Every success story has done three things in their lifetime:
Product-market fit. “Right idea, right time”
Rapid growth. Scaling with hyperspeed.
Reinforcement. A built-to-last model.
In this growth study, we’ll look at the story of Slack, its beginning and underlying strategy for world domination, and how they built a platform that’s transforming office communication.
Founder and CEO Stewart Butterfield is no stranger to fast-growing apps; he built Flickr about 10 years before starting Slack. But let’s dig deeper…
Butterfield, born and raised in rural area in British Columbia, hadn’t been exposed to technology until he went to university the late 1990’s, he became fascinated by the school’s Unix machine, and how it could build something out of lines of code.
After escaping the dot-com bubble in 2000 with $35,000 severance pay from his ecommerce job, he started building a web-based massively multiplayer game called Neverending. With rudimentary graphics and a small but passionate community, Stewart fueled his passion for design and communication.
The game was impossible to fund and thus difficult to scale; however, the side effect of building the game was that the small team built a technology that let users tag images with other users, far before Facebook and Instagram offered that ability.
Meanwhile, Stewart’s $35K was dwindling,and the game was was approaching its inevitable decline. Pressured by depleting finances, Stewart and his fellow tech-obsessed friends iterated to utilize the core technology that made the game unique — image sharing and tagging capabilities.
He then started Flickr , and help from Google, they started getting users with a rapid pace. At the time Google had just bought Blogger – a CMS platform that allowed anyone create a website. However, you because you couldn’t store images on Blogger, Google redirected users to save their images on Flickr.
The Flickr team wasn’t profitable — it had astronomical server storage costs — however it attracted the attention the Silicon Valley giants: Yahoo and Google.
Yahoo! offered Flickr team $20M. The team of eight became millionaires overnight, but instead of maintaining their culture rapid iteration and agile workplace, the 11,000-employee Yahoo! slowed down the startup-style decision-making process.
After three years, they were fully vested, and Stewart took his core employees and returned to his initial project — another web-based multiplayer game called Glitch.
As they were now known for Flickr’s success, the team had an easier time finding investment, They raised $17M which was used for new hires, mostly for graphic animators. Flickr’s success meant that he game attracted a lot of users.
But there was one major problem. The problem that kills the most startups — a leaky bucket.
Even though users found the game and tried it out, 99% of them didn’t return because it was too obscure and abstract. Much to Stewart’s dismay, this project was nearing its end.
Stewart made the hard decision to pull the plug in 2012. Devastated, Butterfield helped every one of 37 employees get a new job.
But he’d find success soon…
Chapter 1: Brotherhood and Perfect Timing
Objectively speaking from a business perspective, Glitch was a disaster. However, the team had developed an internal communication system that made them incredibly productive.
The platform was built on a concept of channels which allowed team members to chat directly or within the channel. It stored all communication. It was an inversion of the typical inter-office communication: email.
The thinking was that in email, team members don’t have the context from the stored communication; 99% of messages aren’t visible unless you’re cc-ed.
The Glitch team didn’t realize how useful the communication system they built was until they shut down the company. It was much better than the typical email-based communication, and they never wanted to work without a system like that again.
Maybe, just maybe, other people would like it too.
After Glitch shut down, Stewart was left with his core people, the same people who were with him from the Flickr and game development days. By now, they had been working together for close to 10 years, and loved making products together.
The hard times had connected the team even further.
Weeks after Glitch closed, Stewart and his team started working on the Slack app. They rebuilt the entire internal communication system within a couple of months.
Solving the Dreaded Inbox Problem
Internal communication was a problem for most companies, even though they weren’t necessarily aware of it.
With more and more software startups rapidly scaling, they realized that internal communication encountered problems when a single-digit team grew to 20, 50, 100+ people in a year.joining the startup, they inevitably encounter problem where a single-digit team turned into 20, 50 or 100+ people company in a year.
Slack was at the right place at the right time.
They weren’t the first new communication system:apps like Yammer, Campfire, and HipChat already had small but loyal user bases.
Seeing a trend, copycats were popping up left and right.
In order to succeed, Slack needed to solve the communication problem better than the others.
Working in their favor was the ridiculously huge Total Addressable Market (TAM) — companies from tiny startups to massive enterprise businesses needed a tool like this.
Contextually relevant and segmented communications, including persistent chat, direct messaging, as well as voice and video calls within and between teams.
Synchronized communication and collaboration across multiple devices and platforms.
Integration with third-party apps, legacy enterprise software, and custom-built apps and chatbots for Slack.
Customizable notifications and advanced search across Slack’s real estate.
While the TAM is virtually the same for all existing rivals, Slack differentiated itself through their fun brand, ease of use, customer-centricity… Combining that with a brilliant product launch, Slack had the edge in market share.
Why Yammer Failed
Microsoft’s Yammer was essentially solving the same problems as Slack, but their approach was off. While 80% of the client’s team got on board to use it, senior employees weren’t quick to try it out.
You also had to use Microsoft Office 365 to access Yammer. Many potential users utilized Google Docs (especially for collaborative use). Microsoft Office 365 requires users to pay and commit, while Slack and Google Drive are free.
Slack was able to move past reluctance avoided the problem with aby having a fun interface (Chapter 4), generous freemium model (Chapter 5) and an easy-to-use platform simplicity use, so everyone from more flexible team members to senior employees could see the benefit in the same day (Chapter 6).
Slack’s initial team consisted of four core members: Stewart Butterfield, Eric Costello, Cal Henderson and Serguei Mourachov.
The team communication system developed during their tenures at Flickr and Glitch made them far more productive. They noticed the productivity with the rest of the company members.
Everyone working with the core team realized how effective their system was, and when teams moved on to other companies, they quickly realized how much inefficiency the proto-Slack was solving.
The core team knew they were onto something; they had the market validation they needed from their own team.
Slack Question: One of the Slack reasons for success was the tight-knit community of 4 founders? Does this example of trust and love for work translate to all employees and in what way?
Takeaway: Emerging markets are a great place to launch a new product, especially when you already have market validation. Partner with the people who are the best at what they do and able to handle the pressure of a rapidly-changing startup. Competition is a good sign that you’re on the right track, but launching a product in a competitive market means that you have to build a super product and serve your consumer base better.
You need to find a pain point, actually solve the issue, and gain clients who trust you.
If your product hypothesis isn’t right, you have to iterate while you still have a financial runway.
Slack knew they had the solution to a major business pain point. Because of their prior success, the team was able to get venture capital so they could focus on a strategic and exceptional product launch.
Instead of ‘growth hacks,’ the Slack team combined the efforts of product design agency MetaLab, the reputation they had built from Flickr’s success, and PR agencies that came up with Slack’s unique hook: “The Email Killer”.
They launched a ‘preview version’ of Slack so the team could:
Fix major bugs and errors
Determine and identify the features and benefits that resonated with the market
Galvanized the initial user-base to advocate Slack by word-of-mouth
Once they fixed any issues, they were ready to bring Slack out with a strong product launch. Imagine how it would be if Tesla or Apple revealed a semi-tested product.
The Slack’s hook – Killer of Email in Time’s article | Source: Time.com
Slack’s intention wasn’t to replace email.
As Butterfield says: “Email has many benefits, it’s the lowest common denominator for official communications. But it’s a terrible way to manage internal communications.”
“Email will be the cockroach of the Internet, I think we’ve got another 30 or 40 years of email left” — Stewart Butterfield
Preview version gave Slack a chance to test core features at the same time as building the relationship with the select few. Note that Slack intentionally haven’t named the pre-public version “beta” version. There is a massive difference in dynamic and perception from the user standpoint; in beta, they’re there to test out things so they can help the company. But if the users are in “preview” camp, they are one of the elite few who get to use the product before anyone else and enjoy its privileges of being first.
Hiring an outside company to build a brand might be unique to Slack. Slack’s first marketing hire, Bill Macaitis step into the role of CMO in November 2014, which means Slack completely relied on the third party agency to deliver the whole look and feel of the brand. Outsourcing the whole department and relying on someone else delivering the whole look is a journey of trust and belief. Luckily for Slack, it paid of in the best possible way.
Slack tested out the product-market fit and figure out what is their way to attract new users with one giant swoop. They used multiple Pr agencies with a hook that immediately attracts the user. PR agencies are usually expensive, but Slack thought it’s the perfect way to get as much exposure in a short time. You can do this manually by pitching to reporters manually. This would take a long time since you have to build a relationship but it will support your launch greatly.
The building of social proof created a cluster of social credit. Using the “email killer” headline hook from the industry-recognized publishers such as Verge, TechCrunch and VentureBeat brought in new unique traffic while the Twitter’s Wall of Love shoved the trust of peers.
Slack’s Wall of Love
Whenever a Twitter account post or retweets someone else tweets it appears on their timeline. Slack created some sort of repository of all positive tweets whenever they were mentioned. This created one giant wall of positivity and love. Slack named it “Wall of Love” — it’s a separate Twitter account that stands on its containing everything nice that is being said about it.
Slack combined it with a traditional marketing channel — a print ad in Wall Street Journal.
Peer to Peer social credit. Potential Slack users trust the testimonials of their peers more than the website copy claims or dry company testimonials.
Gives Slack a chance to write back and find out what their users really want.
Establish and build a relationship with two-way transparent and public conversation.
Based on what Slack fans right, Slack can come up with an arsenal of information about how to address new users with an effective copy. The existing users tell them themselves in their own words what they love the most.
It turns users into content-creators. New (user-generated) content promotes network effect since each Twitter user has its own social circle and area of effect.
Twitter’s Wall of Love is unconventional and new (for that time). It generated and proposed new articles about which brought new and already warm traffic to the website.
Keep in mind that most of the audience were companies from Silicon Valley — from software industries where there’s a lot of conversation happening on Twitter.
Deeper into the Brand Core
Great brands are built on top of solid foundations. Solid team with proven track record – check. Clear value proposition and demonstrated product/market fit – check. Company culture with customer centrism and solid brand – let’s unpack this. If we borrow the term MVB (Minimal Viable Branding) we can deconstruct Slack’s brand to individual elements.
MVB is the concept adopted by Scott Kraft, Denise Lee Yon, Tino Chow, and Madeline Gerber to construct an image of the brand that’s both recognizable to the public and sets the homestead for company culture and how they communicate in-house and outbound.
According to Kraft the MVB of consists of:
Brand Pillars — one to three one-word adjectives that represent your company
Audience needs — what are the audience takeaways
Functional needs — materialized benefits
Emotional needs — how the audience perceive the brand on an emotional level
Personality of the brand
The company’s vision
It serves as an immediate blueprint for the product that conveys the future promise the company will be delivering.
SlackAccording to Kraft, brand’s personality consists of brand pillars + Top customer audience + their top 3 needs + top 3 emotional benefits;
Brand Pillars: Fun, Inclusive, Connected
Customer Audience: Employees having issues communicating within the company
Top needs: More effective system to reach out to the rest of the team, faster feedback loop, just-in-time information
Emotional benefits: Makes the employees feel part of the team, relevant by closely following the evolving project, productive
= Slack – The fun and productive team chat
Audience: people inside the company
Functional Needs: one universal system for communicating above and across to the rest of the team
Emotional Benefits: social inclusion, light-hearted working environment When you use slack you will feel more connected because of the freedom to reach your colleague
If we try to describe Slack as a brand by the other three elements of the MVB:
Personality: fun, connected, diverse
Promise: to connect people in-house with a simple yet powerful system for team communication
Vision: Make work happen
Whenever you see Slack content, you will be able to connect these values and elements to their brand. As you are going to discover further – this mindset is ingrained to every member of the company across the board.
Slack Question: The launch of Slack back in February 2014 was a carefully planned marketing campaign with the use of PR agencies. Now that Slack employs 1,000+ workers, how much marketing is planned in-house vs hired work?
Takeaway: Don’t neglect the power of traditional marketing. Build the hype and use the “hook” message to promote article re-sharing. Slack’s is the Email Killer – a controversial statement which addresses the burning pain at the same time. What will be yours?
Chapter 3 – Brand is Everything
This is the holy grail of success. Slack hired a mega-successful design firm MetaLab to turn their early prototype into a polished product.
Design and UX
Enterprise software is notorious for being big, boring and lifeless. If you compare HipChat (Slack’s main competitor), you’ll have an easy time picking the one that looks more fun to use.
Andrew Wilkinson from MetaLab said “We gave it the color scheme of a video game,
not an enterprise collaboration product.”
Early design iterations for Slack | Source: @awilkinson
With an easily recognizable design that was equally fun and easy to use, Slack created a stark contrast against the competition.
In 2018, 133 million visitors to the website per month
Different kind of marketing:
There’s content that still fills each role in Top, Middle and Bottom phase of the customer’s journey, however instead of just written. Slack opted in with visual and audio content.
Their Animals product video has been insanely popular.
The “Animals!” project cost the company $1 million. The directors Alan Smith and Adam Foulkes experience the smooth onboarding process as Slack users did. They were able to translate and deliver the correct brand message in the video.
The animals in the video or as diverse they could be (lion, dolphin, rabbit, sloth, owl, beaver,..) but they are able to complete a complex project with effective communication.
Don’t forget to watch the blooper reel with the beatboxing prawn.
The themes of the podcast were not specific to Slack as a product however they reflected the interests of Slack users: career change, lifestyle at work, future of jobs etc… The podcasts were also light-hearted reflecting Slack’s commitment to fun.
“Although podcasts are becoming more mainstream, if you’re a die-hard listener of podcasts, there’s a good chance you’re also an early adopter, so it was a way for us to help spread the word about Slack.” — Bill Macaitis, former CMO of Slack
Slack worked closely with Pacific Content broadcaster Steve Pratt, giving feedback for each episode. The focus was on telling engaging stories with small intertwined slogans like “Slack: Love what you do” and “Slack: Making work less work-y”. The podcast reached the wider audience with a very soft sell.
Personalization is not a nice-to-have any more; it’s mandatory in today’s hyper-segmented marketplace to communicate with users.
On top of customer satisfaction metric NPS (Net Promoter Score) data, Slack’s Global Team marketers look at the growth and activation rates of new customers teams. It’s important that they get a sense of whether people signing up for Slack continue to use it.
With such a wide addressable market, segmenting your approach and creating a solid plan to conquer new customer lands efficiently.
For that reason, Slack chooses a localized approach instead of one broad message for the majority of the markets.
Chapter 4 – Customer Experience as the North Star
“At the end of the day, that’s what fuels our organic growth rates – Slack does what it says, is delightful to use, and in return, people tell others about it.” – Kelly Watkins, Global Marketing at Slack
Slack was able to enjoy hyper-growth without marketing staff.
“Its growth rate is unheard of. Both Slack’s daily user count and its paid seat count are up 3.5X in just a year.” — Josh Constine, Techcrunch
As mentioned before, Bill Macaitis – formerly the CMO at Zendesk and Senior VP at Salesforce was brought on in November 2014. That was 9 months after the public release. Macaitis was an employee number 50 which tells that Slack did most of the branding and marketing heavy reps before. Slack had grown big even without a marketing team — Macaitis was the first hire as an employee #50 and they already had the hockey stick curve of new users.
Instead of relying on growth hacks, paid marketing channels and short term tactics, Bill Macaitis focused on only one thing — creating the customer experience people love.
Andrew Chen, former VP of Growth at Uber and a marketing leader, talks about the law of shitty click-throughs – it’s the inescapable point every company arrives to. A marketing channel that worked like gangbusters in the past will stop bringing the same positive ROI over time. Or if we say it differently – every marketing channel has an expiration date.
However, there is an exception — word-of-mouth will never stop being an effective marketing tactic
If you can achieve a point where people are consistently recommending you to friends and colleagues,, you’re in the path of real growth.
Once people tried Slack, they had to tell everyone else. An software engineer in the company who adopted the product had to tell his friend how amazing Slack is, while they were fetching Starbucks coffee.
“Unlike almost any enterprise software ever, people would talk about it. Like, they would be in line at the coffee shop, and they would say, oh, my God, you’ve got to start using Slack. It’s amazing. It changed my life. And they would post to Twitter and say, like, I – you know, I recommend it. And that – you know, no one ever says that about the software that they have to use at work.” — Stewart Butterfield on Slack’s word-of-mouth effectiveness
YCombinator CEO Sam Altman’s mantra is ‘customer love is all you need. A hundred people who love your product is better than a million people who kind of like it.’
Hubspot Founder Dharmesh Shah would never trade short-term gratification over the long-term benefit. He says: “Manically chasing growth at the expense of customer goodwill mortgages the future.”
Slack’s former CMO in an AMA (Ask me anything) interview with Influitive he explains that a brand is the sum of all touchpoints a customer has had with you.
Slack embraced that philosophy:
The onboarding is fast and frictionless: It takes just three clicks to start using Slack.
Fair pricing: If you stop using Slack, they will return the credits back to you
The legal, support and customer success. Every new employee goes through a 9 week training process so they settle in, adapt the company culture and learn how to communicate in Slack’s way.
Slack Questions (branding): User experience and focus on brand made Slack stand out? How does Slack train a new hire to embody the brand values and communicates the product properly?
Takeaways: Dare to be different, but never over the cost of functionality and the best customer experience. Word of mouth = growth.
Chapter 5: An Offer You Can’t Refuse
Once a product hits a hot market growth is contingent on continuing to stoke the fire..
Becoming a viral product depends on:
Your product becoming a part of users’ daily or regular routine
Making it easy to share and get more people on the platform.
Slack has an amazing freemium option and easy-to-understand (read: transparent) pricing.
Right from the start, you can use all the available features Slack has to offer, such as integration, document sharing, built-in features and more.
The limitations of a free account don’t affect the user as they start using it; it’s only once Slack becomes an integral part of their workflow does it make sense to upgrade. By then you’re already hooked!
The limitations of a free account:
The number of searchable messages are locked at 10K
You’re only able to connect 10 third-party or custom integrations
A modest file storage: 5 GB total
This is done intentionally: Slack wants you to use their products until the ease of communication and functionality is a daily part of your life. and,
Once you hit a point where you want more storage, or more integrations, you upgrade to a paid model. By then the product is integrated into your workflow and life.
Slack’s conversion from free trial to paid version is 30%, showing that giving away value pays off in the long run. Slack is an absolute outlier with this conversion percentage. According to Jason Cohen from The Fader: “A really good conversion rate for free-to-paid is 4%, like Dropbox. Awesome for them, but normal rates are more like 1%, and that’s if users are reasonably active.”
The only that comes close is Spotify at 26.6% conversion rate, while Dropbox and Evernote are far below at 4.1% and 4%.
Move the Bar of Success from Activation to Referral
The whole Slack brand was built upon the notion of a product people love. And if people love something they will tell their friends, colleagues and peers about it.
CMO Bill Macaitis moved the bar of success from converting a user to a paid account to convincing a user to recommend Slack further. This is much harder to achieve. The paid conversation is more of a short term goal — it’s important but it pales to a comparison of achieving a massive network effect.
Network effect is a condition when every new user who joins makes the product stronger for everyone.Each one who hears about it or uses it to organize outside of work becomes more likely to infect their whole company with the Slack infection.
It does explain why insisting on NPS and CSAT (Customer Satisfaction) scores as the main metric broad the biggest success. It’s the perfect optimization for word-of-mouth.
The perfect example is Slack’s pricing model.
If you were using Slack on a paid account and one of your team members hasn’t logged in within a 10-day active window, Slack refunded the money and credits back to an account.
This is unusual for any company to do.
But Slack had to ask itself what is the best for themselves as a brand and the customer.
Does the pricing model align with brand customer centricity?
Does it surprise the user in positive way? It does since the user doesn’t to get unused funds sent back to them.
Is it more likely that a customer will recommend the product further. Unusual things are often shared more.
Or let’s think about the frictionless trial. All features are unlocked from the start. You can have a team of 200 users on a freemium tier model.
If you ask yourself those three questions you’ll have the same answer to each one of them.
Deeper in the Customer Success
In the book From Impossible to Inevitable Aaron Ross wrote that customer success is the core growth driver and is worth 5x more important than sales.
It’s for the same reason that Macaitis, coming from Zendesk, where he focused on CSAT scores made customer success a top priority.
In Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg explains the concept of Keystone habits — they’re beliefs and routines that someone, or in this case company, holds in the highest regards. Achieving the number on most important goal percolates to all the other good stuff.
Just like keeping a daily exercise helps individuals become more organized, having more energy to be more productive and start watching your diet, customer success directly affects retention, drives referrals, and help capture positive case studies.
Slack Question (NPS): How does Slack maintain the customer-centric strategy and the quality of support besides iterating due to CSAT survey test scores?
Key Takeaway: Give out so much value that your users can’t live without you. Make a product and experience amazing enough that they’ll want to tell all their friends about you. Make it easy for people to begin using your product AND get friends and colleagues on it. Competitors might be able to clone basic features, but they can’t clone the community.
Chapter 6: The Recipe for a Multi-Billion Dollar Company
When Great Product Isn’t Enough
Having an amazing problem is not a ticket to riches. Actually, it’s a prerequisite for growth. But there are two ways you can grow – slow, hard growth where you feel like pushing a boulder uphill.
Or the easy way, where you just feel like you’re guiding the rolling cart downhill.
But there are terrible products as well which achieved amazing growth. Brian Balfour (former VP of Growth at Hubspot) explains you need 4 pieces of the puzzle for growing to $100 million and beyond Annual Recurring Revenue (ARR).
While the great product is necessary you still need to find the market. Finding a solution before fixing a problem is just like putting a cart in front of the horse.
We should be thinking market first, then the product.
[How about Steve Blanks – get out of the building idea]
For instance, in 2016 and 2017 there was a big hype about virtual reality. It sounded new and exciting and numerous startups and companies tried to build something around it.
Or in the last couple of years, cryptocurrencies and blockchain has been popping out in every inline publishing magazine. Yet, we still don’t have a sticky solution – a tangible clear way those technologies are fixing the problem.
It’s because it doesn’t solve any major burning pain.
Slack’s team communication has a very clear value proposition – it reduces the time effort for team communication so everyone can get the info just-in-time. Thus working feels more smooth and productive.
Let’s look at ti in a visual representation
Project Management, Team Communication
Core Value Prop:
Get the information from your coworkers right when you need it
Department heads and everyone else
The Email Killer
Digging through archives, ineffective email, slow communication
Time to Value:
Create Account -> Invite team members -> Send message
Growing archive of all communications, integrated tools, fun UI/UX, social connectedness to the team
The product market fit has to be proven with a combination of qualitative and quantitative measurements.
Slack’s Northstar Metrichas always been NPS which is one of the best qualitative predictors. If your product solves the problem and it’s made in a way people love using it, then they should recommend it further.
At the same time on the quantitative side you have to pay attention to two things: direct traffic and flat retention.
Flat Retention Curve is the key to growth| Source: Medium.com
Slack figured both things out. The product is a quicksand, the more you use it the more you depend on it. Every new person that joins the company has to use it as well.
QUESTION: Can Slack share their retention information?
Product Channel Fit
What most startups fail to understand is that the product and channel are connected. We shouldn’t treat them as silos. They are not separate entities but connected pieces that correspond with each other.
But product are built to take advantage of a specific channel.
Channels do not mold to products.
We can’t define the rules of the channels. Google defines what gets ranked in SEO and shown as search results. Facebook defines what gets shown in the feed. Gmail defines what gets in the spam and what into the promo tab.
What you need to do, you have to mold it into one of these channels as seamlessly as possible.
How Slack did it.
Slack’s product has an amazingly quick time to value which doesn’t only target an individual but a whole team.
Secondly, it’s got a broad value proposition – everyone in the team gets the the same similar benefit of increased productivity and shorter times of getting information.
However, Slack managed to get all of those channels to percolate down to the holy grail of channels – word of mouth.
Peter Thiel, one of Silicon Valley’s most known venture capitalist’s said:
It’s not just virality but the combination of brand and WOM. It’s the Direct channel. This means that Slack brand is so well known, most of the users are coming on the website by directly typing s-l-a-c-k dotcom in the browser. Every company wishes for this kind of channel distribution.
You probably heard of Pareto’s Law (also known as 20/80 rule). 20% of effort gets 80% of results.
The Power Law is something similar however Peter Thiel used it in a quote:
“We Don’t Live In A Normal World; We Live Under A Power Law.”
This is explained by the Product Channel fit. Any business use one or several channels to get users or revenue. In the book “Traction” by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares you will find 19 marketing channels you can explore.
But it’s unusual to expect the traffic or users are going to be distributed evenly across different channels. The companies that really makes it work find one channel that brings in 70% or more users from ONE channel.
SEO – HubSpot and Neil Patel who covered almost every piece of marketing with content
User Generated Content (UGC) – Reddit, TripAdvisor, Twitter, Instagram
Sponsored Podcasts – Website builderSquarespace and Casper mattresses are known to sponsor podcast hosts who plug their plug their products
Channel-Model fitness defines the relation of your pricing model and your channel. It should answer how you charge your customers and how much are Average Annual Revenue Per User (AARPU) are you receiving.
To determine a good business we need to look at the relation between the ARPU revenue and Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC).
These companies pricing model has to be congruent with the channel. According to Brian Balfour, the worst thing to be is somewhere in the middle. This doesn’t mean it won’t work but it might be harder to execute.
How about Product Tiering? Bigger product with a variety of services can exists across the ARPU <> CAC Spectrum? If you look at LinkedIn, they have a product offers on low and high end of the spectrum.
We defined the Slack as a product that uses virality to grow. It’s freemium model allows it to onboard and value-lock the whole team quickly.
But most of the users convert to paid ones in the first 3 months. This places Slack near left of the middle of the Spectrum
On the Product tier level, Slack has benefitted from clear pricing. But they also have a solution on the Higher end of the Spectrum — Slack Enterprise Grid. At SEG companies manage multiple workspaces with increased security features.
Model Market Fit
For some companies, growth can feel like slow lumbering mammoth, where you need to put a ton of effort to get it moving. For others, growth is a smooth natural process — it feels like growth just happens itself. Slack is definitely one of the latter companies.
Depending where you place in the Animal Pricing Matrix dedicates the market. Are you going to hunt the big corporate/enterprise deals? You only need a couple of them.
Slack default product is hunting rabbits and deer elks – small (2-20) to medium sized teams (up to 150) where they can quickly earn a decent revenue. Since they earn per user the price stack up quite fast depending on the size.
If we’d drawn a line across the animals we’d get a Model Market Fit Threshold. On the the line and on the right we’d still have a Model Market Fit, while everything below we’d be failing the algorithm for high-revenue company.
Start with the total customer in the market which you’ve already done at the Market Product Fit stage. If the customer size feels to small, you can cast a wider net, however you’d need to check the Market Product Fit to see you’re still covering the customers according to your criteria.
Then calculate how much your customers are willing to pay. You have to be above the Market Fit Threshold. If your product sits below you can raise the prices but make sure the Product Model Fit supports positive ROI.
Lastly think about how much % of the market you can capture. This is the hardest metric to calculate since it’s tough to predict. Brian Balfour suggest 10% as a rule of thumb as a starting point.
Summary of the all 4 frameworks and how it applies to Slack
Let’s put Slack in the table and review the frameworks to see if the hypothesis holds true.
During the years it has evolved to cover a larger piece of the market with different pricing models but for the sake of this equation let’s look at the most common one.
Product – Slack is a team communication tool that solves an internal communication within the team. It has a clear value proposition and solves a major pain. It’s simple to use, however with a plethora of apps and integrations it becomes a valuable piece in the company’s stack.
Market – Their most common client is a software company which starts in small numbers of emplyees (between 5 to 20) and quickly swells up to a hundred or more if it’s successful.
Model – Pricing is straightforward. It’s based per active members. If a company of 20 takes a standard package, it costs them $1,920 per year. For every new member that joins the company, Slack earns another $96 towards their ARPU. This puts them in medium ARR (annual recurring revenue).
Channel is viral. Word-of-mouth is accelerated by strong brand high customer satisfaction scores. Every user that joins Slack has the ability to pull another person as well. Since the product is simple and doesn’t require much setup, the viral channel works amazingly well.
There are roughly 20k tech startups in the Bay Area. 10% of 20k is 2000.
2000 companies with 20 members gets Slack an Annual Contract Value (ACV) of $4M.
These markets have localized support and offerings.
Every channel is constantly evolving and moving, which demands that every company stay on their toes and manage all four frameworks.
Chapter 7: Slack’s Friends and Family – Partnership Moves & integrations
Successful companies often acquire another company to get rid of competition (i.e. travel and restaurant TripAdvisor buying a plethora of local travel apps), acquire another customer base (Amazon with Whole Foods and Zappos) or gain access to the proprietary technology that will help them grow (Facebook with the acquisition of Instagram).
Most of the big companies wait for the disruptor to reach a certain stage: The acquirer eliminates the threat, prevent other competitors from swooping and stealing the technology, and instantly reaches new audiences. Sometimes, acquisitions happen just because a company needs high-tier development talent and knows that a startup has the top minds in the business.
A merger is a different strategy. When Facebook acquired Instagram for one billion, most of the public thought it was way too much for a simple mobile photo app run by twelve people with no revenue model.
Since Slack’s product idea isn’t hard to replicate — internal chat technology isn’t much different than IRC. Keep in mind Slack’s competitors CampFire, Yammer and HipChat tackled team communication years Slack’s solution. For Slack to stay ahead of the pack, they had to grow fast. They decided to use mergers and acquisitions to strategically fill in their success gaps.
Companies like Yammer, Microsoft, and others looked to remake internal communications in ways that looked more like consumer tools in the Web 2.0 era, but Slack came out with an approach that was initially just a slick chat and team communications tool. — Matthew Lynley, Techcrunch
Sep 26, 2014 – Slack acquires Spaces – Spaces had a document collaboration technology that greatly increased Slack’s capabilities
Jan 28, 2015 – Slack acquires Screenhero – What’s a messaging app without screen-sharing and voice chat? All six employees who worked for Screenhero joined Slack.
July 17, 2018 – Slack acquire Missions – Robots and Pencils’ app Missions allower Slack users to build tools to automate simple routines without much technical knowledge. It’s a lot like Zapier for Slack users.
With Mission’s, visual flow the creation of new integration is easy, and allows for the customization Slack users want.
Jul 27, 2018 – Partnership with Atlassian
Slack announced the acquisition of the Stride and HipChat products from Atlassian. Slack and Atlassian had a previous relationship, with Atlassian tools like Trello, Bitbucket and Jira already integrated with Slack – adding project management to the already robust communication tool.
However, Slack’s acquisition of Stride and HipChat allows it to upgrade the workflow capabilities of the product, especially large enterprise businesses. The Stride collaboration tool enables video, voice and chat at the same time, while HipChat has been one of Slack’s largest competitors. As a predecessor (HipChat launched in 2010), they acquired significant user base over the years before losing out to Slack’s accelerated user acquisition
Key Takeaway: Acquisitions are more than just getting rid of competition. Consider what else you can win by purchasing a competitor or complimentary product…. Customer base, new talent, new technology?
Chapter 8 – Future Proofing the Company and the Product
We’ve seen multiple high-growth companies ‘rest on their laurels’ rather than continuing to iterate and optimize.
How is Slack going to defend itself from the big players? Microsoft’s Teams and Google’s Hangouts Chat may threaten Slack’s dominance from their sheer distribution advantage.
Slack’s initial intention was building a solid customer-centric product that isn’t just functional, but adored.
The majority of their marketing efforts were poured into making their brand fun, lighthearted, and accessible.
People who use it have the same perception of the brand. It’s ingrained in their brains because Slack put all the effort in conveying that core message.
This is something Google or Microsoft cannot achieve. At least not in the short run.
While they can offer the best integrations, tools, and technical perfection it will still be the product of Google/Microsoft. It’s the product of a big corporate company who owns everything.
When someone looks at Slack they see Animals! Video with bright colors and quirky loading messages. If they look at Microsoft, the see a different brand message – a more corporate oriented machine with a serious tone.
It’s the same reason why HipChat which is arguably the same product and was launched 4 years before Slack, couldn’t grow.
“Slack won the branding game because they invested in emotional capital. “
Integrations and technical flexibility keeps the team at the forefront of the team-communication industry. Strategic acquisitions of companies allows them to have the best-in-class talent and even an instant surge of new users.
Stewart Butterfield talks about the importance of inclusion and diversity. And it’s not just empty virtue-signalling.
“The NICEST, most thoughtful company culture I’ve ever experienced”
“genuinely cares about you and your life inside & outside the company “
The core Slack team – the original founders love working with each-other. They have been through thick and thin, ran the gauntlet and stepped over the charred corpses of failed products. They are connected with a common goal to keep their customers happy.
When you look at the military history, the battle-hardened and seasoned soldiers who were a part of the same company fared much better in the field than fresh recruits. It’s only natural. Every individual in the tight-knit group knows each other and rely on them because they know their capabilities.
In the book, From Impossible to Inevitable, author Aaron Ross talks about defining your destiny — in every moment of growing your business you have two options:
You give up in the face of challenges or
Use them to motivate yourself and others and push forward.
During BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/ SEAL) – notoriously hard training phase of becoming a Navy Seal, the training officers figured out who will make it through the training. It’s those individuals who find a buddy — a brother to rely on during the most grueling, mentally and physically challenging conditions.
You go through a trauma with a group of people, and you really get bound to them. You know, like, it’s a really – it’s a – makes you very close. And so I think we all wanted to continue working together. — Stewart Butterfield, Interview on How I Built This with Guy Raz
Key Takeaway: Brand is everything your company does with your customers. Tie everything into that mantra – the happiness of your employees, the love of the product and most importantly – your customers’ satisfaction.
Slack has established itself as an idol of a business company — they are loved by small startup teams and large enterprises. Their panacea for internal communication was not only effective but also packaged in a way it’s easy and fun to use. The extreme focus on customer satisfaction only made it better through the years and minds of new users. And on top of that, the employees love working for it, believing they are making a positive change.
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” ― Søren Kierkegaard
This was the year I’ve finally put my thoughts (weekly newsletter) and studies online. I’ve realized there’s no value hoarding the knowledge you’re getting from books, courses, movies without taking an action. I’ve heard somewhere the knowledge is not power but potential power (“I think it was on one of Joe Rogan’s podcast episodes).
Systems – As someone who spent years wasting time on video games and watching mindless movies, the introduction of systems was one of the best things to keep me accountable. I (was) am of the self-proclaimed laziest persons and if you live in an environment where most of the people are just fine with “living with the flow”, it didn’t help at all.
I’ve started the personal scoreboard where I track daily routines. It didn’t matter if I was way at the times. I wanted to feel that sting of failures if I wasn’t on track with my daily habits. Not only I have an outside view on how I’m performing I’ve also used it as a minimal journal of my actions.
Writing tracker — this was godsend and I’ll tell more about it in the next paragraph.
Writing – I’m very happy with my writing. During the process, I’ve beat myself up and told myself how shitty the grammar and structure is. However, the value of growth studies was there. At least according to email signups.
The writing course was one of the best investments I’ve made this year.
Business/Career — At the end of August 2017 I’ve parted ways with virtual reality startup and joined the digital out-of-home marketplace company. My salary increased by 180% during the first 6 months. I received another raise and brought the income to 248%.
This allowed me to spend more money on personal development and tools. The best courses I’ve taken this year were Tiago Forte’s Build Your Second Brain and Getting Things Done, Primoz Bozic’ Writing More Every Day and Chris Von Wilperts’ Content Maverick.
The result of writing growth studies:
I’ve received one paid contract for growth study (coming out in January 2019)
The personal walkthrough of Landyachtz Longboards HQ by Ryan Theobald (VP of Marketing and Sales)
~1000 unique visitors per month
I’ve written and published 4 growth studies, three of them were on top weekly posts on GrowthHackers.
I’ve done a couple of side jobs that resulted in healthy income from commission. At the end that income was about 15% of my total revenue.
Finally did LASIK surgery – I’m still in recovery and my sight isn’t 100% there yet, but it feels amazing waking up or going to sleep without lenses.
I’ve re-started longboarding. It was my childhood dream to skateboard but living in a rural countryside that wasn’t a realistic nor rational wish. But this year I’ve started longboarding again. Right now I have 3 different longboards in my trunk and I go cruise around the city with two of my co-workers at least once a week. If it’s not cold/rainy I also longboard to work daily.
Took the trip to Vancouver for 16 days. I’ve loved spending time longboarding around Stanley Park, living out of the rural house in Upper Squamish Valley and tasting expensive hipster coffee on a daily basis. The trip put a lot of things into perspective.
I’ve visited 6 countries this year (Croatia, Austria, Netherlands, Canada, United Arab Emirates, and Germany). One of the dopest things was longboarding the downtown cities in three different continents within 45 days. Cool!
I stopped playing video games entirely. Switch from PC to Macbook was one of the best career movies since there’s not a lot of options in terms of games for Apple users. But I still played Hearthstone (Blizzard’s card game) about every other day. This stopped early this year.
I’ve bombed the Half-Nelson in BC on a downhill bike. Pure Adrenaline! (Not my video!)
Listening to incredible music has been a necessity and constant companion since the early teens (thanks to an older brother who introduced me to the Zepps, Pearl Jam and Hendrix). Contrary to the popular belief there’s more good music than ever. You just need to dig for it (or follow trusted sources).
I live for moments for discoveries such as Elder’s Lore, Jon Hopkins’ Open Eye Signal, Grimes’ Genesis or even Godspeed You!Black Emperors’ Storm — those ones that give you a dose of something new and amazing.
These are my favorite discoveries in 2018 (in no particular order):
Khruangbin – Oh my goodness. If there’s something I love is finding something completely new. This trio is a perfect slow funk groove that will make your head bob for daysssssssss
Matthew Chaim – Homemade — just chillin’ back and enjoying some vocals
Against All Logic (A.A.L) – 1997 – 2002 — Nicolas Jaar is a prodigy in the electronic world. Everything he touches is pure gold and this collection that was released this year is mind-bogglingly good. Perfect intro to some melodic house stuff.
Jon Hopkins – Singularity — I’m envious to people who haven’t heard the Open Eye Signal track. You can expect something similar on Singularity as well (Emerald Rush is ridonculous). The second full-length album carries the epic soundscapes of a majestic universal flick as well.
Chrome Sparks – S/T — Still Think clip will blow your mind.
Bishop Gunn – Natchez — the feel-good country rock. What’s not to love?
Health/Fitness – the year 2018 was the year of injuries.
I’ve torn a hamstring playing squash.
Sprained my right wrist during heavy clean.
Sprained my hammy couple more times with unintentional splits after falling from a longboard.
Problems with my left shoulder
I’ve had a couple of problems with my skin, one resulted in a hospital visit.
The eye surgery requires me to rest and abstain of exercise for the whole month. Since I value my eyesight I grudgingly have to concur with doctor’s orders
Because of that, my training was inconsistent and I haven’t seen progress in strength. I’ve recorded a PR lift at merely 84 kg snatch, while I haven’t maxed up my clean and jerk. Same goes with squat, deadlift and bench.
The total strict pull-ups went down from 11 in 2017 to 6.
The cardio portion was even worse. I never was a good runner and when I started training for it, the injury happened and pushed me back to the blank page.
Personal — I work a lot and tend to neglect other important things like relationships with my family, friends and love life. On one end I’m ok with it since I’m (still) far away from my personal goals that will require a lot more focus, but on the other, I’m tired of having my life “on hold”.
The schedule doesn’t allow much time to pursue endeavors that aren’t directly tied to my Northstar goal. Maybe I should put more things into “balance” but as soon as I saw this word I puked a little in my mouth.
“Whatever dude, cry me a river, right?”
Yeah, I know.
Investing — after reading Money, Master the Game and talking to my US friends I realized the importance of saving and investing money. I have a small investment in crypto (which is tanking). I also started participating in lending clubs (Mintos is my choice) which is great, however, the portfolio is too diversified to bring those sweet compounding gains.
I’m trying to find a European version of Roth IRA/401k or reliable index funds like 500 S & P. If anyone knows about a financial game in Europe, please let me know.
What I’ve learned
More money gives you access to more opportunity and potential power — in 2016/17 I’ve slept on the ground, ate one chipotle meal per day and saved wherever I could. In 2018, I’ve spent more around 30 – 40% of my income on learning.
The classes don’t just allow you some sort of shortcut to distilled and proven strategies, but access to people who are levels above you and have similar mentality towards personal growth. When you’re buying a course you’re also investing in a relationship channel between the course host. It may sound cheesy, but this connection is invaluable if you respect them.
By respect I mean sticking to the program, giving the best possible feedback and being a good student in general. The course program hosts aren’t just there to earn, but they genuinely want for their students to succeed.
Change — My happiness is correlated with the number of options I have in life and one thing I hate more than anything in my life is being stuck. Mostly is being stuck in one place for too long, or being stuck on a business problem, work. A friend of mine noticed that I don’t even park my car in the same spot. I like diversity and I like change (for the better). In my regular business, there wasn’t much progress in the first part. It drove me insane. I’ve produced countless documents, spreadsheets, experiments explaining the process and expected results, but they never reached the key person to receive the green light.
I felt this as a personal defeat (and I still do). As a consequence, this drove me to start the blog and put free time into different challenges than work-related ones. I’m happy with the blog and I’ve started being more demanding at work about the priorities. After some internal reorganization and better communication, we’ve seen more positive changes in the last two months than the entire year. Change is good.
Getting my health and fitness back on track. Start swimming once a week, yoga 2/w, lifts 2/w and cardio in daily walk/runs or longboarding sessions.
Pull-up goal: 15.
Snatch goal: 90 kg
Clean & Jerk: 115 kg
B. Squat: 155 kg
Deadlift: 220 kg
Body fat under 13%
Redesign my website (Q1) – it’s uglier and slower than Frankenstein’s grandma. I’m switching to Webflow in January 2019.
Keep the daily writing habit going. I’m planning to write 6 growth studies and land at least 5 guest posting gigs.
Launch a personal productivity course. If there’s something I’m good at is that I can finish a lot of simple tasks quickly. As a “one-man-growth-team” I’ve learned to be efficient. After telling a couple of friends about the hints and tricks, they were amazed. So this year I’m testing and opening up a course. Let me know if you would like to take a peak.
Attend a wedding in Taiwan. One of my dear friends is getting married in June. I’m already excited as this is going to be my first trip to “real” Asia (East Turkey doesn’t count).
Can you imagine a grocery store today that doesn’t even use social media, yet they have one of the most engaging and loyal fan base than anyone else. No facebook, no twitter, even the website looks like it was made in the late 1990s. There’s no data collections, discounts, screaming in-store LED signs or online shop.
Not only that, people are going bananas and are literally begging to open up a new store in their neighborhood. The parking lots are infamously crowded and whenever they open up a new shop, there’s a high probability of something called “the trader tow line” — the store is so popular that people park just about anywhere to get into it. The waiting lines can wrap around the building and towing trucks are having a field day removing the vehicles off the street because there’s nowhere else to park.
There’s a franchise of grocery store that is so popular their biggest marketing expense is a sampling station inside the store. This store is Trader Joe’s.
Established in 1967 by the “original Joe” — Joe Coulombe, the franchise is absolutely adored by their customers.
Situated in Monrovia California, Trader Joe’s
Employs more than 40,000 happy employees
Has 474 stores nationwide in 43 states (October 2017)
Had only 3 different CEOs in the last 60 years (in 1958 the stores were called Pronto Markets)
Brings in $13.3 billion of revenue (2015)
Was acquired by Aldi Nord (Fortune 500 company) in 1979 (although it’s completely independent)
Offer more than 80% of their private label products to their customers
Intentionally doesn’t sell outside US and grows slowly rather than fast
In this growth study, I’m finding out the distinct elements of the Trader Joe brand and what made it successful from the marketing and product standpoint. We are going to identify the success factors that contributed the outstanding loyalty and almost religious popularity among their customers. Every chapter includes a takeaway which you can use and think about how to apply it towards your business (if relevant).
“We are not in the retail business — we are in the people’s business”
The story of Trader Joe’s starts even before the year 1968 when it was officially renamed to today’s know Trader Joe’s (TJ). The founder, Stanford-educated Joe Coulombe bought up a couple of convenience stores in California – back then these stores were called Pronto stores and they carried miscellaneous items – chewing gum, pantyhose or ammunition box.
Pronto stores actually didn’t take off as you’d expect to judge by today’s success. Early hires remember dressing up in a gorilla costume and nudging people in through the doors. However, they did have great products and they were stocked by a category of products they are most known today: cheese, wine, and nuts. But none of those products were the inflection point that turned the boat towards the wind. It was one product that everyone loved, and Trader Joe’s had it on stock.
The almighty granola.
California always had a sizeable population of dietary weirdos. In the early 1970s, Jim Matson observed what products were moving in the local health food stores of St. Louis. Obscure flours and sea salts stayed on the shelf while cereals filled the shopping carts. In 1971, he helped open up a granola factory in Chico, CA.
In 1972, Heartland Natural Cereal started pumping out granola cereals. Just a short time after it was picked up by Quaker’s, Kellog’s and General Mill’s.
But having the initial traction is only one part of the product/market fit. What Trader Joe’s did in the years to come are the proper thought out sustainable strategies for growth.
The Market State in the 1950s
Joe Coulombe also deducted a couple of main points when starting a business. Trader Joe’s actually wasn’t the green, friendly store tight from the start. Back in May 1958, when Coulombe opened up a chain of Pronto stores he realized that there is a change happening in the education in America.
In the Entrepreneur interview, he said that in 1932, only 2% of all the people were qualified to go to college, while in 1965 that percentage raised to 60%. This meant the mass market is going to change.
The second element was the cost of travel. In 1970, Boeing 747 went into service and radically decreased the cost of flying. This fact also contributed to the name Trader Joe’s and the maritime look. It would show the customers a sense of adventure at the southern seas.
They made the necessary steps to think ahead. At first, it was all about getting some money in. Since the headquarters were located in California, Joe had a smart start offering alcohol. Because in the state of California they had Fair Trade policy, which meant no-one would be able to drop prices of alcohol lower than the ones set by the state regulations. The margins and revenue were therefore guaranteed.
“Trader Joe’s was first a liquor shop, before anything else” — Joe Coulombe
Let’s break every element down and identify the growth factors.
CHAPTER 1: Trader Joe’s Brand – Different than anyone else. Why so serious?
I remember when I first stepped into the Trader Joe’s in Seattle’s University District. I was blown away by how it makes you feel welcome. The staff wore these crazy Hawaiian shirts and were goody and talkative. I’ve always loved this kind of bubbly personality with an informal yet helpful approach.
It all falls into the picture of the original Joe’s — the first CEO who said the people are the brand (more on that on company’s values in Chapter 4).
The store itself has a unique look – it looks like a hipster version of Whole Foods with the focus on creativity, homeless and acceptance. The staff who usually wears Hawaiian shirts or Trader Joe’s hoodies are individuals who are happy to be there.
Similar to the shirts there’s also the bell which adds to a maritime feel. But it’s not there just for show. It’s a secret message — one ring means there’s a crowd at the register and someone should come and help out, two rings means that a customer has an important question while three rings summons the store captain a.k.a store manager.
“Sale” is a four-letter word to us. We have low prices, every day. NO coupons. NO membership cards. NO discounts. NO glitzy promotions or couponing wars at our stores. We offer the best everyday values, every day. — Excerpt from TraderJoe’s website
You won’t find any flat screens or screaming billboards for discounts and special offers. Everything is chilled down to offer customers an amazing shopping experience. In every Trader Joe’s store, you’ll find unique art on the walls which are creations from local artists.
The store isn’t just a copy/paste franchise of one base example model but is unique to the neighborhood they are situated in.
All this combined makes them different from any other store out there. It’s not so much about the product (which are of high quality and amazing value), or accessibility (actually they are notorious about too small parking lots and absence of online store) but about the shopping experience.
When you shop at Trader Joe’s you’re not there to get butter, milk and few dozens of eggs and gallon of peanut butter, but you’re there to relax, chat up with friendly crew members and try something new.
This stark contrast to anything else that’s out there gives them a competitive edge in their niche and shines a bright spotlight on their brand and values. Apart from a printed brochure (which is a story on its own – chapter 5), sporadic email newsletter and tasting station (which is the highest marketing expense) Trader Joe’s doesn’t do much else.
Apart from Instagram and Pinterest, they don’t have Facebook, Twitter or other social media. They don’t use paid campaigns online or offline and for sure they don’t put much focus on website design which looks like it’s stuck in time.
Trader Joe’s Tasting Station – The Biggest Marketing Expense
Who would have thought a simple daily sampling would be the biggest marketing channel. And that it has its place in the customer “journey”. Since there’s always an influx of new products in the store, the station represents a mini public keynote about the star of the day product.
And who doesn’t like to receive free food right? f the dish of the day doesn’t appeal to you, there’s always coffee with milk (vegan options too, of course) or tea.
With their brand, they’ve done what every company wants – create relationships and develop thousands of raving fans who can’t shut up about how amazing there are. Just like crossfitters can’t stop gushing about how sick their workouts are and vegans how well they feel on a steady diet of ginger kale smoothies and quinoa burgers.
Since the people are the brand, Trader Joe’s doesn’t use online shops or deliver products. In a way, they are intentionally cutting back down and turning down huge amounts of revenue. But in return, they are keeping true to their main mission and values. Every interaction is genuine and is aimed to benefit the customer.
KEY TAKEAWAY #1 — Dare to be different. Don’t imitate, innovate. Read1,000 true fans from Kevin Kelly. Your job is to create a brand people love and become memorable. Retail is one of the industries where genuine human customer service and knowledge of the product is top-notch.
For a small store that would almost qualify as a boutique (the average size of a Trader Joe’s store is around 15,000 sq ft, roughly a third of the size of your typical grocery store). TJ’s had to take a different approach to stocking the interior with products. Rather to cramming as much variety into the small space, they focused on a selection of unique products. They couldn’t compete with large stores that had everything.
The products have to be tasty, nutritious and without GMOs, coloring or preservatives. You also won’t find products with high-fructose corn syrup or MSG. This serves as a guarantee towards customers to shop with confidence.
Trader Joe’s products are sourced, tested and checked before they reach the shelves of your neighborhood TJ. As a grocery store, they don’t carry everything — The average grocery store sells around 50,000 items, but Trader Joe’s sells around 4,000 items on average. They have to find value somewhere else than sheer volume.
Trader Joe’s has a special position in their job categories that is probably the coolest assignment you could ever have: the product innovation position.
The job of product innovators is to travel the world and find tasty new foods that are a good fit for the next product that is going to be included in the stores. Yes, this literally means traveling around and eating a bunch of delicious food. It’s a food treasure hunt that might take you tasting cheese and wine in France, chorizo sausages in Spain or cured meats in a South Korea’s farmers’ market.
Once they find their loot in different sections of the world the product innovators bring the concepts to Trader Joe’s headquarters — either the one in Monrovia, California or Boston, Massachusetts. The tasting shing dings are three times a week.
The products are prepared and presented in front of the Trader Joe’s Food inspection lab. It’s basically a table with crew members who taste different foods and discuss whether this will be included in the stores or not. The tasting happens after lunch, so there’s no biased physiological circumstances or biased opinions because the tasters are hungry (that means they must eat the protein chocolate chip cookies even if they’re not hungry). It’s hard work but someone has to do it.
Being at the front is completely different then trailing the trends. But this can only happen if the brand is strong enough. Trader Joe’s has earned that right and products they put out tell the story.
The innovators bring new ideas from all over the world and sometimes they are even ahead of the curve.
Coconut oil was first introduced at TJ’s way before it has been recognized as a healthy food. Back then, saturated fats were the culprit of growing muffin tops and absence of thigh gaps. The sales records were abysmal. No one bought it.
TJ’s coconut oil before it was cool
But the trend turned and someone decided coconut oil is the top sh*t again. The customers were begging to get it back to the shelves. It has been one of the most popular items ever since.
Quality and Pricing
Once a product is chosen for inclusion in the stores, Trader Joe’s orders it in bulk. This means giant 40 – 50 lbs wheels of cheese at a time. The products are being sent to the TJ kitchen or warehouse where it’s being processed.
Some of the products are going to be cooked or processed before being packaged, while others such as cheese and nuts are being segmented, portioned or cut into smaller sizes. This way Trader Joe’s keep the costs down and also guarantees fresh and quality ingredients. Naturally, they are subject to all the necessary safety and contamination regulations, so the kitchen and processing space sometimes look like a quarantine safe-house or Dexter’s killing room.
The products are bought directly from manufacturers and growers – there are no middlemen which is another reason why they can keep the costs low.
The tasting is one of the most important aspects of Trader Joe’s. It is happening in all sections of the companies. The product innovation and management decide what gets included in the stores, the crew members and captains of each neighborhood store taste it twice a week to learn about the new product, and lastly, the customer has a chance to try one “dish of the day” in-store or back in their house. They can comment and share their opinion with the customer center via phone or email.
Since Trader Joe’s sells more than 80% of products under private label, they can keep the cost lower while still providing good quality.
Scarcity is an ingenious way to keep customers engaged and keep them coming back. As mentioned in the book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (by Robert Cialdini), it’s one of the six principles that “tricks” people into spending more.
TJ might do it to keep the stock fresh, include seasonal products or rotate products that either don’t sell that well so it gives space for newcomers.
But on a bigger level it creates three absolutely genius incentives:
Larger Orders — Customers who find a product they like, they are buying them in bulk since they don’t know if it’s going to be discontinued or not. This is also true for the TJ staff as well.
Encouraged purchase of new products — Every trip to Trader Joe’s is a treat. You already know and expect fundamental elements such as where you’re going to park, what the customer service is going to be (non-fake friendly, upbeat) but best of all, you know there’s going to be a couple of new products to try out. Since they passed the taste test, you as a customer can be confident it’s going to be a good or at least interesting meal.
People will talk about it — It generates word-of-mouth and discussion over social media (and over the coffee break in the office). We’ve mentioned that Trader Joe’s doesn’t use social media.
But their fans do!
And there are hundreds of blogger type websites, Twitter mentions and especially YouTube videos where customers are showing off their TJ hauls (similar to Lululemon’s clients), share recipes or just fanboying/fangirling about how awesome and amazing Trader Joe’s is.
Just a few of numerous YouTube creators highlighting the brand
At one point they might carry 80 season-specific products. This strategy plays into the customer curiosity and exploration. During Christmas and Halloween Trader Joe’s is enjoying triple traffic. One thing might be a higher consumption of food in general but there’s also a special selection of sourced products.
“Value is the name of the game of Trader Joe’s product and it doesn’t just mean quality products for a lower price, but every other touchpoint a customer has with it — from entering to the store, talking to the crew members and completing the purchase.”
Whole Foods is trying to encroach the lower-price, higher quality market with 365-line stores. The story looks similar to Spotify vs Apple music streaming services. Spotify, like TJ’s build the brand as a quirky and unique newcomer with focus on customer service one side and on the other, there’s super-rich giants like Apple and Whole Foods (which is under Amazon now) with supreme partnerships and undisputed distribution advantages.
KEY TAKEAWAY #2 — Products only tell part of the story. Build an entire shopping experience around it and create a memorable service to turn clients into fans.
CHAPTER 3: Top Class Genuine Customer Service
“Every feedback given is a like a gift” — TJ’s Customer Support
By now it’s glaringly obvious everything is focused towards customer satisfaction. This has turned into an amazing main metric for software companies as well. Team communication software company Slack, which is the fastest growing business app, used customer satisfaction scores (and NPS) as a sole focus of their business.
How much money you bring in is important (but it’s not #1), knowing your audience in TJ is not. They don’t keep any data about you. US chain Target (and probably many other) has been known to gather tons of customer data which is able to predict when you or your significantother is going to get pregnant. Based on that knowledge they ramp up their paid marketing and retargeting channels to lure you into their stores.
It’s statistically proven, couples will spend a lot more money while pregnant and after birth than normal.
Target’s Predictable Big Data Computer Model
Target created a computer model that was able to figure out which shoppers were pregnant just by studying their shopping habits. Identifying pregnant women is the holy grail of retail. People with new babies are so tired that if you can get them inside your doors to buy bottles and formula they’ll end up buying everything else they need as well. If the new parents start shopping at Target they will be coming back for years to come.
How did they predict it?
Lots of people buy lotion but Target analyst noticed that women at Target’s baby registry started buying large quantities of lotion in about their second trimester. Someone else noticed that in about their 20th-week pregnant women started loading up with vitamins.
By crawling through the data, Target was able to identify 25 different items that, when analyzed together, allowed them to predict whether someone was pregnant. The program was so accurate that it could assign any Target shopper a pregnancy score. WILD!
After some time shoppers were getting upset by being analyzed and Target got together with their data scientists team. To be fair, it is kind of creepy how retailers and unmentioned social media channels serve you ads and searches about your last night’s dreams.
So Target started mixing in ads for bottles and formula with other products that have nothing to do with pregnancy in their catalog. The pattern looked random and it worked.
The example is taken from Charles Duhigg’s amazing book: The Power of Habit
The NY Times suggests that “Target’s gangbusters revenue growth — $44 billion in 2002 to $67 billion in 2010” can be attributed to their better understanding of consumers with predictable Big Data.
If you as a retail company can find a way to become a part of young parents’ grocery habit the LTV (lifetime value) will skyrocket.
They have none of that at Trader Joe’s.
Customer service is another bright point and they take it extremely seriously. Almost every product a customer buys can be returned without a problem and exchanged for cash (with an exemption of cheese). Yes, even the half melted mochi ice-cream.
This serves as an encouragement towards buyers to buy and experiment with new products. Get into my belly Chilli Lime Burgers and Butternut Squash Zig-Zags.
Even though crew members rotate through positions (TJ store are purposely overstaffed – chapter 7), all of them are knowledgeable about what is being kept in the store. Category Managers, for such products as spirits, beer, and wine or cheese, get acquainted with the buyers personally and over time connect with them to a level, where they completely trust them with their next purchase.
If Sarah who works the wine section likes a certain kind of dry red wine, they will go with her suggestion. This level of personal service is rarely seen but it goes a long way (similar to Lululemon Athletica’s educators).
KEY TAKEAWAY #3 — For Pete’s sakes, treat your customers like they’re the ones that bring money to the company. Because they are! Establish a system where everyone in the organization realizes the importance of stellar service.
CHAPTER 4 – Company Values
The brand and vision would be hard to achieve without underlying company values each employee – from crew member, captain to product innovators and upper management – embodies.
There are 7 if them. One of the employees even created flashcards.
How to get hired as a Trader Joe’s Crew Member – the cheatsheet
Integrity —In the way we operate stores and the way Trader Joe’s deal with people. Act as if the customer was looking over your shoulder all the time.Respect the Golden Rule.
Product-driven — Our strategy emphasizes product, customer experience, and value. We want to excel at one, be very good at another, and meet customer expectations on the other. Trader Joe’s buying/merchandising group search the world for great products that are carefully screened for acceptance through rigorous parameters of their unique “Buying Philosophy”. This philosophy is the cornerstone of our product focus and guides the buyers in their challenge to find the amazing new product that our customers love.
Produce customer wow experiences — We celebrate the special way we treat and relate to our customers. We think retailing is all about customer experience, and that is what really differentiates us.We are committed to make every customer shopping experience:
There are internal and external experiences. Internal experience represents the way a customer “feels” about the store experience, or how they feel about themselves while shopping in Trader Joe’s stores.
The external experience may come from great signage that passes along the information, wonderful demo program, engaging interaction with crew members and store features that entertain or inform customers.
We hate bureaucracy — We give everyone a license to kill bureaucracy. All officers are in cubicles. The CEO is in a conference room. We have very few layers—a very simple organization.
Kaizen —There are no KPIs to hit but we do expect each one of the employees is trying to do just a little better every day. This is infused into our training programs. We really stress teamwork and working together, while we do not do elaborate budgeting at the store level.
Treat the store as the brand — Individual products are not the brand. The store is. The brand is really the covenant between the company and the customer, and the real key is day-to-day consistency in meeting and satisfying needs.
We are a “national/neighborhood” company — Our customers benefit from our national buying ability, but we want each store to be close to the customer and really a part of their neighborhood.
KEY TAKEAWAY #4 — Vision, company statement and “boring” blubber talk that goes under a company presentation binder isn’t just there to be cute, but establishes the personality and direction to the people. It’s the manifesto on which everyone turns to ensure whatever they’re doing is in compliance with the company and organization.
CHAPTER 5 – Copywriting – The Secret Sauce
Trader Joe’s isn’t just a different store, with brand and people in it. It’s different with their ways of advertising as well. The marketing department isn’t big. It’s because there isn’t much to do anyway — take care of the packaging, set up tasting stations and send email newsletters and physical brochures of products.
But that’s the trick, whatever is being put out there is unique and their own. Nothing represents them better than The Fearless Flyers – the companies’ physical brochure.
Most of the flyers you’re getting in your mailbox show big colorful pictures of fresh produce, heavily discounted prices and exclusive time-sensitive deals.
TJ’s produce pamphlet is the opposite. It’s almost all text, almost no pictures except unique Victorian images. The most important point is the copy itself.
Trader Joe’s’ copywriters tell the story about the product, where it was sourced, how it tastes like and what are its ingredients. There’s always a funny pun, hidden joke or some other version of wordplay involved.
This produces intrigue, curiosity, and anticipation among their readers in addition to letting them know about new products they have to come in and try.
Instead of selling the product they sell the experience of it. It’s not just the Fearless Flyer but you can notice the copywriting techniques on the products as well.
An average product has a headline and a subtitle.
What’s with the Victorian images?
The Victorian images were used because they were royalty-free stock creatives which looked a bit funny. TJ doesn’t take itself too seriously and they were also saving money. Since customers got used to them they stuck. It all goes great with quirky, funny copywriting.
KEY TAKEAWAY #5 — Include the story into your products and try good old proven copywriting methods to attract people through the store. Is there any other differentiation factor from your competitors? Test it out.
CHAPTER 6 – Leadership and Decentralized Command
Since 1958, Trader Joe’s had only 3 CEOs in its entire history. The original Joe — Joe Coulombe was a Stanford-educated business who spent 10 years in proper markets before buying up the chain of Pronto stores I’ve mentioned in the intro.
Coulombe led the store organization for the first 30 years and is responsible for introducing private-labeled Trader Joe’s product which shot the brand into the stratosphere (yes, that was the granola everyone loved).
Even to this day, Coulombe claims the most important part of success is the people who represent the brand. Even though the employees of TJ don’t need specific skills they have to respect the company’s values and genuinely be helpful, kind and eager to help.
“We are not a conventional grocery store. We’re closer to the fashion business than the supermarket business.” — Joe Coulombe, founder of Trader Joe’s
In 1989, Trader Joe’s had 27 stores, all located in California. Coulombe passed the leadership to John V. Shields who orchestrated the growth of the stores. In 12 years he expanded the base of 27 stores to 158.
While Coulombe was intuitive, Shields was more systematic. The most important feature he introduced is decentralized decision-making management. Just like Jocko Willink (former Navy Seal commander and currently best-selling author) states in his book, a decentralized command is absolutely necessary for effective work and leadership.
At Trader Joe’s that meant the store managers (captains of the store) are responsible for decisions, management and eventual success of the stores. This makes complete sense since every store has basic fundamentals in values, but are far away from cookie-cutter copy and paste franchise. Trader Joe’s is a neighborhood store with its own neighborhood feel.
The store has its own artists and own people. The relationships between customers and staff get built faster because the nature of customer service and frequency of households and denizens leaving nearby. Shop captains have the cultural knowledge and have free hands in organizing bespoke events based on where they live.
Mr. Shields also standardizes the layout of stores and brought in market analysts into the decision-making process.
In 2001, Dan Bane takes over and formulizes the strategy that took 150 stores to today’s 474 and it’s growing. Ethical Leadership
“What’s really great is that it was sort of the right CEO at the right time throughout history. I think that’s really what’s happened.” — Jon Basalone, President Of Stores @ Trader Joe’s
KEY TAKEAWAY #6 — The secret of great companies is hiring amazing talent and letting them do their job. Trust your managers to run their departments without you micromanaging them and being the bottleneck of success.
CHAPTER 7 – HAPPY EMPLOYEES and COMMUNITY
One thing is being kind to customers, but something completely different is creating a community. The company and neighborhood stores actively participate in charity, cultural and other events.
A tremendous THANK YOU to Trader Joe’s Napa for their generous donation to NapaValleyBFF. Captain Jeff and his Magical Staff, we are beyond grateful! pic.twitter.com/NV7tViQxTd
The Neighbourhood Shares program is unique to TJ’s. The staff takes blemished and imperfect products and share them with people who just happen to need assistance. Trader Joe’s has donated over $350 million of product and fed over 58 million meals through the program. They eliminate food waste and help the local people in need at the same time.
Happy employees = Successful Company
It’s impossible to have a successful business that relies on human resources and the quality of customer service without satisfied and happy employees. Trader Joe’s “jolly roger crew” are the actual brand.
Unlike working history and GPA, Trader Joe’s is hiring based on personality. If you don’t like people you have nothing to bring to the table.
“Applicants who did not smile in the first 30 seconds were crossed off the list.” John V. Shields about hiring store managers at Trader Joe’s
In the 2002 interview, John Shields famously said to new hires at TJ: ‘Look, at the end of 30 days, if you are not having fun, please quit.’ ”
To keep crew members on their toes and engaged, Trader Joe’s deliberately overstaffs the stores so the crew can rotate positions. That way they are not just filling the shelves or managing the register which could lower their spirits.
Similarly to Lululemon’s educators’, Trader Joe’s new hires are paid above retail average and have 24 days off per year which they can spend however they want. This is called Accrued Reserve which is earned by the amount of time a crew member is working.
“For full-time crew (mates, merchants, captains) the benefit is 9.4 percent of your wages in an absence reserve fund you can use for any time off you may need or want to take. After ten years with the company, it goes up to 10.4 percent. Part-time crew members get 3% the first couple of years and then it goes up to 5%.”
The hourly pay is about $15 while the captains can earn six figures annually.
What distinguishes TJ’s employees from other retailers is the work environment.
“We wear Hawaiian shirts because we’re traders on the culinary seas, searching the world over for cool items to bring home to our customers. And when we return home, we think grocery shopping should be fun, not another chore.” — From TraderJoes.com FAQ
I found a crew member from Twitter to get some first-hand testimonial how is it like working for Trader Joe.
Why did you decide to start working with TJ?
How was the interview process like?
How do you like working with TJ?
What’s the most enjoyable part of the job?
Do you feel the compensation is sufficient?
Do you see yourself working longer with Trader Joe? Why not?
What are your biggest takeaways and lessons while working at TJ?
My name is Michael Barfknecht, I work at Trader Joe’s in Temecula, CA.
Dejan: Why did you decide to start working with TJ?
Michael: First I was interested in working for Trader Joe’s because my cousin works there and she always talked about how great of an environment it was.
Dejan: What’s the interview process like?
Michael: The interview process is about the same for everyone, you drop off an application and the mates (managers) ask you some questions right on the spot, basically of why here, favorite products, what are your future plans, and so forth…
If you’re lucky enough to get in for an interview, they range from 1 – 3 interviews. We are a very popular place to work at and get applications literally almost every day, not exaggerating.
Dejan: How do you like working with TJ?
I’ve been with Trader Joe’s for almost 4 years now. I started at age 16, about JR. year of high school. I absolutely LOVE the company. We hire high schoolers, as well as college students and are pretty flexible with schedules as I also played sports in high school. Trader Joe’s taught me and still teaches me, how to be personable, outgoing, kind towards others. The most enjoyable part for me, not to be cliche, but is all aspects. My coworkers are awesome and fun, they are part of the reason I do like coming to work. Also the customers, yes we do have our occasional rude or unhappy customers, but for the most part our customers we have the most fun with and they always leave with a smile on their face even if they came in unhappy. Another part I love is the fast pace, we have to be on our toes helping several customers at once along with filling the shelf.
Dejan: Do you feel the compensation is sufficient?
Michael: The compensation I feel is very fair for us. We get benefits, we have to have averaged a certain amount of hours and we get medical, dental, and vision at a very reasonable price. Our company helps pay for it to keep a low cost for us.
Also, our pay rate is very good, working in California, I am able to enjoy life comfortably while still paying all my bills.
Dejan: Do you see yourself working longer with Trader Joe? Why not?
Michael: Trader Joe’s long-term is not a bad gig at all. Getting promoted and going higher into the company, by either becoming a manager or working in the office (food buyer, regional manager) are all great jobs.
For me personally, I am studying to becoming a foreign English teacher. But Trader Joe’s is flexible with my time off and allowing me to peruse this dream of mine. The company has been a great stepping stone and I would recommend the job to anyone and everyone.
Dejan: What are your biggest takeaways and lessons while working at TJ?
Michael: The biggest lesson and takeaways I will take away is growing so much personally with people. The job teaches you so much about ordering, and shipments, stocking rotating food, but that anyone can learn. We are all about the Customer Experience, each customer should feel welcomed and can ask any question and be helped by a happy a ‘ready to go’ crew member. Each crew member works in every part of the store and so we can answer any question.
For me personally, I really love helping people with everything I do, and this job lets me do that. If I was unsure of my dream job, or didn’t know what to pursue in my life then I would work my way up in Trader Joe’s.
KEY TAKEAWAY #7 — A company with happy employees is a happy company which keeps on giving in the long run. Give your staff free hands to figure out ways to give back to the community and lift the local brand in the neighborhood’s eyes and hearts.
Chapter 8 – How Trader Joe’s Expands its Stores
Instead of fast expansion, TJ’s takes a similar philosophy as it does with their products — making sure they have all the necessary ingredients first and find a good spot with high appeal rather than speed.
The brand already has enough strength to attract new people through the doors immediately. According to the customer support center, people even beg them to open the store in their areas by writing petitions and applications.
Trader Joe’s picks their location by first looking at the demographics and buying power. Are there enough households in the area with sufficient population?
Next, they look at the distance from their warehouse centers. If the stores are along the way of the supply routes it makes the decision much easier.
The last one is finding the right people. “The only thing that holds us back are the number of captains and crew members who can run it the right way. We won’t open the new stores if there are not the right Trader Joe’s people.”
In May 2018, there were 475 stores. At the current growth plan, they plan to open 30 to 35 stores per year across 48 states. Previously they added an average of 23 stores per year (but only 14 in 2017 according to Retail Leader).
They have the playbook, and they have the brand. The only missing piece to find in the “People, Process, Product” (Marcus Lemonis from The Profit anyone?) is the local crew.
KEY TAKEAWAY #8 — Sometimes hyper-speed growth could be detrimental to a company’s success. A slow, method expansion on pre-vetted areas with the right deployment of trade routes, talent and infrastructure is a risk-free guarantee.
“I’ve been skating for 38 years, and I still skate every fucking day and it drives me nuts. I’ve had multiple surgeries, I’ve broken both my legs, whatever, it doesn’t matter; what I’m saying is that skating is forever — Jake Phelps, Editor-in-Chief Thrasher Magazine
Imagine creating a brand with your friend out of passion. No, I’m not talking about becoming a competitive food eater on YouTube or Instagram bikini model. Imagine doing something you love, something you grew up with and can’t get enough – basically something you would do any day even if you wouldn’t get a dime from it.
That’s called a lifestyle business. And today let’s see one of my personal favorite brands – Landyachtz.
Landyachtz is a skateboard/longboard company headquartered in Vancouver B.C.
Since 1998, co-founders Tom Edstrand and Mike Perreten built the brand Landyachtz to achieve some impressive results. In 20 years Landyachtz was able to:
Became one of the most recognizable brands in longboarding
Make 2000 longboards per week in their 9,000 square foot warehouse
Employs over 60 people in Vancouver and another 15 in Los Angeles
Lead the product design in deck technology
Dominating the mini-cruiser market with Dinghy series (and crushing Penny out of the market)
Sells their boards in 500+ U.S. Stores
One of the top 3 longboard manufacturers in the world
Present in 30 countries worldwide
All this while still skating all day every day, playing longboard-version hockey with your steezy friends and enjoying a cold one every Friday afternoon for a job well done.
This is the study how Landyachtz leveraged the community, scaled the brand, and carved their way at the forefront of longboarding market space with product innovation.
You will learn the necessary ingredients of Landyachtz which got them to the place they are now — 20 years after. For the sake of similarity, I’ll be using examples from the skateboarding market.
Mike Perreten, a former ski-racer, missed the snowy slopes when he went off to college. When walking across campus at the University of Victoria just wasn’t cutting it; he decided to take matters into his own hands and build himself a longboard. He could ski on the tarmac, making his commutes much more fun.
At the same time, Mike’s childhood friend, Tom Edstrand needed to write a mock business plan for an entrepreneurship class. Why not making a case about longboards? The class project turned from making planks on wheels to a viable enterprise neither of them dreamed of.
Edstrand and Perreten secured six weeks of workshop time in the basement of the Blackcomb Ski Club during ’97. The idea that became known as Landyachtz. Two friends worked 10 hours shifts constructing the new “weird-looking” skateboard.
“There’s a certain commute distance where a longboard works better than a bike or anything else,” says Perreten. “With that in mind, we really sold boards as a way of improving people’s quality of life.”
Once few models were done, they begged ski and bike managers to try them out in the parking lot. The pair was received with quizzical looks. The managers thought the idea was stupid. Even the first tries to put them in the shop were unsuccessful. Their family friend tried to convince them to put the boards in the shop and sell them under consignment.
But as soon as Tom started winning downhill races with their own man-made boards, the couple started getting attention from sport fans and offers from the distributors. Things started to fall into place very quickly.
Here’s where the first major lesson lies.
Chapter 1: Culture and Community
Edstrand and Perreten believed in the idea and continued to work on Landyachtz on the side for three years. This was in the early 2000’s and the internet communities were sparse and far between. However, those who were online were the same freakishly passionate fanatics who would spend their last dime on their hobby.
By skulking for like-minded people on forums, chat-rooms, IRC and all the other weird places (MySpace anyone?). Forum posts opened up U.S. and global markets.
The skateboard community has tons of die-hard fans. Just like you hear about surf and ski-bums who would, and sometimes are, completely content with hitting the slopes or waves every day of their lives, so are skateboarders dedicated to the artform of bombing the hills, grinding the fence or doing some other crazy trick or nonsense with a piece of wood on wheels.
Thrasher magazine – the bible of global skateboarding craft the same zealous crowd of “misfits”. If you look at the Thrasher staff members and their offices you would think someone is going to sell you a used car or show you which loan shark you can hire.
Even Jake Phelps, the editor-in-chief (since 1983) of Thrasher magazine and a living legend, still looks like he would much rather be out there in the halfpipe hitting the ramp than being stuck in the office.
Mike and Tom started finding more and more opportunities to tell people in the business about their brand. They started going to trade shows, attend downhill racing events and even brought in team riders on board who represent the name of the company.
Team riders and skateboard sponsorships are one of the main marketing activities skate companies do to get their name across and in front of the eyes of a young skater. The boys and girls who get into skateboarding worship these crazy riders.
And if Tony Hawk or Rodney Mullen ride on a certain type of boards it means they could do something similar one day with the same equipment.
No matter how old you are, once you taste the freedom, that curve and land your first ollie you will remember it for life. The other boarders are your brothers and sisters of the same tribe. It’s something unique for a small percentage of people.
Employees are Skaters First
The Landyachtz employees are skateboarders and friends first. Each and every one of them loves the lifestyle and have either skated professionally or at least spend a couple of years on the wood above the tarmac.
Every individual has their skills and responsibilities where they are good at. Most of the times they learned those chops over the years. It’s more important to understand what longboard means to the skaters than to bring a suited-up marketing or sales guru to look at the excel spreadsheets and conduct business roundtables.
The working week ends up with a beer session in the workshop and they are no stranger to a pick-up longboard hockey game.
Sometimes they just get together and spend the night cruising the city. The result is another video that ends up on YouTube and social media channels.
That’s Ryan Theobald – Head of Marketing and Sales moments before body slamming the pavement and spilling his drink. | Source: YouTube – Skateboarding the Spiral of Death
“We go to lunch almost daily on our boards. It’s such a great way to get around. That’s how we know there’s still so much more potential.” — Mike Perreten
Make stuff you love to use. It’s much easier to “sell” the lifestyle and passion than the product.
Chapter 2 – The Product Focus and Innovation
Science in the longboard industry? Get outta here!
But in every industry, there are companies that push the envelope and act as icebreakers. They are leaders who explore and create new trends. The others try to get in and serve the marketing gap that the innovators made.
At Landyachtz, constant innovation is one of the priorities.
Landy deck in the making
Early on, Edstrand and Perreten made their own design, often inspired from the physics classes in college. But later, they scaled up and created full-time engineer position to create boards that look amazing while serving a specific purpose.
(Almost) anyone can put some wheels under a slab of wood and call it a skateboard. What differentiates great longboard companies from bad ones is the quality, attention to detail and purposeful performance to the type of ride.
Mike and Tom handled the product design for boards as DIY projects. They tested wild shapes and sizes of decks. If something didn’t work they went back to the drawing board.
All amazing inventions took something that was done before and put their own spin on it. Sometimes that 20% innovation disrupts the market (think of the time somebody figured out to put wheels on a suitcase).
Landyachtz started with an initial segment in downhill racing. Their famous drop-through mounts were amazing pieces of engineering that won races before anyone else started catching on what they were doing. And these boards were race-ready straight from the shop. There was no need for customizing or fetching a Ph.D. in trucks, bearings, board shapes, and gravity control.
If you got one of the downhill boards you had an equipment good enough to rival other downhill bombers.
The biggest lesson looking at the Landyachtz product-market fit is serving two concepts which are separate from each other.
First, performance boards such as Osteon and Evo are meant to win races. The launch of the whole company started when the founders started getting attention after stacking racing awards. The race events brought them global distribution contracts.
Within a tight-knit community in action sports it will soon show if something doesn’t work, everyone will know about it.
Landyachtz manages to secure a decade-long track record of high-speed and robustness with quality components that don’t require updates to start bombing big hills.
Sponsored events where Landyachtz dominated
Second, serving the community and tribe with the longboard lifestyle. The campaign Skate and Explore shows the company values and the personality of the brand carried on the team-riders. Not everyone is brave enough nor they wish to go 60 miles down the hill, but they like the freedom of hitting the streets and relax.
But even the longboard market is getting saturated, so there has to be room for innovation. Some of the big wins happened through innovation while others were a perfect answer and filling the market gap. The best example is the Dinghy.
The Dinghy Series
A city cruiser that is sturdier and a more exciting version of Penny boards. While still being small and mobile, Dinghies look great and feel like a proper board. With this series, Landyachtz took a massive bite from the Penny marketplace of city cruisers. While Penny boards rely on the history and nostalgia factor from the plastic boards, the majority of clients rather look for performance, fun factor, and usability.
The Dinghy is a perfect example to show off the versatility of Landyachtz’s product variety. It comes in different lengths (28.5″, 26″, 24″), tail variations (with or without kicktail), a bigger model (Tugboat with 30” length and a wider wheel spacing) and even a premium version (Dinghy Turbo). Of course, it comes in variety of pretty graphics made by the artists.
But Landyacthz also took the role as technology and designer leaders. The company employs full-time engineers who work closely with sponsored team-riders.
The design innovation paid off in a significant way. Landyachtz is known by unique solutions such as:
HollowTech – Hollow construction of longboards that keeps the weight down, while preserving the build strength. Because of lightness the board can also pop higher making it suitable for freeride, not only downhill.
ATV series – ATVs or All-Terrain-Vehicles are an attempt to marry the freeriding, cruising benefit of a longboard and the trick versatility of the skateboard. With the popsicle deck shape, it resembles an average skateboard however it comes with larger wheels which grants the rider bigger speed. Even ATVs come in three varieties, each suited for slightly different purposes.
Landyachtz ATV – Skateboard with larger wheels for speed
Misc, Hybrid – team riders at Landyachtz play an active role in the product development and engineering. The Hollowtech Sidewalker was designed by Steven Vera, Osteon by Billy Bones and RallyCat by the co-founder Thomas Erstrand.
RallyCat – the unique product for all-around purposes
Aside from clones of Penny boards, the Australian company didn’t have a decent rival. Landyachtz stroke gold with the Dinghy – it brought all the good benefits of being small and responsive but it was also a real board.
The communities on forums and Reddit recognized this and helped Landyachtz carry the message via the most useful and efficient marketing channel – word of mouth.
Take the approach to marry the innovation of the product with the performance. Create products you would want to use. There’s a chance to serve top product and build the tribe at the same time.
Chapter 3 – The Unique Longboard-Specific Business Model
While Landyachtz is one of the top 3 longboard manufacturers, they are not crazy millionaires. First thing, that’s not their goal and even if they would be making millions every month, their day would still look the same.
Skateboard business works because the flimsy boards were damaged and broken beyond repair. If you landed weirdly you could break a brand new board in a day. For that reason, you could spend somewhere around $80 – $100 clams and get a new one.
Longboards, on the other hand, are made from sturdier materials (7 to 9-ply maple wood or bamboo) which makes them sturdier. A board like that can really take the beating. From a business standpoint it’s not good for revenue.
Remember how those older Toyotas and Hondas never broke. You could literally do anything with them and they would still go anywhere at any time. While that’s an amazing engineering achievement the manufacturers are losing money.
If you’d compare the business model with Silicon Valley industry, you could think of regular skateboard business as SaaS while longboards are more like Apple’s e-commerce with less frequent repeat buys.
“Skateboarders will buy six or seven boards a year because they break. “But our boards didn’t break. How do you sell them six or seven boards?” — Tom Edstrand
If Landyachtz sells you a good quality complete deck for let’s say $220 and you ride it for 4 – 6 years. That’s abysmal LTV (lifetime value).
There must be a good solution to overcome this challenge. And Landyachtz had one.
If Landyachtz makes innovative fun boards with a different variation of the core model their buyer will buy more boards from them. With a combination of amazing paint jobs (from local artists) and a social incentive (Landyachtz plants a tree for each deck sold – the One Board One Tree project), Landyachtz expands the catalog offer without adding new models while adding an NGO aspect on it.
Even from the early days, you could see a variety in niche longboards. For instance:
Downhill – for bombing down hills and go down the hill really really fast -> Switchblade, Hatchet, …
Cruisers – Commuting the streets and having some fun with a trick or two -> the Dinghy line
Long-Distance Pumping (LDP) – for riders who hate to put the for down
Freeride – a more relaxed downhill with slides
Dance – looooooong as Monday boards for dancing -> Saturn
Something completely unique
Upgraded skateboard – ATV series (skateboard-like construction with larger wheels for doing regular tricks while also going faster)
Snow-Skates – just put a giant ski sled under and you can longboard on snow
Old-school/Retro – fun, unique boards with some old school nostalgia – Wrecktangle, Dodger, Cobra
Misc. – something completely different – Rally Cat
With this strategy, Landyachtz is appealing to their loyal customer to buy more types of longboards.
In lifestyle business, brand and relationships are much more important than anywhere else. If your product isn’t suited for repeat purchases then offer a variety and nurture upsells through innovation.
Chapter 4: Figuring out Sales
Landyachtz makes the majority of sales in North America. The other major countries of distribution are Australia, Brazil, Nordic countries and Germany.
According to Growler, Landyachtz is making about $3.7M of revenue annually however, I strongly doubt that’s a legitimate number.
The board completes cost between $130 and $300 (and more for Hollowtech models) which puts them into the range of higher-priced products. However, since the brand is established the sales are growing year-over-year. In 2015, Landyachtz recorded a 30% bump over the year before.
It has contracts with more than 500 U.S. distributors which have their own methods of marketing, local events, and presentation of new products.
Some of the sales are done through the Landyachtz online shop (Canadian and US variation).
There’s no option for opting in for an email newsletter. It could be a conscious decision that the company will not waste time sending emails.
While keeping the brand face congruent, it could be an opportunity to present new products through the email form across the globe. Relying on distributors and their effectiveness is one thing, however, even a lifestyle business like this can quickly find the big spenders and have a VIP sequence sending them a sticker, a hat or something to keep the relationship hot.
Some industries have unique selling channels. Find out which those are and create those relationships with distributors in hot geographic areas.
Chapter 5: Marketing with Social and Video Rules
Skateboarding, Longboarding and Action Sports in general (Motocross, BMX, skate, etc) targets a very unique target audience. In that case, they have to rely on specific marketing channels which have been proven to work.
Back in the day of skateboarding the only thing that worked consistently was traveling across the country with a team of riders, setting up pop-up shops and sell products and merch. The goal was to record a highlights video along the adventure hoping it will get attention. The passionate community would grab it if it reached their eyes.
Nowadays, marketing is a lot easier – with the emergence of social media anyone can broadcast their content and engage with the online community, especially on devices that are soldered in the pockets/hands of the target market – mobile phones.
When Tony Hawk was asked, on how he looks on his sons’ career compared to his own, he stated:
“For him, he doesn’t even have to compete because we’re in the age of social media, videos, and photos. People just want to see what you’re producing if they’re interested in your skill.
If we would break down the target profile of an average longboard consumer it would be a 13 – 30-year old, predominately male living in urban areas where there are spaces and infrastructure suited for grinding, bombing, and doing all kinds of fun tricks. Keep in consideration that the buyers are sometimes young parents (mid-30’s) who are looking for a better substitution for their kids (at least the ones who believe an outdoor exercise) than a 5-hour Fortnite session).
Instead of watching skateboarding heroes and uplifting (insane) longboarding stunts on MTV, fans of the sport just type in a few keywords and watch the shenanigans for days. If you’re a smart skate company you can’t afford not to have your video content on YouTube.
Landyachtz are aware of it and they doubled down on producing high-quality, yet story-driven videos. Landyachtz videos have a consistent style, feel and communicates the company culture perfectly – they are all bunch of friends who live for longboarding.
More than 50% of social media channel referrals are coming from YouTube | Source: SimilarWeb
Even their campaigns are tagged with hashtag #SkateAndExplore — which comes with a repertoire of road videos from all corners of the World. Team riders visit these places (China, Japan, East Europe) connect with the local people and record some amazing footage which is later displayed on YouTube and redistributed to other (social) media channels.
LY has a dedicated videographer Dave “Guff” Leslie who comes shoots, edits the footage and turns it into a finished video worthy of attention. With a film background and his own passion and dedication to the sport, he has one of the most important roles in Landyachtz’s marketing strategy.
Instagram is HUUUGE for Landyachtz. Since 2015, they managed to build a base of 110k followers, of which 2,200 are actively looking at every post they upload.
Billy “Bones” Meiners, who is the media strategist puts a lot of time and thought about engaging material on Instagram. The strategy is paying off, since as Tony Hawk stated, most of the target audience is already on these channels.
If someone is interested in starting to longboard, they would inevitably stumble upon the Landyachtz brand.
Landyachtz is identifying products on YouTube videos with a link back to the product info, but not on Instagram.
Music and Skateboarding go hand-in-hand. Lululemon has its own playlist, and so could Landyachtz. Their videographer Guff is playing in 3 bands. It’s not going to contribute to the revenue however it could help to build a brand.
Twitter & Facebook – Support and Redistribution Channel
It’s obvious Twitter and Facebook are marketing channels that their target audience isn’t using as much. Even though they’ve been holding on to their Twitter account since March 2009, they have about 23k followers.
Their Facebook has good numbers but the engagement isn’t running that hot. Young adults switched from Facebook to Instagram (another argument that Facebook made a brilliant move buying Instagram back in 2012).
Landyachtz doesn’t run paid promotions on either of those two channels.
Events & Conferences
For outdoor action sports, events are sorely needed. It’s the perfect chance for the company to show who they are and display their products in action on the spot. On racing events, the visitors can see with their own eyes the quality of the boards.
Landyachtz sponsored events and races since the start. Only good things happened during these events and important documents were signed.
The most known event in Canada is held every year in Kimberly. The small quiet town in British Columbia doubles in population when Landyachtz roles into town. The Kimberley July Festival is a giant picnic with soccer events, bocce tournament and the famous Sullivan challenge – a free-to-enter, free-for-all longboard race.
Since Landyachtz sponsors team-riders that are coming from different areas, they can cover events in multiple places around the globe. In the meantime, the distributors cover the smaller gaps.
Conferences also come into play. Besides the ones where you have to present as an outdoor sports provider, Landyachtz also experiments by going to places where they can increase awareness of the crowds that haven’t been exposed to the longboarding/skateboarding lifestyles.
For example, Billy Bones set up the pop-shop on Twitch-con which is a huge community of gamers. The demographics fit, so why not try out something like that?
Landyachtz pop-up shop at Twitch-con
Website – Keeping the Presence
The website pulls approximately 115,000 visits, from which there are 41k unique every month. The visitors stay on the website for 4 minutes on average and checks 4 to 5 pages.
More than half of the visitors are checking the store on mobile devices which shows the habits of the Landyachtz target audience. Looking deeper into the referral channels, most of the people who land on the site find it through search (61,15%) while 22.9% come directly and 11,27% come from social media channels (mostly YouTube).
The high direct visit percentage shows the quality of the brand. For instance, Slack who focused entirely on brand marketing has more than 95% of web visitors typing the webpage directly into the browser’s address bar.
Because of the unique keywords of the product models and the company name itself, the brand can be found easily. Most of the referrals are coming from the distributor’s sites.
The company also owns companies that make parts for their longboards:
The Hawghs Wheels – the Wheel manufacturing company owned by Landyachtz
Lifestyle businesses have to be in constant contact with their fans. In action sports, those are videos on YouTube and Instagram. Keep it stocked with high-quality content to keep your brand on their minds.
Chapter 6 – The Future – More Products and Bikes
In 2017, Mike Perreten began working on Landyachtz’s bicycle project. One the of company employees, Yuan Diaz commuted 20 kilometers (approx. 12 miles) to work every day. When he expressed he wanted to come in on a bicycle the two stuck their heads together and started working on a new type of bike.
Since they already know what they wanted, they just started working on the bike they would want to use. It’s as simple as that.
“We like to go fast and we want to have fun.”
Is there something that’s out there that we want to use? Or is there something we could create?
Damn right. Last year (2017) Landyachtz introduced two models of their premium bicycle line. Today, they offer 4 models and customization.
If Landyachtz scratches their own itch, you bet their fans are going to salivate from the desire to try the new asphalt wheel toy.
With a focus on engineering and R&D, there’s no doubt these bicycles will find homes in some of the previous Landyachtz product buyers and fans. They have been consistent so far and there’s no sign they are going to rest or take the road to a business-oriented skateboard business.
Landyachtz’s All-Road Bike with Logo | Source: CycleExif
Landyachtz made a good decision about building a new entity that focuses on bicycles. There would be too much interference between longboarding brand and target profiles. Landyachtz bicycles business carries its own logo and website.
Be loyal to your mission and brand. The community and fans you have built around you trust you/your company for a reason. Stay in their service.
Landyachtz team photo from “Get in the Van!” Series | Source: Wheelbasemag
As long as they keep making products they love themselves, their fan base is going to follow.
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Founder Chip Wilson has had 18 years of retail experience behind him when the idea of Lululemon came into existence. He has already built a surfing and snowboarding apparel company Westbeach in 1979 already.
Chip Wilson — Founder of Lululemon Athletica | Source: cnbc.com
The company was relatively successful in the early days; mostly because of the market in Japan. The sub-brand Homeless did particularly well (Chip believed it was because of the letter L in the brand’s name, which is a clear sign of American brand authenticity to the Japanese.)
But it was struggling nonetheless (in 1987 they barely made payroll). Chip decided to sell the company for $15 million from which he was able to keep $1M. That was the basis of Lululemon.
Since the founder has had the experience in snowboarding, skateboarding, and niche fitness apparel, he did not only learn from previous mistakes in the field but also gained access to journalists in the same field. Being one of the first in the fiel, gave him the permission to become a sort of a de-facto person in all things related to surf, ski, skateboard, and yoga business.
According to Wilson, the biggest lesson he learned was a steady cashflow (if you’ve read Shoe Dog, you could imagine how important it is). Steady cashflow allowed Wilson to pay the suppliers who delivered the best quality product on time, making sure the stores are stocked.
During the year, Chip also learned the key lessons of educating their staff. More on that in a later chapter.
Key Takeaway #1 – Healthy cashflow will give you the freedom to source the best materials and develop a relationship with distributors who will respect deadlines.
Chapter 2: Emerging Trend
Business meetings with cigars and steak dinners have been replaced by 45-minute cycling classes at spin class, as Jason Kelly describes in his book Sweat Equity.
To think about it, how much are you spending each month to break a sweat? It used to be a $20 gym membership or putting on high school shorts and going out for a run or a pickup basketball session.
The SoulCycle‘s $34 per session in downtown New York
The professional segment started to embrace the premium fitness classes as the place of business development. And if you pay $34 per spinning class or yoga sesh with the potential strategic partner you better change your business suit to professional athletic apparel.
Keith Ferrazzi, author of Never Eat Alone, a book about networking, suggests taking business partners with you to create a stronger bond and close more deals.
Yoga joined the trend of high-priced fitness memberships with upper-class clientele. Harem pants were out of the question for the setting. The market responded with a constant feeding of magazine covers with slim/thin white women. In 2012 Yoga Journal study, 4 out of 5 yoga practitioners were high-income white women.
Members preferred smaller fitness classes with dynamic instructors because they felt more significant – as a part of the tribe. Once you start being a SoulCycle member, a Yoga practitioner or CrossFit firebreather, you also need to dress the part.
The Yoga industry has been growing steadily and is expected to hit 11,6Bn in the US in 2020.
Yoga is good business
Key Takeaway #2: Are you in the emerging market? Take some time to check Google Trends, check the number of keywords appearing in search fields and think what does that market need?
Chapter 3: Building the Perfect Product
It’s almost redundant to talk about the quality of the product since this is always the prerequisite for any company to move forward. At Lululemon, they went all in on the design and the quality that resonates with their target persona (chapter 5).
Design – Shannon Wilson (Chip’s wife) and Chip were both coming from the apparel design background. Chip was adamant on having stitches on all the right areas. He doesn’t hide the fact that yoga pants are intentionally designed to be as comfortable and as flattering to the female body curves. And let’s be honest, women love it too.
One broad search for Lululemon review has YouTube creators posing their glutes off
The Tech – Primary function of performance and fit has been achieved by the construction of the garment which hugs and promotes performance. Lululemon’s’ apparel includes reversible, brushed and textured fabric with water repellent finish and Silverescent tech (prevents funky BO).
Materials – to add a special flair and solidify the brand, big brands “invent” their own technology. Lululemon calls itself a technical apparel company. That’s why Lulu yoga pants are made from engineered fabric (Luon™, Luxtreme™, Nulu™, Nulox™) depending on the compression level and the intention of the garment (run, train or yoga practice).
These names aren’t just an easy way to differentiate from the competition but they also carry unique features.
Luon is 86 percent nylon and 14 percent lycra. VitaSea fabric is made from SeaCell. SeaCell is a yarn made from seaweed and blended with spandex and cotton. VitaSea allows for an ultra-soft fabric that holds its shape and stays soft after many washes. This can be found in the company’s t-shirts and light layers. Silverescent is a stink-stopping fabric technology. The X-Static technology is woven into Silverescent fabric bonds 99.9% pure silver into the surface of each fiber.
R&D – besides having the internal designers and innovators working on the designs and fabric options, Lululemon innovates through customer feedback and their retail staff. Some Lululemon stores have a blackboard where customers can leave suggestions or they share it with the staff. The store managers translate the gathered qualitative info back to Lululemon’s HQ in Vancouver. There are no focus groups or website data collecting. This (conscious) lack of data collection works great for Lululemon in product innovation: however, it hurts them a little on the e-commerce shop (more on that in part 2).
Price – the quality justifies a high price tag, the target profile and creates a healthy margin for expansion. Just like Apple, Tesla and other premium golden-goose products on the price matrix (high quality, high pricing), Lululemon products don’t have discounts. That would be detrimental to the brand.
The practicality of it – As much as it is frowned upon (especially for men) to wear sweatpants as a streetwear, Lululemon yoga pants doubled the activewear as streetwear, thanks to the design aspects of the product. The new trend was born – athleisure – more on that in the Law of Category chapter)
In the book, 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, the law of category states: “If you can’t be first in a category, set up a new category where you can be first.
Example: What’s the name of the third person to fly over the Atlantic Ocean solo? You probably don’t know. Yet you do. It’s Amelia Earhart. But she isn’t known for that. She is known as the first woman to do so.
Lululemon completely embodied the law of category. They stepped into the emerging trend of premium athletic apparel and targeted it directly at the yoga industry.
They picked a narrow field and focused on the target persona of a middle to upper-class women who appreciate the comfort and designer clothing.
If they’d just become another athletic apparel they would have to compete against Under Armour, Nike, and Adidas, which it would be waging a losing battle. The Law of Duality from the same source says that in the long run, every market becomes a two-horse race (e.g. Pepsi and Coke or Samsung and Apple).
Lululemon yoga pants became an iconic piece of clothing of the fitness economy. In its utility and ubiquity, sleek and expensive epitomizes how fitness has shifted from Old Navy practical running shorts to a piece of apparel that tells the person and the observer who we are.
Chapter 5: The Cultural Shift and Nailing the Target Profile
While it seems like the founder, Chip Wilson was just at the right place at the right time, he actually used demographic data to predict the ripe environment for his idea to grow.
According to TedX talk, Chip expected a gap in the market that would serve his company in talent section as well as in customer audience.
In the late 80s women in a managerial position weren’t so common. He has noticed that 60% of University graduates were women (and the trend of university graduates have skewed even further in the women’s way). This makes some sense but there are also some off-the-wall statements, such as connecting the success of Lululemon and the increase of breast cancer and high divorce rates to,“Power Women” who were on the pill taking on work-related stresses, only previously assumed by men. These all lead to the future market of Lululemon’s clients.
Ocean and Duke – Lululemon’s Customer Personas
Many companies identify and create a profile of a perfect client. To embed it into the marketing heads, this illusionary person has a name. In Lululemon’s, these muses are Ocean and Duke.
Hi, I’m Duke
32-year old woman
Owns a condo
Spends an hour and a half to workout
“Ocean is a woman, who all women want to be”
35-year old man
“Athletic opportunist – surfs in the summer, snowboards in the winter”
Willing to pay for quality
Ocean is a smart 32-year-old woman, who is well travelled, athletically fit with her own condo and just about to be married. In NY article, Wilson explains the observations in yoga classes. As he looked around the mostly female yoga class, he noticed that women wanted well-fitting athletic clothing that also easy on the eyes. In his opinion, there will be a market segment of women that fit a specific target persona.
Going narrow also means eliminating a broader segment of the market. Founder Chip Wilson was notorious with his statement that some women “aren’t a good fit for Lululemon’s product”. This is true. His delivery has ruffled some feathers but the company’s plan to circumvent the plus size yoga athletes was on point.
Are they hitting their customer persona audiences?
Absolutely — one quick insight from the demographics section of their websites tells us the majority of visitors are coming from 25 – 34 years old women.
The Lululemon main website demographic snapshot | Source: SimilarWeb
By the way, if you want to see the sizes from 10 to 12, you would have to go towards the back of the store or simply ask the staff members to bring it to you.
This is definitely a ballsy decision, since opening the plus sizes would bring Lululemon Athletica to tens, if not hundreds of millions of fresh new revenue — according to NPD’s 2012 report, women are craving for bigger sizes of premium apparel. But that would move them away from their core branding decisions and those are sacred.
Lululemon’s launched another brand name Ivivva which tailored to young girls. You could see this target profile wouldn’t fit into the main brand of Lululemon. That’s the reason to develop a sub-brand.
Happy employees definitely help with the growth of your business and the representation of your brand. Lululemon takes special care of their talent. In retail section, they pay over 30% over the local rate. The higher wages also mean less turnover and progression up the chain of command.
These are mostly younger, educated women straight out of college.
Every “educator” is asked to write multiple year goals and share them publicly. Chip Wilson is also known to be a big proponent of the Landmark Forum program — a self-help personal development program that is supposed to help with the growth of your integrity and leadership capabilities.
On the HR end, Chip created an environment for women who can grow the company with their skillset, resourcefulness and grit while still having a family life and a time-off for maternity leave. Since retail workers are usually underpaid (especially women) he decided to pay them much better so the workers would have a financial incentive to come back and continue working for Lululemon.
For all those reasons, Lululemon is on top 10 Best Places to Work according to Glassdoor.
In retail, a brand is of the utmost importance. We’ve already mentioned that people buy the identity more than just a product.
There’s a problem with branding since there are so many intangibles connected with the term. Can you measure ROI of the brand with an exact dollar amount?
However, we can see the consequences of building a good brand:
Higher ROAS, gross margins, and LTV
Our CAC is going to be lower
We will attract more and stronger talent
PR pull is greater and we can reach more
But the best reason is — speed.
Once the company knows what it stands for – its values, what their audience cares for and who they are, the decisions will come naturally. It sets the tone of how the company behaves, what is its voice.
According to Scott Kraft (CMO of Menlo), the brands start with brand pillars, which serve as a foundation of the company — the core values. We all know what MVP stands for — a product that with just enough features to satisfy initial pain points for core clients. But there’s an idea about MVB — minimum viable branding.
The key components of MVB are:
Audience needs and functional needs are the products’ domain. Real branding starts with the emotional benefits – the fuzzy area where we are touching our audience. Then you have the personality which determines how the customers are going to perceive you.
The difficult part is that the emotion, personality, promise, and vision are intangible. Lots of companies just pulled the nice adjective from thin air and put them on the about page. As you are going to find out, Lululemon took branding extremely seriously.
And it paid off better than anyone could have imagined.
What are the Brand Pillars
What are the 3 attributes that the company couldn’t exist without? If you’d have to choose what three adjectives describes your company the most – what would they be?
For example, if we put together: American, Free and Badass a brand like Harley-Davidson comes to mind.
Harley Davidson knows exactly who their audience is. Can you recognize the brand pillars in their ads? | Source: Biggsh-d.com
Lululemon Branding Breakdown and Personality
Lululemon as a brand that triggers an emotional impact. The point of branding is to bring people to the point of making somebody feel [insert the emotional benefit here].
When you’re wearing Lululemon you will feel more beautiful, protective, cared for.
Branding Pillars: Quality, Fun, Empowerment
Top Audience: Women who do Yoga. Narrower Audience: Successful Women in Early 30’s Doing Yoga who need gear designed for modern practice
Emotional benefits – Feeling Vibrant, Sexy, and Balanced
All those components combined lead to Lululemon’s personality: A Cheerleader of the New “modern” Yogi
The New Yogina
Lululemon built an amazing brand. Their customers are proud to show-off their product (exposure through UGC content) on social media. They strut on the walkways with the company’s branded shopping bag with the manifesto printed on it.
If there’s something we have learned from the companies that made their name for customer service is that it solves two major problems
First, It creates a foundation for the company culture. If ridiculously good customer service becomes a keystone habit in the company, it starts pulling all other positive elements in the big picture.
And second, it starts the word-of-mouth effect among customers. Zappos customer service is so good it made a book about it. Every time I have a chance to go to Trader Joe’s I feel like a fat kid in a candy store; the TJ crew is always positive, helpful and chatty.
Best customer-faced salespeople establish the personal relation first. Finally, they lighten the mood and really take the time to get to know the potential client. Once the solid foundation is established, only then they move into the sales section.
Lululemon, as is expected for their incredible focus on company culture, translated that into the customer service. Shopping at Lulu’s is an experience. The customers are asked by their first name before they go into the changing cabins. The retail salesperson (referred to as ‘educator’ in Lulu’s naming convention) scribbles the name on a tiny whiteboard and proceeds to address the customer by their first name.
Each fitting room is equipped with a whiteboard table. Source: Yelp.com
For the whole procedure of the sale (customer success journey), the customers are called by their first name by the entire retail staff.
Consider the product they are selling. There are cheaper alternatives with arguably better value. But one of the core values at Lululemon is to feel significant. Hence the first-name basis, hence asking about the needs.
If the price is the objection (which usually isn’t), then they come up with the technology (which is often just a way to justify the high-price product purchase. “I bought the Mercedes-Benz because it’s safe”, right?).
Sometimes they turn the entire store into the free yoga studio. These social pop-up events start building even more positive connections to the brand. What was that one class-based fitness craze that has been growing like crazy in the last 10 years? Oh yes, CrossFit.
The Lululemon’s In-Store Yoga Class led by one of the brand ambassadors. | source: DrapersOnline
Combined with the quality of a product and having a sense of being in the premium circle the experience becomes addicting.
Lululemon’s raving review from a Reddit user.
Since every store has only a limited stock of products (thus creating a sense of limitation).
Chapter 9: The Ambassador Program – Lululemon’s “Secret Sauce” Influencer Marketing
Adidas is paying millions of dollars to dress the biggest icons in sport. Crossfit athletes and UFC fighters are wrapped in Reebok from head to toe and Nike put on neon banana track spikes on every track athlete in summer Olympics.
There’s a clear necessity of putting an influencer, an icon or archetype of an avatar in front of people. These are usually charismatic celebrities in sports, entertainment and even business (I’d be curious to know who buys a golden apple watch for the features only).
When you target a narrow niche, especially in a hyper-local environment you have to take the local stars and put them on the pedestal. This strategy worked out great because it works in symbiosis. The local yoga and fitness coaches got exposed in the store, got free high-quality products to wear and started growing their business. In return, they have to put in a number of hours inside the Lululemon retail stores and run free yoga classes and represent the brand.
Gina’s from DanceFit banners in Lululemon’s retails store | Source: DanceFit Studios
Since Lululemon’s has such a large reputation, the ambassadors are getting a significant surge in business. Some of the trainers and coaches are trying hard to become ambassadors.
If you would have to pick a social media channel and your audience are women interested in fitness and design aged between 25 and 35, what would you pick?
That’s right, Pinterest is known to have a massive female audience and Lulu is making a killing on it.
While it’s arguably a tough channel for selling, it does well for branding and inevitably serves as one of the touchpoints that leads to a sale.
2+ million followers on Pinterest – a social media with strong women audience base. | Source: Pinterest
However, even though those numbers look fabulous, it works mostly in branding perspective. Hence the photos are high quality, professional and highlighting the design features — perfect for saving them in a lookbook for the next Lululemon haul.
Unfortunately, they are not utilizing it as much as they could (more on that in the second part). This might be the result of Wilson’s persistence in ethereal, transcendental conviction on branding alone and abstinence for numbers and data. His replacement Laurent Potdevin (ex-top of Burton Snowboards) incorporated more data-driven approach which resulted in increased sales and better social media presence. But there are still opportunities.
“Despite the sudden exit of its CEO last month, Lululemon Athletica is seeing sales success thanks to a focus on digital improvements and brand marketing. The Canadian yogawear marketer reported an 18 percent increase in fourth-quarter net revenue to $928.8 million, along with a 12 percent increase in comparable sales.” — AdAge
The Facebook and Tumblr are also doing ok, however, nothing too earth-shaking. The one thing that works really well though, is the symbiosis with the ambassador program. Each ambassador has its own social circle of influence which extends to the online reach.
The Instagram Control Center
Instagram proves as one of the biggest opportunities. The social media channel has just reached 1 billion monthly users and is great for branding and impulsive decisions. It would be interesting to use it locally to invite yoga practitioners to the free classes.
Their account is filled with live events, motivational sayings and no sales posts whatsoever. Those product-pushing posts are now a part of the stories section where people are more inclined to impulsive purchases.
With a 2.5 Instagram follower base, Lululemon developed multiple destinations where the brand followers can turn to.
Over 2 million Followers on Lululemon’s Instagram account. | Source: Instagram
The Spotify soundtrack. Goal: Brand affiliation
The keyword ‘lululemon’ in Spotify and Apple Music leads to Lululemon created playlist for various workouts.
The Desktop Instagram Dashboard
With a click on the explorelululemon, the Instagram desktop app will curate and duplicate the content of the original post wall into CTA funnels for each image. This is the service Lululemon is using for each post — Curalate.This is a regular Instagram post on desktop and mobile:
Regular Instagram post | Source: Instagram
And this is the post with Curalate add-on with CTAs that lead to the online shop:
Upgraded Instagram with software that leads to online purchases
Goal: Multiple — Brand Experience and sales through events and residual word-of-mouth points from attendees
The Instagram stories.There’s more to the brand than just clothes. Lululemon developed a wholesome lifestyle catered towards the modern yogina:Fuel – Light nutritional recipesDiscover – Upcoming trends
What We Love– In-house weekly news of new product arrivals
Visio+Goals– Motivational, goal-setting stories
Travel– Travel tips and styles mixed with travel destination’s inspirational imagery
Workouts – Yoga sessions, HIIT classes, movement
What’s New– New productsIGTV – On the Instagram mobile app you will also find the newly launched IGTV section where Lululemon’s shows off longer 20 minutes Yoga flows
Lululemon has made an incredible job in becoming a household worldwide brand. The focus on branding, retail experience, and constant innovation is keeping them in the forefront of the premium tech apparel.
Their website has become a high traffic destination for clients worldwide. They are doing a good job segmenting the users based on geographical locations (they cover free shipping worldwide) and the bounce numbers are way below 50% which tells me that people are looking at products (8 page views on average).
3.5 million visits per month is not too shabby. | Source; SimilarWeb
But the intangibles around the culture could also cause the company to spin their wheels. The unnecessary PR stunts didn’t help either.
The online shopping has some glaring holes and opportunities that could be fixed and built upon. The digital shopping experience is as important as the ‘in-store’ one. While they can surf the benefits of their renommée, a lot can be done to skyrocket their reach and sales numbers on the Internet.
It’s a bit surprising the company hasn’t put a bit more experimentation and data science on it. I’m sure they must be doing it now. They are getting tons of traffic on their website already. Retail giants like Nordstrom are hiring dozens of data scientists to maintain growth through the years.
This section will review a couple of strategies with which Lululemon could improve their revenue goals.
1. YouTube and InstagramInfluencer Marketing
Lululemon prides itself with ambassadors in every brick and mortar shop and retail space. However, they seem to be missing the train on online influencers. Channels like Instagram and YouTube are the perfect fit.
First, people believe word of mouth much more than one-way communication from company-to-client.
Andrew Rea (a.k.a) Binging with Babish also generates millions of views for his high-production cooking videos. Squarespace has already approached him and I’d be curious to see how many conversions happened towards Squarespace. Plus, creative artists on the rise have a chance to become viral (Here’s a reminder how virality works) which gives you the opportunity to get massive exposure when a content snowballs to daily trending page.
How I would do it: Identify the rising movers and shakers on YouTube and strike up a deal. One of my personal favorite channels is Yoga with Adriene. The charismatic and warm Adriene gets millions! Of views for her 30 day Yoga Challenge. She’s personal, warm and friendly. Her good humor and occasional pop culture jokes keep you returning to her videos. The Day 1 of 30 Days of Yoga Challenge clocks in at 15 million views.
The following days are naturally having a lower view count but they are averaging around a million
Yoga with Adriene’s Day 1 of 30 Day Yoga Challenge has 15 million views!
Lululemon already has some ambassador practitioners who would film a high production flow class; however, these are one-offs mostly aimed towards the local audience. A 30-day free yoga challenge offers continuation, relationship building and a deeper connection at the end. It serves as a perfect TOFU content.
Is it worth it?
Take a quick look at the chart:
Quick Analysis – Yoga is averaging 2.2 million views per video
I’d dedicate a budget to find micro-influencers on Instagram (there are fitness models with millions of followers) and run a two-three month experiment. During the creation of this growth study Lululemon has done an amazing job of optimizing the Instagram channel, but there’s still room to grow. Just like their local ambassadors, the online world has their own community ambassadors that have an enormous reach. Just one quick research about Twitch streamers and YouTube creators confirm the theory.
Every industry has their own pockets of communities. With millions of data points, Lululemon Athletica should crunch the numbers and find the thought leaders among the VIP / highest LTV clients.
As a reminder, Lululemon has a very healthy margin profit on clothes. Imagine the ARPU or LTV per customer.
The second part of the budget would go to YouTube creators with 100k or more followers that fill in Lululemon’s target profile. Setting up an alert and watching daily trends would quickly identify a couple of those users.
Low hanging fruits:
Define relevant and measurable CTAs for YouTube and Instagram influencers
Identify potential influencers
Run a 90 days test pilot program and measure the results
2.Personalized Quiz and Better Email Onboarding
“There are emails you sort of gloss over, delete or actually look forward to getting them. To be a successful e-commerce you will have to earn your customers’ inbox real estate. And if you solve email, you have a permanent communication with your customer
Looking at Lululemon, their emails are nothing special. To see the masters of the email game, check Chubbies (I’m not a customer because of geographic distance, but I enjoy getting their emails just because they are fun).
Of course, Lululemon can’t switch to Chubbies language which has their own set of rules for communicating with their target profile, but that’s no excuse for drastically refreshing their email game. Their audience has their unique set of values and messages to respond to.
Warby Parker’s Home Try-On is an excellent use case example. The service sends a potential customer up to five different frames.
Warby Parker’s Online Quiz and Email Journey. | Source: Rejoiner
On their website, you can take a short quiz where you decide which 5 frames look the best. In the end, you provide them with an email and address. The 5 frames you’ve chosen are going to be sent to your address.
Amazing idea, but the execution is even better. The email sequence that accompanies the process has clearly gotten a lot of attention and thought.
Here are the emails and their subject lines and screenshot (The full case study was captured by Joe Putnam at Rejoiner):
Email 1: We received your Home Try-On order no. 101767816 – Confirmation for the Try-On order
Email 2: Right on Track – order has shipped
Email 3: 954 questions later – an email that shows a client the most popular frame based on customer’s inquiries
Email 4: Touchdown – package arrives on destination & advice on how to find the perfect pair of glasses
Email 5: Signed, sealed, delivered – CTA on choosing the right frames from the ordered package
Email 6: First impressions and second opinions – WP is asking the client to send pics on Warby Parker’s Social Media (FB, TW, IG and email). This is ingenious since the WP is getting UGC first, plus creates a valuable relationship with the client
Email 7: That was Fast – instructions on how to send back the try-on frames
Email 8: Nice job – WP thanks the client for sending back the frames with a soft sell ask
Email 9: Help is on the way – In case the decision hasn’t been made, you are welcome to call a personal consultant
The experiment doesn’t require a lot of engineering and judging by the Lululemon’s high-price items, this would be a very interesting test to pull out. Warby Parker has a dedicated department, which core purpose is to make the process of buying glasses as easy and fun as possible.
I signed in on the newsletter to see what kind of messages I’d receive. It was a generic weekly retail email without any kind of personalization. They didn’t ask me what kind of fitness regimen I’m running. Not only that, I’ve received 90% women-related product announcements.
Email is one GIANT opportunity where the company needs to gather data, come up with a fun customer journey and develop the brand. Again, I’d point out to Chubbies who are masters of using the language that their target audience understands.
Segment initial customer base by gender and activity
Create personalized sequenced journey for each segment
A/B test them
3. Keep The Dirty Clothes Outside the Public
Founder Chip Wilson has done a lot of good for Lululemon Athletica. His expertise in retail apparel and specialization in technical wear and branding was the reason Lululemon took off the way it did.
But some of his public appearances and statements hurt the company. There were the “Lululemon products aren’t a good fit for some women’s bodies“ one and the “worst apology one“. His reasoning about women and future buying power is controversial. Even though Chip Wilson meant good, the news media is praying for exclusivity and dramatical conclusions.
It cost the company’s reputation they spend years to build. Similar to Uber‘s Travis Kalanick, the stock dropped by almost a third overnight after the incidents. We have all learned from Uber to keep our dirty secrets away from the public eye.
Low Hanging Fruit:
Have a common-sense and experienced PR people for consultation before winging it out on camera or in press
4. Narrow targeting can be expanded to the new niche
Potential mistake – targeting men in Lululemon would be difficult since it’s so much further away from the core company’s brand personality.
On the other hand, women are already using Lululemon’s product in CrossFit gyms. The target profile fits perfectly, the product has been tested through millions of WoDs and the audience has money to spend on premium apparel (gym memberships for Crossfit classes even exceeds yoga studio membership).
Crossfit is (still) a growing trend which attracts worldwide attention. The biggest opportunity would be after 2020 when the Reebok’s monopoly runs out.
Brooke Ence’s has become a Crossfit influencer with 1M followers on Instagram and 150k subscriber on YouTube | Source: #ItMakesEnce
Brooke Ence – a Crossfit Athlete influencer has over 1M Instagram followers and appears to be rocking Lululemon pants. Unfortunately for Lulu, Brooke launched her own apparel company — EnceWear. Before that she was promoting No Bull crossfit trainers.
I see two potential problems:
It might be too late – in early 2010s Crossfit was mainly supplied with Reebok’s merchandise; however, Nike has made its move with Metcon trainers, while other niche companies started popping out to fill the gap (i.e. NoBull, Hylete (mostly men), 2pood, 21-15-nine). For now, these are more aggressive brands, which are more suitable for men, so… there’s a chance.
It could dilute the brand. If Lululemon would take up on the opportunity it would have to be in a similar fashion as Ivivva – special line for a special segment of customers. One good thing is that they could use the same hyper-local ambassador strategy but also extend it to online communities and specific social media channel influencers (Instagram, youtube).
5. Outdoor Out of Home Branding Exposure by using Data
Out-of-Home advertising or Digital OOH is usually the domain of big brands since it’s so tough to measure ROI and one of the last things on our minds. But looking on Spotify, which is an entirely digital product, they have enjoyed a lot of success by having fun with their collected user data.
Their OOH campaign even received the Obie award, and AdAge recognized the Spotify’s in-house marketing team as the Agency of the Year 2018. It also received tons of user shares and earned PR points.
Spotify’s OOH campaign was very personal and particular. They injected humor and lighten up the advertising environment. Instead of screeching down with salesy banners the OOH campaign made the passersby stop and smirk.
Spotify’s first forays into OOH happened in 2016 with the “It’s been a weird Year” campaign. The public response was so positive, they scheduled the outdoor advertising for the next year.
Here’s the banner of 2018 Goals OOH campaign.
These ads work because they are personalized, funny and localized.
One of the pillars of Lululemon’s success is the hyperlocal influence marketing. Expanding a message that either combines or takes the elements of local heroes, branding power or their manifesto on the streets would be an interesting experiment to try.
The problem that comes from this is, the ROI is tough to measure since it’s mostly brand awareness. There is a way to include specific OOH, dedicated CTAs and hashtags to track the public response. Until more sophisticated DOOH technology become more standardized with clearer outcomes, this is still a great way to increase hyper-local awareness which Lululemon has already done amazingly well with the Ambassador program.
Feel free to steal these ones for yourself 🙂
Excerpt from NPR’s Interview:
RAZ: How much of your success is because of your intelligence and work, and how much of it is because you were really lucky?
WILSON: I think I was pure passion for athletic technical product, and I would’ve worked 18 hours a day for the rest of my life for no money. Now, I think what happened is I got lucky because my drive and passion met a world that wanted what I wanted, and that was the lucky part.