You Don't Need an Original Product to Differentiate Your Business. Here's Why.
by Felix Thea Podcasts Jul 4, 2016 38 minute read Leave a comment Email Pinterest Facebook Twitter LinkedIn
Brig Taylor is the Founder of SlideBelts: a store that sells simple, subtle, stylish leather belts without holes.
On this podcast, you’ll learn why he believes that your competitive edge actually doesn’t have to be in your product and where you can look to find it instead.
In this episode, we discuss:
What red flags to look for when sourcing products overseas.Why you don’t need to sell a completely original product.How to improve your decision making to start making decisions faster.
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Felix: Today I’m joined by Brig Taylor from SlideBelts.com. SlideBelts redefines a classic fashion accessory with simple, subtle, stylish leather belts without holes. It was started in 2007 and based out of Eldorado Hills, California. Welcome Brig.
Brig: Hey, thanks for having me Felix.
Felix: Tell us a little bit more about your store. What are some of the most … You obviously sell belts, what are some of the most popular products that you sell?
Brig: Yeah, so I mean basically the opportunity that we had was to sell, re-brand the military belts that a lot of people are familiar with. That’s kind of a belt without holes. We had an opportunity to put that into the marketplace, redesign it, make it kind of cool, kind of sleek, and our most popular products are definitely belts. I mean that’s the name of the company, SlideBelts. Down the road we’re going to get more and more into wearable tech, but right now it’s like your basic belt. We basically used a couple of different trends and waves to help kind of grow the business.
In all honesty, we’ve grown it just like you would grow any other business that has product, a consumer product that they’re trying to market and sell. Yes, it’s true that we have a unique product, and it’s patented, and that gives us a little bit of competitive edge. I listen to you guys all the time, and I try and get a lot of tips and tricks from you, so I imagine listeners want to know, how can I do what you guys are doing? How can I have the success that you’ve had?
My goal is to show you guys hey listen, you can still do what we’ve done, and you don’t have to have this awesome, competitive product. You can actually have a sleep product that isn’t necessarily patented by you, and you can only get it at your shop, you can still have the success that we’ve had. It’s quite easy right now if you’re willing to dig deep. Obviously it’s really hard, but yeah, there’s opportunity.
Felix: Awesome, yeah I definitely want to talk about how to market, or how to start a business, and not necessarily selling competitive, or not necessarily selling a completely original product, and we’ll get into that in a second. Let’s talk about the early days for you. How did you get involved in this? Were you making fashion accessories? Were you in the industry at all?
Brig: No, not at all actually. I was teaching English in sort of a mission for my church actually in a country called Romania. Actually it’s Moldova, is the name of the country, and it’s Russian speakers, Moldovan speakers, Romanian speakers, they all live in Moldova, and I was teaching English out there. I received a gift from a student, and it was like this old ratchet buckle. I thought it was really cool, and kind of wore it. I didn’t think about it at the time, I didn’t realize this is something I could market, that’s not really my mindset, it was more like looking down the road, looking at a product, seeing that I was wearing it so consistently. I was like, you know, I like it so much that I bet you other people would like this if we kind of changed it a little bit, so it wasn’t so industrial, but it was a little more like a consumer product, I bet people would like it just as much.
I did that, I was in Moldova 2002 to 2004, and then I had college that I went to after that. It didn’t really pick up, I didn’t really officially start until 2007. That’s when I actually formed the LLC, and I was starting to try and sell the product to my friends. My first order was 400, and the hard part was actually trying to track down the product. I mean I had this rugged, military buckle, and I’m like hey, I have some sketches and designs. At the time, this was 2006, 2007, it’s not as obvious. I mean Alibaba existed, but it seemed to me like it didn’t work the same way it does now. It wasn’t so obvious that you could source products.
In 2006, 2007 I started looking around, calling people randomly that I saw on websites. I’d like contact friends of friends who lived in Europe, or Turkey. They lived back in Moldova. I tried contacting them, like hey, can you help me with sources, I’m trying to redesign this buckle, I’m trying to sell it. It was actually really hard, it’s a lot easier now because of Alibaba. You can just log in and find factories pretty easily now.
Felix: That’s cool, so you had this product already, you thought it was cool and useful for yourself. At some point you thought that other people might be interested in it too. You said you sold 400, how did you sell those initial 400? We’ll get to this in a second right after, but it sounds like you didn’t have the product on hand at the time, but let’s start with how you were able to get those first 400 sales.
Brig: Oh sorry, that was actually my first order from the factory, I apologize. I didn’t sell them immediately, that was my first factory manufacturing order that came in. I got 400, so I obviously got a prototype, confirmed the prototype. That’s a long story, there was a couple of mistakes there. I used my student loan for the first prototype, and they stole it. Then I had a friend who was in Beijing, or actually it was Shanghai University. He was a friend of mine from school, and I flew him to the factory, because I couldn’t waste anymore money. Then we got a couple of prototypes, confirmed them, ordered 400. Then ultimately those first sales were made through friends and family, you know?
Felix: Okay, so I definitely want to dive into this story then. You wanted to get 400 made initially before you went out to try to sell to anybody. You ran into some difficulty, you said they stole your design, what happened there?
Brig: Well they didn’t really, basically … They didn’t steal any design, but what happened was, this was the very first person I reached out to that was in China, and they just didn’t give me a prototype. It was $800 only. I mean it’s a lot still, and it was a lot back then for me, honestly, but they just never gave me a prototype. I was like whoa, that was kind of crazy. Then I used another company, and then they gave me a terrible prototype. Then at that point, the third attempt, I decided you know what, one more shot at this, I have a friend there, I’m going to fly him to go visit this new factory to see if they’re actually legit.
Felix: You had basically put in money to get some prototypes made, but then you never got anything from it, or you got a crappy prototype.
Felix: Looking back on it now, for any listeners out there that are thinking about getting prototypes made, or even maybe just going and placing an order, where there any red flags that you notice now? Based on your experience looking back, were there any things that you saw that other people could look out for to make sure they avoid this issue?
Brig: Yeah, I mean so if I source something nowadays, I feel like my judgement is a lot better, and those flags that you want to look out for, I mean people will misspell words, it’s hard to judge based on the spelling, and it’s hard to judge based on their grammar. I basically judge it on who they’re selling to right now, what their website looks like, what are the current products they sell? How diverse they are? It’s basically like trying to explain … You know like you get those weird emails, you just inherited tons of money in Africa. Try to explain to somebody why that is obviously fake.
You can look at it, and there’s certain flags where it’s like, if you look it up online and see that person. Google the factory’s name, Google the person’s email, their name. See if they’ll schedule a Skype or phone call. Look for any oddities where they’re too aggressive. If somebody is too aggressive, it means they’re a little needy. It might be fake, they might just be trying to get a deposit. If there’s always focusing, and every email has to do with a down payment or a deposit, you want to avoid that factory.
Felix: Did you encounter these issues with the first couple of manufacturers?
Brig: Yeah, for sure. When I look back, the one that ripped me off, yeah, there was obvious flags when I look back. It’s like they wanted the money straight up, they wanted it first. They kept mentioning it in emails. They didn’t even want to send me … A lot of them want your business, right now China is doing great. They’re hungry, but they have a lot of opportunity for people like us that are sourcing products. They want to get your business, so they’ll be willing to … They won’t do like a free mold, they won’t do a free prototype for you, but they’ll certainly send you products that they already make.
I would ask for products first, get something that they’re currently making, have them send it out for free. They’ll do that, and I never did that before, and I should have. Then I would confirm that they actually make something. Say you’re doing belts, you want to see they most likely make some other type of metal product, and I should have gotten some samples of some pins, or other types of buckles, even though they weren’t making my actual prototype.
Felix: I see, so even if you aren’t getting a prototype, you can always ask them for products that are similar to yours, or maybe pieces of products that are similar to yours.
Felix: How is that arranged? Do you usually have to pay for those? What’s an example of an arrangement?
Brig: No, I mean you can kind of like, as long as you’re fairly honest, I would kind of use a little bit of … I would explain to them the opportunity. I would say hey, I’m planning on doing this with this, and my order if going to be 400 right off the bat. I’m hoping on doing 2000 after that in six months. Then you can just say could you guys send me, just to make sure we’re on the same page, you guys produce high quality products, can you send me X, Y, Z products that I saw that you guys make on Alibaba, on your website.
Felix: Got you. You mentioned one of the other kind of keys, or questions to ask to make sure they’re legit, is to find out who they’re currently selling to. How do you get that kind of information? You just ask them, or you look on the site? What are some ways to find out their past clients?
Brig: In all honesty, the only way that I’ve found useful, is when the person I’m talking to State side, who isn’t associated with the factory, the refer me to that factory. That’s pretty rare, that’s only happened once or twice. Then I know, that person will go hey, so and so makes … He helped make, you could say [inaudible 00:10:50] knives, they helped produce this in this country. Here’s a referral, you can see if they can help you out. That’s pretty rare. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and that’s only recently happened.
Early on you can them who they produce for, but you’d have to get details. They’ll say oh yeah, we do Mercedes, we do BMW, we also do Nike and Adidas, but it’s all knock-off items, so it sometimes doesn’t mean anything. You can always ask for more details, like what’s the last thing you produced for them? Sometimes if they’re really a legitimate company, then they’ll be under contract, and sometimes they’re not allowed to say or specify what they made. That’s a good sign sometimes.
Felix: Yeah, it definitely sounds like there’s so many things to look at, so that’s why I guess it made sense for you to send somebody that you knew over there, over in China directly to these manufacturers, directly to these factories.
Brig: Yeah, exactly.
Felix: Tell us about that, I think I’ve heard other people on the podcast that have mentioned finding agents over there, but if you have a friend, or a colleague, somebody over there, that’s probably even better. Tell us about what is that like? What are you sending them over there to look for? Or I guess what’s the reconnaissance mission like when you go into a factory, or a manufacturer?
Brig: Yeah, so some awesome [inaudible 00:12:05] that were good, that showed me I was able to spend some more money on this third attempt. My buddy showed me pictures. They picked him up at the airport, and I was like hey, that’s pretty cool. He was in China, but he had to fly to get there, because it was in a different city. I was like, hey that’s kind of legitimate, they picked him up at the airport, that’s a good sign. Then he sent me pictures of their offices, and he sent me pictures of the factory. It wasn’t beautiful, it wasn’t like offices you’d see in Silicon Valley, but they looked like legitimate operating facilities. Those were all good signs pointing to less opportunity for losing money, basically. It was all plus signs, you know?
Felix: Yeah, it sounds like based on your first two experiences, just making sure they had an office was a big step up already.
Brig: Nowadays we’re moving so fast, and we’re growing, that I can’t use those same methods. It’s funny because we just are forming a new relationship just the last couple of months with a different factory in a different country, and it’s fantastic. The reason we’re doing that is so that as we get into bigger retailers, there’s all these compliance issues that I’m quite confident my early factories would never be able to pass. It’s nice to be, after years later, to be getting into the real game, with real factories, they have real representatives. They all have all these sales agreements, and they actually have payment terms, and all these agreements. I’m like wow, this is actually like the real world, this is what I thought it would be. Early on you have to use these contacts that perhaps weren’t … I just feel like they’re less professional, but it worked out for us, you know?
Felix: Yeah, I guess it makes sense at that stage. Did you ever turn over to Alibaba at any point? I know you were saying before that it didn’t really exist, or it didn’t exist in the same professionalism, or built out like it is today?
Brig: I would for sure use it now, I’ve used it probably twice, but I didn’t use … They have like trade assurances, or something like that. Where now you can almost have money in Escrow. I would totally use it now. I didn’t use the Escrow services, and one of those … They both kind of worked out, I probably should have used one, we were just moving so fast that we lost a little bit of money, and the product wasn’t … It wasn’t because they ran with the money, but they just gave me something that was a sub-par product. In that case, like nowadays if you find a factory on Alibaba, they have ratings on there. They have references, referrals, you can look at how long they’ve been in business.
It’s pretty safe nowadays. I would only use a company or factory on Alibaba that allows you to put your money in Escrow, so you actually have an insurance. It’s like you can spend less than 20 thousand, and will cover you if there’s some kind of rip-off, or something like that. It’s pretty safe. I wouldn’t do anything else otherwise, just starting from scratch I wouldn’t risk using anything else.
Felix: That’s great. Finally you were able to get these 400 or so belts manufactured, and over to you. Tell us a little about that very … I guess selling those first 400. Was it friends and family, or were there other ways for you to offload that initial inventory?
Brig: Yeah, so I actually had a website before, like even Shopify and other companies came around and help you create it. I had to hook up a merchant account with Wells Fargo, and I used PayPal early on. I mean anybody can log in the web archives and they go to SlideBelt.com and they go to like 2007, or 2008, and you can see the website is pretty basic. I was proud of it at the time, and that’s the name of the game. I’m sure there’s stuff that I’m proud of today that I’ll be a little bit embarrassed about five years from now. That’s the name of the game, and you go step by step. At the time, the website, I loved it, it was awesome. It was definitely a lot easier now with companies like Shopify.
Back then I tried to make sales online, it wasn’t that great. I kind of burned myself using AdWords. Like I targeted generic words like ‘belt’, and so then I was like, I’m willing to pay $2 per click on belts, and I lost a thousand bucks in 15 minutes. I turned it on, like this is great, this is how AdWords works? This is cool. My listing is showing up on Google. Then little did I know, all my money was gone. That was very scary. I burned myself, and I was like I’m never going to use AdWords again.
The belts sat around for a little bit, for like a year or two. I had some great friends come by, and some that were old family friends. They would 10 or 50. I had somebody buy like a decent amount, it was almost a hundred. That was helpful. I don’t know if they resold them. I’m not sure what they did with them, it might have been a charity thing. It definitely helped [inaudible 00:16:51] aside, and bought the next amount, which was … I can’t remember if it was like 1500, or something like that.
Felix: That’s awesome. You mentioned earlier about how you don’t necessarily have to sell a product that is … I think what you’re getting at was that is completely original. Or not necessarily not completely original, but you don’t have to sell some ground-breaking technology, or ground-breaking products. Talk a little bit more about that, what did you mean by that?
Brig: What I meant was I felt very confident that I could have sold even a non-ratchet belt, like a non-special, unique product. At the time I felt like there’s a lot of people in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, even the last couple of years, who would be willing to take a risk on spending money on a product that’s on a website that looks decent. That’s like an opportunity right there where some larger companies were a little bit behind in the game, in terms of e-commerce, as I’m sure a lot of people are aware, so their websites didn’t look that spectacular. You could actually look like you’re a pretty big company if you have some decent graphics, and as long as you weren’t running into a bunch of dead links on your website. People would be willing to take that risk.
Nowadays it’s a little bit more competitive, and you always have to be kind of looking for that competitive edge. Whether it’s in financing, whether it’s in the way that you sell, whether it’s in operations, whether it’s in a product. I try and make sure we have a competitive edge in every aspect before it becomes popular. It’s really competitive now, and not just with Shopify, you have big commerce, and you have many other companies that are helping people sell their products, so it’s not foreign to anybody right now. If I told you I have a website, and I have a product that’s on my website, it’s not nearly as surprising as it was in 2007, and 8 and 9.
Felix: That makes sense. What you’re getting at is that the product itself doesn’t have to be unique, doesn’t have to be your competitive edge, but you can find other ways. Some things you mentioned is things that maybe actually I haven’t heard before. You’re saying that in your financing, your operations, you could have a competitive edge as well. Which is completely removed from the product, completely removed from the consumer-facing side of your business.
Brig: Yeah, no exactly. You can do it on any aspect of the business. You really have to. If people are wanting to start their business, or keep their business going that are listening to this, there’s either flying or you’re dying, really. You’re either growing or you’re dying, has become the common phrase. I really mean … I used to kind of believe that, but I really firmly believe it nowadays. The only way to grow is not just sales. I mean you have to innovate, I know that word is kind of beat to death nowadays. You kind of have to innovate, and have a competitive edge in every aspect of your business, as much as you can. Obviously you can’t use a teleporter to ship my products, but I can definitely try different ways to save money on my packaging for shipped products.
Felix: Yeah, that makes sense.
Felix: Let’s talk about this a little more. What are some ways, or other things that a store owner can look at that’s maybe not product related, or not related to their marketing, that could give their company, give their brand, a competitive edge?
Brig: Let’s see, you have to kind of have a couple of things lined up to make it work. You can’t just have one thing that you’re going for. Sometimes you can, and it works out. Let’s see. What I wish somebody would have told me is that there’s always … If there is some kind of competitive edge, a lot of times, and it’s working right now for a select few people, or a select amount of companies, they’re not going to tell you. There’s certain things that I’m using right now that I won’t tell people, because it’s our competitive edge. Whether it’s right now the way that we sell products, maybe it’s the way that we market it, maybe it’s the way that I import it.
It’s like I know that it will catch on eventually, but we dug in, and I did some research, looked online, talked to some people, looked on forums, listened to podcasts. Listened to you guys. Sometimes some of your callers, or some people you interview will drop some gold nugget, I’ll be like sweet, little nugget. I’ll got look into it, and be like awesome, that helps out. Some of those things don’t last forever. Stuff I share will be like a year or two or three old, it won’t be the stuff I’m using right now, or maybe it is. Sometimes it’s so extreme that I’m like, hey you know what, everybody’s going to have a hard time executing this, even if they know about it.
On Amazon, if you’re selling on Amazon, there’s lot of [inaudible 00:21:11] deals you can do. You can actually pay for those. A lot of the world that you think that exists around you isn’t really, it’s more paid for and structured, as sad as it is, than you would think. Even products that people are pushing on Facebook, or Instagram, most likely there was some kind of payment involved, and that’s kind of sad, but it’s kind of the way the world is. That was like me going through my eye-opening process, among many eye-opening experiences in running the business. One of those one was wow, so many of these sales, and these collaborations, everybody’s scratching each other’s back, I can’t believe that. There’s no shadiness going on, but sometimes I was surprised to realize that there was a … They didn’t express this was something we got paid for, this person got paid for, and they were pushing the product. Now that’s called influenced marketing, and that’s kind of talked about now, but it wasn’t talked about two years ago.
Felix: Yeah, and I almost don’t even mind that, that there are things you can pay for that are kind of trades, or scratch my back, I’ll scratch your back. At least it’s clear, I guess. At least you understand, it’s logical. If you approach a business, and you want to work with them, and they say you pay us, we’ll do this for you. I feel like it makes business a lot easier to run because you can actually measure that, measure if it’s actually worth the investment. Actually get things moving, rather than who knows how to work with them.
Felix: I don’t personally mind when it comes down to things like that, because again you are in business.
Brig: No, it’s the way the world works. Yeah, everybody’s been doing it, Michael Jordan’s been doing it, everybody does it. You see somebody drinking Gatorade, you see somebody at McDonald’s, and it’s an ad, people are going to pay for it. It’s fine, it honestly is how the world works. I honestly was naïve about it, so I’m sure the majority of people listening, and yourself include, were not as naïve as I was. For me, I was like what, that’s crazy, I can’t believe it.
Felix: No, I think everyone, me included, went through this too where I was, not necessarily surprised, but same thing that you’re saying, where you think that everything is kind of done out of favor, not as favors, but out of the good of their own hearts. A lot of it comes down to paying for things, so that makes sense.
Felix: Maybe, you don’t obviously have to reveal your secret sauce, but tell us about how you would go about trying to identify where you can, maybe on a day-to-day basis, or weekly basis, what are you doing to make sure you are always having a competitive edge?
Brig: Yeah, so I mean you just have to kind of look at … Here’s an awesome trick and tip that I realized I use a lot of. That is look for any aspect of how you run your business, look at other industries. People have such tunnel vision, and they would say, if they were running a paperclip company or business, and they would only look at other paperclip companies. They would copy each other. There’s so many other industries that are doing mastering, or dominating some aspect of the business, that has nothing to do with your industry. If you search on how certain companies run, you can find, whether it’s a style, whether it’s a trend that they’re using, or whether it’s how their operations are run. Whether it’s the shipping cost, like looking into Amazon, how they actually do low cost shipping.
We just learned recently that you can actually do fulfilled by Amazon, and not have to ship it to their warehouses. That’s frigging awesome, you actually get their API, and you print their labels. It’s like that’s fantastic. The means you don’t have to have product that’s sitting on the shelves in a warehouse in Kentucky, or whatever, waiting to be sold. That’s money that’s on your books, right? It’s like there’s certain strategies where you can look at other industries. Don’t ever be close-minded. Like if you like somebody’s email that you got, and it has nothing to do with your industry, copy that email and that’s a starting point. Use the template and say it’s like Moo.com, they do awesome cards, and their emails are awesome. You could make a template out of their emails, and then you could improve it. That’s not a heinous crime, you know?
Felix: No, I love that, that you’re not just trying to reinvent the wheel every time. Look at other industries, get that inspiration. Like you’re saying, if everyone is just focused on the same industry that they’re in, there’s going to be very innovation, because everyone’s copying each other, or looking at each other to mimic their business models. If you look outside of your industry, you’ll find what’s killing it, what’s working in other industries. Maybe you won’t be able to copy it exactly, but at least get inspiration, or get pieces.
Brig: Like the average [inaudible 00:25:40] job where it’s like great artists steal, or whatever. If you look into that and just Google it, you realize it’s actually not a real quote, it’s not something that was every really said, but you look at what the original quote was, and it’s something I love saying around here, which is … The original quote, I can’t remember who says it, but it’s, “Great poets imitate and improve, whereas small poets steal and spoil.” Our goal is to imitate and improve, and our goal is never to steal and spoil. There’s plenty of people, even ratchet belt companies that steal and spoil. They take an idea, and then they don’t have that concept of wanting high quality good, high quality products, high quality companies, and they spoil it for everybody. They don’t improve upon it, right? There’s a difference between stealing and spoiling, and imitating an improving.
Felix: Can you speak about that a little bit more, how do you catch yourself to make sure you are actually doing the improving side, rather than just steal and spoil?
Brig: It’s really focusing on a thousand details. If you are running say, a popular product that’s growing right now is those standing desks, the adjustable desks. If you had an awesome company, and you were the first one to do the adjustable desk. I was like hey, this is a great idea, I’m going to go ahead and take this. I take the idea, and I go to Japan and I try have them copy that exact desk. You copy the motor, you copy the styles, and then you start looking at it, and you start selling. You do an order of a thousand, or something like that. The way that you spoil it is if somebody, they jack the prices way up, or they just the prices way low. The quality of the website is terrible.
They don’t deal well with their wholesale relationships, so anybody who’s … Say it’s in the early days of adjustable desks, and you would be like, oh hey, try and contact say Target, or try and contact Costco, or some other company where you’re trying to sell your product. You’re like we know all about adjustable desks. We dealt with so-and-so company, and they’re terrible. You guys have a terrible profit margin, and you have terrible retail prices. That’s how you would spoil it. It’s like somebody takes an idea and they run with it, and then because their eye is too much on the money, as opposed to the product and the quality, and they’re not enjoying the process, then they kind of ruin it for a lot of people that are in the pool.
The world is a pretty big place, so I don’t have any kind of … I’m not out to get those types of people. I just think for everybody, for their own personal improvement, it’s important to realize it’s okay to imitate, as long as your heart is in the right place, and you’re there to improve the world for a better place.
Felix: Yeah, I think it’s just like those businesses that pop up, and try to get in, make money, and get out as quickly as possible, and not in it for the long-term. I think you start noticing that they’re just trying to copy as quickly as possible, and not waste time trying to improve.
Brig: You can improve, like even our belt, our product, I was saying you don’t even have to have a ratchet belt. For instance, leather belts right now, a lot of them are kind of like a fake leather. Even stuff you see on the shelves in some nice stores out there, they’re not the highest quality leather. If you just start digging in, and trying to figure out where these larger companies are sourcing their products, you’d be surprised. You’d be like wow, they’re not choosing the best quality possible. You can say it comes down to profit margins, yeah. I don’t know, it’s my personal philosophy, I would rather product high quality goods. I honestly, between you and me, and everyone else listening, it’s a trend, craftsmanship is a trend. People are willing to spend a lot more money on high quality products. That should be obvious to anybody at this point. It’s going that direction. I don’t know for how long, hopefully for decades.
Felix: Definitely. Just to kind of boil all this down, if I can. You take something that already works, maybe in your industry, maybe outside your industry, and you find your competitive edge. Sometimes that competitive edge has nothing to do with the product itself. It could be again, your finance in your operation, or the team you hire. It sounds like that’s the ethos of the way that you’ve been running your business, been running your company itself.
Brig: Yeah, and it all ties together, it all ties to the bottom line. Even if it has to do with hiring, maybe your HR use an awesome program, like we used BambooHR and it made it way easy. It still helps your bottom line, and it helps your product, helps your company, because I’m saving tons of time and money by not using some old standard method that has existed for 20 years. I instead jumped right onboard to a more forward thinking company that was putting everything into the cloud.
Felix: This philosophy, this mantra that you live by, it’s only possible to build a company around that exact same mantra if all your employees, and all the people that work on the team, also believe in it. How do you make sure that your beliefs, and your philosophies on how you should run a business, how the business should be run, get spread to the rest of the team?
Brig: Well you have to actually, personally be curious. You’ve got to be a curious person. Most of the people we hire are curious achievers. You personally, if you want to start a business, you have to have this mentality where you’re curiously poking the box. You’re also quickly pivoting when it doesn’t work. I mean there’s plenty of programs or websites, or things that I’ve tried to use that didn’t work out. Like we use Ship Station to ship a product, a lot of people do, it’s fantastic. You better believe I tried three or four before I came across Ship Station. You have to be able to recognize, that was a mistake.
You’re right, you have to … There’s certain people on your team that you can’t just say we’re going to use this, because I feel good about it, and you must learn it. That might work, but if you’re surrounded by people who are curious, you should be curious too, and dig in with them. My job, I have all sorts of jobs and responsibilities as CEO, but I personally believe one of my top priorities is building the team, and growing the team. I will spend time sitting down with somebody if we’re trying to learn how Zero works for our accounting, how I can sync that up with Stitch Labs, with the way we count our inventory. It’s all live.
I’ll sit down and work with that person, and we’ll see if we can figure it out together. If we can’t we’ll try and contact somebody, we’ll try and use what we can temporarily until we find a fix, or something like that. You can hire the right people, most people are curious, I think, regardless of where they’re coming from in their life, regardless of where their career is. Most people are curious. The problem is you have to have the patience, you’ve got to have the good judgement, because you’ve made a lot of mistakes in the past. To quickly pivot and be like this is a great program, let’s stick with it. I think this will work, or this competitive edge is great, let’s stick with this.
Being able to communicate to your team, this is temporary, I understand it sucks. We’re going to work with this for six months. Then if you hire in the right people, and most people have a positive mindset, you can get through a lot of stuff. You can try new things without kind of burning the operations bridge. Or burning the finance bridge because you’re trying something new that isn’t working. It takes good judgement, and if you’re at the right place in your life where you’re starting a business, and you’re not too inexperienced with, I would just say, interaction with humans. If you’re not too inexperienced with that, you’ll be okay. You always have to be questioning, is this the best method? Is this the best method right now? Is this the best, like really, really, really?
Most people blame themselves when something doesn’t work well, and that’s true, some part of it is a lesson that you can learn, but make sure you ask the question right after that, is the process or the system I’m using, is it terrible? Is it sub-par? Could it be done better? Some people with either get down on themselves, and they’ll be like nah, I’m terrible, this tool that I’m using, or the way that I’m selling or listing my products is no good. Or I have to put $24.99, I have to put cents at the end of it. That’s the way it is. No, as yourself, is there a better way? What can I learn from this experience, and is there a better way? Yeah, I don’t have to put 99c, I can put 25, 35, $45, straight up, because that’s the company I want to be.
A lot of people get caught up with blaming themselves, or not blaming themselves at all. Then they just think the world is stupid, I can’t find another way to do it, and throw up their arms. I think there’s a middle ground where you can say, ask if it can be done better. Then there’s a lot of people right now in the world who are developing systems that work better, that make more sense, in my mind, honestly. It’s time [inaudible 00:33:44] a lot of people were like, you know what, clocking for employees is a terrible way that all these companies do it. It’s terrible the way Vans does it, PF Changs does it. Why are they using these old systems? It’s like yeah. Then comes along, a bunch of different companies, when I worked dot com they’re like hey we’re going to make this super simple, super sleek and super easy to run payroll. It’s like thank you.
Felix: It’s funny, whenever I have a problem that I want solved, you just do a quick Google search and you’ll find some company out there that’s doing it better than you ever knew was possible. I think you’re definitely onto something.
Brig: Yes, exactly, and if it doesn’t exist, guess what? Business opportunity. There you go.
Felix: Exactly. One thing that I do want to talk about that I think causes a lot of entrepreneurs, a lot of companies to stall out in, and potentially die, is decision making. It sounds like you make decisions very quickly. You either try things out quickly, and then you cut out what doesn’t work quickly. Tell us what is your decision making process? How do you make … Well first of all, do you make decisions quickly? If you do, what is your process like?
Brig: Okay, decision making, for sure. That was one thing that I think is very key to a successful company, is being able to make fast, and quick decisions. I’ve actually tried to structure the business this way, we just reincorporate in Delaware, and there’s a few reasons for that. I’ve also kind of improved the structure of our company to allow decisive decision making. If you look at Google and Facebook, you look at the way they structure their companies, they are allowing themselves to grow while not handicapping their management team, and the ability to make decisive action. My process is really, at the end of every meeting … If you read a book like How Google Works, by Eric Schmidt, they talk about the same method. If you sit in a meeting, you want to make sure that that meeting, at the very end, you ask yourself … You have one person in charge of that meeting, and then that person asks so what’s next? What’s the next step?
I really believe in making sure that we’re not just wasting our time, like actual action is being taken. It doesn’t matter really, it doesn’t really matter if you’re sure that the results are going to be perfect, you will learn something. You know what I’m saying? Like if we’re not sure if we want to launch … Say we want to launch three different types of leather straps, like we’re launching a distressed leather line in a couple of weeks for Father’s Day, right? That was six months ago that we planned to do that. I wasn’t sure about the patterns, I liked them, but I needed to move onto other things.
In our team, we looked at watch straps, like what are some awesome distressed watch straps? We researched that. We looked at them, we talked with our supplier, we looked at what was possible. Then I said, you know what, this will be awesome. Let’s go ahead and get some prototypes of these. Let’s get some samples, let’s do a sample order. Let’s plan on launching these on memorial day. You know what, as we went forward, yeah, that seemed kind of like … I kind of knew it wouldn’t work out exactly as planned. Guess what, we put it in stone, and we said we’re going to work our buts off just to make sure that this happened. Even though we worked really hard, I had to move that to Father’s Day. That’s fine, we can tweak that. We can tailor a distressed line of belts to Father’s day. We’re going to tailor it toward the handyman side of dad, right?
Instead of working on Memorial Day, where you’re going to pitch the distressed line as something that was awesome, kind of like a … Use a color pallet that was like Game of Thrones, and we’re going to talk about kind of the battle, entering the battlefield, leaving the battlefield. We’re talking about distressed leather, and stuff like that. We pivoted, and creatively there’s always so many solutions to a single problem. That I think if you just don’t tie yourself to one solution, you’ll find that there’s a lot of paths to take.
Felix: Basically be flexible, and don’t expect, or even don’t require that the actions you take will give you the perfect results, because that can stifle your speed, essentially, and kind of slow things down for your business.
Brig: Oh yeah, if you’re striving for perfection, you’re just going to not execute enough, and you’re going to depress yourself. That’s a total … Like I believe in it personally. As much success as I’ve had, I also believe that I can get into a spiral of say depression, or inaction perhaps, or lack of action. On inability to execute, or lack of confidence, or lack of faith. Like you can get into a downward spiral. Right now I’m in an upward spiral, and I’m trying to build the fences around that, so I’m making sure I’m focusing on the good. Making sure I’m training my team so that on down times they can lift me up, just like I’ve lifted them up, when I brought them on and trained them.
It’s building up kind of walls against the mistakes that a lot of people make. Whether they’re conscious, or subconscious. Like you might be leaving a meeting, and everybody feels really good, but guess what, you forget … This used to happen a lot, it doesn’t happen very much to me anymore, but we’re feeling good, and we had an awesome conversation, and then I forget to ask what’s the next step. Like do we need to meet again, or what was the decision in this? Whenever you organize meetings, use verbs. Make sure it’s like brainstorm, decide, think about. Or it’s nail down a date, or it’s move the ball forward. Probably better to be more specific. Like confirm the prototypes for the distressed leather. It’s actual verbs, not just like meeting about product launches on Thursday. Like, now.
Felix: Yeah, basically it sounds like you want to boil it down to the point where you can actually take this and do this immediately, and you know exactly what you would be doing.
Felix: Not some high level thing. I think it’s important to know too that you have a team, of course, but I think this applies for people who are working by themselves, if they have a to do list, or they plan things out. You can still take these exact same steps and make sure that all of the notes, all of the kind of “action items” you’re putting down are actually legit action items that are things that you can take action on immediately. Not just high level, fluff essentially, is what we want to avoid.
Brig: Yeah. When all else fails, and you’ve already done that dozens of times, and you have to push back the deadline, then at that point, I don’t even let myself on the hook, I’m like I’m doing it right now, I don’t even care. It’s 11 o’clock at night, I’m tired, I have already allowed myself off the hook, I’m doing it right now. That’s it, I’m done. Even if I’m calling somebody in the middle of the night, and I’m leaving a voice-mail, that’s it, I’m done. You have to have that impatience with yourself, because you want to be flexible, but if you’re realizing that you’re not buckling down, and actually getting something done, and you pushed it back so many times, don’t let yourself off the hook. Fear yourself more than what somebody else can inflict upon you. Just be like dude, I’m going to make sure next time I do this, because I forced myself to do this middle of the night when I was exhausted. I’m definitely going to make sure I execute next time.
Felix: Definitely, makes sense. I want to talk a little bit about the success you’ve had with basically the company itself. I wanted to first start with the Kickstarter campaign. You had the survival belt, I think was the only … Was that the only Kickstarter campaign that you’ve launched?
Brig: Yeah, actually I tried launching before that, I tried launching a color line, like a vibrant color, leather belt line for the slide belts, and Kickstarter rejected it as a campaign because they said I’m already selling that product. That’s understandable. I wasn’t really angry, I was just like, I put a lot of effort into it. It was a rejection. It was a little hard for about 24 hours, then I regathered myself, set some new goals, set some new deadlines, and I was like, okay I’ve got this. It was hard for a day.
Felix: It sounds like you’re great at picking yourself back up during these upsets, so that makes sense. The Kickstarter that did make it through was the survival belt. You had a $60 thousand goal, ended up raising over $200 thousand from 2099 backers. Tell us a little bit more about this, how did you promote this? How were you able to blow out your already pretty large goal by [inaudible 00:41:47] almost a little bit over three times your original goal?
Brig: Yeah, so that was one of the things where we made sure, first of all, you don’t really have to worry about marketing until you are making sure the actual Kickstarter page looks good, and it’s clean, and it’s pitching to the right audience. By that I mean, if it’s data analysis idea, make sure that there’s not a lot of graphics in there. It is a really bright, colorful … What is the, Reading Rainbow campaign, if it was one of those, then you make sure that it’s focused on lots of colors, and lots of images, and clean. Make sure you’re focusing on who your audience is. You may, or may not learn what that is as you do the Kickstarter campaign.
Take a stab at it, figure out who you’re pitching to, make it clean. Make sure the front page image that you’re using for the tile image that they list, when people are browsing Kickstarter, make sure it stands out from the rest of them. Like what we did is, early on, as soon as we launched, looking at the pallet of all the different campaigns that were next to ours, and being like which one of these catches my eye most? Then it wouldn’t be mine, I’d be like why is it not mine? Why is it this one? It’s like oh, because it uses a white background. It has just the product sitting right on top. Cool, let’s do that actually, let’s change the front page tile image for the Kickstarter video. Boom, do that, and that would help garner more clicks.
The other thing is you want to reach out to a bunch of different websites who, for ours it would be outdoors websites. We email them and say hey, we’re starting a Kickstarter campaign, we’ve exceeded our goal, we’d love to have you guys come check it out. Even if we hadn’t exceeded the goals, we’d just say this is groundbreaking, wearable tech, we have a knife, we have a fire starter, a GPS, come check us out. It was emails to a bunch of companies, and you can see, like TheAwesomer.com, you can see all the ones on our survival belt campaign page, all the ones we reached out to. They eventually listed … They mentioned us, and we listed them as a referral on our campaign.
Felix: Yeah, so I like that very first point, I want to touch on that again. Is that your Kickstarter campaign does not exist in a vacuum. It’s not like all of a sudden people are only coming to this page. There’s a whole slew of potential customers that are just browsing through Kickstarter. What you’re getting at is that you have to stand out amongst them too, and get their attention, even before they click onto your page. I think that’s an important point, I haven’t heard anybody say that before. It makes a lot of sense that you have to stand out amongst existing Kickstarter campaigns as well. I really like that.
Brig: Yeah, and people are smart, they understand too. If you just sit down, I can sit down with anybody without any experience in marketing, and just be like which one of these stands out to you instinctively at first? Then they would point to a couple, and most likely there’s a reason behind it. They may or may not know what the reason is, but if you pick it apart, you’ll figure it out. You’ll figure out why it stands out. Then you can utilize that, that’s just marketing 101, it’s probably before 101, it’s marketing 01.
Felix: Yeah, no I mean when you say in retrospect as well, it definitely makes a lot of sense. I haven’t heard anyone mentioning, or approaching a Kickstarter campaign before this way, so I think it’s an important point anyway. I looked on your Our Story page, and it says here that you sold 40 thousand belts in 2013. Obviously you raised $200 thousand on your Kickstarter campaign. Give us an idea of how successful the business is today, go into any details you’re comfortable with sharing about how successful it is today.
Brig: Yeah, you could say like hundreds of thousands last year, and now we’ve already sold more … So far we’ve sold more in the month of January than we did all last year. That was using a couple of marketing tactics, and techniques that I will tell you about in two years, when everybody else knows about it.
Felix: Maybe just share some things that you maybe think are a little more general, that are already out in public. Ways that worked well for you to sell a product like apparel for any other listeners out there that are in the fashion industry. What are some avenues, some mediums, that they should focus on?
Brig: I’ll give you guys a freebie, right here, right now, if you’re starting a company, and most people won’t do this, but this is what I would do. This is the only thing I would do, there’s somewhat of a risk, but if I was starting from scratch right now, I would sell on AmazonUK, I wouldn’t even focus on US right now. Amazon is getting bigger outside of the country, in foreign countries. I would start my brand, I would pre-pack all my products, I would ship it fulfill by Amazon warehouses in the UK. They’ll ship it to all these other countries including Italy, France, Germany. Boom, right there, that’s what I would do. You’ve got to get ahead of the wave. Right now Amazon is already over-saturated with third-party sellers in the US, it’s pretty competitive, it’s pretty hard. Outside of the US, there’s still opportunity. There’s a freebie right there, it will take a lot of work, but that’s for sure a competitive edge right there.
Felix: I love it, that’s a great idea. Is that something that’s just as easy to get started with, as if you were selling into the dot com, the US based Amazon?
Brig: Yeah, it is, actually yeah. I don’t know if you have … I don’t know if it would require you to register first in the US, they might. It’s just as easy as the US one in terms of making the sale, doing the product ad, just listing the product. Yeah, for sure. In addition to that, there’s a bunch of other countries that aren’t even part of the UK fulfillment center, that you could also sell in right now. That has inherent risk, because who knows, maybe Amazon will take longer to get as big as it has in the US. Maybe it won’t ever get as big. I think it is, either way you can make a foreign version of your website, and you can fulfill it, you can fulfill the orders, just because you have a fulfill by Amazon product abroad. You see what I’m saying?
Felix: Can you explain that a little bit more?
Brig: In other words, if you started AdjustableDesks.italy, or whatever, dot IT, you could fulfill products and orders placed on that domain. You could fulfill them with Amazon warehouse, fulfilled by Amazon stock, if you send product there. You see what … Right?
Brig: That’s huge.
Felix: Yeah, that definitely makes sense.
Brig: You target key words, like certain key words, or AdWords that are in foreign languages, and you could probably get enough traction, you could start a company. There’s lot of hurdles after that, but that’s a great way to start and get ahead of a trend that has already been proven State side.
Felix: Cool, so maybe to close this out, obviously because you’ve spent so much time it sounds like testing so many different things, what are some apps that you or your company rely on? Apps or tools that you rely on today, that have passed your screening process?
Brig: Yeah, so for project management we’ve tried a bunch of different things, including BaseCamp, and ultimately we stuck with Asana. Asana works pretty well for us, it’s pretty versatile. That’s huge for communication. Otherwise your team will be inundated with emails. You, yourself might have tried a bunch of different iPhone apps, in terms of getting stuff done, to-do lists, all those things. That’s find, keep trying, see what works for you, what doesn’t. For me, Asana has worked for more than one or two people, projects, or tasks, Asana’s worked out pretty darn well.
I mentioned WhenIWork for scheduling. ZenPayroll, which is now called Gusto, for payroll that’s absolutely fantastic. BambooHR for HR stuff. Ship Station for shipping products. Stitch Labs, we use them for inventory. Zero for financing. Let’s see, in terms of … Yeah, that’s about it really. We have a diverse set of phones and computers, and yeah, we’re in a regular business office that’s zoned for research and development, zoned for R&D, so it allows us to have lock-ins, that people can … You know, we have a reception area that’s almost like our front door. People come by and shop, and actually buy a belt here, because of what the area is zoned for.
It’s not too expensive, because there’s also regular offices in this area, so it’s not like we had to go to a high traffic, foot-traffic area. Especially nowadays where you can show your company on Google Maps, and people will find you some way or another. Obviously there is benefits to being right where all the foot traffic is, but that’s one thing where we’re allowed to pack product, quality control, even do customization on products in the area zoned for R&D.
Felix: Very cool, I didn’t know that was a trick that you could employ. I think that’s another great gem you dropped.
Brig: Yeah, obviously there’s a lot of people that break the rules, but my goal is to try and break as little rules as possible. Or as Arnold Schwarzenegger says, right, doesn’t he say break the rules, but don’t break the law, that’s kind of like my mantra.
Felix: Cool, makes sense. Tell us about what you have planned for the rest of year. What are some products, or things that the listeners can look out for?
Brig: Yeah, dude, the survival buckle, or survival belt is coming out, and that’s going to be absolutely awesome. We have been working on that for such a long time, I had to trash the first prototype. We even had to try in a different country, I won’t say exactly where, but you guys will figure it out. It’s such a great product now, we’ve gone through so many different phases. We’ve tried different types of metal, we tried different fiberglass, and it’s going to be awesome. It’s so sleek and simple that some people will just be wearing it, and it’s just nice knowing that you have a multi-tool. You have a light, you have a fire-starter, you have a knife, all right there. It’s sleekly designed, so it’s just like you forget about it, you know? That’s coming out in … We’re actually doing pre-orders, in September 1st. Well actually we’re shipping September first, we’re doing pre-orders June 20th. If anybody is listening, come to our website June 20th, you can actually buy and do a pre-order for a survival belt.
Brig: I believe right now the price is probably going to be $180. It’s high quality material, you won’t find anything like it anywhere else.
Felix: Cool, so this episode is going to go out by then, so check it out now. Where should they go to again? Just SlideBelts.com?
Brig: Yeah, go to SlideBelts.com, or you can catch on Twitter, or Facebook, or Instagram. You’ll see us launching that at the end of June, and you’ll definitely hear about it.
Felix: Awesome. Great, so thanks so much Brig. SlideBelts.com is the website. Anywhere else you recommend that folks go check out if they follow what you’re up to?
Brig: Just come to SlideBelts.com, and kind of browse around, and you can kind of see what we’re up to. You know we post updates a lot on Instagram, so check us out there as well.
Felix: Awesome, thanks so much Brig.
Brig: You bet Felix.
Felix: Thanks for listening to Shopify Masters, the e-commerce marketing podcast for ambitious entrepreneurs. To start your store today, visit Shopify.com/masters to claim your extended 30-day free trial.
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About The Author
Felix Thea is the host of the Shopify Masters podcast, the ecommerce marketing podcast for ambitious entrepreneurs, and founder of TrafficAndSales.com where you can get actionable tips to grow your store’s traffic and sales.
About the author
Felix Thea is the host of the Shopify Masters podcast, the ecommerce marketing podcast for ambitious entrepreneurs. Got something to share with Shopify Masters listeners? You can submit your story for consideration.