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191: How An Artist And Engineer Turned Business Owners Built a “Cult”

Posted by Austin Brawner on March 19, 2019

 

Success in the ecommerce world doesn’t happen overnight.

Our guests today are not only big contributors to the ecommerce community, but are also co-founders of a business they built from nothing to one that now has a cult following.

I met Matt and Meredith, owners of Boredwalk T-Shirts, at an Intensive I led a couple of years ago. Today they join us to share the story of how they built their “cult” of customers, including customer service best practices and how they overhauled their hiring process to rebuild a team that is excited about the core values of the company.

Enjoy!

Episode Highlights

  • 6:29 How it all started for Matt and Meredith in the ecommerce space.
  • 8:06 The cheeky birth of  Boredwalk T-Shirts.
  • 11:11 The big team and operational changes Matt and Meredith made in 2018 that allowed them to grow their business.
  • 13:45 How Matt and Meredith’s revamped their hiring process to find the best people for their business.
  • 18:41 Things Matt and Meredith tried last year on Facebook and Pinterest that didn’t deliver the results they hoped for, even though, hypothetically, they should have.
  • 25:08 The journey from focusing on the marketplace side of the business to focusing on customer retention (i.e., building a “cult”).
  • 30:00 Matt and Meredith’s customer service philosophy: responding promptly, managing expectations, and not negotiating with terrorists.
  • 33:10 Why the Boredwalk founders go against the industry standard when it comes to dealing with bad customer behavior.
  • 35:55 How not to talk to customers: the operational side of Boredwalk’s customer service strategy.
  • 39:30 How Matt and Meredith take extra care of their “whales” and bond with their audience.
  • 40:51 The realities of owning an ecommerce business: why it’s not just a side hustle and what it takes to be successful.
  • 44:49 Mental health of entrepreneurs, and why Matt and Meredith don’t recommend the ecommerce world to all.
  • 47:15 How the Boredwalk founders have changed in the last four years and what’s helped them make it to where they are now.

Links And Resources

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Transcript

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Austin Brawner: What's up everybody? Welcome to another episode of the ecommerce Influence Podcast. My name's Austin Brawner.

Andrew Foxwell: And I'm Andrew Foxwell. You know, it is really a pleasure, all of these interesting, fascinating people that we meet because of this podcast. Am I right on this?

Austin Brawner: Absolutely. My favorite part of the podcast is ... I love recording flash episodes with you, but I think the interviews, and who we get to meet, it is so much fun.

Andrew Foxwell: Yeah, these characters we were just talking about. We have one previous guest who shall go unnamed, who calls us Brawn and Fox.

Austin Brawner: Brawn and Fox, I kinda like it.

Andrew Foxwell: Yeah. Which sounds like we're some sort of super duo, or something like a superhero. Even though we're not superheroes, definitely. I love it, I love it. I think we should change it to the Brawn and Fox show and just go all in.

Yeah, kinda go like 90's radio on it. "Brawn and Fox in the morning." 

Austin Brawner:  "Talking about ecommerce marketing. Your source."

Andrew Foxwell: And then the sound of an arrow hitting a bullseye. Or whatever, you know?

Austin Brawner:  90's radio's incredible. We can throw a little 90's radio ... Oh, there we go. 90's radio stuff.

Andrew Foxwell: And it's out of the park!

Austin Brawner: But no, it is a lot of fun, and we actually have two people today that are joining us, that we met ... I met them first about two years ago at one of my intensives, and they've been prolific contributors to the ecommerce community. We're really happy to have them on the show today.

Andrew Foxwell: Yeah, they're people that I think ... One, is a couple, working together, it's pretty cool. And I think they have been, more than anyone I have known, in this space, dedicated to, every day, waking up and learning. So I'm really honored to have them on the show. So let's give a warm welcome to Meredith and Matt.

Austin Brawner: From Boredwalk T-Shirts.

Matt Snow: Thanks, thanks for having us.

Andrew Foxwell: We're excited, you know. It was nice to have dinner with you both in Newport Beach on the California trip that Gracie and I are on, and good to see you in person in a place, as we were just talking about, that matches really neither party. We're not Newport Beach type of people.

Matt Snow: No, we're not.

Meredith Erin: It was just a convenient meeting place in the middle.

Andrew Foxwell: Yeah, convenient meeting place in the middle. Interesting spot, but you know. I think that meeting kind of sparked a whole bunch of interesting thoughts. One thing, generally speaking, how connected you guys are and how much time you think, and spent other people thinking about the ecommerce community. So I just wanna publicly, on the podcast, say thanks for all of the contributions you make to our community. Because you definitely put a lot of really good stuff into the atmosphere.

Matt Snow: Thanks.

Meredith Erin: Thanks.

Matt Snow: It's weird, because around 2016, we had been in some closed Facebook groups that were free to join, that didn't really have any kind of requirements for business owners in the ecommerce space. But we felt like we had kind of eclipsed a lot of the other people in there, and so we felt like we didn't really know what we were doing, we didn't really know who we could look to that had been there, done that, or at least was further along their growth trajectory than we were.

And someone actually recommended ecommercefuel.com to us. And once we got in there, it was kinda like in Goodfellas, when the mob opens the books to Joe Pesci, and he becomes a made man. It was like, "Oh, my gosh! There's this whole other world that we didn't even know about."

So we learned so much from a lot of the people that we met there, and then that, in turn, led us to start listening to business podcasts, which was how we found out about Austin, which is how we got into email marketing, and that's how we found out about you, Andrew.

So we try to pay it forward as much as we possibly can. We try not to be too fluffy about it and only talk about stuff that we feel like we are reasonably familiar with. But yeah, we like to try and help people out as much as possible.

Meredith Erin: ecommerce is also kind of a weird industry in that there's a huge number of people that kind of, sort of dabble in it ineffectively, or wanna do it, and a relatively small number of people that are actually ecommerce professionals. If you're an ecommerce professional, and it's what you literally do for a living all day every day, you really wanna talk to other people that do that as opposed to the huge number of people that think they're doing it, but aren't.

Andrew Foxwell: Totally.

Austin Brawner: 100%. And when you were talking about some of those closed Facebook groups where people are posting screenshots of their Shopify results that are not necessarily ... I don't know, genuine. Just kind of more based on getting the business started, I can totally understand kind of where you're feeling about you've eclipsed that.

Well, tell us a little bit more about how you guys got started. I believe, Meredith, you started coding the website from scratch at the beginning?

Meredith Erin: Well, yeah. Our first foray was us being dabblers. We had day jobs, and we started our first brand, Ex-Boyfriend, as a hobby. This was a long time ago, this was before we ever entertained the idea of becoming full-time ecommerce professionals. But we had this hobby. At the time, Shopify wasn't a thing, there weren't a lot of good ecommerce platforms. I started my career as a software engineer, so I built our first ecommerce website from scratch, with PHP and MySQL. And we used that for a while.

It wasn't until several years later, Matt had gone through school to get his degree in graphic design, was working in the graphic design world professionally for a few years, wasn't happy there. And at that point, I encouraged him to work on this thing we had sorted of created as this hobby to see if he could get anywhere with it. And then it was about a year and a half later that I ended up leaving my job to help him do that.

We, shortly thereafter, realized, really, we needed to be in the Los Angeles area, because that's where all the vendors we needed to work with were based. And so, basically, soon as we moved to the Los Angeles area, we started realizing the first brand that we created wasn't on trend enough, and we needed to do something else because this was now our day job.

And so that's how Boredwalk came about. It was our second brand, and it was much more trend-focused. Over the years, Boredwalk has kind of turned into something that's a happy medium between being commercial and being artistic, but that's kind of the evolution of how we ended up where we are.

Andrew Foxwell: That's very, very cool. I think that the thing that struck me about, when you were talking about getting started with Boredwalk, was realizing that you first really tried to start this avant-garde clothing company, and you got into realizing, like, "You know, this is kinda funny. This is kinda funny." And you said they were shirts or clothing that you would see on the boardwalk, basically, was the idea of how you came up with Boredwalk. Am I correct in retelling that story?

Matt Snow: Similar, yeah, you are.

Meredith Erin: That's kind of the idea.

Matt Snow: It was an inside joke, which Meredith, I think, to this day still kind of laments that she treated it so flippantly, because of the spelling differential, because we spell it B-O-R-E-D, like "I'm bored." And it was because Ex-Boyfriend was very creatively fulfilling. I would spend days, sometimes weeks, on a single design. And with Boredwalk, we decided to really just go all in on more of a long tail model, where we were just gonna throw as much stuff up on ... We started in an Etsy store. We didn't even have a Shopify store for the first two years that it existed.

But we just threw as much stuff as we could up on Etsy, and we were going to Santa Monica, going into the boutiques, seeing what they were selling, seeing how they were merchandising things, and trying to kind of emulate design aesthetics that we saw that -

Meredith Erin: That we thought were boring.

Matt Snow: That we thought were boring, but that tastemakers were saying, "This is stuff that has value." And so it was just kind of our flippant inside joke, to being like, "Yeah, this is kind of like the -"

Meredith Erin: Walk on the boring side.

Matt Snow: The basic stuff that you see at the boardwalk, and it was our walk on the boring side. So, yeah.

Meredith Erin: It's kind of evolved over the years since then and has found a happy medium between being more commercial, but also doing things that we think are interesting. So we found a middle ground, eventually, but it took us a few years to get all that settled.

Matt Snow: And also just to educate ourselves, and become better at marketing. Because when we first started, we were just throwing stuff up online. We weren't running ads, we weren't doing ... I think we had some banner ads that we managed to AdRoll or something like that.

But we weren't really doing much in the way of email marketing, we were doing no Pay-Per-Click. And so, over the last few years, we've been able to find an audience that resonates with us as individuals, and it turns out that even though Meredith and I think of ourselves as being relatively singular, there are a lot of people out in the world like us. And that is the one ... One of the nice things about the internet is that is can allow us to really engage with people that are like us, even if they're not in our immediate geographic vicinity.

Andrew Foxwell: Right, right, right. Well, speaking of ads and other things, what's really working in 2019? I guess the last part of 2018, too, for you. You know, what is actually growing your business at this stage in a real, tangible way?

Matt Snow: I guess, as far as 2018, the big things for us were changing our hiring and training protocols, and getting a really great team in place in early 2018. We had a really miserable holiday season going into 2018. We just didn't have the right people around us, working for us. They were more of the warm body variety as opposed to people that really had a lot of buy-in into the brand and the kind of culture that we were trying to create within the company, and also convey to our customers.

So, we really overhauled how we advertised job postings, we got good people in, and then we spent much of Q1 in 2018 building out SOPs, because we realized that we'd been doing everything, more or less, ourselves, for so long that we didn't put anything down on paper. It was all in our heads. So we had to really try and create some standard operating procedures that we could give the staff access to so that they could refer to those, rather than constantly coming to us to ask us questions.

So, organizationally, there was getting the right people in place, and then also, that allowed us to focus on detailing and implementing higher-level strategies and focus on our core strengths, which are design and marketing and product development.

Meredith Erin: Email and Facebook were probably two of the biggest drivers of revenue for us last year.

Matt Snow: Right, exactly. We were able to focus on both of those things a lot more by having the right people in place. And we also did some more boring stuff. We optimized our warehouse in terms of the layout to try and streamline production and stuff like that, but by getting the right people in place, and optimizing our operational stuff, we were able to focus more on our Facebook and our email marketing.

Austin Brawner: Sure, which, you know, those two levers, when you can just ... Whatever you put your attention on grows. And when you guys can spend more time putting your attention on those two things, the business grows. It makes a lot of sense.

You had a really good point, you said over the last year, you guys kinda made the switch. Initially, you had, quote, "The warm body type hires." 

Andrew Foxwell: The warm body variety. 

Austin Brawner: The warm body variety. And then you revamped your hiring process and found some more culture fits. What did that look like? How did you guys go from ... What was your hiring process before, and how did you revamp it to find people more fit for the business?

Meredith Erin: So I think, traditionally, we had just done what everyone does, which is, you know, run the typical boring ad that looks like everyone else's ad, bring in people to interview, hire the people that seem least defensive, and go from there. Which, I think, a lot of companies do.

And we didn't like our employees, and they weren't good fits for us, it was just a mess. And we just weren't hiring the right people, and it was making our lives terrible. And we did ask colleagues for advice on hiring, but their advice just wasn't resonating with us.

Matt Snow: Some of it was.

Meredith Erin: Some of it was, some of it wasn't. But I would say the two big game changers for us with hiring, and one of them was something that we did that everyone told us not to. There's an entire post on our blog about this, the job advertising process. I can give you guys the link so you can put it in your show notes if you want.

But I wrote this very nontraditional job ad that was definitely targeted to our kind of people and would turn off anybody that wasn't our kind of person. And when I shared it with some of our colleagues in the ecommerce industry, everyone was like, "Don't do that, that's a terrible idea, don't do that."

But I was so desperate, and I was like, "I'm just gonna try it. I have nothing to lose." And that worked really well for us.

Matt Snow: We saw Bill DAlessandro in New Orleans, like a couple of weeks ago, and she went up to him and said, "Hey, you know that ad that you told me not to run? I ran it, and I've had so much success with it." 

Meredith Erin: Yeah, so one thing was, we wrote a very non-traditional job description. It was nothing like any job description you've probably seen before. And then the other thing that we did, which was very against our nature, is we read "Traction," which is this book that's the darling of the ecommerce industry. And a lot of people have read it and recommended it, and we read it while rolling our eyes at most of it.

But the one useful thing for hiring that they had in there that we did take away is, "Write down your core values and emphasize them in your hiring process." And the book said, "Write them down separately, have your leadership team write them down separately and then compare notes." Matt and I did this and compared notes, and we made the exact same list.

So we just kind of tightened up the verbiage, made out list, and then during the interview process, every time somebody came in ... Oh, one other thing I forgot to mention about the hiring process. In the job ad, among the nontraditional copy, was a request to say, please send us your resume, your cover letter, and go to this link and fill out these questions. Just five yes or no questions that wouldn't have taken any real time to answer.

The goal was just to see, will this person follow directions? Most people didn't, and so we had hundreds of applicants. We only had like, 30 real applicants, because those are the people that did everything we said to do to apply. So that gave us a smaller pool, and then when people came in, one of us would talk about our core values, and the other person would observe. And what we were looking for is body language. We wanted to see if the person that was listening to us talk about our core values seemed excited about them, or turned off by them. And we only hired people that seemed really excited about them.

And I know that's like a hokey, corny, corporate thing to talk about, but it did work.

Matt Snow: Yeah, we could just tell during the interview process who was gonna be a real gamer. They sat up straighter, they got a twinkle in their eye, they were smiling and kind of nodding their head as we were getting deeper and deeper into our list of core values. And in addition to the core values, for each one, we were giving a real-world example of how we try to exemplify that in the day to day operations of the business.

And so people that responded in a positive way with their body language, they were immediately in the running. Those that kind of shrunk down and kind of just closed off their posture, we could tell they probably wouldn't be a good fit. We would still listen to their answers to our actual interview questions, but there was definitely a stark contrast between the viability of the candidates that seemed excited as they were listening to us go through the core values and those that seemed kind of indifferent or, you know ...

Meredith Erin: Put off by them.

Matt Snow: Put off by them.

Andrew Foxwell: Yeah, I think it's ... There's a ton to say there, you know. Corporate speak, you guys have a lot of synergistic qualities with the interviewing, and then the person observing body language. I love that a lot, and I'm glad that we got into talking about that because I think that hiring is just ... Austin has been talking about this a lot within the membership, and I know you guys clearly thought about it, really growing the team that way.

And it's so amazing how, last year, when we really started working together a little bit, earlier in the year, there was that discontent. I could feel it. And when we saw each other recently, it was more of a ... You just feel more at ease, and how much it can just take that off of your mind. So that's pretty cool to see.

I think going on the note that you felt personally. I think it's a good point that not a lot of podcasts get into, which is, what did you try in the last year that totally failed, and not talking enough about the failures. So, what were some of the things that you gave a shot to, because I think you both test a lot of different things, that didn't go anywhere, that really didn't do that well?

Matt Snow: I'll just real briefly talk about what I was testing on Facebook and Instagram that didn't work for me. Value optimization, when we first got access to it, it was probably July of 2018, and I immediately was excited about it, because who doesn't want to try and test direct response ads that are purportedly going to bring in a higher AOV?

So, I immediately started testing it, but I think that it was still a little too kinky. I was also still in that more guarded mindset, which I know you and I talked about at length, Andrew, over the course of our training sessions at the beginning of 2018, but where I was really hesitant to start testing a new ad at more than 20 bucks a day.

So I might've been scuttling the performance early on by not putting enough budget behind the value optimization tests that I was running. But then, once I had heard enough people saying that they'd had success with it, I decided, "All right, I'll go back to that," and late December, early January, I started messing with it again.

Still wasn't seeing the returns that I really wanted to, and then, when you and I spoke a couple of weeks ago, you said that a lot of people have moved to value optimization, so there's a little more clutter in the auction. So you recommended doing a wider net, with maybe a four percent lookalike for something higher up the funnel, and at a low spend. That's been okay for the last couple of weeks. I've just been running that, like, 20 bucks a day or something like that. So, it's spending enough money that when it does nab someone, it's usually someone that's gonna be placing an order for two, three, four pieces. So it's bringing the returns that we'd like to see.

But yeah, definitely value optimization hasn't worked for me on the cold prospecting side. And then I know that we had some issues with Pinterest. I'll let Meredith talk about that.

Meredith Erin: Yeah, we get the impression Pinterest should be a good platform for us, because it's very visual, and our product is very visual. We have not been able to get any value out of Pinterest, and it's not for lack of trying. We've read every ebook, taken every e-course, we've done everything we can think of to do to try and get Pinterest to be a viable channel for us, and it just isn't.

We fought really hard to make it work last year, and it only generated a few thousand dollars worth of sales. That was after spending a lot of time and effort trying to figure out how to make it buyable. Their Pay-Per-Click product just does not work. I think that we figured out that the CPA on that would have been like $110, which is crazy, we'd have to be selling a $1,000 product or something for that to make sense, or $500 products, so we've pretty much given up on Pinterest at this point.

I think it maybe provides some SEO benefits, and we add things there, maybe spend like, 15 minutes a week on it, but we're not just not putting any more time into it in the near future, because it's been so useless to us.

Andrew Foxwell: You could do ... You know, Austin and I could do a whole podcast on things that hypothetically should work, and don't. 

Meredith Erin: Yeah.

Andrew Foxwell: The idea of it is ... It seems like it's so valuable, but it's really challenging, and the amount of daily active users isn't very high there, and it's not very stable, and the product for advertising is really tough, and so I'm totally with you.

Matt Snow: Video, that was the other thing.

Meredith Erin: Video, we can't make work, either.

Matt Snow: I keep banging my head against that video wall and it just never seems to work, whether it's just adding a little bit of subtle movement to some static images with like an Animoto type thing, or doing an actual produced...

Meredith Erin: Commercial.

Matt Snow: Commercial.

Meredith Erin: Just doesn't bring value for us.

Matt Snow: Yeah, and I know that Andrew, you and I were talking about the collection format for Facebook. I did do one of those, and all the supporting metrics were there. It had really click-throughs and relatively low CPCs, but it just wasn't generating the conversions that we need, and that's ... For our product type, and for our business, we can't mess around with lead ads, or, you know, other optimizations. We need purchases.

So that's the other thing that I ... I haven't entirely given up on it, but like with Pinterest, it's not something that we're gonna devote a ton of time or budget to until we see some truly measurable results where we feel like it's scalable.

Meredith Erin: We also tested Reddit's Pay-Per-Click platform a couple of times last year, and that also just brings in really inexpensive traffic, but it does not convert, so I don't plan to spend money on their ads any time in the foreseeable future, based on my experiences with their Pay-Per-Click platform.

Matt Snow: Yeah, we did just, actually, for our podcast, interview Brian Swichkow. I don't know if you guys are familiar with him, but do you remember in 2014, there was this story that kind of went viral in the eCom marketing community about the guy that had hyper-targeted Facebook ads to just his roommate?

Austin Brawner: I remember that, yeah.

Matt Snow: It's that guy.

Meredith Erin: It's that same guy, but he's more of a Reddit marketer now, and we just interviewed him because he's using Reddit to drive traffic to his dating profile. So we interviewed him about that for a Valentine's Day episode.

Matt Snow: But yeah, he had some interesting ideas that he shared with us about using Reddit. But again, Reddit's one of those things that, I think, along with Pinterest, requires a little more time and effort to really grok it. And so I don't know that it necessarily is gonna pay immediate dividends, so we'll see if some of the stuff that he suggested works for us, but it's kinda a low priority right now for us.

Meredith Erin: Yeah.

Austin Brawner: Sure. Well, you know, when we first met, and this is a couple of years ago, you guys had just ... Correct me if I'm wrong, but you guys had recently made the mental shift to put a lot of your energy into building your Shopify store. Moving away from Etsy.

And you guys kind of started to focus on growing your repeat customer rate. Could you talk a little bit about what that journey has been like, what's been helpful, and where you guys are at now, and what it's done for the business to be focused on that side of the business, rather than the marketplace side?

Matt Snow: Sure. So, as I said, when we first started Boredwalk, we just threw some stuff up on Etsy, and that was the only sales channel that we had for 2014. And then, in 2015, January of 2015, Amazon reached out to us. And, you know, they say all the right things to get you onboarded, and then the dude vanishes.

But everything was fine. They still had the clothing category closed off to just U.S. and UK sellers, and I think maybe Canadian sellers, and then at the end of 2015, they decide to open it up to everyone. And, within a couple of months, our sales on Amazon, which had, at that point, just in that year, were like 40% of our gross order volume, were cut in half within two or three months. It was because our ASINs (Amazon Standard Identification Number) were getting hijacked, and that led us to eventually leave Amazon because we weren't getting the responsiveness that we wanted from them.

Even though we were a registered brand, we just decided, we can just continue banging our heads against this wall, playing the game of Whack A Mole to get people off our ASINs while, gradually, our volume just goes from 40% to 20% to 0%. And so, we left Amazon, limped into the holiday season of 2016, and 2017 is when you and I met, Austin, at the Email Intensive in San Diego.

And we had ... The thing that really jumped out at us, when we first listened to the little ... It was almost like a podcast episode that you and Drew Sanocki jointly did, where you were kind of pitching the Intensive. But you guys threw up some statistics about repeat customers, and customer retention, and how it's so much cheaper to keep existing customers happy and coming back than it is to just try and, you know, become an acquisition machine.

And so, it was early 2016 when we launched our Shopify store, but we didn't really do anything with it. We were still really focused on Amazon and Etsy. But 2017, which is when we attended the Email Intensive, we were like, "We're gonna start doing Facebook PPC, but before we do that, we need to get our email marketing kind of dialed in."

And, at the time, our repeat customer rate on our Shopify store was around three percent. And by the end of 2017, let's see. I've got the stats right here. Okay, yeah. So, in 2016, our repeat rate was three percent. In 2017, by the end of the year, it was at ten and a half percent. By the end of 2018, it's just under 12%. I'd really like us to be at 15% or above by the end of 2019.

As I said, it's cheaper to get those customers to come back and buy from us again and again, but also, we're really focusing on expanding the brand, and really trying to develop more of a sense of community between us and our customers. Because like I said earlier, there are a lot of introverted, snarky, misanthropes out there, but we have to use the internet to kind of find one another.

So, that's kind of what also led us to start our own podcast in August of last year. But yeah, we're really focused on customer retention and just creating, as Meredith calls it, a "cult."

Andrew Foxwell: I think there's a lot of discussions right now, I think, in the industry, specifically about repeat customer, increasing lifetime value, et cetera. I think you do a lot with customer service, that's a very big part of what you're known for. I guess a couple of questions as it relates to kind of bringing in and taking care of your best customers, how do you tactically take care of those best customers? And the second question, which is related potentially, what do you have operationally in place that you feel is unique, from a customer service standpoint, to continue that loyalty, to get that number up of the repeat customer rate?

Matt Snow: So, I guess to dive in, I guess our overall philosophy with regards to customer service, first we want to be extremely responsive across all of our customer service channels. If a customer service email comes in during business hours, we respond to it in the same day. We strive to answer those within a couple of hours. If one comes in after hours, and it's not an emergency kind of situation, we'll answer it first thing the following business day.

If someone contacts us by social media, I try to reply immediately. It drives me nuts if we lose the fast response badge on our Facebook page. So like right now, we have a 97% response rate with a one minute response time on our Facebook page, which is where a lot of our non-email customer service stuff comes in through. I try to bring that same level of responsiveness to Twitter and Instagram comments and DMs, as well.

We're also really focused on managing expectations. Everyone here, whether it's me or Meredith, or the rest of the team, have had bad experiences in previous jobs with coworkers or bosses who made it a common practice to overpromise and under-deliver. We do the opposite. We just think that everyone involved wins when you approach customer service from that more reasonably achievable and more human position.

I know that for the last few years, the average consumer has been very conditioned to expect free two-day shipping, but the reality is that even Amazon doesn't always follow through with that. And we would rather make it a reasonable promise to adhere to our average highest turnaround window, and ship stuff as quickly as possible, without promising the sun, the moon and the stars, and then having someone get really disappointed and then decide that they're never gonna come and shop with us again.

On the flip side of that, we also don't negotiate with terrorists. Think I can speak for pretty much everyone in ecommerce when I say that we've all had our fair share of jerk customers, who either have unreasonable expectations, or demands, or who seem to go through life actively looking for things to complain about. We make no bones about the facts that we'd rather not have those customers when those types of people threaten to quote, "Tell everyone that they know how terrible we are."

Our response is, "Good! Please do. Better yet, we'll tell everyone we know, all 60,000 of them, about your awful attitude and behavior and why we would rather not reward bad manners and behavior from people like you." Because it just makes living in our world that much more miserable for everyone if we all continue condoning that kind of attitude.

We don't name names, but we are confident that the overwhelming majority of our fans and our customers have a similar view of the world, and that bad actors are making in it more difficult for the rest of us. And we're happy to add those people to our suppression list, or ban them from our Facebook page, or block them on our Instagram account. Life is too short to bend over backward for those people and I sure as heck am not willing to pay for impressions or emails to be sent to those folks.

Austin Brawner: Yeah.

Matt Snow: I got into working for myself to be my own boss, not to kowtow to jerks.

Meredith Erin: Yeah, I think the funny thing ... And that's another one where Matt and I are contrarians with a lot of people in the industry. A lot of people that we talk to have the same mentality of Amazon, which is like, "Just give them whatever they want, just say yes to everything. Just let them have their way no matter how unreasonable or terrible they're being. Just placate them, because what if they tell someone that you didn't give them your way?"

And Matt and I are like the opposite of that. Matt and I are like, "Please! Let them tell someone we didn't give them their way." Because the story that I kind of talk about in the office that came out a couple of years ago ... I can just say the word "Christmas tree" and everyone knows what I mean now.

A few years ago there was this story about somebody who marched into Costco with a dead Christmas tree in January and demanded that Costco refund them for this dead tree.

Andrew Foxwell: Obviously.

Meredith Erin: And Costco did.

Andrew Foxwell: Oh yeah.

Meredith Erin: Yeah! And Costco gave them the money back. And the reason the story got out is because the person in line behind them was livid that Costco gave them the money back. And my customer is the person in line behind the Christmas tree person, not the Christmas tree person.

And I think that my customers, if they saw us saying no to giving somebody a refund on their dead Christmas tree, would be like, "Hell yeah, don't give them a refund." So I'm not concerned that not bending over backward for every inappropriate, abusive person is going to hurt our business. 

Austin Brawner: Is that something that's changed with your viewpoint over the past couple years, or was that your approach right at the beginning?

Meredith Erin: I've always been this way. I think it's just our nature. We don't like to see bad behavior rewarded. I just think that's how we are, and I think a lot of people are that way. It's frustrating for us to see bad behavior being rewarded, even if it doesn't directly and immediately impact us, and so we don't wanna be part of the problem by rewarding that behavior.

Matt Snow: Yeah, I'm a people pleaser and a rule follower to a fault. Sometimes, to Meredith's chagrin, she wishes I would be a little more assertive a lot of the time, and I'm improving in that regard. But yeah, when we see people breaking the rules or disregarding the social contract, it drives both of us batty, so we don't brook that kind of behavior from the customers that we deal with.

Sometimes, we will decide, how much will it cost monetarily to make this person go away so we never have to deal with them again? And so, we'll take everything on a case by case basis, and sometimes we'll stand firm. Sometimes it's just like, "All right, here is a coupon code, that's like a really deep discount. Here you go." But we know full well that they probably won't use it, because they themselves are really dug in, and they would rather not use a 30% discount code or something like that.

Austin Brawner: Sure. Bring it back to the Goodfellas.

How much it would cost to make them go away?

Andrew Foxwell: You're not part of the family.

Matt Snow: So, you also asked about operational stuff with regard to customer service. It starts with being aggressively informative. As I said, we tend toward introversion ourselves, and that extends to the rest of our team as well. That's something we put in our job ad that kinda got them in the door, was, "This is great if you like to listen to podcast or tunes and are not super into small talk."

So, we try to provide a ton of information on the product pages and other parts of the site to limit the need for customers to contact us in the first place. We've also built out our customer service SOP, to be as comprehensive as possible, and we also try to empower the customer service team to add to or tweak it, as previously undocumented edge cases kind of crop up.

We have two size charts on every product page, we have a visual one in the image gallery, as well as a text version in the product description.

Meredith Erin: It's the same information, it's just in two places so it's harder to miss.

Matt Snow: Yeah, as well as a dedicated sizing and fit page. You know, really kind of probably overly detailed FAQ page, a detailed return and exchange page, comprehensive order confirmation and shipping notification emails, all that stuff.

All in the service of trying not to talk to people! But again, as I said, over the years, we've kind of found that a lot of our customers are similar to us, and we think that they don't wanna talk to us, either. They'll engage with us through email, or online, but as far as customer service stuff, I think that they would prefer to just kind of just figuring stuff out on their own before having it create a problem.

Meredith Erin: And we use Help Scout as our help desk software, so that it's easy just for everybody that handles help desk-related things, which is, mostly two of our employees handle the customer service communications, they can log in to Help Scout and assign each other tickets, and keep track of conversations that way. It just makes it a little easier and more streamlined.

Austin Brawner: I think that's a great point. Even if people really do ... Even if it's not necessarily that they're introverted, and they don't wanna talk to somebody, just the fact that you guys are optimizing on your site so that people don't have to reach out and talk to you, makes it better ... Makes it easier to place an order without having to ask questions.

I work with a company called Scan Mailboxes. They're based in Austin, and they have virtual mailboxes. And they've got some of the most incredible systems I've ever seen because it's an entire company staffed by deaf people. So you can't call anybody.

But the way that they built their entire business is set up in a way where you can get everything that you need to be done. You can fill out a type form with your request, goes to somebody, they can get back to you. You can schedule everything online. It's really, really incredible.

And they have turned a, what some people might think, a competitive disadvantage of being staffed entirely by people that are hearing impaired, to an incredible advantage, because their systems are so good that you can actually go through the entire process and take care of everything you need to take care of without ever having to call in and make any sort of change on the phone. So I think it's a good practice to do that and optimize for a lot of people to be able to take care of themselves.

Matt Snow: Humans don't necessarily ... There's always gonna be people that I think are inclined to be squeaky wheels. But I think, by and large, most people don't want to come across as a nuisance or problematic, so we try and empower them to feel like they don't have to be.

As far as how we tactically take care of our customers, especially our whales, our good customers, again, we try to be very responsive, and friendly with them. We'll usually include some additional freebies in orders that they place because we have this handful ... It's a couple of dozen now, where we ... They order from us on the regular, once every 20 or 30 days. So we'll throw some extra stickers in their packet. Or I'll hand write a personal note on their packet slip, thanking them for their continued support.

I'll name check them in our campaign emails. In our podcast episode, we usually open up every episode sharing a customer review, and that helps kind of further strengthen that bond with our audience. We also have a VIP segment in Klaviyo, where once they get dunked into that segment, they get an email thanking them for their support. It has a discount code, and then also a survey that they can fill out, just because we do wanna try and crowdsource some info from them about how we can improve things for them.

And then we also will usually do Early Bird deeper discount emails for them in the lead up to Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Andrew Foxwell: I love it. I love it. I think as we wrap things up here, one thing that very much stuck with me that I've been kind of meditating on, that we chatted about, is the mental capacity that it takes to have an ecommerce store, right? And people asking you, "How did you do it?" And you're like, "How much time do you have?"

I guess, what do you feel that you wanna put out there into this community that never really gets discussed when you have an ecommerce store? Both around mental capacity and mental health. I'm curious about your opinion on that.

Meredith Erin: Well, yeah, we get a lot of these messages like, "Oh, it's cool what you guys have going on. I wanna do this as a side hustle so I can have more money and free time. How do I do that?" And it's hard not to laugh at communication like that, because it just doesn't make sense on any level. Even if wanted to condense years of professional experience into an email, we couldn't.

This job's really hard, and really time-consuming, and really demanding. And, realistically, you probably do need some startup capital. It's not really a side hustle, and it takes a long time to make a really profitable business. I think people that are looking for a side hustle, they should probably just drive for Lyft, or get a bartending job or something like that. This isn't what that -

Austin Brawner: Right, right.

Meredith Erin: This is what ecommerce is. Nothing like that. I think if most people understood what the job is really like, they probably wouldn't want it. I think most people think that product is the job, and the product is so little to do with the job. It's almost beside the point, and it's really hard if you're a creative person, because it's such a tiny aspect of what is otherwise a really technical, left-brained job that's probably not attractive to creative people.

Matt Snow: Yeah, I spend maybe five percent of my year, maybe ten percent, doing actual fun design work. 

Meredith Erin: Yeah. I think that the people that can be successful in this kind of work are ... First of all, I think you have to have an obsessive nature. You have to be a calculated risk taker. You have to be resourceful, industrious. You have to have a really strong aptitude for complex, disparate things, especially technical things. You have to be really driven. You have to be good at figuring things out on your own, and problem-solving. You have to be really independent. You have to be the kind of person that really can't stand working for other people and following other people's rules.

I know most people don't like working for other people, but you would have to really hate it, and you have to have a lot of those personal qualities that I just mentioned, in large doses, to make this career work for you. Because it's really hard, and really demanding, and really technical, and really complicated. Things that somebody could spend a whole career on, pick any one thing. IP law, or operations, or logistics. We have hundreds of those things Matt and I have to be experts on.

So I don't think it's a career for most people. And then on top of that, you just have this stress of trolls that are on your social media profiles. Paying your own bills. When you have employees, making sure that you're bringing in enough to make payroll every two weeks.

So there's a lot of stressors and a lot of complicated factors.

Andrew Foxwell: Yeah, I mean, it's pretty easy for me to make an extra couple million a month, draft shipping from Alibaba, it's not that hard. Okay? And I learned how to do it from Austin.

Meredith Erin: Yeah, that's a whole thing. The whole cottage industry of "Get Rich Quick" schemes and courses and eBooks. And it drives us crazy, because it's just snake oil and selling people false hope, and it's sleezing people out of their money. They have no hope of being successful.

Matt Snow: And it's bad for us, too. Just because then you've got all of these noobs that are just junking up the ad auction with literal ads that just have broken images, that don't go anywhere. We saw one in our feed the other day where you click on it, and it just goes to "Coming soon!"  It's just like, "Why are you advertising this?"

Yeah, it'll go to a coming soon page, and there's not even an email sign up. That would be the only reason to run that ad, and the one thing that they should be doing, they're not doing. So it's not good for the people that are already actively trying to make this their job.

And then, as far as mental health, it's not talked about enough, I think, in ecommerce spheres. I think that that's been changing over the last year, which is good, I think more people are talking about the failures and not just the wins. We were just at ecommerceFuel Live a couple of weeks ago, and one of the speakers was Sherry Walling from zenfounder.com. She's a Ph.D., this is her focus, is mental health and entrepreneurs.

She did one of the keynotes, and she said that the incidents of mental illness in the entrepreneurial world is much higher than it is in the general population. And that did not surprise Meredith or me in the least. I think you probably do have to be a little bit off to thrive in this lifestyle. When I say lifestyle, that is what it is. As Meredith said, we wouldn't recommend it to most people.

You know, we don't regret our choices, but we're very aware, now, of how difficult and demanding it is if you're not obsessive, if you're not a bit of a perfectionist, if you're not a bit of a workaholic. At least when you're starting out, you probably are gonna have a difficult time thriving in it. It's difficult.

I think that ... Yeah, it's tough, but if you can stick with it, and you can constantly be working towards both self-improvement, and concurrently, incrementally improving your business, you can eventually get out of that. But I know, Austin, you were recently talking to ... I'm blanking on his name. But the guy that was talking about the hustle porn, and the whole Gary V flap.

We're sick of that stuff too. We see it all the time, and it's just like ... I think we used to buy into it a lot more. Looking back, I think we talked too much to our friends about the long hours we were putting in, as though it was some kind of badge of honor. And now, I look back, and it's just like, "No, we were just working harder, not smarter."

Meredith Erin: I think that's unavoidable, to some extent, when you're starting out. Because the amount of information that you have to absorb in a short amount of time is pretty overwhelming, and there's no other way to do it than just putting in the time.

Matt Snow: Sure, but if you stick with that, and don't try to really, you know ...

Meredith Erin: Yeah, eventually the time makes you better at working smarter.

Austin Brawner: Matt and Meredith, from 2015, when you guys were just getting started, and Matt and Meredith in 2019?

Meredith Erin: We know a lot more about all of the nuts and bolts of ecommerce marketing, operations, manufacturing, hiring. A lot of people in ecommerce, I think they come in with more of a marketing background, and just find a product that they figure out that they can sell, and we came into it having a product that we believed in, and not being marketers. And we've had to become marketers over the last few years.

And I think that that is probably the biggest thing that's changed, is that we've learned all of these technical pieces to what we do, and basically all the nuts and bolts that you would need to do to be a successful creative person.

One of the funny things about the internet trolls we deal with, Matt and I deal with so many internet trolls, we get lots of nasty comments on our Instagram and Facebook, and almost every time I click on this person's profile, that's leaving a nasty comment, they're a self-described, quote-unquote, "artist." And so it's like a little bit of this mentality that creative careers are the scarce thing, and if we have one, and they don't, that we're taking it away from them, because there are a finite number of pieces of the pie, and we took their piece, and that's really what they're mad about, even if they're not self-aware that that's what they're mad about. I think that's what they're actually mad about.

And the real reason I think a lot of these creative people don't have our career is because they weren't ... And not that our career is the most successful ever, but the reason that we are where we are is because we were willing to put in the work, to learn operations, manufacturing. The legal stuff. The hiring stuff. The marketing stuff. All of the technical, boring stuff that doesn't appeal to creative people.

We did it because we didn't wanna go back to working for other people. but I think that's the biggest change for us. And I think that's a big piece that a lot of creative people miss when they're upset that their creative career isn't running a seven-figure business, isn't being self-employed, isn't you know, whatever else that they think it should be, but it's not.

Andrew Foxwell: Well, I really appreciate you being transparent and honest, and open, and going through a lot of this stuff. I think people are gonna find this episode incredibly helpful. So I'm just gonna say thank you, thank you for joining us and for your time, and we'll look forward to sharing the connection to your show and all the resources you mentioned in the show notes.

So thank you very much for joining us.

Matt Snow: Of course, we're happy to help out.

Meredith Erin: Thanks, guys.

Matt Snow: Thanks, guys.

 

Austin Brawner: What's up everybody? Welcome to another episode of the ecommerce Influence Podcast. My name's Austin Brawner.

Andrew Foxwell: And I'm Andrew Foxwell. You know, it is really a pleasure, all of these interesting, fascinating people that we meet because of this podcast. Am I right on this?

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