"It's a giant leap for me and Astrography, a small step for humanity" - I wrote this paraphrase a few days ago on Facebook. To the reader, it might seem ironic, but it actually quite well describes the state of mind that has accompanied me lately.
Perhaps I have just completed the largest and most exhausting project of my life. You may think: "this guy hasn't achieved anything sensible if he considers such things to be 'big'". However, you couldn't be more mistaken. Introducing a new physical product, ready for sale in over 70 countries worldwide – including in regular brick-and-mortar stores – even seemed relatively simple to me. However, it turns out that the number of details to be addressed in order for the project to not only meet the highest quality standards but also legal, logistical, marketing, and production requirements is simply astronomical. Especially if so far, the entire sales process was based on an item that did not fully meet the criteria of what a complete product is. The truth is that paper and ink rolled into a tube are only half of the finished product. I am amazed that we managed to sell it worth tens of millions of Polish zlotys.
I suffer from a chronic, even pathological, deficit of respect and faith in what I have accomplished in my life. This time, however, I am slowly beginning to mature to the idea that maybe it's time to appreciate myself a bit more. Maybe I should even buy something for myself... All the work related to R&D, project management, UI/UX, programming, automation, and production processes was done by exactly one person - myself. A self-made man.
I realize that from a business perspective, this is not a good report card. A characteristic of good business is organization, meaning a culture of delegation - utilizing the talents of many people who are better than ourselves. Therefore, I must make it clear - Astrography is not a fully-fledged business; it is still an enterprise focused around just a few people. Look at this project (and me) as someone who has, for example, created their own game, written a book, or built a house. That's exactly how I treat the project that I just brought to a crucial and at the same time most difficult stage - taking off from the ground - Zero to One, as a certain investor well-known in the startup world used to say (which I honestly do not like). Now it will be downhill from here (I hope) - the homework has been done.
To give you a better understanding of the process that led to the creation of Astrography's product, which I called Metal™, I have to recall some history. I divided it into three major stages that, in total, took several years (from 2011 to the present day).
Astrography 0 (zero) - Idea and Inspiration
Contrary to appearances, the idea of printing space photos did not emerge in recent years. Its beginnings date back to 2011 when, along with my friend Jacek, we ran a company that introduced the coolest astronomy equipment brands to the Polish market. The company was called Astromarket and had a great start. That's when I came up with the idea of adding Art to the "hardware" business - in other words, printing space photos. I don't remember if Jacek liked the idea - although he most likely did not see the potential for a global company in it - anyway, aside from choosing hardware, I didn't do anything else in this regard. Besides, selling equipment to astronomy geeks seemed to be a much more sensible business idea. Experimenting with something so vague and exceptionally niche seemed naive. A narrow niche within an even narrower niche? Well... sounds like, at most, a few sporadic transactions a year. Right?
To cut a long story short, neither I (running my own interactive agency and software house) nor Jacek (working simultaneously in a corporation) had enough time to personally engage and develop Astromarket. The idea of hiring someone to do it for us turned out to be a mistake. I confirm here something that you will read in every book about starting a startup: If you want it to succeed, you have to do it yourself.
The cosmic art idea died along with Astromarket.
Astrography 1.0 - Resurrection
The year 2018 was a time of major transformations for me. I had to close the chapter of my previous company - Ifinity, which gave me many valuable outputs, including industry respect for innovation (e.g., the Bloomberg Philanthropies award for the city of Warsaw for our navigation system project for the visually impaired, and numerous awards for being the best start-up at the time).
It is important to keep in mind that this story cannot be unambiguously seen in the context of success. What does it matter if we managed to deliver the technology and pilot implementations if, ultimately, we failed to build profitability? After exhausting the investment funds, I had to make a drastic decision to sell the technology and liquidate the company. The court delisted Ifinity on May 30 of that year, ultimately ending one of the most beautiful and incredibly enriching adventures of my life, both professionally and emotionally. I am grateful for the opportunity to have met many wonderful people (employees, partners, investors, clients, journalists, advisors, etc.). I drank from the fountain of genius like a thirsty man from a hydrant in 45-degree heat. I thank everyone and hope I'll have the chance to repay the kindness in the future.
Undoubtedly, such events can cause a sense of failure or even catastrophe for some entrepreneurs. In one of the interviews conducted by the wonderful journalist Sylwia Czubkowska (yes, she is one of those professionals who not only asks questions but also forces self-reflection), she asked: is my current worldview glorifying self-sufficient micro-companies (i.e., bootstraps) not a result of self-criticism and a certain complex arising from Ifinity's business failure? I realized she might be right. I later thought a lot about it and even grew fond of this vision. Owning a small, profitable, unobtrusive, and boring company (seemingly lacking ambition) did not seem like a particularly bad prospect for the rest of my life. All the more so if it involved my greatest passion - love for space.
After closing the Ifinity chapter, I had to decide what to do next. I established several different companies, with a simple strategy - they were to be small, profitable, and collectively provide a secure income for my family. From a financial perspective, it worked quite well (perhaps you're one of the thousands of people who bought an air purifier from LifePlanet, contributing to its million-dollar revenue - thank you), but… I quickly realized that something was wrong. I understood that money is not the sole purpose of my entrepreneurship, and the business has to bring something more to my life. I couldn't find joy in trading (based on the principle of buying cheap and selling expensive), especially in industries that didn't excite me.
Using the network and reputation I had built over the years, I reached out to people I admired for their life experience and wisdom. I opened up my vast notebooks in front of them and presented what I had on my plate. At that time, I identified five different activities that had nothing in common. I knew I had to focus and that running multiple small businesses at once was not my story.
I asked my mentors one very specific question: which project should I focus on? Is it reasonable to ignore the financial potential of "boring" businesses and focus on "impoverished" passions?
The first Astrography prints (it was close to Astrography being sold in Empik)
Astrography in its first version was a very amateurish endeavor, almost makeshift. Having a dozen or so photos on offer seemed more like a personal gallery of a space photographer rather than something that would soon become a business. I think this, quite spontaneously, got me caught up in the media machine whirlwind. PR happened on its own, as the media loves eccentrics doing something that others don't understand or laugh at (kind of like showcasing dwarfs in circuses, which was obviously terrible, but as you can see, not much has changed). At the turn of 2018 and 2019, I ticked off a record number of interviews in various media, including mainstream ones.
This, of course, was very important as it allowed us to build initial sales and achieve the first goal - to be able to support ourselves through the ongoing business, rather than relying on the money set aside in our account. The paradox was that Astrography started making money from the first month. This was possible because operational costs were limited to the bare minimum - practically only raw materials. Zero employees, zero office space, zero investments in marketing. My wife, Dorota, and I set up the first printer in our living room, completely ruining our residential well-being. The growing sales cluttered our apartment, including our daughter's room. After this somewhat embarrassing start, it was time to move on to the next stage.
Embarrassing beginnings - the first printer and shipping Astrography photos from the living room
Astrography 1.0 - The Company
On the one hand, I was obsessed with maintaining extremely low operational costs, but on the other hand, we needed a larger space where we could fit a larger and more industrial printer. The first one simply couldn't keep up anymore. It was, above all, too slow. It printed 24 hours a day, and I had to wake up at night and change the rolls. On one hand, it was a slight drama, but on the other hand, I remember that time fondly. Dorota and I got deeply involved in the process.
We managed to find a very affordable commercial space located in a closed residential area (the lack of access for pedestrians was very important to us, but not great for someone who wanted to open, for example, a shop). The space was the smallest possible to fit what we would need for the next year. The place measured about 55 square meters, so it was not much larger than our living room.
We moved into it in August 2019. Despite the small space, we managed to build a solid foundation for Astrography's development. We hired our first employees and bought professional equipment for printing and processing prints (trimmers).
The product we sold was paper + ink + a tube. I thought this wouldn't last long and already started conceptualizing in my head what a future product should look like, to be hung on customers' walls. However, following the principle that if something sells well at the beginning, focus on marketing, optimizing production, and scaling the business, I stuck with the unchanged product until June 2023. Customers appreciated this product, and the pandemic increased our scale fivefold. With such limited resources, it was not possible to implement something more advanced. Even the idea of offering frames had to be canceled, as it could not be implemented in the production space at that time.
Astrography 2.0 - The first production space. We virtually lived there with our family.
In summary - Astrography 1.0 is primarily about the first office, the first employees, and a working business model. Thanks to our highly advanced marketing, we reached the global market and reduced our sales share in Poland to a minority level (currently around 1%). During this time, I implemented online stores running on WordPress (WooCommerce). The business machine worked excellently, breaking records that I didn't anticipate.
This was the "end of the office."
Astrography 2.0 - Ups & Downs
During the summer of 2021, we were in search of a new space—not only because we had completely outgrown the previous one, but also because I wanted to prepare the company for the introduction of a new poster product. I had a clear vision in my mind of what it should be. I knew the goals, assumptions, customer needs, flaws of the current product, and reasons for losing some conversions. I knew what the product was meant to be, but I still didn't know how to build it.
In the fall of 2021, we landed in the new Flanders Business Park office building at Flisa 4 (Warsaw, Poland). With 166 square meters at our disposal, we were able to streamline production, add more machines (costing not just tens of thousands, but 6-digit figures), and also begin the R&D process for our new product.
Migration to Flanders Business Park.
One notable characteristic of this stage was Astrography's migration to a new e-commerce platform - Shopify. We discarded the Polish version and focused on increasing our share in the US market. Starting from just a few percent, today this market generates nearly 40% of our sales. We've surpassed 20,000 customers and our products can be found in over 70 countries. What additionally fills me with pride is that Astrography's customers aren't only individuals, but also organizations that ignited my childhood imagination: NASA, ESA, secret military units, U.S. Air Force, Space Force — you'll find us everywhere (even on desktop computers).
We've received several great awards, including e-Commerce of the Year by e-Izba (Best Cross-border), e-Gazele Biznesu, and my personal favorite: Best Bootstrap. We also broke monthly and yearly sales records (about a quarter of a million dollars in November '21 and almost $2 million in revenue for the entire year). It was hard to comprehend, especially considering we achieved this with a simple and incomplete product.
However, it wasn't all smooth sailing in 2022, as we experienced a blow that temporarily changed Astrography's strategy from rapid growth to preparing for "hard times." I'm referring to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which directly reduced our sales. Then came inflation, which also thwarted our aggressive growth plans. Additionally, at the end of the year '21/22, significant changes were made to restrict user profiling (thanks to Apple), dramatically worsening conversion rates from "performance" ads on social media.
The e-commerce industry worldwide was shaken by several cataclysms, one after another. In such situations, every CEO has three options:
- Denial – do nothing and pretend the problem doesn't exist or, if it does, that it will resolve itself ("it's been so great that nothing can touch me").
- Panic – dramatically reduce costs and scale of operations, cut investments, and prepare for a tsunami.
- Forward escape – "it's a sin to waste a good crisis," meaning that while 99% of small and medium-sized business owners try to implement one of the first two strategies, you do everything the opposite way – invest.
Astrography 3.0 - Moving Forward
To be honest, I went through all three stages in order. At first, I thought the temporary drop in conversions would be insignificant for Astrography, and then seeing my financial reserve evaporate, I decided to quickly plug the leaks. Once I stabilized the company and looked around, I quickly sensed an opportunity. I concluded that it would be a shame to waste this historic chance. The peloton, called the market, had slowed down, so it was a good time to try and catch up. I've lived long enough to know (and see for myself) that market conditions and sentiment always come and go in cycles. This time will be no different. It will return.
Not only did I increase my stock holdings on the stock exchange, but above all, I decided to create an escape strategy for Astrography. It's an excellent time for optimization, improving all processes, maximizing efficiency, learning new things, and investing to build and launch a new product that won't be easy for potential competition to implement, especially during a crisis. There will be no better time to do it right. Our future is here - today.
I began serious work on the concept of the new product around the summer of 2022. In September, preliminary preparations and process estimations started. In November, the key machine arrived, allowing us to enter the prototype creation phase. I went through dozens of different raw materials and materials to meet my personal requirements.
The new product, which debuted in Astrography in a limited scope on June 11, 2023, after nine laborious months of intensive work and hundreds of thousands of złotys invested in its creation (fully launched on November 16), is the culmination not only of Astrography's experiences and customer-acquired knowledge but essentially my entire life experience. Without it, I wouldn't be able to independently achieve so many things:
- Technological R&D in the areas of printing, materials, and metal raw materials
- Production processes tailored for scalability
- Industrial and graphic design of the product, packaging, labels, etc. (the package is a design masterpiece)
- Copywriting, UX, and UI of the website (as well as the product)
- Programming (website, automation of graphic processing for orders; in total, I had to write five different applications that streamlined the transformation process)
The website underwent a complete redesign. It's an entirely new creation, designed differently architecturally and technically. It's more agile, faster, and narrows customer choices to an absolute minimum. We started creating Astrography Magazine, where you can read about interesting events in space, so we've also entered the content creation area, which, as you may remember, played a significant role in my life (I owned several significant news portals in the early days of the internet).
The future of Astrography (and mine) depends on this product. I have completely withdrawn from typical prints (no more paper) - I don't even want to use the word "print" anymore - now we offer a complete, rigid product - unique - not requiring frames or drilling holes in walls. Ready to hang in 30 seconds, straight out of the box.
You can wipe it with a cloth (it's protected by a special nearly 100-micron polymer layer that protects against water and scratches). Everything is "fused" into a multi-layered "sandwich" that will withstand the test of time and is quite resistant to UV radiation. Theoretically, Metal™ should be able to function outdoors and in damp spaces, although we haven't tested these applications yet. If it survives a year in my humid astronomical observatory, it means it can handle any condition.
Introducing Astrography Metal™
What makes our new metal poster so special? How is it better than a paper print rolled in a tube? Here are a few facts:
- Easy installation - Thanks to the tool-free mounting kit and structure mounted on special Velcro pads, hanging and replacing graphics is quick and convenient.
- Multi-layer construction - This gives a unique visual effect, which is not only eye-catching but also easy to clean and extremely durable (not comparable to even the highest quality prints).
- Durable and lightweight - Made of lightweight and thick aerospace-grade aluminum, our product offers rigidity and exceptional durability. It feels like a valuable premium-quality product, not just a print from a printer. It's complete - no need to search for any frames.
- Nearly 100 microns of protection - A specialized polymer coating protects the aluminum plate with the highest quality print from scratches, water, and UV radiation. Fine Art prints are known not only for their visual quality and longevity but also for their extremely low resistance to any mechanical factors, like scratches (touching with a finger). The delicate surface often got damaged the moment a customer unrolled it. That's why I aimed for a "bulletproof" new product. To damage the protective coating of Astrography Metal™, you really need to make an effort. During regular cleaning with a damp cloth, you can't scratch it. Finally, as a manufacturer, I can sleep peacefully without fear that a customer can easily damage their expensive product.
Currently, a satin-matte version is available. I'm convinced it looks great. By the end of the year, we'll introduce something even different - the DeepSpace Gloss version, offering a cosmic depth of blacks and colors, resembling a glass pane in texture but without its typical drawbacks (thickness, weight, fragility, risk of cuts). Prototypes are already being tested.
I have ideas for further evolutions and accessories for Astrography Metal™. I'm changing absolutely everything in the company, from production processes to marketing. Astrography 3.0 requires different machines that won't fit in our current space. Perhaps later this year, we'll move to another location - this time, a true production hall that won't limit us in terms of machine selection or pallet logistics.
Astrography Metal™ - Pride & Glory.
And in conclusion, I must admit to self-sabotaging behavior towards Astrography. I stifled the company because I thought that's who I am and what I needed. In hindsight, I believe these behaviors could have resulted from fear of failure, inferiority complex, or fear of success.
Sometimes, a person who has experienced a significant failure might react by creating a defensive mechanism that leads to avoiding actions that could result in another failure. This defensive reaction may include focusing on smaller, "safe" activities that don't expose oneself to the risk of another failure.
Until yesterday, that's essentially what Astrography was like.
I'm ready for it and preparing for a significant move forward. I can't do this alone - I'm looking for partners, investors, and advisors. It's time to give myself a chance for something big, eventually branching out beyond the space niche. I hope to soon share new, exciting updates from the battlefield during these challenging times of the "Great Crisis" (as some call it).
I invite you to visit Astrography.com. If you'd like to test my new product, I have a -30% discount coupon for you (limited quantity): JESIONPROMO30
Good luck with your projects. Keep your fingers crossed for us,
PS. I encourage you to contact me directly - via email.