Merch has become a way of expression, a declaration of fandom, and a token of belonging to a community.
With the rise of the creator economy, social stars are taking center stage, and fans are rocking their merch. An early entrant into this new economy is Fanjoy. Founded by Chris Vaccarino in 2014, the merch market now powers more than 100 creators, from TikTok star Addison Rae to YouTube legends The Try Guys. In this episode of Shopify Masters, Chris shares how he discovers new talents, the transition from print-on-demand to finding ideal production partners, and the expansion into retail.
For the full transcript of this episode, click here.
Don’t miss an episode! Subscribe to Shopify Masters.
- Store: Fanjoy
- Social Profiles: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube
- Recommendations: Teelaunch, Printful
From merch tables to a direct-to-consumer platform
In 2014, Chris was touring with his brother Chad King’s band and working the merch tables. “I saw the passion that the fans had for my brother and the band and wondered how else we could connect them with the band, A Great Big World on a more personal level,” Chris recalls. He had the idea of launching a subscription service that would provide fans with some of the band’s favorite products, exclusive merchandise, and signed items. And within the first month of launch, they received over 200 subscriptions. The initial sales gave Chris the confirmation that “maybe there’s a bigger business that can be made around music stars,” and Fanjoy was born.
As Chris and the team went on to work with the likes of Mariah Carey, Pentatonix, and Hilary Duff, they noticed the rise of social creators. “I would see these 16 to 20 years olds getting a hundred thousand likes on pictures on Instagram, and that was what was sparking my interest,” says Chris. In 2016, they tested the waters with Maddie and Mackenzie Ziegler, who were popular from the reality show Dance Moms and had a significant social following. “We did a package with them, and they crushed it,” says Chris. “So I started reaching out to some more Instagram influencers. And we started signing a lot of them.”
The pivot to social stars proved to be the right move: in 2016, Fanjoy was working with one influencer—by 2017 they’d jumped from one to $30 million in sales. The stellar growth links to the nature of social creators as their work is constant and ongoing. “The ability for [content creators] to sell products was just so natural because their abundance of content allowed them to have those moments of plugging their products,” says Chris. “Versus traditional celebrities have been a bit more cautious of the amount of times that they’re promoting something.”
Discovering new creators to partner with
The critical part of Fanjoy’s success is its selection of creators. Choosing who to partner with has been vital—large followings do not always translate into sales, and it might be difficult to know whose fans will be interested and willing to purchase merchandise. Chris says, “We’ve had our fair share of talent that’s come in with 6 million followers on Instagram, but their ability to sell products is difficult.”
The Fanjoy team looks at Youtube, Tiktok, and Instagram data to understand a creator’s demographic, engagement, and how much traffic they drive. “As a creator, if you can drive traffic, ultimately you’re able to sell a product,” says Chris. The team on average sees a two to four percent conversion rate from creators. “We just do backward math of every creator that we work with and ultimately make an estimated guess,” Chris says. Beyond the creator’s own data, Fanjoy’s team also keeps a pulse on platform trends like who’s the top of the list on the trending charts on YouTube, who has the fastest growing TikTok accounts. “This way we’re able to target the people that have the potential to sell products and also start with the top [of the list],” Chris says.
Aside from the analytics, content and its virality also allow Chris and the team to discover talents organically. During the initial wave of COVID-19, more and more users started to watch TikTok videos. Newton Nguyen, a food creator, pivoted onto the platform from Twitter and his quick cooking videos with funny commentary caught on fire. “Newton is a very good example of a creator where I was just scrolling on Twitter and I started to notice Newton’s videos,” Chris recalls, “He was getting over 500,000 views on Twitter alone on his videos, and I had never seen that before.” In addition to TikTok, Newton was able to port his following onto Instagram and Youtube to further expand his reach. “Now we have multiple platforms to promote and sell products, and also to distribute his videos to grow his brand in a bigger way,” says Chris.
From print-on-demand to ideal production partners
Like many other merchants on Shopify, Fanjoy started with print-on-demand. This allowed Fanjoy to test out product designs and ideas without the need to invest in inventory. The team used a slew of Shopify Apps, like Printful and Teelaunch, in their early years. “Shopify’s print-on-demand resources allow anyone to get something up and running and into testing mode in no time,” says Chris.
As the team scaled in 2017, their sales grew 30 times, and it was time to enhance Fanjoy’s shopping experience. “We were at a point where we were doing $150,000 in sales per day,” recalls Chris. “That’s when we came across all these apps that Shopify had, not on just the production side, but how do you compress your files? How do you make your store function a little bit better? It is cool to see how we utilize Shopify in a bigger way.” In addition to enhancing Fanjoy’s store, Chris also took the time to find a set of production partners. “In 2017, we made a shift to domestic production out of Miami and Los Angeles,” says Chris. “It’s important that the manufacturing partners that we have are able to keep up, but also that we’re not solely reliant on one partner.”
This expansion also meant Chris needed to grow the team and hire experts in different areas. “Back in 2015, we were on Alibaba just randomly picking manufacturing partners that we saw,” says Chris. “But that’s not the best way for us to move forward. So then we brought on a sourcing expert in our production team now, who can create any kind of product that a creator wants.” From doing everything himself, Chris is now learning to let go of responsibilities and build out a team that can execute the overall vision and strategy. “I try to step back when it’s not my area anymore,” says Chris. “Now I’m focused on the bigger picture of what is that overall strategy and how do we take Fanjoy to the next level.”
Expansion into retail and the future of Fanjoy
2020 was an unpredictable year for many, for Fanjoy, that meant letting their newly leased office sit idle while adapting to working from home. But despite the logistic challenges with social distancing and shipping restrictions, Fanjoy was in the middle of the perfect storm. Being an online platform mixed with consumers shifting towards lounge apparel and the growing consumption of digital content, Fanjoy was able to carry on its momentum. “I’m not saying we’re pandemic proof, but we were able to still grow the company while being remote and selling product DTC [direct to consumer],” says Chris.
Building on this growth momentum, Fanjoy recently announced a partnership with Mad Engine, a leading wholesaler of apparel and accessories, to expand into retail. “We have a lot of data that can be translated into retail because we know which creators can sell products, and we also know where they can sell products,” says Chris. “With Shopify’s dashboard and reporting, we can get all the analytics needed to present to any retailer and bring creators to retail.” Aiming for fall activations, Fajoy wants to mobilize fans to physical pop-ups and retail chains like Target to have the various communities come together.
Aside from the retail expansion and physical pop-ups, Chris hints at new products and areas that Fanjoy wants to explore. “We are just trying to find other ways to support creators,” says Chris. “It’ll be really cool and interesting to see how we take a creator who sells merchandise well and build-out of a much larger brand outside of apparel. Because these creators are amazing at what they do and we just want to support them in all their entrepreneurial endeavors.”