Don’t miss an episode! Subscribe to Shopify Masters.
How do you define failure?
Shuang: How do you define failure?
David: I don’t actually associate failure to much because I see it as learning. We’ve talked about this earlier in previous episodes, but anytime you do something that doesn’t work, it might be a failure per se, as whatever you define a failure. But I look at it as just an opportunity to learn something new and do something different. I don’t see it as something that brings me down. I see it as something that I want to change and try something new with.
Shuang: I also think it’s just a moment in time. You’re at a period where something didn’t work out, but there are things you can try to move out of that period.
David: And if you think about failures in some ways, something could be a failure right now, but two years from now, it could be a huge success, exact same thing, product, whatever it is, just because of the timing. So that’s why failure for me is more about learning and doing something different or in a different way.
Shuang: Looking back in the early days, what were some of those moments where you were in a bind, but you did learn a lot from them?
David: Probably the earliest failure moments were around packaging and branding. We learned quickly. One thing is, we called our products, Bush Oil, which didn’t resonate and people thought this is strange, that’s an odd product. That was a quick learning lesson. We quickly failed there. The other thing we realized is, although we’re trying to really destigmatize people talking about ingrown hairs, razor burn, different products, five years ago, we used branded packaging tape on our boxes and people really hated it because they didn’t want a package with Bushbalm coming to their place of work or house or whatever it is. That was a quick failure, that we stopped using that custom packaging tape. I’ve probably got 10 miles of it sitting at our office right now. We learned quickly that packaging is pretty important and if you screw it up, it’s also a big investment because it’s thousands of bottles, boxes. It’s a lot more than you think if you screw that up.
Shuang: What’s your personal take on launch versus perfectionism?
David: As far as perfectionism, I think there are two elements that come up a lot. The one side is on the product. We’ve had some big failures around even how people use the product. So doing kind of your own QA (quality assurance) or usability testing of how would you use this? For us, a failure was our bottles. They were a shaker at the time. Not enough oil came out, so people didn’t enjoy using it because it wasn’t efficient for them, quick learning lesson. The other was one time we had caps that didn’t tighten enough and they’re metal, so they leaked in transit, quick learning lesson. We had to change everything.
The other side is the perfectionism on the website and design and how it looks. A lesson I learned early on, which was frustrating, was a lot of what I did on the website. I’m tinkering, I’m changing the colors, the images, I’m trying to make this look better, I’m putting this here, I’m doing that. None of it almost mattered, because none of it was tested and I wanted to see if this worked and then I’d wait, and then it would work or wouldn’t, I didn’t have enough data. If you’re the person who’s tinkering with your website and tinkering with your Shopify store and trying to make it look perfect, that’s almost too much of your time wasted. It’s really easy to do. I think almost everyone falls into the trap of trying to make it perfect.
Whereas, if you can get to market and get feedback and traffic, then you can see what people are doing. You can see what people are saying. You can ask customers what did they like about the site? What didn’t they? Then you can change things in a better way. You’ll have a list of what are my table stakes? You probably want to have reviews, because those are important, good product photography, good descriptions, homepage with whatever’s on it. But if you’re tinkering on a lot, that perfectionism, it probably, in the long run, isn’t going to benefit your store, especially in the early days. Later on, you can test and do AB tests and see, but in the early days, you really got to get to market and see the reaction.
Hedge your bets while taking risks
Shuang: Sometimes taking a big swing, there’s a lot of risks involved. Have there been some decisions or some bets that you’ve taken that could potentially have led to failure, but you went ahead with it anyways and tested something new?
David: The biggest risk we ever took was we spent, it was $100,000 of personal income into Bushbalm when we really were on the fence about success potential. That $100,000 was almost more than all the inventory we sold before. We took this bet and risk on the company and we bought the packaging that was absolutely beautiful. It was incredible and at the time looking back, I think it was totally worth it. It launched us to where we are today. But even on the packaging that we went with, some of it was a total failure, but you can’t look back and say it was a failure. We had rigid packaging. The packaging we used wasn’t as environmentally friendly as we want our packaging to be now. We weren’t even thinking about that as much back then. Now we’re like, oh my gosh, I can’t believe we used packaging that had foam inserts. That’s not very good for the environment. Whereas now, we’re like, that’s a huge failure on our part and we’ve changed. It’s constantly a battle of should we invest this big amount here? Or should we invest it over here? And you kind of have to take these risks, accepting the consequences of maybe it’s a huge success or maybe it’s a total failure of a launch or whatever it is. You have to be okay with that as long as your business can handle it.
Shuang: That’s quite a lot of savings to invest and take a risk on. What about the balance between your personal life, personal finances, and the risk that you’re taking with that and investing in the business?
David: It is a big risk, for sure. For us, we hedged our risk. I’ve told people this before, but its not a saying like Mark Zuckerberg, but Mark Zuckerberg, he didn’t just drop out of Harvard. He deferred his status. He could have totally dropped out and been a huge success obviously, but he deferred his risk. For us, we deferred our risk by keeping our full-time jobs for quite a while. We ran the business, we grew it, we tried to do things, and that for us was a good way to defer the risk and the failure potential and the impact it could have. The problem with that risk, for us, is you’re working so hard and so much that your personal life and your social life and your friends and family, you put them at risk of not spending time with you and not giving them enough that they need. It’s a balance of what are you risking versus what are you getting back? And are you willing to take that risk or are there ways you can hedge your own bets? That way if you fail, it’s not the end of the world for you as an individual or as a business.
Shuang: I think sometimes, whether it’s traditional media or social media, it really glamorizes risk taking. I love the fact that you guys had years where you were working full time and building this on the side. It was only when you cross at seven figures were you guys considering, okay, now we can actually do this full-time.
David: Totally. There are lots of books, literature about how some of the most successful people have hedged their own bets. They’ve done things where you’d expect them to be riskier and they’re very risky founders, entrepreneurs are so risky. But what you see is, a lot of people will hedge their bet on what they’re doing, so they have options and they can move back into something else or they have these things available. That’s one reason why Bushbalm. We had one full-time employee until we were about roughly two million or three million dollars in revenue and we had one full-time employee and it wasn’t either of the founders. That’s how we hedged our bets in general. We were full-time elsewhere, but we had someone who came in and really took control of the business and brand and we worked with them, It was fantastic. Whereas now, we’ve scaled it and we’ve brought in more people to make it bigger than it can be. The risk of entrepreneurship is glamorized too much in my opinion.
Shuang: For that first employee, that’s also a risk in itself. You’re trusting them with your brand, your business, your finances. How did you go about finding that person and what did they do for you?
David: We were lucky. A friend actually connected us and we weren’t looking to hire. I was actually looking to hire someone to help with sales, which was a very different role than what we hired for. Then a friend connected me and said, “Hey, I think you should chat with Rachel. She might be interested in what you’re doing and could be a really good fit”. I thought, okay, let me do it, so I went, we met. In the early days of a business that’s small and starting up, I’m not posting a job, posting and saying, getting all kinds of people to apply. What I’m doing is, I’m selling the business. I’m saying, “Here’s why it’s a great opportunity. Here’s what you’ll learn, what you’ll develop in, what you’ll do.” It was me really pitching to bring someone on to the business. That’s what it felt like. The role that Rachel came in is, she was our director of marketing and brand, she came in and brought a new life to the business or content or creative or visuals, how we engage with our community. It changed Bushbalm from being this company that I ran, the marketing side and had a bit of help here and there, to a company that really had a brand to it and really had a community of people that liked the brand. That potentially was risky to hire someone but at the same time, I was really comfortable with a referral as a first hire and then someone who also believed in what we were doing and why. That’s, to me, the key is if you’re hiring anyone, they really have to see your mission and care about it because if they don’t, it’s going to be really hard for them to be happy at the company they’re working for.
Essential lessons that only mistakes can teach
Shuang: Has there been a lesson where you had to learn from making a mistake first?
David: There’s one in particular, that’s very specific. One year, I think it was a holiday or black Friday or whatever it was, I sent too many emails in a row and like different times, whatever I sent too many. Then we got into spam filters. I am now the most cautious human being with our marketing team around email marketing and how frequently we send and the engagement of the list and all of these things. I am so not okay with ever going into a spam filter because I learned that lesson the hard way and took a year to get out of that trouble. That’s one really specific lesson that’s helped a lot. I think right now I’m going through some new lessons that I just don’t quite know how to navigate, not to say I’m failing, but it’s like, how do I get to the next level of the business, now that we’re at this size. There’re areas where I’m like, I’m about to experience a lesson in something. I just don’t know what it is, but I’ll obviously learn from it. I just know now that we’re at this new scale, a new size, something is going to really hit me in the face that’s going to change my perspective and I’m just looking out for it and waiting for that to happen to me.
Shuang: I feel like you are probably the calmest person I’ve heard about awaiting this lesson to come.
David: In general, what I’ve realized with Bushbalm is, everything’s going to go wrong at some point, everything. You just have to be okay with figuring it out as it comes along. Because if you’re always worried, you’re going to be worried and not thinking about the things you could do if something does happen, per se.
Bushbalm’s biggest failure to date and how they solved it
Shuang: I do think entrepreneurs are built with an extra boost of optimism, even in really tough moments. They still feel like there’s plan B or D ahead. Has there been some tough moments and is there a really tough moment where you actually did question the future of the business?
David: Probably the worst one, which is now looking back, I’m like, oh, it wasn’t that big of a deal. We got new bottles and it was in the early days, and we didn’t ship orders. It was probably a week or 10 days. At this time we had some wholesale accounts and we’re growing a little bit and the lids were the thing, they were metal, but we got new ones and we thought, okay, they won’t leak, some had leaked before. We held probably 65 orders at the time. Then I shipped them all at once and I was so happy about the new lids, they weren’t going to leak. Then every order leaked. I got an email and a call and messages for two, three days of everyone who got those orders and they complained, they were pissed, they were mad, and I thought, oh, I don’t think this is going to work out. I thought this is the end of this business. I just can’t do it anymore. This is so difficult because first off, we had before that, some leaks, but it was very small, rarely happened, but it did.
Next, I was trying to solve the problem and it happened to just make it entirely worse. Then I thought, oh gosh, I don’t think I can handle it. Also, I didn’t even know what to do to solve it. We just ordered 10,000 bottles, our biggest order of all time and every single bottle is going to leak, every 10,000. I thought, what do we do? How do we solve this? What’s going to work? In the end, we did solve it. It was totally fine. Imagine the solution is, we had to order 10,000 more of the inserts for the cap and apply it. So 10,000 lids, we had to apply those things to, minus those 65 orders. That was the solution. We had to put a slightly thicker insert into the cap. At the time, it was a Friday night, I’m like, this is the worst thing ever. I don’t know what to do. I can’t solve it right now. You just feel hopeless in the moment.
Shuang: How did you guys eventually reach that resolution of just needing an insert?
David: It was just figuring out, over a week of trying and testing and putting the lids on with deeper inserts and doubling up the inserts we had, just to see, and putting it upside down and shape. We tried to do as much as we could. In the end, we saw, oh, you can see the imprint in the compression and that’s the key, is the compression. Then we realized, okay, this is how it’s going to work. Here’s how we can do it, this is fine. It took a while to even know, is this going to work? Is this not going to work? Now the thing I realized is that at that time I was failing completely. I thought this is horrible. I have no idea what to do. This is such a silly thing, how can I not solve this? What I didn’t realize is now in the industry, skincare, cosmetics, oils, creams, different things. One of the biggest struggles for many manufacturers, companies, and people like us is leaking. Leaking is probably one of the biggest, most common things that everyone experiences. For me, I didn’t even know that was a problem that people usually have. Now looking back, the number one issue we’re probably going to face, we faced it. I thought it was the most hopeless moment in the business.
Key areas of focus to avoid possible mistakes
Shuang: If you were able to give a few areas of extra attention, what are some areas that you would recommend new business owners to focus on that could potentially be risky, but if they paid extra attention, that might help them alleviate those mistakes?
David: We’ve talked a lot about product, so perhaps we’ll ignore that and maybe go more on the marketing side. One thing that I’ve learned a lot of lessons on is ensuring to be really diligent about links and copy because say you’re running Facebook ads to a certain thing and a link isn’t working properly and it’s going somewhere else. That’s a huge risk to the business and you’re going to lose lots of money doing that. That’s the lesson I’ve learned is really be diligent about the destination of each link. A good example is, say you change a page, delete a page, make sure to do your 404 or redirect. Make sure it redirects to a new page that’s appropriate because of these little linking issues, if you change your Shopify homepage and you forget to put a link in the button, shop now, people can’t click that shop now and then they probably will leave. These little details on site for marketing, make a big difference all the way through. You could have something be an issue for a year and not notice it. If that’s the case, it’s your conversion rate might be 2% when it could be 3% It’s a big, big difference.
Shuang: Aspects of handling failures or mistakes, I think a lot of the times it also comes back to your mental wellbeing and just your overall attitude towards handling different situations. Throughout the years, what have you done that has really helped you to be balanced and to have a good mental state going into the day and handle any different issues that might pop up?
David: For me, the balance is excitement around what we’re doing and what I’m doing. You have that and then you also have things you do. For me, golf was an excellent way to get away, or running or getting a hobby that shuts me off from the world of business, marketing, and growth and what we’re doing at Bushbalm. Having those separations is really helpful. Learning how to put the phone down, which at times is really hard. But also, people say work-life balance or whatever. For me, I don’t really want to work less. I actually get a lot of enjoyment from working because I’m doing something new I’ve never done before. I’m really excited about it. For me, that’s kind of a hobby. I see it that way where I’m like, no, I’m working on a Saturday, not because I need to get away, but because I’m actually really enjoying this and I really want to do it. Some people read a book to learn or get excited. I try a new tool because I’m interested in marketing and this is a cool new thing that’s trending in the industry. That’s how I look at it, but definitely, there needs to be a side where you relax and you do things to clear your head and try to think differently about the business. Because if you aren’t doing those, it’s going to be really hard to be really tied up in exactly what you’re doing every single day and you’re not going to get the bigger picture by stepping away for a day or two, or even a couple of hours.