On episode #2 of the Minds of Ecommerce Podcast, Cathryn Lavery, co-founder of BestSelf Co., which she launched in 2015 with her co-founder Allen Brouwer, shares how she utilizes user-generated content to disarm objections, drive engagement, and build an eight-figure eCommerce brand.
The following is an edited version of the interview’s transcript.
“When we launched January 1, 2016 we did over $2 million the first year, close to three, and we won the Shopify’s Build a Business competition where they basically pick the top stores, we won the people’s choice award, so we got into the top sales-wise, and then there was five of us that had to get the most votes possible. We were like, “Okay, this is our job for the next week.” We end up winning, and then 2017 we scaled a ton. We like 4-Xed the business in a year, less than a year.”
“It was funny because Shopify announced their Build a Bigger Business, and so these are for already existing businesses and how much they scaled over the nine months time that the competition was running. We went from winning a brand new business award, winning the scaling award because when we started we scaled so much, we’re at like eight figures in revenue.”
“We have a community that started from our Kickstarter for the Self Journal that became this group of people that would talk about what they’re working on and help each other out. It became super engaged at the start. We were in there all the time and now it’s become this self engaging thing where we jump in once in a while.”
“A lot of times when we market a product, we’re trying to get someone to buy it once. With our first product, we were trying to get people to buy every three months, which means they have to consume it, use it, find value in it, hopefully, reach a goal with it.”
“I’m thinking, “Okay, how do we do something where we can keep people engaged and give them something for actually consuming the product?” We created this challenge inside of our community where my goal was let’s make them build a habit, find success with the product, and then they’ll come back and buy more.”
We said “Okay, do your daily ritual every day. Either take a picture or post it on social media and tag us or just post it privately in the group and do it for 30 days. If you do it, we’ll give you a $10 Amazon gift card.” It’s essentially like, here’s a rebate for actually using the product that you bought, which the whole goal of buying something is usually to use it.
That’s also how the Shopify competition started. Toby was saying that they were trying to think of, “How do we get people to get off their ass and do something rather than just constantly dream up this business?”. They created the Build a Business prize that would inspire people to take action and build businesses using Shopify, the product because it wasn’t something that you could just buy.
For us, it was like, “Okay, how do we just give people a reward for using the product? What happened was, we got a ton of user-generated content. People were posting how they were using it.
We spent thousands of dollars on really amazing product photography where everything’s perfect, hired an illustrator to do something really pretty and looked great. But, it didn’t convert like an image of someone really using the product would.
People go on Facebook, they’re there to talk to their friends and have an organic connection with people, unlike a lot of entrepreneurs, they go in there and they’re seeing ads and things like that. People have become accustomed to switching off their brains when they see pretty images but keeping them on when they see a crappy cell phone picture of whatever.
We realized when we were getting all this customer-generated content, people were consuming the product, which meant they were actually building a habit and they would need to buy another one. They were creating content so that we could use it in ads, and also we could see how people were using it. Other people with similar goals could see how other people were using it so they don’t just start with this blank slate where they’re not sure what they’re doing.
It ended up creating a whole ripple effect of great things, including increasing conversions. But, it started as this idea of, okay, let’s create a challenge that makes people consume a product. Then what we realized is people love customer-generated content.
Not every product is ideal to create a community around. But, if there is a place where you can provide some sort of extra value for a customer, it just makes sense to do so because it separates you from a lot of other products.
We’ve seen other companies come out and try to do the same type of community feel, but it hasn’t seen as much engagement as our group. I think it’s because we have a lot of people in there all over the world and the country who are really in there giving value and sharing what they’re working on, sharing what works, and it’s not just about the products.
People would say, “Oh, I came in for this $30 journal and I end up getting this whole other community that I didn’t expect.”
We started the community right at the same time we had our Kickstarter, or right after, I can’t remember exactly. But, it was around that time but we didn’t really know what we were going to do with it. It wasn’t until kind of organically developed into something. At first it was like, “Back our Kickstarter and you also get access to the community,” but did we know what the community was? No.
It ended up working out because we did put a lot of time and work into cultivating that initial stage, because I don’t know about you, but I’m part of so many groups where nothing’s going on and you really have to work to get that initial engagement.
If you have something that sort of hits people a certain way, you can definitely create it, and then you’ll figure out how you can make it work for your business later if you’re adding a ton of value that you’re just really making people feel.
As I learned more about product experience, one thing is, if you want to create an experience the first step is how is figuring out how what you’re creating looks and feels.
I think if you put a lot of time and effort and energy and create content and answer questions and make it as easy as possible for people to find success with your product, then it’s much easier to keep people coming back because you’ve done that hard work.
Don’t just sell your product to someone and hope they come back and re-buy. Instead, go like “Here’s the product. Also, here’s how to use it and here’s every single resource you might need to find success with it.” Then you don’t have that overwhelm, especially with our product, that someone gets and they’re just like, “Where do I start,” because we are trying to make it as easy as possible so that they actually start it, do what the product’s supposed to do, hit their goal, and then they’ll be like, “Oh, this product’s great,” and they come back and do more.
We’ve also given the product away for free, so that was another big thing. I know people were like, “You shouldn’t do that. That’s insane.” But, we give away a free PDF copy of the product, which costs us nothing.
We did that because we’re like, “Okay, not everyone can afford to buy it, and we really want to make the resource available,” and what we’ve found out is people will print it at home, and people who printed it, found a ton of value, hit their goal and then come back and actually bought the product on our store. They realized, “Oh it actually worked.”
Our returns are less than 1% because we also let people try the product this way. We’re not trying to trick them into buying this product and then making it hard to return. It’s like, “Here’s the product,” and people tend to use it until the actual product arrives.
“You are giving it away for free. But, if you can create that bronze experience and product experience with the actual product, then I’m not really concerned about, is everyone going to buy that downloads it? No, definitely not. But, it was a great lead bag. I mean, we were getting at some point a thousand people a day putting their email and getting it, and then they were put into an email sequence. In a way, I think it created a lot of reciprocity in people’s minds, where people would say “Oh, they’re standing behind their product and they were going to show us what it is before I have to buy it.”
Putting in the time and work at the beginning to get engagement, and then also having pretty strict rules about it is key, because once you have a pretty good level of engagement in there, you have people that are trying to promote their own stuff and it’s not adding value to the group. You have to have the sort of strict guidelines about that.
Then, putting effort into what content you’re creating. We also have a community manager that is in there answering people’s questions and giving a lot of value, so it’s not a set it and forget it type of thing.
You have to do the hard work and participate and engage with the community at the very beginning. These days I’m not in there that much because I have a lot of other stuff going on, but I do pop in there every now and again. That said, now we have moderators and community managers in there. They’re checking in on things. Again, strict guidelines. Having someone, their job is to keep it engaged and to create content that is engaging. For us, we started one product and then we created other products.
Then, our goal was to switch how we see ourselves, which we have done. Now we don’t say we’re a product company. We’re a problem company. What problem are we solving? Sometimes that’s with a product, sometimes it’s with community, sometimes it’s with content that’s free. But, not everything has to be a sold product. You can solve a lot of problems so you don’t need to create useless products in the world just solve a problem be done online. That’s another thing is, just because you can’t sell it doesn’t mean it’s not valuable.
Don’t just focus on your community, focus on the same problems, but look elsewhere to expand.
BestSelf Co. started as one product, the Self Journal, but now we’re creating multiple products around the problems we solve, around the community. 84% of new products purchases came from new customers. These are people that haven’t previously bought the other product. So it’s important to also look outside of your community.
The community started with the journal, but we still want to engage the existing community with other types of content and find what other problems they’re having that we can help with. It’s like, what intentional actions can we do when we’re introducing a new product to introduce a new challenge to the community or to have more engagement so that it’s not just the journal and then other stuff?
Hire great people. Hire great people and make sure that they know how to be successful in their job. We’ve, learning how to manage people and hire people. Six years ago I was an architect and then I was a product designer. I’ve had businesses, but it’s been me and a couple of people. When you start hiring a team, you start realizing the difference, the leverage that an A player can make and actually take stuff off your plate, rather than a C person that’s sort of adding to your plate.
Hire great people and then figure out what they’re really great at and what you’re really great at, and then try to only spend time doing the things that you’re great at so that, for me it’s creating products, and if someone else on my team, their energy is from creative marketing, but they’re stuck doing SOPs, that’s not a good use of my resources paying them.
Typically in businesses, you have to get approval to spend, you know, $500. Right? But you don’t have to get approval to take 10 people into a meeting for an hour that is just an energy in time suck, and that’s more than $500 for these people to be here that they could, it’s an opportunity cost, but it’s also, you’re sucking the energy out of them if they don’t need to be there.
Help great people do the stuff that they like to do and make sure that you know them as people so you know how to motivate them. Some people are motivated by money, some people are motivated by other things and you just have to figure out what that is and how you can craft an environment to keep them happy while they’re actually doing their job.
On the very first episode of Minds of Ecommerce entrepreneur Gary Nealon, founder of RTA Cabinet Store, that he now sold, walked us through a social media strategy that allowed him to scale ecommerce sales to over 40 million dollars a year. That’s quite a feat considering cabinets are likely some of the hardest things you could sell online. We also learn how he was able to convert and acquire customers for products so large, complex, and expensive as cabinets.
In episode #6, Gareth Everard, co-founder of Rockwell Razors, Keyto, and a few other eCommerce brands, will share how he calculates and utilizes the lifetime value of his customers to make paid ads ultra profitable and a key driver of profit for his business.
In episode #8, Jack Haldrup, founder of Dr. Squatch, will share how they managed to get 40 million views for one of their viral videos, and how they get over 100,000 orders a year with a brand personality that convert customers through relatability and humor. He’ll also explain how he manages to preserve a brand identity as the company scales significantly.