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Tom Cote: “Have a positive, healthy outlet”

You need captivating videos, photos and copy for advertisements and a process to which you do it. You’re constantly seeing what message sticks with your customers. If it takes weeks to get a video or image right, your feedback loop is too long. It’s a game of speed and the faster you get test creative […]

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You need captivating videos, photos and copy for advertisements and a process to which you do it. You’re constantly seeing what message sticks with your customers. If it takes weeks to get a video or image right, your feedback loop is too long. It’s a game of speed and the faster you get test creative the cheaper you’ll acquire customers for.

Our first couple of ads for Simple Sheets were total failures. We thought about discontinuing the brand at one point they performed so poorly. With iteration, we found the messaging that worked and saw a 275% increase in leads over the course of testing different ad copy for 2 months. Had we not had the infrastructure to spin up different ads and messaging quickly, this brand would never have seen the light of day.


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 Tom Cote, an entrepreneur and the founder of Sidekick Digital Media which owns Simple Slides and Simple Sheets.


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 started my career at Microsoft working on their Xbox team. It was an awesome experience, couldn’t ask for a better job out of college. After a couple of years, I started to get the entrepreneur bug. I had a couple failed startups in college so it seemed crazy to make the leap, but I knew I would have to make the jump at some point.

After year 3 at Microsoft, I was tired of the corporate world. I had saved up a bunch of money and decided that it was time for me to do what I had always dreamed of doing.

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

Working at Microsoft, you quickly realize how critical tools like Excel are to everyday life. We’d use it to plan for everything, including spending hundreds of millions of dollars on Xboxes for the holidays. Not everyone, myself included, was good enough with Excel — it’s just not taught that way in college. One of the things I quickly realized was that we could use templates to make it easier for myself and my co-workers. After seeing how much it helped and sharing them with friends and family, Simple Sheets was born! From there we’ve constantly looked for new opportunities to expand and grow.

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?

I was making six-figures with Microsoft when I left to start my own company. The first two years were a grind, making about 15% of what I was making with Microsoft. Certainly, there were times when I asked myself ‘What am I doing?’ Deep down, I knew that my goal was to be an entrepreneur and attain a certain level of freedom I could never acquire working for someone else, no matter how much money I was making.

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

Our businesses are going to do north of a million dollars this year. I’m working with friends I’ve know for 10+ years. The turn-around has been incredible. It would have been easy to give up and go back to my desk job. The good thing about pursuing what’s important to you is you naturally have a stubbornness about your own capacity. Other people may not see it, but I saw it and that’s what fueled me through the times where it looked like a dead end.

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?

It’s funny now, but not believing in myself. When I first started, I didn’t think I could sell and I needed clients. To help I worked with a friend who was responsible for sales so I could focus on delivering our product. After some rough months we were barely above zero sales and not growing. So, with all my savings gone, I tried to start it again from scratch myself and make the sales. Turns out a little belief can go a long way. Within the first week trying to sell myself, I had my first client and it just grew from there. Always believe in yourself, you’re more capable than you think!

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

We’re a social media company turned incubator. We’ve successfully launched two companies in the productivity space.

After years of working with clients, it became apparent that not owning any upside in the brands would now allow us to scale the way we needed to. We slowly started to give up some of the clients that weren’t as easy to work with and invest in launching our own products.

Ten months later, we’re operating an agency with a few amazing clients and a couple private brands. I went from making 2,000 dollars a month to making ten times that in a few months so it’s been quite the year for us.

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

Two things stand out to me. 1) Have a positive, healthy outlet. For me, it’s yoga. For my business partners it’s prayer, basketball and music. Taking time to invest in your health — whatever that means for you — is key to maintaining balance and avoiding burnout. 2) Work with people you love and trust. I have a team that I’ve known for 10+ years. We grew up together so there’s a level of comfort we have where we can be honest, work hard and have fun together without any of the awkwardness of a typical work environment.

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?

You’re absolutely right and I’ve been blessed to be surrounded by parents that support me and some of the best friends a person can ask for. I’m a big believer that you are who you’re surrounded by, so I’ve been very clear to surround myself with supportive and uplifting people. My mom has been a huge influence on me, and I’ll be forever grateful for that. When things looked the worst and my life savings were gone, she kept encouraging me to stay in the game and that I’d figure it out. Turns out, she was right 😊

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?

We’ve been focused on ecommerce for 3+ years now. It’s a space that changes rapidly, but two things remain consistent; you need a product people want and a way to get it to people.

One of the best channels not enough businesses are using is e-mail marketing. The smartest ecommerce brands are optimizing for that channel and seeing people convert through giveaways, discounts and educational content that triggers people to buy.

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?

No matter the strength of brands like Amazon and Walmart, ecommerce businesses have an advantage those companies don’t — speed, creativity, and the ability to focus on niches. You have to carve out a niche for yourself and differentiate your product/brand through copywriting, creative imagery, video and use of different platforms that the bigger companies don’t know how to utilize yet.

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?

Not having a strategy when it comes to their funnel. In some cases, we see e-mail drive as much as 40% of revenue for a brand. 40%! Optimizing for sales on a first-time visit is not the best move. People often need time to think, compare and test your product to others. By engaging them through content delivered straight to their inbox you can demonstrate your value easily. Find someone who is a talented e-mail marketer and take their advice in regards to landing pages, advertising to specific pages and e-mail marketing.

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

There’s a lot of components to running a successful brand, but the main thing is your team. We’ve built up an amazing team of copywriters, designers and video editors that make generating graphics and ad creative fast. Testing your ad creative is an essential part of increasing margins and lowering acquisition costs. You can’t do it all by yourself so I think people underestimate how important it is to have a team in place to help execute.

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?

Canva is one of the best resources for eCommerce brands who don’t have the money to hire a designer. Design is not my strongest skill, but I can still whip something up that looks decently pretty using Canva. Another would be UpWork and Fiverr. Hiring people full-time is a huge commitment so it can help to have skilled people to help you with things you don’t have competency in or time.

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’ve hammered down on this one, but I’ll say it again because it’s worth repeating. E-mail is the best way to convert a prospect into a sale. Rather than focus on driving sales, we will actually optimize for driving email signups because we know they convert at an extremely high rate.

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?

We’ve made a commitment to having a customer service team that is available 24/7/365. It’s amazing the difference in customer satisfaction when you respond quickly to people, no matter the time. Aside from having a great product that delivers on its promise, having responsive and trained customer service people will go along way towards making sure the brand is elevated in consumers mind.

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?

Bad reviews happen, even to good companies. In our experience, we seek to do a couple of things. First, take complete responsibility for the poor experience they’ve had. Whether it was a bug, shipping error or the product doesn’t fit their need, we always lead with understanding why it didn’t work for them. From there, we seek to make it right — in their minds, not ours. Sometimes that means giving up more than we think they deserve, but ultimately that is the cost of doing the right thing and we think it’s worth it every time.

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.

Here are the five most important things every successful e-commerce company must use to thrive.

1) The right product and business model. This takes time to decipher. Testing whether the product is viable and a profitable price point is an art, one that requires a lot of iteration. For Simple Slides, we started at a ridiculously low price point just to see if the product was a winner. As soon as we got some data in we upped the price point. We tried increasing it to a very high price and that failed so we settled on a price point that maximized volume of orders and margin.

2) You need captivating videos, photos and copy for advertisements and a process to which you do it. You’re constantly seeing what message sticks with your customers. If it takes weeks to get a video or image right, your feedback loop is too long. It’s a game of speed and the faster you get test creative the cheaper you’ll acquire customers for.

Our first couple of ads for Simple Sheets were total failures. We thought about discontinuing the brand at one point they performed so poorly. With iteration, we found the messaging that worked and saw a 275% increase in leads over the course of testing different ad copy for 2 months. Had we not had the infrastructure to spin up different ads and messaging quickly, this brand would never have seen the light of day.

3) Running paid ads on platforms like Google and Facebook. We’re a digital agency at heart so this is a core competency for us. The internet allows you to scale a business and reach millions of people fast, as long as you have the capital and product to see a return on that funding. Successfully operating on Google and Facebook can be difficult — their platforms actually aren’t easy to pickup although you would think they would be given they want you to spend as much money as possible, right?

4) It’s a roller coaster. The goal is to find sustainable growth channels, but that’s a process that takes time and a team. Most companies are reliant on paid ads for growth so keep in mind that ecommerce requires thick skin. There’s so many variables.

One month our sales will be through the roof, next month it will be 40% of what it was the previous month. You have to consider whether it’s a ‘phase’ or a genuine drop in demand for your product. That’s a journey as well.

5) Bundling and Unbundling. Many of the services we use focus on either bundling or unbundling. Look at the music industry for example. Even if you like only one song on a CD you had to buy the entire album for 11 dollars or 12 dollars. Apple unbundled the CD and allowed you to buy a single song for 1.29 dollars. Funny enough, the industry has now reversed to bundling as Spotify and Apple Music charge you a subscription for a ‘bundle’ or artists and songs to listen to.

See what your market is and identify whether there is an opportunity to either bundle products together and give people the freedom to use your product at volume, or if selling unbundled products can disrupt the bigger companies who may have a hold on the market.

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. 🙂

Our country is at a standstill in a lot of areas. We’re all wrapped up in the election, covid — it’s serious stuff. But I think we’d be a lot better as a society by putting a stronger value on mindfulness and exercise. Even though we are a company that utilizes social media, we can’t let it control our lives and thoughts. We need to get outside, take walks, be intentional about our screen time and get back to a place where life is lived with each other instead of on the phone.

Reducing screen time will have an enormous positive affect on society.

How can our readers further follow you online?

We stay off social media 😊

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


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