Leili Farzaneh and Kevin White’s cat dislikes wearing collars and went missing one day. When they finally found their cat, Leili and Kevin looked into why cat collars were so uncomfortable and discovered they were designed with dogs in mind. The duo started Supakit to design their own cat accessories. In this episode of Shopify Masters, Leili and Kevin share their process of product development and how they expanded their business with an online course.
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How these founders stumbled across their winning business idea
Felix: The birth of this idea really came out of a scary time for you. Tell us more about what happened.
Leili: It was a real nightmare. A strange way to start a business. We have a cat called Lola, and she was quite young at the time. We live in London and it’s fairly normal to let your cat have access to the outdoors, at least for certain parts of the day. We’d let her go out and about, but one day she didn’t come home. We were really worried about her, not just because we were concerned about her whereabouts, but she didn’t have a collar. She had removed every single one that we tried to put on her. We were burning through cash. It was getting so frustrating that we gave up. When she went missing, we knew that we’d messed up. She had no collar on, she had no ID, and she was just roaming the streets. We were distraught cat parents.
Kevin: Luckily, we did get her back. Through a local group we put a message out, and we got her back. We promised to try harder. We were like, we have to make it our mission to get her to wear a collar, and to keep it on.
Leili: It was really serendipitous at this time. Our two cats were fighting quite a bit, and we’d been in touch with our veterinarian about ways that we could help them More specifically to help our more active cat expend her hunting energies in play, and not towards her sister. The vet had recommended that we try to find natural materials and create homemade toys out of them, for Lola to play with. I had loads of scraps of leather and other materials lying around, so we just started experimenting.
Our big breakthrough was when we realized that A, it’s not a dead set that cats are going to remove their collars. They don’t have to be intrinsically uncomfortable. They also don’t have to intrinsically be bulky in a way that can snag on things. We knew we wanted to put a safety buckle in. That’s the tricky thing, is it should spring open in an emergency scenario.
When we started using natural materials, we found that our cat was just so much more comfortable in them, because scent is a really important sensory modality for cats. Then, we also started working with materials that were really lightweight and slim lined, so that we could create a collar that didn’t have a profile on our cat’s neck, so they forgot it was there, and it couldn’t get snagged.
Kevin: The leather just seemed to come together. We had to make it strong enough, but also light and flexible enough so that the material wouldn’t aggravate the sensation that a cat has against its fur. It’s so important, we hadn’t considered it enough. When we found that leather stayed on, we were like, that’s great we’ll make a collar out of leather then.
Leili: We knew we kept our one tricky customer happy. She was tricky. That was how it all started. Then, we found that other cats were just as fussy about their collars, and it went from there.
Kevin: We realized it when we researched, “how do you get your cat to keep their collar on?” and realized that loads of people had the same problem, and that collars were almost considered semi-disposable, in that you’d buy a pack of five from Amazon, and you’d get through them in a certain amount of time. Then you’d just go and buy another one. We thought, that doesn’t seem to make sense. They’re obviously not happy.
Why don’t we make a collar that makes them happy?
Felix: When you first started developing the product, it was just for yourself. How did it evolve into a business?
Kevin: We weren’t really planning on it becoming a business. We had been looking for an alternative business for the two of us for quite some time. We both worked in TV before this. Leili was a producer and I was a cameraman. On the back burner we’d always thought, wouldn’t it be nice if we could do something ourselves? We always wanted to have our own business and work together. We tried a few different things, and they hadn’t really worked out.
Leili: One of our early abandoned ideas was an ice lolly business in London, which obviously does not have doesn’t have great weather. We were quite good at abandoning less good ideas quickly.
Kevin: We tried stuff and abandoned it. We did some of our own TV production, small commercial stuff for the internet, which didn’t really tick the box. After working on quite high-end stuff, we didn’t get much satisfaction from that. It wasn’t what we wanted to carry on doing. This came at a nice point, and Leili realized that there was a market here. There’s a lot of people who are in the same position as us. It’s a good product. It works. Let’s make them and see if they sell and would work for other people. That’s how we started, in a very small way, while we were still working on TV. As a sideline and a little hobby, making them ourselves and selling them.
Supakit used community feedback to validate their business idea
Felix: What was it about Supakit that kept you motivated and dedicated?
Leili: It was a combination of factors. The feedback from our very early customers who are so dear to us, who are still customers and part of our community today. They really took a leap of faith.
Kevin: It was important for us to run the business that we wanted. It had to be our business, in our own image, if you know what I mean. It had to be something that we were proud of. We wanted to deliver a product that people really liked. The purpose wasn’t just to have a business to make money–although it has to work–it was to do something that made us happy, that made other people happy, and that served a purpose. This ticked a lot of boxes, and we realized that people actually really wanted this. There was a need for it, it worked, and it made us happy. It made the customers happy, and the cats happy. It sold. It made money, which made the business work. It ticks a lot of boxes for us.
Leili: In the really early days, we would get reviews from customers and we’d pinch ourselves, like, did we tell them to say that? They would say things like, “I got this collar and it’s amazing. It stayed on.”
We seeded those thoughts in their brain. We really realized that other people were having the same experience as us. That realization, coupled with curiosity in terms of finding out how far we could push this, “Can we cure this problem for more cats?” Really fueled us in those early days. It wasn’t really a business–it was a hobby–more than anything. That definitely got us over the first hurdles.
Kevin: Realizing that there was also a delivery system to the market, in that it was a worldwide issue, as in cats are universal, and it’s a universal problem. The product could be shipped across the world easily in that, there was a big enough market of people, if you looked at it in a worldwide way. We were only very small, but even in the beginning, we were shipping collars all over the place.
Felix: You mentioned that a big motivating factor behind the business was that it made you happy. How do you keep that core value top of mind when evaluating your next steps?
Leili: It’s something we think about all the time. We always remind ourselves that that was our founding principle, and we try to implement it in every aspect of the business. In customer service, you could probably approach that in a few ways. There would be a profit or financially-driven approach, where you work out in the intersecting lines of customer satisfaction and return on investment, customer service and refunds, where the perfect sweet spot is. Our priority is to make people happy. That’s how we’d want to be treated. We design our customer service protocols to achieve customer happiness, not the optimal financial resolution for a request.
“We design our customer service protocols to achieve customer happiness, not the optimal financial resolution for a request.”
Kevin: We were talking about it earlier. We come up with ideas–lots of ideas–and we’ve got short attention spans. There are thousands of ideas that you come up with, and lots of things you can do. Often, we think, let’s not do that. It’s overstretching ourselves. Is that really delivering anything better for the customer? Then you’ll go, no, not really. If it’s not, then why do it? We do limit our decisions quite often.
Leili: Even on a selfish level, we limit the scope of our product range. For example, there are other products that we could offer for cats, but they’re not things we use ourselves. They’re not things that we could advocate for with the same passion as we do our existing products. We just don’t stock them or design them because it wouldn’t come from the heart. That would come from a budgetary decision. It weaves through everything.
Kevin: Yeah. We dabbled with selling other people’s stuff, didn’t we? We thought we could do with trying to get some more revenue in, so maybe we should just stock other products that we like? That didn’t sit well with us, because it wasn’t ours. We weren’t doing anything better than anybody else. It was just another product. Then, to make that profitable, you had to cut corners and skin it all down to make it work. That just didn’t seem right. We abandoned that, and stuck to what we do.
Leili: When we first started Supakit throughout the genesis of our products, we never set out to be a luxury brand. That’s where we sit at the moment, but that was very much born from coming to the point where we sat down with a manufacturer, and we had the choice of creating something amazing or something that was good enough. There’s loads of points where an accountant would say, we should have made choices for the cheaper material, the faster process. As cat owners and lovers, we made a decision we’d want for our own pet. The result of that is our products are expensive. It also means they last a long time. There’s an alternative business model where we made the opposite decision and probably would sell a lot more volume, with a higher turnover, but it’s got to be the decision that’s right for us.
Kevin: That comes with the people that we outsource to. We have a manufacturer now, we don’t make them ourselves anymore. Our manufacturer makes them far better than we ever did. They’re amazing. We have a really good relationship with them. We probably could have had it made cheaper somewhere else, but I don’t think their heart would’ve been in it in the same way. It’s worth it to us, to keep that manufacturer and that quality really high. Same thing with our fulfillment.
We haven’t got a great deal of control over it, because they’re a large company and they do it their way. We supplement that ourselves, to give the customer a better experience, so that there aren’t really any quibbles. If anything’s wrong, we fix it. That costs money, but it’s worth it, because the customer gets better service. That’s something we have to add on top of the basic service that a 3PL can give you.
Leili: Essentially we design the service or product that we think we could be proud of. Then the price is set around that, but it’s secondary to the initial development.
Felix: Do you have mechanisms in place to ensure that you’re keeping both your happiness and your customers’ happiness at the forefront?
Leili: We oversee all of the business. We’re constantly asking these questions. It’s something we instill in our team as well. We give them a manifesto which explains our core principles with the view that they’ll bake them into their decision making as well. We’re not perfect. We don’t always get it right, but we do know when we’ve got it wrong. We know when it doesn’t feel right. We are receptive to those gut feelings when we have them, and not resistant to changing our course.
Kevin: We’re pretty flexible. We’re ready to make a change quite quickly if something’s not working.
Learning to embrace new ideas by letting go of your pride
Felix: What is your thought process for evaluating whether to stick with something, pull back, or change direction?
Kevin: We’re happy to have lots of ideas, and we’re very happy to let those ideas go. There’s no pride in it. You don’t become proud of your idea and then stick to it belligerently in the name of proving that you’re right. Sometimes, an idea comes, and it’s a good idea, and you try it and it just doesn’t work for us. It’s a nice idea for somebody else. We have that a lot.
We always come up with things and go, “should we do that?” We go, yeah, that’s good, probably for somebody else but maybe not for us. Then we’ll just write it off. One of us will come up with an idea then we’ll cross examine it. If it’s not going to work then we’ll move on. You don’t have to be too proud of your ideas.
Leili: I think that comes partially from our television backgrounds, and that we worked in creative industries, where your ideas would be shut down all day. That’s the process. Not all of them, but you would get quite used to pitching things or suggesting ideas, and then immediately emotionally divorcing yourself from them. If you went home hurt at the end of every day, where your ideas have been shut down, you wouldn’t last a week. You develop quite a thick skin. I think that’s been useful to us.
Kevin: Then you’re ready to come up with a new idea. You go, “hey, try this for size, and you try on, yeah, it didn’t work. Okay, let’s try something else.” That’s how good ideas come, by being brave enough to be able to vocalize them, think them through and then go, this isn’t going to work, and you move on. It’s finding those diamonds in the rough. Then you have to be quite picky and go, yeah, that’s got something. When we both agree on something, we try it out a little bit further.
Felix: There’s also this trust that you need to have in yourself, that you’ll come up with more ideas.
Kevin: The pot overflows. It’s constantly flowing. It’s an inexhaustible supply of new ideas, and there’ll always be new ideas.
Leili: It sometimes feels like a tsunami of ideas, and you’re just trying to keep your head above water. It’s important not just to generate lots of ideas, but also to iterate on them. I drive our team crazy, but I’m always saying, “I just need to let that idea percolate for a bit longer.” What that really means is, it just needs to swim around my brain while I go for runs, walks, and see friends. It’s brewing away while we’re having conversations. That iterative process where the initial germ of an idea becomes something richer and deeper, and more important and intrinsic to the business, is an important process.
“That iterative process where the initial germ of an idea becomes something richer and deeper, and more important and intrinsic to the business, is an important process.”
Felix: It sounds like there’s a sort of trial phase to let an idea take shape and see if it’s going to work out.
Kevin: That idea ferments over time, and develops into something that takes a different form from what it started. By giving it the time to grow, it turns into something different, but it never would’ve happened unless you let the germ of an idea expand a little bit. We were saying earlier that the things you don’t do are equally as important as the things that you do do. When we worked in TV people would talk about framing up shots. I always said to the people who would ask, “how do you frame up a nice shot?” I’d go, “exclude everything you don’t want in there. Then you’re left with something pretty good.” If you think about what’s good, you usually look at what isn’t good? What you don’t like is as important as what you do like. What you leave out of the frame is more important sometimes than what you put in it. It’s the same for us, what we don’t do is more important than what we do sometimes.
Leili: We’re so small. We have four people in the team, and we don’t have huge aspirations to have 200 team members. We have to be really selective. Our business manager, Becky, is always saying, we don’t want to be busy idiots. You don’t want to just go around doing something for the sake of doing it. It’s got to be a coherent journey in a set direction, with the option to change direction if it’s not working out. We have to be so selective.
Felix: It’s also not just about being selective about what you’re working on but also leaving a margin or boundary to excel at what you are working on.
Leili: We’ve cracked it. We have tried to build breathing time into our year. For us, August is not a busy month for sales. We try to encourage the team to take their foot off the gas in August, and not start new projects, but finish off things from earlier in the year, such as little bits of administration that don’t get done when we’re all planning our next big launch or whatever.
Kevin: Tidy up at the end of the year, and then September is back to school. Going into Q4 it’s all busy, busy. We make rules that we sometimes break, but we’re not going to make any big, major decisions or do anything big until the new year or February. That’s when we’ll do something new. We learned the hard way not to rush at the last minute–it was a pretty spectacular failure and we spent a lot of energy and money driving something forward that essentially failed and lost us money and time. If we had concentrated on what we already had, we would’ve done better. This year, we’ve learned from that. We’ve put a line in the sand and said, nothing new until spring. No more big ideas, as far as products go, or major changes to products. We’ll concentrate for the next few months on getting the business in good shape. Keeping it on track, building it up and driving it forward with what we’ve got.
How to set and maintain boundaries to keep your core values the priority
Felix: What have you learned about how to maintain and enforce those boundaries?
Leili: That is very apt. It did sneak through, because we got overexcited and we broke our own rules. We just say no a lot. That is the reality of it. It’s really hard to do.
Kevin: It’s funny what you said actually, about other people wanting you to do more. There’s a lot of people in this business world that we’ve found who want us to grow. Too quickly, and to be too big, too fast. For us, that’s not the goal. I know it doesn’t sound particularly great for business, but it’s not the goal. You could be pushed into doing more than you really want to. The problem with that is, it pushes the business out of the shape that you want it to be, from outside influences.
We’ve found that where there’s offers of funding, or investment or financial help from governments, you’re definitely enticed. Then you look at it and you go, “do we really want to do it?” It’s nice to have extra money but if it’s not actually the direction we want the business to go into, then why would we do it?
Leili: We spend a lot of time imagining the future of Supakit, and wondering if we would want to work there. That’s our temperature check.
Felix: How do you make sure you’re concentrating on what you already have, rather than constantly jumping to the next thing? How has this approach affected the business?
Kevin: The reason we got excited is we were looking for the next thing. You say, “okay, we’ve done that, what’s next? What else? How do we build up our repertoire of products?” Without realizing that the products that we were selling have nowhere near maxed out. We sell worldwide, we thought, “right, the way to build this up is to have extra products to sell to the people that have already bought something from us. Our products are really well made.” They last a really long time, and they don’t get lost very often, which means people aren’t coming back and buying collars every week. The harnesses last a long time.
We thought we needed to have new products, or develop new things for those people to buy. We didn’t fully realize the potential market was much greater than we were selling to. That’s where we changed direction. We said, let’s concentrate our efforts into spreading ourselves out across a wider market–and selling to more people–rather than making more products and selling to the same people. That’s where the shift went.
Leili: It’s worth mentioning that we have also existed at quite an interesting time in our niche. We’ve talked about how collars came about, but we also sell harnesses, which were a straight up request from our community. It was such a niche community–mostly in America, in California, and a little bit in Australia. We didn’t necessarily create it, or create it, but we have grown with that market. Walking with cats on harnesses is a much bigger phenomenon now than it was three years ago, when we developed the harness.
We’ve been given a bigger playground for that product, which we had by no means fully exploited. When we developed our harnesses, we felt like it probably wasn’t going to be a very big market. We need to develop something else. Fast forward two, three years, and we had this moment where we were on a super niche private Facebook group for people who go exploring with their cats. We were looking at the photos, and we expected to see a lot of our harnesses. We didn’t. We were like, “oh my God, there’s all these cats out there, and they’re not wearing our harness.” We were gutted and thrilled at the same time that the market had suddenly just blossomed, and that there was this whole new group of people to talk to. That also shaped quite a bit of our decision making.
“You don’t know how many people you’re not speaking to, and it’s hard to get a temperature check on that. It was really eye-opening seeing that the whole market had blossomed while we had had other things on.”
Kevin: We realized that it’s a much bigger world than we thought it was, and that it is slightly arrogant of us to think that we’ve exploited all there was to exploit.
Leili: When you are engaged in ecommerce, you speak to your customers and you probably speak to people on social media, by email, and any other way that you can, but there’s an echo chamber effect. You don’t know how many people you’re not speaking to, and it’s hard to get a temperature check on that. It was really eye-opening seeing that the whole market had blossomed while we had had other things on.
Kevin: That’s what we’ve been concentrating on. That’s what we’re concentrating on moving forward. It’s not developing new products, but developing and expanding within these new markets, to find out how we get in touch with these people and talk to them. Like Leili says, it’s a bit of an echo chamber. The internet only bounces back off what you hit. You only get feedback off of what you’re hitting. You don’t know what else you’re not hitting. You have to go out there and search for new places. That’s what we’re doing now. It’s a good move.
Deepening consumer relations vs. expanding to new audiences
Felix: Tell us about the decision making process behind deciding between adding more products for your existing customer base, and expanding your customer base to purchase your existing products.
Leili: One thing that we recognized in the early days of offering a cat harness that you use to walk your cat, is that we developed a product where it is not sufficient to simply put it on your cat and then walk your cat–who maybe has never been outside before–out of the front door. There is a huge amount of training that has to go in. The early customers we attracted were already harness training their cats. They were tapped into blogs and forums and community leaders. They were getting this information themselves. They’ve trained their cat and used another harness before us. They had the headaches that other people have experienced, and they came to us. We had creamed off the very easiest customers who were just looking for the physical product.
As we’ve expanded our reach, we’re now attracting customers who are curious about whether they could take their cat outside, and it’s no longer sufficient to simply offer the physical product. For two years we’ve offered enhanced customer support around the process of harness training. In the last year we’ve actually taken that to the next level, and created a course that we sell through the Shopify platform. We went back to our old TV roots and we recorded a full, interactive training course video so that people can train their cats at home, put the harness on them and have success. That journey of going from having the easiest customers in the world, then going through the pain period of having to do huge amounts of education, and undoing some bad training, to being able to formalize a product, has been a really nice process for us.
Felix: When you’re building out what you want your customer support to look like, when does the education offering become the most valuable? Is it before they buy, or after?
Kevin: It’s all the way through. At the beginning, one of the most important things that we found was getting the correct fit for your cat. Cats are all different shapes and sizes. We make a harness that’s very adaptable across three different sizes. Making that choice is really important. We worked hard on that, because we found that people were either not having success because the harness was a bad fit–which is pretty key to a cat not being comfortable in it–but also, then you get a lot of returns as well. People would be returning the product, and trying a different size. This was a key component that we put a lot of energy into before purchase, to educate people as to why it needed to be the right fit. It’s not just, “oh, my cat’s medium, I’ll get a medium.” You really do have to measure your cat in different dimensions, and work out which harness you need.
Leili: We try to manage people’s expectations before they buy the harness–which seems a bit counterintuitive, because it’s a little bit of a downer. We do a lot of work to explain to people that you can’t just pop your cat in a harness and walk out the door, that you will have to train them. It’s not like it looks on Instagram. It sets people up for success down the line. If they hear all of that and they really want to go for it, then it’s the perfect fertile ground for success. We deliver some of that up front, so that people know what they’re getting into.
Kevin: Then post-purchase, we follow that up with quite a lot of detail on how to put your cat into the harness, and what to expect. It can be quite different when you put a cat into a harness for the first time. They tend to drop to the ground quite quickly, because it’s unusual for them. When they do start to move, they start to do these really unusual walks. A lot of people would take a harness straight off again and think, you can’t do that, they don’t like it. Then you realize that it’s just like anything. If you start to learn to do something new, you’re not very good at it at first, and then you get better and better.
Leili: We take people through that process of a gradual introduction. We do that in email, and then we have video content that breaks out from the email. There’s also instructions along with the course, about doing everything at your cat’s pace, and doing a phased instruction. We’ve come up with whole phrases for things that didn’t really exist before. We invented the concept of a safe leash position to try and get people to understand how to hold the leash when they’re walking with their cat. That’s all unpacked in email sequences and printed materials with the harness.
How to use digital content to generate sales and expand the product line
Felix: How do you make sure that you’re guiding your customer toward the right products and setting them up to have the right expectations?
Leili: We start that right at the beginning. Very often people come to us through social media. We work hard to show the reality of training. If you look at our Instagram, you’ll see cats on mountains, but we also celebrate cats who sit on their balcony, in their back garden, or on their back doorstep. We try to manage people’s expectations about what their cat will and won’t achieve. We’ve got videos that just say it straight out–your cat might be the next canyon adventurer, but they might just want to sit on the back doorstep, and either is cool. If people think “no, that’s not cool with me,” then they probably won’t end up being our customers. If they think “I want what’s best for my cat, and if that’s what my cat is happy with, then that’s fine by me.” Those are the people that our message resonates with, and they end up becoming our customers.
Kevin: We put a lot of stuff on the product page as well to really get home the idea that the choice of size you buy is an important choice. We’ve built that into the process and messaging. We started off being subtle, and now we’re not subtle in the slightest. Now, we realize that the stronger that messaging is, the happier the customer is, because they want a good result. They don’t want to return a product and buy another one, they want to get it right the first time. At the beginning, we were too subtle thinking, we don’t want to preach to people, we don’t want to keep hammering on with this. Now, we do. Every opportunity we get, we’ll make sure that people have considered it before they check out.
Felix: At what point did you realize filming and introducing the course would be a great value add for the business?
Leili: It came through customer service. We discovered people asking for help with introductions. We would get an overwhelming amount of messages like, “I put the harness on my cat, but they don’t like it–what do I do now?” We would be providing advice. We built blog posts around introducing the harness. We also realized that we needed to level up our skills to be able to provide this advice. I went off and did a course in feline behavior. My original degree was in biology. We’d developed a lot of on-the-job experience, but I wanted the course to be built into the bedrock of very rigorous scientific principles. We started offering this customer advice, but we realized we were doing it only for the customers who would reach out to customer service. They would get an amazing experience, sometimes for weeks on end, with advice and feedback, and look at pictures or videos. We felt like it was a shame that not everyone could have that level of service.
Kevin: You know that for every person that gets in touch with customer service, there’s probably three or four that haven’t bothered, and that didn’t feel like they could ask. It would be great to enrich those customers as much as the ones that reach out. We were also doing it piecemeal, which is not very effective or efficient. You’re delivering a small piece of information here, and a small piece of information there, but they didn’t necessarily tie up. You’re fighting fires, as opposed to creating a fire break. We wanted to create something that was a bit more of a holistic approach, right from the beginning through to the end, to tie up all these little nuggets of information. We started making small videos and bits of information that we put together in charts. We said, let’s put it all together in one strong course.
Felix: What was the process behind creating the course?
Leili: It was quite a lot of work. It felt great to do, but it’s quite a detailed course. It has six modules, and we debated a lot about it. It includes two skills that are not directly related to harness training, which is recall training your cat, and then getting them happy in a safe space, like a carrier or a backpack, before you even start harness training. People can interlace the training and do it all at the same time.
It means that by the time we’re sending our cat graduates across the threshold–out on their first trip outside–they’ve got all of the range of skills they need to have a rewarding, safe, and fun experience.
It’s really fundamental training. We built it through a convergence of two things. One was the animal behavior processes of counterconditioning and desensitization to the harness, so that your cat will build positive associations of the harness. Then we also pulled in every question we ever got through our customer service, so that we were targeting the real-world questions that wouldn’t otherwise get covered. It was a bit of a pincer maneuver.
Kevin: The main thing is that it’s quite a long course, and there’s a lot of content in it. It moves slowly, which is the way that you have to move when you’re training any animal. It’s small increments. If you rush it–if you go too fast, and you miss it–then they fall off the wayside. It’s a very small, tight detail all the way through, which makes it quite a heavy course. There’s lots in it, but it’s not difficult. We kept working on it and working on it, and making it more and more detailed.
Leili: It grew out of our experiences in customer service. We were aware that there are principles that, if you apply them to this question, will give you the right answer. If you learn how to read a cat’s body language, you’ll know when they’re happy and when they’re not, so you’ll know how your training is going. We were doing this behind the scenes, and then we were doing the math and delivering the answer to the customer. Now, the course let’s the customer do the math themselves. They learn to read their own cat, so they know how to proceed.
Using customer support insights as a framework for your digital product
Felix: A big part of building out a digital asset is determining what goes into it. But you’re saying you built the course almost entirely out of the kinds of questions people were asking through your customer service?
Leili: Totally. That’s essentially how the framework of the course was built. The coloring inside is just the behavioral stuff because we’d spent two to three years answering those questions. We had a good grasp on where people got confused, and where people drop off in training.
Kevin: Some people can’t get past a certain point, and they’re going great until they get to this point. They just can’t get past it or the cat will suddenly not want to be in their harness anymore. It was doing fine, why did it suddenly stop? There’s usually a really good reason for that, and it’s quite simple. If you work backwards, you can find it.
Leili: The other thing is that, because cats–like humans–have personalities, they’re very unique, and they have their own life experiences. There are still questions that are not covered, that are specific to one cat’s personal experience. We draw on community meeting places, whether it’s our forum or private Facebook group, so that people can share their experiences of how they trained their three-legged cat with somebody else who’s in that same situation. Our community teaches each other, which is a lovely thing to see.
Caption: Creating an online course turned out to be a complementary offering to Supakit’s products. Supakit
Felix: Is this mostly existing customers that are buying, or are there non-existing customers that bought the harness, who are also buying the course as well?
Leili: What’s been really lovely to see is that people are buying both at the same time, which is ideal, and definitely sets the odds in their favor for the absolute perfect journey with the harness.
Kevin: The harness has been on sale for a few years, before we made the course. We are getting previous customers that have bought the harness, and then have come back and bought the course. We’ve had really good feedback from them. It’s improved their experience with the product, which is great. Going forward, we’re hoping that people buy it at the same time, but I’m sure there’ll be a certain amount of previous customers that will buy.
Felix: How do you build awareness and market a course like this?
Kevin: That’s a work in progress, to be totally honest.
Leili: Our marketing manager built a really strong influencer campaign. It’s how most of our community are getting the idea of walking with their cats, is seeing other people doing it and thinking, “I’d love to try that with my cat.” We rallied the friends of Supakit, who are the influencers that have been instrumental to our company for a very long time, who’re super loyal contributors, and we have a great relationship with them. We set the Bat Signal out to the friends of Supakit, and they posted content around the launch. They were really excited to do so, too.
They were in the same situation we were. People would be reaching out all the time, asking them for advice. In an Instagram DM, they were not capable of delivering the nuance and detail that they wanted to, to give their community the right level of introduction. To be able to send their community somewhere, where they could trust that they were going to get really reputable advice, was great for them, and it worked for us. That was really successful, and it’s been an organic launch to the product, which has been nice to see.
Why pay-per-click was not the marketing channel for this niche product
Felix: At one point you mentioned that the content you were creating was actually too engaging. Tell us about that experience.
Leili: Our business started on Instagram. When we finally were at a point where we were big enough, we started to think about pay-per-click marketing advertising. It was natural that the first thing that we would try was Facebook and Instagram. We learned a lot, but to cut a long story short, we were never able to reliably achieve profitability with our pay-per-click on Instagram or Facebook.
We ran it ourselves for two years, and we then got an agency to run it. They did a good job, and then we took it back, and we tried again. Ultimately, the problem that we continually ran into was that our product is super, super niche. We would get a lot of interest and engagement on our ads, but translating that into sales and actually finding the people that we needed to be speaking to, we just weren’t able to achieve. It didn’t feel right. Now, I feel like we’ve made our peace with it. We really did bottom it out. It was strange.
Kevin: It took some time to realize that we weren’t doing something wrong. We kept thinking, surely we’re doing something wrong. The company that we spoke to were really buzzed to be doing this. They’re like, great, you mean pictures of cats? Everybody loves pictures of cats. We’ve got lots of great material. Who doesn’t want to be served that material?
They thought it was going to be much easier than it was. They couldn’t understand why they weren’t getting the results that they thought they were going to. After about six months of doing it with them, we analyzed all the results. We came to the conclusion that we were lost in a sea of cat pictures. There’s so much material out there, and finding us can be really tricky. We took a different approach to doing that. Then we brought it back again. We tried it again and really worked on the funnel, and had a great plan. We were confident. We were sure we nailed it by this point. That didn’t work either.
Leili: To be entirely clear, we did end up developing a fully pay-per-click funnel that worked. It did find our people, and they did buy, but the cost of acquisition was prohibitively expensive. We ultimately put it to bed. Never say never. There might be times where we are lured back again in the future, but then conversely, surprisingly, Google Shopping does really well for us. It isn’t how I would’ve predicted, but you have to go with the numbers.
Felix: When you made that realization that you were getting a lot of traffic, but maybe not as many sales, what was your approach to building out campaigns on Google Shopping?
Leili: We’ve always run in parallel, fortunately, because otherwise we might have been more despairing with pay-per-click, but we knew there were channels that did work for us. We run shopping campaigns in our five key territories, and all of those have worked really nicely. We also do some more tech space ads. Far and away, the shopping campaigns are the most effective, and we have separate feeds set up for each of them. They’ve been really instrumental to our business. Somebody that goes to Google and searches in very specific search terms, has already been on a lot of the journey before. We know from looking at our attribution pathways, they’ve touched us on social media. The pay-per-click is not the whole story, but it is that final hurdle that brings them to our store.
“The smart shopping campaigns outperformed our painstakingly, manually gardened ones. We’ve switched everything onto smart campaigns, which is a whole job off our backs.”
They’ve gone and researched collars or harnesses, and then they’re landing on us. That’s worked really nicely. Originally when we started on Google Shopping, we certainly weren’t aware of Google AI. We were manually managing those campaigns. About 18 months ago, the smart shopping campaigns outperformed our painstakingly, manually gardened ones. We’ve switched everything onto smart campaigns, which is a whole job off our backs. Does make me feel a little bit squiggly about the rise of machines, but I’m prepared to leave that be for the time being, and the results speak for themselves. They do well.
Kevin: Using the AI and doing the campaigns very manually, rides on the back of a lot of organic traffic. A lot of the work we do creates organic traffic and people find us that way. The Google ad is the way that gets somebody over the line to buy, it isn’t the thing that brings them in the first place.
Felix: We talked about how there’s a lot of exciting projects in the works. What’s something that you’re looking forward to that you’re allowed to share with us?
Leili: The courses have been a great new seam of exciting stuff that we’ve unlocked. The early feedback is positive enough for us to double down and get really excited about that. Our founding ethos was helping out humans and their cats. We’ve realized that you can only go so far with a product, but there’s this whole world of training to be unlocked, and being able to do that through Shopify and integrate those together has been really exciting. That’s what we’re buzzed about at the moment–is thinking about what other areas we can help people in.
Kevin: A digital product that isn’t a physical product is very exciting for us as well, because it has its advantages. You can deliver loads of content and really help. That’s something that’s been exciting. It ties in with us not wanting to just make things for the sake of making things. Keep creating physical products, only if people want them and need them. If we can make a digital product that really helps as well, it ticks a lot of boxes for us.
Leili: It’s also reminding us of the excitement of the early days of physical products in Supakit, in that we’ve produced the course ourselves. It’s like we’re back to the kitchen table and we’re thinking, I really enjoy that process of strategy. Okay, we’ve done something at the kitchen table, how do we scale that? How do we make it repeatable? Do we bring people in, who do we partner with? We’re getting to have all those fun conversations again, which feels like a second honeymoon.