E268: How Harnessing Creativity Can Turn a Hobby into a Business

On today’s show, I talk to one-half of a husband and wife team who has managed to build a successful online business off of Amazon. What’s more amazing is their carving a spot for their brand in a highly competitive niche.

Meredith Erin and her husband Matt are the two creatives behind Boredwalk, an online shop that sells a variety of wearable art. 

Meredith and I talk about a variety of topics – from their creative inspirations to being partners in and outside of the business. 

In this episode you’ll learn:

  • Meredith on how the lack of females in STEM professions has led to fewer women building businesses online (3:45)
  • How a hobby turned into a full-fledged ecommerce business (8:51)
  • What their creative process is like (11:36)
  • How she and her husband were able to carve out a spot for their products in a crowded niche (14:26)
  • On the importance of “leading with content” and creating great emails (17:59)
  • How she and Matt manage being a couple as well as business partners (22:58)
  • How they grew Boredwalk and continue to make it profitable (26:07)
  • Why they no longer sell on Amazon (43:03)

This episode is part of our Women’s Month celebration. We’d love to see more women in the ecommerce industry, so if you are a female business owner, head over to www.ecomcrew.com/underthehood and tell us your story. We’d love to feature you on the podcast. 

Full Audio Transcript

Intro: This is Mike and welcome to Episode #268 of the EComcrew Podcast. So glad to have you guys along today for another episode here in Women’s Month. And Women’s Month has been just awesome to do. Had some amazing woman entrepreneurs come on the show and we have a few more lined up for you for the rest of this month. And today is another great friend of mine, I’ve met some awesome people in Ecommerce and doing these introductions just makes me warm and fuzzy because I get the opportunity to do these interviews. 

Normally we don’t do all interviews like this especially with friends, and this person’s also a great friend of mine, Meredith and her husband, Matt. We’ve become really close along with my wife, the 4 of us have travelled together, done things together. Whenever I can spend time with them, there is a smile on my face. We just have similar types of humor, and our interests in all kinds of things are aligned, and they’re just genuinely awesome people and they’re out West down in California, where I don’t spend as much time as I used to, but whenever I’m there, I do my best to spend time with them because they’re amazing and they have built an awesome business all off Amazon. 

They tried Amazon for a little bit, they made a decision that they didn’t want those headaches, they didn’t want to be beholden by Amazon. I think that this is a true success story in ecommerce when you take that into account because it is tough building a non-Amazon business in an Amazon world, it seems like. And also, they sell T-Shirts which is a completely crazy competitive, hyper-competitive market and its hard to find your way in that as well. 

Meredith would argue that they don’t sell T-Shirts, they sell Artwork, which I agree with, but they’re still printed on T-Shirts nonetheless and it's still a very competitive category. 

They’ve carved out a niche for themselves and their family and I”m just so proud of what they’ve done. Its been a rollercoaster for them. There’s been a lot of struggles even more so recently with Facebook and things like that, and we talk about that here. I’m already stealing some of Meredith’s thunder and I want to just shut up and let her start talking so without further ado, let’s get Meredith on here, for Women’s Month, on the Ecomcrew Podcast. 

Mike: Hey Meredith! Welcome to the Ecomcrew Podcast. 

Meredith: Thanks! 

Mike: It's great to have you here, we are doing this Women’s Month. Nine entrepreneurs coming on, talking about Ecommerce through the month of July. And excited to have you here, you’re someone that I got to know on a personal level, you and your husband Matt. We had this crazy coincidence that we actually went to the same Elementary school and had the same Kindergarten teacher which was crazy when I discovered that what we had in common was, I thought that was like a needle in a haystack but besides that, we got to hang out go hiking, and hang out at the desert, but do a bunch of cool stuff and hopefully that will continue. 

But the main thing, the reason that I wanted to have you on, cause we were chatting about this not that long ago, there’s just a general lack of women in entrepreneurship and it's even more magnified in Ecommerce and I think what you guys are doing is amazing. 

Its obviously a half-woman team because its you and your husband, but you’re obviously an integral part of the business and its just so interesting like your background, and like how you got started this — you’re in a crowded niche, we’ll talk about all that but definitely, awesome to have you on. So, the first thing that I wanted to talk about before we even get into all of the business stuff, is just your perspective, from a woman’s perspective, why do you think there is this lack of women in Entrepreneurship and Ecommerce? 

Meredith: Umm, I mean, the short answer is the Patriarchy. But in ecommerce which is a cousin– I mean, its an offshoot of tech, or a cousin of tech, like its related, its a technical job and there’s not a lot of women in STEM professions and that goes back to how educators treat boys versus girls in school and how much boys are encouraged to be interested in things like Math and Science versus how much girls are encouraged to be interested in those things. 

And up until the last, I don’t know maybe ten or so years, it was barely even acknowledged that it was a problem, let alone something that anyone was trying to do anything about. And so I think women are already at this huge disadvantage because of the culture and the education system to end up in these kinds of careers. 

I’ve always been the kind of person that kind of goes against the grain, so I liked tech, I’m kind of an introvert, I like a lot of alone time, and I found tech appealing because its a job that’s very solitary. And so, when I was in my late teens in college, I was like this sounds great! You Can make a bunch of money, you don’t have to really talk to anybody all day, I can do this! 

Mike: (Laughs) Nice! 

Meredith: And so, I started as a software engineer. I was like 20, and that was my first job out of college. And I was a software engineer for about 10 years and then managed software projects. So my background was in tech, and all the rumors about it being a boys club are completely true. And when I was younger, I was thinking, “well, this won’t last forever, eventually more women will join the industry”. 

And in my time in the industry, they just certainly didn’t. I think they still haven’t in large numbers. And I just kind of got fed up with that “Bro” culture, and decided I would probably be happier doing my own thing. And ended up having this opportunity to start our ecommerce company that I run with my husband and leaving to do that and now I’ve turned my own company — ecommerce at large, is still largely a boys’ club but I’ve turned my own company into a girls club, most of our staff is female so… 

Mike: Right. 

Meredith: …I don’t have to live with it on a day to day basis at my office. 

Mike: Nice. It’s interesting because I’ve obviously already interviewed several other women and they’ve all had different perspectives and you’re the first one to bring up the link of technology which I think is dead on. And especially the way that we’ve approached ecommerce. I came at ecommerce 100% from a technology perspective, it was– I had this background in online digital marketing and SEO and content marketing and just getting traffic and making money online which is kind of a tech-y thing.

Meredith: Mhmm. 

Mike: And so when I came into ecommerce, I approached it the same way. I mean, it was all about what products are the best ones that are going to sell and I can rank and that had all these physical attributes to them and it had nothing to really do with a personal interest in the actual products which I’ve now struggled with but its interesting because I never put that together and you’re right. The reality is that if you go into a computer science classroom at college, its probably going to be mostly men. And maybe that’s one of the reasons why there’s a gap in ecommerce with entrepreneurs.

Meredith: Yeah I mean I hope it changes. Over time, I think it eventually needs to and should. I think in some ways just the way women’s brains work, we’re certainly suited for more technical work. There’s like the idea that women are good at keeping track of multiple ideas at the same time and like having lots of tabs open in their brains. And just writing code, that’s kind of an important skill because you need to be thinking about like this little line of code needs to do this but it also needs to interact with all these other lines of code and like do all these different features and what’s the most efficient way to write it. I think its something that a lot of women could have a knack for if they were encouraged. 

Mike: Yeah and another thing that did come up in terms of encouragement that I think is lost upon all this sometimes is that women are generally better at just managing a team. There’s probably something just genetic there or whatever the predisposed to just be better at managing people, managing a team. I think you take that skill set on what you’re talking about and there’s actually probably a case that women can do a better job than men in a lot of ways when it comes to this. 

Meredith: Yeah, I mean things are individual, some men are good at that and some women aren’t, but I mean on average, I guess women tend to be better at cooperative endeavours and working with a team and building a team certainly requires that skill. I am sort of a reluctant, raw / manager, its one of the least favourite things about my job. 

Mike: Right. Ever since talking to people and you don’t like doing that part for you.  

Meredith: Yeah, I’m also the person that just picked my first career so I didn’t have to talk to anybody, so yeah. But I mean I’m pretty upfront with that when I hire and you know, we write very non-traditional job descriptions kind of explaining what Matt and I are like to work for. 

 And if you need a lot of interaction with your boss, you probably don't want to work for us because we like to spend a lot of time alone during the day. And we talk to our team members, but we're definitely not the most hands-on bosses. We like to hire people that can just do their job independently and let us know if they need something. But otherwise, like if we're not talking to you all day, it means you're doing a great job.

Mike: I actually feel pretty honoured to be one of the few people that you seem to like to talk to electively. So I'll put a feather in my cap for that.

Meredith: Well, I mean, I like talking to people that share my interest, so that definitely helps.

Mike: So we definitely both love e-commerce and a bunch of other things we won't talk about on the podcast (Inaudible at 08:34). We try to keep those things off the podcast, but that's definitely cool. Alright, so now we kinda talked about that just a little bit, let's talk about your e-commerce business. 

So, I mean, you both had other jobs and at some point and obviously you were doing techie stuff. How did you get into selling the stuff that you guys sell?

Meredith: I think Matt and I have always had an interest in and passion for art and design. Matt's background was as a graphic designer and we've always had a similar sense of humor and sense of aesthetics. And when we first started like just kind of dabbling with selling things online, it was more of a hobby for us. We just like design stuff for ourselves that we thought was cool. And everywhere we went, like people are asking us where’d you get that? We’re like, “I just made it. And they're like, oh, you should sell those. And so, you know, we put some things online on our first website ever and started selling things a little bit and didn't think like, oh, this will be our new career. But it grew a little on its own. Matt grew increasingly unhappy with the work he was doing, working for other people. I encouraged him to-, so I was making a good amount of money in tech, just leave, we can get by on my salary, see if you can do more with selling things online. He was able to grow it a little more, then I ended up leaving my job to help him, and that's kind of how this whole thing evolved. 

Mike: Interesting. And I mean, so, getting more into what you guys actually sell, its T-shirts with these types of things that align with your humor and maybe political beliefs and some other social beliefs and things of that nature, I guess is probably the best way to put it. For people who are interested, you can go to boredwalktshirts.com and check out some of the stuff. 

If your interests align with Meredith's and her humor in things of that nature, I think you're gonna love their stuff. Every time I see them, they have… they're like walking billboards for their own products. And so my favorite thing is might see them and after shaking their hand and give em a hug, I get to see the shirt. It's always something that's interesting. And sometimes it's above me.

Like I had to creatively ask, like, what’s— because last time we were talking to you, you showed me basically, like a Twitter channel that was this different type of humor, and I was like, I don’t even get it like, I’m reading it, I don’t even understand what I’m reading. So some of it’s like a little out there to me but the thing that- Sorry, go ahead.

Meredith: Yeah. I mean, it's a specific sense of humor. It's not for everyone. I know people think I sell t shirts and it's kind of like a peeve of mine that I hate when people say I sell t-shirts, because it’s technically true, but that is like saying like Taylor Swift sells CDs, like she makes music, I make art. It happens to be on a T-shirt and music happens to be on a CD. But that's the conduit for the creative content. That's not the thing that people are buying it for. A lot of people can and do try and sell T-shirts. They're not like ours.

Mike: And speaking of that, I mean, you guys are like prolifically creative. I mean, it's incredible the level that you guys operate on. I mean, every time I talk to you guys, it continuously blows me away. And we'll have some funny conversation about, you know, sarcastically or whatever. And then there's either a T-shirt in the mail for me about it or some type of graphic about it. I mean, like the way that you guys could think on this level is amazing to me. I mean, and you guys are creating— I was talking to you about this at one point and the number of unique designs you're creating every week blows me away. I mean, like, what's the process for that? Like what's the creative process for creating the art, getting it on the shirts, getting it advertised and sold.

Meredith: I mean, the answer is not wholesome. So you might not want your podcast…

Mike: (Laughs)

Meredith: You know, there’s a fair amount of substances in our lives that, you know, it's not a secret that artists and substances tend to be peas in a pod together and they inspire artists and Matt and I are no different. So I don't know those things kind of help in terms of opening up the creative part of the brain for me.

But I have a lot of ideas all the time and I am always writing things down. I mean, sometimes I’ll wake up in the middle of the night with an idea like literally an idea will wake me up and I have to grab my phone and write down what it is I just thought of or I won't be able to fall back to sleep.

And so there's just usually a lot, whether it's like a funny (inaudible at 12:17) or phrase or something that's happening in the culture that I have thoughts about and can think of ways to express those things in a graphic. And we sell other things like we sell some accessories and prints and stuff like that. Shirts are probably the thing we sell the most of just because people like to wear their shirts and have them out in public and show off, you know, their sense of humor to people. But generally our goal is to sell unique, clever, funny, original, well executed art on a variety of mediums. 

Mike: Yeah, very cool. 

Meredith: Oh, and to finish the answer to your other question about how things kind of get released. I’m the one that usually comes up with ideas. I’ll usually create kind of a mood board for Matt. Because he is more of the technician and I've done some of the designs, but he's done most of them. So I'll give him a mood board and he'll be able to look at that and kind of understand what I'm going for. And we'll talk through it a little bit and then he'll work on it a little bit and I'll give him feedback and he'll work on it some more. So the two of us kind of design things together most of the time.

Mike: Gotcha. So in terms of the prolific-ness is one of the things I want to talk about. I mean, how many designs are you creating every week?

Meredith: We usually do about two new ones every week.

Mike: And I think that's amazing. Like I— It takes me a lifetime to come up with two creative things. It's amazing that I get people that are just wired differently. I always look at them from afar in awe because I think that you always admire what you don't have yourself. You probably do the same thing with other things. And so for me, just seeing the creativity and the way that you guys might work and that you're able to do it like that, it just is amazing to me also.

Cool so now, I mean, obviously, you've got these awesome designs. It's difficult to— you're still a needle in a haystack. And this is the hardest part about e-commerce, right? I mean, it doesn’t matter how good you are, how good your stuff is; I was talking to someone else today about this, using an analogy of people in the entertainment industry and someone is trying to become an actor or a singer, you might literally be the best singer that's ever lived anywhere in the world. But still trying to get noticed is really difficult. And I mean, you guys are in a crowded niche. How have you been able to— both of you have left your jobs, we'll talk about that here a little bit as well. But this is supporting you guys now for multiple years in a crowded niche. How have you been able to carve out a spot for yourselves?

Meredith: Yeah. That entertainment comparison is 100% right. I have some friends that work in entertainment, Matt and I are based in Los Angeles, so we have some friends that work in that field. And in some ways I feel more of an alignment with them than I do with people in e-commerce because we're more of a content and art business than we are just like more traditional e-commerce business. And so it's like that idea, like, yeah, your art could be the best art ever. You could be the best comedian or singer. But the job is marketing. And Matt and I tell creative people that all the time, you know, it's not the art isn't good or, you know, it doesn't matter if it isn't or not. If you're not doing the marketing side of the job, it won't help you to be good. Or you could be bad but good at marketing and still be successful. And so we definitely have that in mind.

We do a lot of different things to attract an audience. Facebook and Instagram ads were a big part of our outreach for the last couple of years. We are trying to put them more in the backseat just because those platforms have become really unstable. We get a lot of referrals and word of mouth. So that's something that Matt and I are trying to invest more heavily in this year, its like really putting a programmer on that because we have very passionate customers and fans, which is amazing and blows our mind like everyday. Just how excited people are about their products and our work, in our brand and our art. So we definitely need to do more with that. 

Email is also a big part of what we do. We do co-branded partnerships with other companies that have a similar ethos or aesthetic or audience. And so we acquire our email addresses that way. And if you like funny emails, we send two e-mails a week. They're always funny. They're usually like interesting historical facts, customer profiles, new products. My big peeve with most people's email programs is that they could e-mail you every day and every email is the same.

It's just, here's some pictures of some products, come buy them. And unless you’re in the market to buy it, there's no reason to open the email. With our e-mails, that's always like the secondary message. The primary message is “Here's three things that happen on this day in history” and a funny commentary on those historical events or here's a new podcast episode or here's a profile of a customer that has purchased with us and their answers to some funny questions we ask them. So I think content— we always lead with content, and I think that helps keep people engaged, interested in what we're doing.

Mike: Yeah, and I love that. I just had to spend a minute on this because we obviously talk about email marketing a lot on this podcast. It's one of the things that I’ve kind of become known about. I speak a lot about it at events and for whatever reason, this was like one thing that I can never seem to hammer home. Obviously, you guys get it. You're sending out emails— you’re training people to want to open your emails. You know, I know it’s difficult. You can't do it in every single niche. Some niches are too boring to do it in but most people can. And if, you know, you got to kind of search down deep inside of you to come up with interesting stuff. But you guys have built an email list that people are legitimately looking forward to seeing what comes out of your fingertips next because it's creative and or, you know, provides value in some way, like you were saying based on this day, you know, this day in history kind of thing or whatever. And it isn't all sales-y.
It isn't just like every time you know, buy this product, buy this product, buy this product. And then when you do have to send those types of emails, let's say it's Black Friday or some other type of sale or something new comes out. People are already trying to open up your email and they're not already irritated and like getting ready to hit the unsubscribe button. So, I mean, I assume that you're— because of this, your open rates are way above average and engagement on your emails is above average and you probably make pretty decent money from revenue or revenue off of the emails as well. And what are some other ways to put this that people— it might drive the point home? Because you know, the way that I do, just to kind of throw it out there, be the first one out to throw it out. It's like treat people like you like to be treated. 

Meredith: Yes. 

Mike: Like how many e-mails do you get that you just absolutely hate it? And you're the one that's doing the same thing. So you know why– Why be that guy? And maybe you're just agreeing. Maybe that's the answer. I don't know.

Meredith: No. I think that the first question everyone should ask themselves when you're putting together an email is, would I be excited to open this e-mail if it landed in my inbox and this wasn't my company? And if the answer is no, like come up with a better email, you could probably come up with good content regardless of the kind of company you run. I mean, obviously, our focus is more entertainment and humor.

So that's the kind of content we put together. But if you sell something that's more functional, you can provide, you know, practical tips on how to get the most out of whatever it is you sell and, you know, advice, things like that. It doesn't have to be entertaining, but it has to— if it's going to entertain, then it has to be informative and useful. You can't just send people pictures of your products and, you know, 10 percent off, 20 percent off. Come buy this. Come buy this. It's boring. No one likes that.

Mike: Yeah, exactly. So hopefully, you know, as you're out there, I mean, think about these things. I mean, people that have success in email: It's for this reason. I think a lot people hear that and then they just start trying to send emails and then they don't get opened, and then they give up because they're doing nothing but talking about their new product or that it's a Father's Day sale or whatever it is. And again, people— yeah.

Meredith: Yeah. This is a peeve of mine in general that a lot of times I'll hear from people something doesn't work, whether it's co-branded partnerships or it's email or whatever it is, it doesn't work or, you know, affiliate programs or referral programs or ambassador programs. It doesn't work. It's not that it doesn't work. It's that the way you did it maybe didn't work, but it can work. I think you just have to be a little more creative about making it work as opposed to just like dismissing an entire marketing channel because your first attempt… maybe you didn't go about it the right way.

Mike: So, I mean, I think it's that you didn't work hard enough is really the way to put it right.

Meredith: Or just didn't take the right approach. I mean, when we send emails like they're pretty personalized, it feels like you're hearing from a friend. And in most emails we say, you know, hope your week is going well. Seriously, reply and tell us, let us know. And we get emails from customers every time we send out a campaign talking about how much they like the emails, their products, talking about, you know, whatever went on with their week. But I don't know. We kind of think of our brand is a little bit cult-y and having a relationship with all these people, even though we don't know them personally. And that's what we're looking for when we send these emails, like we want people to feel a connection to our brand. And I don't think that most people do that with email or their marketing in general.

Mike: And I think some of that stems from, you know, I'm throwing myself under the bus here, but I think some of that stems from you're picking up stuff off of JungleScout, because the numbers look good on a page vs. being passionately involved with the brand. You guys are able to do that at that level because this is something that you guys feel passionately about in your own personal lives. And you're like that anyway. I mean, I know you guys personally so I know you guys are like this any way, but you're communicating with your audience like you're like your audience, your core group that you would be spending time with if you did like to be around more people and did spend time. You know, it's the same people that are on— for me, it was I had to push much harder to do that with coloring because I was talking to someone that wasn't me. 

And so, I mean, I've been advocating for people to be thinking about that more going forward and getting into something that they have more of a personal interest and passion in because the excitement that you guys exude for your business, it isn't just, you know, a dollar sign part, you know, for you, it's the personal attachment and message. And, like you said, you're trying to build a cult following because it is you.

You're living the life that you would live otherwise. And it makes it so much easier when the going gets tough. Which I mean, we've known each other for years. I mean, you guys have been on this entrepreneurial rollercoaster and so on times when it's not as great. It makes it easier to stay on the path because, you know, in your heart that what you're doing is providing value to people in the world and they really love your products and you want to be a customer of them as well. And it goes a long way.

Meredith: Yeah. A sentiment that we hear often from customers, whether they're commenting on an ad or they're sending us an email or commenting on a social media post. The gist of the sentiment and people literally said this, “this brand gets me. These people understand me, like, I feel seen by these people.” And that's a really important psychological need that people have. And so if you're in a niche like ours where you're basically selling, you know, a personality and a lifestyle and a sense of humor, that's a really powerful thing. And I think there's lots of products that could do that, too. It's just in all how you look at it and think about it. And is that really what you're trying to convey to your audience? Do you want to make them feel like seen and understood? And if that's what you want, I think you're more likely to develop these really passionate fans that want to spread the word about what you're doing.

Mike: Yeah, awesome. Alright. So switching gears a little bit here. You're the first entrepreneur that I've interviewed for this series that also works with their significant other. As you know, I also work on my significant other. There might be some others that are out there that listen to this that have that challenge as well. How have you guys been able to maintain a great relationship and not get at each other's throats while you're commingling business and pleasure and personal time and all this other stuff?

Meredith: We don't always succeed in that. When Matt and I do have a rough patch and aren't getting along, it is 100% always related to work. We don't really have any interpersonal strife outside of work, really. You know, there are like minor things like why’d you leave the kitchen a mess, but no one really makes a big deal about that in our relationship. But yeah, work stress can definitely spill over into a relationship stress. That's the only real stress in our interpersonal relationship. But that said, Matt and I are very similar and very similar, similar preferences and goals and sense of humor and values and all of those things. So it helps that we're aligned because when we're dealing with problems, we tend to have a similar outlook on how to deal with them. And there's not a lot of disagreement on like really our core beliefs. So I think that makes it a little bit easier for us to work together and get along.

Mike: Yeah, I mean, we're similar. Michelle and I are similar and in fact, that the only time we've ever really had any major fights has been over the business. And that definitely has spilled over into the personal side and it's tough. I mean, the one thing that I miss is the time apart because I think that it's natural and you're just more typical in society to spend at least eight or 10 hours a day away from your spouse and when they come home and you miss them more and you don't take things for granted as much. I mean that’s definitely something that’s, I think, happened us over 15 years of doing this stuff together now.

You just always take for granted that the person's there, you know, just day in and day out like all day long and then it becomes hard to go home to talk about what did you do at work today? Because we did the same thing at work or typical conversations that people have.

And then if you are, you know, kind of 50/50 partners in the business like we are, it also is difficult when, you know, ultimately a decision has to be made. Somebody’s going to have to make it. The other person's not going to be happy with that. And how that manifests itself, it's definitely— there's some interesting challenges working with your spouse, for sure.

Meredith: I mean, it depends on the couple. I know that some couples that Matt and I are friends with, they're like, we could never work together. It's good to know that about your relationship. Some couples wouldn't be happy working together. Matt and I mostly get along pretty well. We like working together. We like spending 24/7 together. So for us, it works, but it depends on the couple, really. And yeah, you did spend your whole day together, so some days maybe you ran out of things to talk about, I don't know. We usually have things to talk about because we're constantly like taking in like news and stuff that happened or, you know, interactions with Instagram or whatever. Whatever's going on in the culture. There's usually something or we're just like trading puns about something we're obsessed with for the next forty five minutes.

Mike: Right, right. That's funny. All right. So switching gears again, this is interesting. Every podcast takes a life of its own. Usually it's kind of in chronological order in terms of how the business got started and how we got to where we are. And we got off on… I forget exactly how we got on some tangents. But it was fun talking more about the business today. Some of the things that you guys are dealing with from a creative perspective and working together and just rollercoaster type stuff and entrepreneurship. But we were talking about you guys both had other jobs and you were selling some shirts and/or some of the artwork. People wanted it. Let’s just kinda end the podcast with how that evolved into a full blown business?

Meredith: It got more— I mean, there was some interest in the stuff that we were selling online, but we hadn't really learned the whole digital marketing side of it because neither of us had a marketing background. But I think that Matt and I are good problem solvers and we were not happy with where we were in terms of our careers, like I was making money but not happy with any other part of my career. And Matt was not happy with his experience working for other people. And so we were just like, well, let’s just quit our jobs and figure it out. And that's kind of been the process since then. 

And we've gone through a few different phases of trying to figure it out. And I feel like in the last two and a half, three years, we've gotten a lot closer to really honing in on like how to be good at digital marketing because that is really its own craft that we had to learn. But that is kind of how it evolved. It was more just like we're just going to do this and figure it out. And that's basically what we've been doing. But it did take a little while to figure it out. I think that from the outside, people think that like starting online business is somehow easy and that anybody could do it. And you just make all this money right away.

Mike: And you probably thought that too, to be fair.  You go in to think of that right, and then the reality hits you. 

Meredith: I don't think we would get like super rich super fast or it would be super easy. However, I think I also underestimated how difficult of a job it is. I didn’t think it would be easy. But it's— however hard you think it is, multiply that times like a trillion. It's a very difficult job for many, many reasons. And different companies deal with different challenges like so many things that we deal with I think are unique to us. It's like we're kind of the face of our brand, and so we deal with a lot of trolls and we deal with having a public profile, which if you're selling toothbrushes or something, maybe you don't have that part of your business. But we deal with that and it's not something we like, but it's kind of a necessary evil. And so a lot of those kinds of things I don't think we were thinking about when we started that now we're just like, I guess we'll figure that out, too.

Mike: Yeah and I think that that's what makes a successful entrepreneur, right? Because like I mean, a lot of people, they want someone else to help them through a lot of things. And I mean, that doesn't exist in entrepreneurship land. There’s no one else to help you. So if you don't have the personality type to deal with that, I mean, my recommendation would be just to not get an entrepreneurship to begin with, because I think that that’s definitely one of the things that's helped make me successful just in life in general and I think a lot of it was a product of just my childhood and I was an only child. So I didn't have all the people around really to to help in that regard. My parents weren’t really around a lot when I was a kid and you know, so I just— I always had this mindset of like, I've got to figure it out on my own, no matter what it is in life.

And, you know, I applied that to business as well. And I mean, there— it's so funny. I look at like a list of things that I didn't know diddly squat about five years ago or seven years ago, whatever it was when I got into e-commerce. But you just don't let that stop you. Now there's Google. So like, there really is no excuse, I mean you just go figure it out but you gotta be persistent. And you can't just give up because no one spoon fed you the answer. And I think that's really probably one of the most important qualifications to be a successful entrepreneur.

Meredith: I agree completely. If you're not extremely passionate about problem solving and figuring things out and being kind of an independent person and not giving up on things, if you're not like fiercely tenacious, like these are all understatements. I can't begin to explain to anybody in words like how much how much grit you are going to need to be successful at this job. I wouldn't recommend it to 99 percent of people just because I don't think they'd be happy. And I think it's hard to be successful at it. If you don't have those qualities, you need to be a little obsessive and crazy. I don't think it's a job for totally normal people. And that's the reality. I know you and I were at a conference earlier this year and one of the presentations was on mental health and the presenter was talking about all of this kind of dysfunctional behavior. And everyone in the room is nodding along like, yes, yes, that's relatable.

Mike: Yeah, definitely. I mean, you think about the list of things that you've learned from back before when you quit your jobs. I mean, you learn how to print the T-shirt. I mean, that's something that like you had no clue how to do and like design artwork and get it from an artwork form onto the shirt. And then like how to launch an actual e-commerce store with Shopify or whatever platform and then run Facebook ads, Instagram ads like–


Meredith: Matt and I talk about this all the time, like the myriad of things that we've had to become experts on, that most people spend an entire career on any one of them. Like I couldn't even begin to make you a list, like the amount of logistical things you need to know, shipping, warehouse operations, managing, hiring, legal issues like the list is endless.

And if you're not the kind of person that can pick up a lot of very technical, complicated things very quickly without a lot of help, this is gonna be a hard job for you. It's not realistic to do it, probably if you are the kind of person that can do that.

Mike: Yeah, I couldn't agree more.

Meredith: It helps that there's two of us. But…

Mike: Yeah, that does definitely help. But even still, I mean…

Meredith: Even with two, it's hard. Every day is a new challenge.

Mike: And the thing is, I mean, I think it's even more challenging in ecommerce. I mean I look at my career and the things that I've done in entrepreneurship. I feel like it's even more challenging in e-commerce because the margins are so much thinner. So there's just less room for error and you can– you talked about like one thing there like logistics and shipping, which is one thing that I knew nothing about, you know, coming into this and something we spent almost an entire year working on to increase our profit margin. But if you don't know, you don't know. And until you start going through all that stuff and it's hard to– you're not going to know all that stuff going into it. And so your margins are lower to start with. 

You're kind of at a disadvantage and you've got to just be persistent and really want it. I mean at the end of the day, I think that that's, you know, again, because if you're into things that you have a personal interest and passion like you guys have done, I think it makes that easier, which is why I've been advocating more and more for people to try to find something that they've, you know, that they have a personal interest and passion for. Everyone has something and it just makes it easier to go through all that, because if you're also the customer and feel like you're gonna do better by the world, by doing it, you will figure out that shipping and logistics problem or how to deal with this employee issue or Facebook platform going off the rails like it has recently and just all kinds of other stuff because you're not gonna let it stop you and you never will. And it really helps.

Meredith: Yeah, I would say the other thing that is helpful is having a community of people that do what you do. And we've been really lucky with e-commerce fuel and for who we've met other people that do the kind of work we do and they don't have the– they won't have the answers for you and they can't do your job for you. And they're not going to give you a roadmap. But it's still incredibly helpful to have peers that are doing the same thing that you're doing so that you can talk to them about a specific problem and ask them what would you do? And their advice might not be the right advice for you, but just having them as a sounding board and people to talk to that are really doing what you're doing and not dabbling in it as a hobby is incredibly crucial like we wouldn't be where we are without it.

Mike: I couldn't agree more. I mean, it's weird how humans are wired, but there's definitely something to feeling like you're the only one dealing with a particular problem versus knowing that everyone else around you is dealing with it too.

Meredith: Yeah.

Mike: And I did a Ecomcrew roadshow with this really sweet couple in a small city in Texas and they're not surrounded by other people, other e-commerce entrepreneurs. And you know, most of the conversation that we had was like allowing them to feel like they were not the only ones dealing with a particular issue. They're like “because I thought they were crazy”, right? You think you're the one. You're the one guy that's like, or gal that's having a problem with this particular thing. And then you realize that like everyone in e-commerce is dealing with the same headaches.

Meredith: Yeah.

Mike: And then that really helps. So being in that community really helps. Then, you know, then there's also other ancillary things that come out of it that are really helpful. Like I can call you at any time and talk about something I'm dealing with and get help and vice versa. And that is really helpful like just knowing that you can pick up the phone or send a text message to people and  get help on that thing that, you know, they've already spent the 10,000 hours on and people in this community, it's so unique because there's been nothing else that I've done where people were willing to do that. Usually it's like, you know, people are hermits about this stuff and don't want to help because it's the competitive advantage stuff. But, you know, I'm not selling t-shirts and you're not someone gel pens so. And we're both like awesome people. It makes it easier to collaborate and do those things, which I think is amazing. That's why I love e-commerce.

Meredith: Yeah. I mean, even if you were selling t-shirts, you wouldn't be selling these same ones as us. So that still wouldn't prevent me from talking to you about it. I mean, I do talk to other people that sell T-shirts and, you know, similar kinds of products because in some ways it's helpful to people that's some more in your vertical because there's some challenges that are unique to your vertical.

Mike: And my shirts would be a plain white t-shirt. That's my creative abilities is that's about it.

Meredith: Yeah, but those relationships are important and it's particularly tricky in e-commerce because there are a lot more wannabes and there are people that are actually doing it like the people that are selling, you know, a couple thousand dollars a month worth of stuff a month, which there's nothing wrong with that. But it's a hobby. It's not a career when you're selling you know, tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of things a month. 

That's a career, but that's a more rarified group of people. And so you kind of have to go find those people and work with them and you kind of have to get to that point where you can even work with them because those of us that, you know, got to put all this work thus far in or at that point have limited availability to coach people that are still in the hobby phase and aren't really putting the hours in and don't have as much to give back. It's more of a, you know, relationship where you're in a similar position. I think it's easier to trade favors and information with each other.

Mike: It's a great plug for E-Commerce Fuel so if you, I think that was the liminal. The minimum, I should say, is a million dollars in sales.

Meredith: Andrew is generally looking for one million dollars in revenue a year.

Meredith: I think there's probably some wiggle room for people in mid to high 6 figure businesses that are, you know, early on and growing if they have something unique to contribute, because I love e-commerce fuel, but I couldn't care less about Amazon. And there's a lot of conversation about Amazon on e-commerce fuel. And so people doing something other than that I think would probably be welcomed if they didn't hit the revenue minimum. Just because people that have unique and creative things that are going on their business I think are more valuable than revenue. And then I know you and I have also talked about the idea of like revenue doesn't mean much. It's kind of a vanity metric. Net revenue is what's meaningful. You could have a 10 million dollar business where you're only taking home a thousand dollars a month. And, you know, it's not a real business where you can have like a four hundred thousand dollar business where you're taking home $200,000 a year because you have incredible margins. And I'm more interested in talking to that person.

Mike: Yeah, I couldn't agree more. We've been talking about that a lot on this podcast over the last couple of months. I think that if there's one thing that I could snap my fingers and change in this business would be for people to start talking about how much money they make and making sure that that's clear, because people leave and interchange that.

Mike: Like how much do you make in e-commerce? I'm doing a million dollars. How much do you make like how much are you taking home? Like how much is your tax return, say? That's at the end of the year actually matters.

Meredith: There's nuance there, too, because people also go through phases where they're putting all their money back into their business to grow to a certain point in a certain amount of time so, you know, you kind of have to look at a lot of different details to figure out like is it a real business? But it's more complicated than gross revenue, that's for sure.

Mike: You're right. Obviously, it's simplifying things there too much. And we went through a phase like that, right. We were investing tons of money into growth and developing new products. And so our profit margins weren't as high as they would have been if we weren't doing that. So that's certainly a fair point. But I definitely think, you know, one thing that's definitely definitive is the top line revenue number needs to stop being thrown around as the be all, end all number because it causes people subconsciously or even consciously to start pushing their business in a way that might be detrimental. Just to be able to have that conversation of, oh, I'm a seven-figure seller and I get it because it's easy to get sucked into. I mean, it doesn't mean anything at the end of the day.

Meredith: And you also have giants like, you know, your Casper Mattress and MeUndies and BlueApron and all these brands that everyone's heard of that aren't net, there have no net revenue like they have gross sales, but no profitability. And so like that's what you're supposed to aspire to? Like, no. And I know that they have a lot of venture capital money throwing in– flowing in there on the spec that eventually they will be profitable. But when you're starting your own thing from the ground up and you don't have all that venture capital money, like those aren't the models to look to because you need to pay your bills now.

Mike: Alright. There's one more thing I want to talk about before we hop off here. We're already running a bit late, but you've been awesome to chat with, which I knew that was gonna be the case. So–

Meredith: Aww, thank you.

Mike: You guys, you already mentioned this actually just a second ago. You guys do not sell on Amazon, which is amazing, really in this day and age that you guys– and I think it's awesome. Some days I think you're crazy because we've had this conversation personally. I'm like, you got it so why not? Why not do it? It's like all this extra revenue. And most days I'm like, man. Good for you guys being steadfast, not doing it, you know, because it can be a runaway train where, you know, there's going to be a day of reckoning when you get on the platform that you're going to be upset like at some point.

Mike: And I know, I'm definitely there, too. But let's just kind of end the podcast talking about what your decision making process has been there not selling on Amazon. And how that's positively affected you guys? It's definitely been a great decision for you. And it really helps, if nothing else, for you guys, for your mental health, because making– someone at Amazon will definitely make you crazy.

Meredith: We have plenty of other things to make us crazy. We don't need that.

Mike: You got me. Just give me a call.

Meredith: We make ourselves crazy. But yeah, man, I have a lot of things to say about Amazon. We did sell on there for a time when we– earlier in our business and we dealt with a bunch of people hijacking our ASINs and that was a deal-breaker for us. And I know that a lot of people will stay and fight, but we were like, no, screw this. Like, I don't wanna spend my time staying here and fighting this. And when that happened, it was also around the same time the Amazon really shifted as a business to focusing heavily on Chinese sellers like the majority of their sellers are Chinese now. I don't know how to phrase this. 

They don't have the same values as Westerners. And I think that it's difficult for us to share space in terms of brand businesses because the values are so divergent. But that is kind of the direction Amazon went and it was just this like lack of care for like the vendors they're dealing with, lack of care for the customers that they're dealing with. No integrity, not caring if they're selling counterfeit goods, dangerous goods. And I just don't respect them as a business and integrity is our number one core value in our business. 

And I'm like these things aren't compatible like I don't want a relationship with a company that has these kinds of values and the way they treat their employees is terrible. Everything about them is terrible. I don't shop there, I don't sell there. I wish nothing but terrible things for them. I'm not a fan. But yeah, we just decided like we're not going to let them like sell fakes of our product and damage our brand reputation.

Meredith: And it isn't taking the long view to allow them to do that to a brand because they can really destroy your brand equity by being able to sell counterfeits of your products. And so we were just like, nope, we'll live without them. And that's what we've done. And we've been able to grow, you know, much bigger and much faster without them. I think that anyone that is determined to not sell there can do that and should. The way I like to think of it is like it might be slower and more tedious to like build your house up brick by brick. But a storm's not gonna blow it over. You might be able to throw up a house real fast out of paper-mache, but a storm is gonna blow that over pretty quickly. I would rather have like this more stable thing that can withstand outside forces. And that's what I'm doing with building a cult following and building an email list that's really engaged because then I can be more platform independent. And you know, Facebook had been a big driver for us, but it's about a third of our sales, not 80 or 90 percent of our sales. So even though it's been creating trouble for us, it can't knock us down. It can create some headaches for us. It can break a window or two, but it's not going to destroy our business. And I think the more independent you can be, the stronger and more long lasting your company is going to be.

Mike: Yeah, I feel like that's a mic drop. I'm not sure we can add any more to that. Meredith, thank you so much for coming on. It's been a pleasure. Best of luck with everything in you guys' business and say hi to Matt for me.

Meredith: Will do. Thanks, Mike.

Mike: All right, everybody. That's going to wrap it up for the 268th edition of the Ecomcrew podcast. So glad to have you guys here. If you get a chance, leave us a review over on iTunes. That's a lot easier to do from your computer. It means a lot to us. As I always say, we don't charge anything for these podcast. Hopefully you find them informative and enjoyable and helpful and all these things to your business. Otherwise, you wouldn't keep listening. And if you haven't left a review yet, maybe I can make you feel just a little bit guilty and go leave a review for us. Even if you say Mike, shut the hell up and stop asking me to leave a review, one star. Anything would help. I definitely appreciate it. And just be honest, I love reading the comments. There's been some awesome ones. I think I'm gonna do an episode at some point just reading all the comments because some of them have been amazing, they definitely inspire me to continue doing this because it's hard work. This is not easy doing these. I'm actually out in a van right now in the middle of nowhere recording this. And, you know, so it requires dedication. I'd much rather be out on a hiking trail right now or doing something else. But I'm committed to the podcast and all of you guys, if you get a chance, leave a review. We really appreciate it. And til next time everybody, happy selling and we'll talk to you soon.

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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