A pre-launch email list is more than just a marketing asset. It can also be a source of input from soon-to-be customers on how to develop the best product for them.
In this episode of Shopify Masters, you’ll learn from an entrepreneur who had a successful product launch by growing a highly engaged pre-launch email list.
Will Africano is the co-founder of GNARBOX: a company that develops products and solutions to revolutionize your multimedia management experience.
Through that email list, we started messaging and surveying and bringing all of those people into the product development experience.
Tune in to learn
- How to find the right co-founder for your startup
- How to build a highly engaged pre-launch email list
- What angel investors versus venture capitalists care about when they hear you pitch
- Store: Gnarbox
- Social Profiles: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram
- Recommendations: Startupers, The O.S. Canvas (Medium.com post), Intercom (Shopify app), AirTable, Trello, Slack, BV Accel (Shopify agency)
Felix: Today I’m joined by Will Afroconda from Gnarbox. Gnarbox develops products to revolutionize the multimedia management experience. Was started in 2015 and based out of Santa Monica, California. Welcome Will.
Will: Thank you Felix, thanks for having me.
Felix: Yeah, so tell us a little bit more about the product, you know. I gave that quick elevator pitch, but what’s the product that put you guys on the map?
Will: Yeah, so Gnarbox actually is a rugged back-up device for content creators who prefer to travel without a laptop. You know the whole idea and premise behind it is basically creating a small computer that’s optimized for photo and video backup. So any content creator doesn’t have to bring their laptop out with them. And with a wifi on board you can actually use your phone or iPad in our dedicated mobile apps to actually manage the files, see the files, even begin edits. So you can prepare your workspaces for when you get back to your computer. Out in the field is definitely where we thrive.
Felix: Got it, did you have experience starting businesses or creating products previously?
Will: No, actually. I did not.
Felix: This is a pretty technical product to start off with. You’re talking about software, you’re talking about hardware, you’re talking about something that is holding lots of valuable data for customers. Where did you even … how did you even begin to decide to go down this path?
Will: Yeah, I think like any entrepreneur it was a matter of trial and error. You know, we started with one idea, and by we I mean me and the other founder Tim Fees. We started just ideating on drives to and from Las Angeles and the Eastern Sierra Mountains and we were going through this process of recording data out in the mountains. Landscape photography, videography, and on our way back, every time we were just in this tangled mess of computers trying to swap footage, create backups, prepare shared editing spaces. So that when we did get back home and go to our nine to five’s on Monday morning, we were at least dialed enough to begin editing in the evenings. And preparing a video and the photos that we wanted to capture those moments we were creating on the weekends.
On those drives we started to come up with mobile applications to try and enhance our sharing experiences. But really what we found the biggest problem to be, and through trying to creating mobile apps and web apps, and all sorts of bad ideas I would admit. We really realized that the biggest issue we had was that in the field backup, the requirement to have a computer and be limited on battery supply, and trying to just get files off of cameras and into the net as fast and short as possible. We focused on that, and that workflow. It took us a year, really, before we came up with the concept of Gnarbox. On the technology side we met … it was our fourth founder actually, there was a third and he left along the way. Through one of those app experiences, and there was a new technologist that joined our team.
And he came in with a background of hardware, and introduced the concept of, you know what happens if we take say a Beagle Bone or a raspberry pie and start to hack it together to create this backup device. Then we started to architect the rugged requirements of it, and we did. We created a big challenge. How do you make a computer pack into your pocket, all while being waterproof, you know? It’s a high heat output. While being completely waterproof so you’re trapping all that heat in. We made a really complex piece of hardware. Yeah, I mean, took an army really. Took the whole community. Everyone we met in our network to get it off the ground the first time. And Gnarbox 1.0 was Kickstarter’ed out and had pretty great success. Over 500k raised in 30 days, basically off of a concept. It took us two years to bring it to market which as delayed significantly. But after that, yeah, we sold nearly 10,000 units of that first one in less than a year. So it was pretty awesome to see market demand.
Felix: Yeah, so you didn’t have any experience launching products. It sounded like your partner that you’re doing these drives with also didn’t have any experience, but you did have a co-founder that you brought on that did have experience.
Will: Exactly. Yeah, it was always trying to find that technological co-founder to bring on, and really help us architect the system and you know, eventually we brought on more and more people and built a team out now, all the way up to 23 people. And primarily software and hardware engineers.
Felix: Yeah, I think it’s important that you either partner or build a team or your first, your early hires are going to fill in those gaps that you have. How did you find your … because the part that you guys are lacking was the technical no-how. How you guys could build this thing. How did you find that partner to fill that gap?
Will: Yeah, we were on startupers.com, I believe. And just doing like, speed dating with technologists. And through those conversations really started to hone in on our vision and what we wanted to make and at that point in time it was very close to being like, hey we’re going to close the book on our ideas here and maybe move on. Then when we met our founder and started to spring up the hardware roadmap, we realized that it was a mocking … an answer that was significant that helped us finance our operations in addition to solve a market need.
Felix: This website that you were going, that was called startupers.com?
Will: Yeah, I believe it was … I mean, this was a while ago. I believe it was startupers.com. It was a way to meet other people trying to make stuff.
Felix: Yeah, basically if startupers.com doesn’t exist anymore, the idea is that there’s kind of this partner, co-founding dating site’s essentially where you can try to find matches. So what did you guys go into it looking for? How do you determine … especially if it’s someone that was there from the very, very beginning. Like these drives you were doing, the ideation phase, and you’re bring on someone a little later but still considered a co-founder. What are you looking for in that type of person to make sure that they’re going to be a good fit with the existing team?
Will: Yeah, I think in the very, very early stages, its cultural, it’s a shared valve and enthusiasm and dedication. Because you’re taking on huge commitments and sacrifices and time. So obviously you need to meet certain technological requirements, have certain experience levels. Whether it’s bringing products to market before, or being parts of teams and organizations that have done that. Or maybe if it’s a software, being based or rooted in similar spaces and languages. But for us, yeah, because we ended up pivoting over into hardware, it was a combination. I think more than anything though it was having experience and having a cultural and dedication fit. It was a shared passion for the problem that we were all facing. And that’s really what helped bring us all together.
Felix: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And is this something that you can just find out through conversation or are there other ways that you recommend people to … things that people can do to make sure that there is a good fit before this commitment?
Will: Well, yeah. Sometimes it’s a leap of faith because it can create problems and you know, you’re splitting equity and there’s a lot of history in organizations and start-ups and particular work founders have … they have fall outs. That’s a thing that definitely happens and you want to be really cognizant of it going into it. I think you’re living in such a high risk and wild west environment you kind of have to go with your gut a little bit. And through a number of conversations that’s how we made that decision. We had conversations where within 10 minutes were spinning up so many ideas that we’re going to solve so many of our problems within our vision. You know? We just had that shared passion for problem solving and solving this particular problem that we had, and we were coming up with meaningful solutions in those first early conversations.
Felix: Mm-hmm (affirmative). What are some things that you can do to limit things like fall out or disagreements or mismatches later in … after you’ve started working together, then years later things don’t work out. Are there things that can be done to mitigate that?
Will: Well, I’m sure there’s a number of reasons that these fall outs have happened. This is only my first company, so I wouldn’t imagine … I don’t have a ton of experience in understanding how to mitigate fall out. It’s personality, it’s culture. Maybe the vision and the path of your journey of your organization is going to change over time and if it’s not a shared vision then maybe fall out exists.
I would say preventing that just means staying … you know, having really strong communication, we’re big advocates of having leadership meetings and weekly stand-up’s because as we kind of disperse into our own branches of responsibilities you might lose touch with one another over time. And just making sure you’re cornering off time and blocking off time to just keep your relationships healthy. It’s really important. And I’ve actually come in contact with someone who provided counseling to leadership teams, just to make sure tensions never got too high, right? It wasn’t someone we ended up bringing on, but just the concept existing was eye-opening to be like you need to keep your relationships strong in order to carry the vision through to the end without those fallouts.
So just doing basic team building and basic relationship and we practice non-violent communication in our organization. We have a deliberately developmental organization taking on some of these more modern practices and studies to just make sure that we’re communicating effectively and calmly and rationally.
Felix: Yeah, it sounds like you guys are certainly active in making sure that there is strong communication with these leadership meetings, these stand-ups. What goes on during … what do you want to make sure happens during these meetings to make sure that the communication is strong, that everything that needs to be out there is out there in the open?
Will: Yeah yeah. You know, we have a couple different systems. So we have a weekly standup that is about 30 minutes and then biweekly we do an hour to an hour and a half lunch. And that’s pretty frequent time blocks. Sometimes the range of topics can go from things we’re trying to implement in the organization, the cultural internal levels. Maybe we're bringing up high level decisions like fundraising, hires and fires, even. Just all of those really impactful decisions, budgeting and forecasting comes up. But in all of those meetings, we have space for open forum discussion. With that, you can bring up anything from, “Hey I’m having this particular issue in my team.” Or, “I think as a leadership team we need to improve this.” And, “Hey, we’re lacking this type of communication.” Or just if you have a specific topic or a problem that you can bring it up in that space, it’s a safe space. And we definitely are cognizant of it being a safe and really non-heated and calm … just having time allotted to it, right? Being cognizant of it and bought into it is really what it takes.
Felix: Got it. Now, if during one of these meetings there are multiple people that are super passionate about a problem that they think that the company should be focused on solving, how do you guys think about prioritization? How do you decide what the company should be focused on?
Will: Yeah, I mean we have a backlog of things to work on. And what we do is … so we kind of map our tension, organization tensions and priorities and we just try and work through them in a … we actually dedicated a certain amount of time a couple times a year just to bring up tensions and prioritize them. Through these weekly and biweekly meetings we are kind of whittling down that list and obviously things come up a hack. Like, “Hey, this deal is on the table, it’s the hottest topic of discussion.” And that becomes the top agenda point for the meeting. And just making sure that that meeting exists and we’re at a point where most of the founders are just blocking off every minute of their day to just be … in their own calendars, just to be as organized and efficient as possible with their time because it’s easy to … without proper planning each week to just get a little lost and lose sight of those prioritizations.
So yeah, just tracking. There’s a really great article created, and created by The Ready. It’s a medium post. And it’s called the OS Canvas, and it’s just a really cool way to map tensions, priorities across the entire organization, looking at your organization as an operating system. And this is the tool that we’ve used to kind of manage what the prioritizations are. Because it just does a simple percentage ranking, and you can get input from the entire organization on these. Everything from structure and space. So what’s going on in the office, to purposes and values, the policy and governance, strategy and innovation, people development, motivation, finance and forecasting, targets, and this canvas keeps an active visual mapping of really, the red yellow green in our organization. And red’s usually take the highest priority.
Felix: Got it, so the OS Canvas, if anyone wants to check it out we’ll link all that in the show notes. Now, I want to take a step back to the very beginning. I think one thing you mentioned was that you guys were … had this problem you were trying to solve and you came up with different solutions. Should it be an app, should it be hardware, what should it be? Can you say a little bit more about this? Because I think this is a situation others are in where they recognize there’s a problem, and they come at it with one solution but it might not be the right one. How did you guys know what solution you should be focused on to solve the exact same problem?
Will: Yeah, you know. So one of the things that drove us though was finance abilities. So maybe we had a good idea in the mix for solving a problem that was in our general space of study, which was workflow. And we were really focused on the beginning of this sharing element. So taking content, and I’ve already made my content now how do I take it from a computer to an environment where I get the most out of my content. At that time Instagram was emerging and really has emerged to be such a powerful application, that I’m glad we didn’t go that route. But, it was a willingness to scrap an idea. To just say, “This is impossible given our current resources.” Is a way to look at it, like so do I have the financing, do I have the technological means, do I have the team or the expertise or the experience to be able to create this idea.
Felix: So it’s almost like the process of elimination for you guys?
Will: Yeah, there was a little process of elimination there for us. And then the other side of it is like is there a need for this? So had we proven that there wasn’t demand for it then you know, we wouldn’t have gone down that path. Kickstarter provided a really good opportunity to take an idea, basically create a prototype while moon-lighting, keeping our full-time jobs, and working all nights and eventually dropping those jobs once we started to get quick responses from investors. Which, that was the first feedback. Like, we had app ideas we’d been pitching, pitching, pitching, pitching, we had web ideas, cloud ideas, pitching, pitching, pitching, no bites. And you know, as soon as we put this hardware concept together and we felt really strongly about this being a proper solution, and had a clear path to financing with it, even we had Kickstarter-
Section 1 of 3 [00:00:00 - 00:18:04]
Section 2 of 3 [00:18:00 - 00:36:04] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Will: … and had a clear path to financing with it, given we had Kickstarter to rely on for that, many crowdfunding platforms for that matter. It became a much easier pitch. Once we made a prototype, we went into our first investor meeting, showed that we could back up files and stream them to a phone with 4K transcoding using the hack [beetle bone], and we got money on the spot, so that became that first point of feedback. With that money, we were able to finish the prototype and start to set up manufacturing. We went to Kickstarter, and that was the second point of feedback. It was like, yeah, we’re on the right track here.
Felix: Oh, so you guys got investors even before you went over to Kickstarter.
Will: Yeah, just to get a few things off the ground. It was [small angels]. But that was the first feedback we were given. It was like, would an investor invest in this concept. Could we get friends family angel money from our networks with this concept and with this technological team?
Felix: Got it, so you guys were pitching different ideas, how were you getting in front of potential investors? Where were you going to pitch your ideas?
Will: We went to … The main thing was, obviously, personal networks, but in Los Angeles there’s a lot of opportunity, Pasadena Angel, a bunch of other Angel groups that we networked into and, yeah, I mean just never ceasing to talk about your projects and leaving no stone unturned was really what got us to find proper investors. Our main investors, today, actually came through just a friend of ours that we once pitched the idea on because we knew he was connected, and he happened to be on a flight home from a business trip and the guy sitting next to him happened to be an Angel investor who was really passionate about cameras.
He said, “Hey, I’ve got a friend who’s building something, a hardware device in Los Angeles,” and got his card and gave him his card and connected us over email. His group's been our lead investor to date, so it’s through a series.
Felix: Yeah, I guess that persistence and constant pitching certainly paid off for you guys. Can you walk us through the typical cycle you have to go through to get into a room to do that pitch that in your case resulted in an investment? It sounds like a lot of networking involved. What were the typical steps before you actually get into the room, get to sit down with an investor and be able to get the opportunity to potentially get an investment?
Will: Well, I mean, you definitely need to have a good and ready pitch, that’s definitely something that we were always working on and honing and iterating on. Then it was about pounding our just personal network first. Going online and just applying wasn’t always the greatest way, even things like Tech stars and maybe the more recognized groups that are out there, just filling out an application never seemed to be enough for us, so it was really about getting an intro. Finding out someone that knew.
We went through our collegiate circles. Looked through those Angel networks and just friends who may be in investment banking or VC spaces or private equity. That helped a lot in the beginnings, but yeah, it really came through like old bosses. You know? Like old dads friends, often times. Just their business networks were helpful. Family friends, uncles, and just, Like I said, just being so persistent until eventually, you got to the right person. When you knew you got to the right person you got the intro to the VC, you had your email, your pitch stack, you got the NDA set up, yada yada, got them on the phone as fast as possible and tried to set up an in-person meeting as fast as possible after that.
Being able to meet them, because in the early, early stages they’re investing in people, they’re investing in a belief in the problem and the solution, but mostly to people. I heard that so many times, that it’s about just making sure you carried passion, dedication, and the expertise, or at least the vision and ability to get the expertise for what you needed. Mapping, “Hey, your money’s going to this, giving me the right developers and I know this for this reason,” that was what would close the deals. We were in rooms with BCs and we were in rooms that pitch shows and all sorts of different things, but eventually it really shook out to just [cobbling] together a bunch of Angels and family money and family offices ended up being the way we ended up, but that’s just because that’s who was into it. That was who was into us. Could have been a different path if we had a different idea and different people.
Felix: Were there certain things you maybe we're not doing when you first started pitching that by the end, closer towards to maybe even today, that you definitely want to make sure you hit on whatever you pitch your product, your company, to an investor?
Will: Yeah, just keep it simple. Being able to very clearly articulate who and what for this product is creating and just all the, I think, in my mind, as I’ve gone through CES now many years and lots of shows and pitched expos, the ones that everyone always gravitates toward are just the simple ideas that you can immediately get in just a few words. Ours is “Rugged backup device for content creators who prefer to travel without a laptop.” Just being able to repeatedly say that, there are people that will gravitate to that message and there are people that will not.
Just leading strong with that and having a clear and articulated vision for your product and your organization, that’s the root of it. We cater other messages for different audiences. Like there’s a different context for the pitch then you must style the rest of your deck to fit your audience. That’s also important. You don’t just always have one deck, it’s always just constant iteration.
Felix: Over time did you recognize that there were common questions that investors were asking?
Will: Yeah, yeah. This was a number of years ago so thankfully this isn’t a the forefront of my memory. Yeah, different types of investors if you were interested in different things. When you’re in meetings with BCs it was way more money and business planning than when I was in Angel and Family offices which is about vision and team. I was sometimes shocked in VC meetings when you would get these … They would be pushing you and pressuring you and probing you, like, “Okay, would you be willing to relinquish your board?” And we’re like, “What are you?” [inaudible] position if it came for the best the organization it asks is challenging questions of “Are you willing to cede to my dominance?” Those were interesting experiences to encounter early on, especially when you’re like, “Man there’s only three of us right now. We’re trying to make this thing a thing. Why does this even matter, but sure I guess. If you’re going to give me the money and let me do this, then I’d consider it.”
Will: The other offices they want to see a demo. They wanted to see what we were saying be a thing. Once we got that prototype up and running it was a lot easier for us to pitch and evolve the funding.
Felix: When you were trying to get to these VCs earlier on with the Angel investors, were there gatekeepers involved that made it difficult for you to get into the room?
Will: I don’t think that there was a lot of blockers. Honestly, sometimes they would send a junior [inaudible] out to our office, even doing a roundup of LA or whatever it was, if they were from the Bay Area. We’ve had people come through our office and they kind of acted as gatekeepers, like, “Hey, it’s not quite ready yet. Once you get to this stage then talk to us again.” That happened. It was great. They gave us feedback on our product, we knew what they were looking for. Maybe it was a specific type of app experience and we hadn’t fully vetted that out at the early stages.
We eventually came into the money before we actually got any further with a lot of the VCs.
Felix: Got it. You mentioned that this was being done, all of this was being done when you guys threw away your 9 to 5 and everyone was doing this on the side. What do you think was the most valuable use of your time back then early on when it was just nights and weekends where you can dedicate this time?
Will: Yeah, the majority of the time as being spent developing prototypes and translating that prototype into a pitch. That pitch helped us fund the Kickstart which then helped us fund the next round of funding which funded manufacturing which started gaining us revenue. That revenue and the vision for future products, the 2.0 that’s now through its Kickstarter and coming into manufacturing very soon is going to help us fund our series B. Its kind of a cycle and we’re just trying to grow it to a point of profitability. Yeah, that’s kind of the journey there.
Early on it was just prototype, prototype, prototype. Having that tangible good totally changes your position at the table.
Felix: Now, the prototype development process, you mentioned that going back to it, you guys had one co-founder, it sounded like, that knew how to build this kind of stuff but the rest of you guys didn’t have that kind of experience. Were you guys focused on developing the pitch and the marketing and the sales behind? How did the work get split up?
Will: Yeah, so the work got split up early on when we were dedicated on the prototype. Patrick, who is our third technical co-founder, was dedicated to hardware development. Tim actually just taught himself how to code, and we had a couple mentors and freelance helpers who dedicated time to support that. We had a small bit of funding, so some of the harder challenges, like getting our wifi booted up, we were able to outsource some of those. Patrick was kind of doing some of the low level embedded hardware, software. I was doing a lot of the marketing, pitch building alongside Tim and Patrick as well. It was collaborative. Some of the UX design and trying to mop up user experiences and apps.
I came from a consumer research background so trying to map consumer insights and problems to tangible app experiences and solutions was what I was dedicated to early on.
Felix: What point did you guys to quit your day jobs at the same time or when was the realization that you guys should do that, make that jump?
Will: Yeah, we got enough money and Patrick and Tim did at first because they were coding so much. I just held on to mine up until a month before Kickstarter just because I could. I was working remotely too so it helped.
Felix: You guys then prepare for that launch on Kickstarter. Talk to us about that. What did you guys do leading up to the launch?
Will: Yeah, I mean, Kickstarter is definitely a beast. It has a recipe. There’s definitely a roadmap to doing that, you can look across many, many Kickstarter’s and many, many blog posts and books and guides now to piece together. About 90, 120, comfortably I’d say 120 day preparation period to get a Kickstarter up and running. You’ve got your video, you’ve got your pitch design. You’ve got your title and a short description of your product has to be dialed. Your product imagery and prototyping, so 3D prints, et cetera, and then submitting it to Kickstarter, getting feedback. Getting it approved and kicking it out with influencers and a full marketing plan.
I think one of the key things though is actually building a community going into it. Your relying on your Kickstarter as your place to build your audience is definitely not the way to do it. You need to develop and build an audience that you can bring into the Kickstarter. That was a lot of what we were focused on for really the 180 days, I’d say, out going to the Kickstarter. We had a small Instagram community of passionate creators. We had a shared hashtag. We [inaudible] that community to about 10,000 people, had an email list of about 20K going into our Kickstarter that were all aware of Mailbox as an idea.
We surveyed them to engage them in the user experience and product development. By having people involved they were the first people to back us in the first couple of days, and you have to have a good day one. Without a good day one your Kickstarter is not going to do well. We didn’t sleep for three days and had basically a call center set up in our house, in our garage office, and called every single person we knew. Through all that network, kind of pitching that we had for a whole year, about the concept to just try and get the money, we met so many people that were brought into us and into our vision that gaining the support on day one was a lot easier.
I find a lot of time with early founders and people, entrepreneurs, coming out with their ideas, they’re very scared to share what their idea is in fear of someone stealing it. It’s a totally rational fear, but it’s definitely not going to help you with a Kickstarter, and it’s definitely going to make it harder to get funding and grow a community and build a network and get feedback even. We talked about it to everyone we freaking could and signed them up. That was the difference maker.
Felix: 10,000 follower on Instagram, 20,000 emails. That’s a huge community to have before you guys even have a product. What made them want to follow along with you even though there was nothing that they could essentially get from you guys just yet?
Will: Yeah, they just were passionate about what we were passionate about. I think that’s a shared set of values and kind of way of life is what we were founded on, and that’s what that community was. Basically, we would repost peoples photos that were tagged in our box and we would just people contributing, collaborated and we talked to all of them. We would post these surveys and get product feedback and have conversations with individuals. One of the early community members, someone who started following us just because they liked our Instagram page, is now one of our software engineers. When we put a job application up, he applied, he was the first intern that we ever brought in from college, and when he graduated we hired him on.
Felix: That’s awesome. These 20,000 emails you guys collected, was there an incentive to get them to join? How were you collecting the emails?
Will: That was a combination of things, giveaways, surveys, refer a friend. We did one giveaway going in that was taking that core community and just inviting their friends to get an incentive to win a drone, it was a DGI10 and two at the time. Yeah, we just bought it and put it up for a giveaway to help grow that base, but through that email list then we started messaging and surveying and bringing all of those people into the product development experience.
Felix: I like that, so you guys didn’t have a product, you’re in pre-launch phase, but that shouldn’t stop you from having some kind of incentive for people to want to be a part of it. You first started off with kind of baiting them with a product that might not be exactly the same thing as yours, but it certainly tried the same audience. You guys got a drone and that’s obviously going to be a very similar audience to the people that will want to buy your product, they join the email through those giveaways and then from there you were able to pull them more into your universe through surveying. What we're sending them to keep them engaged and get them to learn more about what was to come?
Will: Yeah, we just did surveys. Mostly just, “Hey, here’s just ranking problems you may be having, telling us what cameras you have. What’s your current workflow or backup solution or editing suite,” to gather base data for demographic info, and then having them, I don’t know, we would kind of present questions about how they may rank certain feature sets. Whether they were looking for being able to back up and edit on their phone, or, sorry, back up in the field or edit on their phone.
Section 2 of 3 [00:18:00 - 00:36:04]
Section 3 of 3 [00:36:00 - 00:51:38] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Will: Or sorry, back up, sorry back up in the field or edit on their phone. Whether it’s a photo or video that they wanted. Did they want to continue to edit on their computer, or go to them, we would just come up with every feature we were thinking about creating. Then we’d have people rank and comment on it. It was kind of like a crowdsourcing. We knew pretty much what we wanted to build, but then we would kind of add some objective data to it and just get some numbers to back up and prioritize features so to speak through this community of creators.
Felix: Can you think of something from the survey or data that you collected from the survey that might have led you guys astray. Like the data seemed to say one thing, but then didn’t actually play out in reality?
Will: You know I don’t think anything really led us astray from the data. There was an audience that was participating in the surveys that gave us information that would either enforce or not certain hypotheses that we had. We will made our own decision sometimes based on what we thought was the correct answer. It wasn’t like we went straight off the data. We used it as a weighted part to being forced or not. Certain questions we may have had, but some of the struggles we had was just we tried to bite off more than I think we could chew. That was not a problem of surveys. That was just a problem and I mean this specifically for the first product. I just mean that as a problem of time and resources and just understanding of the technology still. Just like the time it really takes to make something like this that’s as hardware and software intensive.
There could have been things we did in the user experience or the feature sets that maybe were pared done enough that, or given more time or thought or testing for example that were vetted to maybe get better reviews there. There were definitely a handful of bad reviews. There were a lot of great reviews and understanding our audience and understanding our resources versus feature sets was something that took us time to hone in on and we really learned a lot from the first product development stages and release. We’re so dialed on it now for what we’re doing for 2.0. Way more comfortable at scoping and part of what was just the flux and instability as we’re growing the organization.
We were adding developers as we were still trying to get a product to market. Once we had that really core group of software team together like we do today, the structure in place and all the resources we need, whether it’s actually having a proper in-house UIUX designer, a [inaudible] master. All these important members of a good software team. Having a set culture and way of scoping and scoring and managing agile. All of these things really weren’t in place in the early days. It was kind of wild west. Having that in place is so critical.
Felix: Yes and speaking of that and so after the first Kickstarter, I think this was the story that you were telling us which was that you guys shipped that first 3500 units of the Gnarbox and it didn’t exactly go as planned. Can you tell us what happened?
Will: Yes, there was a number of problems. First problems at the warehouse level. We had problems shipping out to EU and we had orders got lost. We lost money on inventories that took us six months to claim. Somewhere like $50,000.00 in inventory that was completely lost, that had to file insurance claims on. It took time to get that money back and yada yada. Then the angry customers come from that, because they didn’t have their products and we didn’t know where they were. It was just a number of mistakes there that we just bent over backwards and did everything we could for our customers to kind of save our image there. The other problem we faced was some of the early units having these kinds of battery failures, just early bug, first units that we thought we had solved. It took us probably four months to solve the initial problem, but there were still a few units out there. Maybe like a hundred total, but still, it’s a hundred angry people.
Like I said we bent over backwards. We gave them full replacements. We overnighted them units all around the world and lost some money in the process, but built some loyal customers. One of the saving grace is of those two problems and actually our third problem just being not delivering exactly what every consumer envisioned the product would do. We put out Gnarbox 1.0 and people were assuming it did X,Y and Z, even if we were saying it did A,B and C. They saw it as one thing and we saw it as a different thing. Having that alignment between your customers and your product is just everything. We missed out on that a little bit with the first one. We just didn’t meet every single person’s expectations which is just a lack of understanding of what exactly they saw it as to them. Also our ability to deliver that in a timely manner.
Those were the three problems and kind of our saving grace through a lot of that was A. Frequent software updates. We were just pounding through software updates from our updates. That was super, super helpful. We were working 24 hours a day it felt like for the first three to six months, just to get the code up to snuff for the people who did have units. Then the second thing was customer support. A couple of us set up an Intercom service, you know awesome app and just live chat and e-mail. We got people on the phone on long conversations and every angry customer that came in. It was just our goal, Tim and I and a couple of the other members of the team on the marketing and support team were just on that thing all day and night. Talking to customers and I think that made a big difference to kind of saving face and building loyalty, because that’s what you have to do to come out with.
If you don’t have a community that gets behind your product and sure we lost some people along the way. I bet you some of those people came back and back our second generation just because they had conversations with us. We gave them a return willingly.
Felix: Yes. One of the things that you said that I really like is that whoever is closest to the customer wins. What does this mean to you?
Will: Oh that’s everything. That means a few things to me. We’ve dedicated full-time roles in our organization and are continuing to double down on customer research. Constant frequent active participation from every member of the product and marketing teams with a weekly dedicated meeting to review observations in the market that builds a large customer research database with I think, we have hundreds of nuggets if not in the thousands now and a nugget to us is just like anything from a statement we heard in the user experience research interview, on a one-on-one conversation, that we saw a Facebook comment and we’re all just ready and seeing those things and documenting and databasing them. Translating who it was. What type of person they are. The persona that we may have denoted them. Maybe they’re a professional photographer. Maybe they’re a beginner photographer.
Maybe they’re a hobbyist, wedding photographer. All sorts of different personas. Documenting them in a huge database and being able to quantify problems, quantify solutions and prove that hypotheses that we have set in our product. Then building solutions that are well tested, so app features, marketing messages get tested in focus groups. Just doubling down on focus groups and beta testing this 2.0 product. Iterating on software and user experiences. There’s just so many ways to do that. The Intercom is definitely a huge role of it, is just having active frequent conversations with anybody who wants to chat. People would come in and I’ll have the conversation just about the best SD card for their cameras. It has nothing to do with Gnarbox, but they feel comfortable talking to us about getting advice for their camera workflow.
That’s what we want. We want people to see us as thought leaders. We want to make sure we’re top of mind. That’s a common term you may hear. Just whether it’s through e-mails and blog posts. Articles that maybe you published on your website or across the web. Having a meaningful knowledge base is all part of good customer support system. All of that just builds into one beautiful picture for just staying close to the customer. I think delivering a product that actually meets the customer needs in the face of competition is the final output of all that. The reviews you get back and all of that will build and the word of mouth marketing you get and that early referencing of your product delivery is going to be what makes or breaks the future of the organization. If you’re not close to your customer early on, then you’re not going to make it.
Felix: You mentioned that you use Intercom to help manage a lot of this feedback communication with the customer. Any other apps or tools or services that you rely on to help run the business?
Will: Our customer database is run through Airtable, but that’s just internal. We’re a big [inaudible], but interacting with customers Intercom is our kind of way of doing that.
Felix: Got it. What about the website? How is that, was that designed in-house or did you guys hire a design company for this?
Will: We went through a few stages on the website and we’re about to go through another in the process of re-designing the website for kind of the future product that’s about to come out. The first time around we hired a highly regarded in the Shopify community. They merged so it was Rocket Code originally and then they merged with VV Excel out of Santa Monica and they’re in Santa Monica and Rocket Code is in Columbus, Ohio. Really awesome incredible designers, but this time around, we’ve hired a full-time UIUX designer for our applications and he comes from a background, one of his previous roles is not in application, but in web, part of merchandising design, Shopify as well. He’s actually now creating our website in-house which is awesome and we just have some hired guns to code it.
Felix: Very cool, so you mentioned that you guys are going through another redesign? What is the purpose of the redesign? What are you guys focused on trying to solve?
Will: Yes, totally, so the first one, our first go-round with Gnarbox 1.0 was about creating just a single page, like a single landing page buying experience, one pager. The evolution now of both the product and the organization is just adding way more dimensions to it, so we’re no longer providing a single product and a single app but we are developing the Gnarbox 2.0. We’re still going to be delivering the Gnarbox 1.0. We have a suite of accessories including battery chargers, replaceable batteries. High end card readers specifically designed for photographers and videographers. Our device has an SD card reader, but many of our users are CF shooters or C Fast 2.0 shooters or XQD shooters as well. Providing shielded USB 3.1, USBC type C readers is an essential part of the whole product experience. That’s something that we didn’t have the first time around.
UHS2 readers, so having the map speed opportunities for our users to just kind of come to one place and buy what they need for their mobile work flow solutions. Then we’re also building an ecosystem of mobile applications, so not only do we have one app called Gnarbox, but we’re actually developing multiple apps. The change that we have is now we have the need for a storefront, not just buy now. Which we bypassed the store before in the first go round of the code with 1.0. It was just one thing to buy. From a single SKU to a multi-SKU environment and a multi software experience environment we just need to have more landing pages.
We want to build out our own custom knowledge base. We kind of had plugged in the Intercom one and now we’re migrating to a custom built off of Zendesk. We’re kind of mixing and matching some tools to custom design a lot of different experiences on the website both for pre-purchase and post-purchase. Yes, there’s just a need to re-architect the entire experience.
Felix: Awesome, so thank you so much for your time Will, gnarbox.com. G-n-a-r-b-o-x.com is the website. What’s next? What do you want to see the business be at this time next year?
Will: I’ll tell you, so this time next year we’ll be going into the first full holiday cycle with 2.0 on the market, so that’s going to be a super critical time. Our big trade show every year is PhotoPlus Expo. You can check us out this year. That’s late October in New York City. We’ll be pumping 2.0 pretty hard. There’s some stuff in the background that I just can’t share. I’m excited for next year. We’ll continue to be finding partnerships and opportunities to bring more meaningful app experiences and hardware experiences, but yes next year. You know our goal in 2019 by the end of it is really to just become a profitable organization and relying on e-commerce and direct consumer and proper customer support is going to be one of the big keys to success.
I think seeing a big translation from selling off Amazon and BMH and trying to sell more direct to consumer with upsell involved in that with our accessories is part of what I think is going to make us a successful organization and a profitable organization. Yes. Shopify is a big part of that.
Felix: Awesome. Thank you so much for your time, Will.
Will: Thanks Felix, appreciate it.
Felix: Thanks for tuning into another episode of Shopify Masters, the e-commerce podcast for ambitious entrepreneurs powered by Shopify. To get your exclusive 30 day extended trial visit shopify.com/masters.
Ready to start a business of your own?
Start your free 3-day trial of Shopify today