The press is always hungry for a good story or something new to cover. Give them that and you can generate a lot of exposure and traffic (plus get a neat addition to your "As Seen On" section of your website).
On this episode of Shopify Masters, you’ll learn from Travis Beck and David Fisher of Paracable, premium fabric-wrapped iPhone, iPod, iPad and Android cables.
Find out how they hacked the press to drive 40,000 visitors a day before ever having a product in inventory.
I left an anonymous tip...That was on a Thursday afternoon and that night I got an email from one of the editors from Mac Rumor who was very interested in the idea. The story went live the next day and our lives changed forever.
Tune in to learn
- How to know when you have the right timing for launching a product
- How to determine if a PR agency will be a good fit for your business
- How to turn angry customers into rabid fans
Listen to Shopify Masters below…
Don't miss a single episode!
- Store: Paracable
- Social Profiles: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram
- Recommendations: Delivering Happiness (book)
Today I’m joined by Travis Beck and David Fisher from paracable.com, both co-founders of Paracable. Paracable sells premium, fabric-wrapped iPhone, iPod, iPad, and Android cables. It was started in 2012 and based out of Houston, Texas.
Welcome, Travis and David.
Travis: Thank you very much for having us.
David: Yeah, we appreciate it. Thank you.
Felix: For sure. So, we’re excited to have you guys on. Like I described, premium, fabric-wrapped iPhone and Android cables. Can you give us an idea of what are some more popular products out of the catalog that you carry?
Travis: Right now we have the lightning cables and we have the micro-USB cables, and within those two different categories of cables we have a few different, really vivid colorways that we sell on our cables. The most popular product is our lightning cables, by a lot, and I’d say the most popular color is the blue colors for sure.
Travis: We have a couple different ones of those.
Felix: Very cool. I really like the product because oftentimes I get my cables mixed up, especially if you get the ones straight from the, I guess manufacturer ones that come with the packaging.
Travis: Oh, right. Yeah.
Felix: Yeah, this is really cool because you can choose your own look, essentially, and never have that issue again.
Travis: One of the big selling features of our cables that we didn’t even realize because we didn’t have families when we started it, is people with large families that have a bunch of kids, and everyone has their own colors so no one argues about which one is mine, which one is yours. Solves that problem, too.
Felix: That’s funny. That’s always great that you he this additional benefit to the product that you didn’t know existed.
And speaking of coming up with a reason for this, how did you guys come up with the idea behind this product?
Travis: 2012, the iPhone 5 came out, and when the iPhone 5 came out, they switched from the old 30-pin cable to the new lightning cable, and they’ve with it since then, but when it first came out, everyone probably had 10, 20, 30 of the old 30-pin cables, but you only had the one that came with your phone.
In October, my wife and I adopted a little cat named Baxter, and his favorite thing to do was to find the lightning cables and absolutely destroy them, because the ones that come from Apple, they have that really soft, sort of flexible kind of rubber coating on … mostly all of their cables have that on it, and cats really, really love chewing on those cables because they’re soft.
So, after he destroyed about ten or so, that was enough. I got with David and was trying to figure out a way to protect these cables, and one of the ideas we came up with was to wrap it in paracord. David put together a prototype that he built; he basically just took a lightning cable from Apple and cut it in half towards the end and spooled it through some paracord, and heat shrinked it back up and showed it to me, and it was amazing.
So we started from there. That was the original genesis of the idea, was to basically solve a problem that I had.
Felix: Very cool. Yeah, I think that that’s a common approach, right? Where you solve for your own problem because you couldn’t find any other solutions out there that met your criteria or worked the way you wanted, so you came up with this idea to wrap it in paracable.
Now, how did you know that other people might want this as well, because obviously it solved your problem. How did you know that this was a problem that others had and that they would pay for?
Travis: Our original idea was we were gonna make them to order ourselves. This was before Apple had an MFi program, which we’ll get into a little bit later, but we were making them ourselves. David, mostly, was actually making them, and David had built a wooden jig to help us solder and seal everything up. We had basically chosen 10 to 20 different colors of paracord that we had to make ourselves, and I launched the Shopify store and put up pictures of each and set the quantity to 10 of each of them. But we didn’t really have any quantity, we were just gonna make them to order.
I posted on Facebook to my friends and family, and the answer was crickets. Literally, no one even visited the store. I think that’s how most people launch, is to crickets until you kind of figure out how to get your product in front of people.
A couple of days afterward …
David: It was less than a week. Less than a week.
Travis: Are you familiar with the macrumors.com website? That was one that I frequented a lot, and I know a lot of other people did, and this was sort of right up their alley. I left an anonymous tip, because you can do that on their website to tell them about a product or a feature or whatever, and I said, “Hey, paracable.com is making paracord-wrapped lightning cables. They’re really cool, check it out.”
That was on a Thursday afternoon, and that night, I got an email from one of the editors at macrumors who was very interested in the idea and the story went live the next day, and then our lives changed forever. Basically the next day it was insanity.
Felix: So I’m assuming all of them were sold out the next day?
Travis: Easily. Everything that I had put in stock was sold out the next day, and then we had to make them. Our initial plan of making a few a week and selling them, sort of like an Etsy thing was kind of my idea. Just a little bit of extra income on the side.
That quickly went out the window, because we were getting 20, 30, 40,000 visitors a day, and it was just insane for a really long time. We spent the first year just trying to figure that problem out itself right there.
Felix: Did your product spread to other news outlets or was it all come from macrumors, these 20, 30, 40,000 visitors a day?
Travis: When a big blog like macrumors posts a story, then there are thousands of other aggregators that will pick up that story as well. So you get traffic from a lot of different places. We still today- That was in 2012- Still today get traffic from that macrumors article. Not near as much as we did, but we definitely still get traffic from it.
Felix: Wow. So, obviously you had a great product, and there’s a product market fit because you sold out so quickly, got all this traffic, you got featured by one of the big publications in the space, but obviously there was some luck involved, right? Because you were able to submit this anonymous tip, it got picked up.
Could you replicate this kind of success? Would you be able to approach other news outlets and say, “Hey, here’s this new product that we have.” Did you try replicating it?
Travis: I think that if your product is unique enough, and the timing is right, it’s fairly easy to replicate, but those are all a bunch of different stars aligning for that particular scenario. It was right after lightning cables had come out. It was a really new product, we were kind of the only ones making something like this. We had one main competitor at the time, but they weren’t really big either.
It really was a lot of luck, and as far as trying to recreate that, you can to a certain extent once you create these relationships with people. They’re more receptive to any new products you put out, so you can use that going forward, but I wouldn’t- It is a lot of luck for that particular instance to happen, yeah.
Felix: Did you have any other publicity or any other content that was written up about you guys from macrumors at that time?
Travis: We had the one article from macrumors and then all of the other people who wrote about that article, linking to that article. Uncrate- Have you heard of Uncrate?
Felix: Yeah, Uncrate. Definitely, I’ve heard of them, to great product photos and great features. So you guys got featured on there after the macrumors post?
Travis: Yeah, after the macrumors post, a few weeks later we were on Uncrate in one of their sort of … They do those pictorial layouts of a bunch of different gear to pack when you’re going camping, and it was one of those camping pictorials. We had a camouflaged paracable back then that we no longer sell because it wasn’t that popular. They included the camouflage.
Felix: And did they reach out to you two to feature your product or was this … they just picked it up from-
Travis: Yeah. Uncrate picked it up. There was a bunch of other ones that aren’t as big as Uncrate, and none of them ever contacted us. They just do it. So, when you’re looking through your website logs, you’ll see a bunch of different referrers of sites you’ve heard of but never … they don’t really ever contact you, they just run the blog post or whatever they’re doing.
Travis: Which is great. It was great for us to have random articles written about you. For that effect, it was … once the macrumors article went live, it was kind of a domino effect of everyone else seeing it from there.
Felix: Yeah. I think that helps a lot, where you kind of kick off this publicity snowball, and just builds on top of each other, because you get validation from … you essentially get validated that you’re a cool store to cover, you’re a cool product to cover, by one big publication, and a lot of people are much more likely to “take a risk” on covering you.
Travis: Correct, yeah. So, that was pretty good validation that we had a good product and there was a good market for it. So from there it was all about figuring out a) how to run a business, because neither of us have ever done this before, and then b) how do we ramp up production to meet the demand that we don’t even know what the end of it is yet?
Felix: You mentioned that one of the keys now looking back on getting this publicity so easily was to not only have a unique product but also to get the timing right. You mentioned the time was right for you guys because lightning cables had just come out, a lot of people were learning about them, a lot of people were finding out about these kind of accessories that people were selling based on these lightning cables.
Can you say more about this? What else do you look for? If you were to start over today and try to time it the right way again, how do you know if you have the right timing or not to launch a product?
Travis: There’s kind of one happening right now with USB-C. Any time there’s a major technological shift, especially in our business with cables, it happens occasionally. When the MacBook came out and it was just one USB-C connector, that was a moment in time to, where if you had USB-C cables, you could have capitalized on that. Then, later, when the new MacBook pro came out and had only USB-C cables, it was further information that USB-C is definitely the future, everyone’s going to USB-C.
At that point in time, we’d been working on getting our USB-C cables ready. We don’t have them ready yet, we’ll have them this year. If we had them ready when the MacBook pro was announced, then it would have been really really easy to get a lot of coverage.
Felix: Is there a concern, though, that during this period of time where there’s a lot of buzz around a new technological change or a new technology being introduced, that there is a lot more competition too? That there’s a lot more noise now that you have to fight through to get your product covered? Do you find that or do you find that the buzz is just so much bigger than the noise?
Travis: Since 2012, we’ve grown a lot. We now have a public relations team that we hired to take care of all of that for us, and that makes it a lot easier once you get to that level, because they already have all of the relationships, and whenever we come out with a new product line, then they push that to all the people that they have the relationships with that have covered us in the past. That makes it a lot easier.
We also have our own customer base to work with now. When we introduce a new product- First of all, let me just say that if you have a Shopify store and you’re not getting people’s emails, you’re making a huge mistake. You need to have a mailing list, even if you don’t think you’re selling something that people are gonna buy multiple of, you need to have a mailing list. That is your number one source of really easy income. Because any time I send out a promo newsletter or a new product, or a new color newsletter, that’s usually our biggest day of the month. Every single time.
I’ve been building our newsletter since the beginning, and now we have 60,000 people on there, or something. So, when we go out of stock of something and then it comes back in stock, I send out an email, and so everyone who’s been waiting gets that email and goes to the site and will order, and we’ll have really big upticks that day.
Felix: Yeah, definitely want to talk more about that in a bit. But, jumping back to the publicist that you’re working with, I think this is an avenue that a lot of stores are at, too, where they’re thinking about getting help with publicity because it’s such a huge beast, huge machine in terms of sending you traffic, but also the relationships are a big deal, right? So, like you’re saying working with someone that has a PR agency, they already have those contacts for you.
But what do they need from you? Let’s say you’re preparing for a launch, or maybe you already have a product out there and you just want to get some eyeballs on it, and you approach an agency. What do they usually need from you, and how much prep time is involved? And what’s the process like?
Travis: There’s kind of an introductory phase where they need to see if your product fits with the sort of niches that they handle, and also as a business you need to make sure that they’re able to handle your niche, that they’re familiar with it and they have the contacts for that niche. That way, you know that they’ll have placement for you.
The first part is finding out whether you’re both a good fit for each other, and they’ll ask you questions kind of like what you’re doing right now, is figure out what your story is, where you’ve come from, what your plans are. My biggest problem with pulling the trigger on that is I kicked the idea around for a long time, and it is kind of expensive, but they have to prove their value or they wouldn’t be in business.
In other words, if you’re paying x amount of money per month for public relations and you don’t make at least that much back from the work that they did, then there’s no reason for you to continue that engagement. So, they’re really, really good, as if they’ve been around for a while. I’m making sure that they meet the ROI of whatever your paying them and beyond.
Normally what you want to look for is you don’t want to be locked into a contract from the beginning. If they’re gonna try to lock you into a one year, two year contract from the beginning, I would probably steer away from that. Try to say, “Let’s do a two-month trial period,” so that you can make sure that you’re getting out what you get in.
But there’s always a sort of ramp-up period with any sort of PR camp, because it takes time for bloggers and YouTubers and whoever to get back to them, and then for you to get your samples to them, and for them to write the review. So there is a ramp-up period that you need to allot for.
But, really important to make sure that they know your niche and they work within your niche, and they know the journalism bloggers and people within your niche that are gonna get you traffic.
Felix: How do you determine that? Because you can’t just ask them, “Hey, are you familiar with the niche?” And then obviously they’re gonna say yes. Are there other questions or things you can look at to determine independently that they are going to be a good fit?
Travis: Well, what I did, I just asked for reference. I said, “Give me people that are in this industry,” and then I contacted them personally and talked to them about it.
Felix: Okay, makes sense. When you get these contacts, these referrals that they’re giving to you, and you reach out to them, what are you trying to find out? What are you asking these other previous clients of theirs?
Travis: So what you really want to know is- The most important thing with an e-commerce site is back-links, right? Getting coverage in the local news station on TV is cool, but it’s just for a very very specific time period and it doesn’t ever continue, but when you have a review written about you with back-links to your website, those are there for a very good long time.
All of that sort of factors in to helping you rank higher in Google, and the cheapest way to sell a product is organically by someone searching for it. Easily. So, what your really trying to do is build up your organic traffic in order to make your cost per acquisition as low as possible.
Felix: What your saying too is that PR is not just about exposure, not just about getting that product in front of people’s eyes. It can also bolster your SEO by having these back-links because Google takes that into consideration.
Felix: It’s not just about “How do we get exposure?” but “How do we get this exposure that carries on for a long time?” And you’re saying that to get that, you have to make sure that the PR agencies are able to get you back-links.
Travis: Yeah. You want back-links, they’re the most important thing. You get the short-term burst of traffic and you get the long-term boost in SEO.
Felix: I like that. Cool, makes sense. I never thought about it that way but you might as well get someone to work for you, not just to get you that exposure, but then also an easy way for people to come back to your store, or a easier way for Google to rank you higher because of those back-links.
In terms of work with a PR agency, what kind of budgets make sense before someone should even consider going that route? If you had $1,000 a month advertising budget, does it make sense to hire a PR agency? Can you even afford one at that point?
Travis: Yeah, it needs to be considerably more than that. Our advertising budget started at around $50 a day or something I played with on ad boards. Over the course of a year, that’s ramped up to anywhere total between Facebook and ad boards, we’re spending between $600 and $1,000 a day.
Travis: Yeah. I ramped up to that point before I even started looking at PR, so you can imagine the cost, you can extrapolate the cost of PR based on that.
Felix: Is it fair to say that you don’t even want to consider going with a PR agency until-
Travis: No no no. Your number one thing you need to do is get your conversion rate as high as possible with the traffic that you got. Because if you’re sending a bunch of traffic to a low-converting site, then you’re wasting money. I AB tested for four months straight before I even thought about it.
Felix: And this was through just traffic that you were buying yourself?
Travis: Yeah, traffic we was buying ourselves.
Travis: Plus the organic and referral traffic.
Felix: Nice. Okay, cool, so in terms of people that are not going to be able to afford this and want to take this PR approach themselves, any tips on how you can try to manage this? Based on your experience of doing it on your own and now of course seeing professionals do it. Any tips you can offer someone that’s just starting out for the first time with a PR campaign? How do you even find the right contacts, and how should you be reaching out to them to get the kind of coverage that you were getting early on?
Travis: Sure. So, every sort of niche has a blogosphere that will write about that niche, however big or small that niche is. The smaller it is, the more success you’ll have, obviously, getting bloggers to write about your product. And generally, what you’ll do is find the influential blogs in your niche and just reach out to them, say, “Hey, I’m so and so, I’ve got this product I think your listeners or your readers (if it’s a podcast) might really appreciate it. Do you mind if I send you a few?” And then don’t really ask for anything, just send them to them and then follow up a few weeks later and say, “Hey, did you get the whatever? And if you liked it, maybe write a short review about it?”
And some of these people, you’re giving them an assignment so they may not want to do that. It’s a lot easier if you already have something written or an outline that you can give them. I’ve read that helps a lot for them to be able to get the motivation to write about your product if they like it enough, because we’re all … They’re just like you, they have a day job and then they’re doing this on the side so they don’t normally have a lot of time to spend on it, so try and make it as easy as possible for them. Sending samples is really … that’s your marketing budget, is all of the samples you need to send out in that point in time.
Felix: So these samples that you’re sending out, you’re saying you don’t have any obligations at all in that they should email, where you’re just saying the them, just ask, “Hey, can I send you free products?” You’re not saying, “Maybe you can write a review about it if you like it or not.” You’re not even mentioning anything about what they might have to do in return?
Travis: I would phrase it more as like, “I appreciate your content and we have this thing that’s really cool that your listeners might also like, and do you mind if I send you some?” Leave it there, and sometimes they’ll just write it on their own, sometimes they’ll come back to you and say “Hey, these are really great. We wanted to write about it, can you give us some more information?” Instead of trying to start out with a quid pro quo, just be like, “I like your content, I want to give you this because we think it’s cool.”
Felix: I like that. Because you’re giving a ton right off the bat, you’re giving them the free product, you’re obviously saying great things about them and not even hinting at wanting anything in return, because I think people are smart enough to detect, “Oh, this is a first me doing you a favor and hopefully you doing me a favor back.” I see what you’re saying.
Travis: In the bigger niches, they get that all day long from a bunch of different people, of just, “Can I send you this so you can write about it please?” That sort of thing.
Felix: When you are taking this approach where you’re looking for bloggers and influencers to send a product to, that’s your only marketing budget like you’re saying, but even when you’re at a small scale where you’re working this on the side, that can get expensive, right? Having that kind of inventory where you’re sending that out. How do you become selective enough about who you should be sending products to or is this something that you just have to pour most of your budget into and just not think about the expense?
Travis: It’s easier if you know, if you’ve lived in your niche for a long time. For our product, I’d been an Apple consumer since the original iPhone. I’ve had every single one of them, so I knew the market well, and I knew all of the blogs well, all the publications, the YouTubers. I knew it inside and out, so I knew who to look for to go to. If you don’t have that, then you need to spend a lot of time researching and figuring out what that is, and maybe go check out reddits, subreddits on that niche. You’ll generally get a really good idea of the top influencers for that.
And it’s up to you. You’re gonna go out and choose who you’re gonna send samples to, so the only people that will ever receive them are people that you would like to write about them anyway, and hopefully you’ve done your research and know that their readership or their viewership is generally … goes after and purchases what they recommend.
A really good metric that I use to find out sort or what their viewership is is to look at how many likes they have on Facebook or how many followers they have on Twitter or Instagram or something like that. Generally, they’ll have way more Facebook numbers than they will Twitter or anything else, so Facebook is generally a good metric to see how many people you could possibly reach if they were to write about your product.
Felix: And as you get more and more publicity, it’s gonna be easier for you to hit those larger publications with larger followings?
Travis: One of two things either has to happen. One, you have to have a cool enough product for the larger organizations to write about, or there’s enough of a sort of buzz, I guess, from some of the smaller publications that they may have come across it before and they recognize your brand, and then they’ll write about it at that point.
But, you know, everyone’s different. It’s a numbers game. You talk to as many people as possible and a few of them will say, “Yeah, sure.” At a certain point, people then start coming to you and asking you for samples.
Felix: Makes sense. That’s when the tables have turned, I guess.
So, this publicity that you got, like your saying, you guys did not have the plans to do this as scale. You were going to do these made-to-order, and you only had tens of them ready to go, or thinking about raw ingredients or raw materials for tens of products, but you had 40,000 visitors per day for a while. Obviously, this changed things for you.
What exactly happened, then? Because if you only planned to do this on the side, all of a sudden you’re getting way more traffic, probably more demand than you can supply for a while, what did you guys have to change about your lives to keep up with this?
Travis: David did most of that work during that point in time.
David: Oh jeez, I don’t know even where to start. Well, we couldn’t keep up with demand on our own. We decided that in the first, what, two, three weeks? Would you say that?
Travis: Yeah, sure. Yeah.
David: Right after that, we started … Where did we go first? We started looking into manufacturers-
Travis: Yeah, locally.
David: Here locally. That’s right.
Travis: Not really manufacturers, just kind of assemblers. Because we weren’t making an Apple certified product at that point in time because the MFi program didn’t include lightning yet, and we didn’t even know about the MFi program. So, we were looking for someone to take over what we were doing, which was basically assembling them, soldering them and all of that stuff.
I found a local company here in Houston that seemed to be up to the task, and they did it for … a couple of months, David?
David: Maybe a month and a half.
Travis: A month and a half. And then they just … they quit.
David: We had to force them to quit, basically.
Travis: Yeah, they weren’t doing it nearly as well as we were. Then we still had all this traffic, still had all this demand, but had no way to fulfill the demand, and at that point in time- I’m also an app developer, so I had all of the iOS betas. iOS 6 beta was out, and in the iOS 6 operating system is when they first started giving that notification of, “This may not be an authorized accessory and may harm your phone,” you know what I’m talking about? The non-certified cables?
I was looking into MFi before that happened, and was going through the process of becoming a licensee, and then as soon as I got the iOS beta and plugged one of our old cables into it and got that message, I was like, “No, we’re done. We’re not making or selling these anymore until we have MFi cables.”
So we just completely stopped selling them and went through the process of becoming an Apple certified MFi developer which is a very, very long process.
Felix: Yes, let’s talk about that. So, Apple has this certification program where by getting this certification, you’re officially a “Made for iPhone, iPod, iPad” product. But you said that you didn’t know that this program had existed while you guys were going about this. Does that mean it was against their policy? What does it mean when you are creating products that are not MFi certified?
Travis: So, Apple has a patent on the lightning connector, and the ones that we had were obviously not from Apple at that point in time because it wasn’t even possible. As soon as I found out it was possible, we stopped doing that completely and went through the process of signing up to become a licensee, since we’re not a manufacturer ourself. As a licensee, you then have to find an MFi certified manufacturer, and they give you a list through the MFi portal of all of the manufacturers.
Felix: Now, this is taking a long time, right? Because you have all of this demand, all this traffic, but then you just don’t have anything to sell? It must have been pretty aggravating then.
Travis: It certainly can be, but we felt we were doing the right thing. We could have continued selling a sub-par product and made money the entire time, but we didn’t want to do that. Our goal the entire time was to make a premium, built to last, engineered to last, and also very pretty product.
So, we stopped doing that immediately, and sure, we missed out on a bunch of sales, and it was frustrating to see all of the traffic just coming through and nothing happening, but we kept the site open, and we set up the newsletter so that any traffic that was very interested would sign up to our newsletter. How long did it take, David, from that point in time until we had inventory again?
David: Over a year.
David: Just over a year.
Travis: Over a year. Took two trips to China, which I guess isn’t that bad, considering. A lot of Skype. And then we had a Apple-certified manufacturer building our product after many, many, many, many, many back and forth samples of not getting it right and miscommunication, and many hurdles. So many hurdles, Felix, that you have to get through to make it to this point.
Felix: Yeah, it sounds like a huge journey. How do you actually become a MFi certified licensee?
Travis: You get a Dun & Bradstreet’s number, you go through a credit check for some reason, and you basically write out what your plan is, what your wanting to build, and then you’re a licensee. And once your a licensee, you get a licensee number, but then you have to partner with a manufacturer. And like I said, it was a huge PDF of all of the manufacturers on the entire planet. None of them are in the United States. There’s maybe two, but they’re not contract manufacturers; they make their own thing for their own brand. All the contract manufacturers, the Apple certified ones are in Shenzhen, China.
I had a shortlist of about ten, and we went to China and met- We sent them all the NDAs before hand and the patterns and the samples, and were expecting them to have samples made by the time we get there. None of them did, by the time we got there, but they had some stuff to show us, and we picked the best candidate for the job from the seven that we visited while we were there, and then they got to work on it.
David: We thought was the best.
Travis: Yeah, we thought.
Felix: What made you guys decide to go all the way out there to- Couldn’t you just say, “Hey, send us a samples, and then we’ll decide”? What made u feel like you had to go out to the manufacturers directly?
Travis: Building a relationship. For them, building a relationship is important. For us, building a relationship is important, too, so we’re not just some anonymous entity wiring money back and forth. That we know them and they know us and that we’re working together.
David: And we get to go up there and see what the facilities are like, and what the conditions are like for the workers as well.
Travis: Plus, you get a chance to go to China, you go to China. China’s awesome.
Felix: Business expense for trip writes off. That definitely makes it much more attractive.
So, this MFi program. You’d become a licensee and then you had to find an MFi-certified manufacturer as well. Were you going to be paying a premium, then, for these manufacturers? Because obviously there’s a smaller list of manufacturers that are MFi certified than there are of all the manufacturers, so do you pay a premium for MFi certified manufacturer?
Travis: Yes. Certainly. But you’re also paying a license fee for every single cable you make to Apple as well.
David: The actual individual lightning connector itself has a microchip board on it, and that actually comes from one of Apple’s manufacturers. They send that to our manufacturer to put it together.
Felix: Oh, wow. Okay.
Travis: There’s a really long time in between when you order your lightning cables and when you get them because everything come- Anybody on the planet who makes Apple certified cables gets their connectors from the same place. And they get back-ordered a lot, so you really really have to be thinking in advance for your inventory needs.
Felix: Now you also sell micro-USB cables, I guess we can call it Android cables. Do you have to face these kind of regulations as well when you’re selling products for Android devices?
Travis: There really isn’t, but we made the decision to stick with the same standard that Apple had set for their cables. We use that same exact cable in all of our micro-USB cables. So, even though they’re not actually Apple certified micro-USB cables, because that’s not a thing, they’re using the same exact cable as our Apple-certified lightning cables.
David: Which is a step above on every level.
Travis: Way above any other level.
David: The manufacturer told us not to do it repeatedly. We wanted to do it anyway.
Felix: That’s a good thing, though. You’re not forced to go through a different process, because now you already have the cables, understand what kind of standards that you have to meet. Luckily they aren’t completely different standards than what you were already doing.
Travis: What we’re saying is that there really isn’t a standard with micro-USB, but we forced our vendors to stick with- So, when we make our lightning cables, we braid so many thousands of meters of cable, and then they take that cable and cut it up and solder to create the lightning cables. We use that same exact cable to make our micro-USB cables, and that cable is what determines whether or not the end product passes the Apple MFi certification, because you have to send it to a lab and it’s tested.
Felix: I see.
Travis: So, no one makes micro-USB cables to that standard except for us, as far as I know.
Felix: That’s amazing. Cool. So when you were going through this entire process of the MFi program, and you selected, you guys were saying took a year to essentially have everything set up, were there people or other companies or brands moving in on your space? On the product that you had?
Travis: It blew up. In the time it took us to get our inventory, there was hundreds of competitors.
David: Yes, all the big companies jumped on the band wagon right off the bat.
Travis: Yeah, every single one of them. And then there were a lot of copycats of those companies. We had maybe two competitors that we knew of when we started the MFi process. When we were done, we had a sea of competitors. But it doesn’t matter, there’s plenty of room for everyone to play.
Felix: Plus you were building that mailing list along the way. Now, were you keeping that list warm? Were you emailing them during this period of time, where in that whole year where there was nothing for you to essentially sell yet?
Travis: I don’t like to email the mailing list unless it’s something really important, because every time you do you’ll have people unsubscribe. Generally it’s not a lot, but you kind of want to keep that to a minimum. We email very rarely because I want to keep that list building and I don’t want to take advantage of it, per se, as some people do, and I’m sure you’ve dealt with this as well. Bed Bath & Beyond comes to mind, where they’ll send you an email every single day, and you’re like, “Enough, I’m done.” So we didn’t want to get into that scenario. But we did get emails a lot, and we answered every single email, obviously.
I made occasional blog posts as to … a few little updates here and there, but every single time I put in a hard date, it would inevitably be delayed for many reasons outside of our control. I think at one point in time during that order, all of our micro-USB cables were done, and we were waiting for our lightning cables to be done by this particular vendor, and we kept getting excuses every week. Weird excuses. And we’re months behind when we thought we were gonna get our cables, and it finally came forward that they’d lost their Apple certification in the middle of our production run. Yeah. So we had to go to our backups and our vendor list, and David convinced them to take over our project halfway and get all this other material from them and find out their vendors and finish it, and it was amazing and it got done somehow. That was our first order, was just chaos.
David: Right in the middle of Christmas season, too.
David: We were hoping to get it in. It didn’t happen.
Felix: Wow, that definitely sucks. I’m seeing on the site, too, on your site right now it says, “Where are the lightning cables?” And it mentions that you guys were sold out again.
Travis: Oh yeah, we’re out of stock right now.
Felix: That’s crazy. Could you elaborate on the issue that caused the cables to … I guess, the issue with the suppliers? Because you basically missed out on the holiday shopping season this year?
Travis: We sold everything we had left on Thanksgiving Day this year. David can tell you what happened.
David: There’s more to that one, but let’s get back to that last manufacturer. The first manufacturer, they of course lost their MFi license, and so we had to find the other one. We got that product, sold it, and we were on a good pattern. We were buying and selling product from this new manufacturer quite well. But we … what was it, the fulfillment center we got?
Travis: Oh man, yeah.
David: We’ve had a roadblock at every single turn there is. Our fulfillment center went to poop.
Travis: Yeah, they went from being amazing … So, Felix, I’ll actually give you an idea of our business. Me and David are the only employees, and we have a fulfillment center that the orders go from Shopify to the fulfillment center and they pack and ship all of our cables. The first fulfillment center we had was amazing for six months, and then suddenly, it went very very bad very quickly. We started getting customers that were getting only one quantity of two that they ordered, or the completely wrong product, or empty packages. Really really bad stuff.
I kept giving them a chance to fix it, and they’d tell me they fixed it, and then it would keep happening and would keep happening, so we had to find another fulfillment center in the middle of that. And if you can imagine getting pallets of products from Chicago to Houston in the middle of trying to keep selling them, that was a nightmare scenario, too, that we got through. But our new fulfillment center is local, it’s here in Houston, and they’re amazing. Knock on wood. They’ve been really really good.
Felix: One quick question there. Now, with the fulfillment center, looking back on it, were there red flags that you see now that would lead to all these issues of not packing the order correctly, and sending the wrong products? Were there things that you see now looking back that you know to avoid moving forward?
Travis: What happened was the company was purchased by a larger company in the middle of our service with them, and kind of from there it went downhill. They were listed on the Shopify app store, and I’m not gonna mention them by name, but all of their reviews were five-star reviews when I found them. They were great, they were fantastic. And the reviews held up, because their service was fantastic. It was just at a certain point, I don’t know what happened internally with them, and there was no way for us to know, but it just went south very quickly.
We later found out that the reason why is because the company was a service contractor to other warehouses, that they really didn’t have control over. So, when there was a problem with a physical warehouse, they don’t have people there to take care of that problem. They just email the supervisor, say, “Here’s a problem, take care of it.” We didn’t know any of that until after we had left and done more investigation, so I guess if you’re gonna pick a fulfillment center, make sure that they’re not a third-party service supplier for other warehouses. Make sure that it is a warehouse fully run by that company.
Felix: Right. You don’t want to be too far removed from the actual people doing the job.
David: Well, for instance, our SKU was off by something like 1,200 items on the computer. They misplaced around 1,200 items one day, and it took two months to figure that out.
Travis: Yeah, it was really bad.
Felix: That’s crazy. So, you had these issues with the fulfillment centers, those are all figured out now. But then, are there still also issues, maybe not so much today. I think you have a lot of it ironed out, but issues with suppliers not holding up their end of the bargain, too?
Travis: This order that we’re waiting on right now that should have been here for the holiday season, we ordered in September. Early September. We’ve been waiting on it since then. We should have ordered it in October, and we would’ve had it by then.
But it’s one of those things where we’re waiting on those vendors’ vendors, which is mostly the lightning connector itself was on back order for a really long time, and they had no idea when they were gonna come in. They ordered them the day that we put in our order, and it just took a really long time to get in.
David: They were actually supposed to get in in time for us to get them by Thanksgiving, but they got back ordered by the company that were supplying them. Do you know what I mean?
Felix: This was an issue that was probably affecting all suppliers of this kind of cables.
David: Yes, everybody.
Felix: Okay. That makes sense. Now, you mentioned through our pre-interview questions that one of the keys to your success are unprecedented levels of customer support, and standing behind your product and your warrantee. You also mentioned that when you treat your most angry customers with loving kindness and respect, they become rabid fans.
Can you say a little bit more about this? What does your customer support look like to create rabid fans out of angry customers?
Travis: If someone has a problem with a cable that they purchased from us, we stand behind it 100%. It’s really easy, and a lot of people expect to jump through hoops when dealing with a warrantee, but basically, this is how it works. Someone emails us to say, “Hey, I have a problem with the cable I ordered such and such day,” and I say, “Sorry about that, is your address still the same?” And I send them a new one. It’s as easy as it can possibly be.
When people are expecting friction in that process, they are angry from the outset with the expectation of having to deal with a bunch of BS. Occasionally we get emails from customers that are very very very angry, and I just put myself in their shoes and do the best I can to apologize and alleviate any concerns they have about the product and replace it immediately. And they usually get it in a couple days.
No one ever expects that, and the people who are the most vocal about being angry turn into the people that are most vocal on social network about how awesome the experience was that they had with you. And it’s free, all you have to do is just be kind and stand behind your product. That is the one marketing thing that will always work. Any tips and tricks that you have on AdWords or Instagram, that changes weekly, but that will always work.
Felix: I like that you’ve identified that the most angry and vocal customers are also gonna be the most vocal fans once you convert them into a fan, too, because that’s the type of person that likes to voice their opinion a lot and if you get them on your side, that’s free word-of-mouth marketing.
Now, when you see angry customers airing complaints publicly, let’s say not even to you directly, but they’re maybe using your name, and you’re able to identify or see that they’re posting about it online. How do you approach that situation?
Travis: A lot of people see that situation as a PR nightmare, but in actuality it’s an amazing opportunity. Because when people see the brand publicly responding and dealing with the claims in a kind way, and making sure the customer is taken care of, people see that. You think that they’re only gonna see the negative review or negative comment. Well, they’re also gonna see whether or not you commented as well. I always, always handle any of those situations, public or private or whatever, it’s always handled.
When it’s a public situation, generally it’s to your benefit if you can take care of it.
Felix: They’re almost teeing you up for you to show your customer service, and if you’re able to take advantage of that, like you’re saying, a lot of times people are wary of buying from new brands or new stores online because they don’t have that trust yet. But if they can see that you are, like you’re saying, standing behind your product and your warrantee or whatever else you’re promising, that trust is definitely validated and it makes them much more comfortable buying from you.
Travis: I think everyone’s experienced that, too, when you’re going through Amazon or New Egg reviews on some product, and it’s generally positive but the really really negative ones, you see that the brand actually responded to that person and gave them avenues for remedying whatever problem they had. Then that gives you a certain amount of satisfaction that if you have any problems, that it’s gonna be taken care of.
Felix: Gotcha. Other than, obviously the great customer support, or responding to customers and making sure that whatever problem they have is solved as quickly and as easily as for them as possible, are there other kinds of quick or maybe easy wins for people that they can implement today or this week to improve their customer support?
Travis: To improve their customer support. I guess that’s up to the people in charge of that. For us, David and I handle every single email, every tweet, every Facebook comment, every Instagram comment. Everything is handled exclusively by either me or him. We kind of are the best at it because it’s our thing, and that’s probably one of the last areas that I will outsource if I ever do, because it’s so important.
So I guess you need to be sure that if you’re not doing it, whoever you’ve hired to do it knows your sort of idea around what needs to give and take with the customer. Basically, we just say “Yes.” If a customer wants something, the default answer is “Yes.” We need to find a compelling reason if we’re ever gonna say “No.” And generally that’s someone is trying to scam us, or take advantage of us, and it’s really easy to see a lot of the time.
I guess, whoever you’re hiring needs to know your mindset around taking care of customers, and a really good place to start is reading Tony Hsieh’s book, “Delivering Happiness.” The CEO of Zappos. I think that was probably the biggest influencer in the way that I handle customer support.
Felix: I like how you said that pretty much by default, that any question or request from a customer is defaulted to “Yes.” Because I think a lot of times, whenever I have experienced bad customer service, it was almost like going to battle, right? They’re going to say “No,” I’ll have to convince that “No” into a “Yes.” You already have all this building up in your head, that once you approach customer support or customer service, whoever’s representing the company, that if there is no friction at all you’re like, “Wow, that was amazing because I expected something so much worse.”
That’s a great way to delight your customers, by making them appreciate that, or basically showing that you appreciate them and having the action to back that up.
Now, what about on the other side? What are some common customer support mistakes that you see stores big and small doing that they should be correcting?
Travis: I think that the biggest mistake that I come across whenever I’m dealing with support is not allowing the person you’re talking to to be empowered to take care of the problem. Whenever it keeps having to escalate to someone else who’s empowered to take care of your problem. And that’s the benefit of when you’re dealing with me and David, we’re admins on the store. We can do whatever we want. We’re all empowered to do anything we need to do in order to make the customer happy, because that’s the most important thing. Not your system, not your hierarchy. The most important thing is to make the customer happy, because without the happy customers, then you don’t have a business.
David: We have the opportunity to investigate every avenue of every email. We can pick the name, the email address, and then research all of that information on what products they bought and when they bought them, and everything. It makes it easier to work with the customer that way, when you know all the details. Heck, they don’t even know all the details sometimes.
Travis: Yeah, sometimes we’ll get an email that’s like, “Hey, I bought a cable once and it’s broken.” And just from their email address we know everything, from their store history on our store, at least. And so we can say, “Yeah, I see that you bought this at this time, and this date, and what seems to be the problem, what can I help you with?” Instead of, “Hey, what’s your order number?” Or “Do you have that confirmation email?” Just put the need to do all of the research on yourself instead of putting it back to the customer. A lot of back and forth, we try to prevent that as much as possible.
Felix: Yeah. That also, of course, causes that kind of aggravation. In other words, talking about wanting to avoid, you want to make it easy for the customer, you don’t want to make it seem like they have to do all this work before you can even help them.
Travis: Yeah, we’ve all called the bank before when you have to put in your passcode with the keypad, and then they answer the phone and they’re like, “Can you tell me who you are?” What I’d I go through all that-?
Felix: Didn’t I just tell you that? For sure.
Cool. So you get tons of demand, of course, for the product. Lots of great publicity. Some issues that came up that were out of your hands on the supply side. But through all that, how have you been able to, how much have you been able to grow the business since starting?
Travis: We really got started in 2013, is when the store opened. Next year we’ll easily do over a million in revenue, in 2017. We almost did this year, but we had many months without inventory, so next year it’ll be easily do over a million.
Felix: Amazing. What are the plans for this whole year, just 2017? What are you gonna focus on to hit that number?
Travis: We’ll hit it with what we have right now just because of the sort of traffic that we get now. But what will really push us beyond is our USB-C cables will be coming out sometime this year, and that is a huge market, because we get three, four, five emails a day from people, “When are the USB-C cables coming? Do you make USB-C cables?” So, that’s another huge untapped market that we’ll be getting into, and we have an amazing, amazing customer base of repeat customers that buy them as presents for their entire family, and everyone in their family has one or two.
It kind of blew me away, because my initial idea was that this isn’t really a repeatable business because once you have a cable, you have a cable. But I didn’t realize that people wanted all the cables. They want to collect them all, which is really cool. So we have a lot of the USB-C cables next year, and we have some ideas that I can’t reveal yet that will probably come out next year. I keep saying next year, it’s this year now.
Felix: That’s great that your business has turned into attract the collectables market. The people that want to collect everything. They don’t even need to have a reason to buy your product anymore once they begin. They feel like they need to complete the collection. I guess that’s what your were saying about how you still collect email addresses even if you don’t have a product that you think will have repeat buyers because you never know. It looks like you have repeat buyers here, or at least you can get the product in front of them enough that maybe they want to collect them all, in your case.
Cool, so, thanks so much for your time, Travis and David. Paracable.com is the website. Anywhere else you recommend our listeners go and check out if they want to follow along with what you guys are up to this year?
Travis: Sign up to our newsletter.
Felix: Probably a good lesson for anyone out there that is an entrepreneur to learn about how they’re using the email marketing to reach out to these 60,000 people. That’s amazing.
Cool. So, again, thanks so much for your time, Travis and David.
David: No problem.
Felix: Here’s a sneak peak for what’s in store for the next Shopify Masters episode.
Speaker 4: We noticed that people would go to our FAQ page, or our shipping information page quite often, so we figured that it wasn’t … it maybe wasn’t obvious enough? Because there’s so much stuff to look at, and your attention even when you’re online shopping isn’t- Maybe you have like five tabs open or 12 tabs open. We just wanted to really highlight that so people know there is a free shipping option, and if we spend a little bit more, we will get this offer.
Felix: Thanks for listening to Shopify Masters, the e-commerce marketing podcast for ambitious entrepreneurs. To start your store today, visit shopify.com/masters to claim your extended, 30-day free trial.
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