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Paul Chittenden: “Niching down is important”

Increase the Number of Customers. More customers equal more chances to sell a visitor. If your conversion rates stay the same, more customers will provide a predictable number of additional sales. How do you increase customers? Utilize to bring in traffic from search engines. Build a social media presence on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or TikTok […]

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Increase the Number of Customers. More customers equal more chances to sell a visitor. If your conversion rates stay the same, more customers will provide a predictable number of additional sales. How do you increase customers?

Utilize to bring in traffic from search engines. Build a social media presence on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or TikTok

Pay Influencers to push your content / products. PPC provides an immediate boost. You just need to optimize your ads to ensure they stay profitable.


As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Highly Successful E-Commerce Business”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Paul Chittenden, an e-commerce entrepreneur and marketing consultant. He is the Founder and President of Bad Ass Work Gear, a heavy-duty duffel bag company, and he helps entrepreneurs, experts, and athletes grow and monetize their brand through his consulting practice.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, 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?

I grew up in a small town in Louisiana, dominated by the oil and gas industry. Growing up, I knew I didn’t want to get into the oilfield. Instead, I was always fascinated by businesses. My mom recently pulled out some old art from 2nd or 3rd grade that told the story of your life. The end of my timeline said I wanted to own a business, so I guess I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur.

Still, after graduating from college, I didn’t have a ton of options. I didn’t want to work in the oilfield, but the money was really good. I was offered a job working on offshore platforms to gain some experience and after a year, I was supposed to move to a sales role. I thought this was a great opportunity to make and save money to start a business. I took it.

We used to carry a notepad called a “tally book” where we would keep notes on the job. My tally books were littered with business ideas. It was all I thought about when not running tools.

I was able to save up a lot of money. I decided to invest this savings all in the stock market to see it grow. I invested at the height of the market only to see it crash less than a week or two later. Talk about bad timing.

There went my startup capital.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

I was tired of the offshore life. I never knew when I would be home. I missed holidays, birthdays, and other special events with friends and family. So, I moved to Houston and got a job at GE.

I had read the 4 Hour Work Week by Tim Ferris, and decided I wanted to start a side hustle.

Back in Louisiana, there was this little company that made heavy duty duffel bags for oilfield workers. I didn’t see anything like this in the Houston market. Plus, this company didn’t have an online presence.

I figured I could do well in Texas with this idea and expand online. I thought I needed a good name. Something manly and tough. What would a bad ass name the company? Bad Ass Work Bags was born.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

At this point, I had already started and failed at a few startups. Back in 2013, it wasn’t as easy to build an e-commerce site, but with a little past experience, I was able to throw a rudimentary site up.

The hardest thing was securing suppliers. I utilized ThomasNet at first, contacting dozens of manufacturers. They all wanted a minimum order quantity of 1,000 bags per color, per SKU. Companies want the bags to match their company colors, so I needed at least 6 colors not to mention we had three sizes. That would be a minimum of 6,000 bags to start.

That was a no go. In the end, I had to hire local seamstresses to sew on a per piece basis.

I never considered giving up. There is always a way. You can’t be successful if you give up at the first sign of adversity.

So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

I received my first bulk order about a month after launching the website. We quickly became the number one selling bag in the oilfield, mostly through word of mouth.

Still, it has been a bumpy ride. The oil and gas industry has gone through several downturns, and companies stop ordering when the price of oil tanks.

Our lean structure has allowed us to weather the storms.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

My first e-commerce company was a sold ice chest, but not just any ice chest. These were motorized. You could actually sit on them and ride them around. I was looking for a unique product and stumbled upon this.

I drove a suped up Mustang, and the box was too large to fit in the trunk opening. So instead, if I reclined the passenger seat all the way forward and angled the box just right, I could slide two boxes in to fit on the back seat. I couldn’t see out the rear-view mirror though.

The e-commerce company never really took off because shipping was cost prohibitive. However, I made some good money selling them on Craigslist. In the end, the business couldn’t scale, so I shut it down.

The biggest takeaway was that I needed to find something that was easier to ship.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Definitely branding. I chose Bad Ass Work Bags, which we later rebranded to Bad Ass Work Gear, because I wanted a name that was very tough, manly, and hopefully, would resonate with our customer base. And boy, did it!

We grew almost exclusively by word of mouth in the first two years. I had friends texting me photos of our stickers from remote oilfield sites across the US.

My dad was out on a platform in the Gulf of Mexico when a guy asked him for one of our stickers. My dad jokingly told him he could only have one if he was going to buy one of our bags. They guy lifted up his duffel bag, and said he already had one.

Living in Houston, many oilfield workers travel through the airport here. It has been ten years since I’ve worked in the field. Yet, when I go to the airport, I love seeing guys walking around with one of our bags!

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Find your passion. Work on something that fuels you. If you’re not really interested in what you are working on, a minor setback turns into a major setback. A few minor setbacks might make you quit.

On the other hand, if you are passionate about the niche, you keep going. It’s not about the money or the amount of work anymore. It is about doing something you love. You’ll eventually figure it out.

The other thing is to engineer and celebrate early wins.

There are so many overnight success stories that people get impatient. The problem is that these people put in tons of work to become a success. It is just not sexy to report on this, so we only hear the good part.

There is no overnight success. Set a list of goals that you need to achieve:

  • The launch of your website
  • Your first customer
  • Your first 5,000 dollars month
  • And so on.

Mapping your progress will remind you that you are on the right path!

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?

I originally built this company strictly as a side hustle while working for GE. I was very strict about my hours, only answering emails at lunch and after hours. It was all very hush hush.

In subsequent jobs, I was actually able to utilize the bag company contacts to help me in my full-time sales role. I had contacts at companies that could help me out. It was really a neat situation.

Long story short, there weren’t a ton of people that helped out in the beginning because I was so secretive about it.

However, I had tons of mentors. Not in the usual sense, but online.

There is so much information published online, and I dove in to educating myself.

Problem with the website? Someone had written about how to fix the issue. It was just a Google search away.

The biggest influences were in the marketing space. There are a ton of good marketing gurus out there. Two that really helped me make an impact on my business were Ezra Firestone and Austin Brawner. Ezra is a e-com marketing genius, and Austin is an expert in email marketing.

Implementing some of their tips has shown remarkable results.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share a few examples of different ideas that eCommerce businesses are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?

I’m involved in a number of e-commerce business owner and e-commerce acquisition groups. Across the board, the majority of e-commerce businesses have seen a “Covid bump.” Revenues have increased due to more people making purchases online.

However, some businesses (like mine) have taken a hit.

Many stores saw a marked increase in sales and were also hit with supply shortages at the same time.

A lot of e-commerce inventory is sourced from China. Demand is up, but the factories are shut down due to the pandemic. The ports are also backlogged. These owners either had to wait for inventory or be proactive and look for alternative suppliers.

Shipping delays were further exacerbated by their own warehouses having to shut down due to the pandemic. They then had to wait for the state to open small businesses again and put safety measures in place for their employees.

We also saw a lot of brick and mortar stores going online as their physical locations were shutting down.

Amazon, and even Walmart are going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?

Gucci, Lamborghini, Yeti. What do all these brands have in common?

Each of these brands thrive even though there are low cost competitors. They have built a relationship with their customer base. I know, I had a Lamborghini poster on my wall as a kid.

To be successful competing against Amazon, Walmart, and DTC companies in China, you have to build up brand equity and build a relationship with your client.

Too many eCommerce websites have a generic About Us page. Tell your story. Bond with your customers. Build relational equity with every step of your buyer’s journey.

  • You should have a great About Us page that tells your brand story.
  • You should have a great welcome email sequence that tells the brand story and provides info about the products.
  • Your order notices and follow emails should all be on brand.
  • Follow up email sequences should be in place to bring customers back to your brand.

You should really think about why someone would come back to your shop instead of going somewhere else. If you can’t think of anything, work to fix it.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start an eCommerce business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Niche and product selection.

Niching down is important. It helps you target your perfect client and really build out a brand. But go too narrow, and you may find it hard to expand later down the road.

We ran into this at Bad Ass Work Bags. I wanted to expand to other Personal Protection Equipment. Our name limited us to bags. So, we had to rebrand to Bad Ass Work Gear.

Second is product selection. 5 years after we started, I received an email from my very first customer. In it, he praised us and said he was still using the same bag he bought five years ago.

In that moment, I realized two things. First, we had built a great product. Second, the reason repeat sales were so hard to come by was because our product lasted a long time.

If you really wanted to build a scalable brand, find a product that is consumable that lends itself to repeat sales. It is far easier to resell to a past client than to find new customers.

In your experience, which aspect of running an eCommerce brand tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

Platforms like Shopify and BigCommerce make it so easy to start an eCommerce company these days.

I think most brands tend to be a one-trick pony. They learn how to drive traffic through one channel:

  • PPC
  • Email Marketing
  • Etc.

I believe that once you figure out one channel, you need to start developing a second, then a third. This has a layering affect which can help you scale.

Can you share a few examples of tools or software that you think can dramatically empower emerging eCommerce brands to be more effective and more successful?

Building an email list is essential to scaling an eCommerce brand. Shopping carts have many apps or plug-ins that help you both build and monetize the list.

A good email pop-up or email capture plug-in is essential.

Then you can utilize an email automation tool like Klaviyo or MailChimp to build out your email funnels.

As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies an eCommerce business should use to increase conversion rates?

I am by no means a conversion rate expert, but I believe there are a few simple ways to increase conversion rate.

Product reviews and testimonials are a great way to show social proof. You can use a tool like Yotpo or Stamped.io to easily add this automated functionality to your website.

Great photos, detailed product descriptions, and product videos are all great ways to further distinguish your product and increase conversion rates.

Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that an eCommerce business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

Simply do the right thing. Have a great product. Have great customer service. And, have a great product guarantee.

Surprise and delight your customers. You can add a free gift to large orders. You can send a special coupon for their birthday or first order day. Find a way to stand out.

One of the main benefits of shopping online is the ability to read reviews. Consumers love it! While good reviews are of course positive for a brand, poor reviews can be very damaging. In your experience what are a few things a brand should do to properly and effectively respond to poor reviews? How about other unfair things said online about a brand?

I’ve never experienced a competitor intentionally giving us negative reviews. That would certainly be a different story.

I have gotten a few bad reviews. I love these. In fact, we specifically ask for an “honest” review. A bad review helps us improve our product. It helps us wow our customer, and it shows we are real.

I mean 10,000 5-star reviews. Something doesn’t seem right there. A few bad reviews can be a good thing as long as you have many more good reviews.

If you do get a bad review, reach out to the customer. See if you can fix the error or bad experience. Give them a replacement or refund. If you change their mind, ask them to respond or edit their bad review to show what you’ve done to correct the situation.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful e-commerce business? Please share a story or an example for each.

I’m a sales and marketing guy, so I like to focus on revenue generation. Coincidentally, I recent wrote a post about the 5 Ways to Grow Revenue in any business which goes into a bit more detail, but I’ll summarize here.

There are 5 ways to maximize revenue generation in an eCommerce business:

  1. Increase the number of customers.
  2. Increase your conversion rate
  3. Increase average order value
  4. Increase repeat order volume
  5. Increase Prices

Increase the Number of Customers

More customers equal more chances to sell a visitor. If your conversion rates stay the same, more customers will provide a predictable number of additional sales.

How do you increase customers?

  1. Utilize to bring in traffic from search engines
  2. Build a social media presence on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or TikTok
  3. Pay Influencers to push your content / products
  4. PPC provides an immediate boost. You just need to optimize your ads to ensure they stay profitable.

The big takeaway is that optimizing conversion rates, AOV, repeat order volume, and pricing compound to make each new visitor more profitable. It also decreases your cost of acquisition and allows you to outbid your PPC competitors.

Increase Your Conversion Rate

Let’s say 1 in 100 people that visit your store actually buy. That means 99 people browse but end up leaving without spending a dime.

Wouldn’t it be better if 5 people out of 100 bought? If your average order value (AOV) was 100 dollars, that would be 100 dollars vs 500 dollars.

I’m no conversion rate expert, but I have three easy fixes to help with conversion rates.

  1. Entice your visitors to give you their email with a coupon for first purchases. You will increase the likelihood of the purchase and have their email for future marketing.
  2. Create an abandoned cart flow to capture visitors who have added a product to their shopping cart but haven’t actually made the purchase.
  3. Add testimonials from happy customers and product reviews to build trust with your shoppers.

These are my tips, but there are literally 100’s of things you can test to increase conversion rates.

Increase Average Order Value

AOV is the average of how much revenue you generated per order over a given time period.

If your AOV is 100 dollars and you generate 100,000 dollars in revenue per month (1,000 transactions), increasing your AOV by just 20 dollars per transaction will increase revenue by 20,000 dollars per month.

The best part? It is easy to do!

  1. Create Product bundles by finding products that are normally bought together and putting them together in a special priced bundle.
  2. Offer free shipping on orders just above your AOV, prompting customers to spend just a little bit more to hit the free shipping tier.
  3. Add upsell (more of the same product, personalization, an upgraded version) and/or cross sell (complimentary products) recommendations to your checkout.

Increase Repeat Order Volume

It is easier to sell to a past customer than to sell to a new customer. The trust is already there.

Are you taking advantage of this?

Getting customers to come back and buy more is key to scaling an eCommerce business.

Email flows and your general email blast are the biggest bang for your buck. However, here are a few more ideas:

  1. Subscriptions — If you have a product that lends itself to subscriptions, you have an opportunity to make an automatic, recurring revenue stream.
  2. Win-back Email Campaigns — If a customer hasn’t bought for a specified period of time, your email software will automatically send them an email with a discount, first-looks at new products, related products, or even just a thank you note in hopes of enticing them back to the site for another purchase.
  3. Product Catalogs — If you have a large selection of products, sending a physical printed catalog with your orders is a great way to pull in after sale sales! I’m very bullish on this one.

Increasing Prices

Probably the easiest of all, increasing prices will immediately have an impact on your bottom line.

This is a scary one to implement, especially if your customer base is very price sensitive.

On the other hand, you might be pleasantly surprised.

The first time I increased prices across the board, I was quite nervous. Checking my analytics, my conversion rate dropped 11.67% and monthly transactions dropped by almost 14.68%.

Digging deeper, I found my AOV increased by 32.21% and my revenue increased 12.8%!

Conclusion

Putting these 5 tips together in your eCommerce back end really sets your company up to scale when investing in traffic generation. The machine will be in place to take advantage of all that new traffic!

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I think about this all the time. I have three areas that I am really interested in:

  • Health & Fitness — I’ve always been into fitness. I joined my first gym the day I met the age limit. Fitness has helped me with my self-esteem and confidence as well as kept me healthy. I believe a focus on better eating and physical fitness is imperative for your health and should be a priority in everyone’s life.
  • Empathy — As a marketer and salesman, empathy is a great trait to really understand your customer. Today, I think everyone could use a bit more empathy to really understand what others are going through. Empathy can really change the dynamic in this country.
  • Childhood education and Confidence Building — This is one I’ve been thinking about only recently. It is only an idea, but hopefully something I can work on at some point. I believe that the building blocks of education start early in childhood. I also believe that confidence plays a large role in this. I’d like to find a way to combine the two or at least show kids what they can accomplish if they set their mind to it.

How can our readers further follow you online?

You can follow my writing on my blog at www.paulchittenden.com or hit me up on Twitter @pauljchittenden.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!


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