Nothing But Entrepreneurship: Piñatagrams’ Founder Nathan Butorac Shares His Story
Getting cool stuff in the mail is exciting. We may remember as kids running to the mailbox to check for the next edition of our favorite magazine. Presently we run to the front door to check for our latest Amazon package.
Piñatagrams’ founder Nathan Butorac wanted to send fun, unique things in the mail. Messages in bottles, piñatas, snails – the kind of thing that grabs attention and creates buzz.
That’s why Nathan created Piñatagrams. What better way to build interest in your brand than with a piñata?
In my discussion with Nathan, I learned of an unyielding drive towards entrepreneurship, an experience-shaped belief in lean testing, and a belief that failures can make for valuable learning.
From Snails to Piñatas
Nathan was always an entrepreneur. When he was six years’ old he sold pecans he picked with his grandfather. At age eight he ran a lemonade stand. A few years after, he started mowing yards.
Working for himself was part of the air that he breathed. As he came up with ideas, he would develop them through a lean process of entrepreneurship.
“[I]f you test ideas in the lean manner, you can come out with having spent almost next to nothing but gained an immense amount of knowledge. And so I think what I'm passionate about now is just that process of helping myself and others have unique ideas and understand practical and lean ways to test those ideas and then make them a reality.”
This post is part of a series for AccelerateDFW's Storytelling initiative. For more insights on entrepreneurs in DFW and beyond, visit the Storytelling page.
When Nathan left an operations role at a tech startup in Houston, he began brainstorming the next thing he would do. How did he get to piñatas? Or, more properly: how did piñatas get to him?
He had four criteria. One, he wanted to get into e-commerce. Two, he wanted to decide on something he could launch for less than $1,000. Three, he to wanted to reach a positive cashflow within three months. Four, he wanted something that would enable him to work from anywhere.
But, still – piñatas? Read on.
“So e-comm and a single product sounded like a good idea because I could have a fulfillment center handle all of the operations once I got it up and running, and then all I would be doing is marketing for it. So then it was about finding that novel idea. [W]hat could sell and not take just an exorbitant amount of marketing dollars to get off the ground. So I knew it had to be kind of shock value, just this big wow thing. I Google searched a ton of just crazy things you could send in the mail. And my first idea was actually mailasnail.com mailing real snails using snail mail.”
I wouldn’t mind getting one in the mail myself! It’d be fun. But the snail-idea went up in salt when Nathan found out about the documentation required by the EPA to send snails across state lines.
Back to the drawing board. He began researching blogs and came across the idea of sending someone a piñata.
“[A] lot of mommy bloggers actually were saying that they could send a piñata to their kid, and it would arrive outside of a box,” Nathan said. “I bought a couple domain names that night … next day went to the party store, picked up some piñatas.
“I was very fortunate that I'd never seen a miniature piñata before, but the store I went to had them and I knew it would save me on shipping, it was adorable, so maybe it wouldn't get broken. Bought three and when they arrived at my parents’ house alright, I knew I had a business.”
Thus, the piñata idea was born out of practicality. Nathan didn’t think “how can I send piñatas to people?” and go from there. He had a business plan that piñatas naturally lent themselves to.“I was very fortunate that I'd never seen a miniature piñata before, but the store I went to had them and I knew it would save me on shipping, it was adorable, so maybe it wouldn't get broken. Bought three and when they arrived at my parents’ house alright, I knew I had a business.”
Look At Me, I’m a Piñata! Marketing the Marketing Idea
So, day one, how does someone sell the idea of mailing piñatas?
It began with a Facebook post and a Shopify store. The post simply asked readers if they would send a miniature piñata through the mail for $20 with $5 shipping. The Shopify page had one product – the piñatagram.
On Facebook Nathan asked for users to share his new idea, but said he wasn’t pushing ad revenue through Facebook. He also had in-person ¬conversations out in the community.
To help stand out, he had made business cards that read “Chief Piñata Officer.”
“And those were worth their weight and gold,” Nathan said, “just because of being memorable in a networking situation. You know when you're standing against other people that might have much more distinguished careers than you but they're, you know, they're a VP of marketing and there's five other VPs of marketing, but there's only one Chief Piñata Officer.”
For a listen into Nathan’s favorite marketing campaign, give the accompanying podcast a listen.
Further into it, Nathan wanted to get the attention of sales and marketing departments at large businesses. Nathan realized there was a need here when sales directors started reaching out to him asking if he could send a couple hundred of the things over. Large marketing and sales departments had a need for uniquely physical materials.
The corporate side of Nathan’s business is called “Better Than a Letter.” It allows businesses-to-business correspondents to get attention amidst the flurry of emails, envelopes and brown-box packages that companies receive. That is, while it’s difficult to get to someone through phone calls or emails, a message in a bottle is a different story.
Each one of these products is visible when it’s shipped: the piñata is outside of its box partially and the bottle comes in a clear mailer tube. Unique objects like these market themselves.
“So you're seeing this physical object that's unique pass through the office,” Nathan said, “and … there becomes this communication amongst employees that don't even have anything to do with the recipient, but it creates this groundswell of an experience for a marketer or a sales rep to lean on and say, ‘Hey, you know, I'm the guy that sent the piñata’ and they go, ‘Oh, our whole office was talking about it.’”
Get one piñata in the door, and hundreds more could follow.
Keeping It Lean
You can’t go running with an idea if you don’t even know if it will work yet. As noted above, Nathan abides by a process here that’s helped him discover success: a lean approach. It comes from a book called The Lean Startup and, according to Nathan, is similar to design thinking, which is used for product development on many applications.
Nathan explained that it’s a science:
“[Y]ou take a root thesis and you say, for instance … I think piñatas are going to work as a consumer product and then … the lean portion of it is thinking of the cheapest and the fastest way that you can prove your thesis, that it's a good idea. And so that's going to be a mix of how do you represent the product and its features? It could be a prototype … it could be a photo that you photoshopped or a CAD drawing. Each idea has different nuances of what would make it a reasonable representation of the bigger picture.”
For his product, Nathan went to a party store and purchased three mini-piñatas for fifteen dollars. He then mailed them out. Thus, he had tested his thesis: he could ship piñatas, and had a supplier.
At first, he sold about 20. But this was a start. He went step by step from there, buying one or two at a time, never spending too much. In doing so, he was proving his business idea could work by the lean methodology.
If he had taken too large a step at first, he might have had a garage full of piñatas on his hands.
Loving to Fail
Central to lean methodology is trying out several iterations or ideas just to see what works. This will inevitably lead to failures, but no problem for Nathan. “I love to fail,” Nathan said. Small failures are his favorite.
“I love when you finally shut down something that you've been working on. You get to look back and think about all the things that you learned and you gained from that experience.”
He sees failures as learning experiences.
“The definition of failure to me is just another word for learning. … There shouldn't be any negative connotations associated with the word if you approach failure with the right mentality. And I think … one of the most defining features of most entrepreneurs that I meet is their relationship with failure and learning. It's like, do they have a passion to learn and are they willing to accept that when things don't go the way that they planned, a.k.a. failure, that they look at it as a learning event instead of this mark of bad on your character or on your career?”
With his lean approach Nathan’s had plenty of the small kind of failure. But what of the big kind?
His biggest failure came right after college. Nathan attempted to develop a social media app, but he spent the capital he got for it with “reckless disregard.” He also was naïve in believing what service providers could do with technology.
When it comes to negotiating with service providers and technology “you should definitely do your own due diligence,” Nathan warned.
Nathan learned a lot about software development and marketing from this experience. The lessons about realistic planning and scoping would inspire his lean approach from then on.
Luck Meeting Opportunity
Recently, Nathan has found a whole new level of success with Piñatagrams. Indeed, he’s suddenly flying high into the sky.
He’s a believer in the saying “luck is preparedness meets opportunity”, and here he has experienced that.
It’s no secret that e-commerce companies are more likely to fare well during this pandemic – indeed, even boom. Nathan was in this space, and soon after the pandemic spread to the U.S. and the country went on lockdown, he experienced an increase in traffic to his website.
From the newfound money he was making, he decided to give Facebook ads another whirl. He had not done traditional marketing on this for a year, but with the extra money the time was right for a bit of digital advertising.
“[I]t took off like a bottle rocket,” he said. They did about 40 times what they had normally been doing each day.
This level of success allowed Nathan to hire multiple full-time staff within one month. Leading a team has added to the daily motivation that drives him.
“So before it was just me grinding away, trying to make something of a brand and a product and an idea. Now that I've got a team. … I mean, I am jazzed to go to work every day. We have a very fun, vibrant culture, we're laughing, we're jamming out to music all day long, because it's primarily just production right now, stuffing piñatas, printing labels, making sure hundreds of piñatas get out the door every day. And it's kind of like a mini-productivity party all day long. And so I live for that … with the numbers we're putting up right now there's a chance that this is not only going to change my life but that I will be able to enrich, coach, teach, and enable other individuals[.]”
Some of Nathan’s full-time staff want to work in management or start their own company. He wants to invest in them as much as he can.
Experiencing this benefit, Nathan is more in love than ever before with the entrepreneur’s life.
He had made a bet with himself that had he not found entrepreneurial success by age 30 he would turn to pursuing a more traditional path. He turned 30 last October, so came in right by the hair on his chin.
“The thrill that I've had multiple times with little wins, little successes, but nothing compared to the past three months, has kept me in the game. I flirted with real jobs. I've done interviews, I've actually gotten job offers, and just never was able to pull the trigger. Something kept me in the game, and sitting where I am now, I'm very thankful for that.”
Living the self-made, entrepreneurial life, he’s been all over the place, going from one idea to the next.
“…I wanted to learn everything about everything. And I think for the next 10 years that might come in as a great asset because I can have conversations across industries, I can help create ideas across industries, but for somebody that is wanting your best shot at not having a tumultuous entrepreneurial journey, focus is a good idea. …
“Yes, you might still run into that brick wall and fail, but learn, iterate in that same similar direction. And if you keep pounding the pavement towards kind of one industry, one market segment, especially if it's something that you have skill in or a network in … could keep you from maybe the roller coaster ride of me skinning in right before 30 to stay an entrepreneur.”
What a way to make it. Nathan’s bounced around everywhere his entire life, but finally found success in piñatas.
For more on Nathan’s story – such as, what was his favorite marketing campaign? Can you bust open the piñata? What’s the strangest request you’ve had? – check out the accompanying podcast!
Note: The quotations may have been edited for grammatical purposes and to remove chit-chat phrases ("you know", etc.) or repeated words ("and, and", etc.).