How This Social Enterprise Turns Its Customers Into Business Partners

How This Social Enterprise Turns Its Customers Into Business Partners
taaluma totes shopify masters

Establishing an ethical supply chain is essential for any social enterprise. But with a little care and creativity, you can turn that challenge into a differentiator for your business. 

On this episode of Shopify Masters, you’ll learn from two entrepreneurs who built a business where their customers help them source raw materials for their products, becoming their business partners in the process.

Jack and Alley DuFour are the founders of Taaluma Totes: socially responsible travel bags made from fabrics sourced from around the globe.

They get the first tote out of that fabric for free as a thank you for helping us connect others with that country. Then they get $10 per tote sold as well.

Tune in to also learn

  • How and when you should ask your customers for product reviews
  • How to prepare your business if you want to run it remotely
  • How to quickly pre-sell products through your website

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          Show Notes

          Taaluma Totes: How it Works

          how taaluma totes are made

          The email that teaches customers how to 

           


            Transcript

            Felix: Today I’m joined by Jack and Alley Dufour from Taaluma Totes. Taaluma Totes makes socially responsible travel bags made from fabrics sourced from around the global. It was started in 2012 and based out of Virginia. Welcome, Jack and Alley.

            Jack: Thanks Felix.

            Alley: Thank you.

            Felix: Awesome. Today, tell us a little bit more about your store and the mission behind your store.

            Jack: Okay. The underlying goal of it all is to just connect the world and connect cultures and connect the people around the world. I think there’s a deep-seated belief that the world’s a big, scary, dark place and we strongly disagree. I think a lot of people that wear our backpacks also disagree.

            Alley: Inside Taaluma we do that in a number of ways. The fabrics are from around the world, like you mentioned, and they’re bright, colorful, traditional fabrics from different countries, and then we also microloan back to the countries where the fabric came from as our second piece of connecting the world.

            Felix: Got it. Where did this entire idea come from for the product and the business model?

            Alley: Jack and I were finishing up an engineering degree in university, and we had an engineering project in Uganda that we went. We went to Uganda for a couple of weeks, and basically just got super-excited about the people and just the amazing colors and the fabric and just how it all was wrapped up in these beautiful, bright, wacky fabrics. We wanted to find a way to bring that side of Uganda back home, so that was the beginning of it all.

            Felix: Now, when you decided that this was the cool products and cool fabrics that you discover, what were the first steps that you decided to take to turn this into a business?

            Jack: The first person that ever sewed one of our backpacks, her name was Miss Conny. She was a tailor in Uganda and that backpack was really just a souvenir that I wanted to take home and give to my brother as a gift. I ended up keeping it for myself because I liked it so much. We had this one prototype, I guess, of like this is cool. Then all my friends in school were asking me about it. We thought there’s plenty of fabric in Uganda, how can we get more of that fabric and make it into these backpacks and sell it to friends here on campus and just try to spread that good spirit. Neither one of us knew how to sew, so I think the first step was finding someone that had some experience sewing that could help us develop this prototype into something a little more durable that could actually hold up to the day-to-day wear and tear of college life.

            Felix: Got it. Now, did either of you have experience starting businesses or creating products prior to this?

            Jack: No. We were both studying engineering and that was … We both studied engineering because we wanted to get into this international development stuff, so that’s what took us to Uganda in the first place. It kind of deviated our paths.

            Felix: Got it. When you were looking for initial people to sew, to put together these backpacks, what was that process like? How were you able to identify individuals or companies to help with this, and what’s involved in a process like that?

            Alley: We were in Virginia [inaudible 00:04:18] Virginia actually has an old textile industry, Virginia and North Carolina. Just by chance we learned this as we were looking into manufacturing and actually making these backpacks on a bigger scale. We just started cold calling different places to see if they were still in business and if this was a product they’d be interested in working on. We jumped in Jack’s station wagon and just skipped Friday classes to drive around to these different manufacturing places meeting different people. We were two students with a very bad prototype and a small idea, and most companies it just wasn’t a good fit, but once we found the company that we’re working with, it’s called STEPS Incorporated, and they’re in Victoria, Virginia. It was a perfect …

            They saw our vision and they are an amazing group. They have a mixed workforce of adults with disabilities along with some really awesome, topnotch seamstresses. They also have a really interesting, fun group working there.

            Felix: Got it. Now, did you do an initial smaller run at first, or what was the initial order like to start creating these backpacks?

            Jack: Even backing up before getting into full production, we had to figure out how to develop the design. Being on a university campus is the best place. It’s like an incubator for starting a business, because you’re just surrounded by all these people that are learning these new skills, and they’re so excited to use them. One of those skills, you know Virginia Tech has a fashion department, so we connected with a professor in the fashion department who helped us develop some of our prototypes and change some materials and sewing techniques. Being in a college town or on a university campus is a great place. It worked really well for us, anyways, just being surrounded by all these people that want to help.

            Felix: Did you do any kind of testing, or how did you understand what kind of designs or backpacks or even fabrics that your customers wanted? What was that testing or process like to understand what to create at first?

            Alley: We were just walking, I mean we were still students at the time during this stage, so we were filling it with our books and our weekend camping gear to try to figure out what worked, what didn’t work, and we also had friends out on campus that also wore a bunch of our prototypes until the strap broke off, and we had to figure out how to fix that.

            Jack: We really just designed them for ourselves. We were students at the time and we wanted to design this product for students, so there wasn’t a whole lot of guesswork there. We knew what we needed to fit in our backpack and how we would use it each day. Like Alley said, we’d get a prototype together and the button would pop off and we’d fix the button problem. Then we’d move on to the next prototype and the strap would fall off. We’d fix the strap problem. Like I said, designing it for ourselves really simplified that. It took a lot of the guesswork out of it.

            Felix: Where were you able to sell your backpacks at first? You were creating these and where were you getting your initial sales from?

            Alley: Our first sales, we bootstrapped Taaluma since the beginning, so we actually just did presales, and we did it through Shopify. Shopify was I think our day one sales store, or source of selling and everything was through Shopify. Since day one, it’s all we’ve been selling through.

            Jack: Haven’t looked back.

            Felix: Nice. Now, these presales, how did you have that set up? Was there software that you used, like an app or something? What was the set up like to create a presale for these products?

            Jack: We were novices with Shopify at the time, so we weren’t really familiar with any of the preorder apps or anything like that. We just really took the bare bones Shopify platform and explained in the order note that you’re going to place your order today, and then once we receive your order, then we’ll take that time to make the exact style that you ordered, and then we’ll get it to you in, I don’t know, two weeks, three weeks, whatever the timeline was.

            Felix: Did you find that people were receptive to that? How were you able to communicate, you know, in the world today where you order something and you want it right away, how were you able to convince people to trust you with their money without getting a product right away, and a product that was still essentially being created?

            Jack: That’s a good question. We started small really, and not only small, but within our network, so I think we got a lot of initial support from family and friends and friends of family and people within our college town who were already familiar with what we were doing. I think we had established a little level of trust either from the direct relationship, like I said, like friends or family, or just from having a little understanding of what it was we were doing. We were really active in our town in the entrepreneur community there trying to learn as much as we could. I think a lot of those first orders, I mean we’re talking like 30 or 40 orders. This wasn’t a huge New York City release party or anything like that.

            It was just enough to get that first inventory of 30 units going. We sold them. We put the profits right back into then making 50 or something, just increasing it very incrementally.

            Felix: Was it just for one design, one fabric, or did you have multiple products ready to go during that presale?

            Alley: I think we had three countries to start off. After our trip to Uganda as we dug into this more, we realized how it wasn’t just Uganda that had these bright, colorful fabrics that really represented the people, so we also found fabric from Indonesia which is another huge fabric hub. Our third country, what was it Jack?

            Jack: Man, the first three. I forget. Kenya?

            Alley: Kenya. Yeah. We had two in Africa and one in Asia to show a little bit of this was more than just one country. We wanted to make this global.

            Felix: When you were launching with these three, did you feel like that was too many? Did you feel like maybe you could have launched with more early on? Because there’s this idea of putting out a lot of products so that there are a lot of options for your customers, but then also maybe it could make things a little more difficult, because now you have to support three different products rather than doing maybe just one. What did you feel like after that initial launch with those three products?

            Jack: I think initially we were just constrained by other matters. This was a side project for us. We both had other full-time things going on, so we were just constrained to really only being able to keep our arms around three different types. Now, today we have a lot more countries within reach and stuff like that, so I think that’s a question we continue to ask ourselves today. How many is too many? We worry a little bit about having too much variety, then you cause the analysis paralysis. There’s so many options, I just can’t decide, therefore I’m just not going to get one. I don’t think we have an answer. We just keep trying different things and just learning along the way, and it’s kind of an intuition thing at this point.

            Felix: Got it. Now, when you do think about releasing a new product, talk to us about the production or the development process? Do you pick the fabrics first? Do you pick the design first? What’s the process for you guys when you want to start working on or releasing a new product?

            Alley: We only sell backpacks and every single one is the same design. The only difference is the outer fabric, which is from different countries. Right now we’re doing some fabric sourcing ourselves, and in the beginning it was just the two of us finding fabrics around the world, and now that has expanded to we’ve opened it up to anyone that’s traveling that wants to help us source fabric. Any traveler can go out there and find fabric to send to us and we’ll put their line of backpacks on our website as well.

            Jack: It’s just fun to open it up and crowdsource these fabrics. That was our favorite part about our jobs. It wasn’t like doing the accounting or stuff behind the scenes that was fun. It was going out and shopping for fabrics and that took us off the beaten path of these tourist trails that we would usually travel on. That’s what we’re trying to extend to other people now and have other people shop for these fabrics and go off the beaten path as well.

            Felix: Now, after that initial 30 products that you sold from that launch, how were you able to start building from there? It sounds like friends and family were that first batch. How did you work towards eventually selling to people, to strangers essentially, people that you’d never met before? How were they able to eventually find out about your products and your business?

            Alley: Since day one that we’ve realized that these fabrics are really bright, they’re colorful, and usually they catch attention. Since early on word of mouth has been the main thing that we focus on and word of mouth has helped us grow since day one. Organic growth is the path that we’re interested in taking, and word of mouth is a perfect way to do that. One person sees the tote and asks them about where is that fabric from or what is that, or maybe they recognize the fabric from having visited that country as well. It’s just grown that way ever since.

            Felix: Other than having a colorful and very visible product, what have you found helpful to help encourage this word of mouth?

            Jack: In person, I think just creating a product that people love to wear and backpacks are something you can wear them every day. You don’t wear the same t-shirt every day, but a backpack it can be like an extension of your body almost, so just creating something that people really love to have with them, I think, has helped; on-person. Then from the online side, I think one of the best things that we added to our website was the review functionality. If we were going to create this product that people do love so much, we want them to be able to tell other people who are checking out the website as well. Those reviews really seem to help build trust in potential customers being able to hear about the experience that previous customers have had.

            Felix: Do you have a process for getting people to review a product that they have purchased? Is there some automation there?

            Jack: Yep. Well, you use it Alley.

            Alley: It’s the Shopify add-on. I think it’s just an add-on app that a few weeks, maybe two weeks after the person receives the backpack, it sends them an email asking what they think and to help us tell. We ask them to help us tell future people what to expect out of a tote.

            Felix: Got it. I like the way that you framed it. It’s not just about, “Can you please write us a review?” You’re talking about helping or asking them to pay it forward, to help explain the product and the value to other people moving forward. Have you tested any timeframes? You mentioned two weeks after. Is that after they received the product or two weeks after you ship to them? In your experience, what’s the best timing to ask for a review?

            Jack: We haven’t done a whole lot of tests. I think we just went with our intuition on the first one, and we’ve been just really pleased with our response rate since, so it was kind of the “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” kind of mentality. I think that we have … Go ahead.

            Alley: Our mindset was we wanted to give enough time to receive the backpack and then enough time to wear it, whether just throughout the day or a weekend trip or something. To give them a little bit of time to actually not just open the backpack and tell someone what it looks like but actually hopefully some experience with it on their back.

            Felix: Now, I think you mentioned about crowdsourcing the fabrics. Obviously you are heavily involved with your community. You want the feedback. You want them to work with you. I imagine that you must get a lot of requests and maybe even your own desire is to expand beyond this design or expand beyond backpacks and maybe go in to other, I guess, luggage, or other ways to use the fabric. How do you manage those kind of temptations or those kind of requests that come in from your customers?

            Jack: To me it just doesn’t excite me is really the short answer. I think we want to try to blaze our own path and innovate some new ways to develop a business like this, as opposed to just following the path that most retail or e-commerce product stores take. We just don’t really feel that the world needs more things as much as it needs more community, so that’s why we after making the backpacks ourselves for a few years, we decided to get other people involved in sourcing the fabric with us. That felt like a much more satisfying and fulfilling and noble purpose than just saying, “Now, we’re also selling purses,” or something like that. You know what I mean?

            Felix: Yeah. I like that you are able to essentially ask your customers, your community to tell you what they want, because you’re asking them to go out and source these fabrics and they’re going to obviously pick ones that they like and probably others like them will like as well. What is this process? Can you talk to us about what you’ve done to create this community of people that are giving you direction? I think that’s something that’s really important for entrepreneurs where they are kind of going blind a lot of times. They don’t know exactly where their market or where their customers are going, what kind of products they want. You have been able to tap into your community and essentially ask them to tell you exactly what kind of fabrics they want for their products. Talk to us about how you were able to build a community like this.

            Jack: It’s funny because a lot of these people who sign up to travel and search for fabric, they ask, “When do I need to send you a picture of the fabric for you to approve?” We always say like, “That’s not what it’s about. We want you to find a fabric that represents your experience in that country. We don’t need to approve it. It’s whatever clicks for you.” We were nervous about that at first, of course. What are people going to come up with? Some of the first ones we got were like hot pink or looked like grandma’s wallpaper, a few of those. We had a few just really godawful designs and we were like, “What do we do about this? Is this going to tarnish our brand or what?” We decided to just go forward with it. Let’s just put them up. It’s in line with what we said. If that represents their trip to them, then so be it. That’s great.

            We put them up and they sold faster than any of the fabrics that we got ourselves, so it was kind of a humbling experience of like we don’t have the best taste apparently, or we don’t have the only taste anyways. It’s nice to have other people come in, at least for just a batch of totes and express their …

            Alley: A different type of traveling and a different country, a different experience, and just different tastes.

            Jack: Yeah. Exactly.

            Felix: Now it looks like there’s about maybe 30 totes that are on your site at the moment. How do you guys curate this collection? I think you mentioned earlier that there is probably some kind of upper limit on having too many designs, where people might come along and there are just too many choices that they like, and they just don’t want to have buyer’s remorse to purchase just one, so they don’t buy anything at all. What’s your approach today to understand which kind of products you should keep on your site and which ones eventually you should take off?

            Alley: We’ve been pretty lucky that we’ve never had a fabric that just didn’t sell and we had to take off. The nature of these traditional fabrics is that they’re all limited edition and these places will make a fabric and then the design changes the next month. Basically everything except for a handful of countries that we know the person that is making the fabric, so they can continue designs, but for the most part everything is limited edition, so some sell faster than others, but we’ve just never had a design that literally didn’t sell.

            Jack: We keep the designs on the website until they sell out, and once it sells out we move to the next person in line. We put people’s fabrics up, first come, first served, and it’s pretty mechanical to be honest.

            Felix: I see. There’s usually only one production run for each of these fabrics.

            Jack: That’s right. The majority of them. Alley mentioned there are a few exceptions to that because we have very good long-term relationships with a few fabric producers, but that’s more the exception. You’re right. The most are just someone traveled to Bangkok and brought back 20 meters of fabric from Thailand and sent it to us, and we made 20 backpacks from it. We sell them. They sell out, and then we move on to the next person who brought us fabric from Burkina Faso or whatever it may be.

            Felix: The way that you described it when you said it’s pretty mechanical, the way you describe it as well step-by-step sounds pretty straightforward. Before you mentioned it, it almost sounds to me at least a supply chain headache, where there’s so many different people that are sourced from, who are you working with for what product. Your customers are actually purchasing the fabric and then sending them to you. Talk to us a little bit about how that’s all set up where your customers are getting you essentially the raw ingredients of a product that you’re creating.

            Alley: We have a minimum. We need at least 15 meters to create a line for a line of totes for the website. These travelers will go out. They signed up on their own on our website if they’re traveling. They have to buy at least 15 meters of one design. They usually bring it back in their check luggage, back to the US and then ship it to our team in Virginia domestically. They get the first tote out of that fabric for free as a thank you for helping us connect others with that country. Then they get $10 per tote sold as well of their fabric. That’s the backend how it works. It’s great because we get to tell tons of stories of other travelers whether it’s the actual fabric sourcing is the story or an interesting story from their travels that we then can tell through their line of backpacks.

            Felix: Very cool. Other than being able to see the fabric itself, how do you make sure that it’s of quality, that it meets essentially the standards for use as a tote?

            Alley: Prior to having other travelers buy fabric, we did a ton of … Well, we still do a ton of travel ourselves, so we’ve been working with a huge variety of thicknesses and of types of fabric. We created the design of a backpack that can be used for any … Like a huge variety of fabrics. That was our first couple of years. We were really trying to focus on the design of the backpack and adding the durability and the different elements to make sure that a big variety of fabrics would work on this design.

            Jack: We pretty much reinforce everything for the worst-case scenario. The design of our backpack assumes that the outer fabric is the [inaudible 00:25:34] lowest quality fabric that we’ve ever seen before. We just reinforce it like crazy. That way no matter what type of fabric someone sends us, it’ll hold up well.

            Felix: Got it. Now, you have systems in place and you have essentially almost like a template for creating these backpacks. Was this something that you had to learn how to create over time? It sounds so seamless. Someone goes out and gets the fabric for you, sends it to you, and then you have this entire process for melding the fabric into the design of the tote itself. Talk to us about the technology, I guess, behind how you’re able to do this?

            Jack: All the credit for that we have to give to our contract manufacture, which STEPS. They’re just absolutely incredible. They’re so talented and that’s something that we wouldn’t be able to do if we had overseas manufacturing. Maybe we would save a few dollars on labor costs or something, but we wouldn’t have this type of small batch runs and customizability, is that a word?

            Felix: Yeah.

            Jack: We’re really grateful for their knowhow. It was funny, I said Alley and I had a engineering background, so our first year or so working with STEPS we would go visit them and try to tweak these designs and patterns and everything. We were so used to measuring things to such small tolerances with our engineering training. It was just funny working in a sewing facility where they were like an inch is like your thumb, and a yard is like the length of your arm. Just have a different way of doing things. We learned from them really. I’d say that’s the one area where we’ve really outsourced part of the business. They just completely handle all the production, everything. They’re amazing.

            Felix: We’ve definitely got to talk about this before we move on. You guys are definitely on a episode of Shark Tank. Talk to us about that experience? At what stage were you in your business before you decided to go with this opportunity?

            Jack: That’s funny too. We just threw in an application for Shark Tank one night when we were watching the show thinking it was going to … I think the email address, what was it, like …

            Alley: Sharktank@yahoo.com or something …

            Felix: No way.

            Alley: … was where we sent our applications in.

            Jack: We were like, okay [crosstalk 00:27:53].

            Alley: Our two sentence application I think, too.

            Jack: That was going down a black hole. Just send it in as a joke, and whatever. Moved on. We were in Thailand at the time though, about a year later maybe?

            Alley: Yeah.

            Jack: Because of the time difference, we got a phone call in the middle of the night from a casting director or something at Shark Tank. It kind of caught us by surprise. It was by no means something that we had built into our business plan or anything like that. It’s an opportunity you just can’t pass up. We went for it.

            Felix: How did you prepare for pitching essentially in front of millions of people watching and then of course the sharks?

            Jack: How did we-

            Alley: It’s almost impossible to prepare for something like that.

            Jack: I don’t think we did prepare.

            Alley: We have a few mentors from Virginia Tech, like the university where we got it all started. We got help practicing with different mentors and professors from school. Since early on we decided we wanted to bootstrap Taaluma and do it on our own. Then pitching to these investors was a totally different game plan, but we just decided to shift our mindset and see what would happen if we did pitch this weird, wacky idea to them.

            Felix: I think at the end of the show you didn’t leave with an investment, but of course tons of publicity from being on the show. Talk to us about though the results of being on Shark Tank and having your episode air?

            Jack: We were bummed that we didn’t get any investor onboard, but we probably got something better and that was thousands of investors in the form of people who watched Shark Tank and then decided to invest in us in the form of buying a backpack afterwards. I think …

            Alley: It just built our community. We had a huge bump in our community, and most of them have stayed on ever since. Our organic growth has continued since the airing on Shark Tank. Since the big bump after Shark Tank, we’ve continued organically with these investors or other people that wanted to be a part of the Taaluma community.

            Felix: Did you have to do any preparation before the episode aired in terms of upping production numbers or monitoring the site in any way? How were you able to make sure you’re able to take on the load of being on national television?

            Jack: We wish we had that luxury, but we had such a short heads up, I think it was 13 days wasn’t it?

            Alley: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

            Jack: I won’t go into the details, but we were under the impression that were not going to be aired, so we had moved past it and not counted on being on national television. We then got an email out of the blue later than we expected saying, “It’s airing in 13 days. Get ready.” We just scrambled.

            Alley: Yeah. Absolutely. Our back order was several months. We ended up having to basically presale totes because we didn’t have … We were selling 10 … Making maybe 50 or 100 a week and there was no way we could do anything in 13 days to really prepare for it. It ended up being more of a presale kind of thing, and luckily I mean we kept people in the loop along the way. To the extent of our Guatemala, the people that weave the fabric in Guatemala, we had to get in touch with them and say we need, instead of 100 yards, we need 5,000 yards of fabric. They were also hiring 10 to 20 more people on their weaving team to weave more fabric.

            Jack: And borrowing looms from neighboring villages.

            Alley: Borrowing looms. It was several months of back order and chaos, but we kept people in the loop along the way, and I think that was what made it work.

            Jack: I think people came onboard initially. I think a lot of people wanted to support us because they saw that we weren’t being supported by the sharks. I think people came into it, a lot of them anyways, with the mentality of I want to help support this cause and see it grow, so I’m climbing onboard. I don’t think most people bought it thinking this is an Amazon purchase that’ll show up at my door in two days.

            Felix: Now, the pricing on your site ranges anywhere between looks like $65 up to $85 for a custom tote. Talk to us about the pricing. How were you able to figure out how to price your products?

            Jack: That was also just guesswork at the beginning. Like we’ve mentioned, we didn’t have any business experience. We didn’t know what margins were. We just put together our costs, added them up and kept them at as low of a price as possible. We initially thought we were going to have to go through retail outlets, and once we learned about how the whole retail markups and margins worked, that’s what then steered us towards Shopify. We wanted to make these products accessible to as many people as possible, and we were students at the time. That’s who we had in mind as our customers were other students. We couldn’t sell these backpacks for $120, so Shopify gave us the tools we needed to just sell direct to the customer, skip those extra markups and keep the prices affordable to as many people as possible. If we want to build a community, the more the merrier. We want to get as many people onboard as we can.

            Felix: Now, one thing I like a lot about your product pages is that you don’t just have photos of the product, but you have photos of the product in the wild from people that have purchased it, that are wearing it. How did you get those photos? How were you able to get those photos from your customers?

            Alley: Since day one, Jack mentioned, that we were students designing backpacks and we were designing the backpacks as students for people like us. We then have spent all of our time traveling, and we were taking these pictures of us using the backpacks in different countries. That then sparked other people to take these pictures. We are our customers and that’s what’s helped us grow the community of people taking pictures and also people finding fabric and everything.

            Jack: We don’t use social media too much to be honest. We don’t have a real big social media presence, but that has been the one use for social media that we’ve found most effective is exchanging photos. A lot of people might use a hashtag, carryacountry, that we can then find the photo on Instagram or something like that. I think the mechanics of it oftentimes come through social media.

            Felix: Think it’s so important to take advantage of those photos that your customers are posting, because you can only see so much from these product photos. They’re great photos of products with white backgrounds and everything that you have on your site, but I think the photos I like the most are the ones of the actual customers using it, because you can see things like what does it actually look like when someone’s out or traveling with your products. What does it look like in different lighting? What does it look like on a person? It takes a lot of the bias away, because it’s not you guys that are posting or creating these photos. It’s from your customers that are posting these photos. I think it certainly helps build a lot of trust and convince a customer to try out your product because of these photos.

            Jack: Definitely. We learn so much from them too by seeing how they’re using our product. We get to learn from them and see what we can improve on that side too.

            Felix: Now, you mentioned that you guys started with Shopify from the very beginning. Did you also design the store yourselves? How was your store essentially built or designed?

            Jack: I remember spending just a few days in a coffee shop nonstop, like 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. or something like that just playing around. I had, again, no experience with any type of web design or anything like that, but just using one of the free Shopify templates starting off. Looking back on it, I didn’t do it justice, but we used that free one with my first attempt. It was fine to get us started, and then we improved it a little bit. I think we’ve had maybe six or seven iterations since then and they keep getting better and we keep using better templates. It’s come together now. Those templates are fantastic, but we used one of them from the Out of the Sandbox guys. The Out of the Sandbox themes have just been so easy to use and also they’re really helpful with their support team. With a few web design novices like ourselves, we’ve been able to build a website that we’re super-proud of.

            Felix: Now, have there been any changes? You mentioned there were a bunch of iterations. What are some recent changes that you decided to make to the site to help improve either the message that you’re putting out there, or improve conversion rates?

            Jack: I already mentioned it, but the reviews are the first thing that come to mind to me. I think that was the most powerful change that we put on our website. That wasn’t a super-recent one, but I remember when we did add that, it just really changed things for us. More recently I think it’s just been some mechanical tweaks to make the new program of having other people find fabric with us, make that more clear. More recently it’s been design tweaks, but the reviews thing is the biggest change we’ve ever made.

            Felix: You definitely do have a ton of reviews on the products that I looked through. Do you use these reviews outside of the site? Do you put them on display anywhere else?

            Jack: We use them just for our own knowledge is what’s also so useful. If there’s a consistent problem that we need to be aware of, it’s great that we have this system asking people for their feedback. If there’s a problem, we need to know about it so that we don’t keep sending that problem out. There’s a whole lot of internal uses in that regard.

            Felix: Obviously you can’t get 100% positive reviews for everything, so when you do get some feedback that helps you improve the product and this feedback is essentially public, how do you address this?

            Jack: We want people to wear their backpacks. They are our marketing machines, so we fix it right away. If there’s a problem that needs to be fixed, we’ll pay for the shipping both ways and repair it immediately, get it back to them and I guess at the end of the day we want them to have a backpack that they’re excited about, that works well, and catches other people’s attention.

            Felix: Do you need to address this as a reply or something to a review? How are you able to make sure that your community knows that you’ve addressed this particular problem?

            Alley: The product review add-on that we use through Shopify has a really good system of replying right away. We get an email right away every time someone does review. We haven’t posted a lot. The review posts live, so there’s maybe a few hours until we can reply sometimes. Sometimes it’s right away. We respond. It’s very easy through this add-on [crosstalk 00:39:37] then we just can respond to this traveler right away.

            Felix: Got it. Is that response-

            Alley: That posts on the website.

            Felix: That’s public. That’s great. Now, it sounds like you guys have a great system. You have a system. You have folks that are putting together the products for you. You have people helping you source the product. You have word of mouth running, a machine running for you guys because the product is such a visible product and people love posting phots of it. What do you find that you want to say you spend your most time on now on a day-to-day basis?

            Jack: Thinking ahead honestly, and that’s the thing that’s hardest for us. With our engineering brains, we want to make things or see things improve or cross something off a to-do list, at least for me. What we’ve found we need to be doing the most is thinking and having these big ideas. Most of those big ideas inherently fail, but that’s what needs to keep happening. Our big jump was getting other travelers involved in finding the fabric, and we’re working on that next thing right now.

            Felix: What kind of apps or vendors do you rely on to help you run the business? I know you mentioned the product reviews, you mentioned the Out of the Sandbox theme that you have and of course the people that are putting products for you. Are there any other apps or vendors that you depend on to help run this business?

            Jack: ShipStation is a big one for me. We really pride ourselves on quick shipping, and ShipStation allows us to do that without a whole lot of man hours poured into it. What else is there? I’m trying to think.

            Alley: MailChimp as well. Another big way of telling these stories of different travelers is we have a weekly or biweekly blog where we describe the story behind each fabric. We send out our weekly blogs through MailChimp.

            Jack: Those are our core things: ShipStation, MailChimp, Shopify, reviews, and Out of the Sandbox.

            Felix: I like that you will email your customers to let them know the history or the background behind the fabrics that they’re buying. How do you curate essentially these stories, or how are you able to find out information basically about the fabrics to send out to your customers?

            Alley: I’d spend a lot of time connecting with the traveler that went to find fabrics. We ask them a couple of questions about their trip, or about the fabric itself, if the design meant anything to them or if they saw it locally worn or displayed during their trip. I have lots of conversations with these travelers. We get tons of awesome stories behind these fabrics that we would have never had any idea just by looking at the fabric that there was this whole story behind it. They then tell me these stories and then Jack and I spend our time … I spend a lot of time rewriting these stories. We get a lot of pictures from the travelers as well. We then pass that along to our list of people that want to hear these stories.

            Felix: Yeah. I think that’s important. Selling the story rather than selling the product. You want to sell basically all the history and all of the … Not just the product and all the different details of the product. You don’t want to sell those things, but you want to sell what comes with it, the story and the history behind each of your fabrics and each of the products that you guys create. Now, you mentioned, I think, off air about essentially running this business remotely. I think you mentioned that you guys are in Ecuador right now, and your manufacturing is in Virginia. Talk to us about that. What is it like to run a business remotely?

            Jack: Earlier we said we designed the backpacks originally for the students that we were at the time. We were students, and we’re kind of just still doing the same thing. We’re encouraging people to travel the world and go off the beaten path searching for local fabric. We’re doing that too. We’re just really trying to live the lifestyle that we preach. We love doing it too. It’s more fun and it’s more productive.

            Felix: What are some challenges that maybe you didn’t foresee when you decided to run the business remotely?

            Jack: I remember being so nervous to hand over all of the in-person things like shipping and fulfillment to other people. That was really nerve-racking at first, but after several months of it going smoothly, you just kind of stop worrying about that. I think honestly it was a healthy thing for us to step away from that and put that job in the hands of people who are more capable of it than we are, they’re better at it than we are, and it also frees our time to [inaudible 00:44:32] other things.

            Felix: Any recommendations on ways to prepare before you decide to essentially leave HQ or wherever your products are being manufactured and run the business remotely?

            Jack: I think you have to have someone back home that you have just an incredibly solid relationship with, someone who you trust entirely, someone who trusts you as well. It has to be a two-way street. Our production supervisor in Virginia, I mean we exchange probably a dozen emails each day about everything that’s going on. We’re in very close contact, and we trust each other so much. A lot of things can go unsaid now. We just have a really smooth understanding of what each side is doing. I don’t think you can just pick up and leave, at least for us. We weren’t able to just pick up and leave and have nobody back home. We have someone who’s better at the production side of things than we are, and we’re better at the online side of things. We have each group in their right area of expertise.

            Felix: How do you stay in touch with people especially if you’re moving between time zones? How are you able to coordinate all of that?

            Jack: It’s mostly via email, but you’re right. We’ve been in Asia a lot of times, and that’s like a 10 or 12 hour time difference, so that can slow things down for sure. You send an email during your work day and then you get a response in the middle of the night. Then if you need to respond to that, it doesn’t happen until the next work day. It might take a week to just get a few exchanges across, but we stayed up a lot at night or woke up early for the things that need [inaudible 00:46:10]. Because we’re working on something that we enjoy so much, it’s not an inconvenience. It’s not a problem to stay up late or wake up early.

            Felix: Awesome. Thank you so much Jack and Alley. Taaluma Totes, which is at carryacountry.com. What’s in store for the future? What do you guys want to work on or what do you want to focus on over the next year?

            Alley: As Jack mentioned earlier on, we’re spending a lot of time now thinking about what’s next. One thing that we’ve loved most recently during our travels is just the connections with different people in different countries and the small, random interactions that happen when you’re overseas and how meaningful they can be after that trip. We’re looking to help random, small interactions with travelers overseas. Jack, do you want to explain?

            Jack: I’m from Kentucky originally, so we always bring little bourbon bottles everywhere we travel to give people as gifts. We’ve loved doing that. It just creates a fun little interaction with people. My bike broke down in Thailand one time, and I went into a little motorcycle repair shop. The guy was super-friendly and fixed my bike for me for free, so I gave him a little bourbon bottle. It was just a cool, special little moment. We’re going to try to start doing something similar with … We’re going to make wristbands out of our leftover fabric from the backpacks. We’ll send them out in packs of three for people who are traveling. They can take one wristband for themselves and two wristbands for people they meet along the way and just try to create those little, friendly, human interactions.

            Felix: I love it. Awesome. Thank you again so much for your time guys.

            Jack: Thank you Felix.

            Alley: Thank you Felix.

            Felix: Here’s a sneak peek for what’s in store in the next Shopify Masters episode.

            Speaker 4: We had to craft the story correctly and present it in a way where they didn’t feel we were revealing all their trade secrets or client base or anything else.

            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. Also, for this episode’s show notes, head over to Shopify.com/blog.

             


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            About the Author

            Felix Thea is the host of the Shopify Masters podcast, the ecommerce marketing podcast for ambitious entrepreneurs. Got something to share with Shopify Masters listeners? You can submit your story for consideration.

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