Vanishing Inc. Magic: 2016 Annual Letter to Customers
By Andi Gladwin and Joshua Jay
Warren Buffett writes an open letter to shareholders every year, in which he discusses everything from finances to philosophy. He proudly details his triumphs over the calendar year, and candidly admits his failures. We (Josh and Andi) are inspired by this notion. We feel a tight connection to you and your fellow VI customers. So we’re starting a new thing: annual letters to share what’s on our mind. In the next couple of pages, you’ll learn what matters to us, what we’re trying to do with this business, and what we’re trying to do for magic. We would LOVE to hear back from you on any or all of these points, and we guarantee a personal response to each of you.
A Growing Enterprise
Vanishing Inc. Magic, we are proud to say, has had a blockbuster year. This past year, for several reasons, can be considered a “breakout” year for us. Our annual sales are up about 40% over last year. We are (according to a ranking provided by our wholesaler) the third largest magic shop in the world. This growth has been a source of pride and a great challenge to us.
We started Vanishing Inc. Magic seven years ago, genuinely because we thought it would be fun. We were best friends who wanted to run the kind of magic brand we would want to shop at. The brand would produce only the magic we tested and approved, and the entire shop would be curated by us.
This has proved difficult as we grow. We began the year with a team of three, and we are now six. We have had some turnover of personnel, mostly because we are HIGHLY selective about the people we trust to take care of our customers. The great news is that this core team of six is OUTSTANDING. Let’s take a moment to discuss them, and in doing so, explore a bit about our young company’s culture:
We both STRONGLY believe in running a lean operation. We believe we can be most effective when we keep overhead low, and each team member has not only responsibilities, but real control. Everyone on our team has to think and bring new ideas to the table.
Joanna: Joanna has been with us the longest, and she runs the warehouse, stocks and assembles the products you use, and is your customer service liaison. Joanna was instrumental in securing our new headquarters (more on that in a moment).
Mark: Last year we launched an aggressive campaign to increase our business in Europe (which we have more than doubled in that time span). To do this, we brought Mark on to fulfill all European orders. Mark also heads up all video production. When you see a Vanishing Inc trailer or tutorial, you’re seeing Mark’s handiwork.
Kyle: Kyle Littleton is our newest hire. He assists Joanna at our headquarters in California. Kyle is also an incredibly clever magician, and next year we begin to roll out some of his original products.
George: George is Creative Director at Vanishing Inc. He corresponds with many of you on a daily basis, manages the more than sixty projects we have in development, coordinates our two international magic conventions, and is in charge of all marketing. It’s a huge job, and one he does with superhuman precision.
We conduct informal weekly meetings, where we encourage each team member to report on their department. We also ask that each one to bring a weekly “innovation” to the company--something that either adds savings for Vanishing Inc. or adds value for our customers. For example, Joanna found a way to reorganize our warehouse so that your orders can be packed faster, and more efficient. We immediately integrated new technology to accommodate this great idea. Another example: starting next year, you may get small, handwritten notes from Kyle with certain purchases, suggesting his favorite routines from a particular book or DVD. It’s our way of helping “curate” a product you’ve already purchased, to steer you toward the very best routine.
The Great Dilemma
Since we launched our website, our angle has always been “curation.” We have positioned ourselves as “the” selective site. Our customers know that we examine and, in many cases, perform the tricks we offer, and that we don’t offer anything we perceive as junk.
And let’s face it. 90% of the magic released is junk. You know it, and we know it. Junk! Our industry has been overtaken by the demand for selling magic. We believe (and have data to back it up) that there is a larger market for selling magic than there is for performing magic. This has created an industry that devours “new” products, and this is fundamentally unsound. The result is a slew of bad tricks by inexperienced creators who don’t respect or know the scholarship of their craft. So we opt not to carry the junk.
The difficult truth is this is a costly business decision. By not carrying “hit” tricks that we feel are substandard, a certain segment of our client-base will just buy them from our competitors. When people are set on a particular prop or DVD that we think is junk, it will show up on a competitor’s site and we’ll lose a sale. Our wholesaler and several vendors have urged us to be a Wal-Mart style operation--to carry everything and let the customer discern the good from the bad.
That approach just doesn’t work for us. We have always believed the long-term play is to do everything we can to ensure customers LIKE what they buy from us. It may lose us sales in the short-term, but it will earn us credibility in the long run. We have customers ask for bad tricks all the time. Just yesterday someone asked if we could locate a “Little Man” effect, which retails for $300. We must be the only magic shop on Earth who talked a customer OUT of making a large purchase. Why? Because we know that “Little Man” is essentially unperformable, and that the customer will have immediate buyer’s remorse. This honesty pays off with our many loyal customers, but we also know we lose business because of it.
When we analyze the numbers of why this year has resulted in so much growth, the answer is clear: we lucked out with several hit tricks. Amazebox, Out of Sight, Blomberg Laboratories, and DVD sets by Luke Jermay were runaway successes not just on our website, but with every major magic supplier around the world. We have produced many products over the last seven years, but most have been what we refer to as “base hits.” They cover their costs, and return some profit to us and creators. But this year, we were lucky to hit some home runs, and even a couple grand slams.
Which brings us to this all-important question: what makes a “successful” trick?
We wish we knew!
Like winning stocks chart-topping songs, nobody gets it right every time. The truth is, when we produce a download or DVD or book, it’s because we love it. We pass on all sorts of good ideas and concepts. As two professional magicians, we’re drawn to magic that has been thoroughly worked through, tested, and refined. And when we love something, we put it into the world. And we cross our fingers.
Sadly, much of the time what happens next is...nothing. The product sells only enough to cover the expenses, and it’s on to the next project (we’ve only lost money on two projects). But we reassure each other that Vanishing Inc. is not just our business--it’s our legacy. And when we look back on the thirty hardback books we’ve offered, the 200 downloads we’ve produced, and the 150 tricks in our range, we have tremendous pride in our work.
A New Headquarters
One exciting development we can now fill you in on is that we have a new, proper home. For the last six years, Vanishing Inc. has been operating out of storage facilities. First one, then two, then three...but in the end these small spaces were just not enough. In the biggest investment in the company’s history, we have purchased a large warehouse space. We now have offices, a filming studio, and storage space, with room to grow.
This investment is basically a reinvestment of the funds we’ve earned during this period of growth. So our warehouse is a bet on our future, and one we hope will pay off.
Giving back to magic has always been a priority for us, and as our company has grown, so have our ambitions for giving back. Last year we outfitted the College of Magic in Capetown with an entirely new close-up theater. If you haven’t seen the video of the new look, check it out here.
We also have expanded our youth scholarship program at the Magi-Fest, which allows disadvantaged kids (and a parent) to attend the Magi-Fest in Columbus, Ohio. Our charity is comprised of kind donations from some of our best and most generous customers, and a portion of that is made up of the elective donations each customer can make at the end of each purchase. Although it’s often made in amounts of one or two or five dollars, that does add up to the sponsorship of worthy kids.
We operate two magic conventions annually, The Magi-Fest (in Columbus, Ohio) and The Session (in London). Both are poised for strong years. We have over invested in performers and tech improvements for both conventions and need to raise registrations to cover it. Right now registrations are on par with last year, but we have started a bigger marketing push to help improve attendance. The Magi-Fest has a robust 800 attendees annually, and The Session has more than doubled in size since becoming a Vanishing Inc. venture.
Technology has always been at the core of our business. This year our emphasis has been on improving our internal technology, allowing us to ship orders considerably quicker (our average order turnaround time is now almost twice as quick as this time last year) and to help you track your order more effectively. During 2017 we will continue to work to ensure that shipping times speed up considerably.
Six years ago we invented an anti-piracy download system (where we would watermark customers' names into videos), but have always felt frustrated that this punished our honest customers (because it increased the wait time before each download was available). This year we made the decision to remove all watermarking. We have now refocused our efforts on hindering pirates and have gone as far as trademarking Vanishing Inc. in China, which has allowed us to make great strides in reducing the amount of piracy of our digital, and physical products.
As we write this, we have over sixty projects in development, most of them still unannounced. If you’re looking for a scoop, we can tip our hat on some things right now:
We will publish a new collection of essays from magic’s most esteemed essayist, Jamy Ian Swiss, and republish his two previous essay volumes.
We have upcoming projects from Rob Zabrecky, Bob Neale, Jack Carpenter, John Lovick, Luke Jermay, Paul Gertner, J.K. Hartman, and many, many others. Our challenge is to manage all these projects for on-time delivery!
We realize that in this letter we share some of our playbook, but that’s the point. We’ve always run Vanishing Inc. as an informal, friendly exchange with you, our customers. We know and are friends with many of you, and we’ve BECOME friends with many of you through our brand. Some of our best initiatives were suggested by loyal customers, and we hope this letter becomes a dialogue, and a way for you to understand us a little better as people and as your magic dealer.
If you have a comment, feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. One or both of us will reply right away.
Joshua Jay and Andi Gladwin
Vanishing Inc. Magic