The customer is the only thing that matters. Don’t just sell to your customers. Involve them in decisions about what comes next and listen to their opinions. Create a community for them and provide an experience that brings them into your brand beyond transactions.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ross Gordon.
Ross Gordon is a serial entrepreneur and avid angler who considers his life’s purpose to be “rescuing people from the indoors.” He is the founder of Catch Co., a digitally native sport-fishing brand that began as a subscription service called Mystery Tackle Box in 2012. Ross grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota and fell in love with fishing the first time his dad took him to Lake Minnetonka. He founded Mystery Tackle Box as a way to help anglers discover new fishing lures by delivering an expertly curated product selection directly to their doorsteps. Today, Catch Co. has broadened to fishing brands, products, and shopping experiences under the “Karl’s Bait and Tackle” ecommerce platform. The company sells millions of lures direct-to-consumer and through retail partners including Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods. Fans can also watch Catch Co’s content series that includes influencer-generated videos, documentaries and how-to articles.
Prior to founding Mystery Tackle Box and Catch Co., Ross established a number of other successful tech and media companies. His previous startup in the home improvement industry, CraftJack, was acquired by HomeAdvisor.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
The idea behind Mystery Tackle Box and Catch Co. blends two of my passions — fishing and digital marketing.
I loved fishing with my dad on Lake Minnetonka while growing up in Minnesota. I got away from it in my teen years, but the interest reignited when I moved to Chicago for school. I’d fish on the harbor downtown with friends before sunrise. And, when the perch would bite, I remembered why I enjoyed it so much. Today, I’m fishing for bass on suburban ponds and lakes.
What I learned along the way is that fishing is a complex and intimidating sport, even for someone like me. Once you’re ready to explore the options beyond a worm and bobber and panfish,, as many people evolve to do, it’s downright overwhelming. I would walk into a retailer and spend an hour looking at all of the lures and wonder how to use them. It’s a complicated shopping experience.
I hoped I could turn to a company to send me what I needed to continue this process of experimentation, but surprisingly nothing like this existed. I began to mull over the question, how can we simplify this? How can we streamline the shopping process to get people what they need while educating them about how to use it?
I couldn’t shake the idea for Mystery Tackle Box — a subscription delivery of assorted bait and tackle.
I leaned on my professional expertise in affiliate and digital marketing to carefully turn this concept into reality. I had worked as a copywriter for Leo Burnett and my earlier tech ventures were rooted in connecting people with product or service providers meeting their needs.
Ten years ago, I created one of the first Facebook pages about fishing resources because there weren’t any at the time. Part of this was genuine interest and also a way to get the community and conversation started. Bass Fishing Favorites became one of the largest consumer communities on the topic and helped us build rapport before we ever turned to them for a sale.
At the same time, my confidence grew seeing other thriving subscription box concepts. I began packing the first iterations of Mystery Tackle Box in my garage and focused heavily on complementing them with engaging digital “how to” content.
Content and community remain the cornerstones of our business.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Heading into our third month in business, I remember spending four nonstop days trying to pack orders in my garage. We had a small team and hadn’t yet expanded into a fulfillment center. I was responsible for shipping over 7,000 boxes to customers within a matter of days. After receiving the lure samples from our partner to include in each box, I noticed that instead of arriving in individual packages, they were sent together in a big, garlic-scented, oily mess.
My co-founder and I split the orders and had to separate the lures into each box and reseal them in a Ziploc-style bag. My hands developed blisters and bruises within the first few hours and my wife couldn’t bear to be near me because of the scent. This job was too much to delegate or to bribe friends with so I simply had to hunker down and power through the pain, frustration and exhaustion to get the shipments out the door. Promises have to be kept.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Some call me “delusionally optimistic,” and I tend to think this trait is what keeps me going during hard times. Research into this subscription box idea demonstrated a legitimate need and I knew that if I pushed it along and put the right people in place, we would succeed. I have tremendous trust in my team and am fortunate to be surrounded by the very best people for each role doing what they’re passionate about day in and day out. In fact, many of our team members have become influencers or mini celebrities for doing their work so well. We’ve attended tradeshows and events where fans have requested autographs from our social media community managers, or from our mascot, Karl. That really says something about what they’re producing and how ingrained they are in our fan communities.
I also believe that entrepreneurs who look beyond a business opportunity and invest in something they’re passionate about tend to do well. I know and love fishing and saw this hole that needed to be filled. I asked for and really listened to feedback and ideas before acting.
My goal is to rescue people from the indoors and contribute to their overall health and mental wellness through fishing. That’s a purpose that inspires me at the office every day.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Catch Co. is recognized as a top digital brand well beyond the fishing category. The strength and engagement of our social media community is one reason. But, we’ve also invested in content. We have a video series called Unchartered that is available for streaming through Amazon. It follows the adventures of friends who visit fishing areas and the people, food, and culture of each town. Every aspect of our business is about creating an experience, from showing products in action through videos, to repurposing our shipping boxes as fishing rulers.
E-commerce through our Karl’s Bait & Tackle platform and Karl’s Club members remains our top sales channel, but we’ve gained distribution in major retailers including Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart. Amazon has also become a strong channel for Mystery Tackle Box.
We have been on a steady growth track, but the need for social distancing this year has given us a strong boost because so many new people are turning to fishing. We’re trending with double growth for the same period year-over-year and expect to ship 2.5 million boxes over the coming months.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I had grand visions for our first Mystery Tackle Box commercials, inspired by flashy auto industry ads with elaborate graphics, animation and voice overs. I hired a production team who arrived on set and then told me what it would cost to execute a concept like this. I realized very quickly we were nowhere close to affording that.
With everyone waiting on the spot, I had to rewrite the script and pulled in the head of the production company to serve as our on-screen talent. He became a comedic fictional fisherman named Karl. We loved the outcome so much that “Karl Von Dibble” is the foundation of our brand and e-commerce shopping experience, inspiring our site ShopKarls.com. He has fans who approach him at tradeshows for photos and autographs.
Plan B may be the best option after all.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We don’t conform. Fishing is a traditionally serious category, but our sense of humor sets us apart. My copywriting career helped me see and approach marketing from a unique lens. Our digital content, tone, and the way we engage with our social community is highly satirical, which draws attention.
Catch Co.’s community-first approach, paired with content and e-commerce is also unique. Beyond selling products, we show people how to use them, and inspire them to share their experiences back with us.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Many marketers can apply their expertise and problem-solving ability to any business or industry, and make good money doing it. I’ve found it makes all the difference to work on something you’re truly passionate about. I love fishing and the way I’ve been able to merge my two passions makes me excited to wake up and immerse myself in our brand and industry.
You also have to be diligent about carving out time for other things. This is often easier said than done, but scheduling them in and committing to them is essential or you will burn out.
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?
Steve Parks is a longtime fishing lure designer and a mentor who helped us get started. When I shared my idea for Mystery Tackle Box, he believed in my vision when others didn’t. He reminded me to tune out detractors because they don’t understand what I’m trying to accomplish. Steve worked with us to get our factory set up and has remained a trusted advisor.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Fishing brings people together and is a great equalizer. It also connects us with nature and gives us a greater appreciation for the outdoors, which impacts conservation and mental health. An unintentional benefit of the pandemic has been the need for social distancing, more time outdoors and a more concentrated effort to stay balanced amid the uncertainty. It’s a great time to start fishing.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Don’t worry about your competition. Focus on what you can control. You can obsess over what others are doing and even try to copy them or stop them from copying you, but redirect this energy to serving your own customers.
- Raise more money than you think you will need. Startups are uncertain by nature. You may plan your fundraising around the best case scenario, but inevitably the course will change and you’ll wish you had more. However, there’s a thin line between not raising enough and raising so much you veer off of your investors’ expectations. Establish your numbers carefully.
- Focus as early as possible on building the right team. As a founder, it can be hard to pull back and let go, however, you’ll be better off surrounding yourself with subject matter experts as early as possible. You also have to take hiring seriously. Look for those who will be the best in their role, not just friends or family.
- Focus on the things you do best. Whether scaling for growth or guiding product strategy, determine the specific things you will own and apply your skills and energy there. It will be hard, but build trust in your cultivated team to see through the rest.
- The customer is the only thing that matters. Don’t just sell to your customers. Involve them in decisions about what comes next and listen to their opinions. Create a community for them and provide an experience that brings them into your brand beyond transactions.
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.
Stay curious. Never stop asking, “how can we do something better than it’s being done today?” Ask questions and draw connections between your learnings and observations. You need to be creative to compete in saturated space.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can follow me on LinkedIn. If you send me a connection request, make sure to personalize the invitation so I know more about you. https://www.linkedin.com/in/rossgordon/
Each of our brands have profiles.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!