Zach Miller and Skyler Hallgren never thought about emergency preparedness until they had a shared experience with a minor earthquake. The duo decided to launch Redfora to normalize preparedness and make kits easily available for consumers. A partnership with Charles Mullenger of Ethos Preparedness allowed the business to reach new consumers. In this episode of Shopify Masters, the trio shares their digital strategies and how partnership helps to scale their business.
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Merging with a like-minded company to expand your vision
Felix: Your company is interesting, It actually exists due to a partnership between two separate entities. Can you tell us more about this?
Charles: Skyler, Zach, and I ended up partnering together in early 2020. Our business now is under the umbrella of Ethos Preparedness, but Redfora, which Skyler and Zach started in 2016, is a leading online marketplace for emergency kits and supplies. When the three of us first met in the end of 2019, we sat down with whiteboards and strategized the emergency preparedness industry. We really liked what our separate companies were doing, and we decided to partner together and build the Ethos Preparedness umbrella.
Felix: Where did the idea behind the partnership come from? Why did you feel like together, you could go further?
Charles: I was leading a business in emergency preparedness focused on moving nonambulatory patients in hospitals, as well as organizational preparedness. I really liked what Zach and Skyler were doing on the personal preparedness front. Their direct-to-consumer brand took a very practical manner in approaching the way that they were selling and inspiring people to get prepared. We decided that we could bring our forces together, merge our teams, and provide more. Not only for organizations, but also for individuals and families, and just looked to grow together in this space.
Felix: Once you did partner, what were some of the things that you were able to do under this new umbrella that let you go further?
Charles: The biggest thing was bringing a lot of smart people to the table. Their experience in the direct-to-consumer space mixed with our experience in organizational preparedness really allows us to provide more, brainstorm more, and bring more products and services to the market.
Our vision is to be the main brand and what people think of when they think of emergency preparedness. Our partnership and bringing our two businesses together has allowed us to bring some really smart people to the table who have a background in preparedness, sales and entrepreneurship. With that, we've really hit the ground running over the last year and built a new Ethos Preparedness website. We've made some new hires, and we're growing the brand together.
Zach: Skyler and I were entrepreneurs when we started our journey, and we love the creative side of things. We love building new things, we love communicating with our audience and really thinking on the creative side. As Redfora the standalone business started to grow, the administrative side and the complexity of that business continued to grow as well. Combining entities and creating Ethos Preparedness allowed us to leverage some of the strengths and skillsets of the organization that Charles had put together. That then allowed a lot more bandwidth for Skyler, I, and our team of creative entrepreneurs, to continue to grow that side of the business. That was another thing that helped us continue to level up. Instead of creating another set of redundant administrative positions in our organization, we were able to leverage the organization that Charles had already worked to build on his side.
Felix: What did this transition look like for you guys and the business?
Zach: It’s gone very well. We’ve been able to find the strengths of each side of the organization and leverage those. There’s a lot of things that the Redfora team has brought to the table that now Ethos is able to leverage. There’s also a lot of things on the organizational, operational sides that the Ethos team has brought to the table to make a stronger organization that's going to set us up for success in the future.
Felix: Do you have any tips or advice for others trying to navigate a similar partnership? What are the main things to address from the outset?
Charles: Have a really firm focus on what the vision of the combined entities is. The vision that we have is to become the leading brand in emergency preparedness. All three of us completely agreed with that, and we've been developing a strategy and a vision over the last eight, nine months of working together. It’s put us into a really unique place to do great things in 2021.
Felix: Where did the idea for the initial Redfora product come from, the earthquake bag?
Skyler: It came from being a potential consumer ourselves. It wasn't something that I personally had thought a lot about, emergency preparedness. I'm probably the last person to naturally think about it. That changed, just like it does for most of our customers, when you have an emotional experience or hear a story about dealing with an emergency or natural disaster that you can relate to. It really hits home for you.
For me, it was something minor, just feeling a moderately sized earthquake, something that was large enough to feel, but not large enough to do any damage. It really just sparked a conversation among us and our friends around, “That was really wild, right? That was a crazy experience. What would you do had that been a much bigger emergency? Do you have anything prepared? I don't have anything prepared. I don't even know what I would have prepared.”
It came out of that conversation, realizing that we had no idea what we would do in an actual emergency. The further we went into it, we realized there was a lot of information out there, but it's pretty overwhelming. It was overwhelming to think about what I would do in a scenario that I really hope never happens, but there's a good chance that it could.
An emergency kit is the keystone element of having an emergency plan in place, the first place that you start. I really just wanted to buy one, because I didn't want to do the work to make it myself. Looking at what was out there, it seemed like there were two types of products available. There were either very cheap and chintzy emergency kits that were one-size-fits-all. Being a casual hiker and camper, I didn't have a lot of confidence in them from a quality standpoint. Or there were really intense doomsday-prepper emergency kit solutions, and that didn't really strike me as a good fit either.
We realized, “Hey, there's a real opportunity for smart, thoughtful, well-designed emergency kit options that are customizable in the marketplace.” When you zoom out a second and think about society at large, being a resilient society is important, we've learned a lot about that in 2020, but it really requires individuals that have a plan in place. We realized that it was truly just too big of a project for normal people to get done. If we could make that easier for people, if we could make that more approachable, and if we could message it in a way that felt a little bit more normal, we felt strongly that a lot more people would take those basic steps. That's how we got into customizing emergency kits.
How to inform your customers without overwhelming them
Felix: You mentioned that the options were overwhelming. How does that inform your position as a new brand in a marketplace with a lot of overwhelming information? How are you making it easier for customers?
Skyler: It’s hard work. It's much easier to present a booklet of information that you pull from a bunch of places. It's much more work to boil that down into something that someone can digest in 30 seconds or a minute. At the end of the day, we're all aspiring e-commerce professionals. We know our job is to appeal to people that have a very short attention span.
It took time to hone that story, to hone that message, to polish the message that we wanted to put in front of people, but as we did that work, we realized that it was something that people were interested in engaging with. People did want to solve that problem. People did want to have a plan in place, but they needed someone to provide what they needed to do and how to do it in a way that didn't take a lot of their time and didn't build their anxiety. In our specific niche, being accessible and being quickly digestible has been one of the major keys to our success in terms of being able to drive revenue and build the company that we wanted to build.
Felix: How did you go about determining what information and education was important for your consumers to know, and what was unnecessary overload?
Skyler: It’s a combination of two things. It’s taking that project of figuring out what we want to communicate and pushing it through two different lenses and finding the right answer in between. On one side, we are always going to turn to the experts, to true emergency preparedness experts who have devoted their entire lives. There're a lot of really smart people putting together policy at a high level regarding emergency preparedness as a society, as a country, as a community. We lean really heavily on those experts for what they recommend and suggest will create a truly resilient society across everything.
It’s our job to take that information, which can be dry sometimes, and view it through the lens of how will people actually respond to it? What can actually capture people's attention and hold it long enough for them to take a very important topic seriously and give it their attention? That is always an iterative process around putting that information in front of people as often as you can and testing that and seeing what actually resonates with people. There’s no shortcut around that, around really doing that testing.
Getting started was a slow process of finding and nurturing our customers one by one, and really getting feedback on an individual level so that we could find out what was resonating with people. And for folks that are just getting started, they know that process well. Other businesses are likely in the middle of that process of testing messaging,putting messaging in front of folks, and figuring out what is able to capture their attention. That process continues to grow. The larger your business grows, the more tools you have to access, the more data you have to access around fine-tuning that message, but it's a process that never ends. Every month we're trying to figure out, “Hey, how can we do a better job of messaging this in a way that will allow people to take it seriously and really appeal directly with our mission?”
“For our business and our type of product, combining true information and valuable content was a smart business strategy, and it's also a responsible stance to take as a company that wants to sell a product.”
Felix: What are the best tactics you’ve found for communicating this information to your customers? What’s the most effective way of educating them?
Skyler: We are very committed to combining products with knowledge and information. For our business and our type of product, combining true information and valuable content was a smart business strategy, and it's also a responsible stance to take as a company that wants to sell a product.
For us, that has taken two main forms. On one side, it's deeper content. For us, that's been a series of Redfora guides that are around keystone concepts regarding emergency preparedness. Our guide to creating an emergency plan for your family, our guide to building your own emergency kit. Really committing to giving people the information that they need to put an emergency plan in place, whether they become one of our customers or not. Having that strong content strategy ends up converting a lot of those folks into customers at some part of the funnel. That's certainly been a core element. We've wanted to provide deeper content that’s interactive, easy-to-understand, and solves a keystone problem.
The other section of content that we provide is very snackable, quick to digest and quick to understand. How can we give somebody value to increase their level of personal preparedness if they only have 30 seconds, a minute, or three minutes to give us? Really focusing on how we can add value in the most efficient way possible has been crucial for our e-commerce strategy. That's a philosophy that goes directly to how we handle our e-commerce business tactically, but it's also philosophically really important about our entire company.
Charles: At the end of the day, we're selling peace of mind. We're providing a lot of knowledge to back the tools that we sell and generate revenue off of, but at the end of the day, getting a family prepared, having someone know that they have what they need in their own house to face any of the challenges based on what geography they live in. Peace of mind is something we speak about a lot, because at the end of the day, that is what we are selling.
“It can be a difficult process, but find a way to quantify what your customers are telling you about their needs, their desires, and what they value.”
Felix: How do you ensure as a business that you’re upholding this principle of selling peace of mind to the customer, rather than just a product?
Skyler: The key to that is being very, very intentional about that from the beginning of your business and your process. You want to find ways to make sure that that's front and center for you and your whole team as you're putting out content or ads or you're building out your site. Make sure that’s your guiding star, a north star for your design process and your messaging process.
For us, that meant doing a deep dive into our initial reviews and customer interactions and doing a study of what they were referencing most often, what was most important to them. We tried to take something that is incredibly qualitative around how somebody feels about a purchasing process and turn that into something that's quantitative that we could actually make smart decisions off of. It can be a difficult process, but find a way to quantify what your customers are telling you about their needs, their desires, and what they value.
We did that study early on, and we were very focused on creating customer personas based on the words that came out of our customers' mouth, not what we hoped they felt about our product. We then took that data and made sure that it was at the forefront of every decision we made moving forward.
Gather data early to avoid assuming your customers needs
Felix: How did you gather this data? Did you evaluate reviews only from customers or did you interview prospective customers as well?
Skyler: It’s an evolution. It's something that we're constantly thinking about and working on. There were two major phases to that that were really important in creating our approach. The first phase of that was the very beginning of the business. We started with Zach and I working on this as a side hustle. We both had full-time, pretty demanding Silicon Valley jobs, and we were working on this project Wednesday nights and Sundays. That was our cadence. That meant very limited tests in the beginning. We were selling just where we lived, which is San Francisco. When people would order, we were not only making their emergency kits by hand, we were also delivering by hand, too. We would show up, and we had questions. We wanted to A, let them know that we were really thankful for their order, but B, we were incredibly curious about, “Why did you order? What were the considerations that you were looking at? Was it something that you'd been thinking about a lot, or made you think about it and sparked that action?”
Every business is different. For some that's possible to do, for others, it’s not. Whatever your version of that is, I really encourage entrepreneurs to find that. There's no shortcut to just straight-up talking to your customers about their needs and about what they're looking for, and being curious and asking questions. For our first 50 orders, we did that exact process. For as many as possible, we were dropping it off when they were there so we could have that conversation with them. It was really anecdotal, and that's the rule of ecommerce and digital marketing. In the beginning, you've got to take educated guesses based on small amounts of data. As you continue and get traction, you have more and more data and can make better choices. But even having a handful of conversations where you're just curious about the drivers of your customers can crack open some major insights regarding what they're looking for, and can really inform your messaging and your approach.
The second phase of that was, after we had been in business for a year, we did gather a statistically significant amount of feedback if you combined our reviews, communications, and comments. We had to pull that information from a lot of different places and find ways to mush that together into something that we could really study. But about a year in, we had that data that we could pull from and then level-up our assumptions that we were making.
“It was really anecdotal, and that's the rule of ecommerce and digital marketing. In the beginning, you've got to take educated guesses based on small amounts of data.”
Felix: Were there any assumptions that surprised you after evaluating all that data?
Skyler: Yeah. Two things that come to mind. This is probably a common mistake that a lot of entrepreneurs make, because we are trying to approach our business in a logical fashion and put together a business that functions logically. But it’s easy to make the mistake that your customers operate based on pure logic. We realized what people were really looking for was peace of mind versus looking for the best hand-crank flashlight, radio, phone charger, or whatever that supply might be. It was an emotional journey that we were tapping into for people. If we could establish trust, they wanted to trust us to tell them what to buy, as long as we were willing to do the hard work upfront to gain their trust there. That was one element.
The other surprising thing was that a lot of our product ideas have come directly from customers, and have been things that, honestly, we would've never thought of. My life is a certain way, I live in a certain place, my family looks like this, I live in this type of house, and we all have those different angles. Being open to listening to our customers cracked open a lot of product ideas that we would've never thought of or come across, and we were really grateful that we had customers that were willing to raise their hand and say, “Hey, have you thought about this?”
Zach: To add to that, we use Shopify to figure that out from a tactical standpoint. It's relatively easy. There's multiple live chat plugins that you can get for Shopify. We’ve been using Chatra for a little while now. Don’t just have a robot, if possible, have a live person fielding those chats. For the longest time, the first year or two of the business, all those chats went straight to our cell phones if we weren't able to grab it on our computer. We would try to engage with the actual customer as much as possible, and if appropriate, we would ask them, “Oh, great. How did you hear about us? Why'd you decide to get this done?” It's after helping them with their question, concern, whatever it was.
Those live chats that we had in the first year or two that we personally took on really helped formulate our understanding of the customers’ pain points. Today, everyone is doing social media advertising, and I would take the same approach. Engage with every single ad and every single comment that you have out there, especially early on. Not that you can’t do it later, but that's where you're going to get those little nuggets of wisdom and feedback at scale. It's not even necessarily from the customer, but from the prospective customer, or the person that you thought was going to be your customer but ended up not. They might leave that comment or might chat with you.
We made sure we had a phone number on our site from the very beginning as well, so that they could call in and have a real conversation. We learned so much from those handful of conversations with people that just literally walked us through exactly what they were thinking and how we could help them. We’ve formulated a lot of our business and strategy around that.
I know some people will be like, “Oh, I want to automate it, I want to send it to an FAQ. Or I'll send it to a phone tree, or I'll even outsource the phone.” I would say lean into it, because that's where you're going to learn the most about your business early on, so you're not going to continue to make a mistake over and over without the proper feedback loops. Lean into it and do it early on, because you're going to make a lot smarter decisions. With Shopify, there's a lot of really easy ways to do it as well.
Felix: This is important because sometimes entrepreneurs can assume they know more about their customers needs than the customers do. When you first started did you have to learn to be flexible when it came to interpreting data?
Skyler: Zach and I have had different instincts and found a middle ground that has actually served us really well. You can't really have either of those approaches in any black-and-white fashion.At the end of the day,, as an entrepreneur, you do serve your customer. That is your greatest responsibility, and it's where you are fitting into society. All of us add value to our community in some sort of way, and if you're an entrepreneur, your choice is to add value to the rest of humanity by trying to come up with clever solutions to problems that people actually have.
From that perspective, there's no getting away from following the needs of your customer. But at the same time, there's a way to think about it that's slightly different, more toward that Steve Jobs direction, where people don't always know what they want. That is very true. You've decided to go deep down a rabbit hole on one topic, so you should be the expert in terms of what's possible and how to curate that for people. If people knew exactly how to do that, they wouldn't necessarily want to pay you to solve those problems.
I think about it as an in-between space where we are the advocate, we are the representative, almost like an attorney. You don't want an attorney that's going to do exactly what you tell them to do all the time, because you hope that they have more perspective on what's possible and what's important. However you do want to make sure that your attorney understands exactly where you're coming from, what your needs are, what your perspective is, and the problems that you're looking to solve. I see our responsibility as seeking to understand 100% where our customer's coming from, taking some of the granular feedback with a little bit of a grain of salt, because we can take those things and say, “Hey, at the core of it, people are looking for A, B, and C, and that's the most important.” It’s our job to structure the best possible way to deliver that, which very might well be in a way that they would've never imagined.
Felix: After creating the Ethos Preparedness umbrella and joining, what does your process look like for developing and releasing new products?
Zach: We're constantly looking at our customers, how we can serve them better, and what are the challenges that they face. Sometimes that'll come to us from people saying, “Hey, have you guys ever thought about this? I wish your kit had this feature or that feature.” But oftentimes it also comes from looking at the gaps in the marketplace, or looking at ways to expand our footprint outside of our current core customer and the current core products. A lot of the iterations that we get on our current products do come from feedback and ways that we can enhance things. Then we're also looking at ways to expand, and problems that maybe we didn't solve initially, but we have the unique position to be able to solve them.
When we first got started a lot of it was about earthquakes, because we were in San Francisco. Over the years, we've started to expand well beyond that. Now we sell coast to coast. People are thinking about hurricanes, house fires or wildfires, or they're just thinking about general home safety. We’ve begun to expand and offer complementary solutions using our knowledge, skills, expertise, and resources. It’s about looking at not just what the customer is asking for, but also looking at where we can leverage our skill sets to fill other gaps in the marketplace.
Prioritizing the lifetime value of your customers
Felix: Have you been able to also capture a market that haven’t had those personal experiences that made them feel this need? How have you done so without fear-mongering or scare tactics?
Zach: Yeah, it's easy, if you're in the middle of a rainstorm, to sell someone an umbrella. That's easy. Anyone can do that. What’s interesting about the emergency preparedness industry is that it does go through cycles. When Hurricane Harvey happened, that was the only thing that was on all the major news stations for a month. There were pretty horrific things that happened there, a lot of communities that were greatly impacted by it, and emergency preparedness was a very hot topic at that time. We also saw the same thing at the beginning of COVID-19 and the current pandemic, where everyone was thinking about masks and things like that. Those are the areas where a lot of people will jump into the market or will start to offer solutions in the marketplace.
We do see our sales go up during those times, but when we started our business, we knew we didn't want to be fear-mongering. You can scare people, and that's a really easy shortcut that you can take. You’ll get sales by doing that, but that's a very short-sighted way of growing a business. When we started looking at it, we saw a lot of people in the preparedness or survival space that were doing that, and we very intentionally wanted to avoid anything that would look like that. We had a 10-year vision of what this company could look like, and we wanted to be taking the average person, no matter where they live, and present them with education and content to become aware of the potential risks in their area. We wanted to do it from a very practical standpoint, not fear-mongering.
However, if you live in California, you should be aware of the risks that you have with an earthquake. That just scientifically may happen. It could happen tomorrow, it could happen in 20 years, but regardless, you have to have a basic game plan in place. If you live along the Gulf Coast, making sure that you have the basics in place for hurricane preparedness. If you live in the Midwest, there's tornadoes, there's all these different things.
If you’re taking the right approach, you can get the average person that doesn’t typically think about emergency food storage for five months or building a bunker in their backyard. These are just normal parents and people that are out there, and you can get them to think about it when they wouldn't have before. It’s our job to get them to say, “Okay, maybe now's the time for us to take a few steps in that direction.” And if you nurture them the right way, it doesn't have to be, “Hey, buy a bag right away.” It might be, “Hey, here's a quick checklist, and this is going to help you on getting the journey started.” When the time is right, you can get that customer to turn into an actual paying customer at some point.
We decided to take this practical preparedness approach and not a doomsday approach, because people that normally wouldn't have gotten into this space or thought about preparedness have now been getting into it. It’s been very approachable. That peace of mind that we're offering has resonated with a lot of people from coast to coast. We definitely do see upticks when there are things that are directly impacting people, but our mission has been that we don't want to have to bank on that to happen for our business. How do we engage with people 365 days out of the year, not just when it's on the front page of every news outlet?
Felix: I imagine that these natural disasters can also bring in competitors flooding the market. How do you make sure you stand out in that kind of environment?
Zach: One of the big things around that is really having the long-term approach. Knowing that when people come into this space, they're like, “Oh, this is a goldmine,” because everyone's thinking about it. But those times come and go over a short period of time, and if you're not planning for the long term, people aren't going to be there down the road. That's one part of it.
The other part concerns that investment that we make in the customer experience, the reputation that you are building, and making the right partnerships. Those are the things that are going to give you longevity. Every review that comes into our website, we respond back to. We try to build that customer relationship so that if you have one interaction with us, it's not going to be your last interaction with us.
Hopefully, you buy an emergency kit and you don't actually have an emergency where you have to use it and buy another one. Hopefully, we can give you an awesome customer experience, and you're now going to look to us as your provider for anything emergency-related. The folks who are trying to get the fly-by-night, one-mask sale during a pandemic, aren't going to have the benefit of the lifetime value of a customer.
We look at every customer as a lifelong customer, not just a one-time transaction. That’s why our reputation, our reviews, and the investment that we make in customer service is so important. We know that one customer is going to turn into another customer, or they're going to tell a friend, or they're going to buy it for a gift for someone else. That’s been a big differentiator for us, versus anyone who's just coming into the industry and trying to make a quick buck.
Felix: What are some key lessons you’ve learned as you’ve scaled as a business and been able to hire more and more?
Zach: Skyler and I started this business as a side hustle from our day-to-day jobs, because we're really passionate about entrepreneurship but we both had full-time jobs at the time. We did everything on our own. To get started, we worked on Wednesday nights and Sunday afternoons. That was our only dedicated time to work on the business. When we were in that phase, we were delivering products ourselves and building our first Shopify site.
Very quickly, as demand came in, we realized, “What are our core competencies? What are we actually really good at? What is a really important part of the business, but maybe is not our core competency?” The first hire that we brought in was our customer success manager, and their job was interacting with every single customer that came in, making sure that our orders were getting fulfilled, making sure everything was going smoothly.
As we continued to scale the business, we ran into a few times where Skyler and I became bottlenecks. Either we weren't true experts in it, or we just didn't have enough time in the day. We were very scrappy in the beginning and worked long hours and all that. We realized it was more impactful to either outsource certain things, whether that was graphic design, email content, or customer service. When it was no longer a great move to continue to outsource it, and it was strategically important, we would bring those people in-house.
That was our evolution. Charles has built a larger organization now with everything, so that is a process that continues to evolve. That’s been our philosophy getting it up to the first five years of the business.
“As we look at the future of this business and what we really want to accomplish in achieving our mission and goals, having the right people in the right seats is huge.”
Charles: Zach, you said that really well. What I loved about what they had built was their ability to stay lean and stay very focused on their mission. That really meshed well with what we were doing on our side of the business and upon the merger as well.
As we look at the future of this business and what we really want to accomplish in achieving our mission and goals, having the right people in the right seats is huge. We're always identifying some of those bottlenecks that Zach and Skyler saw at the beginning, and we fill those with outsourced partners where necessary, whether it's graphic design or content creation. Anything that's going to allow us to keep focusing on our mission, we do look for potential outsourcing. When it becomes something that's a daily need, then we look at that as a full-time hire.
Maintaining core values as you scale your company
Felix: As a business that’s just starting out, how do you become self-aware enough to identify those areas that are lacking in-house and build a strategy to address them?
Skyler: Part of it is that we were lucky to have two founders, which is a lot easier than starting something on your own in some ways, and then harder in a lot of other ways, too. For us, that was really valuable, because we had worked together before, we had a relationship and some trust with one another, and could be honest about each others’ skill sets, which can be tricky and difficult to do. Being able to do that and do that well was really important for us really early on. We’d had some shared experiences where we really understood the value of feedback and were willing to accept it. Not only to accept it, but to really seek it out, and be proactive about seeking feedback from each other to make sure that we were leading with our best stuff.
Just have that attitude of, “my goal isn't to be right. It's to get it right, however that happens.” Whether you're in a situation like us, where there's two founders that have a relationship before that, had worked on projects before. Or even if you're in a silo, but you've worked with people in the past, you're working with people currently, or you’re working with freelancers. Whatever it is, the key is just being proactive about asking for feedback regularly and consistently and keeping an open mind about that.
Zach: Ego's the one thing that's probably going to slow you down more than anything else. You're an entrepreneur who wants to be the guy that's busy 24/7, or is taking on every aspect of the business. There’s just no way. That mentality is not going to get you that far, so you need to be able to rely on other people and realize that you're not going to be the smartest guy on every single topic.
Know your area that you're going to be like, “Hey, this is me, I got this,” and those other areas that, “Yeah, I'm not going to be a good bookkeeper, and I need to outsource that. Or I'm not going to write the best ad copy or pretend to know what I'm doing on Photoshop to create the best ad creative.” There's other people out there that are going to do a better job. I can provide insight to that and give my opinion on it, but you’re only going to go so far alone. You have to be responsible with how much money your company's bringing in and you have to do it appropriately, so start lean. But you're only going to go so far alone.
Felix: As you’ve scaled and you’re trying to keep that mandate company wide, how do you make sure that awareness persists?
Charles: We have a really distinct set of core values within our business. Having that feedback-driven culture is incredibly important. We like to say that we challenge each other directly and we care about each other personally. When you have that level of respect and trust amongst each other, you're willing to provide that feedback amongst each other. That provides that atmosphere and that arena of not having a big ego and knowing that you can take a lot of swings, and people are going to provide feedback on those swings, whether it's critical feedback or whether it's patting you on the back saying you did a great job.
That’s one thing that our team does incredibly well, and that Zach and Skyler did that incredibly well as they built their business into a team, and now have merged into a new team. Their ability to be open to feedback jumping into a larger organizational structure has been absolutely remarkable, and it's been a great asset to the integration of the two businesses. Without that, we would've had a lot of struggles during this first year operating together.
Felix: Let’s talk about the website. For each of you, what is your favorite part of the website?
Skyler: For me, it goes back to what we were talking about earlier. Our mission and the value that we've wanted to provide has been to allow people to customize their product. That requires a lot of work on the front end in terms of our website, it requires a lot of our work on the back end in terms of the website, and it requires a lot of work on the back-back end in terms of fulfillment and operation. That was a hard challenge to overcome, and I'm glad that we've already overcome it and we can talk about it in the past tense. That’s allowed us to give a customer experience on the front end to allow people to really choose an option that makes the most sense for them without overwhelming them.
That’s something I'm the most proud of in terms of the site, and the experience that we've been able to navigate and figure out specifically with our product. That's always a tricky challenge with any product, but with our product in particular, it's something that's really important for pushing forward that mission of helping regular people get prepared.
Zach: Yeah, it's the customization. When we first started, our initial website was earthquakebag.com, when we only had a standalone product. We had an off-the-shelf theme that we worked to customize, and used some basic plugins or different variant options to try to create a somewhat customized experience. As we realized that was something that we wanted to really lean into, we leveraged some custom development work when we launched redfora.com. That was our parent company brand that housed the earthquake bag within it, and we leveraged some Shopify developers to create a more customized experience as you're going through your purchase process. That’s something that continues to pay dividends for us and provide a great product and great experience for our customers.
“It’s our job as entrepreneurs to navigate the 60 different ways we could solve a problem for somebody, but boil that down into two or three easy, clear decision points to walk the customer through.”
Felix: How do you balance this desire to provide a customizable experience with the need to avoid overwhelming them to the point of potential choice paralysis?
Skyler: Right. Our sales backgrounds really helped here. When you're in sales, your job is to take a complex set of possible outcomes and communicate it in a very easy-to-understand way for a customer, while advocating for what you believe to be the best option for them. We got into this business because we did want to take that experience and that toolkit that we developed from working in sales at various parts of our careers and scale it. That’s what e-commerce allows you to do.
It’s very similar. It’s our job as entrepreneurs to navigate the 60 different ways that we could potentially solve a problem for somebody, but boil that down into two or three very easy, clear decision points that we can walk the customer through. Even though, on the back side, there are a million different ways it could go, we really only need to present them with a very short list of questions to be able to determine what the right option is for them.
That's the key to avoid that sense of being overwhelming. It's doing the work upfront. Think about how you can be as efficient as possible in asking questions that are truly customer-facing to figure out where they should be. Then how do you translate those decision points into the cleanest user experience possible? A lot of that comes down to the use of visual hierarchy. Design plays a really big part in it, as well as really tight copy, which all comes out of just iterating and testing.
Zach: From a data side, there's an interesting balance, because we've experimented a lot. We had to find that happy medium of what level of customization is going to increase conversion rate, because we're solving legitimate pain points for people, and what's the amount of customization that's going to decrease conversion rate because of that analysis paralysis? We did a good amount of A/B testing with different versions of the site when we first got started. We also used tools like Hotjar and things like that on the site that help you do heat-mapping to get a better sense of what consumers are doing on the page.
That was pretty helpful early on to understand what that happy medium is. You can definitely offer too many options, and all of a sudden, no one's buying from you because it's a homework project or research project just to make a purchase. We've tried to work really hard to strike that balance and cut away any unnecessary decision-making to make it an easy purchase, but one that you feel extremely confident and glad that you made.
Felix: What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned this year, personal or as a business, that will lead to changes moving forward?
Charles: That’s a loaded question, given the nature of 2020 and the merger of our two businesses and partnering together. For me, the greatest lesson that has come from everything that's happened over the last year is that your team and the resilience of your team is number one. Economies have ups and downs. There's going to be good years, there's going to be bad years, there's going to be challenges. We’ve seen that in every way, shape, and form in this calendar year. Our team sticking together, focusing on the mission, focusing on what matters, focusing on putting the right people in the right seats, and really just maintaining the course and staying resilient has been a huge lesson for me, and I think everyone on our team would agree with that.