Sean Aquino is a student in my Create A Profitable Online Store Course and I’m really happy to have him on the show today. Sean runs FineLeatherworking.com where he sells very specialized leather working supplies online.
What’s cool about Sean is that he has managed to create a 6 figure business in a little over a year and a half and he has done so in a niche that he is very passionate about. Similar to the last student interview that I conducted, this podcast provides a very realistic, in the trenches account of someone who just started their online store.
Enjoy the interview as there are a lot of details that Sean shares that can help anyone get started.
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What You’ll Learn
- How Sean came up with his niche
- How Sean tested his niche prior to investing a large sum of money on the business
- All of the mistakes Sean made in getting started and how to avoid them
- How Sean attracted customers to his store early on
- The secret to Sean’s success.
- How Sean continuously manages to attract repeat business for his online store
Other Resources And Books
If you enjoy this podcast please leave me a review on iTunes and enter my podcast contest where I’m giving away free one on one business consultations every single month. For more information go to www.mywifequitherjob.com/contest. And If you are interested in starting your own online business, be sure to sign up for my free six-day mini course where I show you how my wife and I managed to make over 100k in profit in our first year of business. Go to www.mywifequitherjob.com for more information. Now onto the show.
Welcome to the My Wife Quit Her Job Podcast. We will teach you how to create a business that suits your lifestyle, so you can spend more time with your family and focus on doing the things that you love. Here is your host Steve Chou.
Steve: Welcome to the My Wife Quit Her Job Podcast. Today I’m really happy to have Sean Aquino on the show and Sean is actually a student in my creative profitable online store course. Now several weeks ago, I sent out a poll to my readers and an overwhelming number of people responded that they wanted to hear from real people who just started out with their shops, people on the trenches so to speak. So I’ve decided to bring on different students of mine to the podcast and incidentally if you want to learn more about my course, go to www.profitableonlinestore.com.
Anyways in the coming weeks, I will have different students on the show who took different paths to starting their shops. Now some students chose to go the free open source route, some students decided to go with the fully hosted shopping cart, some students decide to drop ship, others decided to carry inventory etcetera, etcetera. The goal of course is to give all would be shop owners some different perspectives on the whole process of starting an online store.
Now let’s talk about Sean a little bit. Sean is among one of the earlier students in my create a profitable online store course, and he’s actually doing quite well. In fact his stores are already doing six figures per year and he’s been consistently doing five figures per month for the past several months. Now his store is called fineleatherworking.com and he sells suppliers for leather workers. Now, it’s actually been a very long time since I’ve spoken to Sean, so I’m actually very interested in hearing how he has grown his business. So welcome to the show Sean, how are you doing men?
Sean: Pretty good, how are you Steve?
Steve: Pretty good. So Sean you know your niche is pretty unique, so how did you actually come up with selling leather working supplies?
Sean: So I’ve been a maker for my whole life. In college I made theater and after college, I actually was making television and then after television I was– got into traditional woodworking, so I did that for a number of years and then after– not after, I still do a lot of woodworking. One of the things that I wanted to do was to build a furniture that had leather wrap like leather cushions and leather aspects of it as well as making leather goods for myself. So I started learning everything I could find about leather working and through my experience of making other types of things be it, TV or woodworking, you know, I knew that I wanted a certain level of quality and so I started taking from a couple of different teachers, all of them were great, but what I discovered was that the tools that these teachers would use and the tools that many of the high end leather workers that I knew used were not readily available either online or even in the US. So I decided to open my own store which sells leather working tools for making high end leather goods.
Steve: Interesting so you actually studied how to do this. So you are actually very passionate about leather working in general.
Sean: Yeah, you know and I think that’s really important to wherever niche that you choose, for your store is that, it’s not just something that– you know Guy Kawasaki always talks about ‘make meaning’ and so if you go set out to just make money, you can do that to a certain extent but especially in like the maker community and like the DIY community and in the community where people make things, it’s much more important to make meaning as well as to sell the things. So we and as much are about not just selling tools but selling the means to make something into, make something for yourself.
Steve: That’s really interesting because you know for us at least, I’m not really particularly interested in the stuff that we sell on our shop, but I did really get passionate about just running the business and providing the best possible products within our niche. So it’s just interesting that you are very passionate about your niche.
Sean: Yeah totally and you know but I think that extends out to even making a store, right. So some people like you know there is like this idea of being like a maker and people who make stores like in my view are also makers as well because it’s like you are either dissatisfied with the customer service that you received when you maybe were buying those linen cloths or like the experience that you had so people set out to make their own store, to make their own experience that hopefully make other people happier and have a more enjoyable experience and purchasing those products.
So too with us, with fine leather working is that you know we really focus on the customer service aspect of it but then since I have an interest in leather working and in making things in general, you know, I really try to optimize store not with like the profits in mind but more of like, you know, if it were me and it is me who uses these tools what would I need. And so what I put into the store were all of the things that I myself would need, if I was trying to either, if I was starting leather working today this is what I would probably get if I wanted to start that.
Steve: So what are some of your goals for the business then, is it– I imagine it’s to make money also, but is this going to be like a side project or you want to make this you’re full time gig at some point?
Sean: Well, I really love my job now so I don’t know that I would ever leave that job but certainly I could create more time into the store and I would like to. I think that it’s not– right now we focus mostly on finding the right tools for people but more and more we are trying to provide tutorials on like how to use those tools. Like even how to think about it, right. So this is actually something that if you subscribe to our newsletter is that something that I talk about which is that you know you… When I started woodworking it’s a good metaphor for making anything. I had a notion of– I started with mask curving. And so I had a notion of what I thought would be the process of making a mask like out of a block of wood and you curve it. And then at the time I was living in Japan, so I had the fortunate ability to have like this master woodworking teacher who made masks. And watching him for the first time make masks was like amazing. Like he was probably in his 60s or 70s at the time, but he like tore through that mask like it was crazy like he just took a piece of block of wood, and he willed it down to like almost nothing like in a really short amount of time.
Well knowing what’s possible, I think is really important to somebody who is about to get into tools because you can really misuse tools and really misunderstand tools. There is this notion that if I buy the right tool like then my work will be better. That is true to an extent, but the knowledge of how to use that tool is really the more empowering thing. And as your ability grows you of course will need better tools, but you have to focus on you know being better at your craft as well as trying to find the best materials and the best tools that you can have.
Steve: Yeah, that’s probably why my golf game hasn’t improved even with nice clubs, yeah.
Sean: Yeah that’s true right. So we just don’t say okay, buy the most expensive tools and then you will be better. It’s like we also provide information of okay so if you decide, if this is what you are looking for, if this is the quality that you are looking for, this is how you use this thing and this is how you should use it and this is the result that you get. And what is helpful, and what we are trying to get more into as well, it’s not just here is the tool, this is what it does but this is what it looks like right like when you are– if you know nothing about like how something should work as far as whether it will be wood woodworking or leatherworking, anything even like signing a website, you know making a television program, you need to be able to see and to understand what’s possible to increase the range of what you think is possible, right, because going into it, you know.
I only thought when I first started leatherworking since that’s a more recent example I thought that okay so the best way to do this is this way, right and it wasn’t until I found certain teachers who were way better than me or had been doing this for a really long time that I was like okay so if I really want to do this, this is what it really should feel like, right. And I think that’s also important to understand even about taking your course too and why it’s really super useful is that people can kind of flare about if they want to make their own business but it’s good to have good role models or good examples of how that works so that you can understand like okay so I may be doing this right or wrong doesn’t matter, but I understand how he got there and so now I can tailor that to my own experience and you know, make it my own but I now have a template for understanding you know how to get better at something.
Steve: Sure yeah that makes a whole lot of sense. So, from what I understand then for your store, you sell the tools and you actually– the vision is to provide tutorials and how to use the tools and that sort of a thing and that in a way you are going to be trying to create some sort of a community for leather workers?
Steve: Is that accurate, okay.
Sean: Yeah, that’s pretty accurate. I mean right now and actually since we started the store we focus a lot on customer service.
Sean: You know when people call me up, like I’ll spend as much time as I need with them. Like they are always– people are always shocked like I’m willing to write like you know paragraph after paragraph of emails. I’m willing to talk to them for like 20 minutes. Usually you know with most crafts these days like it’s usually like this old school company you know it’s a good bunch of old guys sitting like in this old shop like they don’t want to talk to you, they don’t want to know what you are doing, it’s like either buy or you go away. But so it’s a really shocking experience, sometimes I think for a customer because you know, they’ll call us or they’ll write to us and I will reply back, you know. And that even in itself you know especially like in these sort of old school types of experiences where it’s like, “Yeah I will answer the phone maybe the fifth time you call me or I will answer your question maybe the third time that you email me like barely.” We actually focus a lot on our customer service so that we can understand more about what are people trying to achieve and what are they trying to do.
Steve: So you still have your full time job, how do you actually take support calls while you are at work?
Sean: Oh my God, I try to do that either in my off hours. So I know that it doesn’t always work for people who are on the East Coast, but I’ll usually get a log of calls and then if I either you know when I get home I will try to answer calls, or if I get a lunch break you know like if I get five minutes here I will try to call somebody back. Usually I try to schedule the time to just sort of call them back.
Sean: So often it goes to a voice mail because we, you know this is our full time, like we, me and my wife both have full time jobs but while I can answer people like I will usually call them back and they are usually happy to talk to me like kind of an off hour because people work too, so they don’t necessarily want to talk to me when they are at their job too, so it kind of works out.
Steve: So how many calls do you get in a day?
Sean: No, not that many.
Sean: I mean, we get like you know probably you know in a week we will get like three.
Sean: But what’s interesting is like for every call that we get we almost always get a sale because not because like you know, I’m like selling them on the phone but because they legitimately just have this question that needs answering and like nobody is providing the answer to. So we provide the answer and then like oh this is great, so maybe I will buy some tools too.
Steve: Yeah, I would say our conversion rate for our phone customers is very high also. Almost always there’s sale.
Steve: Yeah, so you know I wanted to talk to you specifically because you went to the open source route. You chose open cart for your shopping cart, right?
Sean: That’s right.
Steve: So, I want to get to know, did you even consider some of the fully hosted guys like Shopify or Bigcommerce and what was your thought process involved in deciding what to do?
Sean: I’m really cheap so that was why.
Steve: So am I.
Sean: Right, so we are both agents so we both know like it’s about saving money. Also too in my– in the job that I had at the time, I was doing a lot of friend development and also design as well as video and everything. So I had experience in building my own website in designing my websites, so I had the ability and actually– although I will say that even though I had that ability, it was somewhat that even being good at doing website design was not necessarily an asset first and it’s something that came up.
So for people who are listening, Steve actually has focus groups within his course so that people who are building stores can get together and talk about it which is really helpful. And one of the people asked like, “Well you being a web designer like you know did that give you like instant access to your store?” And it did but it also– what I would say for somebody who’s aspiring is that you don’t necessarily need to be a web designer per say or to have a background experience in backend development because for me, I would spend I think inundate amount of time like kind of fixating upon like one little aspect of it, without keeping the like the eye on the price and like okay so it doesn’t matter if this button is green or red necessarily, we need to get the store like out the door.
And I think that my web design experience certainly helped me a lot in you know it was invaluable in making the store, but for people who are aspiring to do it, I would say that it’s as important to focus on what you are really after which is to open a store, right. So, it was really easy for me to do the design aspect of it but what I was really learning was like how to run that as a business.
Steve: So did you end up buying a theme or template or you kind of just started with the base theme?
Sean: So being an agent I was also an over achiever. So I was planning to do two stores at once. My first store was going to be selling open cart themes, so I ended like put my face into it, right. Like so I was trying to, I built this theme from scratch like and then my idea was to sell that theme like in a separate store and then to open my fine leather working store. It’s like about like economy, right.
Sean: Like I was like trying to do two things at once. So I still had that theme and I still use that for the store but I totally built it from scratch because I had this notion of like oh it’s going to sell the theme. Which is also interesting too because this is something else that we talked about in our focus group was that, I didn’t know necessarily how like my experience in my success with fine leather working was the culmination of a point. If I hadn’t tried to create like an open cart theme and trying to sell it, I probably would have done less well on the fine leather working store and similarly so like that was like my like this site was like my fifth niche, right. Like I had tried like five completely different things to get to this point and all those things led up to that and I think that’s something that’s important too is that whether you chose open source or whether you choose something that’s out of the box, like I think that it’s more important to get it out the door so that you can test whether or not what you are doing is valid, right.
Like we both always look at the value so we are always talking about validating your assumptions and validating your niche and I think that’s super important and it took me like five tries. But in each of those tries I was optimizing one, like a different aspect of it like whether it was a copy or the images or you know the niche that I was picking, how I was evaluating it, you know or just even my connections to that product. So even though I’m a designer, I don’t have great jobs at backend development and once I build that theme I quickly realized like I’m never going to maintain this for people who are paying money because in a way like I knew a certain amount about PHP but is it really my passion to update this theme and I was like no, not at all.
Steve: Yeah, totally hey so you know you mention a lot of great points there. So let’s talk about validating your niche. So what are some of the things that you did to validate your leather working niche before you went full blown into the whole idea?
Sean: Well, so it wasn’t just the leather working niche but it was also other things like the other products that I tried as well. The first mistake that I made was to build an entire store without testing it, right. That was like my rookie mistake, it was like me and a friend of mine were trying– this is like way back so when IOS first came out, like we were thinking we were going to make like you know bags of cash by making icons for iPhone apps and for like mobile optimized icons. And so I spent a whole lot of time creating the store and then we were like oh we need to make some products and so we made a couple of icons and we put them out there. We went to a bunch of like IOS meet ups like in the valley and then like you know, we got like two sales and icons being icons it’s like three bucks. So we spent like 40 hours making a store and then we made like three bucks, right.
So that was like the first mistake was just like to build everything and then like, then go to market so lesson from that iteration I understood like okay so really validate like what you are doing. So for subject on products what I would like is, I would really try to dab it down like I’m kind of hard headed as well as it’s like as well as sort of like into different things so it took me a couple of iterations but you know my next store I built it just like a little bit less than like my previous store. So I always spent like instead of spending 40 hours, I could spend like 30 hours on it. And then I tested my assumptions right and like I fell flat on that too.
So all of that says that you know when I finally got the leather working, what I did was that I did even try to build the store first. I actually started an E-newsletter right, like I just put out a large page that said, “Hey we are going to be opening leather tools store for people who want to buy high end tools who is interested?” And then I did a bunch of ads on Facebook to see who signed up. And based on you know the rate at which I started getting subscribers which was pretty fast it was like I think I put up the ads on– I put up the adds and then within maybe a couple of days I started getting subscribers. So that was solid to validate my niche, right.
So I was trying to optimize okay so how many people are actually interested in this. And so I did different types of experimentation on advertizing to determine whether or not to lose interest and then before I built a store, I just started selling stuff like you know, I would– I went on to the leather working forums and people were looking for certain things and I was like, “Okay so I have these things so who wants to buy it?” You know like one person bought from me.
And then you know I tried different forums and like you know I was looking for a good gig so people were actually saying like, “Hey I have it, like who wants to buy it?” You know and so, I started to get like a little bit of traction and so only at that point where I think okay so I can kind of go onto a forum and say, you know, “Who wants to buy this and somebody invites because it’s something they need, it’s something that I like, it’s something that I think is necessary, I think other people do too, let me see if this works.” And is started to– and it did that’s when I started to be like okay so I think what I need to focus on is fine leather working supplies.
But even within that, you know I still totally messed up like the first packs that we did. Like you know I chose certain colors, I chose certain products and those first products which I chose weren’t actually the things that ended up working out like as far as like you know, the bulk of what we sell, they were much different. Like what we sell the most of today is totally different than what I thought was at the beginning, or what I started off with and what was important though is that you know, I was constantly looking at to see okay so I’m willing to bet like X amount of money on like maybe purchasing this inventory and then let’s see how it does but I was always looking out okay so who is really interested in this and that’s kind of how we came up with a current inventory on top of the knowledge that I had that you know maybe people, maybe it’s an awareness thing, maybe people ought to know that they need this so we also worked on you know explaining more like you know what is it that this thing does, what will this tool do and how does that benefit you and also kind of optimizing for okay, so we know people like a certain– we don’t know what colors people like for you know in our niche, so let’s figure out, let’s put out a couple of colors and see like which ones work, which ones don’t and then find tune from there.
Steve: Were you doing this on the forums or through your email list?
Sean: At that point we had already opened the store.
Sean: But it was really low. It was really like low traffic, right. Even today we don’t have that much traffic it’s mostly like we are super fine tuned to what people are looking for, so we don’t actually do that high volume of traffic but we do really well I think because we are really specific about the products that we are choosing now because we’re always listening to what people say. That’s part of the reason why, I’m willing to do longer customer service calls, because I want to hear what is it they are trying, what is it that our customers are trying to do? And then it makes me both think about okay, so if they are really trying to do this maybe we should carry this other thing, and also to understand okay so that’s what most people are trying to make like let’s try to make that easier for people in the form of explaining things or in form of tutorials.
Steve: Yeah, so you’re traffic isn’t that high but the traffic that you do get converts at a very high rate?
Sean: Yeah and I think that’s because of our– I think that’s because of our unique knowledge like we are now more and more subject matter experts in this category. And also again we are like really fine tuned to our customers; we really put them first where other people maybe don’t.
Steve: Okay and you mentioned early on that you carry very high quality materials and tools on your site, right. So how did you actually approach the vendors you know for your online store to supply you with this stuff?
Sean: It was through trial and error. Certain teachers of mine carried– used different types of tools, you know some are from Japan, some are from France, some are from other places. So it was really you know trying to go out there and learn as much as you could about leather working and then seeing like what was useful. And then what was really– what I felt was important to people who make things is like knowing like where those tools come from. So most of our tools are actually handmade as well. So people who make things by hand also like their tools being made by hand so most of the tools and most of the thread are actually like sort of small scale manufacturing, right. Like the knives are not like stamped out by like the machine it’s like some old guy in France like shoveling them.
Sean: From like pieces of steel. He makes like this nice knife. So that history and that whole
chain from beginning to end, I think it’s important to people who are buying the tools because they are also making custom bags and custom wallets that they know that this isn’t just something they can just stamped out of like buy the thousands it’s actually some person is like sharpening each and every tooth that is part of the tool.
Steve: So how do you get in touch with these people to actually carry their tools then?
Sean: It was like– it was a combination of contacts. So, you know it was like knowing somebody who knew somebody and networking and you know and then getting into contact with some, and then figuring out okay so you know trying to negotiate like okay so we can’t buy a whole lot now, but you know can we try to come up with like a system so we are like we can eventually get more discounts if we increase our volume and then from there it just kind of snow balled right.
So like now you know we order a lot of stuff all the time and our vendors are super happy with us. You know so like it’s sort of like this mutual benefit relationship where you know we are increasing awareness about what they do, and then we are able to increase the business that we give to them by ordering more stuff.
Steve: So since you were kind of into leather working, you had the contacts so that you could actually ask for referrals and then it was through referrals that you managed to find people who were actually manufacturing the stuff that you wanted to carry in your store. Is that kind of accurate?
Sean: Yeah that’s right. I mean there are certainly like a wide range of tools and we are constantly like increasing our network and we are also exploring what else is out there, but yeah that’s definitely like– that’s definitely how we grew our manufacturing contacts and how we understood like you know what’s important. But also too you know again we made the store to solve the problems that we had, right. So first and foremost is like is this working for me you know because– a good example was like, there is like a certain type of knife that one manufacturer makes, another one makes and if you just look at them knowing nothing about them, like you wouldn’t know like which is better. So you know we choose the one that we think is going to, that we think is better and that we think that more people will find better.
Steve: Okay, so you actually buy both knives in your example and then you try them both?
Sean: So it’s like this, I have like a pile of tools that I’m like yeah this doesn’t work, this isn’t great.
Steve: I’m sure you wife loves that.
Sean: Oh my God. We have boxes it’s like really we need to keep this and I’m like you can’t just throw this away.
Steve: So, would you say then that you carry like completely unique products? Because I noticed you do have a bunch of competitors.
Sean: Yeah, I mean our products are pretty unique. I mean you could go to the manufacture and buy the same thing, but we are unique in the sense that nobody else really is like has a context for like how to use this and nobody is really advising people. Nobody is really tested to the degree I think that we have of you know what’s going to work and what’s not going to work. And plus you know there are no costs all the time because we make high end leather tools where people will then like try to knock that off, and so it’s sort of like the world west in some ways was like you know what is the actual origin of this item, whereas we can trace it back. One of the suppliers for leather actually we have just starting our relationship with, you know there are super old school too and they can trace it all the way back to the farmer who raised the cow, who gave, who you know, who is the leather coming from.
Sean: Like that’s like a whole supply gene right. Like so it’s unique in the sense that we are really committed to like understanding like where everything is coming from and that it’s high quality product and our manufacturers as well can trace it all the way back to you know to where it came from.
Steve: That’s pretty cool. So was drop shipping ever a consideration here or was just the nature of the relationships you had to actually carry inventory for your products?
Sean: I considered drop shipping but again because I imagine that I’m cheap, I thought you know, I’m willing to put in the time to pack all these boxes, so that I can save a couple of bucks, and also we also take really good care of our packaging. Like actually a lot of people write back to us and it’s like they write back to us like, “Oh my God I felt like Christmas because your packaging is so good like we really like wrap things like really carefully.” And then pack things in a way like you know we cover all of our knives blades and we really like we both wrap all the sharp ends of the tools to make sure that nothing breaks and- -.
Sean: And so when people get that the mail they are like, “Oh my God, this is like the best packing I have ever seen in my life.” And I don’t think you would necessarily get that with drop shipping.
Steve: Yeah, you know it’s funny I’m asking these questions Sean but I already know the answers because it seems like we had the same thought process. It must be an Asian thing.
Sean: Yes, quality and keeping the money for yourself, exactly.
Steve: So let’s talk about your first sale, how did you make your first sale?
Sean: So again you know, I had been doing sort of like tests with the firm posts so I had made like a couple of sales here and there but the first sale that we actually had in our store didn’t happen until about, I would say three weeks after we launched. Like we launched and then it was just like, “This is nice.” You know it was kind of just spamming, refresh button on your email like every hour like nothing happens anyway day, anyway two days and you are like, “You know what maybe this isn’t working, I don’t know if maybe we should pick something else.” And then we finally got a sale and it’s like, “Oh wow, okay.” And then that customer you know emailed us right away. He said, “Hey this is great, like you are selling exactly what I’m looking for, do you have this thing?” And I’m like, “No but we can get that thing.” And so then you know and so like on the next shipment which was small at the time like we started to carry this you know I think it was a pricking iron and so then we started carrying pricking irons and it’s like and he was like, “Great, hey do you have, happen to have this thing?” And I was like, “Nope, but we can order that on our next order.” And then you know and so our first customer was like a repeat customer for probably five orders, right?
Sean: And it was because like you know, he would write to us and if he would actually send us pictures of what he was doing and I was like, “Hey, you know,” because I asked him and I was like, “Hey if you have pictures of what you are doing I’ll help you take a look at it, you know and if you need advice about construction, I’m very happy to tell you.” And you know and so he did that and you know he asked like “okay, so if I’m making this thing what will I need for that?” And I’m like, “You know you probably use what you have but you can also try this other thing.” And he was like, “Okay, I’ll try that thing.” And then it’s kind of snowballed from there. So actually most of our customers are repeat customers because we build a rapport with each and every one of them. I mean not literally each and every one of them because that will be like insane because we would be on phone all day.
Sean: But for most of my customers like they can ask this question, and we will reply it back and it’s not like we are trying to sell them every single tool in the book right, because they’re usually looking for specific things that they have a question about “okay, so how do I use this thing?” And I’m like, “okay, well, I think that you might need this and you might need this,” or sometimes we end up busting a sale because it’s like you know do I actually need this thing and I’m like no you don’t need that thing, you already have, you know you already have a tire, you don’t need a full iron like you just get by with what you have.
Sean: And people find that to be refreshing right because we are not trying to always sell them. We are just trying to help people to make the thing that they want to and because of that you know we are injecting loyalty into our customer base and then they’re coming back not because you know, we necessarily have the cheapest prices or like even like the most of us like products, but because we are really fine tuned into understanding what is it that they are trying to do and to try to have you know get the resources or have the means to help them out.
Steve: So would you say that a large portion of your customers are repeat customers?
Sean: Yeah. I would say- -.
Sean: At least half of our customers are repeat customers.
Steve: Wow, okay so it’s really in your best interest to establish a relationship with these people?
Sean: Yeah you know and it’s helpful for them too because you know they can ask us questions about what I should do next and then you know and we help them out. And it’s funny because it is a small community actually people, people will get a lot of referrals through our current customers and again it’s just sort of like a positive influence right, it’s like we are helping people out they in turn refer other people to us and then we help them out and then everybody is happy.
Steve: Yeah totally you know, I always tell people not to underestimate word of mouth because for our shop at least you know a third of our business is direct traffic. So word of mouth is clearly in play here. So how did you, you know that first sale, was that just organic search or did you pay for any marketing or that sort of a thing?
Sean: We paid for advertising in the beginning…
Sean: Like right now– and that may change but right now we don’t do any advertizing. It’s all through organic search and referrals.
Steve: Wow, okay so you mentioned in the beginning so was that first sale from advertizing or was it from organic?
Sean: You know I don’t remember. It might have been from organic search.
Sean: I can imagine that it was because we weren’t very high up in the beginning.
Steve: Yeah three weeks, I can’t imagine you ranked that much.
Sean: Well, you would be surprised because we were so specific at our copy and actually that level reminds me, I actually took a Neville course on copy writing.
Steve: Okay, yeah, yeah.
Sean: Who was a guest on your show and actually– that was actually really inspirational too because it’s you know it reminded me about being specific to what you are writing for, right. So maybe it was the way that we talked about our linen thread and it was like yeah it will do this, this and this what it is for and nobody else had written about it that we got in through organic search or may have just been page search.
I think it was organic though because like I said, like advertizing today hasn’t really like worked out like as far as like how much money that we are putting in versus what we are getting in return. That said again since I’m Asian and because I’m cheap like I’m talking about like 25 dollars and I’m like, “Oh my God we spent 25 dollars in advertizing and now we get, we didn’t get anything from this, we got like no sales, that’s not worth it.”
Steve: I know exactly how you feel, that’s hilarious. Okay so today you don’t do any paid advertizing for now?
Sean: That’s right. But I think, I think that’s going to be, that’s going to change because we, I think have gone to a point where it’s like I think a lot of people know about us but not a lot, lot of people know about us and so I think advertizing is probably the next horizon for us as far as how to increase our audience. Also too, we kind of got, we were kind of late to social because I was more focused on the customer service and the website experience of it. I focused less on the social aspect of it. So we recently launched our facebook page. We had a twitter account for a while and we did Pinterest for a while too but we hadn’t been actively promoting it, we were just kind of lurking on the sideline and kind of building our content but now we are also doing– we are not also; we are doing a push into our social channels because we haven’t focused on it because we have been focused on other areas and then I think after that, after I feel comfortable about like the quality of our social channel then I think we will try advertizing again.
Steve: What about email marketing?
Sean: So we do email marketing quite a bit and actually that again that was something that I also learnt from Neville as well was to have an auto responder. So we have actually a really– a fairly robust email responder that takes people through how to think about leatherworking and you know and what’s important because again for most people who are trying to do leather working, their model for what it is in America anyway is kind of western wear. It’s like making sandals and making like kind of more of cowboy type stuff. What I find it’s like this– what people come to ask for and it’s not for everybody it’s about what people come to ask for is like okay so, I don’t want it to look like you know I’m a cowboy, what I want it to look like is I just stepped out of, off a plane from Rome, right, like I want like this nice European looking bag, and so for that, that’s kind of more of where we are aiming.
Steve: Incidentally if you could produce a bag for my wife since you wouldn’t have to spend 1000 dollars on it [Laughter].
Sean: Well that’s funny because that’s why people come to us, right. That’s the whole point of our store but also of sort of makers in general is that you know if you think about it you could spend you know 200 bucks on our tools or even spend a 1000 dollars on your– on a handbag and in the end you could make exactly what you want and it will be yours and or you need to buy this bag for a 1000 bucks. So what we try to– what we believe and we try to promote is that, it’s not just making things on your own but it’s like having more control over what it is that you know, you are adding as part of your life.
To your original question, what we talk about in our newsletter it’s not just, okay here is this tool like you hold it here you hit it here and that’s how it goes. It’s like how do you think about this, right?
Sean: Because there is a ton of people on that sit who are making leather goods and like you know, it’s kind of like how many three pockets wallets can you make? Like you know what I mean like they all kind of start to look the same and what I try to teach people like in our E-newsletter is like you know what you have very specific needs, make what– and it’s what we did for our store. Solve your own problems first and there will be other people who have that same problem. You don’t necessarily have to copy other people’s designs even though you may start that way so that you have an understanding of how to make something. If you think about it really as somebody who is a creator, you are thinking about it more, not so much as, “hey I’m going to copy this and I think this is great.” But based on what I need, this is I think what this thing should look like.
Steve: This is just like starting a business same thing I mean. You might start out trying to emulate someone else but ultimately you are going to have to come with your own flavor of whatever you are trying to start.
Steve: There is a lot of people listening who are kind of on the sidelines wanting to start their store. So I was just wondering if you could tell us, what were some of the biggest challenges for you to start your store and then you know what sort of advice would you give people who are just kind of waiting on the sidelines and just kind of itching to begin?
Sean: You know being a perfectionist, I think was one of the challenges right because since I was a designer in my job, you know you try to work towards a certain level of perfection and that’s important, but what is it that you are really trying to perfect? And for me, you know, again being a designer was a blessing and a curse. I can work to perfection in that area, but in actuality what you are first tying to perfect is, you are trying to perfect your business, right because at the end of the day, you are trying to create something of value and then finding people who also find that valuable and then paying a little bit something for that. So if you don’t work on that, it doesn’t matter whether or not you have the best logo or whether or not your website works the best. If you don’t fine-tune what it is that you are offering to people– and it can’t be junk right, like you can’t just in my view buy all these tools from all the manufacturers that we have, and then put it out there, and then open like fineleatherworkingtool.com.
Sean: It’s not about that, it’s like, it’s not just about the things that we sell, but it’s like the whole experience like the knowledge that we impact, and also the perspective that we get as well, and that’s the thing that you are really perfecting. You are not perfecting like which is the perfect product that I’m going to get necessarily although that’s does come, like what you want will always be working on I think and what as somebody who is a designer sometimes lose sight of it like you know, what is it that I’m really trying to perfect here. It’s not just how this looks but what is the mechanism of this endeavor like what are we trying to market? Is it a value, so and you know do people find that valuable?
So I think that’s like kind of the biggest handle. It’s like really being honest about what it is that you are providing to people and whether or not they find that useful because sometimes the answer is no, right. So like I said I had five other ideas before this all of which I tried to put into play and then the more because I don’t think I was really giving all the value that I could have, right, like I wasn’t, like with the icons for example, like you know, me and my friend like I said me and my friend were working on this. We just kind of put up icons that we thought were cool, you know and that worked to a degree but we weren’t really asking people like, “hey so you are building an app, what kind of an icon would you need?” We were just like, “hey, you know, I think this would be good.” And then we put it out there and then unsurprisingly like nobody bought it.
Steve: Right. Yeah, so basically what you are saying if I might summarize is you need to spend some time validating your niche and providing what customers are actually looking for before just throwing up the site and just selling a bunch of products which you had no idea whether people want or not?
Sean: Yeah, you know in that actually that answer, might be– the question might be then actually what is it that people get stalled out on most. To get started I think people just need to get over themselves right. So like there is a lot of reasons why you wouldn’t start something like this. I think like you are not going to get it right on the first try. So I think to actually answer your original question is like, what is the thing that’s most difficult when people are just starting out, is to just start you know, to put like one foot in front of the other and just kind of go for it, because you won’t create the perfect store from like you know from the gate. Like it took me like I said five tries to get to where I am, to get to a point where– a store that I was actually you know was half way decent and making any money.
Like it wasn’t until I got to that fifth store that I really understood what it took. You know, if I had only, if I had put all this like thinking and like hesitancy and nervousness into making my first store and then that didn’t work out and I gave up, like that would have been the worst, but also if I had put up all these barriers about whether or not, “oh, I’m not a designer, I’m not a copy writer, I’m not a photographer, like I’m not a developer,” there are all of these reasons not to do it. Sometimes, like you just kind of have to go for it.
Steve: Yeah, so in that same vein some of the common questions I get, so how much money did you risk to start your business?
Sean: How much did I– I think our first inventory buy was like 300 dollars I want to say.
Steve: Okay and how much did it cost you to put up the website?
Sean: Not very much because like I said its open source, it was an open source platform, and I did the theme myself so it was just hosting which was I don’t know, it was like 20– hosting is like 20 bucks a month if something is even testable.
Sean: And then it was just the inventory really.
Sean: I would say though that you know if you are thinking about starting a store to really put a block on your time as well because I think that’s where people kind of get stuck to use like they throw all this time into it like they will throw like a 100 hours at launching their first store. And in my view now looking at from the other side it’s like invest what you think you are going to– what you hope to make in it and limit the amount of time that you are going to work on before you actually go for it right, because as a designer like I said I could spend 200 hours on this website but I really and I started to go there, but by the fifth time that I was doing it, I was like okay I’m willing to invest this much time into trying this idea, but that’s like the real cause to me, the way that I was measuring it was how much time that I put into it because my time was more valuable at that point than you know the 300 dollars, right.
Steve: Right, right. So you know incidentally how long did it take you to put up your site?
Sean: So it took me– it took me about like a week’s worth of work.
Sean: Like including the theme, the copy, the photographs, the logistics of you know getting supplies. I don’t count like the networking aspect of it because you know like I wasn’t really tracking the time and you can’t really measure that anyway.
Sean: But in terms of like when I was sitting on my computer and putting together the store is probably like 40 hours over the course of you know a week or two or something like maybe two or three weeks, and then I put it out there.
Steve: Okay and so you just launched it right afterwards, essentially?
Sean: Yeah but like I said I had already in some ways I already knew, right because, I had already started validating what my products were and like whether or not it would work, so…
Steve: Yeah, and you had an email list full of people who wanted to buy from you also?
Sean: Exactly and that actually was not a lot of time at all. I probably spent two hours and a copy of the email and the landing page before I actually launched that. I think I spent some advertizing dollars on that, but I think I signed up for free facebook ads so you get like 50 bucks. Again because I’m cheap. So I got like that waved. So it was like a minimal amount of time to, and a minimal amount of money, and a minimal amount of time to validate my assumption about whether this would work and then by the time I started building the store, I actually had a pretty good idea that this is going to be okay, but even then I kind of limit that too. I didn’t put more time into it until I started getting more sales. So after that three weeks you know nothing happened until I got my first sale. I didn’t really start tweaking the store again until I started getting more sales, right.
Sean: Like I would tweak the copy a little bit maybe because like I said we were doing a little bit of advertizing in the beginning, I would tweak the ads, but I was trying to be measured in my investment of time.
Steve: Okay and how long did it actually take you to come up with your niche or did you just know all along that you kind of wanted to go into that space?
Sean: That was, you know that’s really hard to peg. You know…
Sean: In some ways it was like a couple of weeks in like again like validating whether or not this would work and in some ways it was years because you know I have been trying to come up with my own store, and to try to see how it worked and so I went through different iterations. So if you think about it from the first time that I opened the store to this store, it’s actually quite a long time.
Sean: But this particular niche was actually very short, and again it was about continually trying and continually adjusting what it was that I was doing until I could be good at all little, little things that you kind of need to be good at to get your store up running.
Steve: Okay, hey Sean you know we’ve already been talking for 50 minutes believe it or not and I don’t want to take too much of your time.
Sean: Like we are out?
Steve: Yeah, but thanks for coming on, you know if anyone would like to ask you some questions either about your shop or the course or that sort of thing, is there a place where they can reach you?
Sean: Yeah, so our store is fineleatherworking.com and my email for the store is Sean or store like you can also start they’re both addresses @fineleatherworking.com.
Steve: All right. Well thanks a lot Sean, I really appreciate you coming on the show and I think the listeners will have learned a lot based on your experiences and what you’ve said this far.
Sean: Thanks Steve, and it was a real pleasure to be on the show as well.
Steve: Yeah, well thanks a lot Sean. Take care.
Sean: Bye, you too.
Steve: Here is what’s cool about Sean. He pretty much followed all the guidelines in my class and has managed to create a six figure business in about a year and a half. Plus you know overall he’s just a great guy, and I really love how he pursued his online store in a niche that he truly was passionate about.
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