Listen to your customers! I cannot stress this enough. They have the power to guide your business and take it to the next level. Simply listening to their needs and their constructive feedback is powerful during a time of disruption. Can this be a pain at times? Yes, of course. But, powerful nonetheless.
As part of my series about the “How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jon Elder.
Jon is the Founder of the Black Label Adviser, sharing exclusive services and experience through a private label lens. Jon built an Amazon FBA (fulfilled by Amazon) business from scratch, and grew it to over 10 million dollars in sales in just under 5 years. He then sold his business for seven figures. As a former top 3,000 Amazon seller, Jon now uses his expertise to coach other Amazon sellers and help them take their businesses to new, elite levels.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
It’s such a pleasure to be interviewed! I love sharing my story and inspiring others so I’m very excited. My background is actually in commercial construction, believe it or not. I graduated from the University of Washington with a B.S. in Construction Management thinking I’d be doing this the rest of my life. Right out of school, I started my career working on high profile projects like the San Diego Airport Expansion. I had tremendous success but something was missing. Something of my own. It was 2014 when I started to research business ideas that could be really successful but flexible with time as I love my family! Enter, Amazon FBA. It was a pretty new idea in 2014 and honestly, very few resources were around. I began researching on my own and realized something that truly blew my mind. For the first time in years of being an Amazon customer, I realized that the vast majority of sellers on Amazon were actually third party sellers, NOT Amazon! After around six months of idea validation, I launched my first product, a golfing accessory. It soon became the #1 seller on Amazon. Once this happened, I knew I was onto something. This initial success lead to launching multiple products across five different brands over the course of 5 years. I ended up selling my entire Amazon business in 2019 for a mid 7 figure exit. A true dream come true! Now, I work as an Amazon Consultant at Black Label Advisor (www.blacklabeladvisor.com) assisting brand owners scale their business and achieve their own business goals!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
One of the funniest mistakes I made during my time selling on Amazon was my complete overconfidence! I was pretty disciplined from day one in terms of launching new products sustainably, but after a while, the success got to my head and I launched one too many products at a time. I soon found out that many of my new product ideas were complete duds and was paying out the frame for advertising costs. Literally a sinking ship… I soon found myself on the brink of bankruptcy! I ended up not paying myself a salary for a few months all the while still paying my employees. I finally recouped some of my capital by lowering the price of these products and never made that mistake again. I guess, it’s a little more serious than funny, but looking back I laugh because it should’ve been so obvious to me the risk I was taking on! I mention this story with almost every client I work with now.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
This is so true! Going solo is a rough road. When I started my Amazon journey, I got involved in a small, humble mastermind group on Facebook made up of Amazon sellers with very similar goals. I can’t tell you how helpful it was to rely on each other as we built up our businesses together. There was so much trust amongst us that some would even share their specific product ideas. The whole ideas was organic trust based discussion and helping everyone in our group succeed. This group was monumental when the inevitable challenges arose. To walk through these issues with them was a true joy. So, for me, it was a large group of people who helped me get there. Some have exited themselves and others have grown their Amazon business into 100 million dollars brands. It’s astonishing what can be achieved when there is no agenda in a group of like minded business owners.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
I couldn’t agree more. From day one of starting my business on Amazon, I had a goal of reaching a specific multi million dollar revenue goal and selling someday. In fact, I had this number on a vision board! It guided my every step of running my business and had a real impact on which risks I was willing to take and which risks I avoided. Many people ask me about how I was so successful in just five years. The key is to have an end goal in mind. If you don’t have this, then you will be tossed to and fro in the sea of competition and you’ll never get anywhere. I’d venture to say it’s many people’s dream to build up a multi-million dollar business and sell for a large exit. To get there, put your end game on a vision board and start grinding. Let me tell you, it was a grind from day one!
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell our readers a bit about what your business does? How do you help people?
I have a long history of running successful brands on Amazon and now I work as a one on one consultant for Amazon sellers. I walk my clients through the various daily struggles of an Amazon business and help them on the road to success. Whether it’s assisting them with listing optimization or helping them expand their brand presence across multiple sales channels, my mission is to help online sellers expand their business and increase their bottom line. My main website is www.blacklabeladvisor.com.
Which technological innovation has encroached or disrupted your industry? Can you explain why this has been disruptive?
An innovative software program called Helium 10 was a colossal industry disruptor. It literally changed the entire Amazon marketplace overnight. One had to be very cautious and careful with launching new products on Amazon for years due to the lack of product data that existed. In comes this software program and changes all of that. Now every Mom and Pop shop is selling on Amazon because the data is out in the open. This, of course, caused a flood of new sellers with lower pricing. Talk about a “disruption.” My FBA business was running like a smooth train, experiencing 100% growth year over year and then in comes this challenge. It was frustrating but it made me grow as an entrepreneur. It made my innovate my existing products and place a much bigger focus on customer needs.
What did you do to pivot as a result of this disruption?
Now that the cat was out of the bag in terms of product data, it meant that everyone including sellers from overseas had access. This meant a barrage of new sellers, which meant a massive increase in competition. A decision was made to make a shift to focus on branding and really delivering a story to my customers. Instead of selling just another product, I made a concerted effort to set myself apart from everyone else on the Amazon platform. This involved a full photography overhaul of my products, launching Shopify websites, and producing high quality video content to feature on listings. As a result, I maintained my #1 spots across the board and fought off the steady strem of new sellers.
Was there a specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path? If yes, we’d love to hear the story.
There are a couple but there is one that really stands out. Dallas might be a big city but it’s a very small world. I found myself setting up a meeting with a couple ex-employees of the Richards group. For those that don’t know, this is the group that does some of the best ads you’ve seen on TV. Have you heard of a company called Chick-fil-A? I thought so. Anyways, they wanted to meet up and provide some constructive feedback regarding some of my brands.
So, how are things going with this new direction?
I’d say it’s going very well! I went through a very successful multi million dollar exit in late 2019 as a result! Branding and placing a greater emphasis on the “story” of my products made a much bigger impact that I could have imagined. One example is when I was interviewing potential buyers of my business. One of the most common questions was whether I had a loyal brand following and social media presence. I was able to respond with a resounding “YES.” Because of this, I received an above average offer and multiple for my business. Because proper branding was in place, I stood out from the rest of the pack. Here’s a big THANK YOU to market disruptors 😊
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this pivot?
Something started changing with the dynamic with customers. The most obvious change was seeing people share on their personal social media about my company and products. Due to the pivot to branding and focusing on the story of my business, I was able to create a humble cult following for my products. Before I knew it, people were tagging my company on Instagram and Facebook and sharing with friends and family. This is when I knew I had made the right decision to “pivot.” It not only brought a smile to my face but made me incredibly proud.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during a disruptive period?
A leader needs to be future focused and guide the organization’s ship. Laying low and hoping for the best just won’t do. There needs to be an emphasis on adapting to the market’s challenges and placing an even greater focus on the customer. I’ve seen far too many take a back seat and watch as their businesses crumble. A strong leader knows that hard times requires bold ideas. There’s no time for fear.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Two things come to mind. First, is to be transparent. There is nothing worse than holding back information about the strength of a business from your employees. Let them know if times are lean. Let them know if things are booming. They should know how their efforts are making an impact. And don’t be scared to do this! Being ultra-honest builds extreme loyalty with your employees. It’s worth it. The second is to always have an “open door” policy. It sounds cliche but always be willing to train an employee when asked and be willing to answer any and all questions related to their role. Yes, this can be taxing but the employee will gain a sense of comfort knowing that they aren’t alone on an island and that everyone n their organization is focused on one goal: the health of the company. There are obviously many more but these two were the most powerful ways I was able to boost morale with my own employees and see them thrive.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Yes, put the customer FIRST, always! I see the opposite all too often. At the end of the day, there is always a customer involved in a transaction. Make it your goal to make it the best possible experience for that customer. Zappo’s is a company that I modeled my own customer service experience after. They go way above and beyond to make customers happy. This simple guiding principle will take you so much heartache, I can’t stress it enough.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make when faced with a disruptive technology? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- Ignoring it and pretending it doesn’t exist! It kills me when I see this with clients because it’s such a missed opportunity to grow and become a stronger business owner.
- Allowing the anxiety to control your life! There is zero good that comes from worrying about the future and whatever the disruption is in one’s industry. Just stay the course and evolve. Focus on being the very best in your industry. Truly delight the customer. It’s really that simple.
- Going out and hiring firms to fix the issue and watching your capital go down the drain. Not everything is fixed by outsourcing your problems. Many times, all you need to do is tweak your business or change something up to adapt. Really try to focus on what the disruption is and how you can solve it yourself. Once you overcome it, it will only embolden you as a business owner and make you more vigilant in the future as further challenges come up!
Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to pivot and stay relevant in the face of disruptive technologies? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Listen to your customers! I cannot stress this enough. They have the power to guide your business and take it to the next level. Simply listening to their needs and their constructive feedback is powerful during a time of disruption. Can this be a pain at times? Yes, of course. But, powerful nonetheless.
- Evolve! Staying put in your status quo can KILL businesses. A business leader needs to always be thinking about how he or she can differentiate themselves from the competition and offer something new and unique. The moment you sit on your laurels is when a shark will show up to eat you.
- The strength of your business is monumental, but so is employee growth and confidence. It’s critical to show employees how important they are during times of disruption. Yes, I’m referring to bonuses and salary raises when they least expect it. Stay consistent and reward your strongest employees. You will be making a big statement. As a result, you will get increased loyalty and increased work performance. There is nothing worse than a business owner who punishes their employees during a period of disruption…
- Innovate, innovate, innovate. Disruption should be the best reminder to innovate your products and services. Let’s be honest, there is ALWAYS room for improvement. If you honestly believe the opposite, you should call it a day and go home.
- Go the extra mile to resolve customer complaints. I think customers assume that a business owner will care less about them during a period of disruption like Covid. Make sure they know it’s the opposite. This is a time to truly shine and tell a customer that whatever the issue is, you want to resolve it and delight them. You will catch them off guard. To this day, customers are shocked when you go the extra mile to fix an issue. This is a practical example but powerful nonetheless. Let’s say a customer received your product meant for a birthday party and it turned out to have a defect. Sad? Yes. Surprise the customer and don’t just send a replacement. Send them an Amazon gift card apologizing for the mishap from your end! I guarantee you that this person will be a customer for life.
I hope these examples both inspire and help other business owners out there right now. We are undergoing the most disruption since World War II. This is a time when leaders are born and businesses thrive. The only question left is this, “are you willing to pivot?”
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my all time favorite life lesson quotes is by C.S. Lewis, quite possible one of the greatest authors this world has ever known. He says “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” This quote really came to life when I experienced a renaissance with my Amazon business. I had a light bulb moment to start focusing on branding and telling story to customers and wish I had started from day 1! What I did was focus on the here and now and the future. It transformed my business and helped my multiple brands become front runners in their respective product categories.
It also is a good reminder to not look back in life and worry about “what ifs”. It’s a complete waste of time. By pressing forward and thinking about the future, it has improved my marriage and various friendships. I want a beautiful ending, a lasting legacy. I might not have thought about this when I was 18, but at 32, I can make very specific decisions now to reach this desired ending.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Thanks for asking! Please connect with me at www.blacklabeladvisor.com and on Facebook.com/blacklabeladvisor! I work one on one with other Amazon sellers now, helping them NOT repeat some of the mistakes I made running my business. I take a sort of VIP approach, so clients are hand selected and I only work with people who are good fit. At the end of the day, my passion now is derived from helping others achieve amazing success on Amazon.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
THANK YOU for having me!