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Home Gym Provider Overcomes Supply Disruptions, Thrives

Imagine selling home gym equipment online at the onset of the pandemic. Athletic clubs were closed. Consumers were stuck in their houses. According to Kaevon Khoozani, the founder of Canada-based Bells of Steel, the demand for weight-training equipment was “obscene.”

“We ran into two giant hiccups,” Khoozani told me. “Everything we sell comes from specialty suppliers. Some large players, such as the chain stores, gobbled up all the capacity and raw materials. Three of our main suppliers dropped us.”

In other words, Khoozani faced obscene demand with no inventory. What was his solution?

“I set up an entirely new infrastructure for the production of iron weight plates in Vietnam. As far as I know, I’m the first to do it for export out of that country. It took a lot of time, money, and effort.”

Khoozani’s perseverance has paid off. His company is thriving, having retooled its supply chain, logistics, and inventory planning.

He and I recently discussed those developments and more. Our entire audio conversation is embedded below. The transcript that follows is edited for clarity and length.

Eric Bandholz: Selling gym equipment during the pandemic might make you one of the richest people in ecommerce.

Kaevon Khoozani: Theoretically, yes. I could be poor soon, but it’s going good now.

Bandholz: We’re all rich in life. This show’s not about the monetary value or get rich quick. Your site is Bells of Steel. How challenging has it been to get equipment? I’m a weightlifter myself. Pretty much everywhere has been sold out.

Khoozani: For sure. And the demand hasn’t really stopped. This month will be our biggest ever.

Bandholz: When I got into ecommerce, shipping heavy items was something I avoided. You sell products designed to be heavy. How do you manage that shipping process?

Khoozani: It’s tricky. UPS has high thresholds for package size and weight. Quite a few of our products are designed specifically to fit within those UPS guidelines. A lot goes into our packaging design. As for fulfillment, I use a 3PL in Indianapolis. I also ship from my own warehouse and staff in Calgary, Canada.

Most everyone who works for us is into weight lifting. Many of our warehouse guys are big and physical.

Bandholz: You’re in Canada. It’s a small market compared to the U.S. Does your business depend on sales to U.S. consumers?

Khoozani: Canada has about the same population as California. Bells of Steel has been around since 2010. There were no competitors up here at the time. So it was an advantage. Imagine being the first company in California to sell bumper plates on the internet. We were able to capture a ton of the Canadian market and a lot of organic Google traffic.

Amazon’s not nearly as dominant here as in the U.S. It’s a lot easier in Canada and a lot less expensive than in the U.S. To this day, our split is about 70-percent Canada and 30-percent U.S., although the U.S. share is growing rapidly.

Bandholz: Whenever Beardbrand ships into Canada, it costs an arm and a leg. It’s tremendously cost-prohibitive to serve Canadian consumers. What about shipping from Canada into the U.S.?

Khoozani: It’s a lot easier and cheaper to ship from Canada to the U.S. than vice-versa. There’s a difference in the duty and tax regulations, for whatever reason. I can ship anything less than $800 in value to the U.S., and it goes right through. No duty, no nothing.

But you’ll get dinged on anything and everything shipping from the U.S. to Canada. I won’t order stuff from the States directly because I’ll end up with these crazy duty bills, or it gets stuck at customs for three weeks, or it never gets through at all.

Bandholz: Where are your products manufactured?

Khoozani: Everything’s made in China and, more recently, Vietnam. It all comes in containers directly to Calgary and Indianapolis.

Bandholz: A lot of big companies sell weight training equipment. How do you compete?

Khoozani: Our big unique is we’re the best value for the money. There are competitors with thicker and stronger steel and maybe a better fit and finish. But my barbells are the best dollar for dollar. We also offer a lot of unique designs that are typically unavailable to home users. For example, one of our best-selling products is the Belt Squat Machine for under $2,000. Only one other company sells it for that price. And everything else on the market is commercial grade, which is very expensive.

And we don’t sell on Amazon. Here in Canada, maybe 10 percent of our pre-pandemic sales came from Amazon. And then the pandemic hit. I chose then not to give up a single percentage point to an entity that does nothing for my brand when there’s just obscene demand. And I don’t know if we’re ever going back. I like keeping all those customers on my platform and giving them the best experience I can.

It’s not worth it, fighting tooth and nail on the Amazon marketplace.

Bandholz: You’re singing my notes, right up my alley. Let’s talk about the crazy demand for your products due to Covid. How do you keep customers happy?

Khoozani: We ran into two giant hiccups. The first was that everything we sell comes from specialty suppliers. We don’t use trade agents. We buy barbells from a factory that only does barbells and nothing else. For some of those factories, we are a bigger customer. For others, we’re not.

At the beginning of the pandemic, some large players, such as the chain stores, gobbled up all the capacity and raw materials. Three of our main suppliers dropped us. Just, “See you later. Go get your weight plates from somewhere else.” But we couldn’t get them anywhere else because nobody was taking on new customers.

So I set up an entirely new infrastructure for the production of iron weight plates in Vietnam. And as far as I know, I’m the first to do it for export out of that country. There is some domestic production there, but not much export. I went from the ground up and built that supply chain there. It took a lot of time, money, and effort.

The second hiccup was a severe container shortage from Asia to North America. For years we used a reliable freight forwarder who set everything up. We didn’t have to pay the freight until the product arrived. Then came Covid. It was a frantic scramble, calling forwarders every day, asking, “You got space? You got space? You got space?”

And the cost of shipping containers, if you can get them, has tripled or quadrupled since the beginning of the pandemic. Lots of dirty tricks, such as middlemen selling VIP space on the containers for an extra $4,000. Crazy stuff.

It’s been tough. We learned the hard way. Before the pandemic, we were doing a lot of pre-selling. We would tell customers they could buy it now we would ship in the same month. Then Covid hit. We got burned pretty hard. We couldn’t fulfill those orders with containers sitting in port for weeks, unable to offload.

We’re much better now at tracking containers and planning inventory. We’re working much closer with our suppliers, asking, “How can we maximize your efficiency? If we buy 100 SKUs, is that going to expedite the manufacturing and shipping?”

We’ve completely reshaped how we order and how we plan our inventory and logistics.

Bandholz: Shifting direction, what’s your ideal customer?

Khoozani: In the beginning, I was focused on top-line revenue, which we all know is a silly number. I was trying to sell wherever I could — retail stores, gyms, home gyms, whatever. Three years ago, we looked closely at our numbers. It was clear that we needed to focus on the home gym user. That’s our bread and butter. That’s who we need to cater to. The segment has the best margins and the fewest warranty issues. So, yes, our focus is the home user.

Bandholz: Your site’s built on WooCommerce. How do you like it?

Khoozani: Good and bad. I was complaining about it just a few hours ago. I started on BigCommerce and remained on that platform for maybe five years. I can’t recall why I switched to WooCommerce. I think BigCommerce had jacked their rates. Perhaps I didn’t like dealing with them any longer. And I met a developer who sold me on WooCommerce.

Since then, it’s been a double-edged sword. I love that I can do anything with it, totally in my control. The thought of Shopify or BigCommerce dictating what I sell is not good.

WooCommerce has a bunch of functionality. It’s so far ahead. It’s a little clunkier, but it has way more features, and it’s way more cost-effective. But the downside is it takes much more maintenance. There are many more bugs. And we struggle with speed, always.

But I don’t think I’ll ever switch. We’re hoping to launch a new site in the next month or two. It should be a lot faster. If I were starting over, I probably would go with Shopify. But I’m glad we’re on WooCommerce now.

The level of sophistication we can do with WooCommerce is such a competitive advantage. For example, one of my leading products is called the garage gym builder. It walks you through choosing a bench, choosing a rack, and choosing a bar. And as far as I can tell, there’s not a good comparison to it on Shopify or other platforms. That product generates most of our revenue. We use a plugin, a WooCommerce composite builder.

Also, WooCommerce’s product bundle system is very sophisticated. It works in conjunction with WooCommerce composite.

Another great feature is quoting freight prices in the checkout process. We use freight carriers to deliver products to customers. But it’s been a pain to quote freight charges because none of those companies had a system like UPS does, for example.

Then one of our freight carriers created an open API. A developer used it to build a live freight-quoting plugin for WooCommerce. Now I can offer customers freight quoting at the checkout, which is a huge benefit.

Bandholz: Where can people learn more about you and Bells of Steel?

Khoozani: Our website is BellsOfSteel.com. To get in touch with me personally, send a message on the website. Somebody will direct it my way.

Online Onion Seller Rises from Domain Auction

Most entrepreneurs start with a business idea and then secure the domain name. Peter Askew does the opposite. He purchases domain names and then builds the business. Take VidaliaOnions.com, for example.

“Around 2014 VidaliaOnions.com expired,” he told me. “Being a Georgia boy … I dropped in a bid. I won the auction. I love the pears from Harry & David. I kept thinking, ‘Who’s doing that for Vidalia onions?’”

Fast forward to 2021, and VidaliaOnions.com is a thriving farm-to-door seller of onions raised only in 13 counties in Georgia.

Askew and I spoke recently about launching the business, partnering with a farmer, and the broader market of purchasing domain names. Our entire audio conversation is embedded below. The transcript that follows is edited for length and clarity.

Eric Bandholz: How did you get into selling onions online?

Peter Askew: Back in 2006, I got exposed to the domain name market. Most domain investors attempt to buy a name and try to flip it for a higher price. I attempted that, but I was not very good at it. But once I started buying interesting generic keywords or phrases, things started working. Around 2014 VidaliaOnions.com expired. Somebody abandoned it.

Being a Georgia boy, I thought, “That’s interesting.” I back-ordered it just to follow the auction. At around $2,200, I dropped in a bid. I won the auction.

The name landed in my account. It kept nagging at me that there might be an opportunity there to build something.

I love the pears from Harry & David. That kept crawling into my head. I kept thinking, “Who’s doing that for Vidalia onions?” I assumed there were customers because it’s a big industry. A few farmers were trying to sell Vidalias online, but not well.

That’s how I tend to build some of my projects. The domain comes first. Then I try to shoehorn a business from it. Some work, some don’t.

With Vidalia, I partnered with a farm in southern Georgia.

Bandholz: How did you find that farm?

Askew: I found an organization called the Vidalia Onion Committee that represents all the farmers. It’s located in the town of Vidalia, which is southeast of Atlanta. I called them and said, “I’m passing through. I own the domain VidaliaOnions.com, and I’m wondering if there is a market for farm to door.” They were intrigued and a bit confused because I owned the domain. But I tried to comfort them, letting them know that I wanted to represent the industry.

So I drove down and met the farmers. It was cold calling. I said, “I’m not an ecommerce expert. But Shopify and others have made it simple to run an ecommerce site.” (I was on Big Cartel first and eventually moved to Shopify.) But I met them — mainly to see if there was a need to sell onions online.

Also, I needed their permission. They vigorously protect that name. For Vidalias, you can only grow them within a roughly 13 county region around Vidalia, Georgia. So they protect that name.

Once I met with them, we all were on the same page. They encouraged me to pursue what they called mail order.

So I started going farm to farm, just saying hello to farmers, saying, “I’m looking for a partner farmer. Can you fulfill and ship here directly from the farm?”

I had initially thought about bringing the onions up here to Atlanta but realized that was ridiculous. What was I going to do? Throw them in my garage and have thousands of pounds of Vidalias to pack and ship.

I realized I needed farmers that would pack and ship direct. Plus, I wanted to be able to say these are coming directly from the farm. I met a farmer named Aries Haygood during that introduction tour. He and I hit it off. He was open to the idea, very flexible. On a handshake, we started it. He said, “Let’s just try it and see what happens.”

I tried to damper his expectations, saying, “I’m not sure how many we can sell. If we sell 20 or 30 boxes this first year, maybe we’re doing something right.”

But then we launched, and we sold 600 boxes in the first year. Then it kept doubling every year. We shipped 64,000 pounds last year. We’re on track in 2021 to go over 100,000 pounds.

So I partnered with Aries. I handle all the website, ecommerce operations, ShipStation, the UPS account. I run all of that. I collect all the sales and then generate the labels and either drive them down there or, for a single order or two, forward the PDF over email.

I’ve trained the staff at the farm. We have a thermal printer there. They can print the labels directly via ShipStation and place them on each box to ship.

Bandholz: You sold out quickly last season.

Askew: Yes. We typically ship until about late July. The yield last year wasn’t as high as usual. We had some heavy rains during the harvest. It impacted our yield, and all the farmers physically ran out in June. We shipped mainly from May 1 until about June 20.

Bandholz: You work with one farmer. What percentage of his onion production goes to you?

Askew: A tiny amount. He ships millions of pounds every year. He typically sells to grocery stores. He has no contact with the end consumer. His onions are just going in the produce section in a grocery store. But Aries is smart. He understood the importance of having that one-to-one relationship with customers. He understood that when I was pitching it to him.

Bandholz: So there’s still an opportunity for growth?

Askew: Gosh yes. He ships 4 or 5 million pounds per year. I’m at 64,000 pounds a year. In the early days I asked Aries, “Am I going sell you out?” He laughed, “No, we’re fine. If we run low, I’ll plant another acre.” So we can grow as much as we need to. I love the simplicity of this model. We sell one product, Vidalia onions, in four weight packages. That’s it.

Bandholz: Let’s transition back to domain buying. Is it just GoDaddy?

Askew: There are four primary places. GoDaddy Auctions is a big one. Since GoDaddy is the largest registrar, it has a large inventory to draw from. If somebody abandons the domain, it gets pushed to GoDaddy’s auction house first. It gets re-released if no one bids on it. Back in the day, registrars would hire a third party to auction their domain names. Network Solutions, for example, auctions their names through NameJet, which later acquired SnapNames.

There’s GoDaddy Auctions, NameJet, SnapNames, and DropCatch. If somebody physically abandons a domain, NameJet, SnapNames, or DropCatch will try to catch it at the drop — the millisecond that the name is available. Then they will auction it if a backorder has been placed against it.

Bandholz: How do you price a domain?

Askew: There are two frames of mind. A domain investor wants to buy at a reasonable price. The investor applies his knowledge and intuition, as well as marketplace tools. There’s a site called NameBio that provides historical trends and other info on domain sales. It’s a very helpful resource for folks who are new to domain buying. You could use historical data to guess what a domain name might be worth. I did that in the early days. I wasn’t very good at it. But then once I started trying to shoehorn business ideas, I could justify a higher bid price.

DudeRanch.com is a good example. I bought it for $17,949. I justified that price because I knew if I could build a marketplace directory, I could charge dude ranches per month or per year for a listing. I assumed I could sign up maybe 25 dude ranches the first year, maybe 50 the next, and charge them $1,000 a year for a listing. That helped me guesstimate a price I could potentially afford for DudeRanch.com.

I thought, “I can probably afford $25,000 to $50,000.” I didn’t have the liquid funds. I’d either drop it on a credit card or pay for it out of my salary. I was a product manager at the time at a software startup here in Atlanta.

That helped me justify outbidding domain investors who wanted to buy and flip it. It’s helped me outbid others in certain instances. DudeRanch.com worked out. CallTracking.com failed. BirthdayParties.com I bought for about $5,000.

Again, there are two frames of mind. Do you want to buy to flip or buy to develop?

Bandholz: You’ve always helped entrepreneurs like me in understanding domains. Where can people find you?

Askew: My Twitter account is @Searchbound. My personal website is Askew.org. My primary projects are VidaliaOnions.com, Ranchwork.com (a job board I run for the ranching industry), and Birthdayparties.com (limited to the Southeast now, but it will expand nationwide in the coming months).

3PL Founder: ‘I’m in the Exceptions Management Business’

Jay Sauceda launched his ecommerce fulfillment company, Sauceda Industries, in 2013 in Austin, Texas. He says packing and shipping products is easy. What’s difficult, he stated, is managing unforeseen events.

“The shipping business is, essentially, the exceptions management business,” he told me. “Putting products in a box and sending them out is the easiest part of the job. But what happens when a client’s purchase order is off by 15 units so that we can’t fulfill all orders? Or a client’s marketing campaign launches before we have the inventory?”

Sauceda and I recently spoke about his company’s launch, the complexities of onboarding clients, and how to choose a third-party fulfillment provider, among other topics. Our entire audio conversation is embedded below. The transcript that follows is edited for length and clarity.

Eric Bandholz: Tell us about your business.

Jay Sauceda: In 2013 I launched an ecommerce site called Texas Humor. It sells Texas pride stuff, like shirts.

When we were getting off the ground, I reached out to a few fulfillment companies. Most told me that we were too small. So I connected our Shopify platform to ShipStation, and my wife and I would pack orders and ship them. We did that for about six months.

We were in a 500-foot warehouse. I thought, “How can I fill this thing up and keep our employees busy?” So I started asking folks I knew who had side businesses if they needed fulfillment help.

Fast forward to 2021, and we’re a third-party fulfillment company, Sauceda Industries, in a 126,000 square foot warehouse in Austin. We have about 50 merchant clients and about 100 employees. We ship a ton of stuff every day. It’s wild.

Bandholz: So you’ve got Texas Humor and Sauceda Industries.

Sauceda: Yes. About four years ago, the fulfillment company started to grow. It’s now our priority. For the first couple of years, it was there to help us cover costs.

Our first big client was Howler Brothers, a clothing brand here in Austin. Shortly thereafter, around 2017, we landed other clients.

We’ve worked with Howler, William Murray Golf, a bra company called Pepper, and Tecovas Boots, which is here in Austin.

Another great client is Duck Camp. It’s a bird hunting brand that’s just exploded in the last couple of years. They came to us with just an idea. We liked their approach and their go-to-market strategy. They’re now one of our biggest clients. A lot of 3PLs would never have signed them in that first year. We’re willing to take a chance on a brand with no volume if we understand what they’re trying to do.

Bandholz: When we launched Beardbrand in 2013, most 3PLs were not focused on ecommerce.

Sauceda: Right. The process of fulfilling ecommerce orders didn’t exist at a lot of those places. Providers such as ShipBob and ShipMonk, which were launched with ecommerce in mind, ate their lunch. Our company operates in a middle place, between huge logistics companies, such as XPO Logistics and GEODIS, and the ShipBobs and the ShipMonks.

In particular, we specialize in complex fulfillment needs. Most 3PLs want simplicity. For example, Howler Brothers had a ton of SKUs. We didn’t know at the time they were any different than other merchants. So we got good at doing the complex.

We’re now a solid spot for a company until it hits $40 million, $50 million in annual revenue — perhaps larger with our new warehouse.

Our average merchant sells 100 to 300 orders a day. Overall, we ship between 5,000 and 10,000 packages daily.

The other side of our business is the wholesale component, where we ship to physical retailers, such as Target and Walmart.

We still take on small companies, but we charge for some onboarding tasks, which can be extensive. More often than not, we’re helping an entrepreneur build a store and streamline it for scale. If we get the sense that the company is not ready to grow, we won’t say “no” but, instead, “not right now.”

Bandholz: Everyone bitches about their 3PL. How do you overcome that?

Sauceda: I have two answers. First, the shipping business is, essentially, the exceptions management business. Putting products in a box and sending them out is the easiest part of the job.

But here’s the reality. What happens when a client’s purchase order was off by 15 units so that our stock on hand is too short to fulfill orders?

Or, how can we satisfy a client who just launched a marketing campaign, even though the inventory landed on our dock today? In that case, the client may give us the green light to stock quickly without counting, saying, “It’s all there.” And then we find out that they’re 20 short. What do we do with those 20 orders?

Or what do we do when a customer emails at 4:45 p.m. and absolutely needs something shipped out today?

Those are examples of exceptions.

The other piece is that very few merchants understand fulfillment. They’ve never been through the experience themselves. We rarely hear a client say, “I’ve spent time in a warehouse. I know how much this sucks.”

Bandholz: Let’s talk about the technology. At what point do you automate part of the process?

Sauceda: You can automate the hell out of a warehouse, but you’re never going to replace humans. I don’t see automation as a zero-sum game. It’s more complementary. We don’t deploy a lot of automation yet because most of our merchants lack the processes, such as using barcodes.

I’ve seen some innovative companies, such as 6 River Systems, which Shopify purchased. 6 River uses robots that drive around the warehouse and deliver products to human employees. Rather than using pickers like I have who walk the entire floor, 6 River keeps people in the aisle who become specialists of that area. They’re grabbing the product from the robots and putting it on a cart, which then drives to the next area.

I’m excited by that type of automation. But for now, our primary focus is customer service. Our warehouse management software is ShipHero. We have a positive relationship with them. We’ve enjoyed a good overall experience with their software. It powers our warehouse.

Bandholz: Some merchants listening to this are likely considering a 3PL. What should they expect in terms of service and pricing?

Sauceda: For service, the biggest signal is how much listening is the 3PL doing when you start the conversation? Every merchant is unique. Beware if a 3PL claims they can save 30 percent on postage but does not inquire about your company. Be concerned if you’re not getting questions about your brand, fulfillment challenges, and onboarding needs.

As far as pricing goes, it varies. If you’re shipping standard consumer goods with no custom packaging, you could probably find a 3PL who could do that for $1.00 to $1.75 an order.

If you’re shipping fewer than 100 orders a day, it’s probably going to be closer to $1.75. Getting to the lower end likely requires upwards of 1,000 orders a day. Custom packaging definitely adds to the cost.

Bandholz: Is that with a 24-hour turn?

Sauceda: Yes, a 24-hour turn is typical. For most clients with stable order volume, our service level agreement is that if it comes in today, it will ship by the end of the day tomorrow. It could ship today.

It will ship today if the order arrives by 2:00 p.m. using express carriers such as FedEx or UPS. That’s mostly because the express pickups are at 3:30 or 4:00. We need time to get it on a truck.

Bandholz: Where can listeners learn more about you and Sauceda Industries?

Sauceda: I’m on Twitter (@jaybsauceda) and LinkedIn (@jaybsauceda). The company’s website is SaucedaIndustries.com.

Lessons from Vine Influencers Elevate Feat Clothing

Having co-founded Feat Socks in 2015, Taylor Offer hired Aly Raisman, the gymnast, to design and promote a custom sock. It generated $500,000 in revenue. Influencer marketing was clearly effective, and Offer wanted more.

“I started looking at the kids that got famous from Vine, the short-video app,” he told me.

It turned out that many of those “kids” lived in the same apartment complex on, amazingly, Vine Street in Los Angeles.

“So I flew out to L.A., snuck into that building, and I saw every single Viner that lived there. There were probably 30 kids in the building with over a million followers each. I called my co-founder in Boston. I said, ‘We’re moving to L.A. into the building on Vine Street.’ That’s how I started understanding social media and influencers.”

Fast forward to 2021, and Feat Socks is now Feat Clothing, a wildly successful brand of joggers, shorts, hoodies, and crewnecks — all made from BlanketBlend, the company’s custom fabric.

I recently spoke with Offer about the journey. Our entire audio conversation is embedded below. The transcript that follows is edited for length and clarity.

Eric Bandholz: Tell us about Feat.

Taylor Offer: We started in 2015 as a sock company. “Feat” is our spelling of “feet.” We had a heat press. We would then press a design on white Nike or Adidas socks and sell them around our college campus. So, that’s how Feat started.

From 2015 to 2018, we were only making socks. We were scaling as a sock company from influencer collaborations. We were early in the influencer world, doing deals with The Chainsmokers, Logan Paul, Aly Raisman.

In 2018 we decided to expand, to make clothes that were soft and comfortable but also looked good. We wanted to combine comfort and style. And that’s how we developed our first product, called the BlanketBlend. It’s a special fabric we made. Now we have BlanketBlend joggers, shorts, hoodies, and crewnecks. It’s a soft fabric that looks and feels good.

Bandholz: I can’t imagine a better business come March 2020.

Offer: It’s was great, but we didn’t plan for the crazy spike. April was a massive month. We sold out of products in April and May. It was a huge influx of sales. It was difficult to keep up with the demand. We have manufacturers in downtown Los Angeles (for quick-turn stuff), South America, and Asia.

Bandholz: You created a fabric. How does that work?

Offer: It’s a long process. My co-founder, Parker, was much more involved in that process than I. We started with a base fabric and then made it softer. You tweak the materials a bit — a little more this material or that material. It could be polyester, cotton, or rayon. You’re experimenting with the materials. We put them through different washes. The process took a year and a half to perfect the BlanketBlend fabric.

We now own the process of making BlanketBlend and the name. Other people can try to make soft clothing. But they can’t make BlanketBlend.

Bandholz: You mentioned influencers. Can you elaborate?

Offer: We were living in Boston because we went to school there. We did this deal with Aly Raisman, the Olympic gymnastics gold medalist, in 2016. We made her own custom sock. We sold around $500,000 of that sock. We thought, “This is crazy. Through Instagram, and an influencer, or an athlete, we could sell so much.”

So I started direct messaging every single person on Instagram with over one million followers. And, again, that was in 2016, before the rise of influencer marketing. A lot of those DM people respond.

Then I started looking at the kids that got famous from Vine, the short-video app, since discontinued. All their videos had the same door handle in their apartments, and the same pool, the same gym. I thought, “Either I’m crazy, or they all live in the same building.”

Finally, one of the Viners responded, “Send some socks to 1600 Vine Street, in Hollywood.” I told myself, “That’s funny. He’s a Viner, and he lives on Vine Street. Either he’s messing with me, or this is the Mecca where all these kids live.”

So I flew out to L.A., snuck into that building, and I saw every single Viner that lived there — from Logan Paul, Jake Paul, Amanda Cerny, King Bach, Lele Pons, and Rudy Mancuso. Justin Bieber was there for a while. There were probably 30 kids in the building with over a million followers each.

So I called my co-founder. We had a 2,500 square foot office and warehouse in Boston. I said, “Get out of that lease. We’re moving to L.A. into the building on Vine Street. We’re going to work with these kids and understand social media.”

And we moved into the building. That’s how I started understanding social media and influencers.

Bandholz: That’s amazing. So you would bump into them on the premises?

Offer: Exactly. It was an interesting finesse. I didn’t want to be too aggressive. I couldn’t say, “I moved across the country to be in the same apartment building as you.”

Those kids would hang out at the gym all the time. I had never gone to the gym or worked out. But I decided, “I have to be in the gym because I just have to meet those kids, get those head nods.”

So I went to the gym all day. Eventually, we crossed paths.

Then we flew Aly Raisman to L.A. for a photo shoot. It was right when she won her gold medal. We did the photo shoot in the gym when I knew all of them would be there. They were all obsessed with Aly because she just won this gold medal. She was like America’s sweetheart, gymnastics, an awesome person.

They said, like, “What’s this photo-shoot?” I said to Aly, “Go tell Logan you’re selling a bunch of socks, and he can’t sell as many socks as you.” So that’s how the conversation started. I said, “Logan, dude, let’s sell some socks.”

Bandholz: Did he kill it?

Offer: Yes. It was wild. He drove over 1.5 million new visitors to our site over two weeks. That generated 20,000 new customers. We had no ads, no email capture, no email flow. We had no retargeting. There are many things I should have done better. But, yes, he crushed it.

Bandholz: You’ve transitioned away from socks.

Offer: Yes. We sell barely any socks now. Feat Socks was a lot of college humor-type stuff. We took a break from influencers for a while. We were focused on the product and experience and building an elevated brand. But we’re back, doing collaborations again. We did a great collab with Helen Owen in December. She’s a fashion influencer with 1.6 million Instagram followers. It did well. We have three or four collabs lined up for 2021.

Bandholz: How do you build the right influencer deal so it’s a win-win?

Offer: I’ve done tons of collabs. Some were extremely successful, and others were extremely unsuccessful. I’ve learned a lot. First, the person and the brand have to align. When there’s no alignment between person and brand, both sides are confused. The influencer’s followers are confused. It doesn’t convert. There has to be genuine alignment, and the influencer has to genuinely care. So that’s the first thing and the most important.

Bandholz: How do you find influencers?

Offer: We’ll gift products to them, or they’ll organically buy our product. We’ll stroll through our Shopify orders and see a prominent buyer. We’re like, “Let’s hit her up.” And she’s like, “I love your stuff.” We respond, “Let’s collab.” When it’s genuine and organic, people can tell.

Where a lot of brands go wrong is by thinking, “I’ll pay them five grand for a post. They’ll do one post, and that’s it.” It’s so far from that. It has to be a full campaign.

There are different types of collabs. You could do very small sponsor posts. You could co-brand products, which typically perform the best. A lot of these influencers want to create their own product. So I can be an enabler to create their own product and help my business, too.

You want them to feel as if it’s their product. Give them a revenue or profit share — with their own brand. Make content for them and with them. Have them play around with your product, and test it, and talk through it, saying, “Here’s why I’m choosing number one. It smells more like shaving cream versus pine trees. I like this smell.” Make it much bigger than, “Go buy this.”

We’ve worked with influencers with 100,000 followers that sold more than influencers with 5 million. So it depends on who they are and why people follow them.

As for paying influencers, it depends on the person. We’ve done deals from 10 percent of revenue up to 80 percent. We stay away from a fixed number of posts on any deal. When you place a dollar amount on a number of posts, you’re only going to get that many posts.

It’s better to say, “We’re in this together. It’s a partnership, a collaboration. You’re going to make X percent of revenue from this.”

Bandholz: Switching direction, have you experienced setbacks?

Offer: For sure. At age 24 I made the Forbes “30 under 30” list. We had our best year in business. I was listening to Gary Vaynerchuk saying, “Hustle, grind, no friends, no going out, no talking to girls, no partying, just work, work, work.”

And I did that for a year. I became very depressed, sad, and unstable. This was in 2017 or 2018. I was in a bad mental state.

I booked a one-way flight to Thailand. I left my phone and computer behind. I stayed for a week. While there, I began watching these kids play in the street. Their clothes were scraps. They were playing soccer with a Coke can. And they were laughing so hard with the biggest smiles on their faces. I thought, “I live in the U.S. I have all these things. I’ve received awards. But I’m miserable all the time. These kids, all they need is a Coke can to be happy. So who’s winning in life?”

That trip taught me a lot. Yes, business is important, but so is life.

Bandholz: Where can people follow you.

Offer: Start with LinkedIn (@tayloroffer). I’m also on Instagram (@tayloroffer) and Twitter (@tayloroffer). Our site is FeatClothing.com. On Instagram it’s @feat. We’re popping on TikTok: @feat?.

Show-stopper Wedding Rings Drive Manly Bands

Shopping in-store for wedding rings does not appeal to all men. That was an insight of Johnathan Ruggiero and his wife Michelle when they founded Manly Bands, a direct-to-consumer online wedding-ring company, in 2016. The second insight was the rings had to be unique — really unique — to compete against established jewelers.

“We try to develop what we call show-stopper products,” Johnathan told me. “People might say, ‘You have dinosaur bones? That’s crazy. You have meteorite? That’s nuts.’”

Yes, Manly Bands makes men’s wedding rings from dinosaur bones, meteorites, whiskey barrels, and more.

My recent conversation with Johnathan addressed the company’s founding, product selection, marketing tactics, and fulfillment — among other topics. The entire audio interview is embedded below. The transcript that follows is edited for length and clarity.

Eric Bandholz: We met two years ago. Your company has done so much since then.

Johnathan Ruggiero: The last couple of years have been a whirlwind at Manly Bands. We have 35 employees, almost double from two years ago. We’re now in a warehouse and fulfilling in-house.

When you and I met, the company was just Michelle — my wife, co-founder, and co-CEO — and maybe seven employees, mostly in marketing and customer service. We were using a third-party fulfillment company. Before that, we were fulfilling ourselves out of our garage in Florida, where she and I launched the business in 2016.

Having a 3PL freed us to focus more on customer service, product development, marketing — just growing the company.

Eventually, Michelle and I settled in Utah, which is a great combination of desert, trees, lakes, and mountains. And the entrepreneurial spirit is unbelievable. We’ve been here for about a year and a half.

Bandholz: You went from seven employees to 35 in two years.

Ruggiero: As your listeners know, it’s not easy to grow a team five times in a couple of years. It’s been challenging finding the right people. Nowadays the remote culture is common. Thankfully, we started that way. We launched in Florida with a remote team in mind. We had team members in California and Massachusetts. So once Covid hit, working remotely wasn’t a foreign idea.

We’ve roughly doubled revenue year over year, creating a need for more staff. So now, in Utah, we have a warehouse and our own fulfillment team. That was a big factor in growth. As we get more orders, we can fulfill them and process exchanges and returns. Our customer service team is also here in Utah. It’s about nine folks now. With more orders come more emails, phone calls, text messages, Facebook messages — all of that.

We’ve also expanded our marketing team to include some videographers, editors, and creative directors.

Bandholz: Why bring fulfillment back in-house?

Ruggiero: We had a wonderful 3PL, called Ships-a-Lot. The company is located in Memphis. They were fantastic. We loved working with them, and we still have a great relationship. What we found, though, is that as we began to scale, it made sense from a cost-savings perspective to bring it in-house. We have hourly employees to process the orders and get them out the door and manage fulfillment supplies. We have a lot more space in the warehouse. It makes more sense financially once you hit a certain level.

Bandholz: Do you have a lot of returns and exchanges?

Ruggiero: We sell men’s wedding rings. Most men don’t know their ring size. We see an exchange rate of close to 20 percent. It’s not a huge problem. We can process a return right away.

Bandholz: You have many ring types — made from antlers, meteorites, wood, you name it.  How do you develop these products?

Ruggiero: One way to stand out is to create products that folks couldn’t get in a traditional store. They have no choice but to buy it online from us.

We try to develop what we call show-stopper products. People might say, “You have dinosaur bones? That’s crazy. You have meteorite? That’s nuts.”

Michelle is great at developing products. She and her team survey consumers to understand what they want. We always try to create something unique and different. That has helped distinguish us from the independent jewelry stores and the Kays, the Jared’s, and the Zales. So we provide a product that folks cannot get anywhere else.

Bandholz: Do you produce the rings in-house?

Ruggiero: About 80 percent of the rings on our site are manufactured in the U.S. in-house or with manufacturing partners. And then we source about 20 percent from all over the world. We’re always looking for great artisans and craftsmen that work with cool materials such as guitar strings and baseball-bat wood.

We just launched a partnership with Jack Daniels. We’re licensing the Jack Daniels name. We buy the company’s whiskey barrels and make rings from them. We do whatever we can to stand out and be different.

We had a generic whiskey barrel ring for a couple of years now. Once we obtained the Jack Daniel’s name and could say that we’re the only official Jack Daniels ring maker in the country, our sales doubled on that type of product. So the partnership has been hugely valuable.

Bandholz: What are your marketing tactics?

Ruggiero: Mostly via traditional digital ads. We’ve advertised on Facebook and Google since we started in 2016. But we’re exploring other channels now with lower CPMs and CPAs. We’re looking at outdoor billboards, bus stop signs, subway signs — things like that.

We’re also doing podcasts and getting on traditional radio and television. We’ve doubled down on television this year. It’s close to 15 percent of our overall ad spend. We want to hit people from a different direction and not necessarily where everybody’s advertising.

So far, we’ve actually seen our CPM costs go down for traffic to the site. And I think it’s because we’re mixing these less popular channels. Perhaps they’re more expensive in the short term, but overall, it’s reducing our traffic costs.

Bandholz: I’ve seen your television commercial. Was that from an agency?

Ruggiero: Yes. It was Creatably.com. They were fantastic. They jumped on the production. We started the day after we met with them in terms of writing the script.

It was definitely a learning process. We’ve done two commercials now with Creatably. We’ve learned so much. Michelle and I come from Los Angeles in the entertainment industry. But doing a full-blown creative commercial for a direct-to-consumer brand is a different experience for us.

Even though it was just a couple of days, it’s expensive. That was the first thing we learned. And then, the whole post-production process is long — many iterations. But it was great in the end. It’s a three to six-month process.

We all sat down as a team and picked the script that we thought would have legs. Once we decided on the script, we moved to produce the episode. Casting was a big deal, getting the characters.

Then the exciting part was shooting. We shot for a week. We did three or four commercials. It was exciting. And then it took a month or two to edit and finalize. And then we launched, about six months after we started.

Bandholz: Was it worth the investment? I’m thinking $25,000 to $50,000 to produce. Is that the range?

Ruggiero: It’s closer to 10 times that. But it was worth it. We’ve doubled sales year over year, and that video was a big contributor. It did eat up a lot of our cash flow for the year. But overall it was worth it.

It’s the same thing with television advertising overall. It cuts into our cash flow. It’s expensive. But it has also opened a lot of doors for us.

The benefits go beyond direct, immediate sales. We’ve gotten hundreds of thousands of folks to our website every month because of it. But it’s also about the relationships we’ve gained, the press coverage.  So it was pretty substantial for the holistic benefits to the business.

Bandholz: What do you wish you had started earlier, from day one?

Ruggiero: I should have delegated more. I didn’t always have faith in other people to have my same passion and commitment. That’s a huge detriment to an entrepreneur. There are so many talented people out there.

Manly Bands has grown not because of Michelle and me but because of our team. The sooner owners realize it’s okay to delegate, the faster they can succeed.

Bandholz: How can listeners learn more about you and Manly Brands?

Ruggiero: I’m on Twitter and LinkedIn.  Our website is Manlybands.com. We’re on all major social sites — Instagram, Facebook, Twitter.

Hollywood Actor, Director Finds Success on Amazon

Judson Morgan is a Los Angeles-based actor and director. He owns an agency that creates films and other visual content. He’s also a successful ecommerce entrepreneur — with a purpose.

He told me, “I have zero interest in making money off of a random product. It’s just not interesting. I wanted to build a real brand that people could resonate with.”

That brand is Benevolence Los Angeles, an Amazon-focused gift boutique that donates a portion of each transaction to charity. He launched it in 2017.  Fast forward to 2021, and revenue from Benevolence, a second ecommerce brand, and his agency has grown to eight figures.

I recently spoke with Morgan about selling on Amazon, managing three companies, influencer marketing, and more.

Our entire audio conversation is embedded below. The transcript that follows is edited for length and clarity.

Eric Bandholz: You have two ecommerce brands.

Judson Morgan: Yes. There’s Benevolence Los Angeles, as in doing good in the world. And then Craft & Kin, which sells handcrafted goods.

Plus, I have Butter. That’s my agency. We started out doing narrative films here in the Los Angeles area. We then moved into creating content such as video, photos, infographics — any visual stuff — for businesses.

Bandholz: The two ecommerce brands are primarily on Amazon.

Morgan: Right. But both have their own Shopify store. It’s probably 4 percent of total revenue. You probably could convince me that I should focus on those sites more.

Bandholz: When did you launch both brands?

Morgan: I have a Masters of Fine Arts with experience in Hollywood as a filmmaker, actor, and director. The creative side of building a brand was what interested me. I have zero interest in making money off of a random product. It’s just not interesting. So I wanted to build a real brand that people could resonate with.

In early 2017 or late 2016, I listened to Ryan Moran [the author and consultant] on a podcast talking about Fulfillment by Amazon. I had never heard of it. I put up a test product, an iPhone case, and it sold like crazy on Amazon. The case was a side project to my agency work. But sales took off. I thought, “This is a thing.”

So I created Benevolence in 2017. Every product is suitable for a gift. We donate to charity a portion of every purchase. So we scaled from me being an actor and not knowing the business to reaching eight figures in revenue in the last 12 months between all three of my companies. We have 12 people on the ecommerce side and seven on the Butter team.

Bandholz: What are those ecommerce folks doing?

Morgan: I have one team for both brands. There are pluses and minuses to that. There’s a logistics person for each brand and a logistics manager that manages those two. Running out of stock has been a major problem for us. Then I have a chatbot marketing guy. He’s a Minichat (video) expert.

There’s a customer service person. We have three people on our product health team. I made up that name. Once products are launched, the product health team has the responsibility of making sure sales grow. There’s a full-time photographer, a full-time retoucher, and a full-time graphic designer — all of them work on the three companies.

And then I have a full-time accountant. We outsource pay-per-click ad management. My agency does some video work for the two ecommerce brands.

Bandholz: The last guest I had on this podcast who focused on Amazon said the time for rapid growth on that platform has passed. Is there still an opportunity there?

Morgan: It is harder, no question. But we launched a product four months ago (going into Q4), and it went ballistic in a good way. A high-margin product. There wasn’t a lot of competition. We got all the algorithm juice. Amazon loved us, and we were making hundreds of sales per day.

However, we have had many more product failures than we used to. So it’s not easy. But neither is selling on our own website.

Two or three years ago, a seller on Amazon could fumble around and make some money — a lot of money. But that is gone. You can really lose your hat. You have to spend money to rank on keywords. Ninety-percent of sales happens on page one of the search results. You have to spend money to get on that first page. And then if your product isn’t great and doesn’t get reviews, you’re going to fail. So it’s definitely not as easy as it used to be.

There’s something called A+ content that you can add to your Amazon page. Plus, having an off-Amazon strategy for driving traffic is critical. We run Google and Facebook ads to our listings. We have many chat flows. We have external giveaways.

Bandholz: So there’s an advantage to send traffic to Amazon, knowing that people trust Amazon and they will convert easier.

Morgan: Exactly.

Bandholz: How much investment does it take to launch a successful product on Amazon? Say you have a great product idea. You want to sell on Amazon — ramping up with advertising, generating reviews and inserts, and things like that. How much would that cost to reach profitability?

Morgan: It depends on the cost of goods. A product that costs $10 and sells for $40, that’s going to be expensive to launch, perhaps $10,000 to $15,000. But the upside is there.

You can launch a product that costs $2 and sells for $3 for $5,000 and get an idea if it’s going to work. We are getting better at ditching the losers.

Bandholz: Let’s shift to Butter. What kind of work are you focusing on?

Morgan: We do higher-end content. For Beardbrand, as an example, we would say you are ripe for a viral video. So we would come up with creative concepts for you and shoot a full-on commercial with the intention that it will go viral. We can’t guarantee that, but we hope it’s shared on Facebook, YouTube, that sort of thing. It’s a commercial, but it’s funny or wild, weird or crazy, or something that gets that shared.

Bandholz: Let’s circle back to Benevolence. You had a collaboration with Candace Cameron Bure, the actress. Walk us through that process.

Morgan: A benefit of living in Los Angeles and being in the industry for a long time — my wife’s an actress and a star of a TV show — is that I know many celebrities. Candace aligned with our brand. I had directed her in a movie. I reached out and said, “You want to do this? We’ll split the profit from your product line.”

One of the products she designed for us did quite well. The other two were okay. But we got a huge bump in our email and social media subscribers from her customers. Her photos are still on Pinterest. Two years later we’re still getting tons of juice from her being involved.

The right celebrity is crucial for an influencer campaign. We’ve done a lot of those that didn’t work. But we received around 15,000 email subscriptions in just a couple of months of working with her. Also, she got us on The View. We sold out of the products that we had on The View that day or the next.

Bandholz: Is the relationship indefinite? A long as you sell the products, you split the profit 50-50?

Morgan: No, it was for a year. We don’t pay after that. She is not promoting after that first year, either. We can continue using her photography and images. We have a handshake deal.

But these arrangements can get complicated. You get lawyers and agents involved. I was lucky that she was a friend, and we could do a handshake deal.

Have you done influencer campaigns with Beardbrand?

Bandholz: We’re in the midst of one now. It’s similar to your arrangement with Candace. I’m a friend of a well-known musician. He’s a fan of Beardbrand. I’m like, “Let’s do a limited-edition custom fragrance.” He’s said, “All right. I’m going to get my agent involved.” The agent is used to big brands and big contracts. We’re like, “We’re just a little brand here in Austin with 15 employees. If it gets too complicated, it’s almost not worth it for us.” So we hope to do something cool that makes sense for both parties.

How can people learn more about you and connect?

Morgan: Our agency is Butter.la. I’m on Twitter — @judsonmorgan. Our two ecommerce sites are BenevolenceLA.com and CraftAndKin.co.

Tomlinson’s Feed: Fresh and Relevant after 75 Years

Tomlinson’s Feed is a family-owned retail business with 16 brick-and-mortar locations in Central Texas. The company is 75 years old with a fourth-generation owner-operator. Amid the pandemic and the onslaught of online behemoths, can such a business transition to 2021 consumers?

I asked that to Kate Knecht, the owner-operator. She told me, “We soft-launched our ecommerce site in late December 2018. We spent 2019 operationally ironing things out. Then came 2020. It was March 12 or 13, overnight our ecommerce business quadrupled. It was a challenge, but we met it.”

Knecht is a seasoned and tech-savvy retailer. She and I recently discussed the dynamics of a family business, migrating online, selecting providers, and more.

Our entire audio conversation is embedded below. The transcript that follows is edited for length and clarity.

Eric Bandholz: Tell us about your business.

Kate Knecht: Tomlinson’s Feed has been around for 75 years. It’s my family’s business. I’m the fourth-generation owner-operator. We have 16 brick-and-mortar locations in Central Texas, plus an ecommerce site.

My brother and I operate the business with our parents. He and I keep the business fresh and relevant. Each of us came back into the company about eight years ago. Since then, we’ve both been involved in revamping all of our technology — internally and externally.

My main project in the past couple of years has been ecommerce. So innovation, technology, marketing, team development — all that falls under my umbrella.

Bandholz: You’re the fourth-generation owner. You must have cousins. And how does it end up in your line?

Knecht: My grandfather bought the business in 1971 from Mr. Tomlinson, who started it in 1946. My grandfather and my great-grandmother operated it together. My father and uncle grew up in the business. When they were adults, my dad wanted to return and help my granddad. My uncle chose another path, just as prosperous and successful. We’re all very close. That’s how it wound up in our line.

Bandholz: Are the family dynamics challenging?

Knecht: I don’t recommend it to everyone. My brother and I grew up working in the business, except for a couple of years when we were both in California.

I give a lot of credit to my dad. He’s very patient, very level-headed. Many individuals who have run a business for 30-plus years might consider themselves king of their castle. My dad is not that kind of personality. He’s open-minded and eager to hear our ideas. He lets my brother and I duke it out when we disagree. He also helps us set the direction of the business. So I’m grateful that he sets the tone.

Bandholz: I hope to build a multi-generational business with Beardbrand. I’ve spoken with many entrepreneurs who build for two years, sell it, and move to the next thing. But there’s something about having a business that lasts generations. It can make an impact on a community.

Knecht: Exactly. I grew up working in the business. I was out on the sales floor early on slinging that dog kibble. Then I went to the University of Texas at Austin and moved to California, where I worked in tech startups for about two years. I got over that pretty quickly.

My brother and I, within a year of each other, told our parents, “The industry is exploding. You guys are on the precipice of what could be really huge growth. You have a big opportunity here.” My parents said, “Well, that sounds really nice. Why don’t you come do it yourself?” So my brother and I came back in 2012. It’s been a family affair ever since.

In 2012 we had eight or nine locations. It’s now 16. We’re presently focused on ecommerce before we add more physical stores.

Bandholz: You and I met over a year ago. You were talking about moving into ecommerce then, before the pandemic. Did that help Tomlinson’s overcome the brick-and-mortar lockdowns during the pandemic?

Knecht: Absolutely. It set us up for success. None of us saw this coming. We soft-launched our ecommerce site in late December 2018. We spent 2019 operationally ironing things out. Then came 2020. It was March 12 or 13, overnight, our ecommerce business quadrupled. It was a challenge, but we met it.

Our clientele remained the same. We’re are focused almost exclusively on our local geographic market, which is unique for ecommerce. The pet business has massive players such as Chewy and Amazon. They offer deep discounts and free shipping.

That’s not the business we’re in. We’re focused on our geography. We do have exclusive brands that we sell nationwide, but we charge for shipping. We pass the full freight to the customer, except for locally. We fulfill all of our local delivery operations in-house.

Bandholz: What is your ecommerce platform?

Knecht: Shopify Plus. We have a different point-of-sale provider for our physical locations. It’s called Teamwork Commerce. We use Teamwork for inventory management, order management. It’s our single source of truth. It integrates with Shopify Plus, Klaviyo, and other platforms.

We operated on a point-of-sale inventory system for 20-plus years. Around 2017 I finally had a breakdown. I remember sitting at the kitchen table, in tears, with my family, saying, “We can’t do this anymore. This is not the future for us. We have to move to something else.”

It was a difficult decision. My dad said, “If you feel that strongly, then go figure out how to do it. But do not underestimate the magnitude of screwing this up.” So, no pressure! I then set out on a two-year journey of interviewing providers. We landed on Teamwork, and the rest is history.

We’re glad we chose Teamwork. No solution is perfect, but we’ve been happy. It’s allowed us to scale and grow with physical stores and ecommerce.

Bandholz: Does your ecommerce site offer the option for local pick-up?

Knecht: Yes. Local customers see the option on our ecommerce site for free curbside pickup, free same-day delivery (if the order is placed before 5:00 p.m.), or free next-day delivery. Once placed, the order flows directly into our point-of-sale system. The store staff sees it. They go on the sales floor — out into the store — and pull the order. Then they scan it into our POS and mark it as pick-up ready.

We also integrate with a delivery logistics platform called Onfleet. So the order pings in Onfleet. If you’ve designated local delivery, one of our drivers comes by, picks up the order, and brings it to you.

Bandholz: I assume your stores have different inventory.

Knecht: That’s right. Again, if you are local, you enter your delivery address, and the site will show inventory from all stores within your radius — essentially all of our stores. If you want curbside pick-up, you can pick your store and then see, on the thumbnail, what’s available there.

Shopify will show with little icons if the product is available for local delivery or curbside pickup at whatever location you choose. That was custom development. We paid quite a lot of money to Fuel Made to build it for us.

Our storefront is entirely Shopify. We integrate with some of Teamwork’s real-time-availability APIs. But everything a consumer sees on the ecommerce storefront is Shopify.

Bandholz: What are the lessons from your tech rollout?

Knecht: Patience. You can’t underestimate the magnitude of a mistake. The providers can offer best practices, but ultimately we know our business and what’s best for it.

Bandholz: Is your vision to grow bricks and mortar or shift more to online?

Knecht: One of the perks of a family business is calling our own shots. We want to do what our customers want. How can we better serve them — whether it’s a physical location or online with more features? So our growth strategy is, “Where, when, and how do our customers want us?

Bandholz: Do you sell on Amazon?

Knecht: Absolutely not. I have not shopped at Whole Foods. I have not bought a thing on Amazon in over three years. We want to own the relationship with our customer. It’s critical to us. We’re certainly not giving it away to a predatory company.

Bandholz: You mentioned Klaviyo. How’s that going?

Knecht: We switched to Klaviyo from Mailchimp in the spring of 2020, when Covid was starting. Teamwork had launched a Klaviyo integration that made the switch more compelling. It’s been great. We love it. We’re working with Fuel Made on building better automation.

Bandholz: Where can listeners learn more about you and Tomlinson’s?

Knecht: I’m on LinkedIn. Our ecommerce site is Tomlinsons.com. The company also has a presence on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

DTC Seller of Apple Watch Bands Soars from College Project

Braxton Manley was a sophomore at Texas Tech University in 2017 when he attended a workshop on entrepreneurship. The purpose was to conceive a product based on market research.

“My idea was cool Apple Watch bands,” Manley told me. “It was the first generation of Apple Watches. Apple designed the watch to have interchangeable bands. Only standard bands — black, brown, silver — were on the market. I saw it as an opportunity to get creative.”

Manley’s idea garnered a $5,000 grant from the university. Fast forward to 2021 and his company, Braxley Bands, is a direct-to-consumer seller of elastic, colorful bands in eight sizes and 25 or more designs. Sales have soared.

I recently spoke with him on how it all started, how he manages surging demand, and more.

Our entire audio conversation is embedded below. The transcript that follows is edited for clarity and length.

Eric Bandholz: Braxley Bands has one of the coolest-looking websites. It’s like 80s vintage.

Braxton Manley: It’s supposed to evoke a retro thing. We started on Wix. It was the cheapest option. We didn’t know anything about ecommerce. So we designed our own site there, and it’s evolved over the years. But we’ve always kept the playful, colorful theme.

We’re on Shopify Plus now. We worked with Fuel Made, the development firm, to customize it.

Bandholz: You have a great story.

Manley: I was a sophomore at Texas Tech in 2017. I attended a program there called 3 Day Startup, which is a weekend workshop to learn about entrepreneurship — develop an idea, research the market, and come up with a viable product. Then you pitch to investors on that Sunday.

My idea was cool Apple Watch bands. It was the first generation of Apple Watches. Apple designed the watch to have interchangeable bands. Users can swap the bands in three, four seconds. But only standard bands — black, brown, silver — were on the market. I saw it as an opportunity to get creative. I went through that workshop and developed the product.

The name Braxley Bands was not my idea. I assumed we would come up with something better. Then it got too late, and we just ran with it. “Braxley” is a combination of my first and last names.

After that class project, I got with my buddy Grant, who I met on campus. He had taken a sewing class in high school to meet girls. He was a sewing expert. I was trying to figure out how to stitch socks, which we were using to make the bands.

He was a wizard on my sewing machine. I had borrowed it from my grandmother. So Grant and I partnered up. We started selling them through Venmo to our friends at Texas Tech. We spent $20 on socks. We bought the metal components on eBay.

Bandholz: Socks, as in off the shelf?

Manley: Yes. Socks with cool patterns that were thick — just the crew [upper] part. Eventually we transitioned to a better material, a woven polyester that’s sturdy and flexible yet machine washable. Our bands are elastic and stretchy, making it easy to move the watch on a wrist. Also, we can print on the material with all kinds of cool patterns.

We now have a lot of SKUs. We had four sizes. Then Apple made our lives difficult by coming out with two watch dimensions. So we have eight sizes of bands with 25 to 35 designs. That computes to a lot of SKUs.

Managing the inventory is tricky. There are months when a popular style or size will be sold out. I’m learning.

Bandholz: Your business achieved early traction. Did you stay in college?

Manley: Yes. There’s this romanticized idea about entrepreneurs dropping out. But universities are catching on. They’re actually empowering students to be entrepreneurs. Texas Tech was good in that way. It created a sort of incubator called the Innovation Hub. That’s where it hosted this weekend workshop.

Going to school and staying in school, even though we had a thriving business, was the best thing we could have done because it gave us an office. We won a $5,000 grant early on through the university, which generated good media coverage. I don’t think we could have succeeded if we weren’t in a university.

Bandholz: What happened to all the people who worked on the project?

Manley: We just parted ways. I was taking it very seriously. It was my dream. It ended up just being me. Grant came later. He wasn’t a part of the original project, but we partnered up.

We just hired my younger brother, Zach, to take on various roles. He’s a numbers guy. I’m more creative. So we balance each other out.

Bandholz: How are you guys divvying up the work and evolving the product?

Manley: Grant is focused on today. I’m focused on tomorrow. Grant deals with customer service, fulfillment, and advertising. I’m dealing with the creative side and inventory: the brand, new designs, the supply chain, making sure we have enough product coming in.

The product has stayed largely the same since we launched. We’re getting amazing reviews where people are shocked by how much better our bands are. We see no need to change them.

But we hope to evolve the company by designing extraordinary elastic products. We have two things in the prototype stage right now. One is a utility belt — basically to match the band. The idea is to apply an elastic waistband to any pair of pants.

Also, hats. Fitted hats are comfortable, but they don’t look that great. So we’re combining the traditional snapback style with fitted elastic.

Those are two things we hope to launch by the fall of 2021.

But the Apple Watch band market is massive. It’s the most popular watch in the world in terms of units sold. The great thing about our bands is people often buy a dozen styles for different outfits and uses. We haven’t reached our maturity with the Apple Watch bands.

Bandholz: How are you acquiring customers?

Manley: It’s always evolving. Snapchat is performing the best as far as advertising. Snapchat is amazing for us. It’s the product-market fit. We’re really popular among younger adults, even though grandmas love our bands, too. Snapchat is the number one app for people in high school and college.

Bandholz: Walk me through advertising on Snapchat.

Manley: It comes down to knowing how short an attention span is. The ads are product-focused images. The one that works the best for us is a band on a spinning lightbox, close up. You can see the fine texture of the band, which is spinning really slowly. We have cool music behind it. We list a few key features, such as “Machine washable, lightweight, 30 designs, one band sold is one tree planted.”  Or, “Watch band of the future.” The key is to keep it simple.

When they click on the ad, users go to our home page, although we’re working on dedicated landing pages.

We’re seeing a 5-times return on ad spend.

Bandholz: Is Snapchat better than TikTok?

Manley: TikTok is just different. Both are more popular than Instagram and Twitter. Younger kids message on Snapchat. They don’t even use Apple’s iMessage.

TikTok is pretty good for us, mainly via organic posts. We’re not advertising there yet because the targeting isn’t good. We have to target Apple Watch users. It’s difficult to find that niche, especially on TikTok.

But, again, organic TikTok is great. We recently posted two videos. One of them has over 250,000 views in roughly one week. We attribute our best sales day since Black Friday to that video.

Our TikTok videos are easy. Nothing fancy. We make them seem casual and real. It took me 15 minutes to make one. I said something like, “Hey, I’m about to show you a game-changer for your Apple Watch.” Then I took a shot at my wrist and spoke for about 30 seconds about why the bands are great. Simple.

Bandholz: Do you sell on Amazon?

Manley: No, I’m an anti-Amazon guy, as you are. You’ve got to own the relationship. We’ve thought about it, but it doesn’t feel right. We’ve had such good sales on our own website that we can barely keep stuff in stock.

Nobody buys on Amazon because of the brand; it’s because of the price and the reviews. Buyers have no idea who made it or the story behind it. You can build a very profitable business without touching Amazon. You don’t have to be there.

Bandholz: Your bands are made in China.

Manley: Yes. It’s a touchy subject because we used to make them in Austin. I would love to make them in Austin or the U.S. But we had a lot of quality issues here.

The quality coming from China is much better. So it the communication, ironically. We found a good factory. We’ve been working with these people for about three years.

Bandholz: Have you gone to China?

Manley: No.

Bandholz: Where can people learn more about you and Braxley Brands?

Manley: We’re everywhere. Our website is BraxleyBrands.com. Instagram is the best channel to connect with us, @braxleybands. We’re on Twitter, too, @braxleybands, as well as TikTok, @braxleybands. I’m personally on Instagram and Twitter. Reach out to me.

Ridge Wallet Hits $50 Million with Influencer Marketing

Ridge wallets launched via a Kickstarter campaign in 2014.  Ultra-thin, metal-clad, with RFID protection, the wallets are enormously popular in the U.S., with $50 million in sales in 2020 alone. Influencer marketing has driven much of the growth.

Sean Frank is The Ridge’s chief operating officer. He told me, “We sponsor a lot of influencers on YouTube. Roughly 750 in 2020, when we spent $3.9 million on 3,000 unique videos. That’s 10 new videos a day that we’re integrated with.”

Frank and I recently discussed the company’s process for managing influencers, as well as its founding, global growth, and, yes, selling on Amazon.

Our entire audio conversation is embedded below. The transcript that follows is edited for length and clarity.

Eric Bandholz: Tell us about The Ridge.

Sean Frank: We have one main product, the Ridge Wallet. We started on Kickstarter in 2014. Since then, we’ve sold probably 2 million wallets, and we launched bags, knives, and phone cases. But the main item is the Ridge Wallet.

Bandholz: It’s a minimalist wallet with RFID protection.

Frank: It’s the smallest a wallet can get. It’s the size of a credit card with two metal plates on the outside made from premium materials — such as carbon fiber and titanium — with cool designs.

Prices range from $75 for an aluminum wallet to $175, which is our Damascus design.

Bandholz: I’m doing the match — $75 times 2 million is $150 million since inception.

Frank: Yes. We’re still growing at 50 percent year over year. We did $50 million in revenue last year. We’re not slowing down.

Bandholz: How do you grow a $50 million brand?

Frank: It takes luck. That’s the first part. Our CEO, Daniel, and his dad, Paul, started it. They put it on Kickstarter with no training or background. Paul was a special ed teacher for 35 years, and they just had a cool design. He’s now our semi-retired chief financial officer. Our company is entirely bootstrapped — no debt, no investors. Four of us have equity ownership. We have roughly 20 employees.

Bandholz: That’s $2 million an employee. It’s unreal. Are you stressed to the gills?

Frank: That’s the number we care about, the revenue per person. Public commerce companies are nowhere near that. Everyone here works really hard. I hope they’re not burned out. We don’t have investors. That simplifies our management. I do a lot of tasks. Daniel does product development. Paul still acts as our CFO.

So, yes, we’re a lean team. We have two broad internal departments: people who sell wallets and people who save us money. The people who sell wallets are the marketing team, including our influencer program, which I’m involved with. People who save us money are the logistics manager (who brings everything in from China), our operations person, three people on the wholesale team, and a five-person customer service team.

Bandholz: Let’s discuss your influencer program. That seems to be a big chunk of building awareness for your company.

Frank: Yes. We sponsor a lot of influencers on YouTube. Roughly 750 in 2020, when we spent $3.9 million on 3,000 unique videos. That’s 10 new videos a day that we’re integrated with.

Bandholz: How do you protect your brand when using influencers and ensure that the price is right to be profitable?

Frank: We have two people on our team. Neither had done it previously. One, a female, worked at TikTok. She has a good Instagram following. So she’s familiar with the space. The other, a male, has been with us the longest. We look for fresh managers and then we train them.

Influencers want as much money as possible. Everyone does. But we’re transparent with the numbers that work for us. We’ll tell an influencer, “We’ve sponsored a lot of people. This is what we typically pay. We want to work with you. But if you don’t want to, that’s fine. No ill will.”

We’re industry agnostic. We will work with anyone. We’re a secondary income source for all those people. There are probably 50 accounts we’ve worked with for two years that consistently deliver responses. To them, it’s a guaranteed paycheck because they know they’re working with us, and they can budget around that.

Bottom line, influencer marketing is pay what you want.

Our first communication with a new influencer is, like, “We like you. We’re interested. We think this can work. Can we get demos?”

A lot of brands think they know who their customer is — age, location, gender. We’re not that specific. If your channel is two-thirds English speaking and 50-percent men, there’s a good chance we want to work with you. That’s basically every channel on YouTube, incidentally.

After we get the demos, we determine a price per video. We look at their last 10 videos. Then we take a CPM number that makes sense to us. That’s typically in the single digits — $3, $5, or $7 per thousand views. Then we do some math and offer $250 a video or $300 or whatever.

They’ll typically say something like, “I want $2,000 a video.”

We’ll respond, “We can give you $2,000, but we need six videos.” It’s finding common ground. If they want $2,000 a video, that usually means they want $2,000 overall.

Plus, we pay everybody up front. Then it’s hands-off afterward. Certainly someone could steal the money and leave. That’s happened maybe four times in the past two years.

We’ll tell an influencer, “We don’t need to approve your video. We don’t care what the content is around the video. We don’t really care where you put the ad in the video. We’re going to send you a product. We’re going to send you money, and hopefully you put the videos out like we agreed to.” There are no contracts.

Bandholz: Changing the subject, The Ridge is self-funded — growing through profits. What are your strategies for scaling to $100 million in annual revenue?

Frank: First, our marketing bucket would need to change. Ad costs are getting more expensive. Our CPMs on Facebook were up 100 percent year-over-year for most of 2020. YouTube pre-roll CPMs were up 300 percent. Thankfully we had pre-booked ad space at preset rates.

We’re going to hire two or three more people this year on our marketing team. There is an opportunity for us to go into Instagram; we’re going to start spending money there. We’re also going to spend money better on TikTok, Twitch, and Twitter.

Second, the operation side of the business would have to evolve for global customers. We are currently about 90 percent U.S. sales. We need to get more international. We launched localized online stores in Canada, the U.K., and E.U. with their own currency checkouts, payment options, and local inventory for quick deliveries. We hope to add Australia and Japan soon.

We’re on Shopify. We’ve duplicated all the stores and then localized each one. When I log in to Shopify, I have five accounts now.

Bandholz: Do you have fulfillment centers in all those places?

Frank: Yes, local fulfillment. We have a lot of warehouses. We have two primary ones in the U.S., and then one in each market — Canada, U.K., E.U. We have a customization warehouse in the U.S. for customers who want their name engraved on their wallet or whatever. Then we’re on Amazon in all those markets, using Fulfillment by Amazon. So we’re probably sending products to 10 to 11 places.

Bandholz: We’ve talked about reaching $100 million. What’s happens after that?

Frank: If I could tell you my dream, it would be for Yeti to buy us as a strategic acquisition. We do digital better than them. They’re a big company — billions of dollars in revenue, but Covid exposed them. Two-thirds of their revenue happens in person. I think we’d really add a lot of insight into what they’re doing. That’s my dream.

I’m wary of an IPO. I’ve had friends who’ve taken companies public, and they said it’s the worst experience ever. I don’t think any of us at The Ridge is up for it. If we can have a $100 million per year company with a $20 million EBITDA, that’s a strong business to hold on to.

Bandholz: You could live a good life making that kind of money. Although some would say making more than $200,000 a year doesn’t improve the happiness quotient.

Frank: Yes, all of The Ridge’s owners are down to earth. All of our lives would get worse with more money. I honestly believe that.

Bandholz: Let’s talk about Amazon. How it’s working for you?

Frank: You were ahead of the curve at Beardbrand talking about the evils of Amazon from a merchant standpoint. If you are a branded product, Amazon is a double-edged sword. Amazon doesn’t do a good job conveying brand value. And it forces you to compete with subpar goods, which is a huge issue for us. There is a bunch of knock-offs to our products on Amazon. Our Amazon business was eight figures in 2020. But other sellers there are violating our patent. When we go after those people, Amazon is not the best partner.

With Amazon, you’re paying for an expensive warehouse. When Covid hit, Amazon restricted inventory levels and pushed our shipment days from two days to four weeks. It feels like a multi-level marketing scheme with the ad budgets they require.

Those are some of our problems with Amazon. We’re going to continue on that platform, but a big focus for us isn’t growing Amazon. If you’re a DTC brand or a superior good, focusing on growing Amazon is not the right thing to do.

Bandholz: How can our listeners learn more about you and reach out?

Frank: Hit me up on LinkedIn — @seandavidfrank. Our website is RidgeWallet.com.

Lessons from a Friendly Bet: Beardbrand vs. Supply.co

Patrick Coddou’s company, Supply.co, sells razors and shaving accessories. My company, Beardbrand, sells beard products. He wants men to shave. I want them to grow a beard. We’re both direct-to-consumer ecommerce merchants selling premium grooming items to males. We’re competitors, in other words.

But we’re also friends. I interviewed Coddou in August 2020 for an “Ecommerce Conversations” episode. We realized that our companies were roughly the same size. We stayed in touch. In October, Supply’s year-to-date revenue was roughly $167,000 higher than Beardbrand’s.

I proposed a friendly wager: Beardbrand will complete 2020 with more revenue than Supply. He accepted.

He and I recently met to settle the bet and to discuss learning from each other, friendly competition, and the value of trusted peers. We were joined by James Wilson, a Beardbrand colleague.

Our entire audio conversation is embedded below. The transcript that follows is edited for clarity and length.

Eric Bandholz: Let’s talk about what we’ve learned from the bet. First, please introduce yourself.

Patrick Coddou: I’m the founder and CEO at Supply.

James Wilson: I’m the growth marketer at Beardbrand. I handle our advertising and website performance issues.

Bandholz: Patrick, I enjoyed my conversation with you on this podcast in August 2020. We’ve stayed in touch since then. Our businesses, Beardbrand and Supply, target the same guy but for different purposes. I want him to grow a beard. You want him to shave. You and I began sharing our 2020 revenue numbers. They were very close. In October, Beardbrand’s year-to-date sales were $166,763 lower than Supply’s. So you and I wagered a friendly bet as to which company would end the year with more revenue.

Coddou: You had a plan all along. The best part of Beardbrand’s year was coming up.

Bandholz: Then you had a holiday sale push. You had a huge day.

Coddou: Yes. We started Black Friday early, but we didn’t call it Black Friday. We started our promotions around November 1. Beardbrand doesn’t do promotions.

Bandholz: We do promotions. We don’t do sales or discounts. Anyway, you and I agreed to the wager. You sent me another screenshot of your promotion. It increased your lead within a couple of days to about $200,000.

Coddou: So by early November, Supply was up by 200-ish.

Bandholz: Then Beardbrand battled back. But, alas, by December 31 we were behind by $63,121. The final week of the year, after Christmas, was strong for us. But we lost the bet.

I’ve since reviewed the 2020 monthly revenue reports of our two companies. Beardbrand’s monthly revenue is relatively stable and consistent. Supply has mountains and valleys. Why?

Coddou: I wouldn’t say our sales are volatile, but they certainly weren’t as steady as yours.

Bandholz: They are volatile to me.

Coddou: I’m used to it. Supply’s monthly sales show the strengths and weaknesses of our brand. We’ve grown the company primarily from advertising — Facebook, Instagram, Google. When it works, it’s great. When it doesn’t work, it’s not great. So, that creates a lot of volatility.

You’ve built more of an organic traffic generator at Beardbrand. I’m envious of the steady consistency of your sales. We’re going to focus on organic this year. Still, I’m grateful for the strength of our digital advertising. It’s gotten us to where we are.

Bandholz: Beardbrand has a level base, but we could use your insights on pushing the gas pedal, so to speak.

Coddou: Every smart digital marketer I talked to in November and December was having a tough time, questioning if they’re any good at their jobs. CPMs were through the roof. The election was a distraction in early November. One of the reasons we launched our sale early, on November 1, was to get ahead of what we knew was coming: higher CPMs and uncertainty. It worked for us. We had a huge spike in early November. November 1 was bigger for us than Black Friday and Cyber Monday, on November 27 and 29.

It’s because it was our email list that was responding to the promotion. That was a big learning for me: Owned media is a good thing. It works. But after that, we had trouble getting advertising to work as well as in 2019.

Bandholz: James what did we see at Beardbrand? Did we hit our return on ad spend for November, December?

Wilson: Yes. We hit it both months. We started scaling up our budget in December.

We did run an ad promotion in December. It was a buy four, get one. Buy seven, get two. But those ads didn’t really perform. So we went back to ads with high click-through rates. We drove prospects to our website and then pushed the promotion. That worked pretty well.

Coddou: I don’t really use Instagram or Facebook much. But when I go to those platforms, my feed is full of ads for men’s grooming and skincare — all at upwards of 50-percent off. It is ad, ad, sale, sale, sale. Eventually, our eyes gloss over.

Bandholz: For the 2020 holiday season, we formulated a limited-edition fragrance for our beard oil called Black Sails. James, talk about our strategy.

Wilson: We started promoting it in an email on November 1. Then we created a tiered release for the product. The big insight here is exclusivity plus urgency is very powerful. We created a sign-up (text message or email), where we would notify a customer 30 minutes before the public launch. We hyped this list throughout November. We’d say, “Get a 30-minute advance. We’re going to send you a text message at 5:30 a.m. Pacific.” People signed up for it. It had that urgency, and it worked incredibly well.

Bandholz: $44,000 in the first hour.

Changing the subject, Patrick, you mentioned the success from your email list. Were you emailing once daily or more?

Coddou: We’re usually light on the emails. But in Q4 we do the buy-or-die strategy, which is if you’ve been sitting on our list all year and you haven’t bought anything, you’re going to get hammered with emails until you buy something or unsubscribe. So if you haven’t bought anything during the year, in November you probably got an email from us every day.

Bandholz: My thought process has changed with email. We were once respectful of people’s inboxes. But now we try to create emails so damn good that subscribers want to receive them every day.

Coddou: You guys come up with something great to talk about every day. I don’t know how you do it.

Bandholz: It’s 100-percent Mike, our writer. There’s no planning. No expectations. Certainly he’s aware of upcoming videos and events. Otherwise, he’s very creative. There’s no approval process. He doesn’t have typos or grammar mistakes.

Wilson: You let him do whatever he wants, and it shows.

Bandholz: Plus he’s an Urban Beardsman. He gets the brand and the voice. He has full autonomy. Finding a good copywriter is really hard.

Coddou: All of the unlocks in my business have been through finding the right people — partners, employees, freelancers. So Mike is a great example of an unlock. One of my focuses this year is finding people that are really talented rather than doing the work myself.

Bandholz: How is 2021 kicking off for Supply?

Coddou: I spend the first week of every year unplugged in Mexico in the middle of nowhere. I always think, “Okay, I’m sitting on the beach. What do I want to be different next year when I’m sitting on the beach?” I want to build an organization that I can trust to run the business when I’m not there. I’m trying to transition from founder to CEO. I’ve been on that journey for a year. I have another year or so to go.

It’s tough when you’re bootstrapped. You can’t afford all the people you want and need. You have to find generalists who can train themselves to be specialists as needed. I’ve had a lot of trouble finding the right people for certain roles. I need to quit thinking about the money and find the best people I can, without paying outrageous amounts. I need a copywriter.

At this time last year, my view was, “I’m not paying for a copywriter. I’ll write the copy myself.” But this year I’m thinking, “I need a copywriter. I need a videographer. I need these things to become the brand I want to be and forget the money. I’ll figure that out later.”

Bandholz: Here’s my unsolicited advice. As you search for these people, don’t settle. Don’t hire folks who are worse than you because eventually you’ll have to let them go.

Coddou: What if they’re inexperienced now, but you see the hunger in them to be better?

Bandholz: There’s potential there. James is a perfect example. We brought him in as a data analyst, and he’s now doing growth marketing for us.

As we wrap up this podcast, there’s one important topic for listeners to consider: Beardbrand and Supply are direct competitors. We both sell premium grooming products to males. Was 2020 Supply’s best year ever?

Coddou: Yes.

Bandholz: It was our best year, too. My point is to avoid a fixed pie mindset. Competitors don’t necessarily take business from each other. They drive each other to get better.

Coddou: Our companies are roughly the same size, dealing with some of the same things. A big takeaway for me as an entrepreneur or, really, a human is to find trusted peers to open the kimono with and be real — and maybe compete a bit.