Even when I was young (cue old timey music), surf and skate clothes were da bomb (anyone else remember Vision Street Wear?). But in order to get your hands on those sweet brands you had to take a special trip to the local surf shop. Then you had to convince your mum that a $50 branded shirt was exactly what you needed (which could lead to embarrassing public displays of teenage brat syndrome). But, thank goodness, times have changed, and we now have the new school of WooCommerce entrepreneurs. Online shopping has brought all of our favourite things to our devices and purchasing decisions are at our fingertips, especially if Mum’s credit card info is stored in the browser ;).
Sam Culshaw is one half of the entrepreneurial brains blending the convenience and 24 hour availability of eCommerce with the cool factor of surf and skate brands. The result is Supereight, a rapidly growing lifestyle brand based in Nottingham, UK. With a hectic life as a jack of all trades as a young WooCommerce entrepreneur, I felt lucky to get some of his time for this interview. We talked about the seasonality of ordering; how server capacity can be likened to the size of a bricks and mortar store; the importance of customer service; and the excitement of selling.
As it turned out, Sam was working on his Google AdWords campaign when I called, and was more than happy for the interruption.
Ali: So, what inspired you to set up your company?
Sam: We sell action sports, skate, surf, lifestyle apparel and shoes … Myself and my business partner have both worked for brands, we’ve both done distribution and had sales agencies and we just decided that there was an opportunity to move into the retail side of the business and do a better job, really. That was kind of it, we were already in the market but on the opposite side of the industry, if that makes sense?
Ali: Interesting, it does. How did you see there was an opening for selling apparel online, in the retail side?
Sam: The UK especially is quite forward in eCommerce compared to a lot of other countries; [but] there [are] just a lot of people not doing as good a job as we thought we could do. In terms of presentation, in terms of customer service crucially, just in terms of the whole ordering experience and order funnel … It just seemed [like there were] a lot of people not doing a great job, so that was the main reason really.
We’ve sold products to [people who are now our] competition for years and [we] just felt like there needed to be more progressive online retail, in that market. It’s hard to launch an eCommerce website and do anything that’s not been done before, but [the goal was to] just try to do little things that are over and above what everyone else does basically.
Ali: That makes sense. Did you work in your regular jobs while you were setting this up?
Sam: We were self-employed – at the time I was a sales agent and my business partner was in distribution, he had a different company, so we kind of wound the businesses up at the same time as starting this company. It wasn’t like a jump in at the deep end, it was a bit more transitional. We’ve been going about a year, really, trading, but we started the ball moving and talking about it late 2014. It took quite a bit of time to get trading, at least six months I would say, of planning and getting things ready and contacting suppliers, and all that kind of stuff. The really boring stuff.
Ali: So what’s the exciting stuff? What makes you excited about what you’re doing?
Sam: It’s going to sound really sad but selling stuff makes me really excited.
Ali: That’s not sad at all, you have an eCommerce store.
Sam: [Selling is] kind of crucial to existing, but there’s some interesting stuff you can do. You can work on editorial stuff with suppliers, which we try and do. We’re starting to do more. Marketing stuff is interesting as well. The market we’re in is quite interesting, it’s not like we’re selling white goods, we’re selling a lifestyle essentially. Anything that goes along with skateboarding, surfing, there is plenty out there going on to talk about, blog about, get involved with. I think if we were selling washing machines I don’t think I’d be as motivated to come to work every day.
[But] generally when you come in and you’ve had a really great weekend, that’s probably the most exciting. Especially as a startup, because as your sales grow you get used to a certain level of sales, and then when you see another sales jump you’re like Okay, well where’s the next level; as long as it continues to go up then it’s pretty cool.
Ali: Definitely, it’s also proof that you’re offering what people want.
Sam: That’s the hard part, offering the right products and then carrying enough of it so you don’t sell out. We’ve had a few occasions where we’ve not bought enough products … That’s just typical pitfalls of retail, you either can under-stock yourself or overstock yourself, either way it can be limiting.
Ali: One of my questions was actually about how you manage your inventory, shipping, and returns – do you do all that yourself or do you work with a partner?
Sam: Obviously we use WooCommerce as our eCommerce platform and I must have done days of research into all the third party services like Stitch Labs or TradeGecko or whatever, and none of them did everything we needed it to do.
I still keep an eye on those things and [still] not one of those services is perfect even though they’re all really good, because it’s quite a new part of the eCommerce landscape, having those kind[s] of services. But we trade on Amazon, eBay, and obviously the site and we needed it to synchronise everything, but we also needed it to be able to list from the back end of the site or the back end of whatever software we were using directly to those platforms and none of them did at the time.
We ended up using two third-party plugins that were by the same developer [that] just plug straight into WooCommerce and [that] did [the] job: it syncs all of our inventory, syncs everything with Amazon and eBay, and it was a lot cheaper as well which is a bonus.
Ali: Awesome! You said before that you do run out of stock, so you do all that yourself? Do you run your own warehouse?
Sam: Yes we do, my business partner manages the warehouse and inventory and stuff like that, but yeah, we pick and pack at our location. We kind of looked at Amazon FBA and other things but we haven’t really gone down that route yet. You lose a lot of control if you go down that route and it can get expensive, but so are warehouses.
Ali: Definitely, running a warehouse is very expensive. How do you source your inventory? Who decides what you’re going to sell and which manufacturers you’re going to represent? You mentioned before that you’re now in competition with some of the people you used to sell to.
Sam: Yeah, I mean we made those calls … We worked for a lot of those brands in the past and we know a lot of the people involved in those brands so that was probably actually the easiest part of it. When you start a retail business, making relationships with suppliers is probably one of the most crucial and probably one of the most difficult obstacles, but for us it was really easy because we know everyone in the industry. It was a case of calling everyone and saying Hey, we’re doing this now, can we buy products off you?, and just opening accounts … And then it was just down to deciding what brands we wanted to carry and which products from each brands.
Ali: That’s where all your years of experience came in handy.
Sam: Yeah, that made it really much easier, just because we were so involved with the industry anyway. I think from someone starting fresh and clean, without any kind of history, it would be much more of a challenge. Not only do you have to find people who distribute the particular products you want to buy, but you also have to make contact and it just makes it easier if you know people.
Ali: Definitely. I wanted to ask you about what kind of growth you have seen since you started – you mentioned it racks up to a new level every so often. What does that look like for you?
Sam: It was really slow at first, but when you launch a site, there’s so much waiting involved initially: for Google to index you, on platforms like eBay you only have a limited allowance, and gradually everything seems to come together bit by bit. eBay gives you more rope so you can sell more products through their platform, on Google we are evidently ranking better in organic search and we’re much better optimised on their shopping platform, so … since late last year, we really started to see an uptick [in] November going into Christmas. And then, this year’s been really good, I think we beat December in March this year, and [before] the end of April we beat March.
Ali: That’s brilliant.
Sam: It seems to be very momentum orientated, the more we do, the more we do if that makes sense?
Ali: That makes sense for sure.
Sam: We are getting better all the time. I manage the AdWords campaign and I’ll be honest, when I started I was pretty green to it, and now I’m much more competent so it’s [in] things like that that you see a lot more growth … We still only sell to the UK through Google shopping, and we’re seeing [a lot] more international orders so [we seem to be] just reaching further organically in our searches. That’s a tough fight these days, it’s a much longer term strategy. Growth has been good, I’m happy if it continues like this; it’s like 30% month on month the last couple of months which is pretty good.
Ali: That’s pretty good. The fact that you beat December in March is also pretty amazing.
Sam: It’s really interesting, and it also seems to be down [to] lots of factors. It seems because we’re really maturing on the platforms we’re selling on: the site, Amazon, eBay, all of them, we seem to be able to just add sales. We know if we carry double the amount of stock we won’t necessarily double our sales but we will definitely increase our sales, whereas in the early days it was just a shot in the dark almost. You could carry whatever and you might not be able to turn it into sales, so it’s now almost a game of cash flow because you’re like right, I need to increase my inventory holding drastically but I also need to be able to pay for it.
You try and generate cash to invest in new stock, but you can only do it at a certain rate so that is now becoming the challenge. It’s generating cash to put back into stock and continue that rate so you can continue to force the growth via increasing your stock holding.
Ali: Definitely, and it sounds to me like you guys are doing everything yourself, from AdWords to inventory management to keeping an eye on the cash flow. Is there anything that you outsource to help with that?
Sam: We have a couple of people who consult for us on social media and AdWords and things like that but generally, we are the jack[s] of all trades, we split the business. The whole thing right now is to be lean, as a startup, and just try to keep the costs as low as possible for as long as possible but we’re reaching a point where the workload becomes unmanageable and then you have to start either outsourcing things more or getting people in house. We’re right at the beginning of that part of the growth curve. At the moment we’re doing a lot ourselves.
Ali: I am getting the impression that you guys have a lot of range in your roles, do you at least have anyone that works in the warehouse?
Sam: No, literally at the moment there’s two of us, and my business partner, Nick, handles all accounting and all warehouse and logistics and then I handle most of the buying, website building, maintenance, and eBay, Amazon and Google campaigns. We split customer service because we’re both always here, but it’s going to get interesting at Christmas I think.
Ali: I think so, if you guys are seeing 30% growth month on month! What’s going to happen by December, by November?
Sam: That’s the challenge because we’re going to have to anticipate that … Like I said, we’re so young, we literally just hit about a year trading. It’s kind of another thing to work out.
Ali: Exciting times ahead, for sure.
Sam: I like that idea of outsourcing everything just so we don’t have to have staff. There’s benefits and negatives from having in-house staff but I think some things we will outsource and some things we won’t.
Ali: There are definitely some big decisions coming up in future then.
Sam: Definitely. Well, [for] the first one, we’re moving warehouse. The next one is the appropriate level of staff to deal with the appropriate level of growth. The difficult thing is the costs always come front-loaded, so you need a warehouse that’s too big for you, so it’s going to be expensive in terms of amortising that cost; and the same goes for staff. If you’re going to hire a member of staff then you have to build that level of cost into how much you’re turning over and you need to make it worthwhile, but those costs always come at the front which again is a challenge.
Ali: Absolutely, and you also need to hire before it’s too late as well.
Sam: Exactly. There’s also the balance in hiring … I’m a firm believer in paying more for good people. My business partner is a bit more in the camp of trying to optimise his spend, whereas I’ve seen it so many times where you don’t get good members of staff and it can be really detrimental to the business. That’s the other factor, hiring the right people for the job that want to work for you and want to go above and beyond because when you’re a small business and a startup, you put everything into it and you almost forget that your staff don’t necessarily have the same vested interest in the business that you do. You’d quite like that level of commitment.
Ali: For sure. Can I ask you how you decided to work with WooCommerce?
Sam: As I said, I did a hell of a lot of research before we built in WooCommerce. I [had] built stuff in Magento before, and I really don’t like Magento now. It was a lot better a while back, but I just feel that they really embraced that enterprise end of the market and they really aren’t a good tool for startup businesses … Our whole thing was that we needed to be really flexible and we needed to be able to customise the site to exactly what we needed it to do, and we couldn’t do it with Magento so that was out. The other one was Shopify, obviously, they’ve kind of ballooned in the last couple of years but again, it didn’t seem as flexible.
So with WooCommerce, initially, it was the WordPress platform, the fact that it was built on that and knowing how well optimised it was for the organic Google end of things; and the fact that it was just really flexible, basically. That was the fundamental key, was the flexibility. It has its limits, but I think – it got bought by Automattic, didn’t it?
Sam: I figure that WooCommerce is now pegged to be their product … Inevitably on a non-enterprise level it’s [going to be] Shopify vs. WooCommerce. I think that they [Automattic] are going to put a lot into it. That was a good thing to know going into it, because it is so hard to migrate platforms as well, we needed to build it [properly]. I read a lot of stuff at the time that said that WooCommerce was not great on an enterprise level and people were growing out of it but I think that seeing as they have such a vested interest in their platform now, I’m hoping that they will develop it as we develop. We may reach the point where we grow out of it, but for now it seems to work okay. [Also, when] there’s something you want to implement, suddenly someone’s done a plugin for it.
Ali: For sure, just from conversations at WooConf in Texas, scaling was definitely one of the issues that’s on their mind. When businesses come on to WooCommerce, they are often smaller, and as they grow, WooCommerce needs to be able to grow too. And it does. But once you’re getting millions of orders or whatever, I don’t know what happens there.
Sam: At that level I really don’t know what the answer is other than something custom, really. It’s hard to know, there’s not [many resources] at that level. A lot of the stuff you read online, you have to read between the lines. I think it would scale okay; I mean, we’re with a decent host and we moved to a cloud-based system. When we started we were on a shared host and that was not good so we moved to cloud. We’ve not even got that many resources allocated to the site, really, so we end up moving on the dedicated server to take a lot of strain off the site. I think maybe the database could grow quite big and affect things that way, but I don’t know. I don’t see why it couldn’t, I think it’s more the functionality. Certain things that it needs, like basic functionality, that they need to implement to make it a bit more functional on an enterprise level, if that makes sense.
Ali: Sure, well, it’s good to hear that the flexibility has been working for you. Do you do the coding yourself to customise things?
Sam: No, I wouldn’t call myself a coder. I built the site based on the Atelier theme and plugins to do what we need it to do. I can do CSS and things like that but I wouldn’t be messing around with PHP. But then, another great thing about WooCommerce and the marketplace for all the extensions is [that] the support you get off the guys who develop the plugins is really good. When I’ve done stuff with Magento in the past it was less forthcoming, but [with WooCommerce] I can’t remember a time I didn’t get an answer back within 24 hours on a problem.
Ali: That’s great.
Sam: That really helps. If you do come across a conflict or a problem, generally it gets solved really fast and you can move on.
Ali: That is very good to hear as a company that is a third party developer. Even though you are not using our plugin, it’s good to hear that you’re getting good support.
Sam: It’s critical as well now because the problem is, especially when you’re a startup, you’re kind of tinkering with a live site a lot. And so, if something does happen, you absolutely rely on the support that’s given from third party developers so … If any third party developer is reading this … The support is critical to how well your plugin products will do. And people know, it’s so transparent online now, you can tell. When I’ve researched a plugin to do a particular thing, you look at all the support and you can tell the ones that are not good and you don’t go with those ones because it’s too risky.
Ali: Interesting, that’s very smart.
Sam: I’ve learned from experience on that one.
Ali: Yeah right. I actually had a question about learning from experience. Is there anything you regret or wish that you hadn’t done when setting up this business?
Sam: That’s a good question. I think on the technical side of things, we tried to make savings by putting stuff off a little bit. We tried to future-proof the business as much as we could but we [also] kind of put stuff off. For example, we didn’t initially invest in anything that could manage our inventory sync between eBay and the site, so we were doing that manually and there were so many mistakes. It was not just us not paying attention, it’s just the way it goes. You’ve got orders going out and returns coming back … Stuff like that I think, really, [we should have] just from the start put up and got those things implemented from the beginning but we implemented them a bit further down the line when we knew we were comfortable [paying] for them, if that makes sense.
Ali: Did they cause a headache in the meantime?
Sam: It didn’t kill us off but you have your moments where you start selling stuff you haven’t got, and things like that. That’s a good example of things we faced… which are problematic.
Sam: And again, the hosting thing. We were on a shared host in the beginning and it was cheap. We’re now not on a shared host, we’re on a cloud, and the increase in sales volume just from our site speed has absolutely paid for the difference. We really should have just done that from the start because we would have sold more stuff.
It’s hard, because you’re moving from a host that’s been costing us next to nothing, to a host that was costing us a few thousand pounds per year. That was crucial. That was one of the best decisions … I had to convince my business partner to go down that route but then once we did it was definitely one of the best decisions we’ve made in the end.
Ali: I guess both of those things really make sense when you’re talking about running an eCommerce store, you need to invest in the eCommerce infrastructure. You’re talking about your technology, the plugins, as well as the capacity of the server and the hosting to cope with what you’re selling. It would be like having a popup store versus having a store in a mall.
Sam: It’s like what I said at the beginning: one of the critical things for us was to try to do a better job than everyone else. You can’t do a better job than everyone else if your site’s loading slower.
Ali: Exactly. So the flip side of that question is what are you most proud of? Is there a moment that you look back on what you’re achieving and you’re thinking that you’re really proud of that?
Sam: I think the point at which we’ve got to, in terms of sales is probably the thing that we’re most proud of. I still remember the first sale we made: Alright, we’ve made one sale. Great. I wonder how it will feel to sell ten things in a day. Obviously you know how much your average ticket price is so you know that’s a turnover of X. Alright that’s not enough, when do I get to sell twenty things in a day? When do I get to sell thirty things a day and forty things a day? When you’re at those levels, you look back and you’re like right, crap, it was pretty scary selling five things a day, that’s not going to pay the mortgage. I mean we’re still obviously nowhere near where we want to be, I guess you never are, but so far after a year I think we’ve done pretty good in that aspect.
And then, visually I think the site looks great. I had to do all of that stuff so personally I guess that’s something I’m happy with.
Ali: I think the site looks really great too, I’m impressed that you do it all yourself. I was actually wondering how you came up with your name for your business.
Sam: It’s a long back story. The site originally was an action sports, street wear, lifestyle blog that I just did as a hobby and it was basically set up as a video aggregator, so it would pull in stuff from YouTube from all the surf and skate YouTube channels, from the branded stuff. [For example], Vans shoes. I had it set up, [and] I wasn’t actually using WordPress, so every day it would pull in all the latest videos. The idea was it to be a big resource for all the videos for all the people who were interested in action sports.
The name Super 8 is an old camera film format and because it was about video, mainly, and people shot a lot of Super 8 stuff, a lot of old skate and surf movies – that was the link into the name, into the brand. I can’t remember which Google update it was, maybe it was Penguin; or Panda… That just killed it off. So, we decided to use that brand and site domain as the store, because it just tied in with the fact that we were launching the store at the time. I think that the site in its previous incarnation had sort of run into a brick wall when Google stopped indexing, or started penalising aggregated content.
Ali: Interesting, so Google killed it in its previous incarnation so you resurrected it as a store.
Sam: That was just kind of a coincidence that we were setting up a store at the same time as that was happening, so I kind of put the idea forward … We liked the logo, we liked the name, it’s a pretty decent domain, and so we decided to use that because we didn’t really want to just close it. Seemed like a waste really.
Ali: I really like the link to the format that those films were shot in; I think that’s cool. Especially as you’re a lifestyle brand for those activities – will people who are buying your shoes will get the link, or not? Or are they too young?
Sam: Maybe, they probably don’t know what VHS is. They probably don’t know what CDs are. They probably know what a DVD is, but it’s a good question. Maybe some of the older customers will know what we’re on about, but they just relaunched Super 8 I think, as a format. I’m sure whoever owns it, maybe Polaroid or somebody, have released a modern Super 8 camera.
Ali: Trying to revive the vintage appeal.
Sam: There seems to be a lot of that with record vinyl sales going on, I think that there is maybe still a bit of a market for those old types of formats maybe. Maybe a few people will get it, maybe some people won’t. In the end it’s just a cool name, I guess.
Ali: It is a cool name. I didn’t know about the video format, and anyone reading the interview will now also know where it comes from. So, do you have any advice for entrepreneurs who are just starting out and thinking about building their eCommerce business?
Sam: That’s another good question.
Ali: Words of wisdom?
Sam: Words of wisdom… Don’t forget customer service. It’s easy to forget. You’re not in a store talking to people face to face, [and] eCommerce has put up a bit of [a barrier]. You go to buy something on a website and they don’t even have a phone number. With the fact that commerce is becoming so disjointed from a person to person interaction, it almost becomes even more critical that as an eCommerce company you offer better customer service because people are still scared about ordering online.
I know that sounds crazy, but you still get people who think you’re a scammer because you’re selling a product online and they’re not sure because they haven’t heard of you. As soon as you offer them great customer service, that all gets forgotten and they realise that you’re legit and it’s cool. I buy stuff from other sites, different markets or whatever, and if you have to call up you’re [maybe] going through to a call centre that’s not based in your country or things like that.
I think just simple and good customer service will definitely get you repeat business, and that’s essentially what you need because you’re not really paying Google for those clicks the whole time. You need people coming back, so that’s what I would say is one of the most neglected aspects of eCommerce, just because of its nature but one of the most critical parts of it.
I thought that was some very sage wisdom and advice from Sam. Customer service is crucial, so don’t forget about it just because you are selling online. I also especially liked Sam’s points about building eCommerce infrastructure to match the size of your eCommerce business. For example, it’s important to have the right mix of plugins and a hosting plan to suit your activities.
Sam and his business partner are incredibly busy wearing all the hats in their company, but it really means a lot to hear from people who are using WooCommerce to live their dream.
It’s wonderful that they can turn their years of expertise working for other people into a life, a lifestyle, and even into something that can pay the mortgage. It’s just super[eight]. 😉