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161: How to Build a Sustainable Business: The Muir Way Story

Posted by Austin Brawner on September 4, 2018

Today’s guest has a really cool business. He creates beautiful custom designed maps of National Parks, Mountain Ranges and Hydrology of states. And if you’ve ever been in an REI, you’ve probably seen his work featured in all their stores.

In today’s conversation, we were able to catch up with Jared Prince and learn how his business has changed over the last year.

We brought him on to talk about the sustainable growth he’s built into his business and how he’s done it. He shares feedback from 6 months after attending both Intensives Andrew and I hosted in February. He shares what’s been going well, and how he thinks about growing his business after 5 years.


Episode Highlights

  • 9:40 What happens when the PR “buzz” wears off and how to turn it around.
  • 13:33 How building an email list and properly segmenting it has helped grow business for Muir Way.
  • 14:42 The one thing Jared says Facebook and Instagram ads are great at generating for business.
  • 16:10 Launching a new product? Here’s how Muir Way just made a big splash with their new release.
  • 18:22 How Jared’s role has changed within Muir Way as the business continues to grow.
  • 20:28 How offering a chance to win the “right” prize for subscribing to an email list has improved Muir Way’s subscriber quality vs. offering a discount for signing up.
  • 23:51 The two ecommerce remarking strategies Muir Way has not implemented and why they weren’t a fit for the brand.
  • 25:56 How A/B testing one small copy change led to a 5x difference in ad performance.
  • 28:02 The one thing ecommerce brands should be talking more about when scaling their businesses.

Links and Resources

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Austin: We had a lot of fun with the intro but we wanted to transition and kind of kick off an episode that we are really excited about because we are doing kind of a catch up with a friend who came to both of our intensives in February. He's got a really cool business and we wanted to bring him on to talk about the sustainable growth that he has built into his business and how he did it.

Andrew: Yeah, it's really cool to hear his feedback six months out after the intensive, what's been going well, how has he been going about it. Really, without further ado, let's welcome Jared Prince to the show.

Jared: Hey, how you doing?

Andrew: We're doing good, we're doing good. Austin, you doing good over there, buddy?

Austin: I'm doing great, excited to chat. Excited to have you back, it's been a little while since we chatted. I think you were out in Austin for almost a whole week. We got to know you quite a bit there but it's exciting to have you back to chat a little bit, to ask the questions that we want to ask everybody who comes. It's just nice to be able to sit down and ask some deeper questions. We're excited.

Andrew: Yeah, definitely. Definitely. Can you give us, we gave our guest a little bit of background on you, Jared but can you give us a little bit of background on you and just how you started the business a little bit? Take a couple minutes on that and then also tell us about Muir Way and what that is.

Jared: Of course, yeah. Thanks for having me. I started the business almost five years ago at this point. I actually started another e-commerce business before that, it was an online gallery. I learned a lot from it, but one of the things I learned most was about margins because you have to leave room for marketing, which you guys talk a lot about. With Muir Way, I decided that I needed to create products that had not just more margin but were scalable and repeatable in a larger sense. About five years ago when I had the idea of creating Muir Way, it was mostly national park maps, or it was only national park maps. I did about 20 of them, I created them myself, I did them in cool color palettes that I thought people would resonate with, could identify their favorite national parks with because I can. I love the outdoors and I go to a lot of national parks, I spend a lot of time outside. I created those maps for people that were like me, that were kind of young professionals. I'm a little bit older now. That would look good in their apartments because a lot of the stuff was just kind of vintage-y, which I like as well but it was stuff that you saw everywhere else and I wanted to create something unique. I created those maps and I just wrote a lot of websites, and they took off.

The websites wrote about them, people liked them, they started buying them, it was great, everything was easy because I was getting great PR. It happened during the holidays, which was obviously gift-giving season. After that, obviously January, February, March came along and things slowed down quite a bit. All of a sudden, my products weren't on the front pages of websites anymore and people weren't buying gifts. Then it got difficult to actually sell. You had to come up with creative ways to get the products out there and to really create a brand. That's what I've been concentrating on ever since is creating Muir Way as the brand as opposed to just selling products.

In the last five years I've really increased the amount of maps on there, the mix of maps, now we have all the national parks, do ski mountains, do mountain ranges, do our hydrology maps. They got noticed by REI and REI started buying them and putting them up on their walls and that's really helped as well. Then after that is when I really started concentrating on Facebook, Instagram, and email marketing around this time last year. Then I came to you guys intensive in, what was that, February. Have really increased the budget on the marketing side of Facebook, Instagram and just really honed in my skills for email marketing as well since then.

Andrew: Sure, sure.

Austin: Tell us about how it felt. When you got all that press initially, the business kind of took off. How did you feel after the moment that all went away? What did you do?

Jared: Yeah. It was a little scary once sales start slowing down. I knew it was going to happen, I understood it was the holiday season, people buy during the holiday season and my maps were on quite a few websites, a whole bunch of websites. I mean, I woke up one morning ... I launched the website, you get like five visitors and then a week later all of a sudden I have five thousand visitors on the website. Things are great, you know when you have free PR, it's easy to run a business. Once that goes away, it's difficult. From there, once that started really trickling down, I really didn't put a lot of money into advertising quite yet. I kind of started investing my time in creating more maps, building out the line because when I originally started it I only had the 20 maps and during the course of the season I made some more.

I knew that people wanted their national park, not just the most popular ones. I spent a lot of time creating more national parks and then I also focused on, what's the next product, what's the next map I could create that will get some press. At that point, that's what I knew. I knew how to get press. I didn't really know how to pay for advertising. If I did, it might've been a little bit easier. Actually, I did experiment a little bit with Facebook, it didn't work for me right away and I just kind of quit, which I think a lot of people do.

Andrew: Yeah.

Jared: I think it was because I was targeting wrong.

Andrew: Sure.

Jared: I wasn't creating good ads. At first, yeah I was just building out the line and trying to get more PR. I would continually write more and more websites and I would get press, I would get people to post about it, and people would come to the website. That's really how I drove business for a long time was to continually do my own PR and create maps that I thought people would like, especially for websites, particular websites. I would really focus on things that I thought they would be interested in sharing.

Andrew: Right. Yeah.

Jared: That only goes for so long and you can't really scale PR.

Andrew: Right. I think when we met you, we talked about that as well, in going through it and getting kind of ready for the intensive. I think one thing that obviously, and one of the reasons why Austin and I work well together is we want to be able to help everybody build a sustainable business. Right? Hopefully, you got that coming to the intensive. That's what I think you've done with obviously, the product mix, and coming out with some of that, and coming out with new lines and things like that. In terms of that sustainability question of not necessarily all focused on the holidays, and putting all the eggs in that basket, and growing sustainably, tell us how you think about that now in 2018 versus a couple years ago when you were kind of just getting with the PR and you realize ... I mean, I know that part of its email, part of it's Facebook maybe, and Instagram but how are you thinking about building a sustainable business now versus how you thought about it last year even?

Jared: Yeah, as opposed to last year now I look at it on a broader level where there's many pieces that have to go into it. Email marketing is the best way for me to promote new lines because you have interested people. I mean, I think Austin said one time if people are signing up on your email list they're obviously making a commitment that they like your product to some extent. Whether they're going to buy or not, that's different. They at least want to see more of it in the future. Creating the email list and consistently broadcasting to them is great, which I try to do, and I try to really hone it in. Once again, I learned from the intensive that you don't want to just blast it to everybody, you really want to get your more engaged email subscribers on a list so that your open rates are better and that they go to their inbox better as opposed to their junk mail. That way when I do have a launch, they're going to the right people and there's some excitement, which is great.

Then Facebook I think, and Instagram, I think the greatest part about it is it brings consistency to your business. Day in and day out, you're broadcasting your ads to a ton of people that are targeted and you're going to have visitors to your website and you're going to have sales as long as you're targeting the correct people. You may not be able to run your business off of Facebook ads, I'm sure some businesses can.

Andrew: Sure.

Jared: It does definitely bring consistency in sales and therefore you're able to take that money and use it for other marketing activities as well, like SEO, like Pinterest, like email. You can really ... One of the funnels with Facebook is you bring all those people to your website, if they don't buy, they don't buy but a lot of them will go onto your email list and then you can rebroadcast to them later.

Andrew: Right.

Jared: Re-target them with your emails later. Then down the line at some point, hopefully they buy something whether it's a week from now, a month from now, or during the holidays at least they've seen your products and have started to get used to your brand. They're more familiar with you. I kind of take a look at it that way, Facebook drives consistency, drives people to the email list, and drives remarketing.

Austin: You just launched your, I know I think we were just talking before the call that you had launched something today, right? A big new product line. What did your product launch look like? What were you doing on the email side to promote that and how has it worked?

Jared: Yeah. Several weeks ago we started promoting teasers of it on Instagram, some posts about it. We never really teased it on email because I've tested out teasers on emails and sometimes it will drive a lot of the traffic, that teaser, and then if the products not on the website I don't think it's beneficial. I did not do a pre-email for it but we did do a lot on Instagram, some on Facebook as well. Then this morning we sent out a blast to our engaged subscribers that drove them to the website, and Instagram post, and Instagram story. There's been a great response to it. I have for ... If we have a limited edition release, maybe I will do a email a few days before, or a night before telling people that there will be a release of limited edition prints. Therefore, they can get ready for it because a lot of times they'll sell out. You don't want to leave out the people that didn't see the email come in at 9 a.m. in the morning that haven't checked it until 12, and then all of a sudden, they get locked out of the sale because everything's already been sold out. You give them some preview to it and then they can set some time aside if they want.

Austin: One of my questions for you is, after, so you came in February, we spent about a week together working. Obviously, the business has changed quite a bit since the last year. How has your role changed and how has your role within the business changed as you've continued to develop these other marketing channels from some of the things you've learned over those couple days?

Jared: Sure. Well first of all, one of the great things is I went from having a part-time employee to having a full-time employee doing all the fulfillments. Now I don't have to do any fulfillment and I can use all of my time towards marketing, creating of new maps. I still personally handle all the customer service for the most part, my wife does take on some of that. She's going to take on all of it in the future but because of my knowledge of the products a lot of times it's easier for me just to handle. Now I really get to use more of my time thinking about what products to release, the emails, we're sending out emails more consistently now, abandoned cart emails. I learned in your intensive, the funnels for abandoned cart emails for browse abandonment. It's not just one email, you send several of them.

I don't like discounts that much but sometimes they are worth it. It's one of the things I changed while I was in the Intensive, was going from driving a lot of sales with discounts to pretty much going clean of discounts except for a little bit here and there. That way I can save them for bigger periods of time like the holidays, or Father's Day, or something like that. They make more of an impact if you're not always offering discounts.

That was another change I made during the Intensive was going from a popup for the email newsletter, which was a discount too ... I kind of got the idea when I was there because you were saying get creative with it. As opposed to doing a discount, get on an email newsletter like most companies do. Now I'm offering a chance to win a national park pass, an annual national park pass, which for my customers is a valuable prize to win. It's another actual way to refine your list because if they like those national parks then they're probably going to be interested in the maps, if they don't like national parks then there's a good chance they're not as enticed by our maps.

Yeah, a lot of good tidbits from your course. Yeah, honing in all that stuff because I have more time, because I have a full-time employee, I'm not doing all the fulfillment. I get to do a lot more with the funnels. The funnels, I think a lot of people see the funnels as almost ladders of discount whereas I see them as more ways to connect with the customer. Most of my emails are signed by me so they're more of a personal email, I try to make them more of a personal email than a company generic email. That's one of the things I've been concentrating on.

I really like the thought of excellent customer service of people trusting Muir Way knowing that if they buy from Muir Way, they're going to get a great product, they're going to be excited for whatever is coming to them. We use the highest quality papers and inks, and everything but it goes more than just quality of materials, you have to give them or connect with them the way that you can with the voice that you can whether it's on Instagram, whether it's on emails. They really want to know who you are, and trust who you are, and like who you are. I try to give them my true self.

Andrew: Yeah, right.

Jared: When I write these emails.

Andrew: That's one of the reasons that they're clearly buying from you too, is that connection. I don't think a lot of people do, a lot of e-commerce business owners, do a great job at that. If you have a big enough brand that represents that you want to talk as the brand or speak as the brand, I think that's fine. A lot of people are talking specifically that hey, it's me, it's Jared and this is my dedication to you is that it's going to be a good product, et cetera, which I think is more personal and makes it feel the way that you want that transaction to take place. One thing that I'm curious about of your opinion, talking a lot about the intensive, which is good and we're kind of doing a, I guess mid-year check-in to some degree, is what are some pieces of advice, and one or two would be great, either Facebook or email that Austin and I gave that maybe didn't work out. I think that would be interesting for people to hear because Austin and I, we try to give as much advice as possible and I think for some people some things work out, and others they don't. I'd be curious of your take if there's been pieces that haven't worked out as well.

Jared: Well, fortunately, most things worked out that I chose to implement. I did not choose to implement everything. I didn't choose to implement the win back email. I didn't choose to implement the discount ladder and just because that's just not my type of business. I'm not trying to ... I know upselling is excellent but there also, it's different because mine are prints, they're slightly more expensive, they're not as ... I don't think they're quite as upsale-able. I'm not sure the word I'm looking for here.

Andrew: Sure, sure.

Austin: Sure, that makes sense. Yeah. Your product line doesn't lend itself as well.

Jared: Yeah. To just add on another print. You know, you've already looked through the prints, you've already looked through the maps. You're not going to just be like, "Oh you know what?" "I will get another one, might as well." Hey, it's possible but I'd rather people just get what they chose, receive the print, love the print, think that they got a quality item for what they ordered, for what they paid, and then come back. Think that, you know what I want to come back and get more at a later date whether it's right away, which some people do, or whether it's down the road for gifts for other people, or holidays, or Father's Day, whatever it may be. I want them to be really happy with it and never feel that like, I shouldn't have done this. I probably shouldn't have bought that extra one, or whatnot. Those are just the personal decisions for my brand.

As far as Facebook, to be honest with you, everything has mostly worked out. I mean, some things work better than others of course but you just have to experiment with Facebook. That's the biggest thing that I learned from you guys is that number one, it works. Sometimes when you're starting out with this you're not sure if it works because well, when you first start off it rarely does work right away, and then you have to experiment, experiment, experiment. I definitely started doing AB testing after your intensive and it was shocking. I did the same ad for a particular print, it was the same creative, same content, everything except for one line was added to the top of the ad. The ad that didn't have that line did five times as well.

Austin: Wow.

Jared: I couldn't understand it, but it worked.

Austin: Sure.

Jared: By doing that AB testing, and before your Intensive I never did A/B testing. I just, you know not to that degree. I would try one ad versus another ad but not the same ad with just a tweak to it. Yeah, doing the AB testing was big.

Andrew: Yeah, it's crazy. I don't know, AB testing and email, or Facebook, or Instagram it always is surprising. I like it because it always proves something that I totally don't think is going to be the case. That's good to hear that generally things have worked out for you. I think that's really, really positive. I'm definitely glad to hear that.

Austin: No, it's exciting. I would love to hear as you've gone through this journey you've obviously learned a ton from starting your first business, to shutting that down, coming up with a new project, having a lot of initial PR success, to then now turning into a scalable business that you're growing. What advice do you not hear as a founder of an e-commerce brand that you think people should be talking about?

Jared: To me it's customer service. Everybody talks about how you can use one method over another method to market but when it comes down to it, if you're building a brand ... I mean, it's one thing if you're just selling products, generic products whether it be an iPhone cord, or case, or something like that but if you're creating unique original products, customer service is, I think, extremely important. People want to know that they're working or purchasing something from a quality company. When you give that great customer service, you get great reviews. I've got almost a thousand reviews on the website now, which definitely worked hard for but those reviews definitely help with conversions. People can read them and you can just go through page after page of them and everybody is extremely happy with the product and happy with the customer service. I really think that a lot of those reviews are because people were happy with the way they were treated by us. They got a good quality product but they were also happy with the way we connected with them. I think customer service is a big thing that people don't really talk enough about.

Austin: Sure. I totally agree with that and I even will sometimes like to expand it a little bit more to say customer experience, right. Sometimes people think customer service is just the equivalent of customer service rep responding quickly on email but it's so much more than that. It's the experience they have during unboxing, it's the follow up that they have in an email that maybe checks in on their purchase, especially if you're talking about the personalized touch that you have. Is there anything that you do that you're really proud of that enhances the customer experience that somebody who purchases from Muir Way gets?

Jared: I'm very proud of not just the design of the product but the quality of the paper we use, of the inks, people notice. We don't have to use that expensive of paper, the really thick archival paper. You see these other companies selling wall art and they use cheaper products and then the people buy from us and they're always excited when they open it and they experience the feel, the texture of the paper. It's packaged well, we use glassine instead of a cheaper tissue paper to wrap it in. We seal it with stickers, we give the customers free stickers with John Muir quotes on them for their ... Whether it goes on their Nalgene or their Apple computer, or whatever it is. We say thank you because we are truly thankful for every single sale we make. I try to not overwhelm them with too much marketing, I try to just do enough to get them to understand what our company is about without overwhelming them. I mean, all of that is really what I'm proud of and I feel kind of sets us apart, I think from others.

Andrew: Yeah, I think that's true. I mean, I'm a customer actually before I met you, as we've discussed. I was really impressed, it wasn't just the product alone, it was the presentation was really fantastic and it made it feel really special. Actually, the print that I have hangs over my desk so I look at it every single day. It's a map of Kauai, in case anyone's wondering. There you go.

Jared: Well, I look at the picture of you over my desk every day, so there we go.

Andrew: Yeah, little-known fact. I gave everybody a signed 8x10 at the intensive. Just something that people ask for so I figured I'd just provide it, Austin and I both do that. Totally joking.

Jared: Give the people what they want.

Andrew: Yeah, exactly. I mean, you know just a couple of glossy's, not a super big deal. Once you complete the intensive, you get the plaque. Just kidding.

Jared: Yeah.

Andrew: I think that's totally true, I think you really have set yourself apart. One thing I'm curious about and I know a lot of people are starting to think about is into the rest of '18, 2018 and going into '19, what types of things are you thinking about. I think customer service experience is a really big part of that. I think from a marketing standpoint, Instagram is another really big part of that. What are you thinking about now that you have more time to think about this in terms of moving through the rest of '18 into 2019 for your business to continue that sustainable longterm profitability that you have?

Jared: Yeah, I mean there's several things. One is Pinterest, starting to dedicate some budget towards Pinterest. It's a hard nut to crack, building a page that has your products at the right dimensions and actually getting people to pin them and share them. I'm outsourcing that, but the lady I use is doing a great job with that. Definitely investing in Pinterest because as we all know, Facebook and Instagram are getting more expensive. Also, investing more in SEO. I've always wanted to, I've always known the importance of SEO but now I actually have some budget to dedicate towards it. SEO is more of longterm play. Whether it has any effect on 2018, I don't know but I imagine 2019 and beyond it will definitely help out considerably.

Also, international. I'll give you guys credit again. You guys talked about how much cheaper international ads were on Facebook and Instagram, they truly are. I've been experimenting with Canada and the response has been great, conversions have been really good for how much I'm spending. The difficulty is in shipping, customs sometimes charges quite pretty penny to get your products over the border. It's more difficult as far as resolving issues with maybe damaged prints, or just the price of getting the prints over there. It's been worth it so far. There's a lot of little technical factors that go into shipping internationally but it seems to be working pretty well. I'm going to start doing it, I think try to do it towards Mexico and South America, and then hopefully Europe as well probably in 2019. You can really just get a lot more bang for your buck with ads in those places, it seems like.

Austin: That's awesome. That's exciting.

Andrew:  Yeah, I'm glad to hear that.

Austin: Yeah. Are you going to be designing maps and everything for other countries or is it mostly just selling U.S., North America based maps in those other places?

Jared: No. Going to be designing maps for those other countries as well.

Austin: Cool.

Jared: It would be nice just to sell the current ones to ex patriots over there. I think for it to really work I'll need to create maps for those other countries so a larger group of people can actually identify with it and want them.

Austin: For sure.

Andrew: Yeah, definitely.

Austin: Jared, this has been awesome. Really love catching up and learning what you're working on. It's inspiring, and exciting. If somebody's listening to this and they're like, "Oh man, I'm interested in learning more about what Jared's doing." Maybe connecting with you, what would be the best way for them to connect with you?

Jared: Yeah, absolutely. They can email me, Jared, J-A-R-E-D, @muir- They can Instagram message over at Muir Way. Yeah, that's probably the best way to get in touch with me.

Andrew: Awesome. Well, thank you very much for coming on man.

Jared: Always love to talk to people.

Andrew: Yeah, always enjoyable and very much appreciate your time so thank you very much.

Jared: Absolutely. Thank you for having me, really appreciate it.

Austin: We had a lot of fun with the intro but we wanted to transition and kind of kick off an episode that we are really excited about because we are doing kind of a catch up with a friend who came to both of our intensives in February. He's got a really cool business and we wanted to bring him on to talk about the sustainable ...

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