As a dog owner and entrepreneur, Trevor Crotts launched BuddyRest to create quality mattresses that offered support and comfort for dogs. In this episode of Shopify Masters, Trevor Crotts of BuddyRest, shares how he found a product-market fit, created compelling content, and his thoughts on the future of ecommerce.
Test quickly to find a product-market fit
Felix Thea: Tell us a little bit more about your background, and how you started this business.
Trevor Crotts: I’ve been an entrepreneur since a young age. We got into eBay business in the mid-2000s, and cut my teeth on learning how to sell online. And then I went through a bunch of different companies as a corporate trainer. What really filled my cup was not just selling products, but teaching people how to sell a product. And I was actually working in the mattress industry for one of the major mattress companies, and I was selling and teaching people how to sell these products. I have a big dog and I’ve had a dog since I was a kid. And being a single guy with this big dog, he’s my best friend. His name was Buddy and he’s still around. But we saw, me and a friend of mine, named Jordan, who was working in the mattress industry with me, saw an opportunity because when it came time for me to look for a product for something that was going to be supportive for Buddy because I knew firsthand how important sleep was and how it had made a big difference in customers, and really had improved the quality of life, I realized there’s nothing out there for dogs. There were some orthopedic dog beds out there and memory foam dog beds, but none of them were memory foam. None of them were truly orthopedic. And so I saw an opportunity to do something because when I was doing this research, we really found out that big dogs, oftentimes they live about three or four years or less, they have a much shorter lifespan than their smaller counterparts. And the reason is because of painful joint problems. Big dogs suffer from painful joint problems, are the number one reason why they’re euthanized as they get old. The quality of life goes down the hill. So knowing all this and knowing about my expertise in the mattress industry, I saw that opportunity to create a business and do something for my dog Buddy, as well as the millions of dogs out there, and a proactive way, give them the best types of support, and that’s why we started BuddyRest in 2011. Now, with that, we decided to not just create the best supportive bed based on scientific principles and when we do use tactile pressure mapping, we use all the same technologies and the same materials over in the human mattress industry. But we also sought to create the best bed in every single way. So a more durable bed that’s going to last longer, that’s going to need to be washed less, and a bed that is made in the USA that people could get behind. So that’s what we’ve endeavored to do and that’s where we really got our start.
Felix: Did you have all of these features right from the start or there were these iterations on the original product?
Trevor: The product that we have on the market today obviously has a lot of iterations. But originally what we started with is, we were looking to reinvent what dog beds actually are? When people thought of a dog bed, it’s generally thought of as something made overseas, that’s cheap, they get smelly and dirty, wash it once or twice, you throw it away. It’s a disposable mentality. We were looking for something that was going to be a more durable, last a bit longer than that, and really provide the value that we knew could be provided out there. So we sought out the different types of materials right out the beginning. What were the best materials we could find? Give you an example. Most people use commercial nylon when they sew their products together. We found kevlar thread, which was a lot more expensive to use than commercial nylon, but it was actually five times stronger at the seam than any other dog bed out there, and we knew that that was going to really contribute to the long term durability. And we also knew that producing a high-quality American made mattress was going to be more expensive. And so we needed to make sure that the value was there from a customer standpoint, and so instead of just being more supportive and more comfortable, and also being a proactive measure to help guard against long term joint problems, it needed to be more than that. It needed to be something that was durable and something that people could justify spending that more money on. And so, initially, we sought out all the best materials we could find and we really built the product from a standpoint of meeting those value propositions, and then we kind of reverse-engineered it, as far as how can we find the right materials to fill those needs?
I think oftentimes when it comes to product development, people make the product and then they try to figure out, “How can I go sell this?” And I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that strategy, but that’s not the strategy we take. We look for product-market fit. “How can we sell a product and then how can we make a product to really fit those needs and really solve those problems?” And I think that’s the number one thing to understand starting with our dog beds, but permeating throughout everything in our organization today is everything is solution-based. How can we solve a problem? We’re not the best at making the cool funny bow ties that go on the dog’s collar or the fluffy, stylish dog bed with the latest trends. We’re in the solution business. We solve problems for pets and pet people and we enrich the bond between pets and their owners. And that’s really what our focus is, especially when it comes to product development.
Felix: How do you know what that promise should be? How do you figure what is the product-market fit, to begin with?
Trevor: You can do a lot of different product research. You can see what the competition looks like out there, you can fill out a main competitive matrix system, and figure out where you fit in. But at the end of the day, you just have to put the product out there and see what the market says and then adjust from there. I think that’s actually one of our massive advantages, especially for up and coming young Shopify entrepreneurs, your big advantage in this business is that you’re not a big slow corporation. If you have a product and a product idea, you can bring it to the market pretty quickly and get an answer. And you don’t have to buy a container of products oftentimes, you don’t have to wait six months to a year, you don’t have to be stuck with a lot of inventory. For us, we look at that as one of our big strategic advantages versus a lot of our competition is that we are quick, we can come up with a product to market, we have an in-house photography studio in our facility here, we can have that product listed on one of our web properties by the end of the day, and we’ll know whether it’s a hit or not. And maybe we need to make some adjustments along the way. And we believe in kaizen principles and continuous improvement. But really, the secret to success, I think, is just taking those shots. You have to take as many shots as you can. We aim for the fences all the time, and to be fair, we fail a lot. The key is that we continue to swing the bat, we continue to try to hit that home run.
Felix: How many products were you actually shipping with at first?
Trevor: For us, we started off with one product, one dog bed, and we took it to a local show. And to be honest, it was a mess. We had a banner with a website behind us, the website wasn’t working. I was upset because I was on the phone with these developers I’d hired, they were freelancers. I told them this is our big day and it was just a mess. But what we did get is even though we didn’t have even another product to sell people, but we got some validation from the customers and at least a little bit of confidence that people are interested. And so we went from there, we built a couple of products, we got that website finally built out, and about a month later, we got one sale. And her name was Anne Grossman. I remember it very clearly because Anne Grossman was our first customer and she also was our fourth and fifth customer. She came back and bought another bed and another bed.
Felix: Do you remember some of the changes that you made to the product or to the business or to the marketing based on that initial feedback?
Trevor: So one of the first things we heard was that our products are so expensive. And to be fair, we weren’t in the business of making the cheapest product out there. We thought, okay, if we’re going to make the Rolls-Royce of dog beds, Rolls-Royce probably doesn’t apologize for their price. Maybe it’s just not for everybody, but we really thought that if you have the features and benefits that really make sense, and you can explain it and articulate it in a way where people can understand it’s an investment in the health of their animal, it’s a long term investment in the health of their animal that it’s a lot easier to sell. And what we found out is that, even though everybody told us that no one’s going to spend money on a dog bed like this, maybe not everybody but a lot of people told us that, but nowadays people are spending $70 – $90 on a bag of dog food. Some people are even cooking their dogs their own meals every night. But if you look at what the market says, is that things change, and sometimes you can put a product out there and make small changes or sometimes you can put a radical product out there. And sometimes you need to listen to the customer base and the people around you, and sometimes you need to forge ahead and see if you can validate it on your own without them. And I think that’s kind of what we did. We got a lot of feedback, initially, as far as price point goes, and quality and we did definitely take that and put it into consideration, but at the end of the day, we put it out there to a wider audience and really look to validate it ourselves.
Educate customers and justify your pricing
Felix: What should you be focusing on when it comes to your marketing to essentially show to the customer it is worth the investment?
Trevor: You got to educate the customer especially if you’re in a new market or you have a new product. It doesn’t matter how great the product is if you can’t articulate what the value is to the customer and more specifically, not what the value is, but what the benefit is in a personal way to that customer. When we first started with BuddyRest, we had a wholesale strategy. We wanted to be in pet stores across the United States, and even though we knew that we were going to be the most expensive dog bed on the shelf, we thought with the innovation that we had, that we could really change people’s minds just like dog food. And what we found out even though we did have some success, we were in 500 stores in the first two years. What we found out is the reorders weren’t there. And when we really cracked down on it, we realized that part-time summers, high school employees weren’t able to articulate the value of why somebody should spend the money on our product. We did a great job at the trade show or over the phone talking to the store owners, and maybe the store owners could do it to some extent as well, but the reorders just weren’t happening. And so what we recognize is that our product was much better served online. And that’s why Shopify is a great opportunity for people these days is because you can do a lot of educating to the customer upfront, you can teach them a lot about the product and you have to do the marketing in a really nice crisp way where the product images are big, and you can really find a way to show them the product, and that’s a really awesome thing.
Felix: Yes, I see here that you have listed these features were easy to clean, waterproof, temperature neutral, antibacterial. How did you learn that those are the features to emphasize and to put on one of the first places that your customers will see your products?
Trevor: I’m a dog person. So I looked at what was important, for me the most important was the support. Obviously, I want my dog to be comfortable, but nobody wants a stinky, smelly dog bed they constantly have to wash. And also people are tired of buying stuff that’s temporary and has to be thrown away. Knowing all those things, and talking to a lot of other people and validating that these are issues that everybody wants to do away with.
Felix: So now you mentioned that you put the product online first, how were you going to get those first early sales?
Trevor: We spend a lot of money and CPC upfront, and when I say spend a lot of money, the fact is when you are a young company, you don’t have a lot of money to spend. And so if you’re really selling for survival like we were in the early years, you don’t have a lot of money or time to deploy in the long term game as far as SEO and building the blogs. Those are all super important and I wish that we would have focused more on them early on, but we literally were pouring money into Google AdWords and selling to survive. We needed to get a certain return on ad spend in order to continue to make the cycle work. Luckily, we did a pretty good job with that. Myself, I was the one that ran those ads in the early days. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to run the best ad, how to optimize it and I just became a student of the game, and that’s what everybody needs to do. As you can’t afford to focus on everything. Now we have all of the world’s information at our fingertips. It’s an amazing opportunity that has never been here before. So use that. Instead of spending Saturday afternoon watching Netflix or watching funny cat videos, learn and teach yourself and become better, and continue to reiterate on that and pretty soon you’ll become a master, or at least very serviceable that you can pour back in there. So that’s what we did, primarily with PPC in the beginning. Over the years, we’ve really started to focus more on SEO, social standpoints and we’ve kind of built out a robust system of assets and content, but in the early days, it was definitely pay per click.
Compelling content marketing and useful tools
Felix: What is your approach to content marketing and SEO to get this kind of growth?
Trevor: The secret is really putting out great content. And putting out great content means a lot of different things, but to me, what I think it means is putting out content that’s relevant to your audience that people really want to read, and understanding how to monetize that content. So for us, we aim to publish 10 to 12 blogs a week, which is a lot. And that’s a heavy goal. We have numerous properties now. I mean, we started with BuddyRest, and we built or bought multiple different brands now that allow us to have a really good approach to the pet industry in general. But not just basically putting out that content, but making sure it’s quality. Google obviously wants to provide the most relevant search results. And so you need to think about that, don’t just be keyword stuffing, don’t just be throwing random articles that nobody wants to read.
The other thing that I think is kind of scary is that nowadays AI is able to write and that’s only going to get better and improve more. And so I think now more than ever, we need to really focus on legitimizing our own content, seeking out people who are high quality and experts in certain areas and really building a moat against that AI disruption. And so once you’ve done all that, and you have great content and you’ve got great traffic, then you really need to focus on, how do I take this top of the funnel traffic and get them deeper into the funnel. And so we do some free samples, we do a lot of lead magnets, and we just look at, how do we nurture these customers long term, because we’re always thinking about the lifetime value of the customer not just trying to make that transaction today, which is quite a bit different than what I was talking about when we started with BuddyRest and were selling to survive day by day.
Felix: What is the content marketing system that you created?
Trevor: Well, the first thing I would suggest would be to get some tools to use. I mean, tools are kind of hard in the beginning because they obviously are an investment. Don’t just be writing articles that you think people want to read. Do the keyword research. Moz is great. We like SEMrush here. We do the keyword research, finding out what are the opportunities to rank for? Because you could be putting out the best content in the world, but if your domain authority is terrible and there’s a major player sitting on that content, you’re not going to crack that egg. So knowing where to pick your battles is super important. Sometimes I look at things like with smaller companies, you can’t just fight them on the open field. We need to do a little guerrilla warfare here. And the way we do that is you use those tools to find where those keywords opportunities were, maybe it doesn’t have the best traffic, but if you can pick up 10 or 15 of those spots, you can kind of Moneyball your way into really getting some decent traffic. The first step, get the tools, finding the right keywords, and then focusing on building that content out around those keywords, but making sure that it’s not just about the keywords, it’s about great content that people want to read. Second, I would say is definitely finding out, once we have that traffic, going back to what I was saying earlier, what do we do with it? Because if a customer just reads a couple of sentences, and then they bounce off your site, they’re not really a customer. They’re just somebody that’s on your site and gone, and you’ll never see them again. So how do we capture that traffic? How do we get them into some sort of workflow? How do we nurture them? That’s really what you need to focus on.
Felix: How do you take someone that’s just coming by as a visitor to your site and over time include them in your kind of marketing funnel so that you can eventually turn them into a customer?
Trevor: I think the word around here that we use a lot is compelling. There’s so much content out there these days that you have to stick out in the crowd, it has to be compelling. And so the lead magnet would be whether infographic or a white paper, whatever it is, it has to be compelling and it has to be tailored to the actual page that people are on. So if we have a lead magnet about dealing with dogs’ arthritis, but it’s only been throwing up on a page that talks about what you should look for in your new puppy, it’s really not matching that audience up. So understanding what the audience is there for is super important. Understanding the customer journey, what their intent is, what are they looking for. And a lot of the time they’re not looking to buy something, so you need to not be focused on trying to sell them something all the time. Rather than always trying to kick down the front door with a sales message, or some scarcity, sometimes it’s better just to walk through the side door and grab a plate out of the cupboard and sit down to eat dinner. It’s kind of a silly analogy, but really, the idea is that you want to be that smart friend that they come to for advice, not that pushy salesman. And if you can find a way to where you can kind of join them on their journey and help them along the way with information and providing a lot of value upfront when the time for their needs is there and they want to buy something, you’re going to be the first person they turn to, and you’re going to be right there sitting next to them ready to sell them whatever they need to buy.
The buyer’s journey after they provided their email address
Felix: Once you have someone’s email address, through the free plus shipping or some other type of content-based lead magnet, what do you email them? What is that part of the marketing funnel once you have their email?
Trevor: So you need to understand what the intent was generally when they came into the site. Were they coming through PPC or were they coming through just organic Google search? And once you understand that, and you capture their email, you can segment it down from there as far as understanding what kind of message to send to them. Generally speaking, we look to nurture the long-term value of the lead and not just try to sell them all the time. One thing that I think really works well is being able to provide value and saying, hey, you were interested in this, there’s some other stuff you might be interested in, and then almost as an afterthought, PS, we’re running a sale today on this product that you might be interested in for a 30% off. That’s, a nice subtle way of combining both strategies and still being able to sell because as much as we want to talk about delivering value and not being too pushy, at the end of the day, we all want to put dollars into the register.
Felix: What are the tools to keep track of all where your customers are coming from so you can segment your customers?
Trevor: For our standpoint, Klaviyo is, in my opinion, the best email company there is. It’s great at scaling on those relationships and really being able to deliver personalized value. The problem with Klaviyo for a lot of companies is, it’s a lot more expensive. But if you’re willing to make an investment and email marketing as part of something that is effective for you, then I definitely think you should jump on that train because it’s definitely making a big difference for us. Pairing Klaviyo with Privy has worked really well. Privy offers a lot of the same features from a standpoint of pop-ups and whatnot than Klaviyo does, but it’s just much more robust with some of the design aspects and some of the A/B testing that’s important. In addition to those two channels, obviously, we’re big fans of a lot of the Shopify apps that we use or the Bold apps, big fan of those for our total stack. Besides that, those are the main core products that we use on a daily basis.
Felix: When it comes to your website, what are some of the pages on here that you guys spend the most time working on A/ B testing and optimizing?
Trevor: I think the most important page is definitely the landing page that comes through from paid traffic. But going back to what I mentioned earlier about Kaizen principles, we can always optimize, always improve. The landing pages are super important for us. From the PPC stuff, I would say first and foremost, just because you’re paying for that traffic, you need to make sure that when it arrives, you have a compelling message that’s going to articulate the value of your product in a unique way that raises their perceived value and makes them want to buy the product right then and there. I guess secondary would be, obviously, the homepage is pretty important. A lot of people like to look at that, but the landing pages on the blogs, being able to show the blogs and also being able to sprinkle products in there in the right way, that’s super important. And not just putting products in there randomly but putting products in there and if possible, including star ratings for social proof and also sale prices. If you’re able to put whatever program you’re using, if you’re able to produce strike throughs and show the sale price, I think that’s super valuable too as far as from a tactical standpoint that might help someone today.
Felix: These landing pages, are they the product pages or something more specialized?
Trevor: That depends on where the buyer intent is, and the traffic that’s coming in. What I’m referring to is our Why BuddyRest page. It’s going to really articulate who we are, what we do, why we’re different, why they should buy our product, and then it kind of takes them on to the customer journey as far as selecting a product from there. That is something that depending on what you’re looking at might be one or five or six different options because we’re constantly trying to optimize it. That’s that and really, that changes that quite a bit.
Felix: Got it. So you drive a lot of traffic to a page that talks about the value proposition of features of your product?
Trevor: From a paid standpoint, that’s where we focus most of our energy on. When we first started, I think lots changed in the last seven, eight years, but when we first started, we put all the traffic to our homepage, which I think is a common mistake for newbies is that you think that your homepage has to do all the selling. Really, I think the homepage is there for navigation, for validation. It’s not necessarily the main sales page. So I would definitely recommend having a landing page that’s really going to be curated and tailored for that audience, depending on what their intentions are. So if they’re coming in looking to buy a particular type of product, and you think that based on whatever avatar or whatever customer research you’ve done, you think that there are hot buttons, or are what really matters to them are these features versus these features, you need to really emphasize those features instead of talking about everything. And on the other hand, you need to have a second landing page that focuses on the other features because what really matters is not just the features, but the features and how they’re tied to benefits in a unique way.
Felix: Once they make it to this, Why BuddyRest page, what is the call to action off of that pages?
Trevor: Well, that depends. We do a couple of different things on the Why BuddyRest page. Ultimately, we want to get them into a product, but we don’t want to get them into the wrong product. So depending on what kind of challenge they have, depends on where the customer journey takes them next, because some people are going to be looking for one of our more chew resistant products, maybe they have a dog that’s suffering from some sort of anxiety, or is a puppy, and so they’re looking for something that’s going to hold up over time. Maybe it’s somebody that’s looking for that orthopedic bed, maybe they have a dog that’s in pain or a senior dog. And so depending on what that is, is going to take them on a different journey as well. A lot of the time trying to find that right path for them is really the key. So we do a lot of different calls to actions as far as, do you want to look at all the beds? Are you looking for the beds that are designed for extra durability, and to resist chewing and scratching? Do you need more education as far as helps a lot in selecting a dog bed? We do have a call to action for that. And a lot of it’s about having a combination of social proof, having a combination of validation, and then getting them into the category that makes the most sense.
Tips for fellow entrepreneurs and thoughts on the future
Felix: What tips do you have for entrepreneurs that are too much of a perfectionist and should be thinking this way more where done beats perfect?
Trevor: The unfortunate thing is oftentimes the best product isn’t the one that wins. We’ve seen it a million times in our own business because now we have a lot of competition with knock offs and cheap imitations. And specifically like on Amazon, for example, sometimes just having those… the best product isn’t going to be good enough. And I will tell you early on when we had the competitive advantage of being the only ones out there in the space, having a great product will cover a lot of flaws, whether that be from a standpoint of logistics, you are being able to deliver on time, but at the end of the day, you need to be able to execute quickly, innovate quickly, and be able to keep one step ahead of the competition. If you can’t do that, while you’re working on that perfect product that may never see the light of day. Your competition has already taken massive amounts of market share for you. So my suggestion would be, find people who aren’t perfectionists around you that you can maybe delegate because I’m not so sure, I think a lot of time it’s ingrained in us. Find people that you can delegate to, that can execute and let them do their thing. Don’t micromanage. In our organization, we look for people who we can point in a direction and tell them the what and the why, and maybe not exactly the how, but that hill over there, we need to take it because of this reason and go, and they figure out how to get there on their own. That’s the type of people that we value and that’s the type of people that execute and get things done. And if you are a perfectionist, I highly recommend finding some of those people and putting them around you.
Felix: What do you see as the future of ecommerce or what are you looking forward to seeing?
Trevor: Ecommerce is a really interesting landscape right now. It’s super exciting to be part of it. Obviously more people than ever feel comfortable shopping online. And we’re always on the lookout for opportunities and technology that will help increase conversion rates, improve customer user experience. One thing I’m super excited about is 3D modeling. I think 3D modeling is going to be one of the massive opportunities, especially in the next year or two, Shopify is just basically starting to scrape the tip of the iceberg. One thing that we’re involved in, I actually have a separate company that’s a joint venture partnership with a company in Germany. The German company is called Scanblue and they have a really amazing technology that is able to take any product and create a high-quality 3D model of it and at scale. The quality is unparalleled, the cost is as affordable and you can really do full catalogs. And so we’re partnering with them as we have a company called ScanShop, and you can actually learn more information about at scanshop.us where we have one of their high-quality machines landing in the United States, it’s going to be the only one of its kind. And we can take products, scan it into the 3D model, and put that on the web. Why that’s super exciting is because it’s going to bridge the gap between shopping online and shopping in a store, because you’re able to now see the product firsthand, and you’re going to be able to turn it on all its access. A lot of people have already seen the 3D models. That’s really cool for us, like on buddyrest.com and some of our products, you can even drop it into AR on your phone and see what our bed looks like in the living room, and helps make a buying decision. And we’re excited about that because I think the conversion rates are going to go through the roof when we’re able to deploy these 3D models across everybody’s websites. It doesn’t take rocket science to know that the bigger and better quality the image that you can show articulates the better value. There’s a direct correlation there for the customer to know that that image, by being able to show that detail increases the conversion rate. And so by being able to give them this really unparalleled user experience is super exciting. Why it’s really solving a problem and why I want to get involved in it is because currently, 3D modeling for most of the quality’s just not there. It’s all really done by hand, but it requires a 3D modeler to create them. And it’s really not able to be accessible to most Shopify customers and Shopify audiences because they’re not able to pay and wait for the turnaround time and pay for the high prices of these 3D modelers. So what’s super exciting with this partnership and with scanshop.us, is you’re able to go on there and you can submit the products and we can follow up, you can send us a product, we’re going to be scanning these and putting them out there at scale. So we can do full catalogs, the quality is going to be unmatched. It’s going to be incredibly disruptive. And that is absolutely the technology that I think is going to make the most impact specifically for Shopify owners over the next year or two, and not only just ecommerce in general.
This article originally appeared in the Shopify blog and has been published here with permission.