EPISODE
10

How to Run a 7 Figure Ecommerce Business With No Employees (with Abby Walker)

with
Abby Walker

In the last episode of the Minds of Ecommerce Podcast, you heard from Jeff Cayley, CEO of Worldwide Cyclery, who shared how he created a customer service strategy that is the backbone of their growth to nearly 15 million dollars a year in sales.

In episode #10, Abby Walker, CEO & Founder of Vivian Lou, will share how she works with agencies, makes decisions, and runs a million-dollar ecommerce store with no employees.

Listen on Apple Podcasts

Raphael Paulin-Daigle:

Today, on episode number 10, get ready. Abby Walker, CEO and founder of Vivian Lou will share how she works with agencies and runs a million dollar eCommerce store with no employees. I'm your host, Raphael Paulin-Daigle and I'm the founder of Split Base. A conversion optimization agency for fashion and lifestyle direct to consumer e-commerce brands. This is Minds of E-commerce. All right. Welcome Abby. Thank you so much for accepting my invitation to be on the Minds of E-commerce podcast.

Abby Walker:

Yes, absolutely. So excited to be here.

Raphael Paulin-Daigle:

Yeah. So as you know, this show is really about diving deep into your business and really looking at the things that made it super successful. Now, just to give us some context, when did you launch Vivian Lou?

Abby Walker:

I launched it in the fall of 2014.

Raphael Paulin-Daigle:

Fall of 2014. Pretty recent business. It's not something that's been around for 20 years and yet you've been really successful at growing it, considering. People need to hear this out because this is really impressive. You've grown to north of $4 million in sales with no employees, no investors. Just you and one very successful product. Right? So tell us more about that.

Abby Walker:

Sure. Quickly, I launched in 2014 with one insole. Literally it was just one version of our insole and it was really a hobby job, so I didn't spend much time. So I had a full time job, I was a working mom with two young kids, my husband worked a full time job. It wasn't until I was really determined in late 2016 that the company took off. So in the fall of 2016 and I was able to quit corporate America and really focus on growing Vivian Lou. We now have two versions of our insole classic and couture and like you said, last year, closed 2018 with north of $4 million in sales.

Raphael Paulin-Daigle:

Awesome! Well, congrats on that.

Abby Walker:

Yeah, thanks!

Raphael Paulin-Daigle:

Now, you've also mentioned in our previous conversations that one of your key strategies for success was focusing on your instincts. So it's really looking at things and knowing how it feels, and we hear that piece of advice, pretty often - you'll feel your gut. But one of the main things that I'm interested in knowing is you've grown this business to a scale where yes, you need to feel your gut, but you also kind of need to look at data and see what works and what doesn't. So tell me - when you're making a decision and let's say, we're staying in the realm of marketing and growth decisions, how do you make those decisions? How do you look at growth decisions or marketing decisions and still feel that gut feeling? How do you balance it out?

Abby Walker:

Sure. So as we had talked about earlier, really one of the key things to the success of Vivian Lou I believe is I literally trust my gut; an opportunity presents itself and I just kind of sit with it for a while and I will get an instantaneous yes or an instantaneous no. Now sometimes logic gets in the way and I decide to pursue an opportunity that I knew in my head wouldn't work, and I actually fell victim to that earlier this year, which is fine, but it's just a lesson learned. But really one of the things that truly helps is going outside. And now that sounds so crazy and woo-woo and simple, but I take my dog for a walk, and I just kind of noodle on it and I'm like, okay. And after a 20 minute walk, I'm like, yes or no, it's just going to happen, or it's not.

But one of the things that I use to really measure the success of these gut decisions is: I love to keep my business simple. So, like you said earlier, I have zero employees, I have zero investors, I have a bunch of contractors that help me with things. But really it's the simplicity of my business that I think allows it to scale and to grow profitably.

So I have two products. Those products solve a very specific pain point. So if women want to wear high heels without pain, they can choose either our classic insole or our couture insole. So it's come to the website, buy, and get off. But in terms of a marketing venture or a marketing decision, I really judge that based on one metric. And I know that as an entrepreneur and an e-commerce business owner I've been kind of drowned in data overwhelm. And so I look at my cost per acquisition; how much does it cost to get an order checked out? And while that may be a very simplistic view because you can look at halo effect and getting the email address, you can market them and all of that kind of stuff, I truly make decisions based on my cost per acquisition.

Raphael Paulin-Daigle:

I love it. So I think one of the key strategies that we really got to look at is, well two things. I think one thing that people often forget is, you know, like you said, go for a walk. We often tend to overthink and overthinking leads to over-complicating everything .Over-complicating strategy, over-complicating metrics, over-complicating analyses. Sometimes it's completely useless. Here what you've done is you've looked at all right, what do I need to make this business successful? And it's a solution to a very clear problem. And then understanding, you know, what are those metrics and what type of numbers do you need to hit in order to be profitable and successful.

Abby Walker:

Exactly. And so it's a very simplistic way of running a business, but knock on wood, it's worked for me. It works for the type of product that I sell. And we've seen consistent growth year over year since 2016 with this very simplistic approach and very simplistic metric that I look at every single day.

Raphael Paulin-Daigle:

Right? So now I want to look at your growth without any employees. So you have some contractors, but I'm sure a lot of our listeners must be thinking, wow, $4 million, no employees. Obviously she must be working all the time. How are you making sure that you're keeping your sanity?

Abby Walker:

Good question.

Raphael Paulin-Daigle:

How do you have time for those walks?

Abby Walker:

Yes, I started Vivian Lou, my company, with one mission, and that was really for peace and freedom. And so I hated sending my kids off to daycare every day, so my mission was to walk them to school and be home for them after school every day. And so I still live by that motto. I walk my kids to school every day, and their school lets out at 2:45, so I have a very condensed work day that I can get a lot of stuff done. So I rely a lot on contractors. I have a team of virtual assistants who handle my customer service. I have a warehouse that handles all fulfillment, and then as needed, I plug people in. So I have a Facebook ad agency, I have a Google ad agency, I manage my own email. I actually like my email, I may be bringing someone on to help me manage email, but graphic design I have assistance with all of those sorts of things, and I purposely don't have an agency manage more than one cog in the wheel, if you will.

While there are several agencies out there that could do all of my online marketing, I don't ever put that responsibility into one agency just in case things go haywire or fall to the wayside. It's very easy for me to pull out that chunk and I can plug myself into that hole while I find another agency so the wheel continues to move. So I don't rely heavily on any one agency just as a contingency plan and I know that sometimes introduces conflict into the channel because there are more opinions and there are more things that need to be figured out. I also know that I pay a premium for that approach. And I welcome that because it allows me peace and freedom and it allows me to sleep at night knowing that if one thing goes haywire, I can plug myself in until I can figure out someone else to fill that hole, if that makes sense.

Raphael Paulin-Daigle:

Totally. I think one of the key takeaways that I'm getting from that is that you're getting different types of, not opinions, but different backgrounds, right? So for example, if you've got someone doing Google ads and Facebook ads, you know you've got completely different points of views.

Abby Walker:

Yes.

Raphael Paulin-Daigle:

So maybe you don't have a team. And I think that's key. The thing is that you've been able to grow without having a bunch of employees, but you've managed to surround yourself with external teams, agents and contractors that at the same time become almost like the people you can brainstorm with all the time. It's not like you don't have a team. So I think that's really key for people to remember. If you want to do what you've done, for example, surround yourself with the right people. You were going to say, Abby?

Abby Walker:

Yeah, and that's the thing. So I always say I don't have employees and everyone's like, wait, you do everything yourself? I'm like, no, no, no, no, no. I don't have employees because personally I don't want that responsibility. But I have contractors and I know again that I pay a premium to have contractors versus bringing people on board as full time employees. But I happily pay that premium and I happily share in the success of Vivian Lou because it allows me the peace and freedom to walk my kids to school and to take vacations and to do the things that I started Vivian Lou in order to do.

Raphael Paulin-Daigle:

Right. So let's say that right now we've got entrepreneurs listening that have companies about your size, but they do have a few employees. Obviously that means that they have more people to manage.

Abby Walker:

Yes.

Raphael Paulin-Daigle:

So it may free up their time, but it still adds a few tasks to their plate. What would be your biggest piece of advice for them? Let's say they wanted to gain a little more freedom, maybe go more towards a contractor type of thing like you're doing, where should they start?

Abby Walker:

Google is always a good place to start. So Google and then referrals. So I've had really good success with this. Picking up the phone and asking other companies of like size, you know, who do you use? I have a coach, Jada Sellner, who is absolutely amazing, and she is very well connected with other entrepreneurs and agencies in this space. And so she often has ideas on agencies or has recommendations. She may not have used them, but just going out and asking who people really trust and who people use.

Raphael Paulin-Daigle:

Right.

Abby Walker:

One thing that I have fallen victim to is getting really excited about agencies and then not done my due diligence in terms of getting referrals or asking can I contact one of your existing or previous contracts or companies that you've worked with, just to make sure that they're a good, this is going to sound so woo-woo, but a good vibrational fit. They may be super good at something but they don't match your energy or they don't match necessarily where you're trying to go or how you like to work. And so it's really good to kind of feel those things out before you sign up for a longterm contracts or even a month to month contract.

Raphael Paulin-Daigle:

Right. And I think that's super key because you don't want to look at them as agencies; they're part of your team. So you want to make sure that these people align, not just that they do good work, but you want to make sure they align with your values, with how you work and how you think, because these are going to be partners in your business growth either way, and it's best to have the people that will be there as if they're your coworkers or people that you enjoy spending time with.

Abby Walker:

So true.

Raphael Paulin-Daigle:

Now Abby, I'd love to know, because now we know how to find contractors, but let's say we want to offload some work that we've got on our plate. How did you do this? Because you're growing a business. Once you reached a million and even before reaching a million, there's always going to be tons of stuff on your plate. So how did you decide what to do first?

Abby Walker:

So the first thing I did, even before launching Vivian Lou was I knew that if women were going to rely on me to get product out the door, it wasn't going to happen. So even before I was making money, I hired a warehouse. That was not an option for me. I was going to outsource fulfillment, I was going to outsource warehousing, all of that stuff. The second thing I outsourced, which I should have done sooner was customer service. So as a business owner, as a young business owner, not age wise, but in terms of experience, poor reviews really hurt. And I've grown this thicker skin now and know that our insoles don't work for everyone. But it was very hard for me not to get emotionally wrapped up in people's negative comments or wanting to review or all of those sorts of things.

And so as soon as I outsourced customer service, it was a huge weight off my shoulders because I was able to look forward versus looking backwards to figure out what went wrong with shipping, what went wrong with the experience, when it went wrong, all of those sorts of things. And so now I have a call with my customer service team weekly where we can review those, but it's an hour of looking backwards and not looking forwards versus having to toggle between looking for growth and then going backwards to solve customer service issues. So I held on Facebook advertising. I love Facebook. I have a love hate relationship with Facebook advertising. So I still dabble it in it even though I have an agency. And yes, I feel like one thing that I do that I think is important for business owners is I think you need to do the task before you outsource it so you know of the pain points, how it's supposed to be done and how you would like it to be done before you hand it off to someone else, if that makes sense.

Raphael Paulin-Daigle:

Totally. I'm a big believer in that too. So we're definitely on the same page there. Great. Now as you were offloading those tasks, it sounds like one of the key things you've been doing is really trying to protect your energy, protect yourself from the things that would drain you and the things that would negatively influence your thinking so you could do what you do best and run the business with a clear mind. So that is super simple because I think we don't talk about these things often enough. I think we're very, you know, generally entrepreneurs and anyone with big jobs, we think of the strategies that day to day and we forget that whatever we do in our day, it will be impacted by the state of our mind. And if we're doing customer support all day and we're just exhausted by reading all those comments or if we have to do Facebook as in, it's something that you hate, for example.

Abby Walker:

Right.

Raphael Paulin-Daigle:

And it drives you nuts. You're not going to be able to run the business or do what you're supposed to do effectively. You're not going to be able to get in that flow if you don't really delegate and keep doing it. So congrats -you are the living example of doing that very well.

Abby Walker:

Well thanks.

Raphael Paulin-Daigle:

On the flip side, what are some of the mistakes that you've made when it comes to delegating more without necessarily adding employees? So we're talking contractors and really building a business based on this.

Abby Walker:

Yes. I would say the biggest mistake, again that I referred to before was hiring folks without doing a thorough analysis on whether or not, most importantly, I think it needs to be like an energetic personality match. And so I got totally swept up by their credentials and what they've done and how they've grown other companies in similar spaces and not really trusting again, my gut saying, "eh, I'm not quite sure". And so my logical brain kicked in and was like, no, they've proven that they can do this. And so it just wasn't a match. And then you'd have to back out of either a contract or let the contract go or whatnot. But yeah, I feel like that has been my biggest mistake is not moving forward with the right match of a person or an agency.

And then I am a huge believer too in test periods for both people. And so instead of signing longterm contracts, I believe that if a contractor or if an agency really wants your business, you can say, I would love to move forward with you, but I want a 90 day window just to test each other out before signing a six month contract or a year long contract. So I feel like it's giving yourself permission to ask for the things that you want versus going by their standard kind of way of operating. And if they're not willing to be flexible in that realm, maybe it isn't a good fit for you and your agency. So I guess the things are again, make sure that they're a match for you personally and then two: asking for a test period to test it out. I think the performance is important, but it's not necessarily performance based. It's more personality energy-based; are you guys a good match to move forward and help grow your business?

Raphael Paulin-Daigle:

Got it. What are some of the questions that you would ask those agencies or contractors to see if they're a good match or not?

Abby Walker:

Really, it's not a specific interview, it's just having a conversation and share "Where did you come from? Here's where I came from. Where do you live? What do you like doing?" It's more of the initial interview for a job cause you've already identified that they're a good match for your business per se in terms of where you need those holes filled. But whether or not it's a good kind of personality match and whether or not you want to have a conversation with them every week. And how do you communicate? Do they like to have phone calls and you like to email? You know, it's just those very basic things. But I think if you just get along with the person, it's a great foundation to move forward with that relationship.

Raphael Paulin-Daigle:

I agree. I think one of the key things you've mentioned there is have weekly calls.

Abby Walker:

Yes.

Raphael Paulin-Daigle:

And I'm saying this as an agency owner but also as a business owner, with the contractors that we work with and our own clients, weekly calls with whoever you're working with is the minimum cadence for keeping in touch and it helps everyone reduce assumptions and just keep the flow in things. It's just so valuable. Even if it's just five minutes.

Abby Walker:

That's what I was just going to say. Even if you don't have anything urgent to talk about, it's so important just to connect and be like "Hey, how's it going? Good, good, awesome. You know how to reach me if you need anything." But it's just this solidifying, touch-base where sometimes just talking to the person will trigger a question that you've had like "Oh, I've been meaning to ask you this and I was going to put it in an email, but it's just easier. Let's just talk through it." And so I totally agree. Weekly calls, even if you don't have anything to talk about, just five minutes to connect and then go on your merry way is so important.

Raphael Paulin-Daigle:

Awesome. Now I want to look back at the growth of your business. So you've grown in those years by quite a bit, but what would you have done differently? Let's say when you reached that million dollar mark, because most people who are listening to this have reached about that point. So what would you have done differently?

Abby Walker:

Honestly, I would've gotten out of my own way. I think I let my ego get in the way and I didn't outsource as fast as I should've. So I still maintained Facebook ads. I still maintained Google ad words. I still maintained email and so it quickly became no longer fun because it was a true job. I have to go in there and do this. I have to go in there and do this. So at that point I did have the cashflow to invest in contractors and partners that would help me continue to grow the business. But it was my ego that got in the way. Why would I pay them if I know how to do it? And Sarah Blakely says something really interesting, the CEO of Spanx. She was like, if someone you're hiring or someone who you're bringing on can do it at 80% as good as you can, you should let them in because it frees up your time.

And I knew that quote in the back of my head, but it was just, again, ego and all this kind of stuff got in the way. I was like "No, why would I pay you if I could do it better?" And all this kind of stuff. So I wish I would have let go and allowed people to help me infuse new ideas. Working with an agency you get new creative and new ideas and new thoughts and again it wasn't allowing me the space to look forward and to dream bigger cause I was so in the daily grind of things.

Raphael Paulin-Daigle:

Absolutely. Awesome. That's a very key point. Sometimes it's our baby.

Abby Walker:

Yes, yes.

Raphael Paulin-Daigle:

We just want to do it, we know how to do it, but it's good to delegate some times. I think one of the key things that people have to remember is that the first few weeks of that new person or agency working on it, it's not going to be done like you're doing it. It's likely never going to be done the exact same way. Everybody has a different approach.

Abby Walker:

Yes.

Raphael Paulin-Daigle:

Awesome Abby, I'm almost done. Now I want to know who is one person you look up to when growing your business?

Abby Walker:

There are quite a few actually. Sarah Blakely is the obvious one. But she just is amazing and has so much fun, and as a mom who has kids and all that kind of stuff and continues to grow her billion and multibillion dollar company. So she's one that I really kind of look up to because she's wonderful.

Raphael Paulin-Daigle:

And my final question.

Abby Walker:

Yes?

Raphael Paulin-Daigle:

I'm really excited to hear your answer. What are some of the most valuable tools that you've used to grow your business? You don't have employees, so I'm excited to see if you've got anything particular based on this.

Abby Walker:

So one really obvious tool is Google. I mean, I grew this business on Google. I think it's the most wonderful business tool. If you need HTML, you know where to go. If you need a contractor, you can Google them and find one. Google, it's phenomenal. Honestly, I would say the biggest tool that has been helpful in me growing my business isn't a business tool at all. It's EFT, and people are going to laugh, but it's the tapping technique. So I would say that my self limiting beliefs got in my way early on and still get in the way of certain things. And so I have an EFT practitioner that I talk to still on a weekly basis to identify energetic blocks and where I'm stuck and we bust through those and I get so much clarity and so much momentum in my business. So I would say the biggest tool is whatever mode or practice you use to eliminate your self limiting beliefs is the best business tool you can use.

Raphael Paulin-Daigle:

So important, especially for busy executives and entrepreneurs running e-commerce businesses, there are always so many things to do, but taking some time to meditate or analyze is very often the most important lever we can pull for growth.

Abby Walker:

There's no question in my mind that that is so true.

Raphael Paulin-Daigle:

Awesome. Abby, thank you so much for being on the podcast.

Abby Walker:

Yeah!

Raphael Paulin-Daigle:

Now if people want to learn more about Vivian Lou or you, where should they go? What should they follow?

Abby Walker:

Sure. So Vivian Lou, you can find at vivianlou.com. You can follow me. I've actually wrote a book about my journey from being a corporate America working mom to transitioning to an entrepreneur. The book's called Strap On a Pair. You can find that at Amazon. You can follow me at abbeylouwalker.com and I just launched a new company too called TAOG and you can find that at thisistaog.com

Raphael Paulin-Daigle:

Awesome. Thank you so much Abby.

Abby Walker:

Thank you. Thanks for having me on.

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