Competition can be healthy in business, but there's a lot to be gained from cooperating with other brands that share mutual interests and similar target audiences.
Amina Belouizdad of Bartaile sells bold travel goods and accessories for those going places.
In this episode of Shopify Masters, you’ll learn how she and her business partner find and collaborate with complementary brands to multiply their reach and grow their business.
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“One of the best ways that you can grow your list or grow your social media following is to align with other brands that are in similar situations as you.”
Tune in to learn
- How to effectively work with multiple designers at the same time.
- What does it mean to fail early and fail cheaply.
- How to partner with a complementary and similarly-sized brand.
Felix: Today I’m joined by Amina from Bartaile. Bartaile sells bold travel goods and accessories for those that are going places and was started in 2014 and based out of Houston and [inaudible 00:01:03]. Welcome Amina.
Amina: Hi Felix.
Felix: Hi. So, yeah. Tell us a bit more about your store and what are some of the most popular products that you sell? What is the most popular product that you sell?
Amina: Well, that’s an easy answer Felix because we only have one product. But, before we get to that. So, Bartaile, we launched it because we think that we, is myself and my business partner Felicia, we believe that there is a very clear gap in need for functional bags for women that are also attractive. So, it’s one of those obvious things that we felt personally a need for and tried to fill the gap ourselves by shopping for that kind of product and didn’t find it. And then the more we dug into it the more we asked questions, the more we discussed with our friends, our peers, strangers. We found that this was a common issue amongst women.
For example, the easiest gap for that is a laptop bag. So, most laptop bags are designed by men and for men. At best you can find a men’s laptop bag that’s in pink or purple. I don’t know who told all men that women want pink or purple bags. We don’t but that’s the best you could find. And so, we … That was the first. We have many ideas for products like that but that was the first one we chose to tackle. And so, we decided to move forward. When we decided to launch the business we decided to just tackle one issue at the time and so, we started with really, the laptop bag. And that’s what our C12 bag is.
So, right now we’re a single product business. We have multiple skews at that same product. It comes in different fabrics. It comes in different colors waves. But, it’s really just a woman’s sheek, functional laptop bag that fits up to about a fifteen inch laptop. Has durable materials. It is convertible. You can wear it as a backpack, a tote, a messenger, a clutch. Has a lot of compartments for cables. Built in keyring. A lot of thoughtful details that women want but that they want to look good.
And so, that’s the mission we’re setting out to accomplish. Is to fill that need and we’ve done it so far with one bag and it’s been a lot of fun and we’re excited to come out with new products here in 2017.
Felix: Yeah. These bags look beautifully designed. I’m a big fan of them.
Amina: Thank you.
Felix: Yeah. So, what’s your background? Do you have a background in designing products like this?
Amina: No. Not all. So, both Felicia and I do not have a consumer product or design background. So, this really came from the inside out where we thought there was a need and then we were the problem solvers but part of solving that problem was finding the talent that could help us solve that problem. And so, we decided to go the route of not only hiring a fashion designer by the name of Teemo Wylon who is very talented but also hiring an industrial designer by the name of Taylor Weldon who brought in that more technical understanding of materials and durability and ergonomics. And so, we kind of married left and right brains and we were still, maybe the business minds. The market research minds. The operational minds. And the risk takers. The entrepreneurs. But, we didn’t have that background. We just saw the problem and sought out to solve it and part of finding that solution was finding the right talent.
Felix: Yeah. I’m a big fan of that. I think that’s important, to note that you don’t need to have deep, deep initial knowledge about a particular problem about the particular solutions to get into that business. If it’s a problem that you’re passionate about solving you don’t have to have that knowledge within yourself. You can go out and find it.
Felix: Right. So, talk to us about that process though. How did you? When you and your co-founder sat down, her name was Felicia you said?
Amina: Yeah. Her name is Felicia.
Amina: And yeah. No, it’s interesting you asked about that because now, sitting where we are, we’ve been working on this for three years. We launched last summer. It took us a year and a half to develop a product. And, had we been designers ourselves and experts in the field the product development stage would have probably been a lot shorter. And now, it feels all second nature and intuitive and we’ve learned a lot but at the time when we’re starting out it was challenging.
It’s absolutely doable. Anyone can solve any problem they’re dedicated to solving. Now, I’m adamant about that. It’s just about surrounding yourselves with the right team and the right people so that you have all the expertise at your fingertips.
So, for us, we knew we wanted designer bags. So, we started out by sourcing designers. So, as always, you start with your network. You ask around. At the time we were in business school at Warden so, we’ve had a built in network of people that we can ask around in. And long story short, is we through many product design iterations with many different designers. I don’t remember exactly. We probably went through three or four designers before we landed on Teemo. And I think that’s the main point here, is that it’s okay to change your mind or it’s okay to iterate or it’s okay to try out different people and different things. I mean, that’s all part of the process and we have to go through that in order to end up where we were. And only later in the design stage did we even understand that there was a need or recognize that there was a need for a more technical designer, an industrial designer.
So, all that came as part of the process. So, I think the moral here, at least for myself, is that when you jump in, when you’re knee deep that’s when you figure it out. When you’re in the trenches. I bet the plan, I don’t even remember what our plan was but I bet our plan and what ended up happening were two complete different things. But, the bottom line is we were committed and we weren’t afraid to try different things and work with different people and not afraid to say, “Thanks. You tried your best. Here’s the payment I promised you. Now we’re going to try someone else.” I think it’s okay to do that. Whether it’s web designers or product designers or any talent. It’s okay to switch around. As long as everyone is good on their side of the deal. Right. Obviously as long as everyone gets paid and everyone does that. But, I think that’s part of the experience. Until you land on the right talent. The right team member for you.
Does that make sense?
Felix: It does make sense and I think what you’re getting at about how it’s okay to move on is a very important point because a lot of times when you are someone that doesn’t have this industry knowledge you kind of just try to latch on to people that know even a little bit more than you and you don’t want to let go because you don’t know if it’s the right decision sometimes, to let go or not. You want to stick with what you started with. But you mentioned that you guys went through three to four different designers. So, how were you, where you running small tests with them to determine they’re going to be a good fit or not? How did you know that it was time to move on to someone else?
Amina: Yeah. I mean, it was very much the minimum viable product concepts. Right. Where we engaged different designers at really, just the conceptual stage. And that was the agreement. Was, “Hey. Throw us your ideas. This is what we want to accomplish. Propose some ideas. We will pay you for those ideas and whatever agreement we come to and if we like the concept we’ll move maybe one or two steps forward with you. And if you don’t then, you fulfilled your end of the deal and we did and we’re going to move on.”
So, I think the idea is to not … When you don’t know enough about something you need to make sure you’re not too deeply committed into it from a financial perspective. Right. We weren’t going to go out and hire a designer for full design all the way from concept, through design development, to product testing. To product development. To product testing. We weren’t going to do the whole thing with one designer without knowing if they were the right fit or if they [inaudible 00:09:56] came out with the right concept.
So, it comes back to this point of minimal viable product. Just test at the smallest level possible for you to be able to gage whether there’s a fit. And I think that applies, even I’m sure people have similar experiences with web design. It’s the same thing. I think a lot of times you don’t know what you want until it’s coming to life. That’s when you start recognizing what works for you and what doesn’t. And it’s so much of the creative process is so subjective and it’s so personal and it’s hard to put into words. It’s hard to explain what you want. That you really need that chemistry between entrepreneur or, maybe, between business mind and creative mind. And you don’t know whether that chemistry is there or is not there until you really are in the trenches. Right.
And so, I think that there’s a bigger lessen here for us that’s learned, is that don’t get too married to talent. Whether it’s creative talent. Design talent. Until you know it works. You know that it gels. And you don’t know it gels and you don’t know if it works until you work together.
Felix: Yeah. And, I think, sometimes you don’t know what you like until you see a bunch of things that you don’t like.
Amina: Absolutely. Especially when it’s all new. If you don’t know what you want. I mean, we knew the problem we wanted to solve but we didn’t know in what form we would solve it. We didn’t know what form it would take. And it took many iterations but then when we saw it, we knew it but we couldn’t have described it until we got there. So, it took a lot of, maybe creative tension is the right word. But, I mean that positively to get there.
Felix: Got you. So, at a certain point you realized that you needed to bring on an industrial designer. So, talk to us about that. How did you know that, that was a next step that you needed to take? To bring on another type of designer.
Amina: Yeah. I mean, so from the start we had this idea that we want our company to be different. We don’t want this to be another fashion brand. I mean, I’m a big consumer of fashion. I love it. I wish we could start another fashion brand but that’s not who we are and that’s not where we saw the opportunity.
We really wanted this to be, to have equal parts style and equal parts function. And, I think it comes with respecting and acknowledging that there are people that are experts at this. Right. There are people that go to school and have entire careers about, not only not how things are designed aesthetically but how they’re designed functionally. Right. Car designers are good at that. Shoe designers are good that, [inaudible 00:12:47] shoe designers. There’s an entire industry around this and we felt that it would be remiss of us to not tap into that. Given that we knew we wanted our brand and our products to go that way. We just sat there at some point, and I don’t remember exactly where but we were like,"Hey. There’s this other world of designers that focuses so much on these specific qualities and wouldn’t it be great to have that thought into our product.
And so, we just decided to tap into that. I think that, just the bottom line is that there’s so much talent in the world and there’s so much specialized and even one off talent and to the extent you can tap into that and bring that into your business. It just makes your business that much more special.
Felix: Now how did they work together? How does a fashion designer and an industrial designer, how did they work together? What are they doing, I guess, together?
Amina: Yeah. It’s interesting right? Because it’s a lot of push and pull. It comes back to that creative tension and I think it was our job, as the business people, to bridge the gap. Now, the good news is that the aesthetics were already set in stone. And then we hired the industrial designer. The ask of him was to not compromise the aesthetics. Because it’s very easy to make something very functional. It compromises that it ends up usually being very ugly. Right.
And so, our challenge for him, if you will, was here’s the bag. This is what it’s going to look like. Now, make it durable. Make it functional. Make the laptop easy to slip in and out of. Make it easy to convert from backpack to tote to messenger. Make it easy to reach into your bag and grab your phone. We had a whole list of demands without changing the aesthetic. And so, there were a few compromises that had to be made but I think the bottom line is that we wrote those rules. And had we not, it would have been a lot more collaborative and probably a lot harder to manage.
But that’s the guideline that we have in our mind. Was that, that’s what will make this product and our future products special. Is that we’re not compromising on the aesthetics. If not, then we’d go the other way. Right. If not, you’d just make a really functional bag and who cares what it looks like. But there’s plenty of those out there.
Felix: No. That’s definitely a challenge. The whole function and form challenge that any performance or technical apparel. whether it be bags or clothing, encounters. So, you mentioned that one of the key roles that you played or you and your co-founder played was to set the ground rules that, "Hey. We already have the aesthetics figured out, we now need an industrial, technical designer come in and make these improvements but don’t compromise on the design, at least not much. Other than that, what’s your role in all of this? When the, when you put the fashion designer and industrial designer together do you feel like you had to put input into it? What’s your say in the development of the product or the development of the design?
Amina: Yeah. I think for any entrepreneur, your number one role is to have a vision. To know where you want to end up and to guide the team, the people, the work streams, your own work along the way to get there. So, it comes back to the whole, that’s why we were so restless and so unapologetic about all the time and the iderations it took to make the product because we knew we would know when we were there. Right. We couldn’t describe it but so, it’s our job as entrepreneurs and all the listeners as entrepreneurs to keep pushing until you’re there. And only you know, presumably only you know or hopefully you know best when you’re there.
And so, that was our job. To keep pushing and pulling and steering left, steering right. Ask the right question. Poke and prod. And push the creative talents. So, we weren’t … And when I say push, that doesn’t mean that we, we weren’t designers, of course not. I think it’s important to have the humility to know what you’re good at and what you’re not. Right. I’m not a designer at all. Neither is Felicia. But, when we felt they hit a wall or they were stuck or they were going in the wrong direction it was our job to explain why we thought it was in the wrong direction. And that didn’t mean that we said, “Put the handle here.” Or choose the width of the back or change the type of fabric. It was more about explaining where we were going. Like, “No. This doesn’t work. This prototype doesn’t work because the women, Bartaile that’s going to be wearing this needs to be able to go from office to dinner and this bag only looks like she can go to dinner.”
[inaudible 00:18:26] put it in words, what the problem is and what the solution is. So, help inspire that vision in the people and the talent that you’re working with.
Felix: Now, can you give an example of the things that you have to do on a daily basis to make sure that everyone is staying the course and working towards the correct vision? How do you make sure? What do you do on a day to day basis to make sure that everyone’s in line and with the vision?
Amina: Yeah. During the design process you mean?
Felix: Yeah. Definitely.
Amina: Yeah. And so, first of all it’s super important to be organized and to document everything. So, the first thing that we did was, create a design brief where we, Felicia and I, put together a brief that explains everything that we were trying to accomplish by designing this product. Who the target market is. Who the Bartaile woman is. Where she’s wearing this. Why is she wearing this. What would this bag substitute. What would she be carrying in this bag. What would she not be carrying in this bag. How much is she willing to pay.
So, all the perimeters that help inspire the end product and equip the designers with all that information. Right. Because, they are coming at it blind. We’ve had the benefit of maybe four, six months of thinking and research and all that and we come to it with such clarity. But, then you hire a new designer and they’re coming at it blind. So, the first thing you do is make sure you equip them with as much background and information in a document they can refer to if possible.
And then, it’s about setting expectations as always and mile stones. Right. In design usually the best way to do it, I think, is a 30, 60, 90 process. That’s been my experience. Where at that 30 percent mark you do a check in. At the 60 percent. And then, assuming everything goes well you do another check in at the 60 percent mark. And another one at the 90. And then obviously at 100. But, it’s also important to let the creative talent do its thing. Of course you have to put mile stones and a deadline or else people take forever. I would too. But, I think it’s a fine balance between structure and letting the creative juices run. Right.
I mean, if you tell someone they have 24 hours to come up with a bag design, that’s not going to help anyone. But. If you equip them with everything they need and then you set expectations that they agree to and have their regular check-ins and make sure that everyone’s engaged and they’re in person and that’s there isn’t just 30 minutes or one hour on the calendar but that it’s maybe a half a day brainstorm. That’s it’s really collaborative and that all the right critiques and feedback come out in the same session. I think that’s how it works best.
So, it’s equipping them up first and then doing periodic check-ins.
Felix: Yeah. I think as an entrepreneur or as entrepreneurs this almost seems like no one that you work with. No one that you hire works at the same speed as you. Now, that’s totally understandable because they don’t have as much skin in the game as you because it’s your baby essentially.
Now, when you do these check-ins and you set these expectations and you come to a check-in and it’s not to the expectation, the expectations aren’t being met. What do you find is the best way to handle a situation like that?
Amina: I mean, I think the best way is … Do you mean in terms of the work product? Or do you mean in terms of timing?
Felix: Either timing or the progress that they’ve made or the design itself, the actual end product that they’re working on is not what you expected.
Amina: Yeah. I mean, so, timing is a weird one. The reason I asked is because I think timing is a weird one. Because it’s easy for someone that is not the producer of that work to set a timeline. Right. I mean, I could say, “Oh, please design this bag. Please come up with a concept in three days.” But, I’d never come up with a bag concept. I don’t know if it takes three days or three weeks or three months. Right. I’m just setting up a time expectation based on my own just guess of how long it takes. But, I’m not the creator of that work product so, I don’t know.
So, time is a weird thing. I think that the expectations on timing needs to be very sensitive and it has to be, you really need to have buy in from the producer. The person that designed or the person on the other side to make sure it’s reasonable.
Felix: So, you set these expectations collectively rather than.
Amina: Yeah. It absolutely has to be collective because, as I said, I have not idea how long it really takes to come up with a great idea. Right. Because, that’s what it is. It’s them coming up with ideas. So, that’s a weird one. Right. And, if the designer doesn’t deliver I would prefer … I mean, think about it this way. Wouldn’t you prefer they take a little longer and come up with the killer concept as opposed to just throw something together to meet a deadline?
So, that’s the trade off. Right. And so, I think with timing you have to be a little bit more lenient as the entrepreneur or the person in the drivers seat and understand what the creative, the designer needs in order to produce that.
Now, as it relates to that quality of the work product, that’s a different story. Right. I think those expectations need to be set up front is knowing exactly what level of detail comes at which [inaudible 00:24:30] stage. And that usually, I think, should be just ironed out in the agreement.
Felix: Makes sense. Now, while you’re going through this it sounds like very long ideration process because you had to work through so many different designs. You had to include a different type of designer during this process. Maybe, first tell us how long did it take from the very beginning of, lets start at this. Design this product to having the finished design that you were happy with to go to market?
Amina: So, it took us about 12 months design to produce the C12 bag in terms of from when it was first on our drawing boards to when we came up with a prototype that we loved. 12 months is a long time for a bag but to contrast that, we’re coming up with two, hopefully two new products this year in 2017 and now that process should be a lot faster.
And that’s because, for a few reasons. One, we’ve already developed our brand aesthetic. I think that’s the hardest part when you’re developing new products and you’re developing your first product, is you’re developing more than just your product. You’re developing the brand aesthetic. What do you want your look and feel, as a brand, to be in your product. And so, that’s why that first one take so much longer.
The next ones are inspired by the first product, if you will. You’ve already decided, are you round edges or are you sharp edges. Are you colorful or are you mono tone. It sounds silly but there’s a lot of these big decisions that you make when you come up with your first product. But, all those questions have been answered now.
The other thing is, frankly, we’ve found our team. Right. Hopefully they’d like to work with us again. No, I’m kidding but I think they will. But we found our team. So, assuming they’re available, we found the right graphic designer for us and the right industrial designer for us and the right fashion designer for us. So, we don’t have to have all that friction sourcing the team and figuring out how to work with them.
Third point is, our own learning process. We’re asking less silly questions now. I mean. The questions are all good but we understand the design process. The product development process. We understand fabrics and materials. Stitching. Workmanship. All that we understand and so much more. And so, we’re able to cath issues and improve things a lot fast now.
So, it’s just amazing how quickly you learn and how much knowledge you gain in such a short time. And I think, for anyone listening that’s developing a product, just embrace the processes that relates to the first one because that is so important. You’re first product will always be the key stone to your brand. I mean, if you think of [inaudible 00:27:40] and ties and Haviana and flip flops and [inaudible 00:27:45] and their tote bags. I mean, there’s a lot of brands that have many products but they all have one corner stone product and generally speaking, that corner stone product was their first one. And it’s because a lot of time and effort and love and thought went into that first product and that became emblematic for their brands.
So, I would take your time on the first one regardless.
Felix: Now, once you did have the design completed what was next? What was the next step? Did you have to get it made? Did you have to start marketing the product? What was the very next step?
Amina: Yeah. So, we went … When I say we officially launched in 2016, now in 2015 we did a pre-order, we ran a pre-order on our website. SO, we didn’t invest in any inventory because we didn’t have the fund but we had samples and we photographed them and we set up our website so, that you could … Almost like a Kickstarter. You could order bags and we would then produce them and deliver them. So, we’d take a small deposit and we’d produce the bag and deliver it to you.
So, that’s how we did it. SO, that did two things right. It helped us from a cash flow situation. But, it also allowed us to test demand for our bags. And, we were really happy. We did about 30 000 dollars in orders in four days. And then, we shut it down because we didn’t want it to get out of control. We wanted to make sure we had a manageable order size. And that was with no marketing spent. Just email marketing to our lists and on Facebook and all that stuff.
Felix: So, you were building this prior to launching the business. This list. This social media presence. You were doing all this before the product was ready?
Amina: Well, actually no. I have to admit we did a very poor job with that. That was just our own personal email list and social media. Now, obviously since then we’ve learnt the importance of that and shortly after that really started building a market. An email marketing list. And building up our social media. But, I think that the pre-order format is a really good way to go. Now, it doesn’t work for every product but it’s a great way to go because you allow customers to pre-order at a discount is what it is. So, you have to have some incentive for the buyer to take a chance on you, new brand with no product in inventory. Right.
So, we offered, I think, a pretty meaningful discount. It was a 30 percent discount but in exchange that the customer would have to wait, I think it was 60 or 90 days for us to make the bag and deliver it to them. And it allows you to gain a small customer base. Allows you to manage your cash flow and it allows you test. Right. So, we had different colors. And we were able to test where the demands [inaudible 00:30:56], which color waves. Which fabrics.
So, I highly recommend a pre-order route.
Felix: So, this 30 000 dollars in pre-orders all came from friends and family? Just your own personal network?
Amina: Yeah. Well, the funny thing is that it was from our own personal network but then when we crunched the numbers, 60 percent of orders came from people we didn’t know. So, from email addresses that were not in our own personal list. So, it was from forwards. Right. It was friends of friends. Or friends of friends of friends that we didn’t know. So, I’ll say don’t underestimate the power of your own personal network. And I think when you’re an entrepreneur you get a little bit shy and you’re like, “I don’t want to bug everyone about this but.”
You’re not bugging anyone. I mean, it’s a good product and if people want it, they’ll buy it and if they don’t, they won’t. It’s not a big deal. But, that was a great learning lesson. And so, I think that’s a great way to go for anyone else. Is do a pre-order with your own list and you’ll be surprised how many people show up.
Felix: Yeah. That’s a great approach. That, don’t be shy, like you’re saying, to tap into your own personal network. I think a lot of times people want to chase after the sale of someone that they don’t know right off the bat but don’t test the most valuable assets that they have which is your own personal network.
So, after this pre-order, the 30 000 dollars, you guys had to then go right into manufacturing? What did you need to use those funds for?
Amina: That’s right. So, basically our supply chain is such that we need, leather, canvas, hardware and a lining fabric. Now, I’m simplifying it. It’s a lot more, fortunately, a lot more complex than that but basically four major raw materials. We had already put some money in and gotten the longest lead item which is the hardware because the hardware’s custom. So, that allowed us to cut a little bit of the turn around time. But, then we took that 30 000 dollars and used it to fund ordering the remaining three raw materials and fund the production. And we produced our bags in India.
The raw materials come from Japan, Korea and China. But, then the end product is made by hand in India. And we had already sourced prior, if you will, rewind three, four months before the pre-order, we had already spent some time in Asia identifying our factories. Our suppliers and our factories. So, that was all sorted.
So, now it was just a matter of executing. And I’ll say one thing, you don’t really know how manufacturing works until you manufacture something. So, that was one of the best. Doing doing the pre-order, which was a low risk, contained scenario where we knew these people, we knew we gave these people good discount. We explained the situation. We were like, “This is going to take 60, 90 days but it may take more. We’re doing it for the first time.”
There was a lot of communication and so, these customers had bought into that risk. Do you know what I mean? So, in a way for us it was a very low risk environment to try all this because every customer knew that we were a start-up. Knew that we were doing this for a first time.
So, that made us feel comfortable. Having said that, there were still a lot of glitches. I mean, we had delays. Some of the hardware came in wrong, the zippers came in backwards. I can’t even explain it because it’s so difficult to imagine but they did. I mean, we had all sorts of issues but I was so grateful that we had created this low risk environment for us to go through this process then.
Because, had we gone live, had our Shopify website gone live to the public and had we received 30 000 dollars worth of orders from complete strangers it would have been a much more difficult situation.
Felix: So, when did you receive that first production run? When did you get that first shipment in?
Amina: What time of the year you mean?
Felix: Yeah. What time of the year?
Amina: I believe it was, now you’re testing my memory. I believe it was spring-summer 2015.
Felix: And then what was the approach from then on? Because you already tapped your personal network to get those pre-orders. What was the next step to getting [crosstalk 00:35:41] strangers?
Amina: Yeah. So, the next step was we delivered all the bags and then we started amassing funds, mainly our own funds, and setting up a plan in order to produce a decent batch of inventory to then go live to the public. Okay. So, we were just managing our budget and figuring out how much inventory we wanted to invest in as well as improve our websites that we could go live.
In the meantime. So, we went dark if you will. We just ’went internal to try to prepare for a public launch. Now, in the meantime what happened is we had a little bit of an issue with our bags. It’s not a major issue but the pulls the leather piece that attached to the zipper, that you use to slide, that makes the zipper easier to pull, was falling off the bags. And so, all those pre-order bags had that glitch in them and so, it’s along story but we went through a very testy customer service phase of our business very early. But, we had to solve this problem on a pretty mass scale and I think we did really well. A really good job all things considered.
So, we got replacement zipper pulls and we shipped them to everyone. We pushed everyone more discounts. For some people, where the issue was too big, we actually sent them new bags. I mean, we then were in this whole, this customer service hole. But, actually, you know what at the time it was hellish but I always say fail early, fail cheaply and that was a really big lessons learned there. Was, we learned how to deal with crisis very early when it didn’t cost much. Because it wasn’t the biggest issue in the world. Well, then it seemed like the biggest issue in the world but right now, it doesn’t anymore. But, the point is, we were again in this very safe environment with only a few customers who knew we were start-up, who knew they were taking a risk on us. So, they already signed up for this, if you will, and we didn’t want to let them down.
And so, there was a lot of thought and we just really figured out what works and what doesn’t from a customer service element. Now, again if we had that same product issue after having gone live to the world, we’ll say, after having done 100 or a couple 100 000 dollars worth of orders with people all over the world that we don’t know it would have been much, much harder to manage. And so, we learned how to deal with a customer service crisis and in a safe bubble. And I’m grateful for that. It’s made us stronger.
Felix: Now, can you set yourself up to fail earlier and cheaper? Of course you’d never want to fail but I think what you’re getting at is that if you are going to figure out something is wrong, figure it out when you’re not going to lose as much from figuring this thing out. So, can you try to identify ways to test and fail earlier than later?
Amina: Well, I think it’s not about … It’s less about putting yourself in a position to fail earlier and it’s more about always starting small. Starting small. So, taking small steps. So, sell to your friends and family first and get feedback from them. Give your product to people you know who will use it all the time. And then, interview them and make sure the product works for them. Just a lot of testing. Gather as much data and information from your target market in a small sample set as much as possible but start with a small sample set. And be receptive. Be responsive. Ask questions. Listen.
I think a lot of people think that they go in their hole. They create their product. They invest in a whole bunch of inventory. Then they press the go button and go live and it’s like, you can’t do that because … Or you can but you’re setting yourself up for some potentially really big failures with people that are not on your side.
So, I think that’s what it means. Is that, test early and test often. And test with the right people that will be honest and that are not going to hold grudges.
Felix: Now, do you ever feel tempt? Because I think what you’re getting at is, you want to crawl before you walk. Walk before you run. But do you ever feel tempted and having impatience towards this approach and just feel like, let’s just dive right in? How do you deal with that temptation to run maybe before you’re ready?
Amina: Yeah. No. It’s funny you say that because there’s a lot of temptation around. And I think there’s a lot of runners out there that do really well but I think, you only hear about the runners that do really well. You don’t hear about the runners that hit a wall.
So, I think that, that’s a thing to remember. Is that, we’re all doing this for the first time . I mean, you may not be a first time entrepreneur but presumably you’re doing this specific business for the first time. And so, how could you possibly know how to do it. Right.
I think by definition an entrepreneur is someone that takes risks and by definition you’re taking risk because you don’t know what the outcome will be. And so, if you don’t know what the outcome will be then don’t put yourself in a position where you’re facing the outcome without all the learning. I just think if you sit down and you rationalize through it, there’s really no reason to rush. Right. If it’s a great opportunity it will be here tomorrow and if you’re the right person to solve it then take the time to figure out how to solve it.
So, it is tempting. It’s tempting when you let your emotions come and cloud you over. But, I think when you rationalize through it, it makes sense to just test and learn and test and learn, test and learn until you get the confidence to do that. I mean, a lot of the great businesses of our time have actually done that.
Felix: Right. That’s a good point that, that you don’t … It’s a biased data out there about why you can be more successful. You just dive in and run because you don’t see all the people that have crashed and burned along the way. Because their story is [inaudible 00:42:46] is inspiring, just that no one covers them.
Amina: Yeah. And they don’t want to talk about it either.
Felix: Yeah. They’re hiding it. Waiting till their next big thing comes along. So, I want to talk a little bit about partnerships. Because that’s something that you mentioned to me, to us in the pre-interview, about partnerships for you and your business. Talk to us a little bit more about this. What kind of partnerships are you talking about?
Amina: Yeah. Well, I think before I go into partnership … Well, before I talk about that more specifically. I think one thing that you learn is that, people want to help each other and for every entrepreneur in business A, there’s another entrepreneur in business A2 or A3 that is in a similar business, that actually wants to help you out. I think we always think of competitors or that people are too busy or that everyone’s just focused on their own thing. But, I think people are more willing to help each other than we initially think. I think is the headline.
And so, which brings me to partnerships. So, one of the best ways that you can grow your email list or grow your social media following is to just align with other brands that are in similar situations as you. And similar situations, as in they have similar target markets. Ideally they don’t have competing product, ideally they have complementary products. And, that are also in a somewhat similar stage. Where they’re willing to put in as much work as you want to.
For example, I mean one easy example and you guys talk about this all the time in here in your podcast is, you know the sweepstakes. Right. Email marketing speaks, sweepstakes you can get a handful of like-minded brands who stand for the right things and the same things and who have a similar target market to pull their resources together to each domain or put forward a product or gift certificate or something and then, everyone emails their list and you’re offering something. You’re saying, “Sign up and you’ll get one product from company A, another product from company B.” Et cetera, et cetera. And everyone shares a list with each other at the end and that’s win win. I mean, it’s win for the customers and the customer can win something. And if they don’t want to win something they don’t sign up. So, no big deal there. And everyone’s contributing a product and then everyone gets the sign up emails at the end.
Those are just easy, simple things and you’d be surprised how many brands I’ve emailed cold, that I don’t know. That I just think are great brands and I love what they’re doing and I think their customers are our customers and our customer’s their customer and I’ll email them blind and be like, “Hey. Do you guys want to work together?” And 80 percent of the time people say yeah. And I think sometimes we think other people are too busy or they’re too removed but everyone just wants, everyone’s trying to do the same thing.
Partnerships are just an easy and frankly just a fun way to grow your business. You get to meet people. You get to learn about other brands. You get to learn. And often I’ll get on calls with these other brands and we’ll exchange notes. Like, “What worked for you? What didn’t work for you? I’ll tell you what worked for us.” Like, “Oh, this press article worked for me. I’ll introduce you to the editor that wrote about us. Hopefully they’ll write about you too.”
Community is so important and the more we can help each other, the better off we all are. It’s not zero sum at all.
Felix: Yeah. Especially in the early days. There’s just so much reinventing the wheel privately. Everyone’s just …
Felix: Figuring the same thing out by themselves but when you can come together you can save each other a ton of time. Speed up that learning curve and get down to actually moving the needle rather than, I don’t want to say wasting time but time that could be spent much better elsewhere rather than trying to relearn a thing someone else could tell you that you could partner with them and have them teach you how to do it.
Now, is there a limit to this approach? Or do you try to work with as many partners that makes sense as possible?
Amina: I mean, there’s always different … It comes in different forms. For example, this valentines day, I guess it’s tomorrow. But we did a campaign over the last week for valentines day where we partnered with a brand called [inaudible 00:47:34] bags. They create functional laptop bags for men and so, I reached out to them and I said, “Hey. I love your bags. How about for valentines day we cross promote? Your list is presumably all men. Mine is presumably mostly women or it is mostly women and valentines day is when you buy something for the other person. Generally.” And so, I said, “How about we … And it’s mating season so, we should partner up. So, how about we promote your bag to our list as an idea for our customers to purchase for the men in their lives if they’re looking for something and vice versa.” And they said, “Sure. Of course. That sounds great.” And so, we did that. The campaign went out last week and that’s been great.
I mean, we acquired customers we probably wouldn’t have acquired this soon and them too. And so, it’s just there always something. It’s always different forms but always think about … I think the key to a partnership is that it’s win win for both parties. And so, always think about what you can offer them first and sometimes I just write to people and I’m like, “This is what we’re doing. This is what I can do for you. Is there a way we can work together?” And they can then come up, they’re like, “Oh. We can do this or this or this bag.” And I can choose one. So, I think it’s just we all have so much to offer and I think just reaching out to people and saying that you want to work with them and you want to offer something, it’s usually just a small step and it goes pretty far.
Felix: Are you at the stage where there are a lot of people reaching out to you that are maybe not as far along trying to work together? Because I think there’s this other side of it where once you have some success there’s just so many people that are coming to you for opportunities. How do you decipher which ones make the most sense for your brand versus ones that you might want to table for the moment?
Amina: Yeah. I mean, that’s interesting. So, yeah. We do get a lot of inbound requests from bloggers. From other brands. I think at the end of the day it’s really hard. You can’t be everything to everyone. That’s generally just a life statement I think but it’s hard to say no but I think the most important thing is to always stay … How do I say it. To always be true to your brand. Right.
And so, to always be a ruthless editor of everything your brand does. And so, for me there’s one simple screen and the screen is does me associating with this brand, person, blogger, whatever, on the other side of this email make sense. It’s not about is it bad, good blah blah. It’s does this make sense? Does it gel? Does Bartaile with this next to it make sense?
Felix: Where do you want to see the brand? What do you want to see your business be this time next year? What do you want to focus on in this year?
Amina: So, this year we have a couple of very clear focuses. Number one, is we want to develop the non-product of our brand a bit more. So, we want to be producers of content. We have a news letter called the Fine Grind which has about 40, or so, 000 subscribers right now. We want to grow that. Our goal is to grow that to about 100 000 by the end of the year.
And what the Find Grind does is, it’s a weekly digest of what we say is the best from our desk. And it’s really a digest of smart, cool, interesting things. So, it’s always different every week but it will be something from the design world. A great book we’ve read. A cool article in the [inaudible 00:51:47] Atlantic. It’s a hodgepodge but it’s all smart, interesting stuff.
So, it’s not Cosmopolitans 95 ways to have sex with your boyfriend. It’s not like that. Which, I mean, there’s room for that kind of stuff and there’s other publications that do it well. So, for us that’s important to us and that stuff makes us happy and I think it’s very central to what we believe ein and what we’re trying to achieve in the Bartaile.
Goal number one is to really grow that. Goal number two is to introduce new products. As I said, we’re going to be bringing, hopefully, two new products here very soon. And then, number three and this is a tough one, is just to have a stronger social media presence. And I think this is a reflection of Felicia and myself, I always joke that I’m the unsocial media. I’m just not into it personally. I don’t really post on Facebook. I don’t even know what my Instagram login is. I’m not social media active and neither is Felicia and unfortunately that ends up reflecting on our brand because we’re not social media active, we end up don’t putting that much effort, time and thought into Bartaile social media. But that needs to change this year because I can see how it’s working for other companies and there’s no reason we can’t make it work for us but for, we’re not putting the time and thought into it.
Felix: Yeah. But you would fool me. I’m looking at the Instagram now and I really love the photos that you guys have posted. Lots of great colors and.
Amina: Oh thank you.
Felix: I can see here a nice little theme going on with it. So, maybe this podcast will get some people over to Bartaile’s social media account and get you guys kicking that off.
Amina: Thank you.
Felix: So, bartaile.com. That’s bartaile.com is a website. It looks like social media is all very similar. Bartaile, spelt the same way. And you said the Fine Grind. Is that the newsletter over at Bartaile? Where can they got to sign up for that?
Amina: Yeah. SO, the Fine Grind’s our newsletter. Everybody should sign up for it. I mean, obviously I’m biased but it’s really special. And the way you sign up for it is just on our website. If you go on our website, if you scroll down you can sign up for it and actually when the pop-up, there’s a pop-up that comes up for a discount code when you get on our website that also enters you into the newsletter.
Felix: Awesome. Thank you so much for your time Amina.
Amina: Thank you so much Felix. Really enjoyed being on here.
Felix: Thanks for listening to Shopify Masters, the eCommerce marketing podcast for ambitious entrepreneurs. To start your store today, visit shopify.com/masters to claim your extended 30 day free trial.