Behind the Scenes: Building an 8 figure Swag Business

8 min read
Jake Wang
Jake Wang
Jr Marketing Manager

Published: June 08, 2020

Tune into this episode to hear SwagUp CEO Michael Martocci chat with Poya Osgouei on his podcast, Uncharted and Eclectic. Michael and Poya go behind the scenes to discuss SwagUp’s journey, doing things that don’t scale, and the benefits of bootstrapping.

If you’re interested in what it takes to bootstrap an idea to 8 figures in under three years, this episode’s for you. Let’s go #tothemoon!

💡 The Big Ideas:

  • Why it can be good to do things the “hard” way, and when (if ever) to raise money
  • How SwagUp’s company culture was built in the early days
  • The two things an entrepreneur needs to keep growing and consistently execute
  • How low-cost tools like Wix, Typeform, and Zapier can help you find product-market fit
  • Why jumping around isn’t a bad thing and when to trust your gut feeling

Poya Osgouei is an experienced entrepreneur and the host of the podcast Uncharted and Eclectic, a space for the most brilliant individuals in the business to tell their stories. The podcast is based on the premise that great people often get to where they are by diving into the unknown, or the uncharted. And they often ventured in not so conventional (eclectic) ways.

🎁 extras:

🚀 get started:

Keep reading for a sneak preview of everything discussed in this podcast episode!

The story of a born entrepreneur

Entrepreneurship is in SwagUp Founder Michael Martocci’s DNA. From as early as four years old, he was experimenting with and learning from entrepreneurial pursuits. Whether it was running a lemonade stand, shoveling snow off driveways, or selling tissue packets, Michael was always hungry for more. “Even if I played video games, it was always something like RollerCoaster Tycoon where there was some sort of initiative to make money and build a business,” Michael recalls. 

But for a time it seemed Michael was headed on a different path. At 18, Michael worked at a hedge fund. In college, he declared a major in finance. “I would get to my dorm room and research companies and put together a discounted cash flow analysis and all these kinds of Excel models that I was learning on my own,” Michael says, “I thought that that was going to be my path. [While] I grew up being an entrepreneur, and had entrepreneurial tendencies, and my dad’s an entrepreneur, I got so deep into finance that I kind of forgot about it and lost that sense of what I was.” 

Then a friend had an idea for an app. Looking back, Michael thinks it wasn’t so much the idea that was pivotal as the chance to create something new. “The opportunity to get back into entrepreneurship and start something from scratch and get that feeling of creation and not wait for things to happen,” Michael says, “That just got my wheels spinning again.”

From then on, it was impossible to see the world in the same way. College, while fun, wasn’t stimulating in the way entrepreneurship was. Michael soon found himself at a crossroads: follow his gut and quit college, or wait it out and finish his degree?

Life, Michael decided, was too short to wait. A few years have passed since then, and the SwagUp founder’s decision demonstrates a characteristic easily seen in the company’s speed of growth and relentless drive for improvement today. 

Aspiring founders and high-achievers, take note. Here’s what Michael has to say on staying sharp: “The worst thing that can happen is when things either get easy or uninteresting. I think the moment you start to be okay and comfortable with not challenging yourself is when you start to kind of lose that edge. There’s a lot of times where I’ve kind of jumped around, but I’ve also jumped around knowing that it was the right decision, and consistently doing the thing that I think would progress me quickest.”

“The worst thing that can happen is when things either get easy or uninteresting. I think the moment you start to be okay and comfortable with not challenging yourself is when you start to kind of lose that edge.”

— Michael Martocci, SwagUp Founder

Building company culture in the early days

At SwagUp, we pay a lot of attention to company culture – both within our own team, and with our awesome clients. It’s obvious when it’s good, and even more obvious when it’s bad. A disconnect in values and mindset is a bad time for everyone involved, so what’s the secret to embedding a kick-ass culture in your organization right from the start?

For Michael, it starts with the early days. “Everything stems from the top and the patterns that you develop. Your early employees and all of your employees [after], they watch you very closely and emulate you.”

In fact one of the first employees at SwagUp started off working very closely with Michael. “He worked side by side sitting literally right next to me, and he was in my inbox every day, we shared a to-do list, and he really became ingrained in what I did and how I communicated with clients,” Michael says, “I didn’t think about it at the time, but it really helped proliferate the culture of how I wanted to the company be perceived and how we want to position ourselves and how we treat customers.”

This customer-centric approach is critical to SwagUp’s culture. As SwagUp CMO Helen Rankin says, “We’ve always been very big about listening to clients and to what they need.” (Hear more from Helen on how SwagUp is revolutionizing an old business model!

“Every person at the company understands that you don’t work to protect the company, you work to be the representative of the client,” Michael says. And SwagUp doesn’t just talk to the talk; they’ve walked the walk.

“[I remember] we had a situation with a company. It was their corporate retreat in Mexico, and whether it’s our fault, or their fault doesn’t really matter, but there were some delays in production to get everything to their event at the Four Seasons or something.”

“There just wasn’t enough time to make it happen. If we shipped by FedEx, it would have had to all go perfect and with customs, you just never know what’s gonna happen. We didn’t want to take that risk. So we literally sent somebody on a plane with four big boxes full of merchandise on a plane to Mexico that morning to deliver to the woman that night, because the next morning, they were going to set up for the retreat.”

That’s the extra-mile only a truly dedicated team will go. “Those types of things, they don’t scale,” Michael says, “But that’s how you get off the ground. […] Because that’s the stuff that makes companies and clients really love you and love what you do.”

“Those types of things, they don’t scale, but that’s how you get off the ground. […] Because that’s the stuff that makes companies and clients really love you and love what you do.”

— Michael Martocci, SwagUp Founder

From zero to one: the SwagUp journey continues

So what’s next? “I think what’s most exciting is I’ve never been in a position where there’s just so much to do,” Michael says. “There’s just like this endless ocean of things and possibilities. [We’re in] a $30 billion industry that hasn’t really been touched by technology, and that leaves so many stones unturned.”

SwagUp has big plans as it continues to listen to and learn from its customers. “It’s really interesting to see all of the different types of use cases that spring up. Snopes, for example. Big fact checking website, 50 million monthly unique visitors. They use us to create a perks fulfillment membership program. And it’s all integrated through Shopify in their host system,” says Michael. “That’s really the future for us. [Being the] underlying plumbing and infrastructure that powers the creation of really high quality swag and the distribution of it.”

Whether it’s crowdfunding a venture, employee onboarding, or virtual event swag, there’s always something new and inspiring every day at SwagUp HQ. If you haven’t invested in setting up a swag process before, it’s easier than you think. Connect with a Swag Expert to learn more. 

“I don’t foresee us stopping this anytime soon,” Michael says. To get the full story on how Michael and SwagUp have bootstrapped to 8 figures in under three years, check out the rest of this podcast on Uncharted and Eclectic.

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