In this episode you’ll learn how TechArmor has mastered customer retention and became a huge success almost overnight by:
Jeremy: Dr. Jeremy Weisz here, the founder of inspiredinsider.com, where I talk with inspirational entrepreneurs and Leaders like founders of P90X, Baby Einstein, Atari, many more. And how they overcome big challenges in life and business. This is part of the Skubana eCommerce Mastery Series, where top sellers and experts teach you what really works to boost your eCommerce business.
Skubana is a software platform to manage your entire eCommerce operation. Today, we have top eCommerce expert and founder. Eric Tong is co-founder of Tech Armor, which is a leading manufacturer of mobile device accessories like phone chargers, glass screen protectors, protective cases, they have cables, they have so much more. Eric cut his teeth in business rising to VP of the Asia Pacific region of Belkin over the course of 15 years and he co-founded two previous companies. Tech Armor has sold over seven million devices through leading eCommerce partners like Amazon, eBay, Newegg, and many more.
And, Eric, as I was doing research. I realized Tech Armor is a fraction of the price of these other retailers. I remember going into some cell phone store. I’m like, “This is $40? This is crazy.” And on top of it, you have an amazing lifetime product replacement warranty for all products. I haven’t seen that anywhere. So I went to your website and I clicked on Why Tech Armor, and there’s a big shield. It says it all. A big shield that says, “Lifetime warranty.” So, first of all, thanks for joining me.
Eric: Thank you for having me, Jeremy. I appreciate it.
Jeremy: I want to dig into that a little bit, Eric. I have so many questions, but that’s got to be a huge decision to stamp that on your product. So, tell me about when you decided to do that? And you and your co-founder Joseph.
Eric: Right. So my co-founder and business partner, Joseph Jaconi and I decided that very much from the beginning. Our ethos of the company was to provide a great quality product, at a great value price, backed by a great customer service. And when we started to figure out what needed to be pieces of that formula, it was a lifetime warranty. And we believe that if…
Jeremy: So you knew that from the beginning? We’re going to do a lifetime warranty.
Eric: Right from the beginning and it was part of our DNA that we’re going to provide peace of mind to our customers, that when they purchase any Tech Armor product that it’s going to work as described and that we’re there and have their back. So that was a big piece of our overall marketing message.
Jeremy: Yeah. So where did you get the idea to do that? Because most people wouldn’t start there, they would just go, “Okay, let’s see if we can even sell this stuff.” And you start with lifetime warranty.
Eric: Yeah. Again, I think, Jeremy, it wasn’t any one vision that said, “Hey, we need to do this.” It was again, when we really dug deep into what Tech Armor was all about, we really stuck to the ethos that we’re going to have a great customer service and provide a great customers experience for all of our customers. So giving them the confidence to purchase Tech Armor products really drove the Tech Armor replacement lifetime warranty.
Jeremy: Yeah. I asked because I didn’t know if you saw something at Belkin that you’re like, “Oh, I need to incorporate this in my future company.” Or whatever it was.
Eric: Well, at the time, when I worked at Belkin, we did have a lifetime warranties on cables, and surge protection, and things like that. But screen protectors, which is what we started with, are products that have a lot of wear and tear, unlike like cables which are more static.
Jeremy: Yeah. No one’s dropping cables. Yeah.
Eric: So there was some risk there in terms of enhancing the cost associated with a [warranty] such as that. But we find that customers, when they actually do request a replacement and they actually get it, they are like, “Wow, it works. There weren’t any hassles. We got the replacement.” And we believe that, that allows us to keep the customer for lifetime.
Jeremy: Yeah. And you know, from a customer standpoint, I see that and I think, “Why would I buy a product from anywhere else?” But from a founder perspective, I think that scares me. I’m worried. Are people going to abuse this? What were some of the worries through your head? And then how do you manage that risk for someone who’s thinking about doing a lifetime warranty?
Eric: Well, absolutely. The risk and the concern that kept me up overnight was, how many people are going to try to abuse this?
Eric: And how many people are going to wind up having screen protectors for their aunts, cousins, and siblings? And so, we like to think that people have the best of intentions and that they’re legitimately requesting replacements for damaged product, or that they cracked the screen, or what have you. But what we did was we did setup an internal process where we’re able to see if a customer is requesting replacements two, three, four, five times. Once we get to a certain amount, then you start to dive deeper and put in more rigor, if you will, with that particular customer. But for the most part, people aren’t abusing it. Again, we’re bringing a good value price. It’s not like we’re selling it in traditional brick and mortar retailers like Best Buy where like products are three times the amount. So for $7 to $12 they’re buying a screen protector. It’s not like they’re trying to beat the system.
Jeremy: Right, right. Yeah. I guess from maybe keeping you awake at night in the beginning before you launched it, to actually implementing it, people aren’t abusing it, it doesn’t really come up that much. There aren’t any nightmares stories as far as that goes.
Eric: It’s more of anomaly, Jeremy.
Eric: We do have a couple of incidents, but it’s really a minor headache for us.
Jeremy: Yeah. So, Eric, in the beginning of the interview, I had questions about boosting sales, big mistakes. But what I found with my research is, you really focus on product quality and customer service. So, going back to the lifetime warranty, you have to really start at the foundation and build an amazing product or people are going to obviously return it. Can you talk about your process for ensuring product quality?
Eric: Absolutely. And the history is that Joe and I both have a lot of experience launching really literally thousands of products over the life of our career.
Eric: And so, it starts out by establishing a strategic partnership with our suppliers. We try not to think of it as a vendor customer relationship, it’s more of a partnership. And I think that, that has proved to be very successful for us because the people that we’ve worked with from the beginning, are still working with us today.
Eric: And sussing it out and vetting out the suppliers, and getting product prototypes, and testing them very rigorously. We did a lot of research where we were talking to people, and giving samples out, and having people test it, and watching them, and video taping them, and watching how they use the product.
Eric: And that formed some opinions on how we should design the product, how the instructions or the installation video should be written or created. So these are some of the pieces.
Jeremy: That’s powerful. Watching someone use it is another story.
Eric: Exactly. We are really big on consumer insights, understanding how people use the products and tailoring that experience based on what people’s needs are or even unarticulated needs, for example. But getting back to your question, really focusing in on ensuring we have a great strategic partnership. Making sure that the design and the user experience…You hear a lot about out of box experience. So from the time the person opens the box, how easy is it? Is it one of those…We’ve all had experiences with those clamshells where you have to cut it…
Jeremy: It’s horrible.
Eric: …and you almost cut yourself and you’re bleeding. Making the whole process really, really easy, all the way to…And hopefully it doesn’t happen, but if you need to contact Tech Armor, we’re there to support you. Right? And so, we have an average response time of around an hour and a half to get back to customers. These are just pieces of ensuring that, that quality is there from start to finish.
Jeremy: Yeah. I want to get into the customer service piece in a second. But sticking on the pros for product quality. The supplier. When you early on, obviously, you started the company. What was your process? How did you know or find the right supplier for you?
Eric: Well, I’ve talked to a lot of colleagues in the industry, since I worked in that industry for quite sometime and got a couple of leads, and then we made a trip to Asia.
Jeremy: Yeah, tell me about that trip. Yeah.
Eric: Yeah. I’ve been to Asia many times. I’ve lived in Asia, so, for me, it’s quite easy. But getting there and spending time with around four or five different suppliers and looking at what their processes are. How much stress and importance do they put on quality themselves? And going through their audits and quality control procedures, etc. were really critical. You wouldn’t think of it, but for screen protector manufacturers there’s really like a dust room. Right? So they can’t dust coming in because it will affect the quality of the screen protectors that get underneath and the adhesive gets on. So literally like those Intel commercials, we had to put on those suits to go in there and make sure that we were sterile and all that good stuff, but that was some of the assessment. And then, really it comes down to rapport and communications as well. Of course, there are other pieces of the puzzle like pricing and things like that. But in terms of assessing quality, it was really understanding their manufacturing philosophies, as well as I think communication, quite frankly, because you’re dealing with Chinese vendors or Asian vendors and making sure that you feel there’s chemistry and that you’ll be able to get your message across and vice versa.
Jeremy: Yeah. So you go from supplier, then you get a bunch of the product, so you test them. What was one of the products you remember testing and what you discovered?
Eric: I’m sorry, Jeremy?
Jeremy: What was one of the products you remembered getting. You’ve got all these products and you’re testing to see…maybe giving them to customers. What do you discover in one of those processes that helped you in the end product?
Eric: Yeah. I think one of the things is that we originally started out with plastic PET screen protectors. And so, they’re a bit hard for some people to apply because you need to have a steady hand and line it up, etc. So we found for the iPhone 5 for example, that a lot of people were installing it from the top to the bottom. And we thought that as we were installing it that, that was very difficult. And that at the bottom it was a more natural place to start because of the home button on the bottom and lining that up was a lot easier. So just literally going through the installation and experience yourself and watching others, there were some of those kinds of insights that we saw. Another one was we saw that a lot of screen protectors only had one protective layer that you peel off. So you peel it off and then you apply it.
Eric: We saw that there was a need for a second one. So after you install it and you push out the bubbles, it would be nice to be able to peel off the second layer on top, so that it was pristine where as when people were…
Jeremy: Yeah, their thumb’s all over it.
Eric: …thumbs and scratches even. Again, these are just little insights that we discovered over the process.
Jeremy: That’s really interesting. And then, does that make it more difficult for you to manufacture? Because now instead of…you can’t just say, “Oh, I want a sticker.” Now, you want two separate things on there. How much more difficult is that?
Eric: It’s not that much more difficult. These guys are very sophisticated and putting that into the process hasn’t been difficult.
Jeremy: Yeah, yeah. So from the product quality, you spend a lot of time on that obviously, testing it, finding the right supplier in the beginning and then testing it with users, yourselves. And then, coming out obviously with it. And we’ll go through some of that when we talk about the Tech Armor story, but I want to go to the customer view or customer service side of things because I was looking on Amazon and you have tens of thousands of reviews. And one of these products, the iPhone 5 had 18,188 reviews as of today. First of all, how do you even keep track? Because it seems like you said you respond within an hour and a half response time. How do you even keep track of when you’re selling million of these devices?
Eric: Well, that is really what keeps us at the pulse of what the customers are thinking off. When I was saying the hour and a half that’s for customer emails that are coming through. For reviews we literally look…And I used to look at every single one. Now, I look at them every once in a while. But we have a team of folks that are reviewing those everyday. And so, within 24 hours, we’re able to respond to any negative reviews. So those negative reviews are provided comments back, “We do have a lifetime replacement warranty, contact us back.” Or if there was a little issue that they had, we provide an anecdotal or tip or we provide a link to a video to help them, things like that. But that is stored. All this data is stored for us, so that we’re able to filter through them during our weekly meetings, to see if there are any insights into experiences that can be improved upon. So we’re constantly looking at that. And that again, that’s really the pulse. Because people, they spend time to put in those reviews. And a lot of those reviews they’re very passionate folks, right?
Eric: So a lot of times you could get a lot of good insight.
Jeremy: Yeah. For people who are thinking, “Okay, I need to manage this process better.” What kind of tools or softwares do you recommend people look into for reviews and customer feedback?
Eric: Well, so for the overall customer service engine, we’re using a platform called FreshDesk which allows us to open tickets and have a dashboard of KPIs that we could look at service level metrics, and where we stand, and how many times we’re able to solve a customer’s problems on the first time, versus two contacts, versus etc. Things like that to see how we can improve, Jeremy.
Eric: So those are some of the things. But in terms of scraping all those reviews, we literally have people that are…
Jeremy: The software is called People.
Eric: Yes. There are some software tools that exist and we’re actually vetting those out right now. But even though that one that you’re referencing has 18,000 reviews. It comes down to maybe there’s 20 a day or 15 a day and we’re looking at the ones that are negative and positive. Because sometimes the positive ones also you could glean some good insight as well.
Jeremy: So tell me about the people side of it. I think I read them at, if this is up to current, but 18 staff total?
Eric: Yeah. We have close to 20. We actually have 10 here in the states, and then we have an outsourcing team that we’re partnered with and there’s about 10 folks there. So again, to speak to our customer service, we over index in terms of human resources. So literally two thirds of the company is dedicated towards customer service. We have a customer service manager and another customer service representative here in L.A. And then, they help manage the team of people that we’ve outsourced. So it’s that team of 12, 13 folks that are making sure that our customers are taken care off.
Jeremy: And, Eric, since you are so customer service focused, you obviously want to bring in really good people who are also customer service focused. What’s your process for hiring?
Eric: Not only for people that we’re hiring as a full time employee at Tech Armor, but also for our customer service outsourcing partners, we do go through an interview process. Making sure we understand. One of the questions we asked them is, “Give us an example of an experience that you had, whether it’s buying something, or having problems with your cable TV, or phone service, or what have you. Anything that resonates where you had really a bad experience. And then, what was a really good experience?” And I think by asking those kinds of questions, it opens them up, gets them relaxed, and you can look and get a feel for what their philosophy is behind that. And so, having agents that really will live and die by customer service and understand its importance is a real key criteria for us. The other things that we do is, we actually will give them a survey or questions and ask them to type responses right there in the interview. And that gives us a good gauge of what kind of tone they use and things like that. Of course, some of that could be trainable because Tech Armor has its own brand voice, if you will. But getting a sense of how they deal with, that gives us good visibility to how they might deal with it if we were to employ them.
Jeremy: Yeah. And I remember reading on, I think it was Forbes and it references Martini story.
Jeremy: What happened?
Eric: It’s a great story about Martini. So basically Joe, my business partner. At the time, I’ll just go back a little bit. In the very beginning Joe and I would trade off doing the customer service because it became really, really tedious and it required a lot of energy. So it happened to be Joe’s turn that day or that week. And somebody had written a review and he got up in the morning and started to read it. And it talked about how this person had a Martini and thought that he did a great job with installing the perfect screen protector, everything was great, and then he realized at the end that it was installed incorrectly and upside down. And that he’d referenced the Martini. And the next thing you know is Joe responded back and said, “That was a classic story. I prefer Bombay personally, but let me send you a free replacement as part of our lifetime warranty. We sent that and then it became this viral thing where everybody read Joe’s review, the guy that wrote the story, etc. And I haven’t looked recently, Jeremy. But that review still lives today, where people will comment on it and [says], “Because of this story, I’m going to buy the Tech Armor screen protector.” So it has something like over a hundred comments over two years. But that I think really seals it, right? It epitomizes what our belief is for customer service.
Jeremy: Yeah. So it’s not only don’t drink and drive, but don’t drink and put your screen protector on or something like that. So back to a quick win, and we’ll get into some of the Tech Armor story, but for sellers, what’s a must for…some quick tips for boosting sales and some mistakes to avoid?
Eric: In terms of boosting sales, I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but I think making sure that you have your customer service intact. I think a lot of sellers underestimate its importance and they don’t take it serious, and don’t have the processes or resources in placed behind the to scenes to ensure that that’s happening in a quality fashion. So that is one of the things. Tech Armor is selling primarily on market places, so the listings are really key. So having real quality images, having great titles, and having really great descriptions that are very succinct. You’ll see some people try to put descriptions that are really, really wordy and people wind up not reading it. So I think the listings are very key, getting the word out there. So there’s no magic formula, it depends on the type of product, the category, the audience. But a combination of advertising vehicles from Google AdWords, to Google PLA, to Amazon sponsored ads, things like that are really important.
Jeremy: Well, you guys get a huge amount of publicity. When I was doing research, you’ve been on Forbes, Huntington Post, Business Insider, all of those. Is there a process that you have for reaching out or that would be helpful for people to think about?
Eric: Yeah. So in the beginning, we didn’t have a PR firm, but we were fortunate enough to build a very strategic relationship with Amazon as we’re started to grow. And we were introduced to the Amazon marketplace PR team. And they helped us bring some of these leads in. And I think we do well with the interviews, so they trusted us and provided good insight into the Amazon experience. But outside of that, we were reaching out to various press, journalists, as well as bloggers, and things like that. And then, as we got bigger we hired a PR firm to help us along that. But in the beginning, I think it’s trying to figure out who are real key folks that are leaders in the industry that you want to talk to and create an inspirational or a differentiated pitch.
Eric: If you go to them and talk about the same old thing, it’s not going to resonate. So really figuring out and carving out a niche. And I think for us, it was this model about bringing great quality at a reduced or a fraction of a price backed by great customer service. And I think once we started seeing volume and that we were driving success, that created more buzz or more interest around the Tech Armor story, if you will.
Jeremy: And so, what about on the flip side, mistakes people should avoid in their eCommerce business?
Eric: Yeah. We’ve had a lot of different mistakes over the years. Fortunately, none were disastrous, but I think forecasting and planning is really key. We started in June of 2012 and during that Christmas period, we were caught off guard. We didn’t expect the volume to be there, and we have a much better appreciation of the various marketplace engines now. But just to give a benchmark,…
Eric: …starting in June we sold 89 pieces and by the time December rolled around, we sold 200,000 pieces.
Jeremy: Holy crap.
Jeremy: Are you serious, Eric?
Eric: I’m serious.
Jeremy: 89, just like 89, and then 200,000.
Eric: 89 units to 192,000 to be exact.
Eric: So it was a crazy [ride].
Jeremy: That’s crazy.
Eric: And so, right after Black Friday happened in November, we wound up having to expedite product and manufacturing and bringing in stuff via airplanes and via FedEx. So we got stuck with a lot of extra logistics expenses as you can [well imagine].
Jeremy: Right, right.
Eric: But it allowed us to stay in stock and keep our relevance. So we understood, even though it was going to create some hardship both from the workload, as well as economically, proved that to be the right move. And I think that is an area to try to avoid is, try to plan that out a little better and talk to selling on the platform and try to anticipate…
Jeremy: How can you really anticipate that though? What do you account for from 89 to 192,000. Because there’s are other people who probably started around that time and they didn’t see that huge growth. How do you explain that?
Eric: I think it’s hard to explain, Jeremy. But I think that part of it is the timing. Our first product that we launched was a Galaxy S3 screen protector. It had just launched in the June time frame or May time frame. It’s the very first product. So we started to develop a following around that and we were first in search on Amazon for the Galaxy S3. Fortunately, for us, in 2012 the iPhone 5 came out and so we were able to jump on that and be first to market. So one of the key attributes for us in being successful was first to market. We had product because we were working with a great supplier, then had good intelligence where we were able to with a lot of data points get to a 99% confidence that our screen protectors were going to fit. So we were first to market. Right from the beginning, we had inventory. And when you’re coming up first on search, and you’re able to stay in stock, you’re going to win. We had an example where for cases for the iPhone5, we were first in search, but we didn’t have the right inventory. So we wind up losing the velocity. And over time, it’s still a good seller, but it’s isn’t nearly as good because we didn’t do as good of a job in terms of product inventory planning.
Jeremy: Right. And so, it almost seems surprising and shocking but it’s really not when you go back to one, like you said, the fundamentals find a good supplier. So you had a good supplier. And two, you guys are smart guys, you’ve been in the industry for a long time, it’s not like you just jumped in to it. You knew what products you were targeting and you saw these phones coming out, and you came out and you were one of the first ones to come out with the product.
Jeremy: Still a painful process when you have to fly in all these parts last minute and everything like that.
Eric: It’s extremely painful when we saw the bills coming in, we would cringe. But I will say fortunately for us the weight and the size of our typical product is quite small.
Eric: So the costs aren’t astronomical. It’s not like we’re selling…it wasn’t like now where we sell power banks. That would just absolutely crush us.
Jeremy: Right. That’s a fantastic example, Eric. Another one that you want to talk about mistake-wise?
Eric: I think customer service. So again, going from 89 to 192,000 units. Joe and I, were it. We were the guys responding to customers. And once we started to reach over a thousand sale units, sales per day, and then even more so, once we hit December. It was Joe and I trading off on a daily basis. The task of responding to inquiries, to reviews, etc. And it was at that point we said, “Hey, we need to move quick. We’re in an inflection point where we need to spend the dollars to find a customer service outsourcing team that we could work with.” And hindsight’s 20/20, but I really wish that I was thinking about that earlier on and that we had that in place, so it was a lot smoother. But we tried to still keep those metrics in place, but it might slipped from an hour or every two hours to maybe four hours until we got that in place.
Jeremy: Yeah. That’s an impossible task. No one physical human can respond to thousands of those at one time. So I want to go back to the beginning because I think a lot of the foundational insights and your experience, it’s not like you just jumped in out of college and started doing this. You have decades of experience with products, launching products. So I want to go back to those days, Eric. And a fun fact about you, which I wouldn’t expect, is what your wife would say is you like to wear hats and specifically Yankees. So tell me about where you’re from and big influence for you growing up.
Eric: So I’m from New York. I originally grew up in Yonkers New York, which is literally just bordering the Bronx. So I grew up as big Yankee fan. My dad was a huge Yankee fan. My dad actually went to middle school and high school with Whitey Ford, a [inaudible 00:31:09] hall of fame pitcher.
Jeremy: Yeah, sure.
Eric: So I was going to games at an early age and just became a huge Yankees fan and then basically a huge sports fan. Yeah, it’s funny that my wife would say that because I probably have like 30, 40 different baseball type caps. Not all Yankees, all of the other favorite teams that I have. But big sports fan.
Eric: The thing that…to answer your second question, what really influenced me was that I played a lot of sports. I played a lot of team sports and I think that I know it’s saying that a lot of people have. But by playing team sports and understanding what camaraderie and rapport was, and leadership on the team, and things like that. And people doing their end of the bargain or their roles, that played a big influence in me with business. I felt like I had more of a competitive edge by playing sports and by growing up in New York. I really think that growing up…
Jeremy: The intensity? What was it like growing up in Yonkers?
Eric: Well, funny enough, there’s a new show on HBO. I’m plugging David Simon’s new show called “Show Me a Hero,” which is about Yonkers in the mid 80s. Which is when I was going to high school there and it was tough. It was a tough town, Yonkers. And I think it helped shaped and mold me to be again, competitive and what not. But it was a great place to grow up and I’m still friends with a lot of folks that still are back there in Yonkers or in Westchester.
Jeremy: So Eric, when you were in Yonkers, what did you want to do when you grew up?
Eric: I wanted to be a Businessman.
Jeremy: You did?
Eric: Yeah, I did, I did. My dad was a restaurateur. So he owned multiple restaurants and takeouts.
Jeremy: That’s a tough business.
Eric: It is a tough business. So I saw what he was going to, where he worked 12 hour, 13 hour days and six days a week, only Mondays were his days off. And I saw that and I admired it, everything that he was doing for the family. But I also realized that was really, really hard work. I actually thought that I wanted to open up a restaurant because I actually love cooking and I’m sort of a foodie as well. But I always wanted to be a Businessman, I think. I started out shoveling neighbors driveways and knocking on doors and saying, “Would you like me to shovel your driveway?” And negotiating prices, and I’d come home and I’d be so sore, and drink a nice cup of hot chocolate to warm me up. But I’d make like a hundred dollars or more when I was 13 years old, and I was like, “Oh, this is…
Jeremy: Big money.
Eric: …this is big money, and this is cool, I could buy some more hats.
Jeremy: So what kind of restaurants did you have?
Jeremy: Okay. And so, did you ever work in the restaurants?
Eric: Absolutely. Yeah, I worked…
Jeremy: So what kind of stuff did you do?
Eric: I would actually cook some of the stuff too. So basic stuff. I wouldn’t cook any of the more complicated dishes, but things like fried rice were super easy to make. I’d Dip the egg rolls in the frying bin, put the ribs in there, chop up the ribs put them in the tin foil bag, etc. So you know, I’m just…
Jeremy: No wonder you love eating and cooking. You were doing it from an early age.
Eric: Absolutely. Yeah.
Jeremy: And you also have your MBA from Loyola. What’d you learn from getting your MBA?
Eric: Well, I learned a lot. I learned a lot about analyzing businesses and a lot of different theories, right? So at the time, there were a lot of theory inspired classes that were occurring. And just to give you some background, Jeremy. I moved from New York. I went to school in SUNY Albany, moved out to L.A., and went to Loyola Marymount. But I didn’t have a lot of working experience, at the time, to apply my learnings to these theories.
Jeremy: Why do you live in California, Eric? Because there’s obviously New York schools.
Eric: Weather, weather. My sister lived in San Diego, and I used to visit her in the summers, and I fell in love with it. And I was like, “You know what? Let me go out there. I could always come back after a couple of years of school,” and I never left. But getting back to your question, I think that, because I didn’t have a lot of the work experience to apply some of the learnings. It was helpful, but it wasn’t extremely helpful. So then in 2000…I want to say 2002 until 2003, I went back and got an Executive Program at UCLA Anderson Program Business School. And that was really helpful because after that, I already had 10 years of experience and I was able to apply a lot of my learnings to the techniques that they were teaching.
Jeremy: So doing it again you may have not gone and got your MBA right after college?
Eric: I don’t think I would, in hindsight. But again, I think it varies for each individual.
Jeremy: Yeah. So how did you end up at Belkin?
Eric: So funny enough, my first boss at Belkin, Shawn. He had posted a job posting on Loyola Marymount Alumni or newly graduated students and I applied to that. Here’s another fun fact, I applied to Kikoman, the soy sauce company to be a product manager there and for Belkin. And it was a toss up because Kikoman was a big brand and what not. And I got accepted for both, but I knew that IT was the wave of the future.
Jeremy: I see.
Eric: And more than anything probably, it was the crap that I would get from my friends if I became the Kikoman soy sauce product manager, so I opted to go with Belkin.
Jeremy: We probably wouldn’t be talking today if you took that job, I bet.
Jeremy: Different path.
Jeremy: So Belkin, what’s the good and the bad working at a big company?
Eric: Well, the good, at the time when I first joined Belkin, I think Belkin was doing around 20 million dollars in revenue. So it was kind of a small company.
Jeremy: Wow, I didn’t realized.
Jeremy: I always pictured it as being huge.
Eric: Yeah. Well, now, it’s a billion plus organization. But at the time, it was very entrepreneurial, very empowering and high accountable type culture. And I think that really allowed me to be the person that I am today. People were given the opportunity to have an idea and go and try and execute it. And sometimes it didn’t work, sometimes it did work. As long as you learned from the mistakes and improved upon that in the next try, it was embraced. So that was a good thing. The bad thing was just that I had spent 17 years with Belkin. And towards the end it became a big company and there was a lot of decisions that had to be made by committees or just the bureaucracy that comes with any big company.
Eric: That was probably the biggest challenge. And quite honestly, at the time when I left the company, I just turned 40. I think I was going through a mid-life crisis and I recognize it. If I don’t try to do something now, I’m probably not going to have the energy to try to do something down the road. So it was really difficult, Jeremy, but I did it and I never looked back.
Jeremy: Yeah. I want to talk about that transitioning because it can’t be easy, especially if you’re somewhere for 17 years. But I think there’s a lot to learn on…when you look at a billion dollar company how they came out with products and launch products and their design. Can you talk about one of the products that you guys came out with that you either headed it up and some of those consumer insights, design, RND, what went in to it?
Eric: Absolutely. So we started up the innovation design group where we had industrial designers, mechanical engineers, and consumer insights researchers as well.
Eric: And so, one of the things that we had done, at the time, was we went to peoples’ homes to see how they were installing a router. And at the time, in the early 2000 period, that’s when 802.11b first…
Jeremy: I have Belkin. Yeah, I had a Belkin. Yeah, for sure.
Eric: And so, we were going into people’s home, video taping them, breaking it down, dissecting it. And what we found was that, on average when we looked at the competitors’ products, that there were, on average, I think 52 steps required to install a router. And when I say steps it would mean like, push the CD tray door open, put the CD in it, click this.
Eric: Everything to set it up. Everything from start to…Plug the cable in. And from that, we learned that people were making honest mistakes like plugging in the LAN cable in the wrong port. So from this research, it allowed us to do a couple of things. Make things a lot easier for consumer, so we would include a yellow cable and have a yellow port on the back of the router that said, “Plug the yellow cable into the yellow port.” So that would eliminate that type of…
Jeremy: Just drop dead simple.
Eric: But more than anything, Jeremy, that we reduced the steps from 52 to less than 20.
Eric: And that was super, super innovative at the time. And now, it’s shocking the kind of things that people are doing, including Belkin, in making the product much, much easier. But I think that was a great example how we really try to understand the users’ needs. And again, not only what they were telling us what their needs were, but their unarticulated needs. That’s when you get a defining moment when you could get some of those nuggets of information.
Jeremy: Yeah, yeah. Eric, this is fantastic stuff. What else did you learned from the router in launching the product?
Eric: Well, it was all about education, as well, at the time. WiFi was really young and people were intimidated by technology.
Eric: So we tried to not use so much messaging of feeds and speeds, you know like, 802.11x. And 100 megabytes per second, and distances of you know, this and that. So we tried to break it down from feeds and speeds and just giving them what they wanted to know, which was what the coverage was, and what the speed was, and how easy it was to install. And so that was probably something that we did at Belkin before others. The competitors and the space were very technical. We were more of an accessories company. And so, we took that approach of making the product easier versus again, being a more technical product.
Jeremy: Yeah. Well, that’s such a good point. I did not expect you to say that at all. And it’s the copy of what you tell people, the messaging is so important.
Eric: Yeah. Because you don’t think about it when you walk… Retail was…It wasn’t really eCommerce, at the time, when routers launched. It was very small at the time. So when people walk through the aisles, we always had that test of the six foot test. So when they’re walking through, how do we get them to stop and look at it. And then, two foot test where they pick up the box and they look at it. And how do you really capture their attention and get it to resonate with them?
Jeremy: Yeah. What about from a leadership perspective? Because you were VP of the Asia Pacific Region. What did you learn? What’s an example of a leadership moment that we should learn from?
Eric: Yeah. I had a lot of different leadership positions throughout Belkin, but I think that having a shared common goals across the different functional groups or departments was key. Right? A lot of organizations and people within the organizations didn’t know what the other people in the company were doing. So one of the things I did when I was in Asia was whether it was finance, marketing, human resources, sales, product, etc., customer service. What their goals were, and it would cascade down to the employees from a manager, and to the employees. And so everybody knew that we’re pulling from the same order.
Eric: I that was one of the things that really resonated with me and some things that we do here at Tech Armor. So that everybody is on the same page and knows that each person has a real pivotal role in the company.
Jeremy: Looking back at your Belkin days, what do you think helped you the most, from your Belkin days, to make this Tech Armor such a success?
Eric: I think easily it was Belkin’s entrepreneurial and results oriented philosophy and culture. Hands down. I cut my teeth there. They gave me the bandwidth to explore things and allowed me to execute it. And I think that due diligence required…Of course, you never wanted to just shoot from the hip. Some of it was intuitive, but you needed to be very thoughtful in the research and analyzing things. I think that was probably the biggest learning or trait that I got out of Belkin that I’m applying today and with my past experiences as well.
Jeremy: So how do you bring that in to the company, so that your culture is similar? Because when I talk to founders that’s tough for them. The culture seems to come up over and over. When it reaches a certain number of people, it’s hard to maintain that culture.
Eric: Right. And again, we have about 20 people, but 10 that are working here in L.A. And I think that really what we strive for is giving everybody a voice and that we want every individual to challenge us. Joe and I constantly speak about the importance that people are there to challenge our thinking. Well, we cannot rely on what’s worked in the past and just have status quo. If we’re going to keep scaling and we’re going to keep growing, we need that.
Eric: And I have to say one of the biggest challenges that we’ve had is to hire great people because it’s always hard to find them. But fortunately, we’ve hired great people and we’ve got people. Peter, who we first hired, he’s still with us and he continues to be a huge asset and continues to improve internal efficiencies, and processes, and has been a huge asset for us.
Jeremy: So how do you bake in that voice because that is important? Is there a certain time of the week that you want to hear feedback? Or how is that baked in, so that maybe someone listening could do that?
Eric: Funny that you say that. Every Wednesday we ask each team member to provide a very quick update and it shouldn’t take more than a few minutes to read and it shouldn’t take really more than a few minutes to create. But it gives an update on the wins, what happened, any issues that they had, any feedback that they need, and what are the priorities for that coming week. So that is, I guess, one avenue in which they could express that. But we also have team meetings on a weekly basis that give everybody an opportunity to voice any concerns or issues that have come across.
Jeremy: So Eric, 17 years, you leave Belkin. What does that look like? Married, kids? Was that a scary moment? Are you excited? What are you feeling at that time?
Eric: Well, it’s fine because my wife is also my best friend. All right? And so, she understood that I needed this break, I needed this change. And that I wasn’t fulfilling that internal need of doing something great. Right? And so it was super, super difficult because I spent, I think, 12 years in L.A. with Belkin and then five years in Hong Kong with Belkin. And to move back and not have the financial support anymore of a company and a payroll, that was super tough.
Eric: But the biggest thing that I said was, “For six months, I’m not going to do anything. And literally like detox, clean my head, clear it out and try to come up with something.” So I have to say that the first day that I woke up after left Belkin and I handed in my phone. The next day when when I woke up, I kind of reached over to try to find my phone at the time and there wasn’t anything there. So dialing it back and getting into a little bit of relaxed mode was very, very difficult because I’m pretty hardwired.
Eric: But then after a couple of months, it was easy. And then after six months when I said, “Now, I’m going to get really serious and figure things out.” It was hard to turn it back on. So it was kind of interesting the dynamics of that. But I think all along, I believed in myself. I had a good circle of friends, and colleagues, and mentors that believed in me as well. I had a lot of good support, if you will, to figure things out. And I knew it would workout at the end, but I never imagined it would be as successful as it is today.
Jeremy: So what did you do next? So the six months is over, what do you decided to do?
Eric: So I started a company called StyleTech. And Jeremy, this company pivoted so many times, but I’ll give you the short and abbreviated version. My original idea was that, mass customization is going to be really big. Right? There’s a growing appetite of consumers wanting to customize things and be able to get that easily and have the access to it. And living in Asia and wearing spectacles like yourself and I.
Eric: I realized that for Asians everybody’s face is unique whether it’s their nose, their cheekbones, etc. Sort of like your thumb print. And my idea originally was conceived that the Asian market is growing, especially in markets like China, etc. And fashion is really big, it would be great to create a brand that allowed us to capture a skin of ones face and be able to pinpoint exactly the spectacles that would fit their face.
Jeremy: I got you.
Eric: Their unique face. So it started there and then that was really lofty, I think, and very cash intensive business because you’re getting into selling an eyewear and things like that. So then we pivoted and the end product was we created an app where you could take a photo directly head on and on the sides. And we created like a typography of one’s face. And we’d ask some questions in the beginning of your style preferences. So after getting that exact scan and shape of your head, excuse me, we’re able to then provide a recommendation engine based on your style preferences. So that was the first thing we did. A lot of pros and cons. And I should say a lot of peaks and just a lot of challenges along the way. Worked with some brilliant folks on the team, and we were able to exit the business and do okay on it, but not tremendously well.
Then I moved on to another startup, which was called Hunuku. And Hunuku means in the Maori language, family. And the idea behind this was that Facebook was huge and the way I see Facebook is it’s very self serving, it’s got immediate gratification and it wasn’t very long lasting. And so, I believe that the family stories and everything that’s happened in past generations help define you as a person.
Eric: So we created this software and this website that would essentially allow families to capture memories of the past, preserve memories of the present, and inspire future generations. So, for example, Jeremy, you can have a niece that is graduating from college, and you went there, and your son went there, and your parents went there, and your brother, etc. And everybody could weigh in their stories via pictures, tech stories, audio, videos, etc. And it would be served up to you in a beautiful Pinterest way where you’re able to discover all these great stories. And the idea was that in the future, your children’s grand children can hear about your parent’s or your grandparent’s immigrating into the U.S. or a great food recipe that your grandmother has for whatever. Spaghetti and meatballs and what those key ingredients were. And to hear that and keep in the tradition.
I really believe that ancestry.com is great because you get to learn about your family tree, and lineage, etc. But the stories are the ones that define you and that’s what the embodiment of Hunuku was. But we’re ran into a small little problem, which was Facebook. Everybody is on Facebook and didn’t want to have to go and create a bunch of new stories and do all these things and we just couldn’t get the funding, etc. But I look back and I learned so much from that, that it helped me moving forward. So failures are sometimes, which need to be successful going forward.
Jeremy: Yeah, I’m glad you talked about that because someone’s seeing you at the surface or the company like, “Oh, they just blew up out of no where.” But the reality is, you and your co-founder worked at big companies. You worked over 17 years, you had two previous company startups and then we land at the Tech Armor. And so then, how does it come to be at Tech Armor?
Eric: So interestingly enough, Joe and I go back a long way. Actually I had hired Joe, I think in Belkin in 1996 or 1995. We became really great friends. He was one of the best people that I hired and worked with. And so we had really good rapport. And ironically, Joe and I left Belkin at the same time without really even knowing that we’re going to do that. And he went and did a bunch of different things on his own startups, I went and did my own thing and we always remained great friends. And we started chatting up about, “We should do something together, we should do something together.” Joe had a lot of experience selling big brands. He’s more on sales and marketing side and was selling a lot of different brands and working with Amazon, and eBay, and other eCommerce marketplaces. And so, he was like, “I think that there’s an opportunity to do something in that space if we can figure out.” And one of the things that really resonated with Joe and I was there was a video. And I wish I remembered the name of the speaker on a Ted talk. But if you go to ted.com it’ll be easy to find, if you type in…
Jeremy: I’m going to check it out. Yeah.
Eric: Yeah. Type in Nokia researcher, or something to that extent, and I’m sure it’ll come up. But there was a talk about this anthropology researcher who went all over the world, to third world countries to modern cities, etc. And went into people’s homes, observed how they lived life, etc. And there were three common themes in terms of what people kept in their pocket no matter where they were and it was keys, money, and a phone if they had one. Right? And for most people, they had a phone. And when we heard that, somehow it just really hit us that mobility is going to be bigger, and bigger, and bigger. And it’s one of the only categories or segments where the [category] is still double digit growth on a global basis. And so, that really resonated with us.
And then there was another company. I’m not sure if you have heard of WarbyParker. They’re a New York based company, really a darling in the VC world right now, where they created a brand of eyewear, where you could try them on, they’ll send you five pairs to try on, you send them back, you know that they fit, and then you order them, and they sell for $95 with prescription. And, as you know, since you wear glasses, that it could cost you anywhere from $200 to $500 for a pair of glasses. And what we love about their model was that they essentially cut out the big box retailers and sold directly to consumers and provided great customer service. So the combination of these things plus Joe and my experience in the consumer electronics, accessory space. I think that triangulation got us to say, “Hey, let’s go for Tech Armor.” And never looked back since.
Jeremy: So you guys, late nights, you’re collaborating, you’re discussing. What do you decide to come out with first? Or what did that process look like? What are the options of what you’re thinking about selling first?
Eric: Yeah, so we looked at a lot of different things and it was all around mobile accessories and we were thinking about cases, about charging products, and screen protectors, for that matter. And what we recognized was a couple of things, one, the cost of screen protectors are quite cost effective. So it wouldn’t require a lot of cash flow burn. It’s also not as subjective as cases are, right? So cases, female, males, young people, older people, everybody has different opinions.
Jeremy: Too many styles and…
Eric: Too many styles, too many colors, and too much of at inventory headache. Right? Having SKU proliferation and having to deal with so many different SKUs. So we decided that, “Hey, I think screen protectors are a good space and the Samsung Galaxy S3 is going to be launching in June of 2012. Let’s start with that.” And so, we launched that along with the iPhone 4s screen protectors and a couple other things. And it was at that moment we started to visit. It really was focusing in on screen protection for those reasons and launching it to coincide with the Galaxy S3 launch.
Jeremy: Yeah. And that was that trajectory of 89 units to 192,000 units?
Eric: It was but there’s a lot more to it , of course, Jeremy and it was a lot more product. I think we were blessed with the timing that the iPhone 5 just came out, right? Because if it happened to be the iPhone 5s, for example, the screen protectors for the 5, and the 5s, and the 5c are the same, they didn’t change the dimensions. So other players would have already had a year of history [inaudible 01:01:05]. But because it was a new platform, and we were first to market, and we provided a great product, and a warranty, etc. It was kind of like the stars aligned. It goes with that saying there was a lot of hard work, but at the same time, there’s a lot of good luck and timing in there as well.”
Jeremy: Right. So what was the next product you decided to come out with?
Eric: Well, in terms of screen protectors it was a constant change over in terms of products, so I think the next one was the iPad mini at the time or actually the iPad and then supporting other products even Blackberry products at the time. So from a screen protector it was just providing a different solutions for different hardware. Then we started getting into different accessories and the next thing that we did was cases, we started getting into cables, USB charging devices, power banks, cleaning solutions, things like that to kind of round out our product mix and breadth.
Jeremy: I would think each would pose some challenges. At what point do you decide, “Okay, we got the screen protector thing. We need to find the next line, whether it was cases, or cables, or whatever it is.”
Eric: I think, Joe and I have enough experience where we realized that we can’t rely too much on any single product or any single customer. We need to have diversification, and we realized that pretty quickly. We didn’t start to even really think about it until after those first seven months. And once we realized, “Hey, we’ve got something here. We sold almost 200,000 units in the month of December. We need to start preparing now, early in 2013 to ride that wave of the holidays of 2013.” So it was early in 2013 where we started doing the planning around what new products to get into, etc. and that created our launch into different categories.
Jeremy: Yeah. I mean obviously again, you have decades of experience with this research. What do you do to figure out, “Okay, now we need to go into chargers or whatever it is.”
Eric: Yeah. I will say the beauty of having a company that is still small is that we could be very nimble and that we experiment with different things.
Eric: So I think that the inflection point is such that, things were working well with the screens, we had a good cadence going there that we had the bandwidth start to work on bringing in other products. And we started to assess the market. So what categories can we bring, the same kind of model to other than screen protectors? And looking at the competition, seeing what the landscape looks like, what the price points are and how they’re differentiating in time to plot that out on various graphs and what not, to figure out where we could be positioned in terms of product positioning. It’s at that point once we do all that due diligence and figure that out. There’s other things involved too, again like getting back to cash flow like, “Do we want to get into something that has $100 retail that requires a $20 cost to goods that’s kind of going to burn up our cash flow versus more cost effective products?” We have a criteria that we go through. We go through this due diligence and then we just go for it. And sometimes it’s intuition as well. And sometimes it works extremely well, and sometimes it doesn’t always work.
Jeremy: Right. So Eric, what was an experiment that worked and what was an experiment that did not worked?
Eric: So an experiment that worked is getting into cables. We started to sell cables, and I think that the lighting cables that you connect for the Apple products was newer, and we were able to get out early on with that product and that continues to be a huge success for us. And during holidays, we sell tens of thousands of those monthly. And that’s an example of something that worked out really well for us. But an example of something that really hasn’t worked out for us, I guess from a product standpoint, some of the charging products have been difficult for us to crack because the price points are super, super competitive. It feels like some folks are just maybe importing them straight from China, not doing much from a packaging standpoint, or user experience standpoint. And there’s a lot of folks in that space that are dominating and have lots of reviews. So that’s been a little bit more challenging and we continue to sell a fair amount, but just hasn’t really reached that, or jumped over that chasm, if you will, to a successful state today.
In terms of a non product for the audience to list to. In terms of something that didn’t work out was, sometimes we tried to expand too quickly. Now, I’m talking less products but geographically tried to expand to the European market. Of course, we sell on Amazon, throughout Europe, so Italy, U.K., France, Germany and Spain, etc. But we try to also expand via distribution. And I think when you work with distribution partners and they’ve got a lots of different brands and may be a small piece and not an important piece. You might not get the passion that’s required to make it successful. So that’s an example where…For the listeners make sure you due diligence that there’s really good synergy there, that the goals are in common if you’re going to look for a distribution partners. That would be an example where…When we first tried, it wasn’t successful. Now, we’re working with other distribution partners throughout the world and it is working quite well.
Jeremy: Yeah. Because I read that you, I think you sell over 20 countries.
Jeremy: Yeah. So what’s some of the challenges selling internationally via eCommerce that people should think about?
Eric: Yeah. I think the biggest thing is…There’s a lot of requirements, especially around VAT, so value added tax. So if you’re selling products in the U.K. and you then want to sell in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, etc. There’s all this cross boarder VAT rules, and compliance, and regulations. What we did is we said, “We don’t really want to get into the market unless we’re serious about it and committed to the process.” So we’ve now created entities in each of those markets.
Eric: We ship goods directly into France, Germany, Italy, U.K., etc. And I think that, that in and of itself has allowed us to provide a better experience. Because originally, we were shipping into the U.K. and somebody from Italy might buy from the U.K., but it might take a week to get there. And not something that you’re going to be able to…
Jeremy: Not good customer service.
Eric: Yeah, you’re not going to scale that kind of a model. So I think for the listeners, do your due diligence. If you’re going to try to expand globally, there’s a lot of compliance that needs to happen, and there’s a lot of companies out there that can help you with it. I by no means claim a subject matter expert. So partnering with subject matter experts on these different topics are really critical.
Jeremy: Yeah. Because I could see there’s a big opportunity, but I could also see there’s probably a ton of unforeseen challenges that go with even expanding into U.K. or anything else.
Eric: Absolutely. And two new markets that we’re expanding into right now is Mexico and India via Amazon. And just all those requirements like certain labeling requirements for our packaging, etc. And getting that fine-tuned and making sure that the importation of the goods go without a hitch because if it gets caught or it gets stuck in customs, for whatever reason, it could take months before it gets cleared. So again, we teamed up with people on the ground in India and in Mexico that can give us great guidance and advise us along the way and make sure everything goes smoothly.
Jeremy: So when someone from Amazon India purchases, are they then sent the product from, because you’re shipping it directly to India from a warehouse in India to them?
Jeremy: Yeah. And then, the directions, do they have all these languages on there?
Eric: Well, the core language is on there. They don’t have every language out there in the market. But for Mexico, of course, it would be Spanish and English. For India it would be just English. But yes, we have trilingual packaging for any of our market.
Jeremy: Yeah. I could see just there’s a lot of details that go into this without even thinking through it too much, so there’s a lot there. So what do you consider the biggest milestones so far the business, Eric?
Eric: I think, I think, the first one that really brings back memories is that when we hit a thousand units in a day. That was a huge milestone, both Joe and I were in Hong Kong visiting some of our partners. And I remember it was our morning and night time over here in the U.S. and looking and seeing that we crossed the thousand threshold, that was an awesome feeling at the moment.
Other milestones were with Amazon, we became a managed customer, if you will. So in the beginning we’re on marketplace and doing everything on our own, and then we’ve reached a certain threshold where we were assigned an internal contact that was managing our business. So that helped us and helped us scale.
Eric: It was eBay, we became a platinum seller. That was another big milestone. And I think going globally was another major milestone because we made the commitment from a cash standpoint and from human resources to get that European business up and running and establishing the entity and all those good things. So those are some of the milestones that we’ve had along the way.
Jeremy: So Eric, what is some good advice that the person from Amazon gave you who helped manage your account?
Eric: Oddly enough, they complimented us on how well we were doing things. I think that what it opened up the doors for us was getting access to do different promotions. So, if you’re on Amazon homepage there are best deals and lightning deals. And we never had any exposure to that prior to this. I think that really helped us kind of scale the business as well. But I think, more than anything, they really make sure that they’re paying attention to your listings and the quality of listings were strong, that your search terms are really key. So doing your research and understanding what those things are. Lot of sage advice came out those kind of conversations in the beginning. Now, you go back and you think it’s done automatic, so you don’t think about it that much. But in the beginning, it’s them telling us to make sure that we resolve customers’ problems really quickly. Any A to Z claims that are there, kind of take care of them swiftly.
So I think there wasn’t any one particular thing that was [super insightful], Jeremy, it’s just a combination of things that they passed along to us, that were best practices that allowed us to kind of implement across the company.
Jeremy: Yeah. And then, obviously you and Joe came together because you have complimentary skill sets, you like each others people. What have you learned most from Joe in this journey with Tech Armor?
Eric: I think what makes Joe and I successful in this venture is that, we do think a like, but at the same, time we’re different. Right? So Joe is definitely more of the sales marketing and he tends to be a lot more aggressive than I am. I’m more of the conservative person and more of the operational, finance product on the backend, and I think that combination. And the fact that we’re good enough friends as well where we don’t let that get in the way. We’re very outspoken. We’re able to challenge each other and really question if something doesn’t feel right.
But I can’t really think of any one example where we couldn’t finally end up with an agreement on something. So I think the chemistry’s there. But in terms of maybe things about Joe that I learned. He continues to be very optimistic, so we go after things. Sometimes that worked out, sometimes it don’t. But I think it’s his optimism and spirit there that is aggressive that keeps us on our toes and what not is probably the one thing that Joe has helped me.
Jeremy: Yeah. How often are you releasing new products?
Eric: Every month, every month we’re launching a new products. Sometimes every week. But it coincides with a lot of the new devices that come out. So in the June to October period there’s a lot more. In the spring time it slows down a little bit. But on average, we’ve got something launching and a lot of times multiple products every month.
Jeremy: Because you look so calm. I think if there was multiple products that are releasing every week or month, I wouldn’t look so calm.
Eric: Yeah. Well, again, we’re blessed that we’ve got great talent surrounding us. I think we’ve got a good cadence going with everything. Right now, I’m very calm, but there are definitely [inaudible 01:16:17] super stressed or get upset and whatnot. But things are going well for us.
Jeremy: What’s the most stressful part of the business?
Eric: Probably not knowing a 100%, with confidence, that we nailed the product correctly, right? So for example, the iPhone 6s is launching in September. We’ve got pretty good certainty that we’ve got the right dimensions, but you just never know. And it’s a risk you need to take to be first to market and to maintain your market leadership, but that’s super stressful. Screen protectors are less stressful, but light cases are very stressful because you got to create a tool, and it cost thousands of dollars and you’re making bets and that keeps me up at night.
The other thing would be just making sure our forecasting is right. Trying to figure out last year how successful the iPhone 6 was going to be. How many people were going to upgrade, making sure we have the right inventory. Of course, we didn’t get it right. There were issues and we had to react, but I feel like each time we’re getting better and better because we have more historical experiences in data that kind of helped us forecast better.
Jeremy: That’s tough actually because there’s so many factors in that.
Eric: So many factors, Jeremy, and unknowns. I, like everybody else, like predictability. And it’s very stressful when you’re trying to figure out if the tool is right and you start shipping product, etc. Because you want to have the product, the accessories at the time of purchase.
Eric: So it’s important that you have the products even before product is announced.
Jeremy: Yeah, so what are your top sellers?
Eric: We do very, very well with Apple products, so the iPhone 6, the iPhone 5, the iPad, iPad mini are very successful for us. Those are definitely our top sellers, but the Samsung platform does very well with us. So the S5 and the S6, some of the Galaxy tabs. But even some of the other phones and devices do really well for us. The Amazon Kindle, the LG G4, a lot of these Motorola Droid. A lot of different devices do well, but the biggest sellers are the iPhone 6.
Jeremy: I know you speak and you’ve done speaking with the [RSCE], which is one of the biggest retailer conferences. What did you speak on when you went?
Eric: The importance of your KPIs within Amazon. So how do you ensure that your meeting or exceeding the metrics and the importance of that?
Eric: And so, examples of that would be your merchant feedback. When I sell a product to you on Amazon, they’ll ask you to rate it and things like that. Our ship time, our on delivery time, the tracking. All those metrics and customer service. So, it was a big topic. There was a track for the whole day around Amazon and there were probably like around 8 or 10 different segments. And we had the one around customers service and the importance of supplier metrics.
Jeremy: There’s probably thousands of people who have seen you speak and you probably talked to lots of other eCommerce professionals. What are some of the biggest mistakes you see people making?
Eric: Again, to be repetitive, I think a lot of people neglect the importance of customer service. They don’t have the tools, the people, the technology, whatever it is, to provide that customer service. I mean, we all have experiences where something happens outside of the accessory space whether it’s your cable TV went down, your water is broken, whatever the case may be. How do people respond to that is the lasting impression that we have of brand. And one of the things, Jeremy, that we do that the listeners might find interesting is that we do a net promoter survey on a continual basis. And for those that may not know what that is, it’s one simple question where you ask, “Would you refer or recommend Tech Armor, or you could input any brand in there, to your friends or family, or colleagues. And on a scale of 1 to 10, 9 and 10 are net promoters, 7 and 8 are neutral, and 1 to 6 are net detractors. And you throw out the neutral because those folks that are just say, “seven or eight.” So you throw that out because it’s noise, if you will. And you take the net promoters minus the net detractors and that’s your net promoter score. And it’s a research tool that was created by Bing that really gives you predictability about what people think about your brand for the coming years. And I think for us, it helped us kind of figure out what people are thinking about us. And it’s a way to engage with customers after they bought the product, used the product, or even contacted our customer service.
Jeremy: Yeah, yeah. So talking on that point, Eric, for a second. The software that’s essential for your business. I know you talked about FreshDesk.
Jeremy: What else do you use that’s essential?
Eric: As a company, we’re using Outlook. So that’s one of the tools that we used. And the Google suite of products that we use as well. We’re currently using ChannelAdvisor, who is a aggregator software that is helping us with thousands of products and listings throughout different marketplaces in different countries. So that’s another big piece of our software tools. I would say those are probably the primary tools that we’re using today.
Jeremy: How do you manage all the inventory because you have so many different channels you sell through?
Eric: Yeah. So ChannelAdvisor helps us a bit with that. We actually use a lot of the different tools on Amazon, for example, to help us as well because we have a lot of products in their FBA by Amazon warehouses. But a lot of it is done through the old fashion spreadsheets. So we’ve got spreadsheets that we’ve put together on a weekly basis to monitor, sell through what’s coming in and what our inventory levels are. And coming in to this holiday period, this is the biggest challenging time for us, to try to nail that because we’re going to really need to bring in a lot of inventory over the next few months.
Jeremy: Yeah. So if people are looking into like FreshDesk and ChannelAdvisor. What are some of the limitations they should look at that would maybe halt growth.
Eric: I think how robust the engine is, right? So for example, before ChannelAdvisor we used another platform and there were some challenges, inherent challenges there, where it didn’t scale as well, required a lot more manual interface than ChannelAdvisor, for example. Before FreshDesk we used another platform called Kayako and it didn’t provide as much data points or reporting things. And then, one of the things that FreshDesk allows us to do is that we could turn on a customer inquiry, switch if you will where after our agents closed out a case we could then send our customer. Well, how would you rate our service? What could we do better? And those things helped us in feeding what improvements we can have.
Jeremy: Yep. Eric, this has been hugely valuable. One of the things that I’ve been thinking about throughout this whole process is about mentors. And who are your mentors in the eCommerce world and what’s some of the best advice they’ve given you?
Eric: So I don’t have any particular one mentor. I have a group of folks that I’m always in touch with, always bouncing ideas off of. They’re entrepreneurs as well, so they’re contacting me with ideas and asking for advice, etc. And a number of them are folks that I used to worked with at Belkin or in the past, the startups that I was working on. So there’s a combination of folks that I’ve worked with, but I think one of the most sage advice that I got that really resonates with me is, “However much time you think it’s going to take, double it, and however much money you think it’s going to take, triple it.”
Eric: I think that my experience with that has been pretty accurate, that it always takes longer and always costs more money. So really be thoughtful. and be serious when you’re trying to plan things out because there’s always going to be hiccups along the way.
Jeremy: Yeah. And the money front. Eric, digital product is one thing. Physical product, you have to put up all this money, get the inventory. How should people navigate that? Do you think they should look for outside funding, should they fund themselves? Should they try and go slow and then reinvest? What’s your philosophy on that?
Eric: My philosophy is, “Crawl, walk, and run.” Definitely, I think that the beauty of being in the eCommerce world is that you could react pretty quickly. And so, taking it slow, doing things in a quality fashion. I’d rather do one or two things that are really high quality fashion than trying to be doing 10 things in a mediocre way. So I think it’s really critical that you start off slow and build it over time. I think that to the extent that you can definitely try to self fund it because…
Jeremy: Because you and Joe, you self funded it, right?
Eric: We self funded it, we bootstrapped it and never had to go for outside for any investment or debt. And it’s fortunate. I think more often than not, it’s more of an anomaly, but to the extent that you can definitely invest and you’re on you’re own and reinvest those profits back into the business. So for a long time Joe and I were just reinvesting in the business, not taking any payroll out of the company until we were able to.
Jeremy: Yeah. How do you decide when is the time to do that? Because there’s always that influx of inventory that you need to…
Eric: I know, I know. But you know, I think that again, the beauty of eCommerce is that we…in part of our strategy to only focus really on eCommerce is that we’re able to get paid pretty quickly. Whereas, if when I was working in the retail industry in the past, working with Wal-Mart, BestBuy, etc. You’re talking 90, 120 days payment terms, sometimes consignment, things like that. So the fact that our business model makes it work. The cash is working for you. I guess the point in time when we saw that we had a stable enough business and that revenues are coming in quick enough, and we had the opportunity to take money in terms of payroll and whatnot.
Jeremy: Yeah, yeah. So Eric, I have one last question for you. Before I ask it, where should people check you out? What websites should we point people towards?
Eric: Well, definitely go to www.techarmor.com. You’ll find all of our products there. You’ll find information about us as well and what our beliefs are and the mission statement of the company. Amazon.com, eBay.com, all of the major merchants’ marketplace out there we’re selling on those markets as well.
Jeremy: Yeah, yeah. Check out the site for sure and it’s a lifetime warranty, it’s amazing. So last question. Eric, since it’s the Skubana eCommerce Mastery Series, my question is, what should we leave people with? What are some best actual tips for the eCommerce business? We talked about a lot of different things. We covered a lot of ground here.
Eric: There’s a number of things I’m going to share, but I think be serious about customer service, really make that the backbone of who you are. Because I think that if you do that well and customers remember that and it resonates with them, there’s word of mouth. There’s going to have that net promoter kind of effect if you will. So really making sure that, that’s there and that the support mechanisms are there for customer service. Again, be thoughtful in whatever you do whether it’s product or a service. Make sure that you’re thoughtful about how people are going to use the products. What they want on the product. How do you deliver that. I think it’s really important that it’s a well thought out and quality approach not a ad hoc, haphazard kind of approach. It takes more time, but it will reap greater rewards and greater results. And then, surround yourself with great people, whether it’s advisors or friends, if you don’t have the capacity to hire people yet. Or when you are hiring people…Whenever you that question in your mind, “Should I go with candidate A or B?” And candidate A cost $10,000 more, I should probably go with B. You’ll regret that. Go with the best person, hire great talent and surround yourself with people that are willing to challenge you and take you to that next level. I think those three things would be key takeaways.
Jeremy: Yeah. Eric, thank you again. It’s been absolute pleasure.
Eric: Same here, Jeremy. Thank you so much.
“It was again, when we really dug deep into what Tech Armor was all about, we really stuck to the ethos that we’re going to have a great customer service and provide a great customers experience for all of our customers. So giving them the confidence to purchase Tech Armor products really drove the Tech Armor replacement lifetime warranty.” (00:03:09)
“We are really big on consumer insights, understanding how people use the products and tailoring that experience based on what people’s needs are or even unarticulated needs, for example. But getting back to your question, really focusing in on ensuring we have a great strategic partnership. Making sure that the design and the user experience…You hear a lot about out of box experience. So from the time the person opens the box, how easy is it? Is it one of those…We’ve all had experiences with those clamshells where you have to cut it… and you almost cut yourself and you’re bleeding. Making the whole process really, really easy, all the way to…And hopefully it doesn’t happen, but if you need to contact Tech Armor, we’re there to support you. Right? And so, we have an average response time of around an hour and a half to get back to customers. These are just pieces of ensuring that, that quality is there from start to finish.” (00:08:10)
“For the listeners make sure you due diligence that there’s really good synergy there, that the goals are in common if you’re going to look for a distribution partners. That would be an example where…When we first tried, it wasn’t successful. Now, we’re working with other distribution partners throughout the world and it is working quite well.” (01:07:15)
“And one of the things, Jeremy, that we do that the listeners might find interesting is that we do a net promoter survey on a continual basis. And for those that may not know what that is, it’s one simple question where you ask, ‘Would you refer or recommend Tech Armor, or you could input any brand in there, to your friends or family, or colleagues.’ And on a scale of 1 to 10, 9 and 10 are net promoters, 7 and 8 are neutral, and 1 to 6 are net detractors. And you throw out the neutral because those folks that are just say, “seven or eight.” So you throw that out because it’s noise, if you will. And you take the net promoters minus the net detractors and that’s your net promoter score. And it’s a research tool that was created by Bing that really gives you predictability about what people think about your brand for the coming years. And I think for us, it helped us kind of figure out what people are thinking about us. And it’s a way to engage with customers after they bought the product, used the product, or even contacted our customer service.” (01:20:30)
“I think one of the most sage advice that I got that really resonates with me is, ‘However much time you think it’s going to take, double it, and however much money you think it’s going to take, triple it.'” (01:25:33)
Checkout out our previous E-Commerce Mastery Series episode featuring Kenny Kane of Stupid Cancer and how establishing a successful brand really pushed his non-profit organizations success.