2022: Reflections, Progress, & Lessons Learned (plus things to look forward to in 2023)
In this blog I reflect back on 2022: Another consecutive year of doubled revenue, tremendous evolution, and exciting opportunities, but also another year of rookie mistakes, financial setbacks, and challenges. I share about our ambassador program, partnership opportunities, sustainability, and what excites us most moving into 2023.
Select wholesale opportunities are worth pursuing. They have helped us reach niche communities and have not taken away from our boutique appeal as I initially feared they would.
In 2022 we partnered with other businesses for the first time. While I’ve been receiving requests for wholesale and custom bulk gear since 2020, I’ve been afraid that offering these services would take away a piece of our magic. This year I accepted a request from Shama Ko of Girls in Gis to manufacture a short and long sleeve version of their gorgeous Phoenix print rashguards featuring artwork by Meerkatsu. The collaboration brought business to two jiujiteira-owned small businesses, excited the community, and forced us to implement the infrastructure needed to support these kinds of endeavors. No magic was lost and some promising relationships were built instead.
Later in the year we received a request to provide custom gear to the women of the US Air Force Special Warfare team, which we were honored to do. With two successful collaborations under our belts we will continue to consider other select wholesale and custom bulk opportunities with more open minds and a now-enabled infrastructure.
It is time to hire help for customer service, packing, and shipping. There will be financial pains and growing pains associated with this change but it is time I accept them for the sake of the rest of the business. My attention is increasingly desperately needed elsewhere.
I think it’s reasonable to estimate that I currently spend 60% of my working hours on customer service, packing, and shipping. I have put off delegating this work because it’s expensive to hire good help and I have a strong resistance towards putting financial strain on myself or the business but as long as I am handling these things myself, I am taking away from a million other important things that I should be doing instead. Strategizing, identifying business opportunities, research and development, seeking secondary or backup manufacturing chains, optimizing logistics, and so on – all of these things fall behind as long as I am caught up in the urgency of customer service and fulfilling orders.
Fortunately I have hired a wonderful person to help with these tasks – a very kind, gentle, and highly intelligent woman I used to work with when I was engineering named Kaitlyn. She is also a software engineer with two small children looking to leave the engineering world and transitioning into a stay at home mom. I have no doubt she will be an invaluable asset to our team but I do anticipate growing pains associate with this change that I know will inevitably be passed on to some degree to our customers. If you are reading this, I ask for your grace and understanding as we navigate these changes over the next few months.
A packed schedule of in-person booths at tournaments and other events featuring live drops, exclusive apparel, and special pricing will add an exciting dynamic to our community integration in 2023.
One thing we’re particularly excited about in 2023 is our new partnership with American Grappling Federation (IG/FB: @the_agf). This excellent tournament circuit is run by good friends of ours, has its strongest presence in the central midwest (i.e. my area), and is growing fast at an international level. It is organized, well attended, professionally run, and, perhaps most importantly, headed by a reflective team who is unafraid to learn from their mistakes and continuously improve on their approach.
My husband and I have committed our family to traveling 1-2 times per month every month this year to set up Gaidama booths at AGF events. Karla will fly in to attend a few and some of my female teammates will help out with others. Please check out the AGF tournament platform if you have not already, encourage your teams to attend, and come visit our booths. We will often feature live drops of gear that has not reached the website yet, some exclusive apparel that will never reach the website, and special pricing on just about everything.
Investing in our people has proven, every time, to be worth it. We will continue to find new ways to give back to our growing community through ambassadorships, sponsorships, partnerships, and online giveaways.
In 2022 we introduced the Fox Fam sweepstakes. Once per month we choose a member of our online community who shows us love and regularly engages with us to win a Gaidama gift package valued at approximately $250. One of those 12 monthly winners is then selected to enjoy an expenses-paid trip to our annual photoshoot / Epic Open Mat Event which is always an incredible experience for all. This year we intend to ramp up on our online giveaway opportunities and offer more ways for our community to benefit from their connection to us.
The quest for the ideal ambassadorship program and sponsorship opportunities continues. We’ve learned so much and changed our programs so many times this year already, but striking a perfect balance between what to require and what to offer in exchange is nuanced, hardly one-size-fits-all, and continues to challenge us to think outside the box.
Our ambassadorship program underwent a series of refinements in 2022, including the removal of the youth aspect of the program. This came after some reflection on the ethical concerns of paying minors commissions for promoting themselves on social media. We also condensed our adult ambassador team and raised the bar on its requirements. However, having a leaner team also helped us direct more resources therein. In Oct 2022 we added two different bonus opportunities for our ambassadors (in addition to sales commissions): collaborative content bonuses based on view counts and competition bonuses based on belt rank.
In 2022 we paid our athletes a total of $13,096.27 in commissions and bonuses. Those numbers may not seem staggering to some, but considering we are a very small business just emerging into our third year and targeting a niche-as-hell market, we feel pretty damn good about them. 2023 is bound to only see growth.
We also added sponsorship opportunities to complement our ambassador program this past year. Sponsorships allow us to support a greater diversity of athletes, including youth athletes and high level competitors that don’t spend as much effort on social media. They also allow both us and the athletes to “try each other out” since they are less of a commitment than a full blown ambassadorship. And while a strong ambassadorship program offers a deep reach into pocket communities around the US, these sponsorship opportunities offer breadth, diversity, and a “shallow” reach into a greater number of locations.
However, even with our evolved ambassadorship program and added sponsorship opportunities there is still much to learn from and improve on. For instance, to what degree to view counts on social media directly reflect back on revenue, for which all payouts and bonuses should be relatively based? Thus should athletes also be held to some commission-based standards before receiving content bonuses? What is the ideal number athletes to keep on an ambassador team? How many sponsorship opportunities should we aim to offer per month? Is it worth pursuing household names to add to our roster or should we continue with the grassroots approach and direct our investments into the women who love our brand and our vision and who want to grow alongside us? All of these questions and more will continue to drive our learning and approach as we enter 2023.
Finally, we are honored to offer support to the women’s jiu jitsu community by way of jiujiteira-owned business partnerships as well. This year we’ve partnered with Girls in Gis, Luxury Shack, and Machia Designs. We also have conversations open with other jiujiteira-owned businesses for exciting new partnerships in 2023 which we are looking forward to.
Sustainability will continue to underscore every decision we make, despite the associated higher costs and often more difficult logistics. We’ve recently made huge strides towards a plastic-free, 100% curbside recyclable 2023 and will continue to pursue these changes.
In addition to our quarterly donations to the Ocean Cleanup Project, we recently re-evaluated our packaging solutions and opted for a plastic-free future despite the associated higher costs and handling complexities. We switched from our 100% recycled / plastic-film recyclable poly mailers to 100% recycled / curbside recyclable paper mailers (all sourced by EcoEnclose, a US-based business which I draw inspiration from). We also recently invested a ton into 100% curbside recyclable sustainably harvested glassine paper inner packaging to replace our plastic inner packaging.
There’s no doubt that plastics were the cheaper and more convenient solution. They’re cheaper to buy, cheaper to ship, easier to store, and easier to handle. The resealable plastic inner packaging allowed customers to return gear for exchange or refund in the original bags with all barcode labels and size stickers in tact. Once the paper inner packaging is opened, it cannot be resealed. A new paper bag must be used for restocked inventory and new barcode labels must be printed. It’s undoubtedly going to be an added headache for us, but as with most decisions I’ve made for Gaidama that some might consider “bad business,” it feels like the right thing to do in my heart.
There is a demand for Made in America products which we recognize and appreciate. We are currently working alongside another small team in Houston composed of sewists and visionaries. With their help, we hope to introduce the first piece of a Made in America Gaidama line before the end of the year.
This Houston team is the same team of women who make our NU/FX (IG/FB: @nufx.usa) up cycled gi bags and t-shirt quilts. They’re working on scaling up their own production and purchasing new equipment to support the premium 4-needle / 6-thread flat-lock stitching that we require for our spats and rashguards. In the meantime, we’re working with them on a few apparel pieces which we hope to debut by the end of the year. The long-term vision is to move more and more of our manufacturing their way as they continue to scale their capacity and capability.
The vision for Gaidama has always been bigger than a brand. Karla has done an excellent job strengthening our online presence across every social platform this year. We will continue to build on that to create a robust and diverse ecosystem of women’s Jiu Jitsu content, support, and innovation.
My respect for the work that Karla does has grown tremendously this year. I knew to a degree what her workload would be like when I handed her our social media platforms because I was originally managing them myself, but what she took off my hands and what she has built for us are two very different things. She has been like sunshine and rain to our social outlets and has secured herself as an irreplaceable asset to our team. As a result I have increased her shares in the company effective Jan 1 2023.
Our shared vision for Gaidama’s social infrastructure has paved the way for our latest YouTube installments (“Fox Fixes” and “Bait This to Get That”), a Gaidama Spotify, and finally a Gaidama TikTok, all accessible through our LinkTree. For the latter, we recently hired Hannah Harjo, one of our favorite TikTokkers to manage and create content for the Gaidama TikTok (@gaidama.usa).
In 2023 we have big plans to continue nurturing all of these social platforms and build a robust social ecosystem for women in our sport to share and collaborate.