171: The One Where Austin Tells How He Got Here
Posted by November 8, 2018on
Earlier this week Andrew shared his story, and now we’re turning the tables.
Today I talk about how I went from pursuing a career in investment banking to realizing I wanted to become an entrepreneur and eventually starting Ecommerce Influence.
Digital marketing has evolved so much over the last decade, especially for ecommerce, and my career has evolved along with it. I’ll share how I built a business I’m excited about while also creating a lifestyle that gives me freedom and flexibility.
- 3:54 Why Austin started Ecommerce Influence.
- 5:07 Moving away from the typical agency: The birth of Brand Growth Experts.
- 7:09 Austin’s early career pursuits begin in China.
- 8:14 When Austin realized he wanted to become an entrepreneur.
- 9:38 Start-up life and learning how to become an entrepreneur.
- 12:02 If you can sell a $100,000 product with triggered emails, you can sell anything with triggered emails.
- 14:25 How working for a start-up provided the best education for growing a business.
- 16:42 Austin starts building his own business.
- 21:19 An evolution in personalized, lifecycle marketing.
- 24:43 The inception of Ecommerce Influence and why Austin decided he didn’t want to run a traditional agency.
- 27:31 How Austin’s created a business that reflects his core values.
- 31:10 Helping business scale with the Brand Growth Experts Membership.
- 35:23 The project Austin’s most excited about right now.
Links and Resources
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If you want to make sure you’re growing as quickly and sustainably as possible, click here to learn more. Hope to see you on the inside!
This episode is brought to you by Klaviyo. If you’re running an ecommerce business and sending emails to your customers, you should be using Klaviyo. It will help you find out who your best customers are and target them one-to-one to make more money.
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Austin Brawner: What's up everybody? Welcome to another episode of the Ecommerce Influence Podcast. My name is Austin Brawner.
Andrew Foxwell: I'm Andrew Foxwell. Hey, man, how is it going today? It's a Monday for us, for those of you listening. But, hey, what's going on this Monday?
Austin Brawner: It's a Monday for us, most likely, a Thursday or a Tuesday for you guys. What's been going on? Well, right now I'm sitting here watching fall leaves just dump off of trees around me, just right off. Looking to the left, looking to the right, the yard's covered. It's fully into fall, and it's exciting.
Andrew Foxwell: It's a Texas fall. This is what we have going on in Wisconsin. We've got the, what I love, the day, yesterday, it was 48 and raining.
Austin Brawner: Ooh.
Andrew Foxwell: Okay? Today, 70 and partly cloudy, unclear.
Austin Brawner: I love it.
Andrew Foxwell: It's a roulette up here. We have no idea of what's going on. But, today, in this episode, I'm really excited, because ... I actually hate when podcast hosts say that they're excited, because they're always excited. It's a rule. Apparently, you have to be excited.
Andrew Foxwell: But, I truly am excited.
Austin Brawner: You have to be excited. If you're going to host a podcast, you got to be excited.
Andrew Foxwell: That's right. I truly am excited to talk about, who is Austin Brawner, the master of email, and who are you, what are you up to, how did you get into this, so that's what we're going to be talking about today.
Austin Brawner: Let's do it.
Andrew Foxwell: Awesome, awesome. Well, the first thing that I'm wondering is when did Brand Growth Experts even start? I'm just curious right off the bat. I don't even know when you started this company that you are currently running.
Austin Brawner: Look, that's a good question. There was, really when it started was Ecommerce Influence. We started Ecommerce Influence about, I guess it was about five years ago, five years ago with my co-founder Chad Vanags, who is the first, my first podcast co-host. We started working together, and we started, basically, we were building an email marketing agency and hosting an ecommerce podcast, the Ecommerce Influence Podcast.
We started that together, and we continued. The idea behind the podcast initially was to reach out to people that are in the space, learn about the space, become more educated. It was a tool for us to be able to connect with people that are doing really interesting things in the space.
Through that process we just kept learning and learning and implementing a lot of the stuff that people were telling me that they were doing and met a lot of really cool people in the space. That's how we kicked off what is Ecommerce Influence initially.
We built this agency and about ... Well, let's see here. At one point, it must have been three years ago, we said, "All right, we need to ... " This email marketing agency is not exactly what we wanted to build. We wanted to build something a little bit different. That is where the catalyst for Brand Growth Experts started. That was, the idea was to move away from doing email marketing as an agency.
The reason why is, I just don't think that an ... Running an agency, there are certain things that lend themselves well to being done by an agency. I think paid search is one.
Andrew Foxwell: Yup.
Austin Brawner: It's really good for an agency. There's the correct incentives, email, not so much. It's a lot of brand design, and that can and should be done in-house as you grow. We kept realizing that, and we said, "Let's build something different." That was the kickoff of Brand Growth Experts.
Andrew Foxwell: See, and I wanted to get to that right off the bat, because I have, actually, I have been asked that question about you more than five times, actually.
Austin Brawner: Sure.
Andrew Foxwell: That's really interesting. We're going to get back to that. But, I actually, I want to hop into the way-back machine.
Austin Brawner: Way, way back.
Andrew Foxwell: Yeah, yeah, yeah, and talk about I think really how you started to get into marketing, because I know you were a Fulbright Scholar, and then you went ... Tell us about that experience, how you started to even start to get into marketing, because you were working with a non-profit at one point as well early in your career. What was the catalyst for all that?
Austin Brawner: Sure. Yeah, right after I graduated from college, I didn't ... I had this idea in my mind that I wanted to go live in Asia, become an investment banker and live in Hong Kong. That was what I wanted to do.
Andrew Foxwell: It sounds actually kind of awesome.
Austin Brawner: Yeah, I know. It does, right?
Andrew Foxwell: Yeah.
Austin Brawner: It was because I'd taken a trip over there when I was in college and filmed a documentary in India, and, on the way back, we spent a bunch of time in Hong Kong. I was like, "This is incredible." I was 21, and I was seeing all these guys who were making tons of money and partying in Hong Kong. I was like, "This life is incredible."
I got a Fulbright Scholarship to go teach in Macau, which if you guys ... Macau is right next to Hong Kong. It's the, basically, Asian Las Vegas very close to Hong Kong. I was thinking, "I'm going to go there that will be my jumping off point. I'll make connections, and then I will become an investment banker."
During that year, I totally realized that was not what I wanted to do. I went to a conference, and, at that conference ... It was called the Make a Difference Asia Conference. They had brought over all these entrepreneurs, really, really top entrepreneurs from the U.S., from England.
Tony Hsieh was there. He was keynote speaking, the CEO of Zappos. I was listening, and I was like, "This guy is so interesting." He was making a really compelling case for becoming an entrepreneur.
Literally, after those two, it was a two-and-a-half-day experience. At the end of that I was like, "My life has changed." I no longer want to be an investment banker. I'm interested in this thing called entrepreneurship.
Rather than sticking in Hong Kong, I actually flew back, came back to the U.S. and got a job at a company called at the time, Human Healthy Vending, which was helping unite mankind and nutrition. I was, at the time, I was the third employee. The three employees were basically hired, one guy was hired maybe six months before, and then me and the other guy were hired at the same time.
That was just startup. The headline was, "Learn how to become an entrepreneur." That was what they were bringing in for that first hire.
Andrew Foxwell: A couple different things there. Where was this?
Austin Brawner: That was in Los Angeles.
Andrew Foxwell: In L.A. and you, this is also where some of your professional passion ties into wellness and nutrition. This has been since I've known you, this is a huge part of who you and Carly are, your wife. You guys are, that's a really big part of who you are. Clearly, you can see that in some of the podcast episodes we've had as well. We're bringing on that. But, that's where that started for you, and were you doing marketing there?
Austin Brawner: Yeah, 100% that was very aligned. I was already very interested. The mission was to put healthy vending machines in schools. Knowing, from growing up, at my high school, at least, it was Coke, Pepsi. There was these Tim's Potato Chips. That was pretty much it.
I was really aligned with the mission. Came in, and I was doing pretty much a mix of everything. It was a really small company and just wearing a bunch of different hats. But, the role that I ended really enjoying and getting into was, for the first year, I was helping the co-founder and CMO build out the marketing, the automated marketing systems.
We were using Infusionsoft at the time, and the whole goal for the business was to, it was lead generation, and we were selling a vending franchise, a healthy vending franchise. These were big-ticket items. We're talking $100,000 investments.
The way we were selling it was lead generation through a lead form, qualifying them through an automated way using Infusionsoft, and then directing them to our salesperson, who would then ... We'd take two-step call, and we had one salesperson who was closing all the deals.
The only reason we were able to do that was, because we had leveraged him to the max with these automated systems that we'd built, these email systems. It was really cool, and it was really the first time when I was like, "This is something I really enjoy doing."
I can see how it's such a high-leverage tool to be able to qualify people with emails and to be able to bring people ... I was like, "If you can sell a $100,000 product with triggered emails, you can sell anything with triggered emails."
Andrew Foxwell: Yeah, well, it's interesting, because the personalization of that, and it works. It helps the consumer. It helps you understand, and it shows you the power too. But, it actually is genuinely helpful. People probably were looking for that.
Austin Brawner: 100%. They were like, "Wow"
Andrew Foxwell: It was like-
Austin Brawner: You're giving us the right information at the right time.
Andrew Foxwell: Right, right, which is still just one of the wonderful powers of email, I think. You were doing that, and you were learning the power of email and Infusionsoft which is still to this day really a pretty powerful tool.
Austin Brawner: Yes.
Andrew Foxwell: When did you start to get more into the technical details? Well, actually, first, how long were you even there at this particular company, and what were some of the results that came out of your efforts?
Austin Brawner: I was there for two and a half years.
Andrew Foxwell: Oh, wow. A long time.
Austin Brawner: Yeah, it was quite a long time. Well, short time, it's a long and short time at the same time. For the first job, it was, we grew a ton, so two and a half years felt like a long, long time.
That first year, my main focus was on helping build that email marketing system. That went really well. We actually got second place at Ultimate Marketer which was a conference, basically, a competition every year by Infusionsoft for the Ultimate Marketers, people who are using the software the best.
That's when I realized I was like, "Wow, I think we're ... I know a lot about this now. I can do this quite well." We got second place at Ultimate Marketer. That was really exciting. It validated everything that we were doing.
With that, it was also validated by the fact that we went from having, doing $100,000 or $200,000 in revenue to doing $12 million over two and a half years later. We grew from three of us.
Andrew Foxwell: Just small results.
Austin Brawner: Yeah, to like 30 employees over that two and a half year period. It was wild. It was the best education for growing a business that I could have ever gotten, because I was right in the mix. I ended up hiring a large sales team that was doing the same thing. It was fielding inbound leads, also, outbound leads and scheduling calls, going through a sales process to try to get these vending machines placed.
That was really cool. I really, I learned a ton during that time. Towards the end, I realized we were hitting a ceiling of what we were going to be able to accomplish there. I was like, just saw the writing was on the wall that it was a tough, tough market, and we'd already put healthy vending machines in most of the big school districts, which was where a lot of our growth was. I was like, "This is probably not going to continue the way that it was."
But, at that point, after I had a lot of confidence in some of the stuff that I'd been doing, and I kept seeing, well, there was two things. I saw one of the guys who was hired there, his name was Grant James. He's one of the first people that we brought on Ecommerce Influence Podcast, and I think it was episode two or three. He was the guy I learned so much from, because he was the resident wizard with marketing tools.
I was talking to him about his life, and I was like, "You've got a very interesting life. How did you do this?" He was like, "Well, I just started learning about these different tools, the ways to generate money for businesses and became a consultant."
That was really exciting to see that. I was like, "His life versus my life, his life is much better than my life right now." I was super stressed out, had 25 salespeople that I was managing, or 20 salespeople I was managing. I was pretty stressed out.
I was like, "This seems like another interesting route," had some confidence and I also had ... I was fortunate enough to have one of my best friends from high school who was ... We were both friends with, Blake Jensen was running the company, Blenders Eyewear, down in San Diego. I was telling him, "Look, I've been doing this cool stuff with email for my company. I see your guys' business is growing. I would love to implement some of the stuff we did for this vending company for Blenders." They were like, "That sounds awesome. Let's do it." I literally drove down to San Diego from L.A., and I stayed on a blow-up mattress at Blake's house for a month working with them in their office every day in San Diego just getting things set up.
Andrew Foxwell: As they would say, they were just working like a goat.
Austin Brawner: Just grinding like a goat in the nest.
Andrew Foxwell: Just grinding like a goat in the nest, yeah. Okay, so I think it's worth pointing out, first of all, that you were at this point, who knows how old you were. Are we talking, you're like 26 when you have 25 people reporting to you?
Austin Brawner: Yeah, I was really young. I'm still young.
Andrew Foxwell: Which is amazing.
Austin Brawner: Yeah, it was quite interesting. That was a huge learning experience, and if there was going back I would change a lot of things about how I managed. But, it was definitely trial by fire. I'll tell you that.
Andrew Foxwell: Well, I think it's ... There's a lot of different things that are interesting about what you said. I think a lot of people that are listening to this that can identify with that.
As we've looked at this, being consultants or those of us that even work remotely in-house for companies, a huge part of the motivation is lifestyle is equal to revenue. It's like, if you are able to live ... This isn't like, I'm running a lifestyle business. I don't think it's fair to say that to people, because I think people can run lifestyle businesses and be really successful and take their business very seriously.
I think that connotates something that is that you don't care as much. I think a lot of people that made that transition of going lifestyle and saying, "That looks awesome." I see other people being flexible with their time, and how they are working, and that's leading into being what they do now.
I think, actually, the interesting thing now is what we, that transition that let's say a lot of people are still taking and making now is something that is inspiring the mainstream workforce and mainstream company culture a lot, I think which is flexible work hours, et cetera, because they see their other friends that have it. That's cool that you made that jump and saw that early on. That you were like, "I'm going to do something." You basically then went down to Blenders, and you were helping them out, grinding like a goat in the nest, and then you realized, "Wow, this is actually something that could be really valuable to all these other companies." Which is how you met people through their network, or what happened after that?
Austin Brawner: It was unique in the sense that they were, their company headquarters was right next to Pura Vida Bracelets which is a much larger company than Blenders. They were working together, knew each other really well. The stuff that I was doing for Blenders was working really well, and Pura Vida was like, "Hey, can you do the same thing for me, for us?"
I worked with them right after working with Blenders. It was staying down in San Diego and, then, worked remote doing that. That initially got me off the ground and had first two clients from there, working, doing email consulting, helping them. Still, it was using Infusionsoft at the time. I don't think Klayvio even existed, or it was in its first beta version at that point.
After I had those two people and had a little bit of credibility, I was able to continue to work off referrals and start growing which was initially the email marketing agency, Ecommerce Influence. That was the start and worked from there to continue to grow. I think we started the podcast around that time as a marketing, well, as a marketing channel to continue to grow the business.
Andrew Foxwell: Yeah, right. It was ... I think one thing that you and I agreed on right off the bat when we started to work together on projects was the way that you approached email in terms of thinking about the true customer journey with email, and, before this point, correct me if I'm wrong, but this was not, this was a mildly new idea to have personalized emails within different flows and really meet the potential customer or the previous customer where they were at.
What was different about your value prop then than what you say to people now, or is it the same? Do you keep the same mentality and the same framework as you think about your work and email?
Austin Brawner: Oh, I think that is a very good distinction. There was, it was much more difficult to do what we're doing now, what we take for granted now in terms of lifecycle marketing. Back then, just because the tools were less, they were not as powerful. We were using Infusionsoft which was the best of the worst at the time to be able to do this stuff.
At the time ... Let's put it this way, now, everybody has an idea, and they know, they understand intuitively they should be meeting their customers with different emails at different times in the lifecycle, because that's going to be more effective. Back then, it was still very, very new. We were in a time and space when you could just send emails, blast emails, and they'd always be delivered. It was just sending as many emails as possible. There was no segmentation. It was less competitive. The whole idea was grow your list as quickly as possible, email your list as much as possible.
The triggered emails side was more ... A lot of it was too difficult to even make happen, because there wasn't good integrations and that sort of thing. It's come a long, long way. I remember when I first started working with Klayvio, it was like a ... I was like, "Oh my gosh, finally." This was ... They only had two employees at the time.
Andrew Foxwell: Designed with people in mind like me.
Austin Brawner: Yeah, exactly. I was like this is perfect. It's a good tool, and it's starting to ... Even though it was very basic compared to what it is now, I was like, "All right, I can see how this is going to be progressing," and moved people over and started working with them to just start sending more triggered emails. Really, email is, I always say, "Email is just a tool." I focused on email initially, because it's high leverage. But, it's just a tool, and that's my whole thought process from the beginning has been just work on the things that are the highest leverage, because those will generally, that's where you can have the most impact.
Andrew Foxwell: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, and I think that's so true. You saw that and focused on it. That's one of the reasons I started doing Facebook and Instagram advertising too was, because I saw that opportunity that it was really, really impactful. It was definitely high leverage in that sense.
You're helping them out, started to get referrals, continuing to grow that, and then was it ... Where did Chad come along? How did you meet him, and then how did Ecommerce Influence in its original inception come about?
Sure, so Chad and I worked together at our previous company. That was one of the things that I felt was at Human Healthy Vending, the place where, the thing that I learned probably the most from there, besides marketing automation, was how to hire quality people.
We did a really, really good job of hiring great people. I still have a lot of friends, my best friends came from that time. Chad and I worked together at that point at Human. We were both talking about doing something different, both talking about breaking out and starting our own company.
At that point, I don't remember exactly when ... We always talked about it. I can't remember exactly when we pulled the trigger and said, "Hey, we're going to do this and go in."
We had mentioned, I was doing a little bit of work on the side. He started doing work on the side. Like, let's get this podcast. We were at Traffic & Conversion Summit 2014 maybe, and they were talking about podcasting and like, "We can do this. Let's make this happen," and launched a podcast. That was how we initially got going.
Then that, we grew the agency over a period of two years, maybe, a year and a half, two years. We continued hiring people. We had two full-time employees in the U.S., designers and developers in South Africa, in Romania and started to really scale up the agency.
But, I think in our gut, both of us knew that it wasn't what we wanted to do. It wasn't what we initially set out to do. There was resistance to that.
We always would talk about this. This is going really well, because you can grow an agency pretty quickly, especially, if you're delivering something that people want. But, we always felt resistance to that, because we knew it wasn't exactly what we wanted.
Andrew Foxwell: Yeah, I think that's interesting that you point that out and interesting to know for people that you really took this different route that is akin to the route that Gracie and I took as well of trying to design the business that is the most helpful that it possibly can be.
Fast-forwarding now, one, how do you, the offerings that you currently have in your business, how do those reflect your core values? The second question is, what are you working on now that you're really loving, and you're really interested in?
Austin Brawner: Sure. First question was how do the things that I'm working on now reflect with core values. I think one of the things I've always really enjoyed is teaching. Learned that I love teaching when I was teaching English in Macau, and I had a couple of university classes there. I really enjoyed it. I've always really enjoyed it.
One of the things that I was missing to a certain extent was when I was running the agency just having the ability to be in there working with clients, teaching them, being one-on-one or with a group of people, teaching and explaining things that work and ways to, helping people have light bulb moments. That's something that I've always valued.
There was an opportunity about a year and a half ago where my friend, Drew Sanocki, and I were both looking at things we would be interested in partnering to do, and I had this idea of doing a marketing intensive. An email marketing intensive where we would bring in a bunch of business owners and spend two days just mapping out everything that needs to be built on the triggered email and triggered lifecycle marketing side and, then, try to get it all done over a two-day period, implement, implement, implement. To work there, I'd make sure people are moving, make sure that there's an opportunity to meet other business owners and also get a lot done.
I do enjoy going to conferences, but, a lot of times, I leave, and I'm like, "All right, I just listened to 45-minute presentations of a lot of fluff," that I really can't, maybe I could take one or two things away. But, it's very, very hard to actually get anything done from a marketing conference. You can get ideas, but then you got to go back and actually execute them.
Andrew Foxwell: Yeah, totally, totally.
Austin Brawner: Time is the most valuable resource you have, so I wanted to build something that was implementation-based, not necessarily lots of different pie in the sky ideas-based. We built that and ran those for, I've been running those for the last year. That we partnered to do a Facebook intensive which was a lot of fun earlier this year. Yeah, so that definitely scratches the teaching itch and, also, is something that I feel like has been very helpful for people that have attended. I do also private workshops for larger companies, because I've realized there was a demand for ... If you've got a larger marketing agency, not agency, marketing team, then you want to have somebody come in and help get people up to speed, define a strategy, and then implement it. That's one of the things I've been doing for the last year, working with larger companies.
Then, I've got the Brand Growth Experts Membership which is all-encompassing. It's a coaching community and a training community where I've got ... There's business owners from all over the world, which is really, really cool, from Finland to Estonia to Australia, Canada, the U.S., all over, England.
There's one-on-one coaching through a thread, a private thread, put all trainings in there as well, every month, do a live training, have courses in there, and a forum. It's a combination of ... There's other forums out there. My idea with the Brand Growth Experts Membership was actually focusing less on the forum and more on directed learning so trying to get the right information to people at the right time and, then, be able to give them just the help that they need to turn the information into actually growth, right?
Andrew Foxwell: Right.
Austin Brawner: I think the reason that I'm really interested in that is, because around scaling up, we talk about this a lot which is having impact on other businesses. The feeling that I have right now is that what's most important to scaling up an ecommerce business, the companies that scale up are the ones that are able to, one, scale their advertising. I don't know any companies that can't scale their advertising and are really able to scale up. All right, so that's one thing.
Two, they got to hire and be really good at hiring. Because, as you scale your advertising, you're going to need to hire the right people.
Then, three, you got to have a clearly defined strategy of how you're going to grow, and what you're doing so your whole team can be aligned. That's been the main focus of that membership has been, how do you scale your advertising.
Part of it is better Facebook ads, better paid social ads, but a whole nother part of that is actually building better, higher average order value products, increasing customer lifetime value, so you can actually invest more in the business and scale up. That's been a huge focus.
Andrew Foxwell: Yeah, right. I think a lot of that with ecommerce companies is this backing up ... We all feel like we're on an island. I don't know how you feel. I feel like it's very easy as a consultant, or as somebody who's running their own business from wherever you are in the world that you're on an island.
That's what you're building to try to avoid, and I think that successfully in doing so. It's very young, but it's scratching that itch of, "Am I crazy to have this question or to have these feelings about everything?" as you just said, AOV, LTV, email, Facebook, Instagram ads, Google ads, whatever it might be.
That's really inspiring, and I think all along the way, you have continued to ask yourself, how can I design something that is going to be the most helpful that it possibly can be to the people that I've worked with? It was really fun being part of the intensive, for me to watch your intensive, because of how wide people's eyes got at almost every time, of just like, "Oh my gosh, that's so cool. I didn't even know about that."
Austin Brawner: Sure.
Andrew Foxwell: I think just reflecting on that is really, really interesting as well. I very much appreciate your going through this and going through your story with me and with our audience. Is there anything else for the good of the order that you'd like to mention?
Austin Brawner: The thing, I didn't answer the question, the thing that I'm most excited about right now and mention some of the things I'm working on. The thing that I'm most excited about right now is something that I've been launching just one-off with different people that I know, and people I've worked with in the past called the Brand Guild, which is a higher-level coaching program for ecommerce business owners.
Basically, what it is it's working one-on-one with ecommerce business owners to help them scale up. It's a higher level than the membership, and it's for businesses that are doing over $3, 4 million and are at that point where they're like, "Okay, well, we've got a hit. We've got something that's working. How do we scale up our advertising? How do we hire the right team?"
Those are things that I feel I can add a ton of value to different businesses because I've seen ... One thing that's really unique, and you will probably feel the same way, is you've seen a ton of businesses, and how they work in our industry, a ton. Sometimes, you can just take something that works for one business, translate it to another one, and it works just as well or better.
That's what I'm really excited about right now is continuing to build that out, that program out and work more closely with clients to help them grow.
Andrew Foxwell: I love that. I love that dedication to always thinking about what you can do to be the most helpful to people. Well, awesome. Thanks for chatting through this, and thank you for your time. Hopefully, you guys that are listening found this interesting. We'll look forward to talking to you next time.
Austin Brawner: Thanks, Andrew. It was lot of fun, man.
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