The Unofficial Shopify Podcast

How TikTok Revitalized This Pandemic-fatigued Merchant

Episode Summary

An update from LEDQueens founder Cesar Torres

Episode Notes

In June 2019, Cesar Torres joined us to share the unusual story of how he turned a merch store for his sci-fi book series into a fitness leggings brand with a big impact on LGBTQ+ fans of the brand.

Then, the pandemic hit and he experienced what we all did: the crushing desperation of not knowing what's going to happen. He understandably became increasingly demoralized... until he found his voice again through TikTok and Twitch.

It's a compelling, unusual, and ultimately inspiring story from a lovely person.

Cesar is the author of two sci-fi book series: The Coil and How to Kill a Superhero. He is also the CEO and Designer of LED Queens fitness apparel, which is a direct spinoff from both of his book series. He earned his journalism degree at Northwestern University and a computer science masters degree at DePaul University. He's currently based out of Chicago.

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Episode Transcription

Kurt Elster: Today, on The Unofficial Shopify Podcast, I am joined by a past guest. Yes, back in summer of 2019, it feels like forever ago, I interviewed a really interesting man in my office who I met at a Meetup and who I liked a lot, Cesar Torres, who sells really cool leggings. And the leggings were born out of his sci-fi books, which has to be… That has to be the most unlikely origin story for a Shopify store that we’ve ever had on this show, but he’s obviously… He was affected, like everybody else, by the pandemic, and he posted in our Facebook group and said, “Hey, I hear all these success stories, and I want to hear about someone who really suffered with the pandemic.” And I said, “Well, are you volunteering?”

And so, he has come back to share his story of like, “Hey, we had this really… this strong business, and then a pandemic happened.” What happened since then? So, we’re gonna get the update from him, but first… Well, welcome. Thank you for being here.

Cesar Torres: Thank you, Kurt. It’s lovely to be back.

Kurt Elster: Yeah. I’m thrilled to have you. Let’s start from the top. What the heck do you sell again?

Cesar Torres: Yeah. I make the world’s most colorful, most ‘80s, neon inspired bodybuilding tights, which are mostly worn by men. We do have a few female-presenting customers who do pick them up, but in general, if you’re a dude and you’ve been thinking, “Oh my God, Black is all I can find on Under Armour,” we are that alternative. And so, my collection of designs now, our product line, has about 90 designs of these tights.

Kurt Elster: Whoa.

Cesar Torres: Yes. And you know, one of the things I talk a lot about more now is specifically what the product is. You even mentioned the first time I was on, if people go back and listen to that, you even said… You suggested, “Hey, why don’t you just double down on what it is? That’s your main product.” And that advice does work. Tights is our flagship product, but we also make a few other things. We make of course t-shirts and sweatshirts, but our wrestling singlets are very, very popular. We always sell out of those. And I think spandex is the name of the game for what I do.

And so, it’s a way of bringing, infusing lots more style and color to men’s gym fashion than ever before.

Kurt Elster: Yes. Oh, it’s so fun, and it’s practical. It’s really cool. I love the ‘80s design. I’ve been riding that synth wave, vapor wave train, ‘80s revival, ‘90s revival, that has… The really was the thing that kept me sane through the pandemic, buying vintage crap off eBay for 20 bucks a pop. Really, that’s what got me through the first six months of that pandemic, just stupid $20 eBay purchases.

Cesar Torres: Well, we make that stuff that actually looks like those things from the ‘80s, but you know, customers who are very savvy on eBay, they say, “Oh, how do I find those bodybuilding tights that some of the famous bodybuilders used to wear? Like Dorian Yates.” It was like stripes, right? We actually have remade that, but with modern materials, and of course, more of a sensibility about the world of bodybuilding, which has generally been very closed off. Now, there’s many people in that space, including LGBTQ people, and that’s where we are at, because we brought it back with even more style.

Kurt Elster: I think we forgot to mention the name of your business. What is the Shopify store?

Cesar Torres: It is LED Queens, which is a futuristic concept that is an homage to queer culture, LGBTQ culture, but also futurism and sci-fi, and if you care to know about the very, very Easter egg connection, it’s a trio of artificial intelligences that come from the future back into the present in one of my books. Yeah.

Kurt Elster: You’ve even… That messaging is even in the logo, where you have the pink triangle, I see it hiding back there.

Cesar Torres: Yes.

Kurt Elster: As part of the logo. It’s very clever. And so,, and of course I’ll put that in the show notes, but all right, so characterize… We talked about it in 2019 and so, let’s… End of 2019, maybe January 2020, where is LED Queens, where’s your head at?

Cesar Torres: It was in a really good place. I was already of course working on my business plan for the next year or two, and two really great things were happening in that fall of 2019. I actually had started looking for a round of investment and I wasn’t looking for giant money, you know, from VC investors or anything, but just a little bit of a boost to hire more, to build a team. My focus was on building a team.

I actually got one offer, which was excellent, but then I decided to wait a little bit, just because I guess I’m just kind of a person who takes their time thinking through that, and I was like, “Even though it’s good terms, you’re beholden to this person once they invest.” So, I was waiting a little bit on that, and I decided to just defer. I said, “Can I just have more time?” And they said, “Great. This is great.” Okay, so that was really good, and then at the same time, I was working on the product line for the next two or three years. It was really exciting. And I made my first part-time hire, which for us, because we’re so small, was a really significant hire. I hired my first staff writer.

And oh, man. She turned out to be just the most amazing person I’ve worked with so far in the brand, to the point where we spent like two months training her, just how to do things the way I do them. And then she took off. After that, she just started writing all our marketing materials, including emails, and I didn’t have to supervise her, and she in fact evolved the voice of the brand through her writing. And so, that was incredible. We were just kind of on this high through the end of 2019.

And then the pandemic arrived, and I was keen to the pandemic I think before other people. As a sci-fi writer and just as a journalist of 25 years, as early as January I remember seeing news items about these infections in Wuhan, in China, and I thought, “Oh, this could be sort of like what the projections have been all along by scientists, that this could be a pandemic.” And sure enough, by February I was already like calling up my family and saying we need to have an emergency plan for this, so that by the time March rolled around and the lockdowns actually started, there was no shock for me. And many people even said later on, they said, “Oh my God, you were so right. All these things you predicted about masks, et cetera, they came to be true.”

Kurt Elster: Oh, you know about… You were on the masks train early?

Cesar Torres: Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah. And I was already social distancing at home, because I just followed what the science had to say about pandemics. And so, I was very concerned, but of course, just because I’m a person who intellectually knows that stuff well didn’t mean that I’m prepared or that I was prepared for the emotional impact of the pandemic, the fear, the anxiety, and so-

Kurt Elster: Oh, the anxiety.

Cesar Torres: Yes. And so, to shorten the story there, which I think most people here will relate to, 2020 was a year of just dealing mostly with emotions, like just being unsure about what was happening to the business, being unsure what would happen to family members, and reconstructing my whole concept of what modern Western society is. We’re still doing that. We’re still rebuilding. But we’re completely rebooting, basically, the way we do a lot of things. There’s no going back.

Most people say, “Oh, I can’t wait for things to go back to normal.” We’re not going back to normal. This is sort of a new normal that we have to move forward into. And it doesn’t mean we’re walking around in hazmat suits, but it’s a new way of living and doing business.

Kurt Elster: And I think you’re absolutely right. The pandemic did a lot of things to… it felt like accelerate technology and the way we work and live. You know, I don’t know that people are gonna necessarily be shaking hands again after this anytime soon, right? I remember early on in the pandemic I thought like, “Oh, we gotta wear gloves and you have to disinfect everything.” And it turned out masks were the thing you really needed, so that I got wrong. I was running around in gloves all the time. But what do you think… Well, you know what? We’re gonna save… Well, no. No, let’s do your predictions. What has changed? What are we sticking with?

Cesar Torres: Well, I mean the story for my business, and this is precisely why I reached out to you from that Facebook post that you made, I really felt at the end of 2020 that there was a bubble, just a sort of like almost like a social media kind of phenomenon, where all these small businesses and also the consultants that provide services to small businesses were saying, “Oh, this was the year for eCommerce. Everybody went gangbusters because now is the time for eCommerce to just rise,” et cetera.

Now, my store’s always been 100% eCommerce. We choose to not be in retail, because we do get offers, right? But all that being said, we didn’t have a hot year like that. And I’ll lay it out real simply for people here, because we are just that small. Our actual revenue did grow by a tiny bit, right? I think it was like close to 5, 6%, which is good, considering it’s a pandemic. But people need to really know their numbers. Our projections for our growth were actually gonna be closer to between 60% to 80%, because that’s how we were tracking from the year before. Right?

So, that’s a huge resetting of my expectations. Number two, one of the reasons why we were able to get that little, tiny bump and not basically go in reverse is that we threw a lot of resources into content. You know, working on staying in touch with the customer. I think the best thing we did at LED Queens was letting the customer know we are still here even though things are pretty terrible out there, with politics, the pandemic, et cetera. We stayed in touch with them week by week, social media and newsletter writing, and so a lot of resources went into that.

And then we also pivoted, right? Like I already had my pivot plan. It was written two years before this happened, because I thought, “What if one day we have to move into that?” And I wouldn’t say it blew up in my face, but the expectations were not met. In other words, my pivot plan just turned out differently than I thought it would be. Very simply, that plan was if we ever have to move to a position where we cannot reach people physically as well, is we would make educational content that is free when you buy the tights.

So, Kurt, if you buy two pairs of tights, we get you on a Klaviyo flow where you get all this cool fitness information written by a professional, right? Not by myself, but by a professional coach who would say, “You know, eat this, wear that to lift weights, train this many times a week,” et cetera. So, we put that into place as soon as this started, and I already had a personal trainer who was working with me on writing some of that stuff, but it did not turn out like that at all. Because my actual emotions of dealing with the impact of COVID, having some family members who were in the hospital, some which actually passed away from COVID, my willingness to kind of grind that hard on that pivot just did not turn out well.

And also, the relationship with that person who was working on that content, that also didn’t work out. Because they also weren’t feeling so hot about the pandemic. And so-

Kurt Elster: It was stressful.

Cesar Torres: And so, I got real disheartened, and you know, lots of business I’m sure tried to pivot, but one thing we could never account for was how people actually feel when they’re going to work every day. And so, that didn’t feel good, and also it wasn’t… I’ll never know if it would have brought more sales or not, but I’m a person that doesn’t give up, so as soon as that pivot didn’t work, I said to myself, “What else is happening here? How else can we reach the customer and stay in touch with them?” Not just to sell them our stuff, but also just to hear how they are doing. And so, one of the marketing channels that I’ve just… I had in my pocket from a while ago but had never pulled the trigger on was TikTok.

Kurt Elster: Oh.

Cesar Torres: Yeah, so in late spring I started just making TikToks for my brand, and if anybody here wants to go deep into the world of TikTok, the first time you go in there, if you have an Instagram presence, the thing you try to do is you try to make things that look like Instagram. It’s like the most basic move that you should never do in TikTok, and you just try to repeat what you do there, right? It doesn’t work.

So, I started making-

Kurt Elster: Yeah. You try to post… You get on TikTok and the first thing you do, you’re like, “Oh, this is stories,” and you try to post stories.

Cesar Torres: Yeah. You try to make them like stories, and of course, the other advice people usually give you is just start imitating other people on TikTok for what’s trending. That generally is good advice, but it’s so vague. So, I got on there and I just was… I would do a lot of lip syncs. In the leggings, in my living room. I wasn’t talking too much about working out at home. So, it was mostly like entertainment kind of content. Because the leggings do really well on video, right? Like if you have a person dancing in them and these neon colors are jumping at you-

Kurt Elster: Yeah, it’s very dramatic. I imagine, yeah, on video that works really well.

Cesar Torres: Very dramatic. And for a gay and queer customer, which tends to be most of our customers, they also just like to see bodies, and smiles, and the whole package. They want to see it all, right? I get that. So, I did that for quite a while, and they were not really doing great on TikTok.

Kurt Elster: Oh, I thought it was like you were gonna be like, “It immediately exploded.”

Cesar Torres: No, it was garbage. I mean, I’m here to level with you, like I think a lot of these things about what business owners… You know, the success stories of the pandemic, many times they’re just exaggerated or they’re not telling you the full story.

Kurt Elster: Oh, 100%.

Cesar Torres: Yeah. A lot of the year felt like garbage. A lot of the internal, day-by-day stuff is like, “I’m still getting up to go to work, doing my thing, getting up early,” but it felt like nothing was working. There was a sense of desperation sometimes. I was like, “I am feeling desperate.” What will happen to me, right? And what will happen to the business?

But I’m making these TikToks, right? And because I had done so much work with YouTube, at least I was very comfortable with the technology. I could edit quick and add audio, et cetera, and so I make these videos lip syncing, and they’re just not doing that great, and like a fool I just don’t give up, I keep on going, and one day in my leggings I decided to make one TikTok about a video game I’m very passionate about. Just to also communicate a message saying to people in that community of that game that there is toxicity in the voice communications of the game sometimes.

Kurt Elster: Oh. Well, I think that’s where gaming culture… I mean, that has kept me out of multiplayer gaming for a decade.

Cesar Torres: Smart man.

Kurt Elster: What game is this?

Cesar Torres: The game is Overwatch.

Kurt Elster: Overwatch. Okay.

Cesar Torres: Made by Activision Blizzard.

Kurt Elster: I have not played it, but I’m familiar. That’s a big deal.

Cesar Torres: Yeah. Overwatch is a big deal. It made a huge splash in 2016 when it launched and now it’s an older game, right? It’s like we’re coming up on five years of it, but the game is super unique. Well, not super unique. It’s just unique in the sense that it really has a plethora of diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, and sexuality for the characters. And so, because it has that, I made a TikTok where I said, “You know what? The game is awesome. And unfortunately, the community can be really toxic, but here’s my approach to it,” which is sort of just being myself, right? Like don’t be afraid of bullies, learn how to mute, block, and delete. Do your thing, you know?

That one TikTok then suddenly blew up. It just blew up and like the views just kept on going up and up, and I think to date it’s maybe 80,000 views for just 15 seconds of me. I mean, I’m still shocked by that, right? And that’s not huge by TikTok standards. I mean, 80,000 isn’t like massive, but it was massive for us, because on Instagram, we don’t get organic reach like that ever.

And so, I looked at the TikTok, and I was like, “How do I duplicate this?” Right?

Kurt Elster: Yeah, how do I do that again?

Cesar Torres: And the answer was real simple, but it took me to a place where the pivot just… I did not know the pivot would take me here. What was happening was we were reaching a new audience. For LED Queens, for my main flagship product, these tights, our customers tend to be people with jobs between the ages of about 25 and 45. What I was doing with this TikTok about Overwatch, while wearing my product, was completely different. It was literally like kids, like kids who are just 13, which is like the age where you can actually activate your TikTok account legally, through about 22.

So, it’s a whole different way of communicating with them and what I was discovering as I made more was I was having so much fun. This is something I was born to do.

Kurt Elster: Oh, okay. Good.

Cesar Torres: Speaking about video games and making humorous TikToks, I can do that. And for some reason, these kids, I think they think of me as their gay uncle, the guncle. For real, like you know, they would start asking me for advice. They’d say, “What do you think about getting this game?” And, “What’s your opinion on this other one?” As if I was an expert. And I would remind them, I’d say, “I’m not an expert in gaming.” But they kept on going.

And then it moved into other kinds of advice. They said, “I’m getting bullied at school, what do I do? I want to come out to my parents as gender nonconforming. What do I do? One of my teachers discovered I use different pronouns, which means I’m moving into a different part of the spectrum for LGBTQ, what do I do?” And then suddenly I was like, “Okay, there is a need here, and I cannot call these people customers yet, because I’m not making a product for them, per se, but I’ve got this reach in an area that I never, ever expected.”

And so, I did double down on that. And it was a strange maybe illogical thing to do as a business owner, because that wasn’t necessarily bringing in dollars, right? I tried. Trust me. I did try. If people look, there would be times when I’d say, “Oh, hey, I’m wearing my leggings that I make.” Or they would ask. They’d say, “Where are those leggings from?” And I’d explain the story. That stuff does have an impact, but there wasn’t a conversion, per se. These kids don’t have the cash to buy that stuff. And many of them are too young to actually want that stuff yet.

It usually happens around college or right after college when people get more into working out. And so, we stayed true to it to the point where I actually had to split off TikToks. I have one TikTok account now just for gaming, LedQueensGaming, and then we kept another one, we spun off another one for fitness, so that I could still talk about the tights for older customers on TikTok. And so, that’s been the biggest surprise for me. It doesn’t mean we had financial success from it, but we’re in a different place. Now I stream twice a week on Twitch because these kids want to come in and they want to play the game with you, they want to talk about it with you, and of course I do product placement, and I do say, “The sponsor of the channel is my own brand.” I think that’s a smart thing to do.

But it’s moved me into a place as a business owner and leader where I think part of the future of our product line isn’t necessarily products. It might be services. And I don’t have a definition yet of what that would mean, what kind of team we need, but it might also just mean it’s my own platform, that they come to me because maybe I’m like the Mr. Rogers of gay people. I mean, I’ve thought about that.

Because they even say, they go, “Oh, you’re the most wholesome person on TikTok.” And I’m like, “No, I’m not wholesome. I’m just a human being and I have a lot of flaws and you’ll discover them all.”

Kurt Elster: But it’s your authenticity that makes you so genuine and so likeable, and I think that was the… You know, you got on TikTok and you were trying to be something you weren’t, right? You were doing these lip sync videos.

Cesar Torres: Be original.

Kurt Elster: You were doing what you thought you were supposed to do with TikTok. And then when you switched to, you just said, “Hey, I’m passionate about Overwatch and I see a problem in Overwatch, and I’m gonna speak to it for 15 seconds.” And then suddenly the algorithm rewards you and 80,000 views, wow.

Cesar Torres: And it’s still rewarding me.

Kurt Elster: Because you were authentic and genuine, now you start to find your tribe, right? You start to find people who relate to you. And then from there, oh my gosh, you start helping those people.

Cesar Torres: Yeah.

Kurt Elster: And okay, you’re right, you are not earning money from this. You’re not profiting from them. And you’re not necessarily supposed to, right?

Cesar Torres: Correct.

Kurt Elster: And then, so you build this audience, and then you kind of in your case, it was smart, you split the audience. I don’t… I rarely recommend a split audience, doing that voluntarily. It makes life hard. You’re just doing more work. You’re doing twice the work.

Cesar Torres: But that speaks to the difficulty, but the joy, of the algorithm for TikTok. And this is where we can really get into the weeds, and hopefully listeners benefit from this. The algorithm TikTok, you do have to think of it as an entity. Not an AI truly, but you have to think of it as an entity, and you have to train it to understand what you’re all about, but it has its own strong choices, and it decides for you what you’re best at. Because it has the best data about what people are engaging with in your content.

So, for me, I would basically… In the summer, I was doing two kinds of TikToks on that same page. I would do fitness ones, so talking about nutrition, et cetera, and then I would do the gaming ones, and the algorithm would just boost the gaming ones because for some reason, and I don’t work on their team, the engagement was way better on that stuff. So, it came to the point where I was like, “I’m wasting my time if I’m making fitness content in this account when the algorithm only wants me to talk about diversity and LGBTQ representation in video games.”

I mean, that’s literally, as if it was a person, like my boss, it’s like a boss. It’s like saying, “This is what you’re really good at. We would like for you to do this in our team.” And it sounds so spooky that we speak about algorithms like this, but they have I would say the most innovative algorithm I’ve seen so far for social media, and it’s why people who are inside TikTok right now are so excited, because you get to sort of work on that day by day. With Instagram, and Facebook, and the other ones, it’s people know how it works, they try to game it, but it’s not pulling in as much engagement data, I think. I think that’s the source.

They know deeper levels of engagement that now makes… Like, we posted a TikTok yesterday. Within I think six hours I reached 40,000 views. This never used to happen to us on Instagram and it probably never will. On Instagram, the best we ever do is like an 800 view engagement for a post.

Kurt Elster: I was gonna say, this sounds so radically different and so much more advanced and rewarding than what Instagram is doing. I wonder how Facebook… What’s gonna be the answer to TikTok? When a social media platform blows up, Facebook all but ruined Snapchat by just replicating what they did on Instagram.

Cesar Torres: Well, it’s happening already. Instagram’s replicating TikTok with Reels. And the really sad part is if you look at what people are posting on Reels, which do get a lot of views, is they’re basically ported TikToks. You can actually see the watermark on them and I-

Kurt Elster: Yeah. I see a lot of TikTok watermarks on Instagram.

Cesar Torres: I even do it. My best TikToks, whether it’s gaming or fitness, I bring them over to Instagram. They do pretty okay, so it’s nice to have the extra boost of marketing, but people aren’t creating original content in Instagram Reels. They’re doing it in TikTok first. And so, they’re eating their lunch, and also there’s a lot of anger in the community of people who like TikTok that Instagram’s just copying. People just don’t like that, right?

And so, I don’t know what the future is for Instagram and Facebook, but I will tell you the algorithm’s way more interesting in TikTok, and I think creating content for it is more difficult. The resources are more intensive. We’ve dialed things down. I try to keep things as a system, but I spent… I’ll be honest here. I spent way too many resources from summer into late fall creating TikToks, because I was just so damn excited about it.

Kurt Elster: That’s a good problem to have.

Cesar Torres: Is it? I mean, sometimes I would feel deep regret because I was like, “We’re not bringing enough sales for the flagship product, for the store, I’m spending all this time on TikTok. It is building an audience,” but I was like, “I spend…” Some weeks it was like 15 to 20 hours a week just to make TikToks. I was spend my whole day making TikToks. But that also speaks to what was happening with our sales.

Our customers tend to be I think very conscientious people. I’m gonna generalize here, so please everybody keep in mind I’m not making a blanket statement about LGBTQ people. This is just very anecdotal. But I think we are so focused-

Kurt Elster: These are your observations about your customers.

Cesar Torres: Yeah. And my community.

Kurt Elster: In general.

Cesar Torres: And my community, because I’m in that community. We tend to be focused on things like racial equality, helping out the poor, helping out other LGBTQ people, and when it comes to the pandemic, most of us were very thoughtful and said we will wear a mask, we will stay, and we will stay home and keep our butts at home, right? Most of my customers did that. But what does that mean for a maker of neon bodybuilding tights that you show off at the gym? It meant there was very little interest in buying those things because there was nowhere to wear them. Because we also are very presentational. We like to… We’re proud of our bodies. We show them with all this gear.

Kurt Elster: You want to peacock.

Cesar Torres: Yes. Yes. And that was really depressing for me, because I was like, you know… We rolled out tons of new products last year. That was the other tons of resources we threw at things. We rolled out a full collection that now is doing better. When we released it, it wasn’t doing so hot, but now it’s really picking up. It’s this ‘80s retro look with the stripes. But we launched it, we put so much love and effort into it, and people just weren’t picking those things up. Their gyms were closed. Many customers, because I have conversations with them, they would tell me, “I’m not feeling great. I’ve gained weight. I’m depressed. I don’t know what’s gonna happen. I’m worried about the world.”

And so, I just thought, “Where does this end up? Do I have to close shop at some point?” Because the expenses and the resources going into the business aren’t bringing the returns. So, it got really dark, but at the same time I was putting in so much energy, like pure, raw energy into TikTok and making things that were really positive and fun, because to be honest, the video games and this community of queer kids who play the video games were giving me this energy. I was like, “I’m still engaged here because…” It sounds dorky, but Sigma, one of the characters from Overwatch, I feel like I can get through this pandemic if I keep on playing that character. And then these kids would join me and be like, “Yeah, we love him! He’s great! We love this other one and we’re all gonna make it.” So, I think it was a good thing for me personally and for business. The question is how do I keep evolving that, because I don’t want to do a disservice to that community. That’s community focused. And we’ve tried making some products for them. We’ve made some sweatshirts that say Team LED and they have me with these headphones on the image, but I think for them it’s more of a digital product that they want.

Kurt Elster: Interesting.

Cesar Torres: In the world of gaming, right now one of the biggest ways in which the giant devs, we’re talking like Activision, Electronic Arts, the way they really make their money is micro transactions. It’s no longer the retail price of the game. Now they make the money with you buying skins. So, kids are really into the skins of the characters, like rare skins, legendary skins, and so I’m trying to think of like how can we make something for them that is sort of like that? And we’ve done emotes on our Twitch channel and that’s good. They like to unlock those. And so, those are custom sort of… Not skins, but versions of myself.

Kurt Elster: Can we talk about Twitch? No one has ever brought up Twitch on this show.

Cesar Torres: They should.

Kurt Elster: I have a close childhood friend who has become a Twitch streamer. I have followed him, he’s talked me through as he grew his Twitch channel, and it’s now a… It’s a non-trivial amount of income, like Twitch is this guy’s side hustle. And as I watched him do that, and it was a similar story where it’s the pandemic, he’s working from home, he’s trapped in his house, and so he needs an outlet. And he was playing games and he thought, “Well, maybe I can make this something productive and social.”

Cesar Torres: Yeah.

Kurt Elster: And so, he started doing it on Twitch. And lo and behold it worked and it earned money, and I thought that was really cool, but that’s my sole experience with Twitch. Tell me about Twitch. For people who don’t know, what the heck is Twitch, anyway?

Cesar Torres: Yeah. Twitch is something you should be really keen on, because it’s the future of a lot of content marketing. And-

Kurt Elster: We’re not talking about the cohost on Ellen, right?

Cesar Torres: No. No, not that cohost, no.

Kurt Elster: Not that Twitch.

Cesar Torres: No, no. Different Twitch. This is the mega, mega platform of mostly game streaming that is owned by Amazon. Amazon acquired them a handful of years ago. And Twitch is the place where you go watch another person play video games and entertain you while they play them. The thing most adults go is, “Why would I want to watch somebody play video games? This is stupid.” No, this is much more like when you go to the theater, or you go see do improv, or a comedian on stage. You’re watching them play games, but if they are a good entertainer, they tell you good stories, they have crazy things happen, they have sound effects, like your Tech Nasty thing that you do.

But it’s very entertainment focused and some people make a huge living out of this, because what happens is when you’re streaming, people can subscribe to your channel for about $6 a month, which is a lot of money. That’s a lot of money. Or they can send you gifts and donations while you do it. So, it’s very community focused, but the thing to keep in mind before any marketers get really excited about this, calm down, the community of Twitch is really gamer infused, which means people are very particular. They have very strong opinions. And if you violate their sense of how the world is, they will blast you.

And it works both ways. If you’re somebody who’s like, “Hey, you know what? This is a douchey thing that big companies would do. Why you coming in here?” That community will come after you. At the same time, if there’s homophobic streamers who like to bully LGBTQ people, that happens a lot, so there’s even banned words now because Twitch is trying to cut down on the bullying that happens in there. So, it’s a very hard to reach space, and I was… I’m still sometimes nervous about it. But I think what helped me is I’m not young, I’m 46. What I’m coming in with is something that brings my experience of 25 years as a journalist and then also doing marketing, so I know the limitations of what I want to say and how we maintain community there.

But we do have… You know, it’s a little, tiny check that I get for subscriptions. Your friend probably has way more reach than I do. But I do get that stuff now, so I actually have a little tiny revenue source just from streaming twice a week right now, and it’s incredible. Because you really… You know, you think about reaching people. You’re actually having conversations with people while you play these games, and on Instagram and some other places, you really don’t. You leave comments. You know, it’s like, “Hey, here’s my comment.” But here, people are generally playing, commenting with you live, and there’s nothing quite like it. So, it’s here to stay, but it’s also a very problematic space.

Kurt Elster: Yes. Yeah. And that’s just part of anything involving multiplayer gaming, because you’re taking essentially a space dominated by teen boys. At least originally, and still now, and then putting them into essentially anonymous competition with each other. And of course, that goes wildly off the rails in the chat, as one may have expected, but it’s just evolved into its own occasionally terrible thing.

Cesar Torres: Well, and you know, I will say this, and this isn’t just about gay kids being bullied. It’s other issues, like race. Whatever is going on in how those young people are being raised at home is brought to the surface immediately in these spaces of video games, multiplayer online video games. In other words, they will use slurs, racial slurs, and slurs against gay people, all these things, because sometimes they’re not even aware that it’s a bad thing, because this is the environment they’re in at home, but the gaming space is a place where you can go off on that. Because you have a mic, people can here you, and then if you’re good at the game, you’re also just destroying them, but then you can also kind of let that power go to your head and just say whatever comes to your mind.

So, it’s a really… It can be a really toxic place. Which is funny, because that original TikTok that I made was… We used Toxic by Britney Spears. But it was a way to also empower my LGBTQ audience, because a lot of gay people really love Britney Spears, and so I was like, “We’re taking this back,” in the sense that we’ll foster positivity and politeness, even though we’re aware that the space is very toxic.

Kurt Elster: I love what you’re doing.

Cesar Torres: Thanks.

Kurt Elster: Okay. It’s so genuine, and pure, and positive. That’s what’s so great about it.

Cesar Torres: Well, but you know, it brought me to a new crossroads, because I’ve always been very clear and transparent about everything that I make, but one of my book series that I make is definitely not for kids, right? And I know kids Google and parents Google, so pretty soon they’ll go, and they’ll say, “Oh, well, you wrote a series of gay erotica that is really hardcore. How do you justify doing all this stuff?” Which is why I’m so precise and careful about what happens in the gaming space that we create, so cutting down on bad language, and all these things, and only covering certain topics. We do that because there are other spaces on the internet, including the website for that book series, that is definitely much more sensual and explicit.

And so, I’m aware there’s risks built into it, but I just sort of think of it as like entertainers do this. Pop stars and musicians, they’ll have some stuff that is just way, way intense, and then when they show up in other spaces, they’re like, “Okay, this is much more for all ages or all audiences.” So, we’ll see where that goes, but yeah-

Kurt Elster: Honestly, I’m getting Lady Gaga vibes from you. She both empowers a very young audience, but then also does stuff that is way more on the adult spectrum.

Cesar Torres: Well, you know, it’s funny you mention that. Because it does hit an emotional place. I think a lot of the particularly musicians who really help me survive as a gay person, and I’m being really clear here to everybody, I never had suicidal thoughts as a kid, but it wouldn’t take much to feel suicidal as a gay teen, because you feel like you don’t belong in this world. I could have been a statistic, right? And it was music in many ways, music, and books, that got me out of that. But I’m basically… I’m borrowing from the best in terms of transforming myself, creating different spaces, and of course creating things that are dark, and very, very art focused, but then also speaking honestly to young people in the ways that other people did. And Lady Gaga’s a great example. But also, David Bowie is a huge influence. Siouxsie Sioux from Siouxsie And The Banshees. They stayed the course. They made intense stuff that is sometimes hard to swallow, but yet they also spoke to their audience very candidly, and so yeah, Lady Gaga, she is like that template, and she’s a huge icon in the community, so I’ve seen her do it. But it’s also that sense of transforming yourself. I think people will notice even my physical image. I change it all the time. And those are things I just took from the playbook of Madonna and Lady Gaga, to be honest.

Kurt Elster: There are worse marketers to follow than Lady Gaga. Okay, what does the future hold?

Cesar Torres: The future really has… Right now, the short-term future has a lot to do with our product line. So, COVID impacted our product line in these particular ways. For the year it happened, it was shipping that really burned us. Delays in shipping. Around Black Friday, Cyber Monday. Further delays by the United States Postal Service. Those were brutal and we had to constantly message customers and it really hurt to tell them like, “Hey, it takes now three or four weeks for you to get your product.”

We got through that, but what that meant was it also slowed down our ability to develop a lot more new designs, because I just wasn’t confident that those delays would get solved. Now they’re actually starting to look a lot better, a lot smoother, so we had a delay in what would become the spring collection for this year, and the Pride collection, and also one of our suppliers, one of our manufacturers, they also had COVID… just crisis. Just crisis. Where they couldn’t make some of the favorite things that customers want, like the singlets got delayed for a long time because their facilities, I think in India, just couldn’t… Nobody was working. They were just quarantining everybody.

So, that kind of delay, I’m sure a lot of companies are going through this. Now, we’re kind of rebuilding that and just optimizing for the future. So, we’re back up to designing leggings, like those are about to start releasing this year. Singlets have become the secondary flagship product. I think… I didn’t go to an MBA school. I don’t know what the heck you call that, but you know, our second most popular product. And we’re ready to make new designs, but again, back to resources, we are being so frugal this year because we spent so much of the business’s cash on marketing and all this other stuff from last year.

The path to make more singlets and all these fruit flavored colors is gonna take longer. And so, we’re talking to the customers now and setting expectations, because they ask every day. They go, “When are you gonna release the cherry flavored singlet?” They are coming. And so, we’re in a good place, but it’s just taking longer, and that makes me nervous. I don’t like that, but I know we’ll get there.

And then there’s the second wave of products that were already on our list from years ago, but that’s even delayed a little further out. That includes swimwear. And also, very technical underwear to wear with the tights that we make. One of the hottest questions we get, which we actually answer on every single product page, is what underwear do I wear, as a dude, with these fabulous tights you make? We give them recommendations.

Kurt Elster: I remember you telling me this, that your number one FAQ question is, “Which underwear do I wear with these leggings?” And at the time, I didn’t put together that like… Well, you should make underwear specific to this.

Cesar Torres: Yes. And that underwear, I mean, there’s some great brands out there, so we recommend them to the customers. We have no problem in our brand sending them to other brand and saying like, “Pair it up with this.” But we’re at the point now where I’m like I have customers now asking. They go, “Could you make a thong or a dance belt for men that is in the colors of your brand?” Which also means I’ve done the right job. I’ve done my job in saying to the world, “This is the aesthetic of LED Queens.” Now, the customers actually can imagine what those products would look like.

Kurt Elster: Now they’re telling you what to make so they can buy it.

Cesar Torres: Because it won’t be black underwear and it won’t be flesh colored the way that dance belts are. What they want are these neon colors with this fabulous look as underwear. So, underwear, swimwear, and then there’s a few other products that customers ask for, but there’s also… I think what’s actually higher relevance is I want to break out of some of the styling of some of our tights and add more features. Because they ask for other features, like zippers, and like a lower cut waist, but we cannot get to those right now.

I mean, I’m just being real honest here. We only have enough resources to stick to what we do best, which is just this single style that we make, and we have to prove ourselves in 2021 and actually make that money, make those sales with the existing catalogue, or we don’t make it into 2022. And I would love to hear from other business owners, like how they are grokking this, because you know, maybe I don’t have the right approach. Maybe I should just be getting crazier, and taking out business loans, and developing more stuff, but I don’t believe that’s the answer. I think I have to maybe just perfect the classic cut that we call it. It’s the classic cut for LED Queens. And just make more colors in it, because that is what works, and all these extra features, just roll them out when the business can prove itself.

I am determined to have this be what really brings in, makes my living, right? And like a lot of businesses or startups, you’re tracking towards the day when you’re profitable. We must do this. But I don’t think the answer is by making more stuff that I can’t afford to make. I mean, I think that’s-

Kurt Elster: No, I-

Cesar Torres: That’s the honest answer.

Kurt Elster: I’m in total agreement with you. I’m inherently risk averse, but I like the idea of, “Hey, let’s not take on debt we don’t need and let’s just laser focus at making the absolute best version of our core product.”

Cesar Torres: Yeah.

Kurt Elster: Of the thing that we already know sells well and we’re known for. When you phrase it like that, it doesn’t sound crazy. It sounds like the right plan.

Cesar Torres: This goes back to what I talked about with you and Paul, which was you both said, “Couldn’t you just double down and say we make the best tights, bodybuilding tights?” And that’s basically what we’re doing, and that includes the user experience. We’ve done things now where… Please don’t look at the loading times. We’re trying to optimize those images. They’re a little bit too fat. But in general, we got rid of the carousel and we brought the best collections, the best colors, and we popped them all on a giant grid on the homepage with-

Kurt Elster: I saw that. I noticed it and I loved it immediately. The moment that homepage loads, it’s, “Here’s a grid of our best stuff.” It is the very first thing you see above the fold. And I know this strategy works.

Cesar Torres: It really works. And it also is dependent on trusting that you’re doing the right thing on social media, because what happens is I know this now, what people see on our social media pages, especially our Instagram, where we feature customers and not influencers. We do not work with influencers. We tried that years ago. I don’t like it. So, we feature actual people from our community, real LGBTQ people with jobs, and we show them in all their shapes, and all their sizes, and all their beauty, and what happens is potential customers look at that and they go, “Oh yeah, where do I find that on the website?”

So, they’re using the website more like a Google. They’re like, “Let me just find the one I saw on Instagram.” We’re doing our job right with that stuff. We’re getting those conversions. So, we’ve done that, but then also moving into more sophisticated marketing, I’m really determined to figure out the best way to do SMS messaging for our customers. That has to happen ASAP. We already have it. Right now, we’re doing abandoned cart recovery. We’re also just bringing people into that list. But as you may have noticed even in the Facebook group, I’m asking more questions, which is now I’m like how can I send out a monthly coupon, or a monthly photo, customer photo, something like that.

So, we’re evolving into that, because I think that’s also the new generation of customers that are coming in. It might be these gamer kids, right? They don’t want to be messaged on email. But they’re okay with texts. And so, we’re looking forward to that.

But in terms of what people can really expect, we do have new designs coming this year. The collection will have a really interesting new theme. And this is kind of very hard for me to say, but we usually put a lot of effort into lots of brand new Pride designs, because Pride is a really high sales time for us, June, but we just don’t have enough resources to really blow out that collection, so we’re leveraging the existing collection, which people can still get, and that’s about 15 different Pride products, and we’re just gonna remarket the hell out of those.

And we’ve actually told the customers that, because this is something that actually matters a lot to my customers. They tell me. They go, “Are you gonna have new Pride stuff? Pride, Pride, Pride.” And so, we’re more honest with them and we say, “Look, the business took a hit in 2020. We really want to make more of that stuff, but for this year, we’re gonna hold off on new Pride stuff, so take a look at what we already make.”

These things… These might not be smart business owner things to say-

Kurt Elster: What I like is-

Cesar Torres: … to the customer, but we are… We try to be more transparent.

Kurt Elster: No, it’s smart because it’s transparent. I also love that the homepage is entirely featured collection, and one of the featured collections is Cesar’s Picks. Every month, you select the designs from the massive catalogue of LED Queens that are worth paying attention to.

Cesar Torres: Well, and that one, it’s starting to payoff, because on Instagram I get a lot of DMs, like a lot of businesses do, and sometimes a customer will say, “Would just recommend what I should start with or what would work well for me?” And honestly, that curation of that list, Cesar’s picks, as a collection, is something that we can send to that customer in a DM, but we can also put it into a flow. We haven’t put it into a flow yet, but we’re gonna do that on Klaviyo. And I think that’s what people want to know. A big part of the success of the brand is me, right? Like it’s not just my leggings. It’s what I have to say to the world.

And so, we’re trying to boost that, but also… I mean, we’re trying to do our best to not be douchey. Because in the world of fitness, this ends up going to the extreme. The person becomes this icon and it’s like, “Oh, here’s my protein powders and all the blah, blah, blah.” I want to be a little bit more down to Earth as much as I can with this stuff.

Kurt Elster: Yeah. It’s a strange… That’s a strange universe unto itself. So, it’s time for our lightening round. If you could send a message to everybody, all the Shopify merchants, you have 30 seconds, what do you tell them?

Cesar Torres: Remove yourself from your own equation. Stop being the obstacle to your business progressing and when you get some keen advice that works for other people in the industry or an expert actually tells you, actually do try to take it. So, whether it’s your user experience or marketing stuff, don’t think that you are smarter than what has actually already worked for all these other really big brands before. So, get yourself out of the way, swallow your pride, and try out what people are telling you to do. Stick to the program.

Kurt Elster: I like that advice. I often… If I’m having trouble accepting advice that I think is good, and where I’m trying to get out of my own way and having trouble with it, I ask myself what would someone smarter than me do? And then the answer, of course, is, “Well, do the thing that everyone’s telling you to do.” And then I go, “Oh. All right. Well, I guess I better do it.”

Cesar Torres: And I’ll just… My quick example is newsletter marketing. I mean, years ago, I’ve been working in this field for a long time, but whether you have a conversion rate you’re happy with or not, email is still really powerful. And you need to listen to people who tell you that you need to be sending out your emails at least once or twice a week. Just stop being silly and do it.

Kurt Elster: It’s so hugely powerful. And people who don’t want to hear from you, they’ll probably just delete the email and move on with their lives. It is way less important to the person receiving it than it is to you sending it. Stop! Just send the email! Oh my gosh, just send it!

Cesar Torres: Yes.

Kurt Elster: Top three favorite Shopify apps. I’m deleting every app in your Shopify store except for three. Right now, what are the three that you get to keep?

Cesar Torres: We’re gonna definitely have to put Privy on there. Privy has been pretty great. Their analytics and just the ease of the user experience in constructing popups and collection of emails. Really great. And I use them also now for SMS marketing, so that’s good. I’ve actually… Our rewards program slowed down, obviously, because sales slowed down a little bit or quite a bit in 2020, but now they’re picking back up. But that product, I still have customers who love our points program. They send referrals and they love collecting their points. They do a really great job.

And what would be my third one? Let me take a look here. If you don’t mind me clicking on the broadcast, I need to make sure I promote the right one, because I do-

Kurt Elster: Okay, go ahead.

Cesar Torres: Oh, you know what? For my scale, this is gonna be an odd one, and I don’t know these people very well, but actually Return Magic and Fraud Killer. I’m gonna throw two in here. Return Magic just because it’s really helped me automate returns, and right now it’s very mom and pop shop, like returns actually come back here to my house, but we actually repackage that product and send it out, so that’s been awesome. And then Fraud Killer. Fraud Killer saved our butt more than once last year, because we had a flood of-

Kurt Elster: I was gonna say, credit card fraud and eCommerce fraud, really on the rise in 2020. Tell me about that.

Cesar Torres: Yeah. This was summertime. We had… It was frightening. It was like in one week, it was like 50 purchases in a row that were fraudulent. They were all marked as fraudulent. And I was like, “I can’t manage this.” I was actually just frightened to death. I was like, “How am I gonna deal with this? What will happen?” And so, I found that app mostly just by Googling a lot and seeing what reviews were. I’m sure there’s some bigger competitors now. But what it does now is I just set the threshold of what is considered fraudulent, and as soon as the purchase comes in, we refund it. And that actually solved it for a long time.

And so, we haven’t had that issue since, but for a company as small as mine, it was the best thing ever, because it really allowed me to sleep at night. So, I do recommend it. Yeah. And Return Magic’s great because one of our warehouses that’s in Kansas City, we use it with them, and it’s… I don’t know. It’s nice to automate that stuff. You shouldn’t be processing returns one by one. Don’t do that. You don’t have to.

Kurt Elster: Yeah. Getting rid of that stuff that no one wants to do through automation is a real joy. Like reviewing orders for fraud? Okay, I don’t want to have to worry about that. Doing the back and forth of returns are two great things to get off your plate with using an app to automate it. So, I think that’s bright.

For those of us who need some leggings-

Cesar Torres: Yes.

Kurt Elster: And I can’t… We can’t just have black leggings. That would be ridiculous. Where do I get the good stuff?

Cesar Torres: You go to and I encourage you, nowadays when you go there, go there on your phone, because the experience on your phone is fabulous. The way it scrolls and moves, you’re gonna like it. But also, we have our best coupon on the phone only, and that’s the SMS engagement that we do with you. So, if you’re willing to receive SMS text messages from us, you get a massive 15% off coupon, which we don’t really give anyone else, and that brings you into our experience. You get to try out what we have. We offer free returns, at least for domestic customers, but we do service all countries of the world. We ship internationally. And you can also talk to me. You can message me on TikTok and Instagram, but right now, the way that we’re operating in 2021, you get to talk to me every single time you have a question about the product.

So, I think that that’s something really special, because if you like this kind of positivity, and excitement for books, design, art, and fitness, you actually get to talk to me about your passion with that, and then yes, I do encourage you to try lots of color, because you’ll find a couple of leggings in black, but we always still make them pop with neon, and I would say 95% of our catalogue is the stuff that is just so bright you’ll think, “How could I ever pull that off?” And then you’ll look at the site and our Instagram and you’ll go, “Oh, this is how I do it.” Because the customers teach you how to combine the colors, really. I mean, I also do my own styling, but you’ll also find a community of amazing mostly LGBTQ people who just have a passion for fitness and are really proud of their bodies. Yeah. That’s us.

Kurt Elster: Cesar, thank you so much for being here. This is a wonderful interview. I’m glad to hear how optimistic you are for the future and I have total faith in you. Thank you.

Cesar Torres: Thank you so much and I wish you the best. Say hi to Paul. Both of you are doing a great job and I just… I want to tip my hot off to you and round of applause from everybody listening. Y’all are awesome, so keep doing it.

Sound board: Crowd applause.

Cesar Torres: Can I get the Tech Nasty thing? Because I just love that thing. It’s so weird.

Kurt Elster: Of course! I say it in my head now.

Ezra Firestone Sound Board Clip: Tech Nasty.

Cesar Torres: There you go. I’m happy. I can die happy now.

Kurt Elster: All right, we’ll close on that.

Ezra Firestone Sound Board Clip: Tech Nasty.