EcomCrew Podcast

E104: Building a Brand Around Loyal Customers with Nat Arem of Hookgrip

“If you put no effort into your stuff, like if you're really not contributing any value to whatever community you're in–you have crappy packaging, crappy products, crappy support–you're not going to get anywhere. So you have to make yourself stand out.” – Nat Arem of Hookgrip

Here at EcomCrew we put emphasis into how important it is to build a brand and not just sell a bunch of products. It's fine if you're just starting, but building your brand needs to be a part of your long-term strategy. Having a brand makes it easier to move off of Amazon if you decide to, or if, God forbid, Amazon suspends your account.

Having a brand also makes it easier to establish a following of loyal customers. Today's guest, Nat Arem of Hookgrip, talks about how he built a brand around a niche that is full of die-hard followers: CrossFit and weightlifting.

Nat has been a friend of mine for 10 years now and has been around when I was still neck-deep in the online poker world. We both got out of that and went separate ways but surprisingly both of us found ourselves in ecommerce.

In this episode Nat and I talk about our online poker days and how he turned his passion–weightlifting–into a solid brand with a loyal fanbase.

Conversation points:

  • The time we were living in Costa Rica doing online poker
  • Why we both left the online poker business
  • How photography became a big part of his business
  • How Hookgrip started and how he developed a loyal fanbase
  • What makes a good brand
  • How his passion turned into a profitable business

Resources mentioned:
Under The Hood

We hope you enjoy this episode, and if you did, please leave us an honest review on iTunes. And as a thank you for leaving a review, you are welcome to join our 2 hour webinar on December 21st. Click here for more details.

Have you heard of Under The Hood? Starting next year, we will be featuring a segment where selected listeners get an hour (up to 1.5 hrs) of FREE coaching with Mike and Dave. In exchange, the coaching session will be recorded and turned into a podcast episode. Sign up at if you’re interested.

Once again thanks for listening, and until next episode, happy selling!


Full Audio Transcript

Mike: This is Mike, and welcome to episode number 104 of the EcomCrew Podcast. Of course you can go to to get to the show notes of this episode. And today I have my good friend Nat Arem from Hookgrip on the show with me. He's someone that I met almost ten years ago to the day. When we recorded this podcast, we were realizing that it's been almost exactly ten years.

And you don't know a lot of people in life for decades at a time–your parents, obviously siblings or maybe a spouse and really old friends. But Nat is someone that's hit that decade mark and definitely somebody that I've enjoyed knowing for that long. We both were in the online poker affiliate industry when we met, and somehow we both ended up in e-commerce.

This was not a collaboration. It was just one of these things that, I got done with online poker, he got done with online poker, we kind of went our separate ways. Both of us did some traveling for a while. And then Nat had taken up a personal interest in weightlifting and that turned into e-commerce. And I, I don't know, I had some affiliate sites that I was doing keyword domain investing with that turned into e-commerce, and here we both are doing e-commerce.

And it was a lot of fun talking in person. We haven't seen each other in almost two years, which is probably the longest we've gone, actually the longest we've gone since we've known each other. We used to live together for a while; we talk about that in the podcast. I don't want to give too much away. But Nat's been a great friend, someone that I've admired, the things that he's been able to accomplish in life. He's really smart and just an all around great guy. So I hope you guys enjoy this interview and we'll see you on the other side.


Nat: If you put no effort into your stuff, like if you're really not contributing any value to whatever community you're in–you have crappy packaging, crappy products, crappy support–you're not going to get anywhere. So you have to make yourself stand out.


Mike: Hey Nat, how’s it going man?

Nat: Pretty good, just excited to be here in Southern California. I've been here for maybe five years almost.

Mike: Yeah and I haven't seen you in a while. Let's tell people a little back story. We don't know each other originally from e-commerce. We both met in the online poker world. I don't think a lot of people that listen to the podcast know about that, but I was an affiliate marketer starting in 2004, and did that for quite a while to about 2010. And during that journey, I met Nat. He was very influential in the online poker world. He moved down and lived with us in Costa Rica for I guess about six months.

We were roommates in the Cayman Islands before we got home places down there, and obviously became really good friends during that time. And somehow we both ended up in e-commerce. So we’re going to talk about that. He runs a site called Hookgrip. The reason I want to get him on the podcast is just because it's a great brand story, and the thing that we've been talking a lot about on the podcast.

And just the way that we run our business now is building brands, not just making all kinds of random products. But yeah, let's talk quickly, the first couple of minutes here, just how we met in that online poker days, what were you doing back then and how did you come to meet me?

Nat: Well, I guess first of all, one thing I should note is that we actually just passed ten years from when I met you, because it was the fall of 2007.

Mike: Well yeah.

Nat: And I was thinking about that, I’m like, man it doesn't seem like ten years, but it has been ten years. But basically–I'm not going to go into all the details–but basically there was a bit of a controversy in the online poker world, and I was helping to kind of figure out what was going on with it. I was kind of like a part of a team of people that was kind of investigating what happened. And long story short, we ended up showing that one of these basically online poker sites was like insiders were cheating customers.

As part of that, I ended up having to come down to Costa Rica. I had the opportunity come down to Costa Rica for something totally unrelated to the company that Mike was running. But just because I knew the guys who worked at Mike's company, they said, hey, you should come stay with us while you're doing the other stuff related to this poker site investigation thing. And so I ended up staying at Mike's compound with him and a bunch of his kind of business partners/employees, and that was how we met.

And then about a couple of months later, I ended up coming back down to work with them. And then a couple of months after coming back down, I ended up becoming I guess like a partner in the business, and working with them and so on and so forth.

Mike: Yeah and I was actually asking him that question for my own benefit because I couldn't quite remember like how you ended up down, but what you said, that I remembered clearly. And that was a funny–I don’t know if it's a funny story, but it's funny to look back at it now just like how dysfunctional that whole thing was, and how in the now [ph] they were. They were basically no, no, this isn't happening, or like come on guys, this is obviously absolutely happening. You were definitely instrumental in breaking that.

But I think both of us–I'm curious, I don't know that I've ever talked to you about this. I mean for me I just was like sick of the industry for a bunch of reasons. I mean I felt like I was building a business on quicksand. Every time we finally got ahead of the curve on whatever, disaster kind of came down the pike. There was another one, and it was all out of our control.

No matter how hard we worked or how much effort we put into it, or how much more money we put into it, there was always something else that would happen. It would either be another poker room was caught stealing or cheating, which was hurting; another government agency had to stick up their butt about it. And it just was really frustrating.

So for me I was just like, I've had enough of this, and wanted to do something different. And we both ended up leaving around the same time. But I'm curious like, was there something different for you or was it kind of the same thing?

Nat: It was the same thing, and that's actually like if you talk to anyone who I've talked to over the last three, four, five years in the online weightlifting world–the first time on my Olympic weightlifting world–I’m combining online poker and weightlifting world. But anyway, anyone that I've talked to in the Olympic weightlifting world, they've always said, oh I've used–I’ve done the poker stuff, what got you into doing working on poker. And it was basically that it’s the same thing. I was just tired of it.

I just felt like, oh we would put in a lot of effort, we would redesign the site, we would get these SEO rankings for different important keywords, and then like boom, next day something terrible happened. And for me the black straw, like black–oh my god, I’m combining words…

Mike: It’s only at the Black Friday I think, this is the final straw.

Nat: The final straw was Black Friday. I can't talk, you know what it is. I just–I have to tell the listeners. I just spent basically 12 days in a row working roughly 18 hours a day covering the weightlifting world championships, which happened in Anaheim and finished about a day ago. And actually last night was the first time that I got more than six hours sleep in about two weeks. So I'm still recovering. My brain is still Jell-O.

But anyway, the final straw was Black Friday, which was April 2011, and not to go too detailed once again, but it was basically a bunch of indictments were unsealed against some of the biggest poker sites. They left and it greatly impacted our business. I think we had like 80% revenue drop overnight, and literally hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars that we had already I guess earned. I don't know how to put it, like our money was basically just frozen or never paid out.

And I was just like, you know what, like what am I doing? It's kind of like the definition of insanity to expect something different to happen. I knew it was happening, and I knew that it wasn't going to change any time soon. I knew that regulation for poker was kind of on the horizon at some point. But the way that I looked at it was like you know what, I think at the time I was 29. And I was like I'm 29, I still have time to do other things. It's not like I was like 84 years old, and I was trying to figure out what to do.

I was like I still have time to start other things. I'm really into this weightlifting and Crossfit stuff. And I want to start something related to that. And I also see a lot of kind of holes in that market. So it wasn't like I was entering something that I was just like desperately hoping to get something started with. I was like there's an enormous amount of opportunity here, and it's something I'm really passionate about.

And the poker stuff is also something I'm passionate about, but I think that the last like three years or so of being in poker had like robbed me of a lot of the initial passion that I did have for it. And it just beat me down to the point where I was like I need to just go and do something else for my own sanity really.

Mike: And I actually I remember living with you like when you got into that. We were in the Cayman Islands. I knew nothing about–I never heard of CrossFit to that point. I think you had some like health issues or something at that time, I can’t remember now, and somehow you got into CrossFit I think while we were living in Cayman.

But I'm curious, I don't think I ever really–I knew we were living there and then we both like moved away from the Cayman Islands, and next time I saw you, you were kind of already doing this Hookgrip thing. It happened pretty quickly from there. But talk about just kind of like how you bridged the gap there from that, it’s something you had a personal interest in to turning that into a business. What were the initial first steps you took there?

Nat: It was–well, first of all so going back to how it all started in Cayman, it actually wasn't like related to any health issue. I did have an issue in Cayman which was unrelated, which is I basically developed tinnitus to my left ear, but it actually had nothing to do with the CrossFit thing. It's something that bothered me a lot for a few months.

But I've actually adapted to it now to the point where I don't even think about it, unless like someone, unless I hear the word tinnitus I'm like, oh you know wait, I do [overlapping 00:11:27]. Now that I think about it my ear is ringing. I've adapted now to the point I don't even hear it. And that actually happened pretty quickly like a few months later. It was mostly fine. I was really only like a very stressful month or so when I was like I was not adapted at all in any way.

But the CrossFit thing actually happened because when I moved Cayman, I was heavier basically than I wanted to be. And I just said, I'm going to lose weight. So the first maybe six months I was in Cayman, I think I lost about 50 pounds or something like that basically not through any like extreme exercise. I was just like, I'm just going to eat healthier. And I wasn't starving myself by any means. I was actually eating a ton of food. I just like I cut out desserts, I cut out any sort of like fast food, I cut out any sort of calorie in a drink, and [inaudible 00:12:23]. I just basically ate healthy.

Mike: I remember you had a diet coke habit I would call it. I had never seen someone drink so much diet coke. But he switched I guess from regular coke when we're living in Costa Rica, and then we were pulled down in Cayman. And it was like we had to make like a daily rundown down to the grocery store to get a case of coke, diet coke.

Nat: Well actually I didn't drink regular coke in Costa Rica either. I was told–at that point I was drinking coke light there.

Mike: Coke light?

Nat: Yeah coke light. In my life I've gone through periods where I drink like a crap on a diet coke, and not crapped on. None really, and I've got no problem drinking none at all. I just I'm not a big fan of just drinking like plain water, but anyway we’re getting way off topic. Basically I lost a bunch of weight, and we used to have this flag football game, and we would go up to this field, then we would play flag football with some of our friends.

And Mike actually used to come play too. And I remember playing that and just feeling like so weak. I remember one of the guys was basically blocking me, he was like pushing me to basically stop me from getting the flag off someone else. And I was like, this like skinny looking guy is stronger than me. And I'd actually been weight training, not weightlifting because Olympic weightlifting is a different thing. But I've been in weight training since I was maybe 12.

So it wasn't like–I wasn't used to being the weak person. And I was like this is kind of concerning to me. So I was like I lost the weight, I'm happy with my current weight, but I'm not happy with my current strength. So then I was like, alright, I'm going to look into this. So I looked into joining a gym because once again I hadn't really been doing that much in the way of like–I didn't use fitness to lose weight. I used diet to lose weight.

And I was like I am going to look into joining a gym, maybe get back into doing some lifting, do this or that. And I basically just found–CrossFit Cayman because CrossFit Cayman was one of like three gyms on the whole island.

Mike: Right, there wasn’t a lot of choices.

Nat: And then just not to make this too long of a story. But then just going forward I did CrossFit in Cayman, then we moved to Vegas. When I moved to Vegas because I had been doing CrossFit at that point for six months or three months, I don’t even know. I had been doing it for a little while. I was like I'm going to look up gyms in Vegas, and then I would join CrossFit Las Vegas. And basically through that I met this really kind of like great weight lifting coach.

I mean I'm not saying it is a great way of being coached in terms of his ability to coach people, but he was great in terms of his ability like get me into the sport. I'm not trying to evaluate people's coaching ability. But he got me into the sport, and I was just plucked and then I guess turning it into a business is a whole different thing. But basically I just noticed that there was no coverage of the sport really at all. People would go take pictures, but they would just come home and put one up or something like that. And they would put the rest on their hard drive.

And there are still people out there who have just like massive libraries of videos and photos. And actually I think I can't really take credit for it, because I don’t know that this is the case. But maybe because they've seen the success and popularity of corporate media, a lot of them have started to basically put some of their media up. But at the time in like 2011, 2010, they didn't do anything.

And I was trying to follow away those things. I was like this is impossible. There's like nothing out there. And I'd actually recently for the last like ten years prior, I'd been a big cycling fan and it was similarly difficult to follow. Unless Lance Armstrong was in the race, you couldn't really watch it in the US. I was like you know what, something like cycling is impossible for one person to cover. You can't like show up with like 80 cameras and be driving around on the road.

I was like something like weightlifting, I can cover this, and I can do a fairly good job just showing up with a camera and just taking some pictures of it. There was like no one else was doing it. So that was basically how it all started.

Mike: I remember you like basically took it upon yourself, because I don't think you had a bunch of photography experience before that. I remember you buying a bunch of really expensive camera equipment, and taking it upon yourself to read online and watch YouTube videos, and just go practice taking photos. The next thing you know, you became a hell of a photographer. I mean I've watched your kind of evolution there.

And the thing that's interesting to me, that’s still is interesting to me to be quite honest is that there's even a need for this, because as a non weightlifter I look at your stuff all the time because I'm a fan of Hookgrip on Facebook. And all the photos to me look the same, just somebody lifting weight off the ground. It doesn't seem like all that interesting. They're like red plates and blue plates and there's a board. They look like they're in great physical condition, but that's just because it's not something that I'm personally into.

The reality is that because you got into CrossFit and then into weightlifting, you wanted to start following because you started getting a passion for it. You quickly realized that there was a gap in the market. And you just took it upon yourself to go do that, I guess it was basically what it came down to.

Nat: Yeah and actually I should say that something like the photos, I agree with you they're not, for the most part they're not interesting. And I'm a way of big fan. I might be like–I mean I'm basically a weightlifting fan like I get way out of control. I’m just like a huge; I’m just like the world’s biggest weightlifting fan who just got sucked in.

And I agree with you, most of the photos aren’t interesting. And that even other people who were weightlifting fans would say, yeah a photo of someone doing like a number that's you know 40 kilos or 50 kilos or 60 kilos below the world record, and they've been lifting for a year and a half or two years, it's not interesting. No one even the people in the picture wouldn't be offended if I said, well the picture is not interesting. But the thing is that the picture is interesting to them.

Mike: Exactly, that was what was really interesting to me is that the people that you were taking a picture of had more interest than anyone else in the photography. But I think the first key was, I mean if you're into photography, the pictures that you are taking and still do take are just incredible photographs. I mean the quality I think of the photos I look at, I'm like man that's a great photo. I don't know if I could take that photo, assuming it's a good photo like it didn't exist anywhere else.

Anybody else that was in the crowd that was in their fan group was probably taking it with an iPhone. So it wasn't like quite as good. And the person that you're taking the photo of wanted to buy it from you. I think that was like one of the early things if I remember correctly, you were selling them like posters or maybe that came later, I don’t remember.

Nat: Some of the stuff you're saying isn't quite right. I should back up a little bit because, I mean first of all, so the first meet I went to was the 2011 World Championships, which was in Paris in November of 2011. And at the time I actually didn't own a camera, and I still didn't own a camera when I went there. I borrowed my dad's camera, and it was not a good camera. I didn't know the settings; I didn't know what a good setting was, or how to change the settings. I didn't know anything about photography.

Now I’d owned a camera before, but I still didn't know anything. I’d owned a camera for like a year two, and it was just like — and by camera I mean a digital SLR. But I never really learned any of the settings, and didn't really know what I was doing. I would just click, look at the pictures, zoom in and be like, oh that sucks, click again without changing a setting. It would still suck and be like, why isn't the game better, I'm clicking again.

But basically to take the photos that we take at Hookgrip are honestly not difficult. It's really overselling it when you're like; man that's a great photo. Most especially in weightlifting, it’s a little different in other situations. But in weightlifting, I would say 95% of being a good photographer is being–and this is true in some other cases with photography. But 95% is being in like the right place at the right time with the right equipment with the right settings. The actual clicking of the button is really easy.

And I can tell you that I actually, one of my longest this time employee, Dave, is sitting next to me right now actually. He’s on podcast, because he…

Mike: He's too quiet, he doesn’t want to…

Nat: He’s too quiet and wants to sit on his phone. But Dave's not a photographer either, just the same way that I'm really not a photographer other than what I am, and self-taught aspects. But Dave's not some sort of masterful photographer, and within like a couple of hours of training, he was able to take perfectly good pictures for Hookgrip. And it's the same with other people. I've trained I would say at least six or seven people over the years to take some photos for us here and there, and they come back with good stuff.

I mean there's a little bit on the margin where I'm like man, I could've gotten a better celebration shot than that employee got, but I'm like, I also only taught that guy for like an hour or an hour and a half how to do this, you know what I mean. And like he's not quite as quick on like refocusing when someone like walks backward in a celebration or something, and they have to kind of like refocus to get a real like Chris Rock [ph] or you really have to like zoom in and then refocus to get a Chris Rogers [ph].

So it's like there's very little improvements you could make, but you can do most of it. If you show up with like a $6,000 top of the line digital SLR and a $2,000 sports telephoto 2.8 lens, and all these things, then it's going to look pretty good as long as you have the right settings and this and that. So I think that you're overselling how good the photography is. But I do agree with you, the biggest key by far is that no one else is there in a lot of these cases.

Now in some cases, some other companies have kind of picked up on the fact that Hookgrip was popular, and now they're starting to send some of their own photographers, their own videographers, which actually doesn't really–it's not a bad thing, it's actually a good thing for us. But in most cases, most meets we go to, there’s still just no one there. We're the only ones there with a camera. And even as good as iPhones and Android and Vivo phones have gotten, they still can't touch when we show up with like a $15,000 set of photo and video cameras.

Mike: Yeah, makes a lot of sense. So I guess what I'm really curious about because I've actually never really even asked you this question, I mean you’re imperious at this point, you're taking some pictures. Between then and like the first time someone gave you money, first of all, were you like intentionally like trying to sell something, or did someone just come to you and you had like an aha moment when someone was like, I want to buy that photo from you? Which way did it happen, was it just like, oh maybe there's a business here, or did you at some point realize, okay, I have a business here, and then you went out and started trying to sell people something, and then let's talk about what that something was. It was…

Nat: It's tough to explain exactly, but basically I knew that there was no coverage for sure. And I knew that there were people out there that wanted this to be covered. And also to jump way back, I mean this was a totally different thing. But because Mike and I have poker in common, he’ll understand this. But back in the day, like 2000, 2001, online poker was relatively small.

And the biggest thing that exploded poker more than anything else, more than just like the fact that internet was becoming more accessible to people and computers were getting better, and this and that. What really exploded online poker, and I don’t think anyone will argue with this is ESPN in 2003, because 2003 was the year that they greatly expanded basically their poker coverage. In 2002 and 2001, and 2000, they did have World Series of Poker coverage, but it was much more minimal.

In 2003 was the year that they were like, hey we're going to instead of making like this whole half an hour recap where we show seven hands [ph], we're going to show like multiple episodes. And on top of the fact that they decided to do that, there was also like an unknown guy who won, and he won a couple of million dollars, and he was a everyday guy from Tennessee or whatever.

Mike: And he had a perfect name.

Nat: He had a perfect name, his name was Chris Moneymaker, and that's not like something he changed there. That was his real name, was Chris Moneymaker. So I saw the same thing happening with CrossFit. And the reason was that in 2011, I went to the CrossFit Games, and that was the first year coincidentally that ESPN decided to really cover the CrossFit games. In prior years they'd done some live streams, and maybe, I don't remember, but maybe in like 2010, ESPN might have had like all half an hour recap show.

In 2011, there they’re like, hey we're going to cover a lot of this, it's going to be on like ESPN three and blah, blah, blah. I don’t remember exactly which channels it was on and when, but I was like you know what, I was like I think I see the same thing happening with CrossFit that happened, that I saw in poker. And I was like; I think I can kind of like get ahead of this a little bit.

And kind of like because I knew it would take years for let's say ESPN coverage to happen, and then more people get in the CrossFit, and then a lot of CrossFits are actually owned by people who are CrossFit enthusiasts. It's not owned by some guy in a suit like a thousand miles away. Most of them are owned and run by people who are really into CrossFit and want to open their own.

So I was like it's going to take years for people to get into CrossFit, and then open their own and then start weightlifting clubs and blah, blah, blah. But I knew that for sure because it happened to me, I knew that CrossFit was a gateway drug for weightlifting, like 100%. People will get into CrossFit at a very high percentage relative to anything else that they do in CrossFit. They get into weightlifting.

And by that I mean, obviously most people who do CrossFit keep doing CrossFit. But of the things that they get into through CrossFit, weightlifting is I think by far the most popular thing. And so you end up with a lot of cross fighters who do CrossFit for a year, they like it, but then they try out weightlifting and they love it. And they're like, hey, I'm going to just do weightlifting only. And there's literally like tens of thousands of those people out there now.

So I kind of knew that this whole thing was going to take years to feed through the system, but I was like this is like the balls set in motion now. Now that I know that ESPN is going to cover CrossFit, I know CrossFit is going to blow up, and I know that eventually weightlifting will blow up. That was kind of part of my thought process. But I should also say this, that I didn't get into it thinking like, hey, like I don't even like this stuff, but this is like a good branding opportunity, blah, blah, blah. No, I would really love following weightlifting. And actually if the brand didn’t ever have done well, I would still be doing it. I'd be doing it a little differently; I’d have a much more bigger house….

Mike: [Overlapping 00:28:12].

Nat: What?

Mike: Maybe it wouldn't be as big of a business I guess.

Nat: It wouldn't be necessarily my full time thing. I wouldn't have as big of a warehouse. I might not have a bunch of employees. I might not have as many cameras. I might not cover as many meats. But don't get me wrong, I would still be doing it. I still love the weightlifting stuff, and in no way was it like; this is like the best way to make money that I can think of. It was just like, this is something I really like, and it's something that I think is also going to get a lot more popular really soon.

And I think that kind of doing what I'd do with Hookgrip can kind of like throw gasoline on the flames that are CrossFit, because weightlifting has grown a lot. In 2017 it's a totally different sport than it was when I got into it in like 2009, 2010. And some people like to give more or less credit to certain things than others. Some people like to give a lot of credit to my company, some people like to give a lot of credit to CrossFit, some people like to give a lot of credit to this or that or whatever reason like just having YouTube and more videos.

But I think it's like by far and away the biggest reason for weightlifting exploding is CrossFit. But I think that companies like min have just really, really like fueled it. If we didn't do what we did it, we wouldn't have gotten as many people. But by us making weightlifting look good and making people be able to like use it as a profile picture and put it on their Instagram. More and more people get into it. Anyway that's pretty much it.

Mike: Yeah, so kind of going back then, what was that — I'm just curious, because I don't remember. I know you’ve come up with products now, you sell weightlifting supplies, or things that you need for weightlifting, belts and shoes or whatever, but also the photography. So what was that first thing, was it someone buying the photography from you, or did you decide to go and buy and start the products then?

Nat: Actually the photography is really not our business model. And we pretty much purposely make it quite complicated and difficult. But basically people have to email us if they want to buy photos. And I know I can make it way more easier. I could make like a thing where you can go through and click and select your photos, and add to cart and like instant download and follow up. I know how to do all that, it's not a matter of me not knowing how to do it or something.

But I don't really want to make our company like a professional photography company. We’re more so a brand where we give people the photos and it's essentially a trade. They're kind of advertising for us I guess is the best way to put it, and we're giving them high quality media of their competitions, in some cases their training. And that's kind of more the business model than it is to sell the photos.

And we do sell the photos, and there are a lot of people who buy the photos anyway even with us essentially requiring them to e-mail us. But yeah, selling the photos was never a big thing. Now, going back I know you asked a few minutes ago when did first someone first give you money. I think that I first put up the store in late 2012, which would have been about one year after I went to my first meet.

And keep in mind that I'd spent a fair amount of money, because like I went to the Olympic Games in the summer of 2012 without a store out there. I went to the Junior Worlds and Pan Am championships in Guatemala in May of 2012 with no store. I went to — there were a lot of other meets that I want to in between. And I think I put up the store if I remember correctly because basically someone said, hey, I want to buy a Hookgrip shirt.

And I was like, all right…

Mike: I’ll make one.

Nat: Yes, I was like I'll just make some. So I contacted a local printing company which was owned by basically the brother-in-law of someone who went to my gym, the place where I went in to do weightlifting or kind of like squatting, weightlifting, stuff like that. And I just contacted this t-shirt company and I’m sure to look it up, but I think I ordered like 40 year 80 shirts, somewhere in that range. And then they sold in like a day.

I was like, oh, this many shirts sold in a day. And of course it wasn't like this was a brand new brand. I had I don’t know — it wasn't even that many likes though. This time I didn't even have Instagram page and the Facebook page at that point — I remember in December of 201, I was at like 9,000. So it wasn’t like I had that many likes, that's pretty small.

Mike: But they're very adamant or loyal fans I should say. I mean the thing that you were selling yourself showed on that. I'm surprised you didn't talk a lot about here. Maybe you don't think a lot about it, and I know that a lot of people that are listening to this take this type of stuff for granted. But the key point here to me is that you spent basically an entire year of your life making friendships, not looking for anything from them, just giving them value.

I mean you're taking pictures of people, they obviously see you taking pictures of them. They would ask you for the photographs, you would give them to them, you develop the relationships. And I mean that goes a long way. I mean like when it comes time to like start selling something, you have a much different mindset. Instead of having to ask people to give you money, they already have their wallet out looking to give you money, because they like you.

They develop a rapport with you, they know who you are, and you've done something for them, you're giving them value first. And now you're at a point fast forward six years down the road ever. I mean now what he has shown me on his phone today before we did the podcast, like you say we just stop in Anaheim, like half the damn crowd, people in the weightlifting, they were weightlifting had his stuff. They're wearing…

Nat: I don’t know, stuff in the crowd.

Mike: Well I mean the competitors, I mean the people in…

Nat: The regular crowd too.

Mike: The crowd, the people that are actually competing I should say, the competitors for sure is what I meant. But yeah I mean I think that that's been awesome. I mean to me that is just an incredible story, and it all comes because you are either — I mean you're in it because you have the passion. You would have done it anyway. But you're developing a rapport with people like way in advance of ever asking them for money.

It's a similar angle that we've taken with EcomCrew for instance. I mean we put out tons of free content all the time, and never ask anybody for anything. And we’ve obviously developed a course now. But when we put it up for sale, we had a lot of people that had faith in us. And the same thing goes with ColorIt. And the way that we've approached that, we give people free stuff first.

And there's this whole concept of giving people value first and becoming a friend, before just trying to throw up a shirt that says Hookgrip on it. Because I remember when you first got started, and you showed me all these shirts, we were in your apartment in Philly. And you had boxes of shirts all over the place. I'm like, why the hell is anybody buying this? It's not – it’s just a t- shirt. It says Hookgrip. Again I'm not a weight lifter, I don't get it.

But the thing that to me is amazing, and what people need to be thinking about, the take away here, is that you put like all this work into developing all these friendships and relationships to the point where everybody wanted to probably help support you, and they love the idea of Hookgrip. And now they all wear your shirts, which I think is awesome.

Nat: Yeah, it does take a lot of work. It's a very long-term endless grind, like it doesn't — if it's something you're passionate about, it's really not a grind. If it's something you're not passionate about, then it's probably not very enjoyable thing to do. So I enjoy it. I mean like I said Dave's not talking, but Dave knows more about what I do in terms of work than anyone else really, because he's at the warehouse late at night too.

And I'm there I would say every day until one in the morning, not even — and I'm not showing up at like five at night. I am usually getting there around the eleven am time, and I'm there pretty much until one in the morning every day if not later, because I'm just working, I really like it. At no point I’m like, oh it’s 9pm, I want to go home, I want to do this, I want to that. I just really love working on the stuff.

And there's not that many people out there who are willing to do that. So that's one thing that's kind of set Hookgrip apart. In terms of the shirts and stuff like that, it's just that people like the brand. I mean obviously it's important that like you get like nice shirts that are high quality, and they're soft and they're comfortable, that's important. But the thing is, is that there's a billion companies out there that have soft comfortable shirts. It doesn't really set you apart, it's just kind of a prerequisite to get people to be interested in your shirt.

Mike: Yeah, and there's a lot of these other that have cheap crappy shirts too.

Nat: Exactly.

Mike: I mean this is one of these things I was there kind of at these moments. I remember very distinctly, I don't know if we were living together at the time. We were maybe in Vegas or maybe I was at your apartment, whatever it was. But you spent a ton of time like researching all these different shirts, and you were telling me about like this — I can’t remember, they were like micro blends or a tribe, whatever it was. But you were throwing terms at me that I was just like, okay whatever dude, it's a flicking shirt.

But I mean you put a decent amount of effort into picking the right quality of shirt. And I think that probably had at least something to do with the success of it as well.

Nat: It does. I mean there are a bunch of people who have come up to me over the years or have written me emails, or just sent me messages through various social media who said like, hey, like I have like 20 of your shirts, and I don't even like Hookgrip that much. They're not trying to say to be mean, but they're like I have the shirts because they're so soft and comfortable, and not because like — I mean we're just using next level sixty to ten shirts.

I mean we put it on the website, it's not — in every single product description we say exactly which blank we use. We don't — we're not like hiding it or trying to like pretend we're manufacturing some like super high end shirt. I mean these are shirts that you can go literally just buy the blank for them for about $3 I think like any day by anyone. So someone could just go buy the blank for it. I mean that's fine.

But with us we use kind of like kind of fancier inks and stuff like that on it that you can't feel the ink after it's washed once. And we do some other stuff and once you buy a shirt for $3, then you get it printed with four colors on the front and the color on the back and the tag printed on this and that. You're talking about like an $8 or $9 shirt.

But anyway so yeah, I think it was just something where people just like the brand because they know how much effort we've put into it, because there's no way to do what we do without a huge amount of effort. And there's a reason why there's kind of like a billion like fitness or weightlifting or CrossFit kind of t-shirt companies. They're everywhere, there's hundreds of them now.

And there's a reason why very few of them really do that well, and why the ones that do well are the ones that put a huge amount of effort into their stuff. And people recognize effort. And that's kind of like an important takeaway I think from a lot of brand building is if you put no effort into your stuff, like if you're really not contributing any value to whatever community you're in, you have crappy packaging, crappy products, crappy support, crappy this, crappy that, you're not going to get anywhere. So you have to make yourself stand out.

Mike: Yeah, I completely agree. I mean a lot of these we talked about on this podcast for quite a while, and I think you're dead on. I think a lot of people don't put the effort in. This is something that we talk about all the time. I mean everybody is always looking for the next short cut. Amazon really comes to mind a lot with this is you think back to the days where it was so easy to just get any product, throw it up on Amazon, get a bunch of fake reviews, and cut corners and just build this, launch a product. I wouldn’t even say build a brand.

And when that stopped there was it like, okay, let's go and try to find a way to do this long-term and think this through. It's always like what's the next way I can cut a corner. And for Nat especially here, I mean and for myself since we really got started and had that moment or that aha moment, it's been the long grind of like building a brand. There's a lot of headwind when you're doing it that way. It feels very lonely when you're first getting started.

But once you have a big loyal fan base, there's nothing like it. I mean a good example for us, the other day someone posted on our social media account on ColorIt that they didn't like our products, and they sucked. And before we even had a chance to respond or see it, we already had over like 12 customers defending us, and basically telling them to go pound sand, that they were stupid. And I think a lot of people would do the same for you defending you in your niche.

And it’s something you have to work at. You can't just throw up something and hope to sell it, and cut corners like you said with cheap packaging, cheap products and expect to run a seven figure business like you've been able to create which is just absolutely amazing. So we've run way past our normal time. I think this has been awesome. I think for those that are out there that are in the process of building a brand or aren't building a brand this is probably a lesson in doing that.

It’s something I've been talking about, almost preaching about in probably at least 20 to 30 of the hundred episodes that we've done so far. And I think this really goes to show you the value that that creates, because like I said, I mean Nat, I'm so proud of what he's done, because I was just looking at these photos like I said, and everyone there is like wearing the stuff. And people don't just do that for any reason. There's a lot more that we can go into than we have time for on the show. But great job man, and keep kicking butt.

Nat: Thanks for having me on.

Mike: Cool thanks dude.


And that's a wrap. I hope you guys enjoyed this interview as much as I did. Doing this with Nat, again it was just obviously awesome, seeing him again. One downside of being a world traveler and living in different places all over our lives is that our friends are now all over the place, and you can't see everybody all the time. So it was definitely great catching up with Nat. It reminded me of a lot of really good times, and just hanging out with him and talking about business and ideas.

And it's just weird how we both ended up in e-commerce. We were both obviously in online poker, and then all of a sudden, all these years later without any collaboration at all, we just both got in e-commerce and it's been awesome. So hope you guys enjoy this episode. Again to get to the show notes. And we'll see you guys in the next episode, and until then happy selling!

Michael Jackness

Michael started his first business when he was 18 and is a serial entrepreneur. He got his start in the online world way back in 2004 as an affiliate marketer. From there he grew as an SEO expert and has transitioned into ecommerce, running several sites that bring in a total of 7-figures of revenue each year.

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