A common refrain I hear echoing from all directions these days is “Yo! What’s up with UGHH?!” From some angles it’s fueled by the genuine curiosity of people wanting me to share what I’m up to. The other extreme has kept me up at night—sometimes working until 3AM—out of concern.

Over the past few months, I’ve received encouraging and disparaging words via email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, online reviews and even through a couple of Better Business Bureau inquiries. Many of these inquiries I’ve taken the time to answer, but I haven’t had the time to address what’s going on publicly.

In short, to keep it Internet, here is what’s up with UGHH:

So, how did we get to the point wherein I’m wading through a blaze wearing a t-shirt with the new UGHH branding and sipping an Old Fashioned out of a mug? Let’s discuss.

Failure By the Numbers

2017 started off relatively strong with us paying off a hefty amount of the six-figure debt that UGHH had previously incurred. Things looked positive as we were able to increase revenue at a steady clip. We then had the best Record Store Day that UGHH had ever seen. After that, we dipped back to pre-Record Store Day revenue levels expecting that revenue would, at least, remain flat as we ramped up other efforts for growth. So, we proceeded with our plan to invest in high-quality editorial content.

Revenue slumped considerably through Summer 2017 as the magazine ramped up. We continued to pay off old debts and then the revenue sharing portion of our acquisition deal kick in early July. In other words: more money was going out while much less was coming in.

The goal of UGHH Magazine was to invest in high-quality journalism and develop long-form, well-written stories to remind people that we are the definitive source for underground hip-hop. Those articles were also meant to drive users to the site, which we hoped would encourage record sales. Unfortunately, the investment in editorial content didn’t yield much in the way of traffic or sales. The chart below indicates that the magazine content only saw 20k visits and yielded $152 in direct sales in 2017.

Even if we zoom out and look at the editorial content through a branding lens (considering some readers may have learned of UGHH through the magazine, and then come back later to purchase) we can only attribute 249 purchases and ~$10k in revenue to that.

No matter how you slice it, we lost a lot of money on investing in editorial content.

As a digital marketer, I know that when it comes to content marketing, you need to invest in it long-term before you see results. Naively, I believed that since we had a built-in audience and longstanding brand, creating content would cut down that timeline.

I was wrong. That won’t be the last time I’ll need to admit that here.

Around the time of our content ramp up, we also augmented our approach to Paid Media. We very quickly zeroed-in on the most optimal advertising channels for UGHH. The problem? There is very little volume for direct response marketing in underground hip hop, and a brand strategy would have proven too costly until we found more solid footing. I still believe this site ultimately needs a media component to thrive, but we did not execute it effectively in 2017.

Ultimately, the year ended with little cash in the bank. Together, my partners and I decided to invest more cash to keep the business going. We decided to personally invest in UGHH because we believe in our brand and its mission.

Sales are not sustainable

Being that we are in retail, my next statement will be obvious, but it’s worth saying to give a fuller picture.

Our customers are highly reactive to sales.

As you might imagine, that’s a terrible expectation to set in a buyer/seller relationship, because there are a ton of customers that will only shop during a sale.

UGHH is a relatively low margin business which means that, irrespective of our price to you, we don’t make much profit from the sale of each product even at full price. But, I get it, I’m no different from you, I’m always searching for a deal.

In the research we did early on, it’s clear that we historically haven’t been the cheapest option because we’re not a distributor and we don’t command enough volume to get preferred pricing from distributors. So, when we run sales, it gives us a shot in the arm with regard to revenue, but then when we have to pay our vendors, partners and staff it just doesn’t add up.

While I haven’t had time to validate this hypothesis, I suspect that’s part of how the previous management got into the rut that they were in.

Running a sale also leads to a huge influx of orders. Being short on staff, this influx was something that we weren’t prepared for. As a result, UGHH’s customer experience suffered throughout the holidays and, ultimately, into 2018. To keep it short: sales need to be more strategic to be effective.

And then there were two

From a technical perspective, UGHH is held together by bubblegum and duct tape. Throughout the past year, there was a tremendous amount of resistance against updating UGHH to a more modern, improved technology stack. As I write this, UGHH is using three distinct platforms: WordPress, Shopify, and a legacy homegrown solution for the forum.

On the fulfillment side of things, there are perhaps hundreds of disparate scripts to sync a secondary database with Shopify, manage inventory and queue up product for ordering and shipping. Frankly, there is no reason that everything aside from packing can’t be automated.

Since last year, my goal has been to bring everything on to WordPress/WooCommerce so we can easily integrate everything and quickly/continuously make improvements. Unfortunately, that did not happen on the original timeline we had planned, and in mid-January (after some key departures) managing the technical components of fulfillment fell entirely on my plate.

Our E-commerce Associate and I were left to our own devices to keep things going. Big shout to him for being resilient throughout this whole process and stepping up in a variety of ways to make things happen. He is definitely the biggest personnel win that has come out of my short tenure of running UGHH.

Unfortunately, the documentation for the management of fulfillment was lacking, referenced computers or files we didn’t have access to or the processes were so convoluted that it wasn’t something that could be efficiently managed by someone without a surplus of time.

So, I did what any self-respecting web developer would do. I wrote my own shit!

It’s all still a work in progress as I have been plugging new holes and fixing bugs as we go, but I’ve simplified and automated most of what was previously done manually. Processes that once took hours now take minutes. In fact, the process of writing UGHH’s new code has been the one thing that I’ve really enjoyed throughout this tumultuous time. Once we launch our new site, there will be additional efficiency gains and we will be able to serve our customers better than ever before.

However, in the short term, these improvements came at a couple losses. At one point during the migration to WooCommerce, emails about historical and pending orders were accidentally sent to a lot of customers. Also, because there were only two of us to manage everything, and I’m split between many responsibilities on other businesses, focusing on building for the long term slowed things down.

I Failed You At Communication

We sent mass emails out to customers when there were big delays, but we did not do a decent job of answering all the email inquiries. We also didn’t establish phone support once the previous management abandoned it.

And when I say we, in this case, I mean me.

As the showrunner over here, any of our failures are ultimately my responsibility. Yes, I recognize getting behind in orders and not communicating effectively are hallmarks of a fraudulent online business. I assure you that it was never my intention for anyone’s order to get delayed. Rather, I thought that the more valuable thing for me to do with my limited time was to sit in front of the computer and bang out the code to get things working better so orders could actually get shipped.

Nevertheless, we fucked up and I apologize to any customers that were negatively affected.

In fact, as we’ve gotten caught up, our customers began to receive hand-signed notes from me because our lack of communication and delivery delays were completely unacceptable.

To that end, we’ve hired someone just to manage email responses moving forward. Every single message we’ve received is getting a response and we expect to be finished with that in the next few days. Other than that, orders are continuing to be shipped in the order in which they are received unless items are out of stock or backordered.

So Ambitious

“I’m different. I can’t base what I’m gon’ be off what everybody isn’t” -Jay Z

I approached this venture like I do anything else I do in life — with uncompromising ambition and optimism. Despite my personal high functionality and various accomplishments, I’ve never seen anything I’ve done or wanted to do as especially hard or requiring exceptional talent. The sobering reality is that not everyone is on board with or capable of making what I see so clearly into a reality.

In hindsight, I still don’t see anything that we’d set to do as being something that could not get done. However, the goals we set out to accomplish were too ambitious for the combination of people that worked on them. Also, I have been an ineffective manager and, to overcome that, I recently completed a management course and I’m continually devouring books to improve those skills. Nevertheless, the order of operations with what we did was exactly backwards.

In other words, what we’ve been working on since I’ve taken over fulfillment operations is what we should have done first. Had we done that, I’d be sharing growth charts with you rather than telling you why we’ve hit bumps in the road.

We should have focused on identifying opportunities to attain efficiencies with the e-commerce and fulfillment operations and paid off all the debt. Once everything was stabilized and we established a step function of growth then we should have been expanded into more exciting opportunities like the magazine.

I believed that we could do the opposite. Again, I was wrong.

Dancing on Quicksand

“Saw a side of myself that I never knew. I’d probably self-destruct if I ever lose, but I never do” -Drake

I’ve watched enough Scandal and helped enough brands through crises to know I’m supposed to make this all look easy. I’m supposed to act like none of this bothers me. I’m supposed to just look at this like a bad acquisition, cut my losses and sell it to the highest bidder. I can’t, I won’t and I’m not.

As corny as it sounds, UGHH means a lot more to me than that and it’s taken a considerable toll on me, my personal relationships and my family to keep this ball in the air. It’s not just “a business,” it’s something that I feel is an extension of me and my partners and the more adult way that we express ourselves through this artform.

I’ve personally struggled through a variety of things over the past year and I don’t share that looking for sympathy. Rather, I share it to clarify that I’m just trying to do the right and most effective things across the board and have simply made costly mistakes.

The Path Forward

“That’s another difference that’s between me and them: I smarten up, open the market up” – Jay Z

The path forward is actually quite simple. We’re doing what I said we should have done previously, focusing on being the greatest underground hip hop record store possible. I still believe in growing toward the Media direction, but we need to develop the step functions that will help us get back to profitability first. Here’s what you can expect:

  • Focused Mission – Admittedly, we went into 2017 with 19 tactics that UGHH could leverage to generate more revenue. For 2018, we’re going to whittle that down to a handful of initiatives and put the weight of our resources behind those. The core of that mission is being the best online record store and the home for the underground hiphop community.
  • Improved Website – In the next day or so, we will have launched a new website on WooCommerce. Bare with us; we ask for your feedback once its launched so we can rapidly make improvements once this is live. This will position us to continually roll out features and functionality in support of our core mission.
  • Improved Fulfillment – We’ll continue to hire extra support on the fulfillment side as we grow and we’ll bring on seasonal support as we head into higher sales seasons like Record Store Day and Black Friday.
  • Improved Customer Service and Communication – This is our biggest immediate focus for improvement. We understand the need to be able to reach someone about your order and are correcting that right away.
    • Improved Phone Support – You can now reach UGHH Customer Service by phone 24 hours a day and 365 days a year at 866-311-5320. For those of you that are UGHH Premier members, your priority customer service line is 877-218-0176, also available 24/7.
    • Email Support – We now have someone solely dedicated to answering your emails. As she is working through the backlog, I’d recommend that you call one of the numbers above if you need immediate assistance.
  • Improved Customer Experience – I have no illusions about what we’re competing with for your business. I do know that we are capable of giving you a more personalized and higher quality experience then you’ll get elsewhere. We’ll iterate towards being a company that is more personalized and customer-centric. I don’t want us just to be another place that is going to send you things in a brown box. I want to be the company that is giving you a curated experience and knows who you are when you call us.
  • Focused Product Efforts – With us finally moving to a platform where we have more control over how things operate, we’ll be developing and publishing a roadmap of the improvements we’re making. The goal is to deploy new features and functionality on the site every two weeks. UGHH is becoming more of a “product” rather than just a “website.” You can expect things like an improved forum, mobile app, a streaming service in the near future — all personalized for you.

Back Like We Never Left

“Always trying to let go of anything that’ll burden me. That’s the reason you can feel the tension and the urgency” -Drake

I understand that we have undermined the trust that the previous management worked hard to establish. Some customers will never order from us again. I completely understand and I sincerely apologize for failing you as a businessman, rap fan and someone who has devoted a large part of his life to this music.

Perhaps, in the future, you’ll give us another chance.

In the meantime, were’ going to keep pushing forward to make this site and this business better than it has ever been. For anyone that still has questions, you’re welcome to email me directly (mike at ughh dot com) and we’re also hosting a livestream on the UGHH Facebook at 4:30pm on 4/20/2018 where you can ask me anything. I promise not to be too Mark Zuckerberg in my responses.

To those that have supported UGHH over the years and will continue to do so, I thank you so much for sticking with us. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to following through on everything I just said.

-Mike

I’m excited to announce the launch of UGHH Magazine, one of our first moves to becoming more of a media company. To clarify, we will always be a record store, but to insulate ourselves from changes in consumer behavior of physical media, and capture more people, we are adding things that the rest of the modern Internet is using to our arsenal. I’m going to use this post as an opportunity to give a bit of an update on everything we’ve been cooking up and what you can expect moving forward.

Over the last five months, we’ve put over a collective 1500 hours into the site. That’s not including my own time, Jeremy, Adam’s or that of editorial staff. I’d estimate that if we included all those other people it may be closer to double that. We’ve done a ton of strategic planning and somewhat re-platformed to put rappers and content front and center. We’ve also made sure to connect articles and artist content with their relevant products to make it easier for you to discover new rappers. We’ve been working incredibly hard on this and you’ll soon start to see more and more things happening visually with a complete redesign coming down the pike before the end of the year.

So, I just want to take this moment to shoutout to the iPullRank team for all of their hard work in addition to all other very demanding client work we do.

UGHH Magazine

As I mentioned before, the state of online journalism is generally in disarray when it comes to quality. That’s largely due to performance in the web environment (pageviews) lending itself to low culture content. In other words, cat videos get more views than say – coverage on the State of the Union. Naturally, that is true in any creative pursuit, but the Buzzfeedifocation of music websites as of late has left me unfulfilled as a reader. Despite that, there have been flashes of brilliance on those sites and I want to build UGHH into the magazine that is comprised more so of those flashes of brilliance and does a much better job of getting to the bottom of the story.

In starting UGHH Magazine, we are focusing on digging deeper and telling higher quality stories. We’ve brought on one of the stars of hip-hop, culture writing and general media badass Kathy Iandoli as our Editor-at-Large. She has been reaching out to her network of journalists with legit pens and getting us exceptional stories. On the iPullRank side, our Content Strategy Lead Fajr Muhammad is working with her to push the bar. But please, don’t judge either of these wonderful women based on the grammar and punctuation of what I write.


What you can expect from our publication is a shift away from interviews with rappers built on stock questions. You can expect us to get investigative and dig into the stories that haven’t been told about this community. You can expect better content experiences where we go the extra mile to make things beautiful, data-driven and visually interesting. You can expect not to read articles about articles or news that isn’t news. People that write for UGHH will write the types of articles that they wish they could write on the sites that are solely after the pageview.

We’re a record store, so that monetization avenue affords us the ability to not live solely on advertising and we can invest in quality over the opportunity to drive short attention span traffic. We’re attempting to serve slow-cooked gourmet meals rather fast food.

You can also expect that we will challenge our readers and cover topics and artists that other people won’t. UGHH has long represented hiphop’s counterculture. It was the original platform for the “independent as fuck” movement or mantra. We’er not here to recreate that, rather we’re here to capture its evolution and modernize the approach.


Mela Machinko’s “I Hate the Term ‘Underground'” piece is a fitting example of such an article that challenges commonly held beliefs. I love that she’s tackled the idea head-on because “underground” is such a nebulous concept for the music and culture that we all love.

Kathy and Fajr have done a wonderful job kickstarting the magazine in a short timeframe and I’m excited to see how we collectively grow it into a must read. There is a lot I want to achieve visually on the site and we’re still looking for additional design folks to work alongside our internal design resources to deliver timely production of customized visual elements that will really set the site apart. Do holler if you’re interested.

As of late, we’ve been getting a lot of questions as to how to submit for coverage on the site. For those of you that want a guaranteed video feature in our video section, continue to follow the process on our FAQ page in paragraph with the heading “How Do I Get My Music Video In Your Videos Section.” Those videos are not editorial placements. For those of you looking to get into an editorial feature, shoot your submission to submissions@ughh.com. Just know that those are reviewed once a week and it’s completely up to the discretion of the editorial team to decide what gets coverage.

Everyone else, I invite you to check out the magazine and subscribe to the mailing list. There’s a whole lot of new stuff in the works.

Sales So Far

I made a bit of a pledge to be as transparent as I can with how things are going, so here is a look at year over year sales through the end of May.

For some background, the iPullRank team took over the reins at the end of January and began working on the strategic direction of the company and the site. So, the site had continued doing what it was doing with light changes here and there.

In March, we did a beta launch of the UGHH Premier subscription service starting with our most frequent customers and working our way down to the top 50%. The whole time we’d been gearing up for an April release of the new content-driven version of the site and UGHH Magazine in advance of Record Store Day. We missed April on that release, but we were still able to have what Adam called the best Record Store Day to date. Mid-May we finally got the new site live, but ran into technical difficulties with Shopify that caused the store to be down for a day and made us pivot on a core part of our strategy.

Also, with dramatic change in site structure, you can expect an initial drop in traffic and sales of some kind. All in all, we are ~10k short of the revenue that the site generated in 2016, but showing a small profit whereas the company had lost nearly 4k by this time. I’m happy that the opportunity cost has not been much higher to get us to this point, because now we have the infrastructure and access in place to pivot much more quickly.


That said, our expenses are still quite high because we took on the debt that the company already had. We’ve been systematically honoring all those debts and paying them down while at the same time kicking off new initiatives. So, while the business expenses are a bit lower in aggregate, they creep up as we continue to reinvest in the business.

That said, we very much appreciate everyone who has shown their support to help keep us going.

WTF is UGHH Premier?

As I mentioned above, UndergroundHipHop.com is becoming a media company. We will always be an e-commerce company bringing you the best is in physical media like vinyl, cd, t-shirts and whatever other merchandise rappers can dream up. In fact, we are actively seeking partnerships to create such original merchandising. Roc Marciano action figure anyone?

The media model is built from subscription. Naturally, the more subscribers we have, the bigger things we can do. Right now, we’ve got podcasts and mix shows in the works and we are in talks with folks about releasing albums and documentaries with hopes that we can expand into custom programming like online tv shows in the future. UGHH Premier is our answer to Amazon Prime with a heavy helping of the Netflix model. For those that don’t remember, when Amazon Prime first launched in 2005 it was largely about free shipping and it wasn’t until about 2012 when evolved into a multitude of media-driven perks. The current perks for UGHH Premier customers are:

  • VIP Pricing
  • Priority Customer Service
  • Free Entry to Concerts
  • Access to Exclusive Music and Video
  • Early Access to Exclusive Super Limited Releases
  • Access to Flash Sales

You might wonder why we don’t offer free shipping with this, it’s entirely a technical limitation that we will remedy once we switch e-commerce platforms. Another common question I get is “why would rappers do a release with us in such an ‘isolated’ environment?” Really, there’s two reasons:

  1. The independent rap audience is still on UGHH in a very focused way. Unlike Bandcamp or Facebook, you’re not competing for attention with more famous people and memes. When you’re on the UGHH platform, a visitor is looking for a specific thing. So, would you rather get 20% of 250,000 people’s attention that really care or 0.000001% of 1.6 billion that don’t? I’ll answer that for you, you want the more focused attention.
  2. We offer a better deal than a record label wherein backend is an actual material thing. Additionally, because our model is subscription-based, artists get paid every year for a single sale.


For our customers, I believe all the current incentives are worthwhile, but since our customer base is rightfully very price-conscious, let’s focus there. We did competitive pricing analysis that revealed we were, on average 8.6%-15.2% more expensive than sites in our competitive set for products that we both sell. Note: There are plenty of products that we sell that are unique to us so it was never fair to say that UGHH was expensive. In some cases, our competition is also a distributor or a label so they have more control over prices or can sell certain items cheaper as a loss leader. Then there was one site that sells items for dramatically lower prices, but their stock is way smaller than ours. So, the 15-20% VIP discount that UGHH Premier members receive effectively makes UGHH the best option for purchasing your music. That discount applies to any sale items as well, so it quickly pays for itself. All the additional incentives just sweeten the deal.


Thus far we’ve secured exclusive music from Ghostface, Conway the Machine, Smif & Wessun, Cormega and many more. We’ve gotten Premier subscribers into concerts headlined by Raekwon, Arrested Development, B.o.B, Devin the Dude, Das Efx, Ceschi, and more. You can certainly expect the perks to grow and our ability as the program matures. If you haven’t signed up, head over to the UGHH Premier page and get started today.

Ultimately, UGHH Premier is a way for us to hook our customers up and a way for us to build better avenues for rappers to release their music where they can make more money.

PackFM40 and UGHH Powered Shows

PackFM is turning 40, today actually, and is throwing a concert this coming Friday to celebrate that. PackFM being both UGHH family and my real-life family made it obvious that we should use this opportunity to pilot the “UGHH Powered” show.


The UGHH Powered conert entails promotion of the show through our various channels, giveaways, a premium artist page, UGHH kiosks at the show and filming of the show in 360 video for view on the UGHH Premier channel. These are also shows that UGHH Premier customers can get free entry into.

Another component of this is putting quality standards in place, much like Rhymesayers Entertainment has seemed to develop with their tours. When have you gone to a Brother Ali show, heard bad sound, an annoying host, a substandard performance or had the party start late? Shouldn’t every show you spend your hard-earned money and time on be the same?

The goal is to build a promoter network of UGHH Powered shows and continually improve the quality of the show experience for show-goers. Promoters and artists interested in joining the network, please contact Jeremy@ughh.com.

We hope that you’ll join us for PackFM’s show on June 16th. Get your tickets here.

UGHH20 Update

On the topic of shows, you must be wondering about the 20th anniversary show that we’ve been cooking up. We ran into a bit of a roadblock with finding the right headliner that the venue believes can pack in the 2500 capacity space, but this is still a super high priority concert for us. We really want to deliver an incredible show experience and don’t want to have to cut corners on anything.

We’re working on enlisting some help in this area and we hope we can announce the date and the lineup in the coming weeks. Nonetheless, we are still aiming for September and I’m excited about the rest of the lineup that we have built.

UGHH HQ is Moving to NYC

Earlier this week, Jeremy drove a U-Haul to NYC from Boston to move UGHH to the iPullRank office in NYC. While Adam and Jeremy will still be based in Boston, UGHH will be HQ’d in NYC moving forward. With our shift to more of a media company this makes sense since the iPullRank office is in the heart of NYC’s media center, a block away from Rockefeller Center and two blocks from Complex.com.


Jeremy will focus more on business development, Adam will focus on site maintenance and customer service and our new NYC-based guy Lou will focus on order fulfillment and UGHH Premier customer service.

We’ve begun filming video in the office and will continue to use iPullRank resources to create things until UGHH outgrows the space and moves to its own office here in NYC. So, rappers, give us a shout as you make your promotional rounds.

What About The Forum?

Users on the forum have said that I haven’t talked about the forum enough. We have a lot of things in the works for the forum. The iPullRank team has scoured the feedback in the threads and has given a lot more visibility to forum by directly linking to the boards from the homepage. I personally recognize the forum as one of the few vibrant hiphop communities that is still alive.

Previously, most hip-hop sites had message boards and this is one of the few that has stood the test of time. That said, I have not wanted to stir the pot too much to date, but there will be a lot of change moving forward. Once Adam finishes with the migration of all the historical data to the new platform, we will be on a modern message board software and we’ll have all the required features to breathe new life into it. We’re building a better integration with the rest of the site so you won’t need to have separate logins for each section and we’ve got some ideas for content that is specific to the forum. For example, we’ll be doing a PackFM AmA this week.

There is a lot coming to get people more involved and I’m excited to share it with y’all. So don’t worry forum heads, I got y’all.

We’re Still Looking to Work with You

While the team we’ve put together is strong and we are systematically plugging away at our goals, we’re still looking to get you involved. Whether you’re an artist going looking for a home for your next release or a writer tired of writing articles about articles, a promoter looking to enter the UGHH Powered show network, or a member of our community that wants to just contribute somehow, we’d love to hear from you. As always, you can reach me at mike@ughh.com.

That’s all I’ve got for now. I’ll catch y’all on the next update and hope to see those of y’all in the Greater NYC area at the PackFM40 show. Thank you for your continued support.