Monday, January 12, 2009

Maury McCoy of Penny Portrait Talks about His new Web-based Startup

Maury McCoy of Penny Portrait Talks about His new Web-based Startup

What is the idea behind your new startup>?

It’s a kit that allows you to make a portrait of Abraham Lincoln out of pennies. It’s educational and also fun for the kids. It’s an 18 x 24 poster with four shades of pennies on them. Kids match their pennies to those on the poster and glue them on to create a work of art.

How did you come up with the idea?

I was surfing the internet and was inspired by a story about a father and son who created this giant portrait of Abraham Lincoln out of $25 worth of pennies. I thought maybe other people would like to do the same thing. So I added a few additional shades which allowed me to make the image a more manageable size. After several iterations, I came up with a version that looked good but only used $8.46.

So the user glues the pennies onto the poster?

Yes. It does take awhile- about 5 hours in total. As it comes together there’s a real sense of satisfaction. The poster also comes with a booklet with fun facts about Abraham Lincoln and coin collecting, so it’s educational too. For example, the booklet tells you which pennies are valuable so you don’t use them for your poster! I also include a 1943 steel penny in each kit. I had one as a kid and it was one of my prized possessions, so I thought other kids would enjoy having one too. They are worth about 15 cents today, but they are a rarity and pretty neat to have.

Who buys it?

In addition to families who buy it for their kids, we’ve had a lot of interest from educators doing class projects and, of course, coin collectors buy them!

Can you do other portraits based on other coins?

Abe Lincoln makes sense with the penny but other coins don’t really turn different shades so it’s difficult to make it work with say, nickels or dimes. Abe is also one of the more popular presidents.

So you sell it through the web. How was the process in setting up your web-based business?

I originally thought I was going to put all this together in a weekend but found it took closer to 3 months by the time I launched. The most time-consuming part was researching all the various service providers to find the best deals. If you do a little work yourself, you can save a lot of money.

You always hear about how huge the web is, and that if you put something out there the clients will come, but there’s definitely an art to how you market on the web. That has been the trickiest part so far.

What techniques are you using to market it?

Google Adwords and search engine optimization are often used. But those tools only work if people are searching for things related to your product and most people aren’t searching for a penny portrait of Abraham Lincoln! I’ve found success with marketing directly to coin websites and on coin forums, doing blog interviews, etc. I’m also working on some retail outlets.

I’m hoping in 2009 I may get a boost from the fact that it will be 100th anniversary of the penny and Abe’s 200th birthday. To commemorate the occasion, the mint is launching four new penny designs next year. It will be the first change to the penny in 50 years. Spielberg is also doing a movie about Abe Lincoln starring Liam Neesen.

What was the hardest part about setting up the business?

Shopping carts. There are so many out there. It’s amazing how many of them don’t follow the rules such as how to tax orders. Making sure the software worked with payment processors and complied with tax rules was a challenge. I ended up using E-Junkie which was an affordable solution for only $5 a month.

Did you find any cool tools in the process?

In addition to E-Junkie, Google offers a variety of tools including Google Checkout which competes with PayPal.

Paypal takes a big cut of the transaction – over 30%. What does Google Checkout take?

They charge me 2% of each transaction plus $0.20. The real perk with Google Checkout is that any money spent on Google Adwords helps offset transaction fees. So by advertising on Google Adwords, I essentially get the payment processor for free.

Google also has a nice backend to their process. It takes care of the credit card management and tracks shipping. I’ve tried other keyword ad providers like MSN but Google is the only one that has really worked for me.

How about building out the website itself?

When I first moved to Austin, I worked on the www. website. I have a background in web production and graphic design but for this project I found it easier to use some free web templates that were available. I also used GoDaddy to register the name and setup e-mail.

What is your biggest expense today?

Initially, it was printing and shipping tubes, but now my biggest expense is actually Google. There are some weeks Google makes as much from my business as I do!

Best regards,
Hall T.