Felix: Today I’m joined by Joe Lieberman from Antlion Audio. Antlion Audio manufactures the world’s leading attachment mic turning any pair of headphones into a gaming headset. Was started in 2012 and based out of Portland, Oregon. Welcome, Joe.
Joe: Hey Felix, thanks for having me.
Felix: Yes, appreciate you coming on. One thing that you mentioned to us in this pre-interview was around the idea of meeting your customers where they are rather than forcing them into a funnel that gives you the greatest margin. This really stood out to me. I think this is a really important point. Can you elaborate a little bit more on this? What does it mean to meet your customers where they are?
Joe: Sure. So when somebody wants to get a ModMic, we want to make that frictionless. Ideally frictionless, that’s impossible. But we’ve got to come as close as we can to being frictionless. One of the big hurdles for international customers, if you don’t have a global logistics system, is they order from your U.S. warehouse and they have to deal with international shipping, they have to deal with customs. If we can handle all that on our end by either having warehouses around the world or having distributors in their country, then that step is removed. They can go directly to their local distributor, their local retailer and say, “I’d like to buy a ModMic”, and it’s there in two to three days as opposed to a couple of weeks, sometimes even more than a month due to customs snagging their package, adding on fees, that kind of thing.
Felix: Got it. So before we start going on this route of talking about this kind of distribution where you have warehouses around the world. Let’s rewind to the very beginning. Where was the very first, I guess, distribution point? Where did you guys start this business?
Joe: Sorry I have to laugh because the story about how it started is so, we’ll use the word strange. It’s almost unbelievable.
So Jim Console, who’s the inventor and founder of the ModMic, which by the way works not just for gaming but for businesses. So if you’re going to be doing a company that involves making calls, you really do want to put your best foot forward and your best foot is your voice in this case. So a good mic, whether it’s ours or someone else’s, is a great investment as you’re starting out.
Felix: And you’re on one right now, right?
Joe: Yeah, I am currently using the ModMic 5. You’re listening to it live.
So, as I was saying, as it started was Jim, he had a pair of Bose QC 25, a noise canceling headphones and was just annoyed at the fact that he had to put his nice headphones down and pick up a crappy headset in order to play some games with some friends. So he came up with the idea of what if I just created a high quality mic that you could attach to my Bose headphones. So it started as a Reddit post, “Would anybody else be interested in this thing”?. He got so many replies, he started making them by hand. Like pouring plastics and stuff in a spare bedroom in an apartment. Then he met our now CEO Eli and they worked together, still making them by hand for two years, hand producing microphones. Finally we of course reached a point where we needed mass distribution and more staff, things took off from there. That’s the beginning.
Felix: Where do you enter into the story? When did you get involved?
Joe: I only came along in 2016. So in 2014, we went to mass production. They went two years without really having any marketing staff. I’m the director of marketing. So, yeah, between 2014 and 2016 they grew the company ad hac without a lot of direction. In 2016, I and several other people came onboard in an attempt to globalize the company.
Getting the Perfect YouTube Review: A Step-By-Step Approach:
Felix: Got it. This is not the first time where I heard someone got their start on Reddit. But then, like you mentioned, two years of hand making this before they decided to scale this out a little bit more. Do you know the story of how that began? What kind of steps did they take to make this a little bit more scalable, more manageable rather than just making it by hand?
Joe: James, Jimmy, James Console. James is a perfectionist when it comes to engineering. So those two years, I think the most important thing they did wasn’t selling the units they made by hand, which was clearly unsustainable in the long term. But using it as sort of a test bed to try different designs, to try different attachment methods, to try different microphones, both the capsule and the way it was constructed.
By 2014 when they were ready to go to mass production for the ModMic 4, the process was basically nailed down. We finally had what I would call the winning product. Before that, I think it would have been too soon to go to scale. This two year period, you could almost consider it entirely R&D, sort of funded by fanatic fans.
Felix: Got it. So what kind of marketing were they doing at that point? In 2014 they figured out what the ModMic 4, this fourth [inaudible] of the product. They figured out what was going to work. What kind of marketing did they do before you came onboard?
Joe: I think, I wasn’t there and there’s no written record of it because they weren’t very good. Which is a really important marketing task is to keep tabs on what you’ve done in the past and make a nice spreadsheet with all the info for all the people you talk to. All the clippings or articles or videos so you have them all in one place and you can easily reference them and reach out to those people in the future. So, one, that’s a great lesson and they did not do that. So there’s isn’t a great written record of all the things that were done.
But I have, one of the first things I did when I came onboard is try to figure out what has been done. From what I can tell, a lot of the success both came from Reddit, as their beginning place, and also from YouTube tech reviewers.
Felix: Got it. Once you came onboard, what were some things that you knew that you wanted to implement right away?
Joe: The first thing we wanted to implement was improving the website. The original site was fairly simple, Shopify template. So the first thing we did was overhaul that to what you currently see, which is a much more professional looking website. We did that not to increase conversion rate. In fact, I don’t think it made any impact on conversion rate at all. But to present ourselves as a true company, as opposed to a Shopify reseller. I wouldn’t say there’s a stigma against that, but there is. You want to present yourself as more than just a shop template. You want to build a brand.
Felix: Yeah I think what you’re getting at is that you want to represent yourself as a brand that exists beyond just a website. What are some elements that you made sure to include or that you recommend others to make sure to include on their site to give off that kind of messaging?
Joe: I think that is as much art as it is science first. So I think there’s a lot of different ways you can tackle that problem of presenting a professional image. I would say templates tend to look like templates. So that is a thing you want to get away from immediately. That said, good templates, they work. They’re designed specifically to achieve something. So first you have to understand what it is you want to achieve. Are you pushing somebody to sign up for a newsletter so you can send them information in the future? Are you pushing somebody to make a purchase? Are you pushing somebody to learn about your product? These things are not all mutually exclusive but they are fighting each other. There’s only so much time and energy that somebody’s going to put into looking at your website. You need to get yourself in a position to capitalize on what you want to do. So first is to define what that goal is of the site.
Then I’m a big fan of consistent visual theme. So you want to present a consistent story visually from where you want them to start to where you want them to finish.
Felix: Can you say more about this? What is your story, where did you want them to begin and where do you want them to finish?
Joe: So in our site, what we want them to do is to go to the product page to learn more about it. That’s sort of our end goal is to eventually get them to reach the product page. Along the way we want them to learn about the benefits of a good microphone. So the original design had them flow through a learning page. The front page, then a learning page, then the product page. We still sort of keep that theme today with several revisions.
For instance, you go to Shop ModMic, you end up either at gaming or business which tells you about a different story for each of those to customers. So gaming, of course, we’re focused on competitiveness, we’re focused on the quality and the respect you get from other players and that kind of thing. Nobody wants to play a game with somebody whose got a bad mic. It’s very annoying. But also for people who are into streaming and podcasting. Having a good mic is really essential. So talking to those people. Whereas of course business, we care more about Skype calls and that kind of thing. It’s still the same problem. You don’t want to make a business call and have a bunch of background noise and have a bunch of interference. So we tell that story both visually and through text as you go from front page to shop page to product page. Then ideally they buy the thing.
Felix: I think you mentioned this briefly, I think you’re talking about this now too where the goal of the site you had redesigned wasn’t even so necessarily concerned with them making a purchase on the website. What you cared more about was getting them to learn about the product. I guess why this approach?
Joe: For us, this approach is because our product is not simple. There are products in the world that are self-explanatory. I was just listening to your last podcast about the guy that makes wallets, right? Wallets are self-explanatory. Everybody knows what one is. A headphone, a pair of headphones, those are self-explanatory. Everybody knows what it is. A microphone that attaches to any headphone requires an additional statement. If I just say that, 99% of the time somebody says, “Why do you need that?”, and I have to go, “Because great headphones, the really good ones, which are not that expensive, don’t come with microphones”. And they go, “Ooh”. So we need that step to tell that story. Other products may not need that, I don’t know. But ours certainly does so that’s why it’s important. The information thing is important to us.
Felix: I see.
Joe: Don’t get me wrong, we do want to sell things from our website. We do make more money when we sell things from our website. That’s nice. But to us, that is a nice to have.
Felix: So once they are complete the story on your site, what’s typically the rest of the journey. If they were not to purchase from your site directly, where do they end up, where do they see you again and where might they purchase again?
Joe: We’re sort of all over the place. Most of our sales do happen on Amazon. So that’s the biggest by far. We’re in retail shops in the U.S., like Micro Center. We’re internationally in a variety of retail shops, everywhere from the United Kingdom to Japan. So they might encounter the product all over the place.
Of course, we’re also very active on social media. So it’s very likely they’ll see something either by us or by an influencer who’s using our product or promoting our product. So they encounter it in the wild pretty frequently. If you are into gaming and you are watching streams, you will probably come across somebody reviewing or covering one of our products the same year you first learn about it for sure.
Felix: Is there any way to track or do you know either anecdotally if a lot of your traffic comes to your site, learns about you and then leaves to buy on Amazon? Or are they just sometime later searching around for microphones or headsets and they come across yours and remembers the experience they had on your site?
Joe: As far as I know, there is no way to do that. Not directly. Amazon is a black box as it were. You cannot, as far as I know, have somebody follow them out of your site and then pick up a conversion tracked metric when they check out at Amazon.
We can track, however, the fluctuant in traffic to our site, like organic traffic to our site and sales on Amazon. There is a correlation there. As people learn about our products more, sales on Amazon go up. Not a shock I know. That is the reality. In that way, we can indirectly see that yes, people are learning about the product and making a purchase. It does make it a challenge for us to metrically say, “Yes, this visitor’s worth this much”.
When you came onboard and you recognized the need to redesign the site, talk to us about this process. How did you appreciate redesigning an existing site.
Joe: How did we do it? It feels like a trauma actually. You don’t really remember what happened. You know it happened.
It was not easy. Redesigning a site from the bottom up is, it is an undertaking for an established site with a lot of pages. The first thing we had to do was determine what that flow was going to be, as I mentioned. The next thing would be the visuals of color. So what colors are we going to want to use. I think the last thing is about the layout. I guess if I had to say the mistake people make is they focus a lot on layout first. But that’s the least important thing because it’s easy to change a layout and it’s very difficult to change the brand color once you establish it.
Felix: Got it. So you mentioned three things. There’s flow, visuals and layout. How is flow and layout different or related?
Joe: So flow is the first thing I was talking about where what is the goal. What’s the flow of the user going to be. That’s the first thing you need to know.
The second thing you need to know is what are the colors and what are the styles that our brand is going to use. A tech company for gamers is going to be wildly different than, say, a food company for young adults. They’re just going to look, visually, very different probably.
Felix: Is this a subjective approach?
Joe: Oh yes it’s totally subjective. This is why I said it’s as much art as it is any science in my mind. You need a vision for what brand identity you want to create. Really, Antlion in 2016, as I came on board, didn’t really have one. It was just microphones on a page really.
Felix: Right. I think having that brand can allow you to do things like get away more dedicated customers and also perceived value goes up, right? You can charge more for a product if you have some kind of identity around it.
Was this all done in house? It’s not even just a redesign of the website. You guys redesigned the brand or gave it an identity, is probably the better way to say it. Was this all done in house? Are there ways to hire help with this if you’re not someone that is well versed in this area?
Joe: Yeah it’s that classic trade-off of time and money right? We definitely did not do all this in house. We definitely managed a lot of people who helped create this. We did a photo shoot and we did not shoot the images ourselves. We had a professional photographer shoot them. We hired actors to play the roles and so on and so on. The design, we hired a company Money [inaudible] is their name, out of Portland. So we worked with them to create the website.
But when it came to the decisions about flow and about color and about how we wanted to create it, that was internal. So internally we knew what we wanted from the photo shoot. We knew what we wanted from the colors and the style and the flow of the site. Then we went to these places and said, “This is what we need. Build it for us”. I think it is a trap to allow somebody who does not know and love your product to dictate what your website should be.
Felix: I think this is an important point and I think there are two questions here. One is: do you have an example of something that you see a store owner, brand owners, entrepreneurs doing that’s interfering too much with the help that they’ve hired. I’ll start there and ask the question after.
Joe: So, yeah, like when you don’t let somebody do their job? I’ve seen that before. It’s always a trap because you don’t want to override the opinion of an expert if you are not an expert. So on the one hand, you need to recognize where your expertise ends and theirs begins and defer to the person who you’ve hired. If you say, “I want my brand colors to be pink and green”, something terrible together. That’s probably the new color that everybody loves, but what do I know. This is a good point. This is where my expertise ends. The guy goes, “Those are not going to work well together”, then you should take a moment and listen and say, “Alright why not?”. If you don’t believe it, then you need to do the research and discover who’s right and who’s wrong. At the end of the day, you are the client so you get to decide. But generally speaking, if I hire somebody, for instance, to create a brand color palate, then I’m going to listen to what they say.
Felix: Right. So what’s an example on the other side where it’s something that you see in other entrepreneurs doing where they’re outsourcing the decision-making where they should not be doing that?
Joe: It’s going to vary entirely based on what your expertise is. Basically, if you were the expert, don’t outsource the work unless you are so distracted with other things going on that you have no choice but to do so. This is especially true about things that are related to your product and your product understanding. If the task at hand requires an intimate knowledge of the product, you can’t outsource it. At least not quickly. I think, for instance, this is why it is so hard to get a good public relationships person. A lot of my time, as marketing director, is spent doing PR work, getting reviews and getting people to talk about our products. It is very hard for an outside agency to come in and be experts about your product. Talk about it with a passion and the understanding that’s required to get somebody else excited about it.
Felix: Let’s talk about this then. So you mentioned that a big part of your job is to get the community that you’re selling to get excited, to talking about it. How did you approach this when you first came on board and that was one of the mandates that you either gave yourself or the company required. How do you being to build this momentum inside a community so people want to review or talk about your product?
Joe: I think the first thing I did was be excited about the ModMic. I keep using this, you’ve just got to love your product. There’s a certain amount of enthusiasm that will come through in everything you do if you really are excited about what you’re doing. If you’re not, you should really question why you’re doing what you’re doing.
Felix: Can you get excited if you’re not excited? Or is this something that you show up on day one, if you’re joining a company or if you’re starting a business and you’re not excited, can you get yourself there? Or if you’re not there from the beginning, you got to get out.
Joe: I can only speak for me, but I think I have to be excited at the very start. If I come in with a sense of skepticism with the company or with the product. I owned a PR company for 14 years before I joined Antlion. Sometimes people would pitch products to me and it wouldn’t excite me. Every time I accepted those clients, it didn’t go well. This is where I’m coming from.
Assuming you are excited about your product, you got to enter in with that passion. The ModMic story is I was looking for this product and I couldn’t find it. My pair of headphones broke and I was looking for a new headset. I was like, “Why can’t I just get nice headphones and a good mic that attaches to it?”. I don’t want one of those big desktop mics. I had a small desk at the time. So I was like, “Man, I wish somebody made that product”. Three months later I was at a job interview for this company and I’m like where were you?
So that’s how I knew that both I was interested in the product and that other people would be also. If I’m looking for it, certainly other people have to be. Clearly, they need marketing help since I wasn’t able to find this product. Anyway, that’s my anecdotal story.
Felix: The original question, sorry I distracted you. The original question was how do you begin to build up this community or support this community so that they want to do things like product reviews or want to spread the word of mouth about your product?
Joe: Once you’ve got the excitement thing down, you just meet people in their place of interest. We talked earlier about meeting people where they are. This is, I think, also a figurative thing. We can meet people where they’re going to be interested in our product. So it’s an individual thing.
I think a lot of people make a mistake in audience building that they care a lot about reach in volume. But there’s a lot of value to be had in reaching the quality of an individual contact. Ideally, an individual contact who has a lot of reach. So in the tech world, for instance, Linus Tech tips, one of the largest tech reviewers in the world, really, really like the ModMic product. He did before I came onboard. Establishing a rapport with those types of people, the influencers of others, and doing so at a very high level of contact and relationship building, that is essential. Doing so for an individual who’s a customer is also essential. It’s just harder to dedicate a lot of time to it. But I would take that over plastering an ad that’ll reach 10,000 people very passively. I would take one great interaction with a person over that.
Felix: Especially someone with an audience, like you said, that has their own kind of reach.
Joe: Certainly with an audience, but even just a regular individual who might be a customer, I would take one good interaction with them over 10,000 ad views any day.
Felix: Good meaning someone that is already super excited about the product, or that could be super excited about it?
Joe: Yeah just curious about the product is all I need to talk to them.
Felix: So there are two types of contacts. I’ll start with the first one which is the one basically, the influencer. How do you guys identify influencers that you want to work with that maybe have not heard of the ModMic before?
Joe: A lot of Googling. I go after people who look at similar products, might be looking at headphones, headsets. Or people who are in our goal demographic. For instance, in the gaming world, live streamers and that kind of thing. People who are streaming game content or doing YouTubes about games. So, one, just finding those people. Or, on the business side for instance, people doing a Shopify Podcast for instance. Finding those people and reaching them with the message that is specifically crafted for their audience. What is it about your product that will appeal to their audience and that will be interesting to their audience. Nobody wants to shield somebody else’s product, right? Not without good cause. So you need to craft the message that’s going to convince them that working with you is not only interesting for their audience, but also in their best interest and easy. You got to make it as easy as possible for them.
Felix: Got it. So how does that engagement usually begin? Let’s say you find a YouTuber or a streamer that’s talking about video games. How do you approach this? I’m assuming they’re getting pitched a lot to, right, from different products or maybe competitors to yours or other people that sell headsets?
Joe: Oh yeah. They are constantly inundated by pitches from people.
First of all, grow a thick skin before you start this because you’re going to get a lot of rejection. Don’t take it personally. That’s the important thing. As an example, I’ll send out 100 emails. That’s the first thing I do usually, just email somebody. Cold email, introduce myself, introduce the product. I might send out 100, I’ll get 15 replies, 20 replies. That’s good, that’s a good number for me.
Felix: What are you saying in those emails? How do you begin to even get them to, 50% reply rate I think is good. How do you get them to respond?
Joe: Be personable. Be individual. So if you can, craft a message about them, about their channel. Whatever they’re doing that has caught your attention. Send them a real message. Don’t just copy and paste something to them. Yes, you should probably copy and paste the stuff about your product because that’s not going to change. But when it comes to saying why you want to work with them, take that extra step and be personable with them. Be human. I think that’s the biggest thing.
Felix: Got it. What about length. Does that matter? Do you want to be quick and give them something short. How much detail should you go into? Why you want to work with them, why your product?
Joe: I guess length matters. I’ve gotten to this point where I don’t really think about it. You certainly don’t want to write them a book and you don’t want to give them too little information. So there’s definitely a happy medium in there. I don’t have a word count specifically. Less than a page probably is about right.
Felix: Got it. So they respond back and say, “Yes I’m interested”. What’s usually the next step?
Joe: Well the first step would have been to figure out what your offering them. So in that first email, you need to be clear with what is being offered and what is being expected of them. Don’t be vague. They don’t have time to have a long conversation about what it is you want from them. I want you to review the ModMic on your channel as either a dedicated video or as part of some other style feature that you can do. That’s what I want from you, that’s what I’ll say.
Felix: Are you hitting them with this in that first email right? You’re not giving this thing where you’re like, “Hey if you’re interested, email me back for my details”. You’re not doing that. You’re giving them all the details up front.
Joe: The trick is you must give them a reason to reply. So I will always say, “If you are interested, please send me your shipping address”.
Felix: I like that.
Joe: Now they have a reason to reply. It is an action item for them. I will reply with my shipping address. A lot of emails I get is literally just a shipping address. Name, shipping address, bam.
Felix: I like that because it leads to a reward essentially for them if they reply because a lot of times it’s reply to get more details. I’m like, “Man I don’t want to reply to get more things to read”. If I reply and send them my shipping address, I get the product. I think that that is important where you’re incentivizing me or incentivizing person that you’re reaching out to to reply and not to reply then get more work.
Joe: Right. That’s exactly it. It also gives you an opportunity to reply back. They send that shipping address and that’s when you can reply with something else. Hey I’ve sent it off and you tell a little story. Whatever it is to begin building that relationship. Tell a story, ask a question, maybe both. Put in a few extra items about the product that maybe got glossed over or you want to really focus in on.
Felix: Makes sense. So once you are able to get that far, what do you usually expect. What’s an example of an ideal product review?
Joe: They love the product and tell everybody to go buy it immediately. That’s the ideal.
Getting the Perfect YouTube Review: A Step-By-Step Approach:
Felix: Is there certain things that you want them talking about usually. I think a lot of times when people are thinking, “I want to go the route of getting reviews for my product”. They either go one way where they kind of give all the free reign essentially to the reviewer and don’t give any guideness or direction. Or the other way where they really want to control the entire messaging and give them a script even or certain things to hit on. Where do you fall in this spectrum?
Joe: I would definitely advise not trying to dictate to a reviewer what they should say about your product. Not only is it rude, I think it turns them off your person. It turns them off your brand. They don’t want to have somebody tell them how to do their job. Nobody wants that.
So that said you can, of course, nudge them in the direction you want them to go. For instance, in that follow up email, one of the things I mentioned is after they send their address you reply back and you include some key points about the product. For instance, our product is vegan. Don’t forget. Hey, we really want you to compare our microphone to other microphones. You lead them in that way. You should definitely try this. As a result, a lot of our reviews are comparing our mic to other mics which we compare very favorably. But you don’t want to say, “Hey I’d like you to review our product by comparing it to other microphones”. Then talk about how it attaches and then talk about the mute module. Those are things, you don’t want to be too direct I guess. You just want to just nudge them in that direction. They’ll get the message.
Felix: So you give them a menu of things to pick from or just some information essentially that gets them thinking about how to craft the review. So how do you usually work with these reviewers. Do you usually work with paid reviewers, do they get a commission? What’s usually turns out to be the best approach if someone wants to go down the route of product reviews?
Joe: Oh man, now you’ve done it.
I come from a journalist family. Everybody in my family is a journalist. Ironically as a PR person, I’m on the opposite side of journalism which is weird. But it’s still very connected. I draw a very hard line between editorial content and paid content. A review is an editorial piece. I’m not going to say I’ve never paid for one. But I am severely against doing so.
Felix: Why’s that?
Joe: The moment a reviewer is paid to review an item, they lose all credibility for not only the item they’re currently reviewing but all future items they review.
Felix: So you don’t even want to work with reviewers that have gotten paid or at least currently are taking paid reviews?
Joe: I wouldn’t say that. But I don’t think it’s in their best interest to do it. It’s not in our brand’s best interest to be associated with paying people to review products. I will pay people to do advertisements about our products. But to pay somebody to review a product calls into a lot of question their credibility. Basically, there’s no way somebody’s going to get paid a bunch of money and then trash your product. If they can’t say negative things about your product, then why would you trust them to be honest about anything they do?
Felix: Says a lot about them basically.
Have you taken the other approach where it’s not editorial but it’s an advertisement? What’s an example of something like that?
Joe: We run advertisements frequently. On video, we do a lot of pre-roll and post-roll and product inclusions. Those are clearly stated as hey this video is sponsored by Antlion ModMic. Check it out at the link below. Yada, yada, yada. It tells them about the product. We’ll advertise on Facebook. We’ll send people to our blog pages and then use that post usually about audio and getting better audio gear to bring them further into learning about our products.
Felix: How do you decide whether you should work with someone as a sponsor for them or you’re paying them for this advertisement where they are kicking off the video by saying, “Sponsored by Antlion ModMic” versus a review. How do you decide which one to go with?
Joe: You go with both is the answer. I like to tell reviewers, that, “Hey I want you to review our product and after you are done reviewing the product, I would like to talk to you about advertising”.
Felix: Oh okay. So you kick off at the review first and then if they seem to be excited about the brand, then they’re probably going to be a good fit to be sponsored by you.
Joe: That’s right. You can usually see from the review how much they get the product and how excited their audience is by the product. That’s a really great measuring stick for whether an ad is going to be successful or not.
Felix: You’re not the first one that I’ve heard that this idea of making sure that your reviewers or your sponsor, influencers get the product. What does that mean to you, what does it mean for them to get the product?
Joe: Not really sure I have a static definition of that. I keep coming back to this ideal of excitement on this call. But do they appear to be actually excited by what this product allows them to do is the thing I’m looking for. Is in genuine? Are they using the product correct, of course, is very important. Do they install it correctly. Is the quality of the text good? It’s more like did it click in their head that, oh my god I can finally use my pair of Sennheisers to make Skype calls and to play Call of Duty? Did they have that ah ha moment. It usually comes across very clearly for us. Then we can see in the comments or in the interactions they have with their audience, did their audience also get it.
Felix: Got it.
I want to switch topics a little bit about this approach to building this business that is stable. This is something that you mentioned in the pre-interview which is around controlling the capital structure of the company so you’re not forced to go big or go home. It allows you to [inaudible] stable growth without a lot of pressure. Can you explain what this means and what is the capital structure that you guys have been able to set up so that you’re able to approach business in this way?
Joe: Well, we’re a weird company, I guess, in these days because we don’t have any debt or any investors. Jimmy and Eli in 2012 to 2014 made the mics by hand. They just bootstrapped everything from there. They took the money, they invested it into doing the first mass production run, I think it was 5,000 units. Those sold out very quickly. Then that money was taken to do another production run of 10,000 units and so on and so on until we are here today really.
Felix: I think I spoke about it when I asked a question that you’re obviously speaking about, the benefits of being a bootstrap and not taking on any debt or have any investors that dictate the direction of the business. What about opportunities that potentially could be missed by not taking on debt or taking on investors?
Joe: Well you’re missing out on the opportunity to basically leverage debt for faster growth right. So if we needed, say, a 50,000 unit production run and we didn’t have the capital to do it. If we really believed we could move 50,000 units very quickly, then we need to be able to do that. So you need to take on debt when you can immediately turn that debt into capital. Roll it very quickly back into capital. We’re a very steadily growing company and we’ve never had that explosive growth.
Now, we may be missing out on the ability to just have explosive growth because we can put out 100 times more advertisements about the product. Or maybe missing out on hiring 20 people that can do these various tasks that we have to outsource and we are slower to do. So we can produce more stuff then we might be able to grow quicker. But, the comes with the implicate risk for debt, of course, that you won’t be able to do what you imagined you’ll be able to do and everybody will suffer in the end. Or for venture capital of having somebody holding your purse strings and potentially changing the direction of the company.
Felix: Can you give us an idea of how much the company has grown by just taking this kind of bootstrapping model? What’s possible without having to take on investments and investors.
Joe: I believe this year, I don’t have the exact number. But I believe this year we have passed a quarter million ModMics sold.
Felix: Wow. That’s an amazing milestone.
Joe: So you can get pretty far.
Felix: Speaking of getting far, how many countries do you guys have distribution in today?
Joe: It’s definitely over 30 now. We’re basically available in every country in the EU. Obviously the United States and Canada. Australia, Japan, India. Thailand I think has now launched. I think that covers most of the countries. We’re not yet available in Latin America, Africa, China or Korea.
Felix: How do you guys decide where to ad new distribution?
Joe: So I built a list basically the size of the gaming market and the overall strength of the economy. I basically created my own formula for determining what are the most important places that we need to be next.
Our product is a premium product. It’s not cheap. It’s not super expensive either. The ModMic 4 starts at $42 U.S. and the ModMic 5 is 70. There’s a middle product at 50. In a developing nation, that’s a lot to pay for microphone. People don’t have super fancy headsets in Sudan, just picking a place randomly.
Felix: I think you’re right. Are you allowed to change up pricing depending on who’s buying from where?
Joe: I’m sure we can, I don’t think it violates any law. I don’t think it’s a good idea to have variable pricing because you begin to lose control over the pricing of your product. The more control you can maintain, especially when dealing with international sellers. The more control you can maintain over price stability, the less often you’re going to have people racing to the bottom on price for your product. You really want to avoid that because it really messes with your whole distribution network. So somebody in the U.K., for instance, drops their price $10 unexpectedly, then every other distributor in the EU gets mad.
Felix: I think it makes it a lot easier to manage something like that in a sense too. So speaking of that, how is [inaudible]. Do you have a team working on this, a person working on this, you have applications that you recommend for anyone that needs the help with this kind of distribution?
Joe: We’ve got an internal guy here that handles it. His name is John. Does a great job. Basically, his job is managing our partners. That is one of his, and probably the largest primary role he has. John manages all the partners. Interestingly, actually, I am the one who goes out and finds new partners. I vet them, I establish contact and we begin that discussion and then I hand it over to John who becomes their brand partner.
Felix: Got it.
So you mentioned that there’s also this new live group chat platform that you’ve been able to implement onto, is the site or where the customer’s able to ask questions and also be able to communicate with them. Can you tell us a little bit more about this? What is this platform that you guys have been using?
Joe: We use Discord which is huge in the gaming community, not so huge outside the gaming community. So it really only applies to game companies, I think, for now. I’m sure you can use it for other things.
It is straight up just like a live chat. So not like the live chat you get on a website where it’s like a one on one experience. This is a community building tool more than it is a support tool.
Felix: Most of the audience is most familiar with Slack. So this is like Slack for the gaming community, is that a fair?
Joe: Yeah, yeah. Imagine if you could just give a link to anybody and they can just join your Slack channel, a specific Slack channel. Obviously not the one about private stuff. Just like a community Slack channel, yeah.
Felix: Got it. I think this is cool because I don’t think anyone that I’ve had on the show has talked about using Discord or live group chats like Slack or any other platform like that to build a community. How large is a [inaudible]? Is it unwieldy as a certain point?
Joe: We haven’t hit the unwieldy point. We’ve probably got about a thousand people in the chat. At any given time there’s probably only a handful, four or five people talking. So it’s not just a flood of messages. It sort of self regulates I think, a chat like that because at the point a lot of people are chatting, people don’t want to be involved with that. If it’s moving too fast for you to read, then you’re not going to say anything. Usually, it doesn’t get too crazy in there.
Felix: Got it. What are people talking about in there? I can’t imagine they come in, just talking about the microphone only.
Joe: We have three channels that are really busy. We have a general chat which, as you can imagine, just about anything you can imagine. Just people chatting, a lot of people just talking about their day or whatever. That’s the general chat.
We have tech talk which is people talking about specific tech things that are not related to our product. We are a tech brand. So people come in, they ask about raspberry pi devices or something and goes in there. It’s interesting because our fans are all tech people basically. We don’t answer questions in there really unless we know the answer, which is not often. Usually, somebody will ask a question and somebody else in the chat will know the answer. So it’s fun to see that happening.
Then we have a support channel which is, as you can imagine, people are having questions about our products. So whether that is pre-purchase questions or actual support, something is wrong with my product questions.
Felix: Yeah I can imagine this is a hotbed for live and tons of valuable customer feedback right on how to talk to your customer, what kind of concerns they have, product research for your next iteration.
Joe: Yeah. It’s been super valuable in learning about our customers and converting unhappy people into happy people. To come back to that earlier topic of I’d rather have one really solid conversation with one individual person than a passive ad. It really is valuable for that. So people come in and they’re mad because their mic isn’t working the way they think it is. By the time they leave, they love our company.
Felix: Got it.
Now other than Discord, what other apps or tools do you guys use or rely on to run the business?
Joe: Well, other than Discord and Shopify?
We use UserVoice as our actual customer service management platform. We use Rakuten is our warehouse provider. Within Shopify itself, we have a bunch of apps we use.
Felix: What are some of your favorites?
Joe: Bold makes a bunch of really good stuff if you’re familiar with them. Specifically, product upsell and product discount have been very valuable tools. The ModMic 5 works best when it’s paired with a USB device that we also make when you’re using it on PC. So being able to provide that, the buy the ModMic from our site and then we say, “Hey, don’t forget to add this item”. Adding that plug-in shifted our attachment rate of those USBs from about 10% to nearly 50%.
Felix: Wow. Pays for itself.
Joe: Yeah, definitely. It’s been a super worthwhile tool.
We also use a followup email program called Follow Up Email. That’s been very handy. Again, because the ModMic is a bit of an odd item, we use it to give them a quick tutorial on how to best use their product as well as offer up a customer survey. Not about, “Hey review our product”, although it has links to that too, but about what they wanted from our product and what they want from future products. So very valuable tool and learning about our customers. We spend a lot of time trying to learn what our customers use our product for because it is a really flexible product.
Felix: So what’s next? What do you guys have planned for 2019. What are some big goals you guys have?
Joe: We’ve got a wireless product coming up. As far as beyond that, I can’t really say. As far as growing the company goes, we are probably going to continue to expand into new markets. I think we’ll see a couple new markets open up in 2019. My priority being Russia if I could find a way into Russia but that’s an interesting challenge in and of itself. There’s a few other key places, Korea is another big one. So we’re going to see that.
We’re going to be attending fewer events actually. We’ve decided that attending events has not produced a really positive ROI for us. That does give us that really great one on one interaction but the price is simply too high. We can get better use out of those dollars. So we’re going to be reinvesting into more digital, stronger touchpoints there.
I think that’s what we’ve got planned for 2019. New products and refocusing into digital interaction with people over physical interaction.
Felix: Definitely plenty on your plates. Thank you so much Joe. Antlionaudio.com is the website. Again, thank you so much for coming on and sharing your story and experience.
Joe: Oh it’s been really fun Felix. Thanks for having me.
Felix: Thanks for tuning into another episode of Shopify Masters, the eCommerce podcast for ambitious entrepreneurs, powered by Shopify. To get your exclusive 30-day extended trial, visit shopify.com/masters.