When Curt Nichols was working at his first 9-to-5 job after graduation, he craved a creative outlet and wanted to start a side hustle within the skiing accessories category. Curt launched Glade Optics to bring ski goggles and helmets directly to consumers. In this episode of Shopify Masters, Curt shares how he built a seasonal business with consistent sales through quality, customer service, and turned the business into a full-time venture.
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Product quality: the long-term approach to building a brand
Felix: You had started this business as a side project. What was the idea behind the business to begin with, when it was a side project?
Curt: Back in 2016, I was pretty fresh out of college. I was working at a market research firm and was very much headed down the traditional corporate path. I was working on a team that helped consumer-facing companies navigate moving from traditional brick and mortar to more digital platforms. My job was really to help a lot of these high-level decision-makers figure out their go-to-market strategy, their branding, and their advertising copy. At the time we were calling it a new consumer economy.
I was exposed to a lot of high-level decision-makers within the retail and commerce space. At that time in my life, I was what you could call a recreational skier. I skied five to 10 days a year. It was something I did, living in Boston we’d go on weekend trips with my buddies or my family. Skiing was by no means a big part of my identity, but I did, however, begin to understand how the industry was changing. Through my experience at my job, in this market research firm, it was pretty clear to me that a lot of these changes were happening faster in other categories.
I was able to marry the knowledge and the expertise that I was gaining in this market research position, with my high-level knowledge of the ski market, in particular goggles and helmets. The brand started very much as a side project. I was more looking for a creative outlet than anything else. In an entry-level job right out of college, it can get fairly monotonous. You’re not exactly doing super high-level stuff at that age.
I was 24 at the time. I was really just looking to flex my creative muscles and to have something to do when I wasn’t at my nine-to-five job. When the idea first came to me, my feeling was sort of like, “Okay, if I start this as a side project, my goals for this are really mostly just to learn.” I was really curious about business and commerce in general, and the meeting of commerce and media as well. So I viewed it as more of an exercise to gain some knowledge and some experience, thinking that it might help me in my career, or in ventures down the road.
I never really envisioned it to be the business that it has become. Obviously, it’s grown to where it is today, but at the time, it was just like, “What can I do, that would be a nice, creative outlet, in my spare time?”
“My biggest takeaway was really honing in on who your customer is, who you are really trying to get after, at a super granular level.”
Felix: You mentioned you had access to high-level decision-makers. Were there any key takeaways from this access that you were able to apply in your own business?
Curt: My biggest takeaway was really honing in on who your customer is, who you are really trying to get after, at a super granular level. The issue with a lot of these brands that we were working with, was the fact that they were traditionally mass-market companies. If you think about someone like Proctor and Gamble or any of the bigger conglomerates that are selling mass-market products, their products are designed to go after the biggest ground of people that they can possibly get, because they were advertising on places like broadcast television. As the internet, and as commerce on the internet really started exploding, people were realizing, “Oh man, we now have the ability to target really niche groups of people.” The nuggets that I was taking away from these conversations was really how much these guys were focusing on trying to change their messaging, and change their branding to attract more niche audiences. That was a huge signal of, “Hey, I bet this is happening in basically every other category that’s consumer-facing right now. I wonder if I can apply this to something that I have knowledge on.”
Felix: So when you first started this, you were just looking for a creative outlet. How much time were you spending on it when you weren’t working at the day job?
Curt: It was a lot, for sure. In the early days, trying to figure out how to bring a product to market, and trying to figure out how to generate demand, and make sure that the actual product was up to snuff in terms of quality and features, it took a ton of effort. It’s one of those things that was a labor of love for me. It was very exciting. I was spending most nights and weekends working on it.
“I have always been of the belief that the best marketing you can have, is having a really good product.”
Felix: What did you find were the best uses of your time, during the nights and weekends that you had to work on the business?
Curt: Almost certainly sourcing a high-quality product. That to me was paramount at the time. Looking back, it was by far the most important thing I spent my time on. I have always been of the belief that the best marketing you can have, is having a really good product. So in those early days, I was spending the vast majority of my time trying to figure out how to bring a high-quality product to market. What that looked like in practice was basically just trying to understand the landscape of manufacturers and suppliers, for the ski goggle product that I wanted to create.
It was a lot of Google searching and phone calls, and buying competitors’ products, and trying to figure out who was building their products, and things like that. That process took me a long time. The landscape of manufacturers that were making ski goggles, was probably 25 or 30 different factories. I’m sure there was even more that I didn’t see. The majority of my time, in the beginning, was spent vetting these factories. I contacted each of these factories, either via email, phone call, Skype, or however I could contact them, trying to figure out A, would they even consider working with me at low volumes, and B, were they able to understand what I was trying to create. I wanted to see what product modifications I could make, and then see if they were able to take my vision and then communicate it effectively. Whether that meant working around my hours, or just understanding what I was trying to do, and having a good conversation about it.
From that initial list of 25 or 30 factories, it was pretty clear that only about half of them were even willing to work with me. My first production run, back in 2016, was just trying to validate the idea. I was trying to make the production run as small as possible because I didn’t want to spend a ton of money if the idea wasn’t going to work. There were probably only 10 to 15 factories that were even willing to make a production round of 300 or 400 goggles. That whittled the group down almost immediately. I had more in-depth conversations with each of those suppliers, explaining my vision and the product features that I wanted. From there, five or six factories were even willing to make those changes and modifications to the product.
I had each of those factories send me a set of samples. The way that the goggle industry worked at the time was basically, these guys were contracted out by other brands, and they had open molds from goggles from many, many years ago. I basically said, “Hey, send me your product. I want to test it out.” Then I skied with those goggles for almost an entire year, trying to figure out which of these factories I thought was making the highest quality product. That was really the majority of my time, in the early days.
I focused very little on things like marketing and branding, to my detriment. It would have been smarter for me to figure out, “Okay, how am I going to generate demand?” But I am very happy that I spent so much time, trying to vet the product quality. At the end of the day, I’m still using that same supplier to build our goggles, and they’ve been an amazing partner, all the way through.
Felix: Would you have chosen a different path, or do you find that the path you took was the better long-term approach?
Curt: It was a good long-term approach, to make sure that your product quality is dialed. I neglected to fully think through the launch phase of things. I made the mistake that I think a lot of entrepreneurs probably make, which is the idea that “Oh if I build it, they will come.” I had spent all this time trying to dial in the product. Got it to where I felt like it was a high-quality product, and I could bring it to market, and then I built the website, and just sat there like, “Oh yeah, there is this whole other component of this business, where I actually have to generate demand.”
Thankfully, the product quality was high enough that word of mouth started spreading, and we were getting some features in some publications, and things like that. However, I would certainly recommend balancing that product sourcing and product quality component with a healthy dose of trying to figure out how you’re going to generate demand.
Sourcing manufacturers and negotiating small production runs
Felix: What modifications were you bringing to these manufacturers? What makes your product stand out from competitors?
Curt: I had a vision for the aesthetic look of the goggle. An interesting part about our specific category is there’s not a whole lot of room for differentiation. The ski goggle product has been largely commoditized. When I’m talking about the features and the modifications that I wanted for our particular goggle, I wanted it to look unique. I wanted it to be something that, when someone saw it out on the chair lift, on the slopes, or on an Instagram post, that the goggle would be uniquely Glade. That was of primary importance to me, and so that was what took up a lot of that time., Figuring out, “How do we create something that’s unique, but that is also familiar enough that it’s not too far afield that people will be afraid to buy a new product, from a new brand?”
Felix: How difficult was that process of explaining the product features and adjustments that you wanted to make?
Curt: It was more difficult than I anticipated. A lot of ski goggles and helmets on the market out there right now are what I would call open mold goggles. That basically means there’s no pattern on the goggle. Anyone can make it, it’s like a plug-and-play type thing. To make the modifications, it was a question that a lot of these factories had not been asked before. Some were just willing to work with me. At that time, there weren’t a whole lot of people thinking about doing what I was doing. If I had tried to do that today, I probably would have gotten a lot more “nos”, than I did at the time.
Felix: 400 units is pretty low for a production run. Do you have any advice for negotiating a deal like that?
Curt: The way that I negotiated, is I was just very truthful with the suppliers. I said, “Hey, I have this vision for the brand. I have a vision for what I want to do. We’re starting out small, and we’re testing the market. I’d love to do a really small production run.” The way that I was able to negotiate that with the suppliers, was by saying, “I’m not going to ask you to do that much, that’s any different than what you’re already doing. I have an idea for the color that I want and some specific features, but I’m not asking you to reinvent the wheel. This is not a highly complex product. We’re not doing any new tooling, we’re not doing any new kitting. Nothing like that.” Basically, it was just a conversation of, “Hey, when you’re done making goggles for the big guys in the industry, throw on an extra 100, make these changes to it, and then let’s go from there.”
“The reason that Glade has been successful is largely because our differentiation is predicated upon branding, distribution, pricing, and the way that we communicate with our customers.”
Felix: How did you learn this insight into manufacturing, how they work on the inside?
Curt: A lot of research, and a lot of conversations. The reason that Glade has been successful is largely because our differentiation is predicated upon branding, distribution, pricing, and the way that we communicate with our customers. When I was going to these factories, and trying to figure out what the landscape looked like, and how they were working with the bigger, incumbent brands, they were pretty open with me. I was asking them point-blank, “Do incumbent brands own their mold? What does the process look like?” Things like that. This was all part of the process. The reason that I kept moving forward with the idea was because of what I learned about the manufacturing process.
There are very few patents in the industry, and there are a ton of open molds, and that the product features and feature sets are largely commoditized.
Felix: After receiving the product, what were your next steps? How did the launch go?
Curt: I was living in an apartment in Boston. For anybody who’s ever lived in Boston, you know that apartments aren’t very big there. They’re very old, and they’re very small. I had the initial production run of a couple of hundred goggles, sent straight to my apartment. I had a bunch of cartons of ski goggles sitting in a closet, which my roommates were thrilled about. The idea was, “Okay, I know that product photography is really important, and I know that there is an opportunity, in this category, for a new brand voice.” So I built the website myself.
You can do this now, with Shopify. At the time, 2016, I spent 100 bucks to build the website myself. I hired a photographer for 200 dollars and said, “Hey, I need some products on photography,” and just went from there, with zero lifestyle photography. When I go back and look at the website, I cringe. The copy that I had on the website was unique enough that it was catching some people’s eye. I built the website, was all ready to go, and then realized I didn’t have really any sophisticated demand generation strategy.
What ended up working really well for me are Instagram and Facebook. At the time, there was a ton of opportunity for arbitrage. I was able to create an Instagram account, and when I was posting, it was actually being seen by our followers, which was really helpful. Digital advertising certainly was a big help in spurring demand. The other thing is that the ski goggle product itself was inherently shareable.
I had a network of friends, family, and colleagues that were supporting me. They probably ordered the first 40 to 50 pairs of goggles. As they were going skiing, they were posting pictures. When you’re posting pictures of yourself skiing, goggles are usually the primary focus of the photo. Skiing is inherently a social sport, so if you’re on the chairlift, or going skiing with a group, skiers are very much obsessed with new gear.
I was very fortunate in the sense that the product did have that inherently shareable component to it. It wasn’t super hard for me to sell a couple hundred of them, especially given the fact that to pay for digital advertising at the time was super cheap. It was not a sophisticated strategy, to answer your question. It was basically friends and family, word of mouth, and a small smattering of digital ads.
Felix: Following that initial launch, how have you been able to expand and scale the brand?
Curt: I bootstrapped it myself, for the first few years. After that first production run, and after that first winter, I realized very quickly how painful a seasonal business can be. After March 15th, the demand for anything ski-related just drops off a cliff. I ended that season, after selling those first 200 pairs of goggles, with more cash than I had at the beginning of the season. I was like, “Okay, sweet. That worked. Let’s double down. Let’s put all this cash into a new round of inventory.” Only to realize that “Oh yeah, I’m not going to make any revenue, until October, or November of next year.” I learned in those early days that it was slow going. I took the cash that I made in profit and I plowed all of that into inventory for the next season. I repeated that for the first two or three seasons.
I was fortunate that goggles are extremely high margin products, so I was able to grow, in those early days, probably 200, or 400%, year over year. That means a lot in the sense that you’re able to survive, and you’re able to keep going. So that was how the first few years netted out, me hedging my risk. I was still working full-time, and I didn’t have any money in my name. I was 25, all my savings had gone into the first production run. I was really just playing with house money at that point. My thought process was, “Okay if I can find a sustainable way to keep people coming to the website, and to keep people purchasing every year, I think it’s worth a shot.”
Transitioning your side hustle into a full-time job
Felix: At what point did it become a full-time pursuit?
Curt: That was two and a half years after I started. I probably could have gone full-time before that but I’m a pretty risk-averse person. I was unwilling to make the leap until I felt financially secure in the business, and I felt like I had a sustainable, and repeatable way to grow the business. The hold-up for me was trying to figure out, “Okay, what does my marketing mix look like? How can I diversify?” As someone who’s pretty risk-averse, I was very cognizant of the fact that I did not want to be overly reliant on one particular method of acquiring customers. I wanted to make sure that I was hedging my bets, in that respect.
“As someone who’s pretty risk-averse, I was very cognizant of the fact that I did not want to be overly reliant on one particular method of acquiring customers.”
Felix: You mentioned financial security. That might look different for different people. How did you identify when you got there?
Curt: I was young, and I didn’t have any kids, no mortgage. My threshold for that was probably a lot more basic than other people’s. My plan was, “If I can survive, if I can pay rent, if I can transition from my corporate day job, into doing Glade full-time, without a loss in my lifestyle.” As long as I could continue on as things were going, that was really the decision point. I didn’t have any dependents, and I was young. That benefited me, in a lot of ways, just because I had very little to lose at the time.
Felix: When you talk about sustainable and repeatable ways to acquire customers, what did that look like for your business?
Curt: I spoke a little bit about the digital advertising ecosystem. That was big for us, in the early days, because the arbitrage opportunities were huge. That was driving a fair amount of sales for us. I was also leaning really heavily into email. I still do. I love email as a marketing channel. Anytime you have a channel like that, that you own the relationship with the customer, and you’re not reliant on a third party to get your message out, is always beneficial. I would strongly encourage anybody out there to start building their list, and getting really serious about that, because to this day, email drives about 25 to 30% of our revenue.
That was one channel that was an easy, early win for us. I was also really willing to experiment with a bunch of stuff. I was willing to try out podcast advertising or trying to develop partnerships with ski clubs, ski teams, or ski trip organizers. I was not afraid to do things that didn’t scale. I was totally willing to email 50 ski clubs and say, “Hey, here’s who we are. Here’s the discount code,” et cetera. We still have relationships with some of those clubs. I was also going to beer festivals and craft fairs in ski towns throughout the winter. For some of those, we did zero sales. It was me and my wife, sitting in a tent, in the cold, and we would sell nothing. But other times, we’d have days that were $1,000, $2,000, $3,000. It was really, really validating.
In terms of the marketing mix, Glade benefited pretty tremendously from a willingness to just throw stuff against the wall, and see what stuck. Some of the stuff that worked was really surprising. Some of the stuff that didn’t work, I thought would work really well. We have never been able to really get an effective affiliate program or an effective referral program off the ground. And I, in the beginning, was really thinking that those would be viable channels for us. For whatever reason, it just hasn’t worked.
Felix: You mentioned that you were really willing to do the things that didn’t scale. What was the thought process behind that kind of mindset?
Curt: I still have this feeling. I’m still willing to do stuff that doesn’t scale because especially in the early days, it’s just important to get your product out in the market. You need feedback on the product, and you need feedback on how you’re selling it. It took me a lot of time to email those ski clubs, trip organizers, and things like that. But if I sold 10 goggles to a ski club, that was a win for me, because out of those 10 people, maybe one would come back, and give me some feedback on a feature of the product, or some other ski-related nuance, that I was unaware of.
We are probably still benefiting from those early, un-scalable actions. If we got 10 ski goggles out there, five of those people would tell their buddy on the chairlift about Glade, and that would create two new customers for us. That marketing flywheel is really, really effective. I would encourage people to not discard an idea just because it’s not scalable. In the early days, those were our biggest wins, because you need feedback in the early days. It’s so important. The way that I talk about Glade is more or less an amalgamation of everything every customer has ever said to me about the brand, because of how important that feedback has been. Something that we have doubled and tripled down on over the years, is the fact our goggles are anti-fog. When we started, I never thought that would have been that important to people. I would have thought it’s just another feature. From going to those craft fairs, beer festivals, and talking to ski clubs, that’s something that people cared about.
Felix: How do you know when you’ve given enough time to an experiment? When do you determine to call it quits or reinvest?
Curt: Unfortunately the answer is not binary. It’s very rarely clear that something is either really working, or really not working. The vast majority of things that I have done in the marketing space have been somewhere in that gray area. I have always been pretty hyper-focused on first purchase profitability, as well as ROI on a channel. If we’re putting significant resources towards a specific channel, and we’re not seeing the return that is comparable to other channels that we have, and that we have doubled down on, then we’ll usually cut our losses. But again, you have to give each channel a fair shake. A good example of this actually is, we tried advertising on a ski-related podcast, three years ago, and we did not have success with it. It just didn’t work. I think we tried one or two podcasts, and we did not see the return that we were expecting. We totally abandoned the channel, until a couple of months ago, when we decided, “Hey, maybe we should give this another shot.”
We have a podcast ad running right now, that’s one of our most successful channels. There’s so much that goes into it, in terms of timing and resources, and how well known your brand is in the category, which certainly helps. My feeling about when you should be doubling, or tripling down on certain channels, is unfortunately largely gut feeling. I don’t have a sophisticated way of thinking about it.
Building a successful email marketing strategy
Felix: What does your email marketing strategy look like?
Curt: We did do something pretty unique with our email list. We did do the traditional abandoned cart, browse abandonment, all those types of flows. Those look very similar to everybody else. However, if you are on our list, and you are getting campaign emails from us about inventory levels, shipping schedules, or just random updates throughout the ski season, those emails come into your inbox from me, directly. The front field says, [email protected] There is a subject line, and then the body of the email is plain text, no photos, maybe one or two hyperlinks. The email comes in looking like it’s an email from a friend or a family member. Anybody in your life that you would email, on a one-on-one basis.
“There is a subject line, and then the body of the email is plain text, no photos, maybe one or two hyperlinks. The email comes in looking like it’s an email from a friend or a family member.”
The thinking behind this is the result of a fair amount of A/B testing. We tested the more traditional marketing emails, with lots of flashy pictures and things like that against these plain text emails. The engagement level on these emails is so much higher. Not only are open rates and click-through rates higher, but every time we sent an email out I got a couple of hundred emails back into my inbox. They were people emailing me back as if they’re a friend or a family member, saying, “Hey, this is super interesting.” Or, “Hey, I have a question about the goggles,” et cetera. It’s a great way for me to engage with our list.
It’s a great way for me to develop relationships with people in our ecosystem. On top of that, ESPs (email service providers) actually recognize those emails as closer to friends and family emails, versus those from a brand. That means our emails are far more likely to be taken out of the spam box and put into the inbox. That’s why our open rates are so high on them, the ESPs are looking at the email and they’re not seeing a ton of pixel data. They’re not seeing a ton of pictures, and they’re saying, “Okay, this is unlikely to be spam.” Or, “This is unlikely to be a promotion, therefore we are putting it in the main inbox, in Gmail.”
I would highly recommend other brands at least experiment with this. It might not work for you, but we’ve had pretty tremendous success with it. I have developed a really good sense of what our customers are looking for, through these emails, just because I do have such an open dialogue with them now.
Felix: What kind of content do you include in these emails?
Curt: It’s really minimal. It’s usually three or four lines of text and then a link. I try not to bombard the list with emails. You might get one email every two weeks. The content of the email is going to be timely. A good example of an email we just sent out is, “Hey, we’re running low on this particular color of goggle. If you want it, I would recommend you buy it now.” Or, “Hey, here’s our shipping deadlines for Christmas.” It’s always informative. It’s never spammy. If I don’t have a reason to email the list, I won’t email them. I would never send an email out that’s just like, “Hey, look at our product line.” We have welcome flows, for that exact purpose. Once you’ve graduated beyond that welcome flow, my assumption is, you’re familiar with who we are. I’m not going to bombard you with email unless I think I have a good reason to.
Felix: How is your welcome email marketing flow designed?
Curt: Those look like your typical branded campaign. The reason for that is that, for a brand like ours, in a space that has been historically dominated by two incumbents, there is a base level of education and social proof that we need to get to new people or people that are new to our brand. In those welcome flows, we do a ton of social proof. We’ll put in quotes from magazines that we’ve been published in, as well as reviews from other customers. There is a hump that we have to get over in terms of educating people about who we are, and making sure that they feel comfortable purchasing from us. We need to reassure them that we’re not just some random drop-shipping brand.
“There is a base level of education and social proof that we need to get to new people or people that are new to our brand. In those welcome flows, we do a ton of social proof.”
Felix: You mentioned the seasonal nature of the business. Have you come up with any tactics for evening that out a bit?
Curt: Yeah we’ve struggled with this from day one. It’s something that’s top of mind for me, almost 24/7. We’ve made efforts in that respect. What we have done is we’ve expanded into sunglasses, as well as other accessories for mountain activities, in the summer. We are coming out with a really robust sunglass line this summer. We piloted one last summer that had a lot of success. It’s hard to overcome that cognitive bias. When everybody looks at your brand in a certain way it’s really hard to educate your customers about the direction you’re going in. I don’t have a super solid answer on how we overcome the seasonality issue. We are trying to become the mountain eyewear go-to brand. That’s the ethos with which we are plowing ahead. It’s not clear to me how successful that would be. But based on our pilot last year with the sunglasses, I’m pretty optimistic that we’ll be able to carve out a niche in future seasons.
Felix: Are there any improvements you’ve made over the years to optimize profits during those peak seasons?
Curt: Nothing dramatic. Our selling season is so compressed, between November and February, that I’m totally hands on deck for the next three months. This is the busiest time for us, no doubt. I still answer every single customer service email that comes through, so I am super, super busy at this time. In terms of how I’ve changed the business over the years, it’s really been about making sure that I have enough time to do the things that make an impact on the business. It’s been about outsourcing. For example, in the early days, I was shipping out of my apartment. Then as we grew, I outsourced fulfillment to a third-party logistics provider. I offloaded the accounting to a third-party platform. The biggest changes in preparing for peak season for us have basically been about offloading and outsourcing things to make sure that I have enough time to do stuff that’s impactful.
Felix: You mentioned briefly outsourcing digital marketing. Can you talk a little bit more about how that worked out?
Curt: Our main problem was the fact that our incentives weren’t aligned with the agency that we hired. This was two seasons ago, that we were working with this particular agency. What’s interesting is that the payment structure we were working on them with was basically just predicated upon spend. It was not predicated upon any amount of success metric. Big learning for me was if you are going to hire an agency, or any kind of third-party provider, to help you with marketing make sure your incentives are aligned. I would have been much happier if we were paying them based on a ROAS goal, or something like that, instead of just a spend goal. That was huge learning, in the early days.
“Big learning for me was if you are going to hire an agency, or any kind of third-party provider, to help you with marketing make sure your incentives are aligned.”
Felix: Would you consider outsourcing at some point, if the incentives were aligned?
Curt: Yes. A lot of learning was around the fact that I didn’t know enough about our customers to correctly articulate to this agency how we should be talking to them, and how we should be marketing the product. By taking marketing and digital advertising back in-house and doing it myself, I gained a lot of personal knowledge about what type of copy really resonates, what features really resonate about our product, and how our customers are speaking about it to other people. It was important for me to take that back and gain that knowledge. Now I would feel much more confident outsourcing that again with a better incentive structure, as well as the more knowledge that I have now.
Our category is so idiosyncratic. The way that skiers talk about gear is so different than if you’re selling a wallet or something like that. There’s certain terminology you have to use. You have to use phrases and things to signal to other skiers that you know what you’re talking about. It’s a weird industry in that respect. We totally missed it in the beginning. There’s a lot of learning in that domain, that I would feel far more confident going to an agency now.
Customer service: the backbone of every brand
Felix: What are the daily practices you use to make sure you’re absorbing all this knowledge?
Curt: I alluded to this a little bit before, but the single most important thing I do is answer every single customer service email myself. That’s the single best source of truth about how we are doing as a brand, in terms of our communication, and our copy, as well as how we’re doing in terms of our product quality, and how people are thinking about our product. What I have done, as I have been answering these emails for years and years now, is created a document that serves as a repository for any product features and upgrades we should make for the following years. As well as standard answers to questions that we get a lot. What that in turn has helped me do is actually create a really effective frequently asked questions page. We get the same 10 questions every season and by adding those questions onto our website we’ve been able to cut down on the actual volume of customer service inquiries that we get.
A lot of people look at customer service and say that’s a waste of my time. We should hire some entry-level interns to do that. I completely disagree with that. A lot of the most impactful decisions that have been made in our business from a strategy perspective have been a result of me directly interfacing with our customers. They’ll be vocal about what product features they want to see change, what upgrades they want, what marketing is important to them, and things like that.
“A lot of the most impactful decisions that have been made in our business from a strategy perspective have been a result of me directly interfacing with our customers.”
Felix: What are some of the changes you’ve made along the way to the website specifically that have had the biggest impact?
Curt: Two things really jump out to me. The first is social proof. We noticed a massive jump in conversion rate as we started to get logos of well-respected publications in the ski industry onto our front page. If you look at our website right now the second thing that you see is a list of publishers that have written about us with links to those articles. What that has done is created a lot of reassurance for people that are new to the brand. If you go to our website for the first time and you’re trying to figure out who we are and what we’re about. You’re going to feel a lot better about buying equipment from us if Outside Magazine has written about us, if FREESKIER Backcountry Mag, Ski Mag, BLISTER Gear review. When you see those types of articles about us, it makes people a lot more comfortable purchasing from us, so that’s been huge.
I would highly recommend any new business do this. I know it seems daunting in the beginning. Certainly, we did not have this for a long time but the way we thought about it was sort of like a pyramid. We started with really low-level publications, local newspapers, or really niche publications within the outdoor space that didn’t get a lot of traffic, but were willing to write about a new startup. Once we got those guys to write about us it was a little bit easier for us to go out and try to get articles by some of the bigger players in the industry. Even if it’s not something like Outside Magazine, if it’s a local newspaper or something like that, just get the logo up there because people want some third-party validation.
We’ve also added a lot of customer reviews to the site that is more prominently displayed. The second thing that we did that really helped was be much more diligent about our landing pages. I frankly was not really aware that this was even something you could do until a year or two ago. We use an app called Shogun to design very customized landing pages for our advertisements, as well as for our product pages, and for more specific, feature-oriented pages. What this has allowed us to do is, if we’re advertising to you about a specific product feature, we can then have you click out into a landing page that elaborates on that specific feature.
It makes us a little more sophisticated in terms of our customer journey and making sure that the copy is really well aligned across the entire journey for each particular person because some parts of our product are more important to people than others. It’s important to understand that each persona that you have probably cares about things in a way that’s a little bit different. Creating those landing pages and making them really really hyper-customized has helped us a lot.
Felix: How many landing pages are we talking about?
Curt: It’s a fairly big effort. Right now we have somewhere between 15 and 20. However, they’re very similar. In terms of product photography and lifestyle photography, that’s all very similar across the pages, because we know the photography that converts really well. We’re really just tweaking the copy for most of these pages. Some of them are totally different, obviously. But even just tweaking the copy to highlight one feature over another, or one part of the business over another, I can really go a long way.
Some people buy from us because we’re lower priced than our competitors. Some people buy from us because we’re an independent brand in a category where no one else is independent. And some people buy from us because we have a particular anti-fog system that is better than our competitors. We want to make sure that for each of those people we’re highlighting that very clearly to them, as they move their way through our website.
Felix: What kind of messaging do you position throughout this funnel?
Curt: We go through all of our traffic sources, and we make custom landing pages for each of them. We assume that, depending on where that person is coming from, they have either a different demographic makeup, a different psychographic makeup, or a different reason that they’re looking for a goggle. Because some people are just looking for a replacement for something that was old and is/has been broken. And some people are not even looking for a goggle, but they want to learn more about us, and they want to support us. So it’s important that we’re touting that message.
Felix: How do you determine which landing pages are the right decision for capturing your audience?
Curt: I have a fairly decent gut feel for the particular copy that I think will work in a given situation. However, that gut feel is the result of a lot of data and a lot of A B testing over the years. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what particular messaging resonated with people that we’re buying our goggles. And even more testing a ton of different variations on that copy, both in our advertising, on our website, and on the product pages. I have never been afraid to experiment, and that experimentation goes a really, really long way. Because it might only change your conversion rate by whatever, 1% at the most, but that’s huge in the long run.
“Our conversation rate on that pop-up is 30%. That means that 30% of everybody that adds one product to their cart, is adding another to their cart.”
Felix: You mentioned you use Shogun. Are there any other apps that you rely on to run the business?
Curt: My favorite app that we use is called Product Upsell. It’s by Bold. We use this across all of our products. What this app does is, if you add a ski goggle, a ski helmet, or whatever the product is, to your shopping cart, you get a pop-up that says, “Hey, we think that these other two products would really enhance your ski day.” And those products are often things like a crush-resistant case, or any extra lens, or a lens cover. They’re accessories that we think are good compliments to the product that was added to the cart. We have all this logic that determines, “Okay, who is this person, and what did they add to the cart? Given that information, here is the type of product that we are going to recommend to them, in this pop-up.”
We have seen tremendous success with this. Our conversation rate on that pop-up is 30%. That means that 30% of everybody that adds one product to their cart, is adding another to their cart, as a result of this pop-up. That’s a huge revenue driver for us, just like table stakes. We don’t have to do anything, just driving a ton of revenue. I’m a huge fan of that app. I would recommend anybody to use upsell in order to cross-sell. The other thing we do is, we use an app called CartHook Post-Purchase Offer, where after the customer has made the purchase, they’ve input their credit card information, they’ve confirmed the payment, and then you get pushed to that thank you page.
On the thank you page we offer them another product, at a discount, after they’ve made that purchase. If you purchase a pair of goggles and go through the process. On that thank you page, you might get an offer that says, “Hey, if you want a helmet in the next five minutes, you can get 10% off that helmet.” We are seeing conversion rates of around 4% on that, which is not huge, but that’s revenue you would not get otherwise. Those two apps together have really contributed to a pretty big boost in our AOD and our LTB, which ultimately is just really good for the health of the business. I’m a huge fan of both of those.
Felix: What would you say is the biggest goal that you’ve set for yourself, for 2021?
Curt: We have been very lucky, in the sense that we have been relatively un-impacted by COVID. As most people know, ski resorts shut down last March, along with basically everything else. We were already sold out of all of our inventory at that time, so we came out of it relatively unscathed. Goals for this particular ski season are basically hitting our revenue targets, under the context of all of the resort’s ski areas staying open. There’s a ton of uncertainty in the ski industry right now. We’re seeing a ton of demand. People want to get outside more than ever. We saw this in the biking and camping industry, et cetera. As long as ski resorts stay open, we will be exceeding our goals for the season. However, when I think about longer-term goals, it’s basically let’s get through this winter, while COVID is still potentially going to impact us, and then think about the future.