As Stefan Gehrig started CrossFit, he saw a gap within the market for bags specifically designed for this fitness regimen and launched King Kong Apparel. In this episode of Shopify Masters, we chat with Stefan on product development, prelaunch strategies, and how to generate repeat sales.
- Store: King Kong Apparel
- Social Profiles: Facebook, Instagram
- Recommendations: Klaviyo (Shopify app), Privy (Shopify app), Gorgias (Shopify app), Locksmith(Shopify app)
Effectively communicating your vision throughout product development
Felix: You mentioned the inspiration to start your own business started with a book. Tell me a little bit more about that.
Stefan: The book, as a lot of you, will have heard, is called “The Four Hour Work Week” by Tim Ferris which I really enjoyed. It was really tangible advice for starting a business. I started King Kong Apparel back in 2011. I had just finished some pretty serious study. I was a research scientist and I guess I needed a new project and I read this book. I had just started out in CrossFit, and I thought, "Why not make a bag for CrossFitters." There was nothing out there that met the needs of CrossFitters in terms of all the gear we were taking every day and I thought, "Well, I can jump on Alibaba, make some samples, and basically see where it goes." Just play around with it. A little bit of a side hustle. That was really a simple start to the business.
Felix: So immediately you looked at creating apparel and bags for CrossFitters, were there other ideas that you were thinking of?
Stefan: Not really. The bags somehow stuck out and I went straight to bags. I threw a few designs on PowerPoint of bags that I like, how I'd like them changed. I sourced products from three factories in China through Alibaba and then iterated the best one a couple of times before going all in and placing an order.
Felix: Tell us about the creative process behind designing your product.
Stefan: I was a muscle disease scientist. So the scientific method was: make a hypothesis, figure out how to test it, test it, and then see what the results are. That's very much the same process for developing a new product or a new business idea. You come up with the idea, you figure out how am I going to test this idea? You test it and then you see if it was successful or not. From my point of view, the first thing I did was, "Well, I've been in CrossFit, we need some bags." So I thought, what bags do I like out there? I'm not a product designer. I can't draw at all. I had to base my designs on what was already out there, especially at this stage, which was very early on. The process was I found four or five bags that I really liked different aspects of. I took photos of those and put them in a PowerPoint presentation that was very clear and easy to understand for people whose English wasn't as good as mine. That was the Chinese factory owners who were very skilled at making bags and so we went back and forth a few times on some designs and then they basically made a product. I went onto Alibaba.com, which is a massive product sourcing place, looked for people who had made military spec, very high-end nylon bags before and I contacted those factories and so we sort of went back and forth with a few emails just sort of, "These are the bags I'd like to see. This is the material we want to use. Can you make me a sample before we place a bulk order." And we had some samples sent over and they weren't particularly good at the time. And that's why we needed to iterate a few times and that's sort of the process to getting towards the first sellable product that we had.
Felix: What were you looking at from each of the factories to gauge which one you would move forward with?
Stefan: There are a few things. Responsiveness was the first one. If we want to build a long term relationship with someone who we can trust, we need to be able to get quick responses with someone who is willing to take the time with a very small player. We had no plans on ordering thousands of bags. The initial order was 500 units, which was already a massive stretch. That was one thing and then obviously quality in the samples. It's pretty hard to see the quality without actually receiving a sample. So we had the samples sent over. And then they actually had to take a few liberties with the design because of how limited my design ability was so they used their sample masters and their very skillful machinists to sort of craft my design into something that actually was looking like a designed bag rather than something where there are pockets popped on from the sides and just meshed together.
Felix: Do you have any recommendations for how to effectively communicate your vision for your product during this stage?
Stefan: Get a friend who can sketch a little bit. There's a lot of people who can do a little bit of drawing. I'm not one of them. These days I have a bag designer who works with us but even any friend who can actually sketch something from scratch. A sketch is much more communicative than a couple of photos and tacking things on. It would be a much better way to do it. Just get a friend to help you sketch something so that you can communicate that vision more clearly and more originally as well. That’s the key to that piece.
Felix: Can you explain more about what changes you wanted to place on the existing bags to make it a better fit for athletes and CrossFitters?
Stefan: One of the things that CrossFitters needed was multiple pairs of shoes for Olympic weight-lifting, for running, for box jumps and rope climbs and things like that. We all wanted multiple shoe pockets. I wanted separate compartments where the shoes or dirty clothes, towels, can be separated from the clean clothes. I also wanted numerous accessory pockets because we have wrist wraps, knee sleeves, tape, all sorts of different accessories that at the time were just getting thrown into a major pocket in a duffel and there's probably plenty of bags that fulfill that now but nine years ago or so, the only sort of gym or sports bags available were your big brands: Nike, ADIDAS, Under Armour, which was just a carryall duffel where everything got thrown in the middle. There was not much separation there. That’s what I wanted. And the other part of that as well was fortuitously CrossFit started off as a bit of a counter-culture. So the idea wasn't to buy from the big brands. People weren't going to the CrossFit gyms because they were similar to Globo Gyms. They were small businesses. So they were really supportive of that as well. I saw that as an opportunity.
Felix: How many iterations did you have to go through before you were ready and confident to go to the market? What were the changes along the way?
Stefan: It was three iterations from the one factory before I took something to market or photographed it and had it ready. Looking back, I wasn't particularly confident at the time either. One of the other pieces of advice from “The Four Hour Work Week”, was to bring it to market and market test it as quickly as possible. You're never going to get to a perfect product. It's much better to have a product that's good enough to launch so you can learn all these other parts of running a business and iterate the product from there. I certainly wasn't confident and looking back it was a really poor quality bag in terms of the materials. The design was actually pretty good but one of the changes I made was the material, a few pocket structures. It was really superficial things just to make it a bit more functional, a bit more aesthetically pleasing. And then I set up with the help of a friend, a one-page website which had some product photography and a pre-order now button, just to sort of market test it before we ordered the first batch.
Steps for creating a pre-order page for a product that’s still in development
Felix: Did you create this pre-order webpage with photos of the finished product or at least the version you would ultimately send to production?
Stefan: That's right. I had what I would now call a pre-production sample. That’s the sample that is what the factory is going to base the entire production on. I had another friend who did a bit of photography and had a studio so I asked her to take some photos. We had five or six photos of the bag in various stages of packing and things like that and we threw those up. That was what the customers were going to get. We wrote a bit of copy about CrossFit and elite bags and the function and the toughness and jumped in the deep end, you could say.
Felix: How much were the pre-orders? How much were you charging at that time?
Stefan: It was $89.95 at the time. I'm pretty sure that was the price. It's gone up a fair bit from there. They were cotton canvas actually. They weren't the same materials we're using now.
Felix: And do you remember how many you sold by the time you realized, "This test has passed. Let's move on to the next stage and get a production run."
Stefan: I don't remember exactly. It must have been around 50 or 80. I remember putting up the site and then driving a little bit of traffic to it, which we can talk about as well. I remember two pre-orders on the first day. Maybe three. I was pretty excited by that considering they weren't friends or anyone that I knew. So I jumped and made that first order of 500 a little earlier than I should have with only maybe 50 pre-orders or so. But it was fairly clear that people were purchasing. I was a bit naïve and just went for it.
Felix: How did you design the pre-order page so that customers would still convert, even though they knew they were purchasing a product that didn’t necessarily exist yet?
Stefan: It was a WordPress site, a one-pager that was built by a friend. We had a carousel of photos, which is not so much liked anymore. It's a single banner but we had a carousel of maybe four or five photos of the bag showing different parts of it and then we wrote, the copy itself was something along the lines of: “pre-order now to be one of the first to get this King Kong Duffel. Delivery in eight to 10 weeks. Pre-order here.” It wasn't particularly advanced or fancy copy. It was very much a matter of fact which was the scientific way for me at that stage. The messaging was very clear in that it was going to take eight to 10 weeks to arrive and the idea was you could pre-order now. You could put your money down, and you would get one of the first bags. There was a little bit of that FOMO scarcity happening. But it wasn't particularly sophisticated at that time, nor did it need to be. People were very accommodating knowing that this was a new brand and was more than happy to help out and understand that situation. Maybe things have advanced a little bit with Kickstarter, where people are expecting a better product from day one but I also think that people are quite accommodating and understanding of new businesses and really like to support entrepreneurs. That’s why Kickstarter has done incredibly well and why it continues to do so.
Felix: You mentioned that you drove traffic to the pre-order page, how did you get the initial customers to check out the page?
Stefan: It was all initially Facebook ads that were incredibly cheap to run nine years ago. In hindsight, we probably should have run a lot more. But that was the way. We had one of the photos in the ads and it said, "Crossfit gym duffel." Or it said, "World's toughest duffel." Or something along those lines. I sent a little bit of traffic there. It was really to see what our conversion rate was looking like and whether or not people would buy. It was very much a small test. We only spent $20 or $30 at the time to send some traffic there. At that stage, it was something like 12 or 15 cents per click. Or per visitor. It was really quite low. We were able to prove that people were purchasing and that we could continue that advertising and have a business.
Felix: That first production run, how long did it take for you to get the 500 bags?
Stefan: It took two months to have the production run complete. When I jumped in, I wired my life savings, which was at $10,000, $11,000 across to a factory. It was 30% on deposit and then the balance on the finished product. So yeah, eight weeks. They were sitting in China and then I had to figure out how to send it to people. Which was probably one of the early problems or struggles, was fulfillment. I never considered what local or what jurisdictions or what geographies I should be selling to, so I was selling worldwide straight away. The vast majority of orders were in the US but I needed to fulfill worldwide. I organized a fulfillment warehouse in China to start shipping those products directly to customers. They got it pretty much 10 weeks afterward, which was good. That's what we promised.
Felix: Did you keep the pre-orders page live while you were getting this production run going? How much extra inventory did you have after the production run?
Stefan: By the time the production run was done, I still had 400 to sell. We didn't push that hard. I was still very early in the game and didn't know how they were going to be received once customers got the product. Were all 500 products going to be the same quality as our pre-production sample? Quality issues seem to be the first thing people say whenever you source products from Asia, which I completely disagree with. You get exactly what you pay for. I've never had any issues dealing with factories over in China or elsewhere. But at that time, I wasn't aware of that. And so I didn't really push particularly hard for more pre-orders during production. I sort of figured it can be a slow burn. I don't need to make money off this straight away. I need to just see what I'm doing. Understand what I'm doing and get an understanding of how easy it is to deliver to people and get some actual customer reviews.
Felix: So you now have 400 products in inventory. What were the next steps to start getting those sold?
Stefan: We continued to run some Facebook ads. One thing that worked really well for us was there are a lot of smaller competitions, CrossFit competitions, inter gym competitions all over the states, and elsewhere. We started supporting those with prizes for the top male and female athletes during these competitions and that was a real success for us because it meant that the best athletes in the various gyms had a King Kong bag. I guess everyone looks up to the best athletes and sees what they're doing and that really enabled us to get a bit of a foothold as the bag for CrossFit. Obviously, it didn't happen that quickly but we probably supported maybe 30 or 50 competitions in the first six months with products. We used quite a good chunk of that first order as that sort of marketing exercise.
Using grassroots engagement to generate brand awareness and market your product
Felix: Was that something easy to get into? Was it easy to have your prize be given away at a competition?
Stefan: Absolutely. Competition organizers, especially small competitions within the gym or within a few gyms in the local area, they're not well resourced. They're always looking for prizes for their competitors. So absolutely. They reached out to us and we reached out to them and I never had anyone say, "No thanks, we don't want these prizes." They're more than happy to accept those and give them away. And give King Kong a bit of advertising and a plug during the competition.
Felix: Is this a strategy that you're still using?
Stefan: Absolutely. It is. We've used a very similar strategy during the last few months it's been reasonably difficult with most gyms in America closed, I think 96% of CrossFit gyms were closed for April and so one of the things we've been doing during this time is providing bags as prizes for gyms to use for their online workouts. A lot of them are using Facebook, Zoom, some of these online platforms to run their classes and so we've given a lot of bags away as prizes for the most engaged member or the most positive member or whatever they want to use it for. But still providing prizes and letting us be part of the community in that way.
Felix: When you’re first starting out, how do you measure the success of these strategies? How do you decide when to reinvest in a given marketing strategy?
Stefan: We do. A lot of the time we provide prizes, plus gift cards, plus coupon codes. So the winners might get a prize, second and third place on the podium might get a gift card or a coupon and then everyone at the competition, competitors, volunteers, and spectators would have a coupon code specific to that competition. There’s a little element of measuring there. My opinion on that one is, if you can break even, that's a big win because we've covered our costs, and everything else is marketing upside for the future. I completely agree that it's not as clear as Facebook ads, Google ads, Instagram, where you can measure the ROI directly on a per-dollar basis. X dollars is provided, X dollars in revenue, but some of that offline marketing at the local level, really grassroots level, is valuable even though it is a lot harder to measure. I couldn't tell you exactly the ROI but I do believe, especially in the early days, it had a big impact for us.
Felix: Tell us about the logistics of that marketing tactic. Let’s start with finding an organization to work with.
Stefan: There are events all over the place. Most demographics have groups on Facebook that you can be a part of that allows you to understand what's going on in that group. In CrossFit, for example, there are competition pages on Facebook that you can be part of so you can figure out who's doing competitions. Reach out to them via their gym website or whatever had their contact details and just introduce yourself, "Hi, Stefan from King Kong Apparel, I would love to support your upcoming event with a couple of bags. We make the world's toughest gym bags and backpacks and meal prep bags. We'd love to provide one for the male and female winner of your upcoming competition." And almost everyone will come back saying, "Thanks so much. We'll be more than happy to advertise you guys on the day. The winners will absolutely love it." And then we can also go back and forth and maybe get some customer generated content there which would be photos of the winners with their prizes. Maybe a little bit of a quote or a review of that as well. And then that relationship is there for a long, long time. They will be talking about those bags, they'll be incredibly happy to have received them, and that's possible in just about any little sport or niche that you're looking at.
Felix: How many competitions have you sponsored in previous years? What other marketing strategies were you also using?
Stefan: We sponsor two a week or so. About 100 a year, give or take. We did send product for reviews with a few different people. There were some fitness magazines, online, smaller ones where we sent products or we reached out to them and told them what we were doing and sent a product for review. We had, in the first couple of years, maybe six or 10 different articles reviewing the product, talking about what it i,s and that sort of started to drive a trickle of traffic from H1 and so consistently increasing the traffic year on year. That’s probably a really good approach. There's online articles, reviews, there's maybe gym bag roundups that we've been part of. Road trip essentials. Most recently we had an article in Forbes that was talking about road trip essentials and one of our backpacks was chosen there. Constantly reaching out to people who can review it and those articles stay in the online space forever and continuously drive small amounts of traffic. And if you get more and more of those, you start to build up the traffic levels and if you can maintain the conversion rates with a nice website, you start to grow and make more and more sales and they sort of build on each other, build on themselves.
Felix: How did you pitch your product to these reviewers?
Stefan: It was a very simple pitch. It was, "This is a new product that we've just brought out. We think it would be perfect for your CrossFit audience. We've also done it for powerlifting, for now, a lot more MMA and Brazilian Jujitsu. We think this product would be perfect and your audience would like it. We'd love to send you one. If you like it, do a review. If you don't like it, that's fine too." We’re very confident in the product now. So the more people we can get it to in that respect the better and most people who accept a product like that are more than willing to do a review. And we're not talking about Mashable or the New York Times. These are one step up from a small one-person blog. So it's sort of grassroots again. It's not huge audiences but it's smaller audiences that add up to significant traffic.
Felix: It seems like you’re focusing a lot on grassroots engagement. Have you ever tried to do anything on a larger scale?
Stefan: Yeah. It's taken us a long time to do some larger things. Most of it is budget-related, as you can probably imagine. We've got a very small team here. One of the fun stories was, we started off in CrossFit but we've been expanding into other functional fitness demographics. Powerlifting, strong man, MMA, as I mentioned. We thought one of the perfect ambassadors for us would be Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson also known as Thor, who was on Game of Thrones as the enormous guy. I can't remember. Mountain in Game of Thrones. He’s about six foot six, he's close to 400 pounds and so he's well known in that space but he's actually also won the world's strongest man competition and the Arnold Classic on numerous occasions in the strong man division. So we thought, what better person to advertise or to be the face of the world's toughest bags, or the world's strongest bags, than the world's strongest man. So we reached out to him via email and asked if he had a bag sponsor and if he would like to discuss it. And four years and two weeks later, we received an email response saying, "Yes, I'd like to talk about it." That teaches a few lessons. It’s the power of staying in the game. Half the battle is staying alive for long enough to take advantage of opportunities. And so four years and two weeks later, we got back to him, we had a bit of a discussion about how this set up would look and we got him on board as a brand ambassador. We did a photoshoot. We've been advertising specific bags. We're actually developing a bag together for strong man use as well. He’s certainly our biggest influencer. You’d call him a macro influencer, brand ambassador. And that's been great because it's really opened us up to a new demographic. His followers are not our traditional CrossFit demographic. They're strong-man, they're power-lifters, they're fans of Game of Thrones. That’s been really, really positive. That's only maybe three months old now so we'll probably see a lot more of the benefits come Black Friday and later this year but we've already really seen an uptick in traffic and in a new demographic of people who are purchasing the bags. So that's been a success but it's taken a long time to get to a point where we can be confident in ourselves to approach these people and to also have the budget to then make that work.
Knowing when to scale, and how to generate repeat purchases
Felix: When you first started, was the backpack the first product you released, or did you release multiple products when you first launched?
Stefan: No. When I first launched it was the original King Kong Duffel, which is still on our website in an iterated form but sort of the bare bones are still the same. It's a duffel bag with two shoe pockets and many compartments for all sorts of gear.
Felix: How did you know what direction to expand the product line in as your company grew?
Stefan: The two main styles are a duffel bag and a backpack, or a carry bag and a backpack. So that was quite obvious but then we were really in that demographic and there were a lot of people who were prepping their meals and taking them in coolers and things like that. It made sense to develop an insulated meal prep bag with ice blocks and things like that so that the food can stay cool all day and we can have our good nutrition whenever we needed it. That sort of made sense to expand into that area of bags. Then there was the tote bags as well, which was for more of our female demographic who were going to the gym, they weren't necessarily taking a huge amount of gear, and then they were going about their business for the rest of the day after that and needed a bag that worked for both so that's sort of the tote bag. It was really informed by our customers. They said, "I'd love to see you make X, Y, and Z." And if heard that from a few different people, we'd try to implement that and try to design a prototype and so we'd get a bit of feedback as well by posting it on our social channels or via our email. What I'm trying to say is, our customers guided us. And they still are. We get a lot of survey responses from customers. We have a bag only group on Facebook which is a private group that you can only enter once you've purchased a product and we get a lot of feedback on new products there. We really listened to the customers and saw what they would like to see from us.
Felix: How early do you get them involved once you do decide to produce a new bag, when do you start getting feedback from your customers?
Stefan: Our VIPs, or the customers who really engage strongly. As soon as we've got a sketch. I have a bag designer who is really skillful and she sketches products maybe three or four versions of the functionality and the aesthetics that we're looking for and directly from there, on the same day that it's been sketched out, we've sent it to customers and asked for or got feedback. That's probably not on a whole email list basis but specific people that we've talked to in the past who we think would have good feedback. Very quickly. As soon as possible. Customers love that. They love to be involved from day one. They love to see the product iterate and build and potentially even have some of their thoughts and feedback go into that. Or at least explain why maybe that wasn't appropriate for this bag and really be engaged in the process there. That's where small businesses can stand apart from Nike and ADIDAS.
Felix: Explain the timeline when you have a product that is ready to go, or maybe one that's being developed, how are you building up the excitement?
Stefan: Absolutely. In the early days, we took a lot of pre-orders and a lot of that was for cash flow because we had to pay for the production run. But now that we have a little bit more run rate and a little bit more budget to take our time. What we would do is, we'd obviously develop the product, let's say the product is ready to go and we have a production run underway, we would spend two to three weeks building up a little bit of buzz and that's across social media, across our Facebook and Instagram audiences and across our email list. We’d provide a few very closeups of the bag, some key features, and then maybe a product image that shows the actual bag and what it's going to look like and we'd go into the color ranges and we'd talk about an early access list. It lets people sign up so they can get access to the product two or three days before the general release. The most excited people and the people who most want to get their hands on this product won't miss out because we've sold out of some releases in the past. That scarcity and the build-up and the VIP access, all build that excitement, and then we have the general release three or four days after. The whole process is probably about a month-long where we have some build-up, a bit of early release and some product photography, and then the general release where it's available for everyone.
Felix: What do you think has worked well to get people to come back and make repeat purchases?
Stefan: That’s a really hard one for us in comparison to some other stores because it's a high-value product. It's a bag. You don't necessarily need a new bag all the time. One of the main things that helped us is having a broad range. Backpack, duffels, meal prep, totes, luggage. We can fulfill that whole carry spectrum if someone likes the product. And you're right. Having an amazing product is absolutely essential because if they like it and they need a new bag, they're coming straight back to us. Something that's worked really well is the use of Klaviyo, there's a lot of email flows and we can do some segmentation based on the product they've purchased and then we explain all our other products to this customer. Let's say the customer has bought one of our original duffels, the customer will go into a segment that gets information about our backpacks. How our backpacks fit into the range, what they're about. The meal prep bags, insulated meal prep. Maybe some recipes. So they get some supplementary value there as well. And then talking about our luggage and how that might work. Some of those flows, and really explaining to the customer the other products we have has improved our multiple purchases but it's still a difficult one in that space of bags.
Felix: Let's talk about the website. Are there any changes that you’ve made or experiments that you’ve run that have led to more sales or better conversion rates over the years?
Stefan: Absolutely. We've had many iterations. We started with WordPress, Word Commerce in the early days. About four years ago we moved to Shopify which was the best thing we ever did. It's so easy and reliable. Since then we've still gone through three or so iterations as our product range increases. We've needed to make it easier to navigate, things like that. In terms of real wins, one of the ones we've put on recently is a great win, which is an up-sell we've done based on meta tags on the products. So we get to choose which products fit well with which other products. For example, if you go to the website, and you click and you're on a backpack product and you press add to cart, a cross-sell comes up that says, "Would you like a rain cover with this at X discount?" That makes perfect sense with a backpack, if you're living in a wet environment you'll have a rain cover. And various other cross-sells that really make sense. That's really helped us push up the average order value. And that's quite a recent thing. I'm sure there's a lot of other ones that we've done in the past that's worked quite well. For example, making stop motion videos, which have been reasonably easy to do. I've got a really skillful graphic designer and marketer. Making those really helped to explain the product and bring it to the person. It's a three dimensional stop motion video. You get a lot of information about products and there are tutorials on YouTube that anyone can do and that really helps give the feel for the product online.
Felix: This is on the product page where you can see stop motion?
Stefan: All on the product page. If you scroll down through the images, then we've got a couple of stop motions. We've got a 360-degree view of the bag, and then we've got a packing video that shows how much it packs. For a high-value product, you can't give a customer too much information. They can keep scrolling down a page and get more and more. So the higher the value of the product, the more information you should have for the customer.
Felix: What other apps have you used to help power the website, power the business?
Stefan: We love Klaviyo as an email marketing tool. I think the tightness of the integration with Shopify, the amount of information that we can pull through, and segment customers based on, I think you have to have Klaviyo. One we've used recently as well is called Privy, which is a way of capturing more email addresses and also SMS as well. It's a pop-up manager that has a lot of customization tools there. It plays nicely with Klaviyo as well. So their email addresses come through. We've recently started using the spin to win with Privy, which I've been very, very reluctant to use from a balance between email capture and branding and I'm not sure which way that went but we've really customized that and so it works perfectly with our branding and the email capture rates are second to none there. We're close to a 15% capture rate of people who see that spin to win pop up. That’s a no brainer. We really have to do that. We use Gorgeous as our customer service tool, which really plays nice and pulls all the customer information from Shopify and from our Amazon store. And one we've been playing with recently is called Locksmith which allows you to put locks on certain parts of the website. For example, if you've got a new product, sort of talking about the hype again, the early access people can get a code, or a specific link and that lets them get to a new product that's not available to everyone else that's locked out for everyone who's either not a member or has special access. So that’s one we've been playing with recently as well, that got us some interesting opportunities there.
Felix: What's been the biggest lesson that you've learned in the past year that has led you to changes or planned changes in the business?
Stefan: Providing ourselves with a bigger buffer is an important lesson with the whole COVID situation and the number of our customers who aren't able to train in gyms. Giving ourselves as much run rate as possible. Understanding that not everything has to happen straight away. The opportunities will come slowly and just being ready to take those opportunities when they come and staying alive in business is almost a competitive advantage. Especially in a situation like this. We’ll take a bit more care there.