7 hard lessons I learned from 3 years running a not-for-profit private label yoga mat business

***If you are reading this, FlowMats yoga mats are still for sale on this website. Keep reading to find out why that’s about to change.***

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Founded in 2015 and closed in 2018, FlowMats was a social enterprise on a mission to educate children out of generational poverty in northern India.

This month I’m officially winding down FlowMats, the not-for-profit private label yoga mat company I’ve owned and operated for the last 3 years. I’ve learned a lot over the last 3 years, and now that I have officially decided to close shop and move on, I am ready to share my experience.

This article is for anyone interested in private label marketing, social entrepreneurship or starting their own business. Everything I am about to share is based solely on my personal experience, so I urge you to do your own extensive research if you’re considering a private label business. I am not an expert, I don’t have a business degree, and this is not explicit advise. It’s simply my story and what I’ve learned from my experience and perspective.

The FlowMats Story (abridged)

It was the summer of 2015. I was 26 and had just spent the previous 18 months tied to my cell phone 24/7, selling real estate in Sacramento, CA. Despite my exciting success, I felt exhausted and uninspired. I felt fed up with the grind of high-end sales, resented my co-dependent relationship with my phone, and didn’t find joy in pleasing multimillion dollar investor clients with tough demands. I also preferred yoga pants to pantsuits. Something needed to change and after selling about two dozen homes in less than two years, I happened to have a lot of disposable income to invest in my next great venture.

Through a coincidental series of events that ultimately led me to meet the founder of Change Heroes at Wanderlust Squaw Valley and read the Tim Ferriss classic, The 4-Hour Workweek, I found myself in the private label business. But unlike the book’s “sit back and relax while you make easy money” mantra, I was going to do it differently. My operation would be a social enterprise and I was going to build a school for girls in India!

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My timing couldn’t have been worse. Impulsively starting a complicated private label business less than 2 weeks before my now-husband and I boarded a one-way flight to Thailand meant our entire 6-month backpacking adventure would revolve around the creation of FlowMats. And it did. I may or may not completely regret that. I honestly haven’t decided.

Over the course of our time in Southeast Asia and India, I navigated the shady postal system of Laos and northern Thailand to collect the prototypes, I used the shoddy internet connection from the rooftop of a hostel in Cambodia to place my first order, I spent long bus rides binge listening to business and marketing podcasts, and I woke in the middle of the night multiple times to post on Instagram in order to build what would become a 10K organic following (had to market to the right time zone!). Do you have any idea how many yoga selfies in exotic places I had to take to achieve that? I hate taking yoga selfies.

My fiance was the ultimate #InstagramHusband. My primary marketing strategy depended on successful social media campaigns, particularly jumping into the #igyogafamily and doing #yogaeverydamnday. But things were going well. The Facebook Page had an additional few thousand followers. My email list swelled to nearly 1,000. For a company that had spent $0 on advertising or fake followers (cringe), things were going well for FlowMats because followers mean sales.

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#yogaeverydamn day in Laos

When I officially launched the website for pre-orders in January 2016, I received over 100 orders in the first day. By the end of that month, I’d received nearly 300. Little did I know, that would be the best month of business ever, but also the most financially devastating.

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FlowMats sales map. Each pin represents at least 1 sale, with many pins representing multiple sales in the same city.

First, importing goods from China was more complicated than I’d anticipated. The agent who was supposed to make it seamless did not make it seamless, and my inventory got held in a storage unit at the border due to an unfortunate miscommunication with the bank. It cost me $1,200 per week in bogus storage fees while customs got sorted. During that time, there was absolutely nothing I could do to expedite the process. I just waited, stomach in knots, as I watched my storage bill climb. Meanwhile, I was completing my first 200-hour yoga teacher training in northern India–the land of daily power outages–while frustrated customers emailed me asking when I was going to ship the yoga mats they’d already paid for.

Second, when it finally came time to pack and ship orders, the United States Postal Service increased their international shipping rates for “oversized” packages by an unprecedented 300%, and domestic rates almost doubled. That entire first month of preorders, I’d offered free international shipping as a promotion to get inventory moving. I had already counted on losing some money on all foreign orders, but the increased shipping costs destroyed profits across the board. It cost over $100 to ship a yoga mat I’d charged only $80 to purchase, meaning the net loss per order was substantial. My total shipping bill for that first month of sales surpassed gross income, not to mention taxes and manufacturing costs. I knew I could never recoup costs at this rate.

In response to this upset, I stopped accepting international orders and increased prices. I had to continue offering free US shipping for all US orders because it’s the e-commerce standard. Who charges shipping anymore? Nobody. I couldn’t compete if I charged a customer the $30 it cost me to ship their mat across the country.

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#yogaeverydamnday in Vietnam

Steadily, sales poured in through my Shopify website, and I continued to lose money on every sale. I averaged a couple a day, which wasn’t great, but it was still pretty good considering I hadn’t yet spent money on advertising and it meant FlowMats was a real business! Just not a profitable one.

But then shit hit the fan when it turned out my fulfillment company had sent out the wrong yoga mat to just about every one of those 300 initial customers. That same fulfillment company then became frustrated and decided to charge me storage fees because I wasn’t moving inventory fast enough. All of that, on top of the increased shipping rates. Things were not looking good. If I wanted to stay in business, I had only one option left.

I paid nearly $5,000 to prep and ship my inventory to Amazon, where fulfillment would be reliable, shipping would be free for Prime members, and the logistical nightmare would end. While Amazon fees were incredibly high, taking an average of about $20-$30 on every yoga mat sold, it was still a vast improvement and financially sustainable. Until it wasn’t.

A couple months after moving to Amazon, Amazon changed their fee structure out of the blue in their favor. They wouldn’t grandfather me into the fee structure I’d previously agreed to. Storage rates went through the roof, costing me nearly $1000 some months and climbing. I’ve never hemorrhaged money so fast in my life. Meanwhile, I needed to start buying Amazon ad space if I wanted FlowMats to show up in any search results; pay to play. Despite my loyal Instagram following and solid 5-star ratings across the board on Shopify, on Amazon, I was a new seller with 0 reviews and no credibility. I’d been in business for over a year, but it felt like starting over.

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#yogaeverydamnday in Cambodia

A year into selling on Amazon, I continued to average a couple of sales per day. Sometimes a sale was a net loss, but for the most part, I broke even or made a slight profit. The problem was that I still hadn’t made up for all the losses I’d sustained with that first fulfillment company. Coupled with the fatal introduction of social media algorithms that did not favor my content, FlowMats was turning into my worst goddamn nightmare.

When Amazon slapped me with a $1,900 storage bill one month, I’d finally had it. Their ever-increasing free structure finally got the best of me and I yanked my inventory and paid $0.60 per item for them to ship it all to my house in Hayward, California, where I’d been working as a bookkeeper for a women’s shelter.

In true Amazon decency, the yoga mats arrived in bulk and largely damaged. One of the boxes contained probably about a hundred mats, all stained, creased, and out of their original packaging; they were completely unsellable. I complained, but Amazon didn’t care. Call me naive, but I held out hope. I moved the online shop to this personal blog and tried not to cry.

Unable to afford the “oversize” shipping rates outside the state of California, I opted to sell locally, but with limited success. Without the economy of scale that major brands enjoy, I could not offer studios bulk discounts if I wanted to fund my mission or break even. I needed to sell at full retail if I had any chance of recouping costs and building the school in India. On top of this, the mats needed to get out of our 7-person shared house. My husband, my personal hero, transported all the inventory to a $90/month 5×12 storage unit, where they sat untouched for 7 months. Until recently.

In 2006, I met my best friend in an art class at the University of Utah. We have one of those friendships based on mutual respect and admiration for each other’s work and drive, meaning we get real with each other when it comes to our endeavors. It was she who finally sat me down last week and talked me through what it really means to wind down FlowMats. It was she who gave me the courage to finally step away, move on, and take from this experience what I can.

Together, my friend and I came up with a plan to offload the remaining ~500 yoga mats and ~1,000 yoga mat bags: I would systematically email every yoga studio in the San Francisco Bay Area, offering my yoga mats and yoga mat bags for literally any price they are willing to pay, as long as they pick them up directly from my storage unit in Hayward. So far, this plan seems to be working.

Sunk costs are real and I’ve finally come to terms with that unfortunate economic reality. Whatever mats are not sold by October 1, my 30th birthday, I will donate to a local charity. That way, I can start my 30’s fresh. Thanks to the love and encouragement from my dear friend, I am finally ready and able to put this behind me and move forward with my life.

These last 3 years with FlowMats have been mentally stressful, emotionally exhausting and financially devastating, but I have learned a lot. I have sold nearly 600 yoga mats to yogis on all 6 inhabited continents, dozens of countries, 47 US states, and hundreds of cities worldwide. That is far from a failure. I created a company, built a brand, sold hundreds of products to complete strangers all over the world by posting pictures of myself on the Internet, and didn’t go completely insane in the process. Here are 7 lessons in business and life I learned from my experience running a private label yoga mat company.

7 Hard Lessons I Learned

1. Don’t depend on any single platform for your success

When Instagram introduced their algorithm, I was fucked. Just to put it lightly. Until then, I’d been steadily building my near 10k following, averaging a 1-4% engagement on every post (that may seem low, but it’s actually right on target!), and receiving yoga mat orders daily. Once the algorithm hit, my numbers plummeted and I found myself without a viable marketing strategy. Followers barely trickled in, engagement was almost nonexistent, and I’d be lucky to get an order a week. I’d relied on Instagram too much, and I had no reconnaissance plan. Facebook Pages was already an expensive pay-to-play deathtrap I couldn’t win, and I did not have enough emails in my MailChimp to support steady sales. Social media was pure gold while it lasted, but in retrospect, I should have focused more on collecting emails and doing local outreach, and less on building a social media presence that was ultimately out of my control.

2. Word of mouth is king

Word of mouth is the best form of marketing, no debate about it. I have received more orders from a little town in Georgia than anywhere else in the world, and it’s all because of one person who ordered a FlowMats yoga mat and started raving about it. There is another small town in Missouri where I’ve shipped nearly 30 mats, all because I had one customer there who kept sharing her overwhelmingly positive experience with FlowMats. It is better to have 100 raving fans than 1,000 random followers, and at times I ignored that advice and focused more on quantity than quality. But overall, responding to customer emails immediately, sympathizing with their concerns, and treating them like true friends was probably the single best thing I did for the brand. I just wish I would have prioritized that up front by engaging with followers on their pages more.

3. Get help

My husband saved my ass more times than I can remember, and I cannot imagine undertaking a project like FlowMats without his help. While he was not technically a business partner and did not get involved in the details or communication/marketing, he was there to physically move inventory, help gather yoga studio contact information, and take all those yoga photos! Looking back, the one thing I wish I’d had throughout this whole process was a business partner. It would have been so much better had I had someone to bounce ideas off of, get excited with, and dream up strategies with. More importantly, it would have been nice to have someone help me navigate all the uncertainty and offer a different, knowledgeable perspective. I had too much to learn alone. A business like this is too much for one person and I learned that the hard way.

4. Don’t be the face of your own company (or do, but on purpose)

As the sole owner and operator, I was also the face of the company. Who else could be in all the yoga photos on Instagram? It had to be me, and after a while, that took a major toll. Everyone is different, but I personally did not enjoy having my face and body plastered all over the Internet for people to see. Maintaining an image was exhausting and depressing. Once other yogis started using my hashtag #EveryMatHelps, I’d reshare their photos on social media, but I could not escape being the face of FlowMats. I would caution anyone starting a business to seriously consider what it would mean for them to have to take photo after photo of themselves, just to fulfill a marketing plan. It was Hell and I’d never do it again. In fact, I am not on any social media to this day.

5. Anticipate unforeseen expenses

I don’t even want to know how many thousands of dollars I spent on mistakes, misfortunes, and mishaps. The entire operation cost way more than I anticipated, and I was naive to think things would go smoothly across the board. Had I known in the beginning exactly how much money this company would cost me, I would never have started it. I should have done more research. I should have learned to do projections. I should have anticipated unforeseen expenses and built that into the budget. Oops.

6. Test the market

In retrospect, I should have launched a Kickstarter campaign, collected preorders on a landing page, or done something similar in order to test the product viability before spending a small fortune on inventory. Instead, I built the social media following and email list while I simultaneously negotiated with manufacturers and started production. This turned into a costly mistake because not only did I have to front all the money myself, but I paid for thousands of products without technically knowing whether they’d sell. I just believed they’d sell, which though didn’t turn into a total disaster, was completely naive.

7. Don’t be cheap

This is good general life advice, as I’ve learned with clothes, kitchen utensils, and tea. If you buy cheap now, you’ll pay more later. I learned this lesson the hard way with FlowMats when choosing a fulfillment company. In the beginning, I chose a private company that was literally the cheapest on the market, but it ended up costing me big time when their warehouse shipped nearly 300 yoga mats to customers, completely disregarding which color yoga mat the customers actually ordered. That mistake cost me over $7,000 in refunds, returns, angry customers, and relocating the mats to a more reliable distributor. What a mess. If a service is cheap, there’s a reason. The best companies know their worth, and they charge more for it!

I omitted a lot of details and there are probably more lessons yet to be fully learned, but that is the abridged story of FlowMats and a summary of what I’ve learned along the way. It’s not glamorous, I did not succeed in the traditional sense, and I’m still trying to figure out how to continue funding the construction of this school, but that’s ok. This has been one hell of a wild ride that I’ll never forget! Seriously, just wow.

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Do you want to see the school built? Me, too! I set up a fundraising page here. Any and all donations are greatly appreciated (and tax-deductible!).

Namaste, yogis! ❤

Ash

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2 thoughts on “7 hard lessons I learned from 3 years running a not-for-profit private label yoga mat business

    1. Aww thanks so much! That means a lot. I feel like just writing that post wiped me out for the day. It was like reliving it all. Fun! Haha. Glad to be moving forward. 😽

      Like

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