Shark Tank's Tipsy Elves Turn Spiky Web Traffic From Naughty To Nice

12/16/2014
We've all seen it happen: a small e-commerce business gets featured on a major TV show or plunks down the considerable cash for a Super Bowl ad and – BOOM! – the web traffic floods in and it goes sideways faster than when that one uncle drinks too much eggnog. The site grinds to a crawl (or goes down altogether) killing sales and, sometimes even worse, kills your reputation – you'll be on the naughty list, for sure!

Call it what you want: The Oprah Effect, a high-traffic event, the Super Bowl Shuffle, or something just going plain viral – these massive traffic spikes can make or break a budding e-commerce business. They can fuel massive success, of course, but if mishandled can also ruin your reputation and sabotage your sales.

For us at Tipsy Elves, the first time we encountered what we consider a major traffic spike was the night of our initial appearance on ABC's "Shark Tank," the reality show where entrepreneurs present their business models in front of a panel of big-time investors in hopes that they'll help that business grow. We'd heard about the "Shark Tank" Effect before we even got called up for the show. From the time the show airs and in the days and weeks following, traffic climbs. Up. Up. Up.

Tipsy Elves is a unique business – we make and sell funny (and sometimes "ugly") Christmas sweaters. You know, the purposely-garish garments that one might wear to a holiday party to stand out. They're conversation pieces, for sure. Think bright reds and greens and popular Christmas symbols in precarious situations and you'll get the idea.

On "Shark Tank," we strutted out in front of the sharks with confidence and were immediately told by Kevin O'Leary: "This stuff is hideous!" That's when we knew we had something special. (We ended up making a deal with shark Robert Herjavec for 10 percent equity for a $100,000 investment.)

The night the episode aired, our web traffic swelled. It grew from our average of 20,000 to 25,000 unique visitors per day and a couple hundred simultaneously to 55,000 unique visitors, and a record 10,000 at once. That traffic kept up. The next day, we handled 52,000 unique visitors. The day after that, 30,000. It was a million-dollar opportunity for us. And had our website collapsed under the pressure, it would've been a zero-dollar opportunity (cue music played when someone loses a game on The Price is Right).

And we got to do it all again this year, when we were invited back to Shark Tank for an update on our business. And that spawned other opportunities, like a cool mention on the "Rachael Ray Show."

To say our business has grown as a result of the "Shark Tank" exposure (and the resulting partnership with Robert Herjavec) would be an understatement. Our sales are on track to hit somewhere in the neighborhood of $8 million in 2014, up from $3 million last year and $800,000 in 2012. And we're branching into new product lines with college and university sweaters, holiday-themed t-shirts (not just for Christmas), jumpsuits and more.

None of this would have been possible if our site had crumbled the night of our initial "Shark Tank" appearance. And we took great care to make sure that didn't happen.

If you expect your site to get slammed, there are certain steps you can take to ensure it doesn't go down at the first sign of a spotlight. It all comes down to preparation.

First things first: contact your technology partners – hosting providers, monitoring services, etc. – as soon as you expect you may have a whopper of a traffic spike. Sometimes, it's hard to pre-plan these things. But if you find out on Tuesday that you'll be on TV on Wednesday, call your technology providers immediately. A late warning is better than no warning at all.

From there, work with those providers to ensure your infrastructure will handle a hefty load. When we anticipate a big boost in traffic, we scale our number of servers (for "Shark Tank," we went from two to 12) and increase our database capacity (we doubled it). It may require adding load balancers to the mix to ensure any one server doesn't get bogged down. Also, set up proactive monitoring, which will let you know if there is an issue before it becomes one – a warning even just minutes before can make a huge difference.

Once that's in place – test it. I can't stress that enough. Test. Test. Test. Load test your site to ensure it can comfortably handle a massive traffic spike. How does it do under a 10 times increase? How about 20 times? Or 30 times, 40 times, 50 times and up? What's the absolute maximum load your site can handle before disaster strikes?

At Tipsy Elves, we're fortunate to be partnered with Rackspace to ensure that our high-traffic events – planned or surprise – go without a hitch. With as little as a single phone call, our Rackspace Managed Cloud team ensures our systems are ready to rock, whether it's for Black Friday, Cyber Monday or a last-minute appearance on "20/20."

We've grown a lot as a company and a brand since our first "Shark Tank" appearance. We've also learned a great deal. It was sort of a trial-by-fire, sink-or-swim situation. The opportunity was ours to seize. Had our website crashed, I could be writing a completely different type of article today – a first person how not to…. But it didn't, and its success fueled ours.

I'm excited for what 2015 brings for us at Tipsy Elves. And with Rackspace and Fanatical Support on our side, we know our e-commerce store is in good hands so we can focus on building our business for even greater  success.


Evan Mendelsohn started Tipsy Elves in 2011 with his college friend Nick Morton, and they couldn't be more appreciative of the opportunity they've had to work on such a fun business.
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