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How a “Nightmare” Ring Shopping Experience Turned Into a Niche Business — Podcasts (2022)

Shopping for wedding bands is a high stakes experience, due to the cost and nature of the product.

So when John Ruggiero and Michelle Luchese went shopping for a wedding band for John, they had a “nightmare” experience finding one that matched his personality and budget. That’s when they decided to launch Manly Bands, a line of rings that uses high-quality, non-traditional materials like dino bone, meteorite, and deer antler. In this episode of Shopify Masters, John and Michelle discuss how to differentiate themselves in a saturated market and how to hire the ideal team for expansion.

For the full transcript of this episode, click here.

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Show Notes

Identifying a gap in the market through an everyday life experience

Felix: You help men find rings that match their personalities. Start from the beginning, tell us about where the idea for the business came from.

Johnathan: We hear that all the time, and it’s nice to hear because one thing we really set out to do is make it so guys can get excited about having a wedding ring that they really can connect with, that has these cool and unique materials like dinosaur bone, deer antler, meteorite. That was our goal from the beginning.

Michelle: We were shopping for John’s wedding band and it was a nightmare. We kept going into jewelry stories and John has these massive hands, and we were running into so many problems.

We went into jewelry stores and a typical men’s size is about a 10. John has a 16.5. The jewelers’ sizes only go up to a size 13 in your average jewelry store. None of them could size him. They were only showing him these really boring white gold bands and they were super expensive. Our budget was 300, 400 bucks for his ring.

Johnathan: For starters, that 0.5 is very important. When you go into a jewelry store, they look at you like you’re some sort of very, very crazy person. They couldn’t even size me and it was a real problem. I remember first going in there because we wanted to get Michelle a wedding band, she obviously had her engagement ring at that point. She was super excited because when it comes to wedding bands, women have so many options and there are all these different styles, different price points. She could choose from a plethora of rings. At the end of that whole experience, I remember saying to the jeweler, I said, “So how about me? Can I get my band here too?” It’s like, “Oh, yeah, absolutely. Just go to the back corner of the store over there. We have some options for guys over there.”

I’m like, “Oh, great.” I made my way past all of these women’s rings into the back section of the store, where there was a very small case that probably had five or six very traditional options. They were all, of course, not my size. They were quite expensive, and I didn’t connect with any of them. I remember saying to Michelle later, “You have all these choices and you’re getting so excited about your wedding band. I wish I felt the same way. I understand what it represents, but I want to feel like it’s a style that I can connect with. I’m going to wear it for the rest of my life, I’d like to get something cool.” There just weren’t any options for that.

John Ruggiero and Michelle Luchese the cofounders of Manly bands both wearing black in a blurred dark living room setting.
John Ruggiero and Michelle launched Manly Bands when they could not find rings that matched John’s personality and budget.  Manly Bands 

Felix: When did you realize that there was a viable business idea here, and it wasn’t just something that you struggled with?

Johnathan: After the wedding we decided to put our heads together and figure out how we can pay the bills. We said, “Okay, let’s try to solve a problem that we understand. What problem can we solve that we had?” We put our heads together and said, “Well, remember that experience we had buying our ring. It was not a great experience and I bet that we could find a way to make that better for everybody, provide better styles, more options, and great customer service.” That’s what we did.

Felix: Did either of you come into this with a background in the jewelry business?

Michelle: None on running a jewelry business. To be perfectly honest with you, absolutely none, but John had built a whole bunch of different websites. He was an entrepreneur of many sorts in the web world and had also had a company that had done some digital advertising. He knew his way around Facebook ads and Google ads and that sort of thing. Also knew how to build a website. I had been an actor and a producer, and I knew a lot about branding, from a performer perspective. I was able to transfer that knowledge into products pretty easily.

We decided we set out to create these different personalities that guys could connect with. Our whole spiel with Manly Bands in the very beginning and still continues today is matching a guy’s personality with the perfect ring. Our original 20 rings–that we still have on the site–most of them are like the rockstar, the cowboy, the baller. All these fun things that guys want to be. It was up to me to try to match a ring with the personality and then come up with what that character would be like, and who is this guy that wears this ring? I loved doing that.

Developing rings to fit different personalities and personas

Felix: Did you launch targeting all of these personas, or did you select specific target personas initially?

Johnathan: For sure. When we started, we had about 20 or 30 styles on the site. We really tried to cater each style to a different persona, different type of customer. That’s what Michelle really excelled at with her product descriptions. We really made sure that each style fit that persona. If you’re an outdoorsy person, we made sure that we had deer antler and some wood and materials like that. If you were more of a city person or a corporate person, we had really cool metals or carbon fiber, cobalt Chrome and things like that. It was a process, and it was a little overwhelming in the beginning. As we grew and started to add more styles and unique materials, we made it down to a science now. We have a really great team and we know what our customers want. We interact a lot with them and we give them what they ask for.

Felix: How accurate were you with your estimates about what would work with which persona?

Michelle: It did start to resonate with guys because they just weren’t given any attention in the wedding band process. It was important for us to give them a voice and give them permission to find something that they actually enjoy wearing. They had never been given that permission before. It was fun when we started interacting with our customers, basically I was the customer service person for the first bit there. It was interesting hearing what our customers had to say. I would say to anybody who’s new at this, listen to your customers because it helps you pivot and understand what more to get and what things to cull the herd with. To get rid of certain products. People aren’t interested in that, but oh, they want this.

It’s important to have a little bit of a variety, especially online when you’re selling to so many different kinds of people, but certainly we started to see trends in different cities. It was like, “oh, okay, people out west are ordering the antler.” During the winter, we noticed that people would order antler more than in the summer. It was interesting to see all that.

Felix: What was your first step to getting a real, physical product made?

Michelle: Honestly, we went to Alibaba and we started looking around to see what vendors had different things. Then we started looking locally too. We tried everything. We tried everything and we found the best products that we could find because we wanted our customers obviously to have the best product. It was about the best product, the coolest materials, and matching this personality with them. That became the Manly Bands shtick in the beginning and still continues today. That’s how we sell to our customers. I would also say to anybody who’s new to this, it’s really important to find what your voice is. Not only from a brand perspective, but also what’s different about your business than everybody else’s business? Those are the things that we were trying to determine in that beginning stage. What’s important to us? What was important to us during this whole process? Those are all the questions that we answered as we looked at different vendors.

Using competitor market research to identify a niche

Felix: How did you figure out and pinpoint what makes you different from your competitors? How did you decide to differentiate?

Johnathan: A lot of it begins with market research. Once we knew what problem we wanted to solve, we had to develop a product that was different from everybody else’s. That was our goal from the beginning. We didn’t launch with a traditional gold ring or a silver ring. We launched with what we call the cowboy and the rockstar and the mountain man. All of those rings are super unique, whether it’s on the inside sleeve or on the wood or on the outside finish. We did a lot of market research. We looked around. We tried to find other competitors in the space. We tried to look and see what they were doing. It gave us a lot of insight and information as to what people were interested in and how we could do things differently.

That doesn’t just stop at the product experience. We were looking at other people’s policies, return policies, refund policies, exchange policies, shipping policies. You can learn a lot about how a business runs by reading their policies. In our case you could easily see, okay, we’re going to want at least a 30 to 60 day return policy. We ended up trying a 60 day return policy at one point. We quickly learned why people do 30 day return policies. Restocking fees. You start to learn and then you take that data and you try to create the best customer experience you can with it. You’re always tweaking and iterating. We’re constantly testing slightly different policies to see what’s best for the customer. We’re getting feedback from our customer service team, our product team, and always trying to make it a better experience. Research is super important. I highly recommend anybody looking to start a business to not only look at the quality of their products, but also how their products are being perceived in the market and what other people are doing.

Michelle: To add to that, it’s important sometimes too, to purchase from these other vendors. These would be competitors. If you’re looking to produce stainless steel straws, as an example, you start buying stainless steel straws from other vendors to understand what you like about their product or don’t like about it, what you like about their customer service experience, what you like about communicating with them. You’ll start to learn, ooh, I like Zendesk. I don’t like it. I like this other platform better. It shortcuts a lot of things if you do your research.

A selection of four rings against a background that has dinosaur models shopping faded out.
Testing was involved for many areas of the business for Manly Bands to build out a successful brand. Manly Bands 

Felix: The information and data can almost be overwhelming. How did you decide which aspects were going to be the key players when building out your brand, and what wasn’t asimportant?

Johnathan: A lot of it’s testing. It’s launching a policy, making sure it’s as thorough and comprehensive as you can for what you need it for. For instance an exchange policy, and testing it with your customers. You have to always watch your conversion rate. You’re watching your abandoned carts. You’re looking at feedback from people in the chat widget or from the support emails. You’re trying to gauge, okay, is this really a good and fair policy? You always want to do well by your customers, but there’s also a line where you need it to make sure that it works for your business too. We experimented with not having a small restocking fee. The restocking fee is not very much, but it really helped us. What was happening when we didn’t have a restocking fee was that people would come to the site. They didn’t know what style they wanted. They’d buy five, sometimes 10 rings, put it on their credit card and then return all of them except one.

That’s actually quite a headache when you’re doing things at scale, because that’s a massive amount of money moving around and customer service dealing with these situations, and shipping costs when you’re offering free shipping and things like that. We instituted a very small restocking fee and that helped that a lot. That brought the rate of those situations happening down, and it allowed us to decide, okay, is this a good policy to have? Ultimately we kept it.

Michelle: That also helps us engage with the customer a little bit more because they want to be sure of the product that they’re getting, which is great. It causes us to be able to engage in a conversation about what’s your style? Do you like this? Do you like that? Let’s talk about your size. One of the biggest hurdles with wedding rings is sizes. People don’t typically know their size and definitely guys, because a lot of these guys have never worn a ring before. It’s nice to be able to have that conversation beforehand.

Navigating the logistics of a custom product

Felix: How did you deal with the friction of a potential customer possibly not knowing their ring size?

Michelle: We have two different kinds of rings. We have the “ready to ship,” which are rings that are here in our warehouse. They go out right away. Then we have our “made to order” rings. For our made to order rings, those take anywhere from two to four weeks. For those customers, because it’s a little bit more annoying to resize those rings, we love to send them a sizer first. They get the sizer in the mail and then a couple days later we ask them, what felt good? We have a video for them to watch to use the sizer and that sort of thing. We try to have fun with it. We definitely take the time to try to get them to give us their size in that respect.

We did have an app that we were trying for a bit, but really with men’s sizes and women’s sizes, the knuckle plays such a big factor in sizing. You really want to have something that you can put over the knuckle. You guys can’t see me, but I’m making my ring go over my knuckle right now. It’s super different if I was to do that, as opposed to taking, say, a piece of string and wrapping it around my finger, which a lot of sites will tell you to do. I’m here to tell you, that is not a good way to size your finger.

Johnathan: We found that the physical sizes really made a big difference. We’re still trying to iterate on that too. We’re always trying different ways. We just switched up our site, our design about a month ago and we’re getting better results. We always try to optimize. It’s important that no matter what type of business you’re in, you’re always trying to improve your workflows and processes and that’s ultimately what we do.

Felix: Does sending these sizers often lead to better conversions?

Johnathan: It’s interesting, we’re always asking that and we’re always looking at that data to try to optimize that whole workflow. One thing that we did was, for a while, we actually gave away the sizers for free, and we found that not as many people came back to buy a ring. We then put our price back on it. I think we charged like 10 or $13 and we found that more people came back. Having that connection, finding people who are willing to transact with your company initially, they’re definitely more likely to come back if they have a good experience. We found that those people were more likely to be purchasers, which makes total sense. Ultimately the conversion rate went up when we started charging for the sizers again.

Like Michelle was saying, we have two different classes of rings. Our MTO ones, we actually give the sizer for free as part of the purchase. Ultimately that dropped our exchange rate and resizing rate down significantly. We’re less than 10% right now, or somewhere in that area, which is amazing because it costs a lot of money to be reshipping out and resizing, especially when we’re paying for shipping both ways. Just another example of when you optimize a process, you can save a lot more money and in this case, increase the conversion rate.

Michelle: One other thing I would add for anyone who’s starting a store from scratch, do not choose something that has sizes. It will make your life so much easier.

Johnathan: Or at least not 17 sizes.

Michelle: Something like 25 sizes, actually.

Johnathan: Maybe three or four sizes if you’re doing a shirt or apparel or something. But watches, sunglasses, wallets, that’s awesome. There’s no size.

Felix: Let’s talk a little bit about that top of the funnel. Who are the people who are actually searching for the product? I know my wife decided where we were buying our rings, and I just went along. What are your demographics? Is it the men that are searching, or the women?

Johnathan: The younger generation is just more apt to look up things online. Whether they’re looking to purchase online in our case, or looking to do research into what’s available, they end up typing in men’s wedding rings or men’s wedding bands. It’s a very competitive space now. Most guys are probably just looking to do research on different styles and then maybe go to their local store, but hopefully we get in front of them and can convince them that with our reviews and with our styles and our prices, that it is safe, it is okay to purchase jewelry that is a little more expensive than they might find elsewhere. It works out. We have a lot of very happy customers.

Most of our advertising is done on Google and Facebook. Of course Google is more intent based so we have a higher conversion rate there where people are looking for rings, they’re typing that in, we’re getting our ads in front of them. On Facebook, it’s more about peaking their interest and getting them to check us out. We target people of course, based on engagement and a bunch of other variables. But we find that that definitely gets us in front of the right people. Then if we can impress them with really high quality creative, whether that’s videos or photos or things like that, it really draws their attention and brings them to the site.

Michelle: In the wedding industry, one thing that we’re finding is that there’s a trend where women are buying the men’s ring and men are buying the women’s ring, obviously. In that community, it’s interesting to see so many women on the site purchasing and it’s fantastic. We are able to engage with both or all genders, which is fantastic.

Building a successful ad campaign for a time-sensitive need

Felix: For an engine like Facebook, how do you target your ads? Peaking interest on a platform for a time sensitive need seems like it would be difficult.

Johnathan: We target engaged people, and we know that people who are engaged usually post about it on Facebook. So thankfully they’ll mark that and Facebook has that as a category that you can target. That’s how we started out. Now, it’s a lot more involved. We’re using different tools and attribution tools. Initially at a very basic level, it’s engaged people. That gets us in front of the right people. That creative is such a key component. You want to have high quality creative, and not just pictures of rings. We did that for years, but what we found is people also want to learn about the business. They want to see who Manly Bands is. Who works here? Who is our Manly Bands family, as we call it.

They want to see lifestyle photos. They want to see people using the product, wearing the product. They want to see customer photos in UGC. It’s definitely a multifaceted approach to creative. We also have an amazing video team in house that are always cranking out cool and funny videos. We’ve launched a YouTube series. You want people to be able to connect, not just with the product, but with your brand. The creative is a key component to that.

A ring against a piece of steel against a wooden table.
The team behind Manly Bands only spent a nominal amount of budget each day to run ads pre-launch. Manly Bands 

Felix: What was your launch process like, and how did you determine when it was time to go live with the website?

Johnathan: We launched mid-November 2016. We didn’t put a huge amount of ad budget behind it. It was maybe 30 or $50 a day to get going. Once we had the website up, we had our 20 styles loaded. Michelle was ready for customer service and we started running the ads. We had already gotten a couple of orders in from our suppliers. We were ready to go and it was really fun. We of course were white knuckled, here we go. All right. We’re spending $30 that we don’t have. Let’s do this. The first order came and it was crazy. We’ve had 30 failures before a success. I don’t want to make it sound easy because it’s not.

In this case, we had done a lot of prep work on the site. We had tried to optimize for what we thought would be a good conversion focus site by handling objections like shipping and customer service and returns and exchanges and things like that. We started driving some traffic and one day we got one sale and that was probably one of the most exciting days of our lives. Besides our wedding of course. Then it started to pick up. We constantly were trying to improve the whole process. We had tried to improve the ads, tried to improve the website’s conversion rate, and we’d increased the budget by $5. It was a slow process, but over time, it snowballed and there’s certainly a lot of luck involved too.

Michelle: Absolutely. Yes.

Felix: Were there any changes that you made that you think had a drastic impact on the trajectory of the business?

Johnathan: I would say increasing our ad budget. I thought $50 a day was a lot.

Michelle: It was to us then.

Johnathan: To us, it was a lot and we needed to make sure that we were going to be profitable to some extent because we didn’t have any backing. We’ve never taken backing. We’re completely bootstrapped. It’s scary in the beginning when you’re putting stuff on a credit card.

Michelle: All on my credit card.

Johnathan: I would not recommend that to people. It’s very scary, but we got lucky. We increased the budget and it made a huge difference. Unfortunately, and I’ve talked to a lot of people about this, advertising now is very different than it was in late 2016. I don’t know if we could have started it like that today. The marketing, especially on Facebook, is so much more competitive and expensive. Our cost to acquire customers has tripled in the last six years. That’s largely just due to advertising online. There’s more and more people in it. Our space is a lot more competitive. But back then, increasing the budget made a huge difference.

Establishing trust through thoughtful website design

Felix: Can you tell us a little bit more about these objection handlers and how you used them to build trust?

Johnathan: Like you said, the first thing people do when they come to a site, we’ve all been educated, they’re just trying to sell me something. You initially don’t trust them, especially a website. The D-to-C space has made it so that people are like, oh, it’s a cool company. I’ll check them out. When you can buy stuff on Amazon or you can buy stuff at these other big platform sites like Walmart or Target, sites that you trust, going to a website can be a little scary. As an entrepreneur, I go there and I’m immediately like, “Oh, okay. Well, they must be getting their product from here and this is their business model, all that crazy stuff.”

In our case, the most important thing to do is to establish trust. We still use lots of reviews, testimonials, testimonial videos. Having a great review system so people can leave reviews and they can verify the purchase.People want to know that other people have had a good experience with your brand and that they can trust it. That’s a big, big part of it. Showing customers with your product and showing them using it and having it and being happy with it goes a long way. Along with having policies on your site that are clear, concise, make sense, and don’t scare people away with 10 pages of legal jargon. You want to treat the customer like you’d want to be treated.

If I go to a site and don’t know anything about them, I’m going to want to see an about page. What is this company about? Who are these people? What is their philosophy? What are their goals with this business? What charities do they support? Ever since day one, we’ve always supported a charity. We just did an amazing charity with Jack Daniels this past month and raised a ton of money to bring soldiers home for Christmas. We’re super proud of that and our customers take notice and appreciate that.

Felix: How did you know what kinds of objections your potential customers might have, and where to focus your efforts?

Michelle: Our customers first started telling us, “Hey, I want to see the product on somebody. Can you show it?” Because you have lots of product photography, but it’s really important to show as John was saying, the product in action. Certainly it’s great on a customer, but if you don’t have that yet, show casing it on a person or how it would be used in the world, if it’s a backpack or something, show a picture of a person just with a backpack on. Where are they going? Show them in motion. Show the feeling that your product is going to evoke in them once they are using it.

Felix: You mentioned earlier about leaning into the data, and paying attention to the trends. How do you unpack the data that you’ve collected, or what tools do you use?

Michelle: Initially we were using all of the Shopify analytics and you can look by product and by region. It’s really cool. You can look by city. It’s fantastic what you guys have in order to be able for folks like us to really dig in deep and see where the products are selling and why.

Johnathan: Customer service is really also huge. Talking with your customers. One thing that we’ve been doing that has been super valuable is reaching out to our customers randomly over email. I’ll email a customer and say, “Hey, do you have time for a 20 minute meeting? I just want to sit down and pick your brain and talk to you about your experience with Manly Bands. You’d be surprised how many people are thrilled to talk to the company and actually put a face to the name of the company. We asked them all sorts of questions like, “Hey, what did you find difficult about the website? What made you almost not purchase? How would you describe us to a friend?” The data that we get from there about our styles, about our processes, about how customer service is working out is just invaluable. We learn so much, and then we implement those changes to make us a better company.

How learning what doesn’t sell only makes you stronger

Felix: That qualitative data can be incredibly useful in the early stages, when you maybe haven’t got the quantitative data to lean on. Was there anything that you learned that surprised you?

Johnathan: Shopify is so great about laying out all the customer information and how they purchase and if they use discount codes. If I was interviewing or talking to somebody who uses a discount code, I would ask, “Hey, did you have any trouble inputting your discount code? Did you see where that goes?” In the beginning they’d be like, “Oh, you know what? I had a lot of trouble finding that and it was really frustrating, I almost left because of it.”

It gets you thinking, “oh my gosh, how many other customers have left because they couldn’t find the spot to put the coupon code in.” We have a discount code listed at the top of our site. If they come in expecting to use it and then they can’t, well, they’re most likely going to bounce. That was hugely helpful. We found a way to make it more visible in the checkout so that you can’t miss it. Conversion rate definitely bumped up because of that.

Michelle: I wanted to add too, all the stuff on the Shopify homepage is so helpful. It’s a real snapshot on what people are clicking; these products were viewed most often and these were abandoned checkouts and these are the people who are going to spend the most money on your store. These are how people are coming into you. These are searches that people have put into the search where it turns up nothing, because you don’t have a product or a tag for that. That stuff is so easy to grab and fix right away.

A black ring on a wooden table.
Using surveys and a vetting process for new ideas helps Manly Bands to launch new products that customers are excited about. Manly Bands 

Felix: You mentioned earlier that speaking to the customers has also enabled you to cull the catalog. Can you tell us more about that?

Michelle: You’re looking at what isn’t selling essentially. For us–we did a huge cull earlier in the year–we had close to 400 products on the site. Our question was, I wonder if we could increase conversion rate if we made the amount of decisions a little bit less. Let’s have less black zirconium, let’s have less Damascus steel. Let’s make the decision a lot easier. We went through and looked at rings that were a little bit similar, got rid of one and saw if our customers were asking for the other one. It was a little bit of experimentation to get back to, “okay, this is how many products we’re going to have now.” Now we have about 200, 220 products on the site and we have a whole bunch of rings that are coming this year too, that we already know about, some partnerships we’re working on and licenses and stuff. We wanted to make room for those as well.

Felix: What is your product development process like? How do you test and validate potential new products?

Michelle: There’s quite a vetting process that happens. In the old days, it was really like, “hey, this is cool and let’s try it.” There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with just testing things in the beginning. John does a ton of AB tests in all different respects. In products now, we have a whole process of how we vet something and we send out customer surveys, which is really, really helpful. There’s a bunch of different apps that’ll let you try that. We ask our customers, “Hey, would you like to see something with bright colors or would you rather see something plain and normal?” That sort of thing.

It’s important to ask your customers. You can do that and they will answer you. For a while we were in fear that we didn’t want to bother anybody. We didn’t want to bother them if they didn’t want to engage with us. The truth is, people want to give their opinion. They really love to give their opinion. If you create a survey and allow them to give their opinion, whether it’s on social media, or whether it’s through an exit survey on the site, those things are just invaluable.

Felix: Once you design a product, how does it actually get created? What’s the lead time on a design to it being available for someone to buy?

Michelle: It depends really on the material and do we have it here or is this something we have to source. I would say anywhere from three weeks to two months. It depends on all of it. We create the ring and then our creative team does a whole campaign around it, and then our marketing team gets involved and they take over and do their campaign on it as well. That whole process can take between three weeks to two months.

Why your priority should be scaling smart, not fast

Felix: Talk to us about your mantra of scaling smart, not fast.

Johnathan: It means using data. That’s really what it comes down to. Back in the beginning, of course we didn’t have as much data or we didn’t understand it as much. We’ve learned a lot over the years. Having that data and looking at it from the customer surveys that we send out every day to just things that we’ve learned and our team’s learned over time. It is a little bit of a slower process as we’ve gotten larger. There’s a lot more intensity involved in trying different ideas and more time involved to make sure it’s very intentional when we change something. It’s not just a quick little, hey, let’s change the color of that button. It’s a whole process now.

It’s for the better, because it allows us to really focus on what matters and then to take those resources to test it. That’s really helped us. Then once we find out something works, we scale up. We’ll put more ad dollars behind it or we’ll send it out to more and more people or we’ll send a larger email list. It’s important to make sure that your decisions are backed by data.

Michelle: Everything is optimized before you hit that gas pedal, because you’re wasting money if you’re just hitting the gas pedal, but you’re still flailing and trying things.

Felix: How do you determine when it’s time to evaluate whether an experiment should be extinguished or if it needs more time?

Johnathan: We set certain KPIs, certain things that we’re looking for, for this test or experiment or product to hit over time. We usually give most website tests three to four weeks, product tests typically a series of months.

Michelle: Six months to a year depending.

Johnathan: It depends. Are we losing money on it? Are we making money on it? Are we making what we want to make on it? Obviously, if you’re really losing money, you don’t want to wait long. If it’s something that you’re making money but it’s not where you want it to be, then you have a choice. Either let’s stop and put our efforts towards something that can really do a better job or is there a tweak or optimization that we can make that could change it? It’s a lot of understanding the process and what you’re trying to accomplish then testing.

Michelle: There’s a lot of gut instinct too. Your gut gets more attuned to making decisions as you keep testing and as you keep trying things.

Felix: What I’m understanding is that it takes time to develop the muscle to be able to make those calls and make the right decisions.

Johnathan: It really does. It’s so important to have patience and a strategy. You need to have a strategy before you launch things or before you even test things, to make sure you don’t go over budget. In the beginning when we were very much spending money that we maybe didn’t have we definitely wanted to have a strategy. It’s like, if this ad is not working in two days, we’re probably going to pull it and try something else, because we can’t afford to lose money on it. It’s important to set those boundaries in the beginning so that you don’t lose your shirt as you’re trying to launch a business.

Making friends with third-party logistics (3PL) companies

Felix: Talk to us about growing and hiring your team. How did you do it, and when did you realize it was time to do so?

Johnathan: When we were starting in the garage, it was crazy. We’ll just throw it out there, it was nuts. We were wearing all the hats.

Michelle: My parents were warehouse workers. They were fantastic.

Johnathan: It was wild. Michelle’s doing customer service, I’m doing creative for the rings, the photos and running Facebook ads, the website and all that. It was overwhelming. Eventually it got to a point where we had to admit that we needed help. One thing that was really stressing us out was social media. We’re advertising on Facebook and Google, of course. But on Facebook in particular, we have to deal with comments on the ads, we have to be posting. I’m sure you know and you’ve talked to a lot of people that have emphasized the importance of social media. That’s a full-time job in itself.

Our first hire was a social media manager, who’s still with us today. That was a huge help. That gave us a couple hours back so we could continue doing the warehouse stuff and shipping from the garage and running to the post office every day with these big bags. We had run that ourselves–the warehouse–probably for about six or seven months. It was getting to the point where it was really difficult to have a life. The work life balance was way off. 15 hour days. It was crazy. This is something I recommend to any entrepreneur, 3PLs are your friend.

Michelle: Yes.

Johnathan: We worked with a couple of amazing 3PLs where we were able to offload the shipping and the returns and exchanges at a reasonable price per order. It changed our lives. We could really focus on growing the business, creating new and better products, better customer service, faster website updates, better creative and all of that. That’s a hard one because that’s a lot of time shipping and packaging and exchanging and all of that.

Michelle: It’s important too, to find a 3PL that has the same values as you too, because a lot of 3PLs are doing exactly that. They’re just shipping your stuff out. We were able to find Ships-A-Lot who was amazing and their customer service is incredible to you as the customer. They were really great at being able to QCR rings when they came in and just making sure that everything was perfect when it went into the box. It was really nice to be able to rely on a company that became friends of ours. It was great.

Johnathan: With any vendor, especially 3PL, I highly recommend working with a company that is more of a partner than just a vendor. You want somebody who understands you, who picks up the phone when you call. We had worked with a couple of 3PLs prior to working with Ships-A-Lot and it was a disaster. I couldn’t get customer service, our stuff wasn’t getting sent out, we had trouble with their platform that they had and there was no help. With Ships-A-Lot and in a number of other vendors that we use, it’s better if they’re partners. They understand what you’re trying to do. They want to support you and they’re there for you. That’s really what we try to do now with all of our partners.

Felix: I think for entrepreneurs, who are used to wearing all the hats, coming to the realization that by outsourcing tasks you’re actually freeing up your time, is a difficult one. How were you able to step back and say, “My skills aren’t as suited for this role, they’re better utilized elsewhere.”

Johnathan: For me, it came to my experience. Previous to Manly Bands, I had run a small marketing agency with my business partner, Scott, and we really got good at that. That was where our strength was. Obviously shipping and returns and exchanges are super important and we have an amazing team in house now that does that for us. They’re just incredible. For us, that wasn’t where our expertise was. What we tried to do in the beginning is outsource the stuff that we weren’t as comfortable with or as experienced with so that we could focus on the areas that we understood or had some more expertise in. We knew that ultimately that would help us grow faster if we’re focusing on things that we understand.

Michelle: Those people are specialized in those areas. Not only do they now have the time and brain space to get to those areas, but they have the know-how. Our warehouse manager, when we brought him in, had all of this warehouse experience and knew all of these things that we didn’t know. It was so incredibly helpful. That’s been a part of every single hire since then. If John and I were to actually look at our team now, there’s probably about 20, 25 people that do the jobs that he and I used to do, which is amazing? It’s incredible to see that expansion and how much more we can do because of that.

Johnathan: They do it a lot better than we ever did. They’re amazing. We found that a general hiring philosophy is to hire people that are much smarter than yourselves. We have a team of some very intelligent, smart and experienced people and we wouldn’t be where we are without them.

A dark ring with rose gold lining against a background filled with stones.
The expansion of their teams at Manly Bands involved hiring talent that has skillsets that the founders are missing. Manly Bands 

Felix: I like your comment about hiring people that are smarter than you. I think a lot of people feel like they need to know everything, be a master at all aspects of their business, but that’s not necessarily the case.

Johnathan: It’s hard. There’s so much to learn. I’m sure as all of your listeners know and experience, when you’re starting a company, you do everything and there is no school or college that teaches you every single part of running a company, especially an eCommerce company. All of those responsibilities are changing every day just as the industry grows and marketing changes and whatnot. It is important whether you’re working with somebody you hire, who’s an expert or an agency or 3PL. In the beginning, we outsourced everything. We had a very small team. Our first hire was the social media manager, but then we quickly expanded our customer service channels, team and photography. We brought in house and with every hire, a little less weight was taken off our shoulders. We would focus that somewhere else, and put the weight right back on.

Then we could grow a little faster. It all made sense at the time, and now we’re just surrounded by so many amazingly capable people that it’s fun to come to work because the pressure is not there and we can focus on what we are really good at, and that’s directing the company and making sure our teams are taken care of and they have what they need and all those other CEO type duties that help businesses grow.

Fender and Jack Daniels: Landing the partners of your dreams

Felix: Some of the partners on your website are Fender, Jack Daniels, MLB. Can you tell us about how those relationships came to be?

Michelle: We have an incredible gal on our staff named Jenny and she heads our licensing department and she is amazing at talking to these folks and getting them on board. I don’t know all of the amazingness that she does when she’s on the phone with these folks, but she’s really been able to go after partnerships that we’ve been so excited about. Jack Daniels was such an easy thought because whiskey barrels are something that people are putting in wedding bands or something. Of course, we’re putting in wedding bands and have been for a while. And it was great to be able to find an American brand that is so well known. I feel like everybody feels good about Jack Daniels and you can go into any bar in the United States and they have Jack Daniels.

It was a great, great thing to be able to partner with them. They’re such a fun company to work with too. Fender is a blast as well. I’m a guitar player. I grew up playing guitar and I was so excited when we started going down the road with Fender. Part of all these partnerships is we have to be excited about them, but also our customers have to be excited about them. That’s where the surveys come back into play too. Our head of products, Chris, is amazing about sending these surveys out and making sure that customers are interested in this stuff before we jump on it. That is super important.

Johnathan: Some of these relationships and licenses take a long time to put together. Our CMO, Stephanie has actually brought Jack Daniels to us and the amount of work they spent on that. I mean, these are big partnerships, there’s pages and pages of contracts. That’s how the licensing world works. We knew that it would all be worth it in the end, and it has been both them and us who are super happy with the way things have turned out. It’s a testament to the team. It’s the kind of thing where when you have a really great team, we’re really thinking outside the box, they’ll bring these types of ideas to you and hit it out of the park every time.

A hand model wearing a black ring reaching out to a Jack Daniels bottle.
One of the amazing expansion opportunities has been partnering with brands like Jack Daniels. Manly Bands 

Felix: What’s next for Manly Bands? Where will you focus over the coming months?

Johnathan: We spend a lot of money on paid ads. One thing we’re really working on this year is increasing our organic reach. We’re on a YouTube set right now. You can’t see it, but we’re really investing heavily in video and photo studios in house to continue to create the best content for men out there. We’re hoping to expand our lines. We’re international. We’re hoping to expand that.

Michelle: We have our women’s line too, which we launched on rosiebraid.com, but we also now have it on Manly Bands as well, so you can purchase it right there. Getting organic traffic is going to be huge for us and being able to allow our customers to connect with the brand in that way will be even better and better as time goes on.

Johnathan: Yeah. What’s really fun about this business–any eCommerce business–is there’s always room to grow. There are always ways to optimize. There are always avenues to pursue and we’re just excited for the future. There are so many new technologies and platforms and all sorts of things coming out that we’re just excited to get in there and test the waters. It’s a really fun place to be and a great industry to be playing in.

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