feel free to reach out if you have any questions, any suggestions, or if you or someone else you know would like to be on the next episode. And if you're thinking about starting a business, what are you waiting for? Do it already.