This is a story about how I recently helped a soap company keep from going under. All names have been changed to protect the innocent (as well as the not-so-innocent).
Nearly 3 years ago, I founded Wisemen Media to show Direct to Consumer (DTC) brands what deep work can do for eCommerce revenue growth. I was on a mission to unseat the big agencies that spent more time convincing their clients that they were working than actually doing the work. Our decision to put clients before profit—i.e., truly care about them—proved to be the right one. From the start, clients’ revenue soared, and we made our way into the market.
A few months into my journey with Wisemen, I met Joe. Over coffee, he unloaded about the struggles he was having with his hand-crafted soap company. The source of all his trouble was a wrong-fit hire. Joe had been looking for a well-rounded, visionary marketer who intuitively understood growth and could take the company to the next level. But things hadn’t been going well. The store’s online presence was plummeting and company culture —and team confidence— had reached an all-time low.
I agreed to step in and help Joe get to the root of the problem: What had happened to cause this fast-growing company to start losing market share at a neck-breaking pace? Over the following year, we were able to turn things around, increasing conversion rates by 200%, abandoned cart recovery by 118%, and customer return by 11%. How’d we do it? The short answer? We worked our tails off.
But the short answer doesn’t really help you improve eCommerce operations. That’s why I’m going to go with a longer, more helpful response and share the 7 lessons we learned along the way.
As Navy SEAL-turned-leadership-guru Jocko Willink says, “Leadership requires belief in the mission and unyielding perseverance to achieve victory.”
While he is right, you can’t believe in a mission you haven’t defined. You can’t persevere toward a finish line you can’t see.
When Joe started his eCommerce company, his vision was quite simple: make the best, most widely affordable goat milk soap on earth. Simple as it was, this vision had helped hundreds of thousands of customers find a way to get clean without exacerbating skin disorders like eczema, psoriasis, and others.
But somewhere along the way, the vision had gotten lost. Instead of focusing on growing the loyal customers they had, the marketing team left the small niche of goat milk soap and entered the large —but viciously competitive— niche of all-natural skincare. This move came with a host of tactical mistakes that centered on altering the brand’s messaging and keyword targeting. (Something that had a knock-on effect on eCommerce operations!)
By the time this tactical move was complete, Joe’s company had traded dominance in the goat milk soap space for mediocrity in all-natural skincare. It was a terrible trade. Though the company had once topped Google for the keyword phrase “goat milk soap,” they’d now slid to number eight . Of course, their revenue had followed right down that slippery slope.
It was time to take a step back. The first thing we did was retrieve Joe’s vision and lean back into what his company knew best. Once we got our people on board with the vision and got our messaging back in line, we were able to reclaim the vital market territory and then some.
Speaking of Jocko, I’ve always been impressed by Navy SEALs and their ability to solve whatever problem the battlefield places before them. Modeled after the SEALs, the problem-solving framework I’ve adapted is this:
Once we had settled Joe’s vision, it was time to focus on the operational problems holding his brand back.
The first ops problem we identified was conversion. Before the marketing shift, the brand was converting at a whopping 7% (the average for their space is 1-3%). After the shift, they found themselves languishing around 2% and slipping into the red. There was another challenge to overcome: a website redesign that was accidentally pushing potential customers into a no-win scenario.
When I came on, my developer and I spent weeks getting to know the problem with the website by monitoring the user journey via Hotjar, a heat mapping software.
We discovered that the new user journey effectively designed customers into a corner, leading them to abandon cart far more than they checked out. In the process, we also learned that for the last four years, two-thirds of Joe’s email list had been overlooked.
Realizing just how much money had been left on the table, we worked quickly to solve the problem by overhauling our user experience and email marketing. Together, we saw conversion rates soar back up to 7-9%.
Before I arrived, Joe’s company took the whack-a-mole approach to operations, knocking out issues as they occurred without much planning or communication between various stakeholders. As a result, their operation ebbed and flowed unexpectedly— sometimes at a lull, other times with all hands on deck trying to scrap their way forward.
When I came on, I asked Joe if his team could handle the surge in orders that I knew would come after our first few months together. He assured me they would, but we spent the first month of my tenure planning ahead. I’d tracked their Black Friday/Cyber Monday sales numbers from previous years and predicted that year’s demand as realistically as possible, along with content needs (photography, videography, etc.).
Joe’s company rose to the challenge in every area but one: shipping. Despite my efforts to staff up in anticipation of the sale, Joe hung onto his current staff levels. As a result, our fulfillment team ended up working around the clock to keep up.
Tip: Use Pipe17 to ensure seamless synchronization of shipping data.
Clarity across multiple departments was key in helping us capitalize on Black Friday/Cyber Monday and ramp up for the massive surge. As we saw with shipping, clarity doesn’t guarantee smooth sailing, but it does allow you to isolate problems. Because we knew what we were up against and where the process broke down, we were able to learn a valuable lesson about our shipping operation and apply it to the future.
When it comes to your DTC brand (and especially operations and marketing), there’s always room for improvement. If you look hard enough, you’ll find plenty of “old” stuff lying around just waiting to be made new.
When I went to work with Joe, the “old stuff” I found in need of the most improvement was what you’d least expect in an eCommerce website: product photography. I was sincerely confused; if you’d looked at their product photos, you never would’ve guessed just how explosive their growth was.
Selling products on the internet is tricky; without handling the soap, giving it a smell, and feeling its texture, all that’s left for the customer is text and photos. If you don’t have vivid photographs and compelling copy, you’re generally not going to convert.
Even so, Joe was converting. What did this tell me? First, it told me he had a fantastic product. Second, it told me that photography was the low-hanging fruit just waiting to be picked. So, I made it my mission to bring the best commercial photography Joe’s brand had ever experienced. Within a few short weeks, conversation rates jumped by 28%.
Never underestimate the power of a facelift. When we kicked out the old photos and brought in the new, we got more customers excited and ready to buy. We were also able to develop content that we were proud to share. Content the social media team was able to leverage for increased engagement, higher traffic, and even more sales.
A bird’s-eye view of the business is only helpful if you’ve got the eyes of an eagle. Otherwise, the best way for a leader to know his or her operation is to get down in the trenches. There, you gain critical insight to identify and solve the problems that are slowing your eCommerce company down.
Thanks to the catastrophic shipping delays we experienced over the holidays, I found myself in the thick of it, spending Saturdays with our fulfillment team trying to get the product out the door.
My involvement hardly made a dent, but I wasn’t just there to lend a hand. I was there to learn the fulfillment process and understand exactly how it affected our customer experience.
What I found was a broken picking process that gummed up the entire works. Shoddy organization led to packing errors, and the shipping team repeatedly had to redo the pickers’ work. Our shipping manager should’ve caught this, but he was too wrapped up in labeling and inventory management. There was nothing efficient about the fulfillment process, and customers paid the price with shipping errors and delays.
Right away, I worked with Joe to reorganize our picking workflow, encourage the shipping manager to lead his department, and recruit a superhero team of moms and their teenagers to label and write thank-you notes. In the end, we got back on track, met our deadlines, and ensured our customers received their orders in time for the holidays.
It’s easier to market a company with happy customers. I saw our shipping woes as not just an operational problem but a marketing issue, as well. I could only see that because I rolled up my sleeves and got my hands dirty. If leaders want to keep their ship above water, they’ve got to go below deck and do the hard work alongside their crew.
If ever there was a year to be in the soap-making business, it was 2020. Trudging through the post-holiday lull in January, we never expected the surge to come. Not only was everyone obsessively working to keep their hands clean, but they were shopping online more than ever. Big box stores reeled; even Amazon struggled to keep up.
This was our time to rise and meet the moment!
Q1 ended up being our biggest quarter ever. When publications like National Geographic trumpeted the benefit of soap over harsh chemicals, we ramped up our content creation to piggyback on that press. We released articles and email campaigns that focused on coronavirus and how our product helped people stay safe.
Customers responded, sales increased, and products flew out of the fulfillment facilities and onto the shipping trucks.
The only reason we were able to seize this moment was because we’d learned from our Q4 shipping debacle and improved our operations processes in response. Like good scientists, we investigated our processes, dissected them, and prepared the company to scale. Bottom-line: if you want to seize your moment someday, prepare for it now.
Q1 brought incredible business growth, but it also brought clarity about my own role and the future of Joe’s company. On April 2, 2020, my wife and I welcomed our first child: Addison. I’d been working 10-12 hours a day, but now my time had effectively been cut in half. I was giving it my all as a leader, but Joe needed more from me than I could give.
I had been brought in to right the ship after years of poor leadership, broken marketing, and operational mismanagement. I’d done that. Q4 was excellent; Q1 was even better. Our numbers were continuing to grow. Still, there were plans we’d made that hadn’t come to fruition, projects we’d hoped to push forward that were left unrealized.
So, once again, Joe and I sat down for coffee. I told him we needed a project manager, but what we really needed was a dedicated operations manager. We’d gotten the strategic marketing efforts back on the right track, but it was time to bring in someone with a new set of dedicated expertise.
Whether you’re in operations or marketing, your duty is to lead effectively. To do that, you’ve got to know when to acknowledge your limits and ask for help. You can’t simply solve everything yourself or do everything on your own. Don’t take on too much responsibility, and do stay in your lane. If you need another driver, ask for one.
The hard work involved in turning around a flailing DTC brand is often brutal. If I’m honest, there’s nothing about scanning barcodes on a Saturday that lights my fire. But I wasn’t there because I was passionate about shipping. I was there because I genuinely cared for the company and what we were trying to accomplish.
At the end of the day, our most significant challenge in leadership is digging in and doing the hard work that matters irrespective of whether we enjoy it. When we focus on the bigger picture, research shows, we develop the resilience to push ahead. And, here’s the kicker: as we follow our sense of purpose, our passion for the work itself grows.
That’s what we discovered in turning around Joe’s soap company. It’s also what I realized in my own journey. Being the CMO of a soap company had its perks, but I found my deepest sense of purpose in agency work. That’s why I was able to leave Joe’s company in 2021 with the deep satisfaction of having accomplished my mission and excitement about helping other brands like his come back to life in the future.
Adam is the founder of Wisemen Media, a marketing agency for ambitious startups and multi-million dollar ecommerce brands looking to stand out, and grow their influence and revenue. Previously, Adam co-founded the JD Fuller Corporation, and helped NGOs like Child Fund, Food for the Hungry and WorldVision increase donations.
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