Sam Hill is a journalist living in Portland, Maine. You can follow him on Twitter: @samahill
How to Sell Dirt
Twenty-two-year-old entrepreneur and software engineer Nick O’Hara has been working to start his own business since high school.
After running an independent iPhone repair operation, developing an audio news delivery service and an emergency alert app, and almost hitting the jackpot with a smartphone-charging beach chair, he finally hit his stride and found his first win in a business he launched with his friend Ryan Dolan, a restaurant manager.
They launched DirtByMail, a prank website where you can send bags of dirt and a card that reads “You’re a dirtbag” to anyone through the mail, in March. By June, they had sold 1,600 units.
I spoke with with O’Hara about the process of setting up the business, soliciting influencers to promote the product, almost making it onto Shark Tank, and successfully selling DirtByMail to an interested buyer.
So, how did you two come up with the idea of selling dirt?
I was watching Shark Tank one day, because I’m a huge fan of that show, and there were two specific businesses on that I thought were so stupid.
The first was “I Want To Draw A Cat For You.” This guy would just draw cats based on your description of what you want the cats to look like, and he got a deal with Mark Cuban. And I was just like, “Wow, this guy is ridiculous.”
Ryan is super creative, so I challenged him. I said “Dude, think of something so stupid that people would say ‘that’s so stupid but it’s really funny and we should do it.’” One day he was headed to a local mountain to go skiing and he was thinking about things we could send people in the mail. So he’s looking around, and he’s thinks snow, how about sending them snow? But it’d just be dirty snow… and then all all that would be left is the dirt because the snow would melt… and then he arrived at dirt.
It was his idea, and then I put the business side of things together.
What’d you do from there? Tell me how you set up the business and prepared to launch.
As far as the website goes, we use Shopify. Even though I’m a software engineer and I create websites, Shopify makes it so easy to manage orders, payments and all that. It was a no-brainer. For $30 a month, you can’t beat it.
And the the dirt we just get at Home Depot — it’s like this organic mulch.
The hard part was setting up a manufacturer for our bags. I’ve learned through previous ventures that Alibaba is the best way to do that. It’s basically Amazon for people who want to create things and need suppliers.
I looked up coin pouches, like the kind of bags people would use to hold their coins in olden days. I looked through a bunch of them and found one I liked, and basically you go back and forth messaging a representative in China… it’s extremely sketchy, it basically goes “Okay, you want 500 bags? Send us $300,” and you’re sitting at home on your computer going “Okay, I guess this is it.” But we trusted them because they said they had a lot of clients in the United States. We just kind of went for it. And two weeks later the bags were delivered to us — much to our surprise.
I told Ryan, “Let’s just order, like, 200 bags. I’ll put the packages together and I’ll send them out to people at my university who are always posting on social media.” We told ourselves that if we could just sell one of these that it’d be a massive success. I sent [bags of dirt] to ten people at my school and all of a sudden I’m seeing everyone who got the bag posting on social media. A couple hours later we got an order and we were just like no way. This is unbelievable. We’re selling them for $5 now, but at that point we were selling them for $10. We hadn’t figured out what the best price was. And so we’re like, someone just paid $10 for a bag of dirt — are you kidding me? Over the next couple days we got a few orders, and we were like this is cool, let’s advertise.
And what was that like? You’re advertising mainly on Instagram, right?
We actually advertised in March and April, but we didn’t in May.
Instagram is similar to the whole ordering from China thing — it’s a little sketchy. You reach out to these Instagram influencers that have hundreds of thousands of followers and make a deal with them. The first one we did was Men’s Humor, which has a couple million followers. I emailed them and was like, we have this idea… whatever whatever… and they said “Cool. For you to post, it would be $400 and your ad will be up for 24 hours.” So we created an ad, sent it to them and they said it would work and wanted us to send the money along. We trusted them more because we could obviously see their previous work online. They put up the ad and I just see — on our Google Analytics page you can see pageviews in real time — there are hundreds of people on our website. And I get notifications on my phone whenever we get an order so my phone starts… not blowing up, but basically. Every minute I’m getting the notification — order, order, order. We paid for that ad in the first hour or two, which was crazy.
Was there a moment when you were getting those orders when you though, “this is a real business now?”
Yeah, it was like — wow, this is legit now. It’s an unbelievable feeling to create something and have someone pay money for it. It’s not like we need to go through a manufacturer or anything to make them, we can make them right in my basement.
My previous product was called the Charging Chair, it’s a beach chair that charges your smartphone. And that was more complicated — you needed to have a minimum order quantity, have all the money up front, etc. With this you just grab some bags, grab some dirt, and send them out. It’s that easy.
What do your expenses look like?
It’s pretty cheap. I mean, the whole cost for the goods sold is $1.04. But then shipping is $2.77 — but the customer pays for that, so we don’t get any money or lose any money there.
The bags are 55 cents. The boxes are 40 cents. The “you are a dirtbag” card is 4 cents. The labels are 3 cents. And the dirt is 2 cents.
When we order bags and boxes, we’ll order like 500. When we get cards, we’ll order 1,000.
The most expensive thing is paying for the bags to be shipped to us. Usually the bags are like 30 cents per bag, but because of shipping that gets higher.
How much time does it take you to put together the product?
Because every order is the same, it’s really easy. I can just go to Ryan’s house in Worcester and we can just put together 100 to 400 boxes. And then as we get orders we print the labels and Ryan will drop them off for shipping. That’s probably the best thing about this. It’s standardized. It’s not like one person is ordering two bags and another person is ordering seven. We can just do them all at once.
How many bags have you sold since you launched in March?
We’ve sold just over 1,600 [by mid-June], which is pretty good. We’re happy with that.
You’ve posted about your business on some entrepreneur and business forums — what kind of feedback have you gotten from people?
Some people will email us and say, “I can’t believe you guys are making money with this.” On a Reddit post we had some people saying, “This is fucking stupid. This sucks,” but there were also people saying “This is stupid idea, but you guys are making money. I wish I had started something like it.”
We actually were almost on Shark Tank. We made it to the final round where the producers of the show reviewed our submission. We were almost there. If they said yes the next step would’ve been us going to California.
People think they need this complicated app idea or this product that’s gonna save the world to start making money. But it’s cool that I can communicate, not just by saying it but by actually doing it, that you take take a stupid, silly idea and make a little money doing it — and get a lot of experience, which is what it’s about.
What’s been your favorite part of starting the business?
It’s been sick. For me, the best part is having someone buy something that you’ve created. That’s what gets me going.
For Ryan, what I think he’s gotten out of it, it was his idea and for that to be validated is great. Because he didn’t go to college and everything, I think it’s great to be able to say, “I didn’t do this or that, but I’m still a smart guy, I have good ideas and I don’t need a degree to tell me that.
What’s been the worst part?
Some people actually use it as a form of harassment and that’s obviously not good. We’re two 22-year-olds so we think this is funny, but people are actually using it as a way to bully others.
People have contacted us to say they think they’re getting harassed and it gets complicated. We’re obviously not just going to give out records because we promise to give our customers anonymity. But if a lawyer or detective reached out to us with a court-ordered subpoena, we can’t do anything about it. We try to assure people that it’s meant to be harmless joke when they do reach out to us. People will say anything to try to get us to tell them who sent it.
We weren’t completely naive to the possibility of people calling to complain, but I don’t think we were prepared for it at first.
What are your goals with DirtByMail going forward? What’s the next step?
There are two options. The first one is going viral and making like $100,000 overnight.
The other option — and I think this is what we prefer because I’m starting a new job and Ryan just moved into his own house — is selling it. That’d be the best, if we could sell it for X amount of dollars. If a bigger, better prank site can run it and give it the attention it needs, that’d be best. Ryan and I are moving on with our lives and this isn’t at the point where it’s sustainable. It isn’t worth it for me not to go to work to ship bags of dirt.
One thing that’s been interesting is that there are people copying us already. If you go to dirtbagdelivery.com or mailadirtbag.com, it’s literally just a copy of our website. I guess that’s good for us, knowing that we have a decent idea that’s worth copying, but it’s funny to see people are stealing the idea of… selling dirt.
Just two weeks after our conversation, Nick O’Hara reached out to me to let me know he had managed to sell the company. I talked with him about the process over email.
How did you go about selling the company?
The process of selling this business was made pretty simple since we used a website called Flippa. It’s a website used to buy and sell websites. Basically, we created an account and put in all of our information (sales, costs, what they are getting, why we are selling, etc). It also hooked up to our Google Analytics page to show how much traffic we get. We set a reserve price of $2,500, which is the minimum we would have accepted. We went through a screening process to prove we are legit and then our auction went live.
Through Flippa, we attracted about four buyers and got four offers. The first offer was for $450, the second was $750, the third was $1,000, and the guy we sold it too offered $3,000. Although the buyer and I agreed the company was worth $5,000, he said he would be able to buy it now for $3,000. We agreed (since Ryan and I really wanted to get it off our hands) and transferred everything over (the domain, PayPal, Shopify, email, and social media accounts). As far as the numbers go, we think we got a fair price for it.
How does it feel to sell your first company?
It feels unbelievable to sell my first company at age 22. I knew going into this business that DirtByMail wasn’t going to make millions of dollars. But being able to build up a business from nothing and be acquired within four months is something that’ll help me get investors for my next venture, whenever that is. I basically was able to prove that I have the ability to create a business and that was the most valuable thing for me.
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