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The 'Easy' Side Hustle He Started in College Hit More Than $1 Million in Revenue — and Taught Him 3 Business Lessons He Still Uses Today

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AMANDA BREEN

Dec 26, 2023

This Side Hustle Spotlight Q&A features Swipesum co-founder and CEO Michael Seaman. His college Etsy side hustle, "Snappin Studio," sold hand-stamped metal gifts and saw more than $1 million in revenue. Today, Seaman translates what he learned from that venture to Swipesum, a company "combining industry knowledge, AI and proprietary software to create a transparent payments strategy for companies and enterprises."


Could you tell me about the Etsy side hustle you started in college? Was that your first side hustle, and what inspired it?


Growing up in an entrepreneurial household, where my mom, Daphne, was a talented artist and my father, Chris, a serial entrepreneur, I was immersed in the dynamics of creative and business endeavors from an early age. This environment was normal to me and fostered a deep-rooted entrepreneurial spirit by nature.


I went to Samford University on a track and field scholarship, which meant I didn't have a regular job during college. However, as a young college student, I wanted more financial freedom to enjoy life's little luxuries, like going out with friends and having date money.


In my sophomore year at Samford, while home for the holidays, I attended a craft show with my mom. Despite having no crafting experience, I was struck by the bustling activity and thriving business at each booth. I saw the opportunity for date money! This sparked an idea. If I could master a feasible craft in my spare time, I could join and possibly surpass these other craft vendors selling online.


Determined to find a suitable craft, I googled "crafts for men." I stumbled upon hand-stamped metal gifts while searching online and thought it looked easy enough. My "aha moment" was when I discovered traditional anniversary gifts, such as copper for the seventh anniversary and tin for the 10th anniversary. Pairing hand-stamped metal with ecommerce presented a lucrative opportunity. These materials were affordable and had a significant emotional value attached to them, so I could mark them up. I began creating custom gifts for these special milestones and selling them online.


As I developed my website, I became aware of Etsy, which was not as widely recognized as it is today. Recognizing Etsy's potential and its investment in becoming a household name, I launched "Snappin Studio" on the platform. This decision proved to be pivotal.


My venture into the world of ecommerce and crafts was a success. I quickly profited $3,500 and bought a motorcycle. During my college years, Snappin Studio flourished on Etsy, selling over 35,000 gifts. With an average order value of $30, I generated over $1 million in revenue, a testament to the power of combining a simple yet unique business idea within the booming ecommerce industry. This experience was financially rewarding and an invaluable lesson in the power of innovation, timing and understanding market trends.


At the side hustle's height, how much was it earning on a monthly/yearly basis? How long did it take to see those numbers? Is that business still active?


At the peak of my side hustle with Snappin Studio, the holiday season was a particularly prosperous time. In the first year, reaching monthly revenues of $5,000 was a cause for celebration. However, as the business matured into its third year, we experienced a significant surge, hitting $50,000 in monthly gross revenues. This growth trajectory was remarkable; we had a lot of fun, but it took all of my time away from being able to spend the earnings!


Our presence on Etsy was so dominant that I didn't need to divert my focus to expanding a separate ecommerce website. Etsy's platform provided the necessary exposure and growth opportunities, making Snappin Studio the go-to destination for hand-stamped gifts. It's fascinating to see how the landscape has evolved since then; as of 2023, there are now thousands of sellers offering similar products on Etsy.


During those peak times, I employed many of my track teammates, who would gather in my apartment to stamp, paint and ship these little copper gifts. I paid them $25 per hour, which was quite lucrative for student-athletes at the time. This endeavor enabled me to accumulate more cash than I had ever imagined without a conventional job.


Upon graduating from college, I decided to sell the business. The buyer was a teammate who had recently completed his MBA. He saw potential in the business and aimed to scale it further, treating it as a full-time commitment. Under his stewardship, the business underwent a rebranding and a shift in its product offerings. He managed it for a couple of years before eventually passing the baton to another buyer.


Could you give me a brief overview of your professional path after college and how it led to your current venture, Swipesum? What does Swipesum do?


Post-graduation from Samford University, where I had a successful stint in pole vaulting and earned a place in their Athletics Hall of Fame, I had Olympic dreams and a little money to chase them. These aspirations took me to the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California. Unfortunately, my Olympic aspirations did not materialize, and my post-collegiate vaulting career was brief.


Finding myself at a professional crossroads, with the proceeds from the sale of my Etsy shop dwindling, I turned my attention to the corporate world. I had always been drawn to sales and marketing, believing these skills would be crucial for any future entrepreneurial endeavor. A family friend's success in developing software for the payment processing industry piqued my interest, leading me to secure a position in Worldpay's outside sales team. My time at Worldpay was marked by rapid growth; within a year, I was handling integrated partnerships and managing larger accounts, eventually becoming a top performer on the West Coast.


Despite my success, I yearned for greater challenges and responsibilities. After being overlooked for a promotion at Worldpay, I transitioned to MNTN, focusing on digital advertising, and then to Monotype, managing West Coast Enterprise sales. Concurrently, I had been informally advising friends, family and professional contacts on navigating the complexities of payment processing rates, which are confusing on purpose.


This experience highlighted a significant gap in the market and the idea for Swipesum: the need for a more transparent, customer-centric approach to buying merchant services. That's when the concept of Swipesum.com crystallized. I envisioned a platform that would revolutionize the payment processing industry by empowering merchants in negotiations, simplifying the selection process among the myriad payment solutions and offering unparalleled customer support.


In 2016, with the collaboration of my brother Stephen, Swipesum was born. Our mission was clear: transforming the merchant services industry with a blend of innovative software and expert consultancy. We aimed to alleviate the common pain points associated with sourcing solutions, negotiating rates or switching payment providers.


Since its inception, Swipesum has experienced exponential growth. Our team has expanded to over 20 dedicated professionals. Our efforts have been recognized with a coveted spot on the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing privately held companies in the U.S. Our journey at Swipesum is a testament to the power of identifying market needs, leveraging technology and providing a service that truly adds value to our client's businesses.


Did any early lessons learned with the Etsy side hustle translate to or help build Swipesum? How so?


1. Customer delight over simple satisfaction: In my Etsy venture, I learned that customers sought more than just a product; they wanted an experience that made them proud of their purchase, especially since these were gifts for others. We devoted extra time to engaging with customers, soliciting reviews and addressing any dissatisfaction. This emphasis on customer interaction and encouraging social media engagement significantly contributed to our growth and success on Etsy. At Swipesum, we applied this ethos to an industry typically marred by poor customer service. We have implemented white glove customer support, a feature consistently noted in our reviews. Our approach ensures that each account is managed by someone deeply familiar with the client's business, eliminating wait times and frustrations commonly associated with payment processing services.


2. Teamwork and a strong company culture: My athletic background and experience working with team members underscored the importance of a strong team culture. At Swipesum, we have cultivated a company culture akin to that of an Olympic team. Each member of our team is elite in their respective fields, contributing to a lean yet highly effective team. This culture is central to our recruitment process and sets the expectations for roles within the company. It fosters unity and a collective drive towards achieving our clients' goals, which is a cornerstone of our success.


3. Emphasis on profitability: The contrast between running a small Etsy shop and a venture-backed startup like Swipesum is stark, especially in terms of available capital. At Swipesum, we have been judicious in raising funds, focusing on strategic growth while maintaining a keen eye on profitability. This approach stems from my early experiences with Etsy, where financial mindfulness was crucial. This focus has kept us grounded and revenue-driven from day one at Swipesum, ensuring that we do not deviate from financial prudence even in the face of rapid growth.


As you look ahead, how do you hope to continue growing Swipesum? What excites you the most about its future?


I am beyond optimistic about the cutting-edge technologies we are developing at Swipesum. One of our groundbreaking innovations is the launch of Staitment, which utilizes AI to audit merchant statements. A job that typically takes 2-3 days for a small business or is a year-long project for a large business we can complete it in seconds. This tool is not just a tool for our current merchants, aiding them in identifying savings and optimizing payment processes, but it has also attracted a significant number of large-scale customers. These clients often grapple with extensive data sets that make timely and realistic auditing of their company's payment processing reports challenging. Staitment addresses this need efficiently and is finally recognized by merchants with large volumes.


Additionally, we are enthusiastic about our proprietary payment gateway and the use of network tokens. This technology promises to enhance revenue while reducing costs for our card-not-present clients, a crucial segment in today's digital transaction space.


At Swipesum, our passion for our work is relentless. Witnessing our clients' projects evolve from initial audits and consultations to success stories is immensely fulfilling.


What's your advice for other side-hustlers or emerging entrepreneurs who hope to turn their ventures into successful full-time businesses?


Your side hustle likely started as a passion project, but to turn it into a successful full-time business, you need a realistic and viable business model. Talk to everyone you can and find one. Understand your market, identify a unique value proposition and don't be afraid to pivot if necessary.


Second, prioritize customer experience, as this strategy always wins and is often overlooked. In my journey from running an Etsy shop to leading Swipesum, I learned that truly understanding and exceeding customer expectations is key. Happy customers are your best advocates. They provide valuable feedback and help your business grow through word-of-mouth.


Third, focus on financial discipline. While venture funding can be alluring, it's crucial to maintain a lean operation and ensure profitability. This approach has been instrumental at Swipesum. We've been careful about fundraising and maintained a strong emphasis on revenue generation from day one.


Fourth, build a strong team culture. The right team will propel your venture forward; the wrong team will help you burn a lot of cash. Look for people who share your vision and values, and create an environment where they can thrive.


Lastly, never stop learning. The entrepreneurial journey is a continuous learning curve. Stay informed about industry trends, listen to customer feedback and be willing to adapt. Remember, the most successful businesses are those that evolve with their market.


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