What can you do to scale up your e-commerce business and selling on Amazon?
In episode 90 of the Bean Ninjas Podcast, Wayne Richards chats with Kiri Masters about setting up a business for scaling success, self-publishing books, and awesome tips on establishing your business.
[00:46] The story of how Kiri got started with Amazon and e-commerce
[03:40] Scaling up her team and hiring moms.
[05:13] Scaling an agency business and running it without being involved in the day to day operations.
[07:13] Kiri’s ventures outside Bobsled Marketing.
[09:40] The reason behind why she decided to publish her own books.
[12:07] Deciding on the content of her books.
[13:21] Her experience of self-publishing her book.
[15:12] The different channels Kiri uses to market her business.
[18:13] How she started writing for Forbes and how it has helped her business.
[23:31] Key things you need to pay attention to when establishing your presence on Amazon.
[25:21] A brief comparison of the different selling platforms: Amazon, Walmart and Shopify.
[27:12] Kiri’s go-to personal productivity tools for effectively managing her time and energy across her life and businesses.
[30:05] Identifying and protecting key people in your business.
[31:19] The meaning of financial freedom for Kiri and where she is at in the journey today.
Welcome to the show, Kiri. How are you doing this morning and where are you calling in from today?
Great to be here, Wayne. Thank you. I’m actually in Medellin, Colombia.
Excellent. Today we’re going to chat a little bit about tips on scaling up an e-commerce business and also, selling on Amazon. So a little bit of your backstory; I’d love for you to share with our listeners how you got started? In my research, I identified you’re once a banker in New York. How did you make the pivot to get started with Amazon in e-commerce?
Yeah. So it’s not exactly the most logical career move to go from banking to where I am today. But the story is I was out of university, I worked at a retail bank in Australia, doing corporate strategy and moved over to New York to work for JP Morgan Chase, doing a similar role, and eventually, doing sales in the business banking division.
And during my time working for JP Morgan Chase in New York, I’ve started an e-commerce business on the side, which is selling craft products, essentially. It was just something that I was doing for fun because I liked doing stuff in my free time and when I went out to set up my Woocommerce website and learned how to create sites in WordPress, and Etsy, and accounting; and I had to learn absolutely everything about e-commerce and content creation and running a little business on the side.
And I just; I really enjoyed it. And eventually, this is back in maybe 2013, I put some of those products from my online store on Amazon after a little while and it was really exciting to see that platform really taking off. So I was just sort of doing my corporate job, then having this little side business on the side for fun, primarily.
And eventually, I just realized that there was; I knew enough about Amazon where I could probably go and work with some other clients on the side and help them with their Amazon channel because I was still early, fairly early days with the marketplace and there wasn’t as much information out there as there is today about how it all works.
So I decided to leave my job and go start consulting for these companies that needed help with Amazon and work on my little e-commerce business on the side. That was 2015; I was just doing this by myself, and eventually, my husband joined me and hired a contract employee at the end of that year.
And today, end of 2019, we’re 25 people doing the Amazon optimization, marketing thing at Bobsled Marketing, which is my main company. And then, the craft business on the side is actually just one employee, or one and a half, really, and that’s still chugging along as well. But I’ve really honed in on the Amazon space over the last five years.
Awesome. And I heard you have an interesting story about scaling up your team while being a mother yourself, and also in hiring other moms. Can you tell us about that?
Yeah. So when I started the company, I’ve got a 3-year old son and when I first started hiring I’ve had no immediate plans to become a parent. But I did realize that in my corporate life, the hardest working people around me and the most focused people were parents. They came into the office and they got their stuff done. There was no wasting time; it was, “I’m here for eight hours. I want to get out of the door at 5:00 p.m. so I can see my kids. I’m just going to get in here and get my stuff done.” And they were just like so productive.
And so, I always knew that parents had this kind of superpower of extreme focus and knowing what they want and being just, ‘get in and get it done.’ So when I first started hiring for Bobsled, the agency, parents were high on my list of people to look for because I also was really, at that time, cash flow was thin and I couldn’t afford to hire anyone full-time.
So I looked on this website that I’d heard about called hiremymom.com, which is still around and still a really great resource both for prospective employees and employers. I’ve sourced my first few employees from this website called hiremymom and they were pretty much all moms.
Awesome. Would you also share with us may be your top three tips for scaling an agency business? I understand you’ve also built it to operate in day-to-day operations with little or none of your time.
Well, yeah. It took almost five years to get to that point and I think the dream that people have when they’re considering entrepreneurship is that they want to have passive income and not have to work and have someone else run your company for you. And that’s a great thing to aspire towards, but my personal experience with these two companies told me that that’s certainly possible, but it takes a long time to get there and you need to work three times as hard to get to the point where you don’t have to be involved with the day-to-day.
So for me, personally, what it looks like with the agency is I was very, very fortunate; one in a million chances really. One of the first people that I hired ended up becoming the president of my company today. And she’s worked through lots of different roles in the company. She actually came to me with a lot of experience in a leadership position, but she was looking for a complete career change, and so, was willing to start at the bottom again, essentially.
But she already had that leadership experience, and so, it was just; this is a very fortunate series of events, but I was lucky enough to already have that person within my company and then be able to give her more and more opportunities to step up and move through different roles to the point where she is now running the show.
It certainly took a lot of time to get there. The company had to just get to a certain size before you can afford to pay someone an executive salary as well. So there’s a lot of things that you need to get in place before that’s possible.
So what has the time freedom from having that key employee taking over the operation side allowed you to do? And there any other ventures outside of Bobsled Marketing that are currently deployed or in the works?
Yes. I got a message from someone; someone I don’t know on LinkedIn yesterday saying, “Wow. I just really admire your tenacity to start all these different ventures.” I wrote back and said, “It’s an addiction.” It’s really an addiction for me. I mean, I get this company to a point where I can appoint someone as president around the day-to-day. I don’t have to do so much myself anymore.
And I immediately start another project, which is, so taking what we do at Bobsled where we work with larger, more established branded manufacturers, typically with revenues of $10 million or more and we handle basically their entire Amazon sales channel with advertising, marketing and operational support. But that kind of program is limited to companies who, they need external support and they’re willing to outsource essentially, for a period of time.
There’s a lot of companies who want to bring that function back in-house and have an e-commerce manager or Amazon channel manager handle that channel for them as a strategic reason behind that Or it can be just they’re not in a financial position to spend thousands of dollars a month outsourcing as they prefer to do it in-house.
So I’ve started this separate project called The Marketplace Institute, which is designed to help brands to bring that function in-house or initiate their Amazon channel using their internal resources. So that’s been in the works for about six months and taken up a lot of my time to put all that content together, build up that brand and talk with a lot of customers about what they’re looking for and how they currently get information.
So I’ve taken all of the time savings from not running the day-to-day of Bobsled and basically sort of started a new company within Bobsled, which is absorbed all of the free time. But I would have gained if I had just decided not to do anything else.
Yeah. I’m interested in learning a bit more about the marketing and brand building piece you mentioned. So let’s talk about how you’ve been building your profile and also marketing your businesses for a moment. I understand you’ve published your second book in September titled, Amazon For CMO’s. Why did you decide to go the publishing route?
Yeah. So I’ve published a book 2016 called The Amazon Expansion Plan, which was very tactical how to; book about how to sell on Amazon if you’re brands manufacturer. And that was a good source of both credibility in the space and leads. And for the entire existence of Bobsled, I have made a real concerted effort to put a lot of content out there into the world, explaining our best practices and what this new program means for you if you’re selling on Amazon.
We’ve done a weekly blog for about four years and we’ve just shifted down to twice, monthly, because we’ve got a lot of other content channels as well. So content’s been absolutely essential to building Bobsled in this space, which has become very competitive. It wasn’t as competitive five years ago and now it really is.
Content has always been important. The first book and then the second book I published this year, really an extension of that. There’s something; there’s a different kind of audience that you can reach if you publish a book, and especially if you get a printed edition of that book out, and even better if you can do an audible version as well. You’re reaching a different audience. So with the blog, we’ve got subscribers from the blog who are familiar with our content.
But there’s some people that will prefer to sit down, read a book, highlight it, and then get some post-its out and write some notes to them. So I’ve seen this like marked-up copies of my books where people have like written their to-do-list in there and that’s how they prefer to consume information.
So I think if you have a good content marketing machine, adding a book in there; it’s a big project, it takes up a lot of time and energy. But it can help you to cut through a lot of the noise of other blogs and other podcasts and stuff because people appreciate the effort that you go to put a book out there and it is a very legitimate marketing channel.
So how do you decide what’s going in the book?
Yeah. It was really listening to the market for a long time and this one came up really naturally and I actually partnered up with another Amazon agency owner, Mark Power; he’s Australian as well, coincidentally. And we both had recognized that there wasn’t; there’s a lot of tactical information out there about how to do this and that on Amazon, but there wasn’t a lot of content out there written for an executive audience.
And these are the people who are making big decisions for their company, is in charge of budgets, and especially for mid-sized to larger companies, there wasn’t anything really out there to help those folks make decisions and give them a framework of how they should be thinking about this channel.
So it came up naturally and I think that’s the best way to identify a wide space with content marketing is just listening to your prospects and your customers and to your industry, in general, and listening for gaps and information.
So you’ve listened and you have the big idea; how do you fund a book launch and where is your experience to go self-published or did you work with a traditional publisher?
Yeah. We self-published this one and it has, the benefit of self-publishing, the biggest benefit, in my opinion, is speed. So it’s not so much about; I think that there’s a slight edge that you get with credibility if you go with the traditional publisher. It shows some level of like the publisher is really decided that you’re worthy of this project. And in the past, I think it meant a lot more than it does today.
But for us, like the Amazon ecosystem; and everything just changes so rapidly. And if we’re going to work with a traditional publisher, it would be two or three years until we could get the book out. And that’s just like; the whole world changes in two years. So we decided to go self-publishing for that reason and I think that that was; that really met our goal of putting something out there that we had complete control over the content and how we said things and the tone and what we were going to talk about.
We interviewed about 15 CMOs for the book as well, which was a nice touch because we could really put the voice of the industry in there and not just be up on our soapbox just talking about how much we know about Amazon. We actually brought in a lot of people to comment on their strategies and what had worked for them and what hadn’t.
So we had a lot of freedom with the content and we got the book out the door within, I think like within six months of me pitching this idea to Mark; the book was launched. So that was the big benefit.
Excellent and congrats. Let’s chat a bit about some of the other marketing channels you’ve trialled along the way to scale your businesses, and which have been most successful. So we chatted a bit about books, and you also had mentioned a bit about blogging, but I also understand you’ve had a hand in podcasting, workshops, webinars, and also partnerships. Can you tell us a bit about those?
Yeah. So the content comes in all shapes and sizes. We’re doing this podcast right now; just talked about a book. But content is, particularly in a very complex space, like Amazon is hugely complex and there’s no end of news and updates and changes and stuff going on. So, it’s a space where my target audience needs a lot of education and help in understanding what’s going on. So it’s a very rich area to be developing content.
So we’ve tried lots of different formats for that. The blog has been essential in building a steady stream of leads coming in for the agency. The podcast has been harder to quantify because podcast metrics suck and it’s impossible to like demonstrate a really clear ROI.
But I speak with a lot of people who listen to the podcast and I know that several of our clients decided to work with us because they like the podcast and that’s how they discovered the company and they realized that they have aligned with our voice and all of that. So I think that podcasting is not as much of a traffic generator as it is a way to align yourself with your audience.
The other channels we’ve tried is in-person events, which is even better at building that connection with people but really hard to pull off. It’s been very challenging to scale that. And partnerships is a fairly recent one actually. There’s a lot of software companies in our space. There’s a lot of adjacent consultancies, for example, we’re a close partner of a consultancy that helps retailers with their direct mail.
And so, we’ve done a lot of business together, so that’s something that we’ve started to explore recently and that kind of partnership can extend into sharing content with each other’s audience and stuff like that, too. So, it’s been, honestly, there’s a lot of trial and error to see what works and what doesn’t.
And the workshops, that’s difficult to justify at this point against something like the blog or the podcast where we know that we’ve definitely converted business from those things. Whereas, the workshops that cost a lot of money with travel and catering and stuff like that, and we haven’t seen as clear of an ROI.
So you also write for Forbes. How did that opportunity come about?
Yeah. That was a big honour to be welcomed into the Forbes contributor group for Forbes Retail. And how it came about was up until that point, I’d spent three years writing blog post every week and contributing to other publications.
So I’ve done the blog for my own company for a long time. I started contributing to other retail publications, like RetailWire and anything I could get my hands on, really, within the retail or e-commerce category. I would submit articles and try and be a good contributor to other publications.
And eventually, I heard that the; it was the Deputy Editor of the retail category put a tweet out saying that they were looking for writers. And I emailed him and I had, at that point, so much content behind me with publications I’d already written for.
I had my podcast going. I was able to submit a really good portfolio of work and say, “I am going to write about the Amazon Marketplace from the perspective of a brand manufacturer. That’s what I know, that’s what I’m going to write about.”
And I think that that’s the big mistake people have when they are trying to develop their thought leadership shops or stop trying to contribute to big publications that they think way too broadly instead of thinking about what’s a very unique perspective that you have, what’s a very unique experience that you have in your personal or professional life that’s going to make you an expert in a particular topic.
That’s how I came across that opportunity and that’s the advice that I have for people who want to do this is get really specific, build up a lot of material on that topic, and keep your ears out for publications who want to expand their group of contributors.
Because Forbes and Inc., as examples, they have huge teams of contributors. And for them, it’s a very core part of their business that they definitely need contributors. But they want; they want contributors who are really going to pull their weight.
Yeah. I’ve heard the richest are in the niches.
Great tip. So how was contributing to Forbes helped you and your business specifically?
A lot of people assume that it’s this huge competitive advantage and we must get tons and tons of leads from Forbes, and it must be this huge game-changing event in my professional life. But honestly, we don’t get a ton of leads that we can attribute back to Forbes.
They have very strict requirements that I have as a contributor that state I can’t promote myself, I can’t promote my company, I can’t promote companies that I have an interest in. Like, I can’t talk about my clients, generally, and give them publicity.
So you’re really constrained in what you can talk about from a self-promotion standpoint. And as a result, we don’t get a ton of leads back to Bobsled saying, “Oh, I saw this piece about your company,” because I can’t write about my company. But people, where it has been valuable, is I have developed a big personal following of my work on LinkedIn and these people who subscribed to those pieces and see them as soon as they get posted online.
So they know me and then might follow me on LinkedIn or Twitter or something. And then, if I’m doing my job properly, I’m posting valuable content much more than I’m actually asking for people to check out something that I’m trying to promote, like The Marketplace Institute or something like that.
So it’s at its core, just like every other form of content, it’s a long-term play. There’s not been any immediate ROI from doing it. I’ve been writing there for almost two years now and have only really sort of hit my stride with a decent following there.
Awesome. I want to switch gears a little bit to some e-commerce trends and things happening at Amazon that perhaps our listeners or brands should really be paying attention to right now.
That’s a huge question. Should I take the perspective of like a smaller brand or just in general in e-commerce and retail?
Absolutely. So the scenario is you’re just getting launched on Amazon, your store is beginning to gain traction. What should you be paying attention to as you’re looking to really establish a presence?
Well, there are a lot of factors as it pertains to launching on Amazon in particular, and it’s more competitive than ever, but there’s also more shoppers than there’s ever been on Amazon as well. So plenty of brands have launched recently and had a good success. I can say that it is possible.
But you do it; there’s a few different factors here. One is ranking in organic search where Amazon has an algorithm based on dozens of factors around product availability, conversion rate, how much have recently a product have sold, the volume of the products that have sold. So there’s the organic ranking of your products.
And then there is also paid search as well, which you can use to push your products to the top of search results and be seen there without a whole lot of sales history. And if you look at, if you do a search on Amazon for, let’s say, a one bottle opener, then you can actually see that a good 80+% of the real estate on that page is taken up by sponsored listings, editorial recommendations; Amazon’s own selection of products. And only 10-20% of the real estate on that page is from organic ranked products of their own accord.
So it’s very challenging to rely purely on organic placement on Amazon. You really need to come in with a great strategy with paid advertising, bringing customers from other channels over to your Amazon list, if you have a mailing list or you have a strong social following already. That’s essential and you need to be ticking all of the Amazon optimization boxes with great product content, keyword optimization, making sure that your products are eligible for prime.
So there’s a big, long to-do-list of stuff that you need to have been in place in order to get on to page one of Amazon, which is the holy grail.
So we’re seeing more and more of our clients selling on some of the other platforms like Walmart and Shopify. Are these channels viable competitors to Amazon?
Absolutely. And I think particularly, I’d split this out into a question of your own channel, which is something that Shopify can help with. This is your real estate, that’s your domain there, your customers; you can market to them, you can retarget them. That’s your own real estate and that Shopify is just blowing everyone else out of the water with their tools and ability to help brands get set up easily and without friction.
Walmart is another marketplace just like Amazon. They’ve got their own system. But just like Amazon, you’re behold into all of their rules and Amazon shoppers is an Amazon customer. They’re not your customer, you’re not allowed to remarket to them and you don’t have a relationship with them at the end of the day. Similar to Walmart as well; it’s a Walmart customer and you’re just selling to them.
That’s sort of the philosophical difference between the two. But there’s some interesting research that came out this week that shows that less customers are purchasing on Amazon less frequently and there’s less prime numbers than there were a year ago. And those customers have actually moved over to Walmart.
So this is just one study. It’s the first study that has come to this conclusion. So I think that we would need to see more evidence before we can conclusively say that Walmart has truly gained ground on Amazon. But anecdotally, from speaking with brands that have launched on both marketplace is Walmart tends to capture about 10% of the revenue that the brand does on their Amazon channel.
Awesome. So, Kiri, I want to switch gears again a little bit. I know that you are a mom and you have a passion for hiring other parents within your business. I want to chat a little bit about personal productivity. What are some of your go-to processes or practices, maybe some tools for being productive and effectively managing your time and energy across all these demands?
Yeah. There’s a recent discovery; well, a semi-recent discovery of this method of this business management methodology called Traction and the Entrepreneurial Operating System and the author is Gino Wickman. And a lot of listeners are probably familiar with this already, but it’s something that I’ve recently really held on to.
And the concept is that if you’re an entrepreneur, you’ve got these special talents around having a vision and thinking in the future and solving problems and listening to the market and you’ve got your own strength if you’re a visionary.
There’s another group of people called integrators and they have different strengths. They can take a mission and break it down into steps. They can manage people. They can keep things on track. They’re process-oriented.
And the whole concept of this operating system is that if you’re a visionary, you must have an integrator. You’re too crazy on your own. You’re like a whirlwind going around, finding new projects and never finishing anything.
And so, I’ve been very fortunate as I said at the beginning of the show to have found my integrator in duly very early on and for that to be a very natural relationship that developed. And we have that dynamic of a true partnership there. And so, I’ve got the same relationship in my e-commerce company as well. I’ve got someone who’s been managing that company full time for a year now and we’ve got that same relationship, too.
And so, I would say, if you’re an entrepreneur listening to this show, whether you’re at a point where you can financially go out and find that integrator, you need to stop thinking about your time and energy and how you’re spending it in that relationship because you’ve got a unique ability. and it’s usually very difficult for a visionary to also be an integrator. It’s almost impossible.
I know that that’s kind of esoteric. It’s not super actionable. It’s not like this is how I write things down in my daily to-do list, but for me, that’s the essential part of focusing my time and energy on the things that I’m uniquely qualified to do versus trying to be the one developing processes and managing people.
There’s a similar concept that I began to research and I was introduced to the author first, Mike Michalowicz through his book, Profit First. And the new book that’s released is called Clockwork and it’s similar in its messaging where each business has what he identifies as a queen bee role.
So there’s one main thing that needs to be achieved within your business and what you need to do is identify those team members that support the queen bee role and protect their ability to do that function at all costs.
So you bring in other people that have skills, but it also presents a structure in a system similar to how traction identifies that EOS, where it says there’s an operating system that should be ingrained in your business and it’s going to allow for those key team members to work on those unique superhero strengths that they bring and also remove them from those tasks that may be pulling them away from that. So just another recommendation and resource for those listening.
I’d love to wrap things up and what we typically do is we ask our guest the following question. So Kiri, what does financial freedom mean to you? So on a scale of 1, being just getting started, to 10, being financially free, how far away do you believe you are today? And let me ask; is this even a goal for you?
Yeah. It’s a really great question. I would say, on the scale, I would be about a 7. And what it means to me is having the time and ability to work on what I want and when and what I want to work on. So like I said, I’ve sort of moved from one project straight on to another, but that’s because it’s exactly what I wanted to do and that means a lot to me.
I don’t think that I’m ever going to want to fully retire and sit on the beach and do nothing. That’s my personal idea of hell. I always want to be working on something, but I do have the freedom to more or less choose what I do spend my time on. So it’s been a goal of mine for some time and I think I’ve more or less achieved it.
It seems like what you found is really purpose and really how I’ve identified that is finding those things that you really take joy in doing, but also that have a positive impact…
On maybe your team or your family or the customers and clients, you’re supporting. So for me, that freedom is really in that alignment where I’m working against in fulfilling my purpose. Well, thanks so much, Kiri, for joining us today on the Bean Ninjas Podcast.
Thank you, Wayne. It was really great talking with you.
You as well. Take care.
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Contact Kiri Masters:
- Bobsled Marketing Website: https://www.bobsledmarketing.com
- Jake’s free guide on How to generate leads on Linkedin
- Content Allies: https://contentallies.com
References and Links Mentioned:
Read more from Kiri about Amazon amidst the Covid19 Crisis:
To understand more about the current challenges and opportunities in the market, read Kiri’s weekly updates on Forbes here.