I was standing outside Per Diem on Sutter street in San Francisco. I was early, for once. The person I was meeting was not, for once.
I was meeting Gerald “Jerry” Kruse. A former Statistical Engineer for Boeing. Now an entrepreneur using WooCommerce. Jerry acquired knowledge of the world’s harshest chemicals while working with the aerospace company. Now he uses that to manufacture soap and shampoo without any harsh chemicals.
As I saw Jerry approach Per Diem, it struck me how he stands out from the current San Francisco crowd. Not just because he dresses better, in a sports coat instead of a hoodie. Nor because he retired before many around him had graduated elementary school. But because he radiates a midwestern friendliness. A warmth that betrays his roots of Wichita, Kansas.
Jerry’s a long time member of our local WooCommerce meetup in San Francisco, which is where we first met. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed hearing about different steps in Jerry’s journey. Today I was going to get the full story. I’m excited to now be able to share it with you.
Brent: How did you get into making soap and shampoo products?
Jerry: I did chemical reduction [at Boeing, which is where they] had these huge skins and they would cut out certain parts of the skin to make it stronger and lighter weight. So they have to run them through chemical tanks. These chemicals are the most toxic in the world. If they ever have a leak, it could wipe out a whole city, basically. If two chemicals mix, you could have a major disaster. So they had a bunch of engineers get together. [I managed a team of] chemical engineers, mechanical engineers, everybody. All we did [was] look at how we can reduce the chemicals in these tanks: it’s either substituting for something else or dilute them down, [to] get the same results or higher quality. Boeing is real picky about their quality and everything.
B: Yeah of course.
J: So we had to look at all the natural products and everything [as possible options]. We tested all [of] them. Actually our group reduced the [level of] chemical waste and chemical disposal. I think over 5 years, [we saved] over 768 million dollars, almost a billion dollars.
B: And that would have been from both the use of harsh chemicals and the disposal?
J: Yeah, the disposal cost. So that was my previous life. After that project was over, I was what Boeing called a consultant. So I really didn’t do anything except when they had major disasters. I felt like I was retired at 45 years old, you know. And my wife was in the medical field… and she got a job out here working for a San Francisco medical center over here, at university. And so she transferred out, and I sold the house and moved out here. I didn’t know what I was going to do when I came out here. I did a bunch of little things. I did commercial real estate, investments, all types of stuff until the crash happened.
B: In 2008…
J: And so we were looking around what could I do. What matched my background? You know it’s a job change, a career change, and everything, and a mid-age crisis, I guess you can say.
We went and thought of a lot of different things, and I was talking to people about the oils and stuff. I though I was going to package oils together and sell them or something like that.
Because in the Bay area you have walnut, almond, apricot, avocado grape seed oil, olive oil. I mean you got them all right here. I was thinking I can just go package these things together and sell them as gifts. And I got over with the California Olive Oil Council, and she said, “Well, I’ll just give you a bunch of this oil, and you can go see what you want to do with it.”
I went home and started doing a bunch of research and found out [what I could do with] soap and everything, and I thought well that’s pretty good, because I’ve had skin cancer.
B: So you were researching online for things you could do?
J: Yeah. And since I had skin problems … When I worked at Boeing, the chemicals were so strong I had sores on my face and my scalp and stuff.
And I thought, well, you know, I know about chemical reduction, I know about chemicals a little bit … I’m not a chemist, but I know how they work. How some fight and some work together and all that. So, I thought, well maybe I’ll make some soap.
I start making bar soap and I thought, well this is pretty good. My skin started improving. And then I went out and I found some of what I call my “guinea pigs”: neighbours, friends, anybody that’ll try my soap.
B: Yeah, I am one of those guinea pigs haha.
J: And my neighbour had a skin rash pretty bad, and he’d been buying this lotion from his dermatologist. $600 for this little bottle of cream. And he came back and said, “Jerry, your soap took care of all my rashes.”
J: That’s when I recognised I had something. The soap, I think, cleaned up his skin and it took some of the other chemicals out.
I tried to go to hotels and stuff and sell my soap. And they said, “No, we have to have liquid soaps. You can’t have bar soap, except the real small ones in the shower. Everything else has to be liquid.”
So that’s when we started working on the liquid soap. And we’ve been working on it three years, three and a half, maybe, trying to get it down. So, we started working on the liquid shampoo and stuff, and I was actually using Zen Cart.
B: How did you decide to move to WooCommerce?
J: [Way back] when I had my commercial mortgage business, I used WordPress to do [some] blogging. But when I tried to sell, WordPress didn’t have WooCommerce at that time. There wasn’t anything to really sell with. So I went to Zen Cart, [but] I was frustrated with Zen Cart.
For a guy that’s not a high tech guy or doesn’t know how to program, it’s pretty difficult to figure it out.
So I was talking to my son one day, and he said, “Oh, you need to use WordPress.” And I said, “Brian, that’s a blog.” He goes, “No, Dad. No, no. It’s changed a lot since you had it before.” I looked at it and I thought wow, that’s pretty cool.
That’s when I saw the stores and everything and people were selling on it, and I [realised] that it was pretty easy to learn. Once you get into it … You got the menu on the side and you start clicking around and play with it a couple days, it’s not that hard. For an old guy like me, I thought, well, this isn’t that hard.
And that’s when I started going to your WooCommerce meetings. And I was trying to find out what this WooCommerce stuff was all about.
B: So had you started selling with WooCommerce before you came to the Meetup?
B: You’d just sort of poked around and seen what’s possible.
J: Yeah, I was typing in eCommerce for WordPress. That’s when I found this WooCommerce and then I said, ok. So I typed “WooCommerce” in Meetup. Boom. You guys popped up.
B: We probably had only just started too. We’d probably had two meetings or one meeting, or something like that.
J: I though I have to go to that, you know, I have to found out what it’s about.
B: Yep, that’s cool.
J: So that’s when I started getting into it and using it. And I liked it real well. It works good. I’ve never had a problem with WooCommerce and WordPress working. It’s always been other plugins.
B: Yeah, the complications of other plugins pulled in.
J: Now, with WooCommerce, I’ve used PayPal. I’ve used another bank. And now I’m with Stripe, I think it is. But it’s through GoDaddy.
B: Ok, interesting. So when you say ‘another bank,’ were you using a direct payment?
J: Yeah, Bank of the West.
B: And you were doing cheque payments or something?
J: Yeah, well they would take my money, run the Visa card or whatever, put it in my account. And actually it was a third party vendor that they hired. It wasn’t actually Bank of the West, which was ok. It worked, but they would charge me like $60 a month, 20% of my sale, plus $1.20 for whatever. I mean it was adding up. Every month I was getting these bills for $120 or whatever, and I said, “Well this has got to stop”.
When I found you guys and you told me about Stripe, and about what PayPal does.
Now I’ve used PayPal and I like PayPal, except sometimes PayPal has little problems, where I haven’t had any of that with Stripe. Stripe seems to work beautifully. I’ve tested it every so often. And it works good. And like I said, I’ve had problems with plugins that always conflict with WordPress. If WordPress updates and they don’t update, it locks up the system and you’ve got to go through and try to figure out what it is. You gotta go through your FTP and try to delete it sometimes, and come back and see if it works.
B: That’s the only way to get it working again. That’s interesting. So what do you see for the future of OlivaPure?
J: I do have a passion for people that have skin problems. You know, because I’ve had them myself.
B: And you know what it’s like.
J: And my shampoo, I want something that feels good on my hair, that cleans it but doesn’t make my hair fall out. [There was a brand who sold] five hundred million dollars worth of shampoo in one year, and they use[d] harsh chemicals. And people were going bald. [The brand] got sued. They owe a million people $25. So they came out good … For five hundred million dollars, only 25 million. But they use all these harsh chemicals. We’re trying to keep ours natural.
B: And I think there’s more and more demand for that. You know, the larger companies have sort of gone down this industrial path of the cheapest way to produce things, the most efficient way to produce things. And that involves chemicals, but they’re not looking at the larger impact. So people will have these rashes, like your neighbour, and be looking for solutions to them, so they find out, oh, if I get something that doesn’t have these chemicals in it, it might not be such an issue anymore.
J: Well, we’ve worked on it, like I said. We had it where it washes good and everything, and sort of helps the skin. It moisturises the skin, but it didn’t have enough lather to it, so for the last year, we’ve worked on nothing but trying to get the lather. When people get in the mindset of doing something with lather…
B: Yeah, they feel that lather is necessary.
J: But we wanted a moisturising lather. And so we’re at that point now.
B: That’s great. And that’s why you brought some samples for me today.
J: You’re still a guinea pig in a way, here.
B: So how did you find the guinea pigs? Obviously neighbours and friends and bringing it to the Meetups, but how did you find both your first testers of the product?
J: I sent [products to] my mum, my brothers, my son and his wife, all those, and my neighbours that I got to know, any of them.
If they had a dog, I gave them the dog shampoo. If they had children, I gave them the others to see if [their] eyes [watered] or anything.
I’d always bug them, you know, about what did you think of it? Did it smell good? Did it feel good? Did it take care of a rash? Did it burn your eyes? Did it sting? Or anything. And I kept all these notes of what they thought and I’d go back to my formula and I’d try to adjust, and then I’d run over there again.
A lot of times they’d come back and [give feedback], and I’d say, “Well throw that away and try this.”
B: haha version 2.0 or 3.0…
J: And I’d ask them also, did they like the old one or the new one better? And that became a lot of paperwork – trying to keep track of who had what. And my wife would really get after me: “Well what did you give them?” And I’d have to go look and I’d say, “Oh, I forgot to write this one down”.
So that’s how we found them. And then like I said, going to Meetups, a lot of people became a guinea pig at Meetups. Found out what I was doing and I’d bring it in.
B: Did you ever move from the paperwork into using forms or something to track that, such as spreadsheets?
J: No, I’ve got Excel worksheets. I’m sort of an expert at Excel. So I started putting them in Excel, how they coordinate, what does good, what does bad, and what I can do without.
Right now, I’ve got 43 ingredients going into my shampoo, and I’m trying to cut that down. I don’t want to have so many that it sort of scares people.
B: It’s like when you buy juice and they have on the side, “contains oranges” and that’s it. There’s an Australian juice company which will say, “contains just 6 pressed oranges, 3 pressed apples, and 1 banana,” or something like that, and you’re like, wow, these are great ingredients.
J: That’s where we are. I think we have a good product. I’m learning to do LinkedIn, which I want to tie in real close with WordPress somehow, and WooCommerce.
B: Changing track a bit, I recall you saying at one stage you were using Amazon fulfilment.
J: Yeah, I was selling on Amazon.
B: So you were selling through Amazon as well as using their fulfilment centres as well. Do you still sell through Amazon?
J: I started out [selling] on Amazon, but I shipped it. And I started doing pretty good. I went on Christmas vacation one time, and I forgot to turn it off. And I’m down in Florida at Christmas and I get this message that says you got three days to ship this or we’re going to punish you severely. But I didn’t make that, so my rating went way down. And so I said how can I do this?
[I got approved for] fulfilment by Amazon. They have you ship different orders to 4 or 5 different warehouses. That was working pretty good, except by the second shipment … I think it was an Arizona warehouse sent me an email that said, “we have problems with your barcode reader.” I emailed back and I said, “What problems do you have?” So I could fix my problem.
B: And they said: “you figure it out”.
J: Yeah, and they wouldn’t get back with me. [They don’t] tell you what problems you have. They don’t give you a phone number to call. They don’t do anything like that.
Then they told me I needed to ship some more goods, so I shipped some more goods to them because apparently Phoenix warehouse did put my goods in place, so I had to ship them some more. Then they came and sent me a email saying I got old inventory. I’ve only had it there six months. It’s not old. My product will last for 2 or 3 years without any problem. I’ve already tested it for 3 years and don’t have any problem. They wanted me to pay long term storage for it.
So every time I turned around, Amazon was adding a new cost to me, and I thought, well, I’m the one that has to promote it. I was on page 286 of their site. Nobody’s going to find me.
They bug me they wanted me to advertise with them, so I’d have to spend more money. They started taking almost as much as a regular retail shop does, and I’m still doing the selling. I’m still on the bottom shelf, sort of. I figured this isn’t worth it. So now I pulled all my inventory. I had them destroy everything I had because I figured I’m not going to pay fifty cents a bottle to be shipped home. And then they’ll charge you for everything they can.
I’m at the point now where I’m looking at beauty salons again, barber shops, anybody that does hair work or beauty stuff. And I want to start doing social media. I want to do LinkedIn, because I figure that’s business to business. I’ll get people that are in the hair business maybe, to connect with me there.
Then I was thinking I’ll do some videos and stuff and put on YouTube, and work with Google+, and then maybe Facebook. That’ll keep me busy on my social media. Then I’m going to hit the Bay Area first for all the beauty stuff and all that that I can.
B: Because it’s local…
J: Yeah, get the local business. And if it goes real good here, than I’ll go up to Oregon and Washington, and then work south after that. And then out, start slowly going east.
B: And so you do all the sales. Sounds like you definitely want to do like a business to business aspect. Do you think you’ll manage inventory for that through WooCommerce?
J: That’s one of the things I want to do is I want to manage inventory through my WooCommerce page and I want to be able to break it up into private and business.
Right now, when you go in, you can have it manage your inventory but it comes up on the webpage and says “34 more units left” or whatever … I’d rather that my customer don’t know how many units I have left, but I still could manage [the inventory]. That’s one of the things I want to talk to you about.
B: Ok, interesting. I’ll ask two more questions and then wrap up. What do you think eCommerce has allowed you to do that you wouldn’t have done otherwise?
J: ECommerce or WooCommerce?
B: You can answer them as one, or you can answer them separately, or however you like.
J: Ok, eCommerce makes me where I can be wholesaler and a retailer, both.
B: Yeah. And a manufacturer.
J: And a manufacturer. So it gives me a better business base.
What WooCommerce does for me is give me more time. If I was still doing it through like Zen Cart, I’d be spending way too much time on my pay, my shop and stuff – trying to get it up and running. With WooCommerce, I can go in there 15, 20 minutes a day and I’m out of it. I don’t have to even hit it up everyday. If I hit it once a week, I know I’m still up and running. So it’s sort of like my security blanket.
Zen Cart was eCommerce, but it wasn’t my security blanket. WooCommerce is sort of like my security blanket where I can go do my other business and I don’t have to worry that my store is shut down. And since I got my phone hooked up with email, if I sell something, it automatically rings me and says you just sold something, so I don’t have to be on the computer all day. That’s good, you know, when you’re running to retail shops, it’s nice when you don’t have to pull up your laptop or carry it with you when you’re already carrying all the inventory, trying to hand it out.
B: That’s good. The final question: Do you have advice for other entrepreneurs starting out, going into eCommerce, selling online, based on your experience?
J: Anybody going into business: find a niche. Stick with that niche, because it’s real easy to switch when things don’t go [well]. We started out thinking about skin and hair, and then we went to so many other things and now we’re sort of coming back to it because that’s where our passion’s at, like I said.
The other thing is, whatever you’re going to sell, WooCommerce and WordPress is pretty flexible for anything. You can have downloads on there, like your memberships on there, a product that you either buy or [a] middleman can promote, you can do your blogs on there, you can do the whole promotion on there. And like me, being a manufacturer, I’m not a blogger, I’m not a computer expert like that, so it gives me time to produce and it gives me time to sell.
I have more control over my business and as a entrepreneur, that’s what you’re looking for is control over your business. Most people leave the corporate world so they have more control over their life. That’s what I say: if you trade that life off and you just do one thing and you rely on everybody else to do your selling, your marketing, everything else, you’re still relying on people. You still don’t have the freedom. And that’s what WooCommerce and WordPress gives me is a freedom to actually have control over my business, my destiny, and you know … So, like I said, stick with a niche and then, I recommend WordPress and WooCommerce to do your selling for you for the freedom, and the blogging and advertisement everything can also be done on there.
But use social media to promote your webpage.
B: That’s a perfect finale, I think. Thank you!