Knowing your customer is important before you can sell anything to them. And it's hard to do that from behind a screen, even if you're basing your assumptions on data.
Claire and John Easley are the founders of Carbon6 Rings, forged carbon fiber jewelry hand-crafted In America.
According to them, going out of their way to talk to their customers one-on-one was what helped them win Shopify's Build a Business VI, and grow a $1.7 million company.
Hear their story on this episode of Shopify Masters.
- How to get feedback from products you give away for free.
- How to look out for predatory vendors when you’re just starting up.
- What makes a high converting Kickstarter video.
Listen to Shopify Masters below…
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Felix: Today, I’m joined by John and Claire Easley from carbon6rings.com. That’s c-a-r-b-o-n, the number 6, r-i-n-g-s.com. Carbon 6 sells forged carbon fiber jewelry handcrafted in America. It was started in 2015, and based out of Brooklyn, New York. Welcome, John and Claire.
John: Hey, how are you doing? [inaudible 00:01:26]
Felix: Good. Hey. Cool, so excited to have you guys on. So just to put it out there, you guys were one of the winners of the Shopify Build A Business competition, won the most recent one. We’ll definitely dive into that in a little bit, but let’s start off by talking about your story. Tell us a bit about the brand, and what are some of the products that you sell?
John: All right. We started because I lost my wedding ring a couple years ago. I didn’t know of a ring on the market that would really work with the type of things that I did. So I was looking into materials that I thought would function. I was studying as a mechanical engineer, and we were starting to work with carbon fiber. I liked the idea of something that was light and strong, and had 2 elements, the carbon fiber and the resin, that were strong in different ways, but when they came together, they would form something that was stronger that either of them could have been separately. So we started to develop a process called forged carbon fiber that was used by Lamborghini about 2000 … It’s still used by Lamborghini. Started in 2010. I worked on it, developed it, and started making rings from it. Then we made a Kickstarter. Kickstarter was successfully funded in July, and after that, we’ve been selling through Shopify ever since.
Felix: Very cool. So what’s your background? How did you get into creating these rings? So you lost your wedding ring, and then you just like picked up this skill, or did you already have a background in creating things like this?
John: Well, it was kind of neat how it came together, because most of the things that it took to make the ring had come from different events that had happened in my life. Like I learned how to turn things on a wood lathe, and so that helped me to understand what it would take to make a ring. I learned in a machine shop how to make a circle concentric inside of another circle, which is something you have to do for a ring, and how to make a radius in a machine shop. Learned how to make things flat as I worked in the machine shop. Then, in school, I learned how to program machines to help to shape things, to design something, take something that’s in your mind and put it on a computer screen, then communicate that to a machine to be able to cut a shape and make tooling. Also, I had experience working with carbon fiber because of school and making molds and shapes out of it. So it’s almost as if the events that happened in my life sort of made it organic or natural to go to move into this world of making jewelry.
Felix: Very cool. So you already had some experience here, what made you think that … Were you just creating this for yourself, or did you … This experience of wanting a new ring, did that kick off some kind of, not intuition, but some motivation to start a business? Or did you first create the rings for yourself and then find out that there was a business potential behind it?
John: I always wanted to do a business. My father is a business owner, my grandfather was a business owner, and my grandfather before that, when he came into the ports of New Orleans from Sicily, he opened his own business. So I always wanted to start my own business. As I would look at things in the world, I would think about what I could make, and if I liked that thing, and if it would make a good business. So when I lost my wedding ring, I recognized that there was a need for something that would work for someone that worked with their hands and wanted something that had meaning and could symbolize the relationships that they were in.
So I started to think about the ring, and can I make a ring that would help people remember the promised they’ve made and that would be attractive and not get in the way when they were working, or possibly … Make sure that it wasn’t dangerous to hurt them. So a gold ring, if you have a gold ring, you can’t really be a welder because it could [inaudible 00:05:24] and it would hurt you. Most of the metal rings, if it gets smashed, it gets stuck on your hand, and you have to cut them off. Which doesn’t happen with carbon fiber. So I knew that I wanted to do a business, and I saw that there was something in carbon fiber that could symbolize our relationship and would work for the kinds of activities that I did and the work that I did. So I started to focus my desire to start a business on making the carbon fiber ring work. That’s what led me to the forged carbon process, because it made something was strong and beautiful, and I thought, meaningful. So here we are now.
Felix: So when you created these, did you sell any of them before launching the Kickstarter campaign?
John: I did not sell any of them. I gave them away to people. I made hundreds of them. So I had a lot of friends and people even I didn’t know that I would just give rings to. They would wear them around and tell me what they thought about it and how they worked, and how I could change it. That gave me an idea for if there was some kind of desire for people, if they were comfortable, if they would break, or if they didn’t work in certain situations. It also gave me the practice making the rings, which was necessary because it took a lot of time to figure out how to do it.
Felix: You said that you gave these rings away initially. Were you looking to get feedback? How did you know … What was the purpose behind giving all of these products you created away?
John: I gave them away because yes, I wanted feedback. I wanted people to wear the rings, and to see how they worked in the activities in their lives. Also, to get feedback on what they thought about how they looked, what they felt like when they wore them, things I could do to change the design to make them more comfortable. I recognized that there was a need for me to get information on how people felt about the ring, how the ring performed in the world, and so I thought it was worth the cost of the materials and the cost of my time, which was significant, to be able to get that information.
Felix: This is definitely a step that a lot of entrepreneurs take on when they are developing their own products, just to give it away, put it into the hands of their target customers, and then get the feedback. One of the situations for you was that this ring is not just a ring for looks, but it’s also, like you’re alluding to, it’s a very functional … It can be used in different environments. But you’re not always going to be there, right? Or maybe you’ll never be in those environments with them at the time that they’re getting the true value out of your product. So how do you make sure that you get the feedback that you need out of them? You give them the product, and they kind of have to go off and live their lives before they recognize more potential problems they might have with it, or potential benefits that they really like about it that you can use in your marketing or in your branding. But again, that all comes without you being around. How did you make sure that you got the feedback that you needed out of them?
John: Most of the people that we gave the rings to were friends or relatives of friends in the town that we lived in. It was a small town, so we would give the rings away, and then almost certainly, we’d end up running into that person again later on. So one of the first things I would look for was, “Are they wearing the ring today?” So if I gave them the ring a few weeks ago or a couple days ago or a month ago, when I run into them in the park walking the dog, are they wearing the ring? Usually, they were. If they weren’t, ask why. Then I gave the ring away to people that did different activities than I did. So some people were cyclists, or they went hiking or did outdoors things. Some of them worked in wood shops and metal shops, some of the guys did. I would ask them how they worked in those areas, around the different environments. Because there’s lots of things in this world that affect everything differently.
So gold is pretty great, because it’s something that doesn’t corrupt. So if you get salt on it, doesn’t matter, doesn’t rust. If you were to work with acid or solvents, nothing happens. But if you have steel ring, a stainless steel ring, if you got acid around or even salt eventually, it would rust or corrode. If you have a brass or copper thing, it will just turn your hand green no matter what.
So I wanted to know how carbon fiber acted in these environments, which I was able to find out that it was functional in most of them. If you work with solvents, though, like with [hydrochloric fluoride 00:10:03] or acetone, then that would affect the finish of the rings. So to get that information, to give the rings away and give them to people that did things different than what I did, helped me understand that if you worked in a, let’s say a nail salon, then you wouldn’t want to wear the forged carbon fiber ring while you’re working with acetone because it would damage the resin inside the ring.
Felix: So was there an amount of time that you needed to wait before you got their feedback? Because you can’t just give them the ring and then check in with them the next day, right? Typically, how long did you have to wait before following up with them?
John: It was typically about 2 weeks. It was like a 2 week or a couple month period, when I would just follow up or see them out somewhere to get that information.
Felix: Do you remember any key feedback or information that you got out of these early testers that made you actually go back and change any features of the product?
John: Yeah, sure. One of the things that happened was I was using a bonding agent to bond the glow insert to the forged carbon fiber shell, because our rings have 2 parts: the part on the inside that glows, and the part on the outside is forged carbon. On some of the models, some of the bonding agent we were using wasn’t working, wasn’t bonding to the resin insert, so they were falling out. That helped me to understand that we needed to change to a different resin. So we were able to do that.
Then another part, we were adding color to the rings. We were putting a dye on the insert to make it to where it was the color that it glowed whenever it wasn’t glowing. So in the daylight, you could still see a ring that had color on the inside. But we found that as people wore those rings, some of the dye, even though it was supposedly permanent, was leaking off onto their hands. So we had to stop doing that. The manufacturing process is full of things like that. There’s so many complications that can happen, especially when you’re working with new materials, that you can’t exactly look up online or inside a book how they’ll react to each other. So we had to find a bonding agent that bonded to carbon fiber and also to silver. We needed someone to help test those things, and the only way to get that data is by giving a lot of rings away.
Felix: How long did this period of testing go on? How long did you run these … Not giveaways. How long did you give away these products for free, get their feedback, and go through these iterations? How many times or how long did it take before you were comfortable to move on to the next stage, which I guess is to the Kickstarter stage?
John: I started to develop rings that I could give away February of 2015. We started giving those away. By June, we felt comfortable enough with the model to go ahead and run the Kickstarter and develop that campaign. There were still things that came up after that that we didn’t realize. Whenever we scaled, after the Kickstarter, we had more orders than we supposed. Some of the processes that I developed worked when I was making the rings individually, but when I had to teach it to people and make more rings per day than I could make by myself, some of the processes didn’t scale well. So I had to develop more things, and more problems came up. So we’re always developing, finding out new ways to make things better and stronger, and even new products. So it’s still happening now, us trying to make things better. But we were comfortable, and we had a good product in June of last year, and then we ran the Kickstarter in July.
Felix: I think this is a stage that a lot of entrepreneurs get kind of stuck in. It seems like you kind of went through pretty quickly. It all happened within, it sounded like, 6 months or less for you to go from this stage where you’re giving out free products to a stage where you felt like it was commercial-ready and ready for the market to see it. How did you know that it was … Like you were saying, you’re always iterating. I think that’s, I’m sure, for any product. Always constantly trying to improve it. But how did you know that you were ready to ship this product and put it out into the market? What about that particular iteration made you say, “You know what? This is good enough to go to market.”
John: I think what made that iteration work was that some of the earlier iterations, we were having trouble with there being voids in the rings or steam lines or a way for it to … Or not consistent shapes. So the biggest thing was that we were able to consistently make rings that looked the same, and that had the quality that looked and felt right to us.
Felix: Did you do all of this on the side, or was this like your full-time focus at the time when you were creating these rings and testing them out?
John: One of the things that I did to make this happen, once I decided I wanted to make rings … I’d done this with other products that I wanted to try to sell eventually, was I would make sure that my products and class in school lined up with the things that I was making. So I was taking a class on how to design products, and understand what people would want in a market and how to get it out to them. So I made my project a carbon fiber project. I was working in a class that taught us how to work on machines and shape things and make molds, and so the mold that I made in that class was a mold for a carbon fiber ring. So I tried to make it to where the things I was studying in school were applicable to this goal or dream I had to sell rings to people.
Felix: That’s amazing. I think that’s a great attribute in an entrepreneur, is being able to recognize that there are opportunities where you can get double the benefits. You’re already going to school, going to these classes, might as well find a way to take classes, put yourself in situations that can then benefit your product creation, or your marketing, or helping you learn how to run a business. I think that’s a great piece of advice for anyone out there that is trying to balance 2 things. Even if it’s a job, you can try to find ways to position yourselves. Put yourself in a particular role or job that helps you learn the skills or learn techniques to apply to your business. So you were creating these products, going through these iterations. Prior to going to Kickstarter, do you remember how much investment you had to put into this early on?
John: Yeah. It was around $8500 in just the debt. In time, I was doing probably about 40 hours a week working on it. Yeah, so it was $8500 before Kickstarter ran. Eventually, I did get academically suspended from school in exchange for spending too much on the product and not enough on doing the homework. So that was a sacrifice, too. But it’s a choice I made. It was risky for us to get into credit card debt without any kind of promise of reward, and it was also a cost that I spent all of my time, most of my time working to make these rings that we didn’t know what was going to happen with them. But it ended up working out for us. So sometimes, I think you have to be all in and take a leap of faith, maybe when it doesn’t even seem wise.
Felix: Yeah. It definitely does sound risky. Like you were saying, you went into debt, credit card debt, you were going to school and ended up getting suspended. Pretty much, this was … You were saying you’re all in, if it didn’t work out you’d owe a lot of money and then you also wouldn’t have the certification or degree that you were going to school for. Did you ever, at any point, consider kind of scrapping this idea and maybe going back and just focusing on the classes, on the school, and then going through that first, and then revisiting this, at that time, this kind of … Not side project, but this kind of business that you were trying to start on the side?
John: Not in the beginning. When I got onto the project, when I decided to start doing it and start making the thing, it just became everything to me. I was in the workshop at night, I was researching the market in the day, looking through what other people had made like me and trying to learn how putting things on social media and finding out what people thought about the rings. Everything I did was the rings. It never occurred to me to not do it. I just got the credit card out and I bought things. I bought the materials, and I bought the tools, and I didn’t even think about not doing it. I felt like it would work, and it made sense to me just to go all in on it. After the Kickstarter, things have gotten hard at times. We invested a lot of money, so it was difficult to scale everything at once.
After the Kickstarter, [inaudible 00:19:25], there have been times that I thought, “Did I make the right decision by going into this right now?” Because you’re right, now that I have been academically suspended, I only had about 15 credits left. I had like 1 or 2 semesters left to finish up my engineering degree, which is a valuable degree. I thought, “Did I make the right decision by going all in and making these rings?” I feel like I did, and I’m glad that I did it. I think it’s a blessing that this has happened. But it has been a fight to keep things alive at times. I’ve been asked to do things and asked to make decisions that I didn’t suppose I would have to do when I started this business.
Felix: So I think it makes sense to address the baby in the room. Did you have the baby during this whole period? How did you balance raising a … Is it a newborn?
John: Yeah. We got a newborn baby. We found out … So I had worked on making the ring, and then we built the Kickstarter, and we found out that we were pregnant with Ruby on the same week that we started the Kickstarter. So that happened. Then the Kickstarter ended, and it ended up being bigger than we thought it was, and I needed help to make sure that we could meet our commitments to the best of our abilities. Claire was writing a book at the time, so she had to take time away from writing the book, and she wasn’t able to finish until December because of that. She still has work to do that she’s put aside. Still needs to find a publisher, but she helps me. The baby, there’s the doctor’s appointments, and the health insurance, and the money that you need to have a baby, and the time it takes to-
Claire: Yeah. For the record, it was really hard.
John: Yeah, no, it’s very hard.
Felix: Sounds like it.
John: We had to make a lot of 14 hour days, 6 days a week, most of the time. Which is fine for me, I like working. But we still got to take care of the family and the baby, too, so there’s been a lot of sacrifices made along the way to make this business sustainable.
Felix: Any tips then, for anyone … I think, again, a lot of entrepreneurs are probably in the same life stage where they are thinking about starting a family, and are thinking about how can they earn more income for their family, even, or thinking about starting a business for that reason. What worked, I guess, for you to try to balance everything? Just hearing you talk about it is already exhausting me, I can’t imagine what it’s like to actually go through. So any tips on trying to balance raising a family and starting a business at the same time?
John: Claire and I are lucky that … Well, we’ve made choices that we work together. So we’re in the office together, and the baby’s here with us. One of the things that we had to decide on early was that … The value of our time. When a business gets to a certain point, you might want to do a lot of things still on your own and make sure they’re done a certain way, but you have to give things away to people. You have to let other people do work so you can focus on other things.
We decided that Claire … We had to decide to get a babysitter that is with us during the daytime, that helps take care of the baby while Claire’s working. Because the value that Claire adds to the business is greater than the cost of the babysitter. There are lots of decisions like that along the way to where … You could do, as a business owner, you might want to do lots of different things. But in order to grow, you have to evaluate what you’re good at, what you’re not good at, what you can give away to other people to do, and make the decision and have the faith to give that thing away to a person when it’ll add more value to the business than if you had to do that, spend your time doing it yourself.
Felix: Yeah, I think that’s an important point to make, where a lot of new businesses will try to save too much money or hold on to too many things, and it could actually hurt you in the long run. Imagine if you decided not to invest or pay for a babysitter and decided to watch the baby and run everything at the same time. You might not be in this position, or you might have burnt out. You might not have gotten this far. It’s an important thing to note that you … Cash is definitely important in the lifeblood of a business, but you should also not be too stingy with your money and actually be using it to … For you, free yourself up in your case, or just to invest in places that will give you the value back for your money. Not just thinking about hoarding it and trying to save as much as possible. I think that’s an important point to make.
So let’s talk about the Kickstarter, then. Like you were saying, wildly successful, much more successful than you guys anticipated, because you only had a goal of $11,500. Ended up raising over $400,000 from 3451 backers. So tell us about that. Maybe we’ll start with the goal. What did you plan to do with that initial $11,500?
John: The initial plan, for me, was to have enough money to buy the machines that I needed to make the rings. Over time, I would continue to make money and buy more machines that would help me. My dream at the start of this, the reason that I wanted to start a business, as an engineer, typically you got into the world of work … If you worked for Boeing, an engineer doesn’t actually build a plane. They work on a couple of bolts, they build a latch that opens the storage unit, or they do analysis on a wire that is supposed to adjust a wing flap. So you just work on one little thing. I wanted to create whole things. So my plan was to do this Kickstarter in order to get me started to buy a machine that I needed to be able to make molds and work in carbon fiber, so eventually I could have my own business where I could make the whole product that I wanted to, and not just have to work on one little thing, or one little piece of a product.
So that’s why we decided on that goal. The $11,500, I think it was, to buy a machine that would help me make the rings, and also buy the materials to make them.
Felix: Did you do any preparation before the Kickstarter launched? Before launch day, did you just kind of set it live, or did you prepare anything in terms of PR or marketing leading up to the launch of the Kickstarter campaign?
John: Yes. We did a lot of … The primary preparation was to make sure that we had a product that we could produce consistently, and also, that it was something that people would want. One of the other things that we did was that I watched a lot, pretty much every design Kickstarter video that had happened, and I would pay attention to how they did, and how they presented the product. I looked at the websites and their products, and I got a feel for what worked and what communicated with people, and kind of learned that language that was … The online language that people speak. So we made sure that we had things to help people understand that we were legitimate, and that we weren’t crazy, and that it would be worth them investing and taking a risk in us. So part of that was making sure we had the product. We took photos of it that helped to represent what it looked like and the value of it, and we did research and wrote copy to help people understand the meaning behind it and the value of something that was … How difficult it was to develop. We put things up on social media. We started to advertise on Facebook.
One thing that most people do for Kickstarter is gather e-mail lists, which we did not do very much of, because I just didn’t know about that part of it. I just knew about making something that was beautiful and then how to present it. I didn’t know that you needed so many contacts. So that’s an important part that I guess we didn’t do that we should have. It still worked out. Another thing that happened is there are companies that will help you if you wanted to crowdsource. You have to be careful with those. There are some that are predatory.
To do crowdfunding, you have to open yourself up to the public and put yourself out there and share something with the world that is very personal, that you’ve sacrificed a lot for. I had sacrificed time and money, and given up school, and so when I first did that project, we got an e-mail from a company that said they could help us to do well. I looked at their website, and it looks like some of the products they had done had done well. It’s surprising. Because you look at Kickstarter, and there are products that are very good that don’t do well, and there are products that you think … Someone makes a fanny pack, and for some reason, the fanny pack makes $60,000. So why did that happen? And this company had done that. They’d taken products that sometimes they weren’t that great, but they made a lot of money.
So I talked to them, and as I was talking to them, I discovered that their primary goal was to diminish the value of what I had done and make me afraid that I wouldn’t be able to do it without them. So we said no to that, which was scary for us because we had seen that some of the things they’d done in the past were successful, and I was nervous about putting this video with my face on it, and my voice, and this thing that I put so much into. What if it failed? What if they were right that I didn’t have the e-mail list that I needed, that it wouldn’t work, and without the e-mail list I would flop.
So we put it up there, and of course it didn’t flop, we got funded in like 2 or 3 days, and then we surpassed it. Of course, this company called again. I thought, well regardless of their tactics of trying to recruit me, maybe there’s still value in them helping me find more clients. So they talked with me, and the owner called. I looked over the contract that they had. The contract was extremely predatory. I’d never seen anything in my life. No New York City landlord-tenant contract is more predatory than this contract that they had given. So I just said, “No.” It was so dirty, that … That was, even still, scary. But we did find the balance. So in this situation, when you go into crowdfunding, you’re starting a business, you are vulnerable. There are people that recognize that. So as you go into the world to find people to help you, marketers or suppliers, maybe be careful and cautious about what their motives are, and if it’s someone that you can trust, and if it’s someone that you want to work with. Because there will be people, especially in crowdfunding, whether it’s IndieGoGo or Kickstarter, that will try to take advantage of it. So just be wary of it and maybe have someone close to you, some friends and family, mentors, that will help see things as they really are and don’t have a motive to try to milk you for money.
Felix: This happens a lot for any new business, whether it be on Kickstarter, or any new business that you start, is that once you come into this space, like you’re saying, and make yourself available publicly, all of a sudden, these quote-unquote opportunists … Opportunities, all of a sudden, start popping up where vendors, agencies start reaching out to you to try to help you out. Of course, there’s always legitimate ones, but like you’re saying, your experience with these Kickstarter vendors were predatory. So tell us a bit more about this. What are some things that came up, or what are some things that other Kickstarter campaign creators should look out for in the terms or the deal to make sure that they aren’t screwed when they do work with any agencies or vendors to launch a crowdfunding campaign?
John: I think the first thing is to consider the tactic that they use to recruit you. What kind of letter did they write to you? Was it one … For us, they wrote us an e-mail that said one thing, and then we got online, they said something else. There was like a bait-and-switch that happened. So you want to look for consistency in the communication between you and that vendor. Another thing is references. You want to look at what other people, the experiences they have had with that company in the past. A very important thing is to just read the contract. Which can be scary sometimes, because we’re not lawyers, and at the time, we couldn’t afford a lawyer. But as we read the contract, understand that when you read a contract and you see something that looks fishy and doesn’t seem right, when you ask the vendor about it, they’re going to find a way to say, “Oh, that doesn’t really matter.” Or, “Don’t worry, that never happens.” It’s in the contract because it does happen. They will take advantage of you in that situation. Some of those things are like … For this one company, if you change the passcode within 6 months to … I think it was 6 months to a year, I think yeah, within a year after you finish the Kickstarter on your Kickstarter site, then they would automatically fine you … How much was it Claire?
John: Yeah, it was like $40–60,000. If you check, there’s a button that you had to put on their page. On your Kickstarter, you had to put like a little green button that said, “Funded by” … [inaudible 00:32:52]. If you took that down, it was automatic like $5000 charge. If you just did that by mistake, they would charge you 5 grand. You had to make a video within a certain amount of time validating their company. On their site, I remember when I first went to their site, I watched their videos and they looked like hostage videos to me, before I knew anything about their company, their practices. Yeah, so there were some fishy things there in the contract. So read the contract, you look at other people who work with them, talk with other people that work with them, and understand that whatever’s in the contract, you will be held to eventually. And they will use that against you. So if you don’t feel comfortable with it, don’t just accept if the vendor says that it’s not going to be a problem or don’t worry about it. Understand that it’s likely that it will be. We didn’t sign any of those contracts.
Felix: Yeah. If any time, a vendor wants you to sign a contract and you’re not comfortable with something, then they say, “Don’t worry, it’s never going to happen,” then they should be willing to change it for you, right? They should be willing to change it in writing for you if it’s not that big of an issue. If they’re not, then like you’re saying, it’s kind of suspicious. So you went ahead anyway without working with these vendors, decided to do this by yourself. You mentioned that you spent a lot of time watching Kickstarter videos. I’ve heard time and time again that one of the keys to a successful campaign is in the video itself. It’s one of the areas of a campaign page that people look at the most. Since you’ve done the work already by watching so many of these videos, can you share some of the themes that you saw in good Kickstarter videos?
John: Oh, yeah. I think the biggest theme is understanding that you wanted to add value to the world. So whatever your product is, the purpose of it should be to help people in the world have a better life. Whether it’s making them more comfortable, or helping them to understand something better, to have some kind of thing that helps them know who they are. In our case, it was we had a product that would help people to remember the promise they made. There was meaning behind it. So we had a ring that symbolized something, and we also had a ring that was made out of material that was cutting-edge, forged carbon fiber, which was very difficult for us to develop. That process is still expensive and difficult to make.
That’s one of the things that helps me to appreciate the value of what we’re bringing to the world is that regardless of our success being very public with the forged carbon fiber rings, no one else does it because it’s very expensive and difficult to do. So having something that adds value to the world. Something that helps people attach meaning to who they are, attach meaning to relationships. Because we all, I think we want to connect to other people, and we want to remember and want people to know what we stand for. So make sure that that’s something you care about. This thing was something that I was willing to sacrifice for. I think that was apparent in the video, that we had done the work, and we had found something, and we believed in it. Even though we were new and small, and that we wanted to. I feel like our enthusiasm for what we had made sort of helped to light a fire with people, to help them understand that spirit of creating something and following a dream. I think that helped, too, in the video.
Felix: You mentioned that you want to explain the effort that was put into creating this. It sounds like you want to also sell a little bit about your dream, about you personally, about your kind of goals with this. Of course, you also mentioned that you want to show that you’re bringing value to the world. Did you see any videos that I guess were kind of the … Or, maybe, what is the antithesis of this? What is the opposite of a good Kickstarter video? What have you seen that just doesn’t look like a high-converting Kickstarter video? Not specific products, but what about the video itself made it not a good video?
John: Well, you could think of like 3 different examples. The first one, for carbon fiber rings, there were people that made rings. Their motive to make the ring is they said that … What did they say? They said that they saw that people were doing things out of carbon fiber, and so there was money in it, so they wanted to make money off of carbon fiber. So they just took a tube of carbon fiber and chopped it up and sold it as rings. So their motivation was just to make money.
I think that for one thing, it’s very hard to make money when you start a business. So money can’t be the motivation, because if you’re going to start a successful business, one that’s going to survive, you’re eventually going to driven to make the decision to sacrifice for it. You’re going to have to take a risk and give almost everything to keep it alive. I think most successful businesses, there’s going to be a point to where you’re going to make the choice. Do I deliver on my promises and have to take on risk, or do I just move on? If it’s just about money, of course you’re not going to do that. So there’s the first video type, which is being motivated by, “We want to make more money, and we thought that you would like to buy this from us, so here.” But that isn’t sustainable, and I think people can sense that it’s not real, there’s no meaning behind it.
Then the next motivation might be because, I don’t know, you wanted to be cool. There was another video I saw for rings that, the person said, “I saw that women had all these choices on different wedding rings, and I wanted to have a cool ring too. I thought other people want to have cool rings, so let’s go ahead and just make this cool ring, and then you can buy it.” So that was another level of it. So it wasn’t just about money, it was about looking right, looking good. So they were funded too, these were all funded products. All funded campaigns.
I feel like what I tried to do with our campaign, and what I tried to do with our product, why we’re still doing it now, because we have had to make a lot of sacrifice and take risk to keep it alive, is make something that adds value to the world. That it is a well-made product. When people look at it, or they put it on, they feel it, it helps them appreciate that there’s work in craftsmanship, and that there’s meaning behind it. That this ring symbolizes something more than just what it’s made out of. Just like gold symbolizes purity and not being able to be corrupted, carbon fiber symbolizes strength and unity between 2 things that are different, but become super strong together. So I think that on that level, if you’re genuine and you’re willing to sacrifice, and there’s meaning to it, that people will hear it. They’ll hear you cry out into that dark world of the internet, and help support you. Which is what happened with us, and still happens today. We still fight and struggle to do things well, and to bring value to people.
Felix: Amazing. So you finished raising over $400,000 at the beginning of August 2015, last year. The Build A Business competition, when did you enter that contest? Was this after the Kickstarter campaign?
John: Yeah, it was entered after the Kickstarter campaign in August of last year, and we opened up the shop. One of my past partners went ahead and set up the shop for us and ended the campaign, and then they let us know that we were winners in, I think it was, February, January this year?
Claire: [inaudible 00:40:57] July.
John: Oh, July. Okay. Yeah, my wife does so much of this business that I don’t know some things. Anyway, so July of this year, they let us know that we won.
Felix: Very cool. So during this period, how did you win the competition? The competition’s about, is it about who can essentially sell the most products? What were the metrics behind determining a winner for this competition?
John: So the basic metrics, they tried to normalize it and make it fair by for every product you sold up to $100, that revenue counted towards you winning. It was the person that made the most money, but if you were on Shopify and you sold helicopters, and you sold like 2 helicopters, then you’d probably make $2–3 million, I don’t know what a helicopter costs. But if you sell bows, then you’d have to sell a lot more bows. So you don’t really get to compete. So the way they normalized it was for every item you sold, $100 of that went towards the pot or the scale that was rising to see who won. With us, we sold a lot of rings, and our rings cost between … The average cost of the rings is $150, so for every ring we sold, $100 of that went to the pot of us building up revenue. Within our category, which was, I believe, crafts and jewelry … Claire, is that right? Yeah. So there’s about 4 categories. 5 categories, actually, I think. Within our category of crafts and jewelry, we generated the most revenue in this period to win the Build A Business award, which was phenomenal.
Felix: That’s awesome. So in that time, from the end of the Kickstarter campaign to today, can you give us an idea of how successful the business is today?
John: Sure. So since the end of the Kickstarter, we generated about $1.7 million and sold around 11,000 rings. So that’s where we are.
Felix: That’s amazing. So what contributed to the fast growth of your store? I’m talking to you now in September of 2016, so the Kickstarter campaign only ended a little bit over a year ago. What drove the success of the store itself, to get all that traffic and all of those sales to the store so quickly to win the competition?
John: This is the interesting thing about the world that we’re in now with the internet, and with funding, and how things are available to people. One of the things that we noticed is … As individuals, we have different tastes and very unpredictable, but as society, as just large numbers, it becomes kind of predictable. So one thing that helps me to keep going forward is that we’ve seen traditionally that, for every person that comes to our site, we end up getting a dollar of revenue. So we worked very hard to try to drive revenue to our site. The biggest driver to our site, of course, has been social media. That’s where very much of marketing is going now, because it’s trackable and Facebook knows what kind of things people like.
So Facebook posts and Facebook ads have helped us to drive most of our traffic. The way that that’s worked for us is we started by supposing what kind of people will like our rings, and we would send out a shotgun blast to the world of people to see who would like to be interested in our rings. So we sent those ads out, and then we would get back people coming to our site. We’d pay attention to who would like our Facebook page, and who would buy rings off of our site, and with that information, we could narrow down the type of people that want the kind of rings that we sell, that hear the voice that we have. So we would narrow down the audiences. We would narrow down the audience demographics and the locations to those people that are more likely to buy the rings.
This whole time, a very important part of it is Facebook pixels. So you make these ads, and you find these demographics, and then while you’re doing that, you have a Facebook pixel on the Shopify site, and on your Facebook page, and on your Facebook ads accounts that will pay attention to who is coming, and in addition to finding people in those areas with those demographics, Facebook will amplify your efforts by sending your ads to people and narrowing down on its own with their algorithms the kind of people that will like the things that you’re selling. So that’s driven a whole lot of traffic to our site and helped us develop revenue.
Felix: This sounds like, obviously, a lot of hard work, but I like the way you talk about it because it’s pretty straightforward. I want to break this down a little bit. So you first understood that each visitor to your site was worth a dollar. We’ll start there. How did you find this out? How did you figure out this data point?
John: One of the great things about Shopify is the back end. It makes it digestible to look at the numbers. You can see who’s buying, how many buy, where they’re buying from. The basic idea is that you take the number of people who visit the site and compare it, divide that by the dollars [inaudible 00:46:41] you get, so you can see how many visitors per dollar. If you divide our revenue, pretty much every month for the last 14 months, you can do it by week, by month, by year, it almost always … Maybe not by day, but by every week, or every month, you can take the number of people that visits the site and divide it by the revenue you made, and it ended up being a dollar. So that’s another great thing about the Shopify back end is you have this data, but you have to understand how to attach quality to it. How to understand what it means. So one of the ways is like, how much dollar per revenue that we get. And that’s, the dollar per revenue thing is something that drives faith in me and helps me to understand when we have a bad day, or we’re not getting sales. I can know, if people are coming to the site, then eventually that’s going to turn into money. So that helps me to keep going [inaudible 00:47:38].
Felix: You just, sorry, you said dollar per revenue. Do you mean dollar per visitor, or?
John: Per revenue. Yeah, we have a dollar per revenue per visitor for our site.
Felix: Okay. So you knew that this was the amount that you could spend up to to get a customer, then at that point it was just kind of a numbers game, how do you scale this up. So you went to Facebook, like you were saying, and you did some it sounds like just very broad targeting based on what you were assuming at the very beginning was your target audience. Then you ran these campaigns. Do you remember how much you were spending at first to test the waters?
John: Yeah. Initially, we were spending about $200 a day during the Kickstarter, then we ended up moving up to about $600 a day. Eventually, we got to the point that we were spending during Christmas time around $2000 a day. We would, on Facebook, even, track the success of it, and almost any other kind of ad campaign, for every dollar you spend, how many interactions do you get? How many people actually will click on your ad, or come to your site, or even how many people purchase from your campaign? Which is the great thing about the internet with this pixel. We ended up … In the beginning, we were spending about a penny per someone actually coming to visit our site, and then when we got a little bit inefficient, it was about 40 cents for every visitor, and now we’re back to about 13 cents per visitor [inaudible 00:49:04]. Because it’s not something that scales … The more money you put in, typically the less efficient it gets, but you accept that you will make money over time with it.
Felix: So obviously, there’s some automation to this. Like you were saying, the conversion pixel from Facebook being placed on the conversion or thank you confirmation page will help Facebook’s algorithm target the right types of people that are likely to convert. But you also mentioned, it sounded like some kind of manual analysis you did to find out who was interested in the products. You looked at who ended up buying, you looked at who’s interacting with your page, who’s liking your page. Can you talk a little about this? How manual was this process? What were you doing, exactly, to understand more about your market?
John: Oh, it’s still extremely manual. So we have the campaigns that are running on their own, but generally, we find … I think this is maybe one of the things that helped our Kickstarter is we made sure that we interacted on a personal level with the people that wanted to be our clients. We found that as we would talk with them and answer messages in a real way, we don’t have any robots or anything, that more people understand the value and purchase our product. I still, all of the messages that come in from our Facebook page still show up in my personal e-mail. I still read all of these messages. Every day, I look through the comments of people that have written on our ads, and I respond to comments, and I e-mail and call people personally. Whenever I actually message a person, usually I give them my phone number, and I talk with lots and lots of people personally about what they’re buying. I’ll e-mail them personally through my personal account. So I interact with people that interact with us.
I think that’s one of the reasons that we have loyal clients that are willing to help us and to share with their friends what we’re making and understand the value. Because it’s a real thing, where we make the rings ourselves, we do the manufacturing ourselves, [inaudible 00:51:15] been hard for me to do. It’s a new thing that we’re learning. We do the marketing, and the shipping. Yeah, I look through the Facebook pages of people that like our page, and I share on Instagram, and I interact with them on Instagram so I can understand more about who they are and connect with them. There’s always numbers, and then there’s heart. So you have to have both in order to, I think, be successful.
Felix: I agree. I think sometimes there’s a little bit too much emphasis on the scalable side, how can we just look at kind of raw data, raw numbers, and just let the machines figure it out. But obviously, there’s a lot of value in just looking at and talking to customers and kind of understanding more about them just by speaking to them. Do you actually talk to these customers, potential customers of yours, learn more about what they’re like and actually use that to change the Facebook ads? What are you doing with this information that you’re collecting in your brain from talking to these people?
John: Of course. I remember we had someone that had abandoned their cart. So I went ahead and started e-mailing with them, and I said, “Hey, we’re new at this. I’m trying to figure out what to do. You want to let me know what’s going on?” And they said, “Oh, well, you didn’t have this payment method.” I’m like, “Oh, shoot. I didn’t know we didn’t have that. So I’ll put PayPal up, and then it’ll be easier.” So they were able to help me figure out what happened. On Facebook, I would message with this fellow. I just remember him because he’s from England, and there’s a picture of him on a horse, but he looks like a cowboy, but he’s from England, so that always stuck with me.
Anyway. So this guy helped me to understand some of the complications that come about mailing things to the UK. So he helped me to understand how to better set up our shipping so it made people receiving product from different countries have a better experience. Just in general, I can see the kind of things that people like, and usually it’s the same things that I like, for the people that like our page, or the people that share the Instagram, or that follows on Instagram. So we make sure that the photos and our copy help to reflect the interest and the things that are important to the type of people that like the things that, that buy the things that we sell.
Felix: So even at this point in your business where generating, like you said, $1.7 million in the last year, 11,000 rings, all these different things going on in your life, you still find that your time is worthwhile to spend just talking and learning more one-on-one with customers that are willing to interact with you?
John: Yes. Absolutely, yes. At some point, there’s always this fear, like “What if we get overwhelmed?” “On my personal number, what if someone badgers me, especially if this person’s crazy, or if they’re trying to steal something?” But I think if you take the risk, and you share and open up, make yourself available to people, you’ll find that almost everyone is a good person, and that people don’t want to take advantage of you, people just want to connect and to be treated fairly. I remember there was one woman that we were having problems processing her refund because of the way that she had paid for it. There was a credit card complication. We were trying to get her money back. So she had been going through one of our customer service reps, and so somehow, I guess she got ahold of me on Facebook and started talking. So I just said, “Oh, okay. I’m sorry that’s been a problem, I’ll just give you the money through PayPal.” That’s easy. So I just gave her the money and refunded her the money. Or [inaudible 00:55:14] send her a check, but she had PayPal, so I just gave her the money back. For some reason I felt like maybe I should ask her, “So what’s going on?”
It had turned out that she had a ring that she had purchased, and it was going to be for her fiance, and he had passed away in a car accident. It made me grateful that we had started talking to her. So we continued to communicate with her. If, for some reason, the numbers or this customer service had said, “Sorry, we can’t do the refund,” or we’d made her life harder, I would have felt terrible. But because I was available on Facebook, and she was able to luckily contact me, we were able to try to help her in this time of mourning to maybe … At least not make her life harder. So I’m grateful that I was available to at least her to not have to feel that I’d hurt anyone or made anyone’s life more difficult, especially in a bad time. That wouldn’t have happened if me and my wife hadn’t taken the risk of making ourselves available to people.
Felix: Yeah, I can definitely see why that does give you, like you were saying, the faith and the motivation to keep on doing this, hearing these stories directly from your customers. What are the plans for the next year? What do you guys have going on? The Kickstarter campaigns ended a year ago, won the Shopify Build A Business competition, $1.7 million in sales, what’s next for you guys?
John: One of the great things about having a business is that it gives you a reason to go ahead and explore things that maybe you couldn’t justify exploring before. I’d always wanted to work with damascus steel, but it’s very expensive and difficult to learn how to work with. But because we have a business and we make jewelry, I was about to buy damascus steel and spend time and make connections to get educated on how to work with it. So we’re able to make damascus steel rings, now I have a damascus steel collection.
Just recently … I’ve always loved space, and so I’ve always wanted to have a meteorite. But they’re very expensive, because there aren’t a lot of meteorites floating around. Well, not floating, but on the Earth anymore. But because of the business, I can start to look into working with meteorite. I just got several samples of meteorite this week. So we’ll begin adding meteorite to our collection eventually, which I’ll start to make watches. So having a business, I think, now that we’re able to make the rings and we’re able to keep up with our orders and have a system involved to where we can consistently produce this product and help out our customers and understand more about marketing, I have the time to develop new things. Which is what I’ve always wanted to do. As a designer and a maker, I wanted to make a watch. So having this business makes it to where I can begin to make that watch, and work with materials that otherwise, I couldn’t justify working with.
Felix: Very cool. Sounds like a lot of exciting products coming out from you guys. Thanks so much, John and Claire. So carbon6rings.com, again, is the website. Anywhere else you recommend the listeners check out if they want to follow along with what you guys are up to?
John: Oh, yeah. So we’ve got our Facebook page, and there’s also carbon_6_rings on Instagram. Claire, what was the Youtube page that you started?
Claire: Yeah. We have a Youtube page. There’s a link at the bottom of our website.
John: Yeah. So they can see us there. We’re going to start making videos about the rings, and the process, and what we’re learning as we go on.
Felix: Definitely sounds exciting, so we’ll link all of that up [inaudible 00:59:10]. Once again, thanks so much guys.
John: Thank you very much, Felix, it was really good to talk to you.
Claire: Thank you.
Felix: Thanks for listening to Shopify Masters, the e-commerce marketing podcast for ambitious entrepreneurs. To start your store today, visit Shopify.com/masters to claim your extended 30-day free trial.