Rob Ward, Co-Founder, Annex Products
Rob Ward always seems to be one step ahead.
Before Kickstarter took off, Ward and his co-founder Chris Peters launched two successful campaigns on the platform, funding Opena and Quad Lock—the two products that led to the founding of Annex Products. Then Ward was early to the Shopify game, which he successfully used to sell his products for several years. Ward was also quick to see the potential of Facebook Ads and has used them to scale Annex to a multimillion-dollar business.
This ability to spot trends, paired with his finely-tuned approach to product development, has helped Ward find tremendous success as an entrepreneur. While Opena is no longer active, Quad Lock has become a leading device mount and accessory company, serving a wide variety of users—car commuters, motorcyclists, kayakers, even hang gliders. As a result, Quad Lock sells hundreds of thousands of units each year in over 100 countries.
We’re now thrilled to have Rob Ward as one of the five instructors of our latest online course, Ecommerce Masters, teaching advanced ecommerce strategies.
If you’re curious to learn more about Ward’s approach to trendspotting, product development, and more, we highly recommend you check out this episode!
ATTENTION: We’re excited to announce that Rob Ward has partnered with Foundr to teach one of the modules in our course, Ecommerce Masters. Get on the Free VIP Waitlist to be notified when we open enrollment!
- An overview of Ward’s prior entrepreneurial experiences with everything from laser machines to 3D printers, and how they helped him get to where he is today
- How he and his co-founder, Chris Peters, founded Annex Products in 2012, building on two successful Kickstarter campaigns
- Why the duo decided to eventually focus their resources on Quad Lock
- How Ward stays on the cutting edge and predicts trends
- Insight into Ward’s approach to the product development process—when to start thinking about the next product, the iterative process, and more
- Why Ward isn’t too worried about Quad Lock copycats
- Why Ward doesn’t believe in following other people’s blueprints for success
- A sneak peek into the module Ward will be teaching for Ecommerce Masters
Full Transcript of Podcast with Rob Ward
Nathan: What was the first product? It was you and Chris? What was the first product? Your cofounder, what’d you guys, what were you working on? Was it the bottle opener?
Rob: Yeah. The first consumer product within the sort of business that we have now was, but the truth be told we were doing other little businesses well before that that ended us up there. So we’d done a bit of website, bit of SEO. We’ve done-
Nathan: Oh, really?
Rob: Yeah, we brought in small format laser machines, which was an opportunity I saw for a long time, and we just hadn’t done anything with it. So we brought in these small format laser machines and built them up, made them a better machine, and sold them, and that was a great little business. Did really well.
Rob: We ran a blog called 3DPrinters.com.au. Then we made 3D Printers Australia. We did that for a while. That was a great little business. Sold to lots of schools, all the units, things like that. We just sort of used all those little businesses. This all happened in I think a couple of years. We used all those little businesses to work out where we wanted to be, and then we saw things like Shopify and Kickstarter and like Facebook and these kind of things kicking off and becoming I suppose the barriers to entry. Access to the market, access to people, those things falling down around us. We thought, “Yeah, we can use some of these awesome new tools and these new liberties that we have.” Our initial kind of businesses where you had to talk to everyone that you were pretty much selling a product to, and then we sort of pivoted into that more scalable approach where we love talking to customers but we don’t talk to hardly any.
Nathan: Yeah, got you. How’d you and Chris meet?
Rob: We originally met through, it was with one of the uni wakeboard clubs, and one of my mates ran one of those clubs, and so we met there and then we became better mates because his girlfriend, now wife and my girlfriend, now wife were best mates at school. That’s how we started hanging out away from that other scene.
Nathan: Got you.
Rob: And we were always talking about just ideas and cool stuff, and then we just thought we’d try something.
Nathan: So you’ve done like a lot of different products by the sounds of it.
Rob: Few, but all pretty different.
Nathan: Okay, but your first online play was the Kickstarter.
Rob: Yeah. First proper ecommerce play was Opena, the Opena case, the iPhone bottle opener. I mean even that was the first sort of way we scaled that, but our other businesses were still really heavily relying on the Internet to do a better job of them than probably the current players in their space were doing, but you could only scale them so far, and then we decided, yeah, let’s … We saw Kickstarter and we actually thought rather than having the idea and thinking, how do we get this idea off the ground? What it was is, we saw Kickstarter, Shopify, you know, 3PLs. I was like, “What would a product look like that we could go and leverage all these tools?” And then sort of come up with it backwards I suppose.
Nathan: Yeah, so you launched the iPhone opener case, and what happened to the 3DPrinting.com? Even that’s a good domain name. What happened to all that?
Rob: Yeah, yeah, we sold that.
Nathan: You sold it?
Rob: Sold that. Yeah, sold the blog. Not for heaps or anything, and then at that point it was just like, we sold the laser business to someone who was working in it at the time, which worked out really well. I mean they got a steal, and we got out of that business effectively because it was just the opportunity was so much greater on the other side. It was like those businesses actually funded the start of the other businesses, and we just sort of rolled on from there, so it wasn’t trying to make a killing on exiting that business. Just trying to move on, have someone run it, take care of our customers, keep going with it, while we could go on to do the thing we really wanted to do.
Nathan: Yeah, that’s an interesting one because I think sometimes when you get to a certain point in business, you’ve got so many different opportunities and how do you know which ones to chase? In that point in time, how did you know that was a worthwhile opportunity to chase or to focus on?
Rob: I think the thing was for us is, it’s the opportunity. The opportunity was bigger, but the other thing was is that, it’s more what we wanted to do, so it makes it easier.
Nathan: One thing that’s always impressed me about you and Chris is you guys always seem to be on the cutting edge when it comes to these kind of new innovative things that come later on, like you saw the trend with Kickstarter. You guys were one of the first to do Kickstarter in Australia. Then you saw the opportunity with Shopify, one of the early Shopify customers. You saw opportunity with Facebook ads, some of the first doing Facebook ads. What are you doing right now?
Rob: Ah, for me I think what happens is at the start, these things, they’re interesting after, so you got to be interested in them when they’re not that sexy, not that cool. Because I always tell the guys, it’s a lot that gets talked about as you know, and there’s a lot of people who do the talking, and there’s probably more people that talk than do almost it feels like these days. That’s what you see. So the opportunity’s in the things that aren’t being talked about at mass scale I think. I remember something simple like video ads. We started hammering video ads. Amazing. I felt like it was two years and then all of a sudden it was like, video ads, video ads, video ads. I’m like, we’re using that as part of the strategy. It’s not the whole strategy.
So as things we’re doing now, it’s probably not like this sexy hack or thing, but something that we have done just in the last two years is really pull out of traditional distribution, so what we’ve done is, you know, you start a brand like us and you get some customers and you start selling online and you start selling in some stores. Then you start working with some mid-level distributors.
Then you think, “Oh, I just got to get to the big, best distributors,” and you do that, and then you think, “This is going to be great,” and then the whole world is changing in retail and ecommerce and all this, and you feel it’s what you should do, and when you really, really be true to yourself, I think for us anyway, we look at it like, this is not really the interesting thing. This is not really where the market’s going. It may be where it’s still sort of currently at, but you don’t want to be, like if the market’s going like this, you don’t want to be shooting for here. You want to be shooting for where it’s going to be when it gets there kind of thing.
So we think we feel the market’s going that way, so we took some hard decision, turned off a heap of rev, a lot of difficult conversations, but then moved moreso back to controlling our own destiny. When you buy a Quad Lock you’re pretty much getting it from Quad Lock. There’s a few really good distributors that we have in certain markets. Australia’s one of them, but Australia’s very different. We haven’t been Amazonified like a lot of the other markets, so I think you’ll see we started out probably 2018-ish.
Rob: Yeah, and I’m just starting to hear people doing it now. Like when you hear Nike pulling back off of Amazon and things like that, you start to see that people I think really keeping their finger on the pulse. The relationships with the customer is where the value’s at, and I think people that farm that out are going to wish they hadn’t in the next couple of years.
Nathan: Coming back, you did the opener case but then you kind of pivoted.
Rob: We saw that as Opena case was like a guinea pig, like an experiment. What would happen if we did this? CP sort of had the idea of the Quad Lock before we had the idea of Opena case, but it just seemed bigger, harder to get off the ground, and the idea was a bit different. The idea was mainly to put the phone on the bike, which is how we launched it but then we thought it can be bigger than that again. But I think one of the keys there was we didn’t … If we had launched Quad Lock as the everything product it is now, it probably would have been very difficult, and we learned that along the way.
Nathan: You changed from the Opena case to the Quad Lock?
Rob: We did them both at the same time. So we had Opena a case in the market and then like six, I don’t know how long. Maybe six months later towards the end of that year, then we launched the crowdfunding project for Quad Lock and three months after that got it into the market. Opena case, because it was sort of faddy and a bit sort of unique and a bit polarising, people hated it or they freaking loved it but they wanted to talk about it, right?
Rob: It just sold really well really quickly, and Quad Lock case was that slower burn, but we just always believed that when we got it right as in, not the product. The product was still the same bike mount that gets sold now, so that was right. But we thought if we can just get the traction behind this, we’ll just keep building on this traction. It’s not going to be this faddy kind of little spike that we could see that Opena was probably going to be.
Nathan: So you eventually shut Opena down, yeah?
Rob: Yeah. Eventually, we made it for another phone, and then we just went, no. We’re just all Quad Lock. And at the time we, like even now, we couldn’t even keep up making the stuff around the Quad Lock ecosystem that we wanted to do, so it’s kind of like that’s sort of what you were talking about before. There’s all these opportunities, and it’s not that the Opena case wouldn’t have sold, but the work put behind, that we might as well just put it behind Quad Lock because it’s going to outdo it.
Nathan: That actually is a good segue. I wanted to talk to you most around product development, because you graciously taught a module for a new course that we’re launching called Ecommerce Masters where we have five incredible instructors that teach certain areas around scaling an ecomm business, and you have a reasonable amount of experience launching different SKUs. One of the reasons I love your business is, when a new iPhone comes out, people got to upgrade, man, and people are fanatical about getting the new iPhone and you know, I’m a Quad Lock user. I’m going to have to get another, and it integrates into your life, right? Like you put it on your bike. You can put it on your motorbike.
Rob: You notice it most when you don’t have it.
Nathan: Yeah, exactly. I’ve got it on my car, and like everywhere, right? You can put it on your computer. So it’s just an incredible product, and you’ve built the ecosystem over time, so at what point do you think people should start thinking about their next product once they’ve nailed it?
Rob: The point that you make is once they’ve nailed it. Because you can do it way too soon and I think I’ve seen it. I’ve just seen it before. It’s easy to think you’ll get more by doing more. More of what? More widgets, or more doing a better job of the widget you already have? To start with I’d always choose that. Once you nail it then, and you feel confident, and you know you’re building on this base and that whatever you do builds on top of that base, that’s a great time to do it. So if you’re confident that you’re not going to do this and just have this fall away, that’s probably for me key. If you feel that you’re in a position where whatever you do is going to build on your previous success. It can either be something that is sold to the same customers, but often what we were doing is something that would be sold to a whole group and new customers.
And we still initially when we sell the Quad Lock still today, I don’t go out and say, “Get something that mounts to your phone and your car and your mirror for your bathroom and you can use it and wirelessly charge when you’re at your computer desk,” because no cares about everything. It’s too much. We go out and say, “Here’s the best thing to put on your bike. Here’s the best thing to put on your motorcycle to mount your smartphone. Here’s the best way to have your phone next to your computer wirelessly charging while you’re working.” We do those, and then guess what. We also do this, and we also do that, and we’ve got the car mount. You love it next to your desk? Grab the car mount. You love it in your car? Grab the bike mount.
So the old saying, better be something to someone than nothing no one. Like, it’s so easy to complicate what you’re doing, and it’s a lesson I learned when we did Opena case and we made the first Shopify site for that ourselves, and just hacking away. And we had the homepage and you went to a product page and you could buy. Then, why don’t they just buy it from the homepage? And it was like, iPhone 4 when we made it for, in white and black. That was all. It’s so easy to have success making a website for one product that comes in two colours. There’s nothing to it, right? It’s so hard to screw up.
Fast forward to now. Try to make a website that when people land on the page, they may be a cyclist, could be a motorcyclist, could be a runner. There could be a mom that wants to read recipes off it in the kitchen or a dad for that matter, or whatever they want to do. It’s hard to do that, and it took us a time to work out how to do that, and we need time, money. You need time just to learn.
With that single simple product that you know, it’s an iPhone bottle opener. I reckon guys 20 to 35 are going to love this thing if they drink beer and have an iPhone. That is so easy to know. So I think picking your battles, and when you have limited funds, limited time to get it right, pick the easier battle, and then as you get good at that, start picking the harder battles which is that new SKU, that new product, that new product market segment that you may go after, whatever that is. Because you only have so many hours in the day. You only have so much mental capacity to do these things. It’s very easy to overload. I mean, you have seen entrepreneurs running really fast and going nowhere. It’s very easy to do.
Nathan: We talk about nailing it. Define nailing it. How do you know when the next time is like yes, because nailing it could be sub half a mil a year. Nailing it could be sub 2 mil a year.
Rob: I don’t think it’s a number of sales. I think for us being bootstrapped, obviously things have got to pay for themselves, because if they don’t pay for themselves you go out of business pretty quick, right? And even to scale a bootstrapped company you actually have to have pretty good margins as well if you want to scale it pretty quick. Keeping a lot of that in mind can sometimes dictate what you’re going to do, because when you’re talking about especially physical product, even pretty much any product, a lot of dollars and energy and time gets spent before the first sale happens, so that’s got to come from somewhere.
So I like to think of your next product is piggybacking off the back of the previous product, so that previous product is paying for itself, paying for everybody else, and it can start to pay for the new product because the new product’s got to hit the market, find its legs, work out how to do it, and that can take you to here, and then that product and that product combined can start helping pay for the next product, the next thing you want to do good.
Nathan: That’s really interesting.
Rob: We did that out of necessity I think, because to scale with very limited resources at the time, that was just the only way we knew how to do it, I suppose.
Nathan: Let’s just say you have a flagship product. You’re profitable. You got good margin. You’re starting to build up some cashflow reserves. You’re paying yourself okay. How do you know? Like, it’s not market saturation.
Rob: No, no, I think it depends what kind of market you’re in but if you’re online, there’s always something like, it’s like blowing up a balloon and as you get to the edges you just need to make the room bigger. And so what do you do to do that? So you’re blowing really hard, but there’s no point blowing if the room’s only this big, so how do you make it bigger? And we’ve always found, like just recently we had a website called Quad Lock JP, Quad Lock Japan.
So we’re doing Japan. We’ve been there for a few years. It’s going okay. It’s a tricky market. But what about the rest of Asia? What if we could really open up to the rest of Asia? Okay, what do we do? Yeah, we can go make a website, but the website is not the thing what we need. What we need is a good way to get stock to people throughout Asia, so we got to go look at that problem first, find that problem, solve that problem, then spin that other website up, plug it into that fulfilment partner, test it and make sure it works.
I mean first what we do is run some tests to see if people in these markets are even interested, and if they look like they’re interested, shut the whole thing down and work out a good way of taking, because even if we have to ship it to them DHL Express post and we don’t make any money, it doesn’t matter. Because it’s proving a point. It means that the room can get bigger, and then when we do that, we go on and do that scene, and then we spin out that new version of the website that’s working everywhere else. Then we got to try and get those people, we put them in the mix, and then all of a sudden you got the exact same products, but you’re selling it to more people because you’ve got a bigger audience. Success can come from so many ways. There’s so many ways.
Nathan: When you launch your flagship, you want to have complementaries, or more flagships?
Rob: For us, we tend to go for more flagships, but at the same time complementaries are nice. When I say that, if I had a choice, because everything’s a choice. If I had a choice between a complementary product and a new flagship product and the barrier to entry was similar-ish, you’d always go to the new flagship product. If the barrier to entry for complementary was really low and it was a nice little me too product, then you might go down there. The thing for us is those products that are everywhere else are never as good as when a complementary product is proprietary. So for example, like if you buy it for your bike, for the longest time our best complementary product was our car mount. Then wireless charging came out. We turned the car mount from a complementary product, because that car mount’s say $50, right?
Rob: So you’ve bought your, depending what currency you’re in, say it’s 69.95 USD or 80 bucks AUD bike mount, and you’re in the system, and you’re sold on the system. Going and buying a $50 car mount is not that big a deal, right?
Rob: When you get hit up later, you’re already sold. Perfect. Thank you. Grab that, but trying to sell to someone a $50 car mount plus a $34 case when they don’t really know about our solution and how good it is and it’s right next to something that could be $20, it’s harder sell, right?
Wireless charging comes out. All of a sudden, probably our best sort of complementary upsell product which was our car mount to all of the runners and the cyclist and everything, wireless charging made us unique and different in that market again where you just snap your phone on and you’re wirelessly charging through the Quad Lock mount. All of a sudden that product has become a standalone product. Yeah it’s like 100 bucks or something, but it’s unique. It’s quality. It’s got more for people to get involved with initially, so it’s not always a clear line is what I’m getting at. Like complementary, flagship. Was complementary, has gone to full flagship product now doing very well, just standalone. If anything it’s onboarding people to other parts of our ecosystem, and how we often talk about it is onboarding products versus complementary. Onboarding products is where we can go and get a brand new customer rather than a couple more dollars out of that existing customer.
Nathan: Yeah. So you guys think of it, when you think of product, you’ve got products that are there to get new customers, and products that are there to get new customers into certain markets, and then there are products to get existing customers to buy more product.
Rob: You always have the cross-sales as well where running, good product by itself. A lot of cyclists run. They might be interested, and then they don’t have to buy the case. They just buy the mount and put it on their arm, go for a run. Great. So that’s always that sort of cross-sell thing that you get going as well once you have a few SKUs.
Nathan: How long will it take in terms of testing? Because I know you guys didn’t always do motorbike, right?
Nathan: And as you said, you’ve got all these different opportunities. How do you identify that motorbike is an incredible one to go versus X, Y, Z? What do you do there?
Rob: Motorbike’s a good one to ask the question about. We got the existing bike mount, put it on a bike, took some nice photos, chuck it up on the website, and just started marketing to people with the right kind of bikes that we knew it would fit well. I think it was, I looked at these figures the other day. First two months was like, 60 grand worth of sales. Our first month and a half I think we ran it for, shut it down, and said, “Alright, we got to get a good actual product that can fit more of the market and be specifically tailored for that market.” And then we went back to the drawing board, come up with something, push it to the market, learn more. We’ve iterated since then and now we actually have four separate motorcycle mounts that all do very well and it’s one of our biggest categories. We’ve only been doing it two years.
Nathan: Wow. So you do a small test with a page.
Rob: Not every situation lends itself to that as well. That one, it’s seeing whether people buy it, but the other thing is it’s seeing whether people, for us at that time, this is probably two and a bit years ago, or three years ago probably. Seeing if people are going to click on those ads, what the click-through rates are, what countries are interested, what the conversion rates are and then you go, “If it’s working at this level, if we make the proper product and we do the proper content and we do it properly, it’s only going to do better. But if it’s working at that level, we got to go there.”
Nathan: Alright, here’s a good one for you. How many SKUs you have right now in terms of not include the different iPhone, Android case, like actual-
Rob: Physical mounts?
Rob: Not including all the cases.
Nathan: Like different sizes.
Rob: I don’t know. That’s the dead set truth. There’s a few. Yeah. The problem we’re solving out of necessity needs lots of SKUs. Because we have all the iPhones. iPhones still back to iPhone 5 are selling, kind of thing. They all have poncho covers. Some of them have screen protectors. Then we have three different mounts for cycling, four different mounts for motorcycling. We have car mounts and we have wireless chargers and we have desk mounts and we have running armband mounts. We have tripod adapters. So we have lots of little bits and pieces, and the SKUs for what we’re doing are not really important. What’s important is the markets that we’re serving. And the way we think about it, probably we’re not serving iPhone people. We’re serving cyclists. We’re serving motorcyclists. We’re serving drivers. We’re serving people that want, like we call it like lifestyle. Like nice thing on their desk for the wireless charging, that kind of thing.
So that’s our actual market and that’s who we’re serving, so when we plus in a new category, a new vertical like motorcycle, it comes with all the Galaxy customers, all the Pixel customers, Huawei customers, all the iPhone customers.
Nathan: Yeah, that’s a standard. Yeah.
Rob: The standard, yeah. But so the easy way to look at it is the markets and who those people are.
Nathan: Whatever you feel comfortable sharing around volume in the past 12 months, in terms of units, rev. What kind of scale? Do you feel comfortable with-
Rob: The scale we’re at at the moment is, probably the way to look at it is we have six websites, we have eight or nine warehouses. We sell in well over a hundred countries everyday. We move thousands of units everyday.
Nathan: Thousands of units everyday, so hundreds of thousands of units every year.
Rob: Every year, yeah. Not hundreds of thousands of units everyday.
Nathan: Yeah, yeah.
Rob: Not quite.
Nathan: So hundreds of thousands of units every year.
Rob: Yeah, yeah, so there’s stock leaving China every week pretty much.
Nathan: Wow. Okay. So pretty decent scale.
Rob: Yes, decent volume, and the cool thing about it is, I don’t know what the percentage is, 90+ percent of that all goes through Quad Lock’s own channels through our website, through our Amazon stores, through our eBay stores, that kind of thing. We didn’t even have any in their stores.
Nathan: So you’re still pretty hardcore direct to consumer.
Rob: Yeah. Well we went away from that, and now we’re-
Nathan: Coming back.
Rob: Pretty much back there, yeah. Still have some really good partners that do do really good work and provide what I like to call proportional value.
Nathan: Then the next question is, you have a reasonable amount of SKUs and product and segments that you target, and very successful volume business. I walk down the street with you and you’re like, “There’s a Quad Lock. There’s a Quad Lock. There’s a Quad Lock. There’s a Quad Lock.” A lot of people use this product. Do you think that you could achieve the same amount of revenue with less product?
Rob: It’s good question. You could get close to it, but close to it in a way. It’s literally something I was looking at today.
Nathan: 25, 50% less product?
Rob: No, like … A product’s complexity comes from, because you always have those standouts, right?
Rob: Yeah. Everyone has them.
Nathan: 80/20, man. Pareto.
Rob: Yeah, 100%. It’s why I’m wearing 1980 model Jordan 1s. They’re still doing okay for Nike I’d say. How many other hundreds of models shoes would they have that haven’t sold 1% of what these have? But you got to go through them to get to that one.
Nathan: You got to find the gold, man.
Rob: Exactly. But in saying that, there’s complexities that come in the longterm play. So you know, we’ve only been doing Pixel for one model and we’re doing the next model. We’ve just done the next model, right? We’re only just started doing Huawei. But when we started doing Galaxy, that wasn’t that great for us either. But now it’s really good. So you know, where that will be if we do this in two years’ time. It looks insignificant, almost annoying-ish now to do because it can, but you’ve got to do that hard work for them to have two or three models of phone to then be talking about this and it could be 10% of what we do, or I don’t know, 20% of what we do. I don’t know.
But you’ve got to go through that, and it happens with lots of things. You introduce a … It’s not just a new SKU, brings you into a new market. You know, our desk mount wireless charger. There’s a very new, it’s not active. Not activity based. Very new for us. Great upsell. We got to learn how to sell that on its own two feet and get people to be wanting to engage and realise. Because everyone who gets it is telling how much they love it, but then we got to go find people and say, “Actually you’re the kind of person that would like something like this. How about that? Don’t worry if you don’t like it on the bike. This is a new thing that is good for you,” and when you launch it, you may be selling it to all your existing customers, but you may have a chance to have this new onboarding product that can then turn into this thing that can bring in a whole heap of brand new customers.
Anytime you can get new customers, for me that’s where the real value is, only because we know we do a good job of looking after them and keeping those customers. If we didn’t keep the customers then the new customers wouldn’t be as valued as they are, but because we’re very lucky that we have the kind of ecosystem we end up being able to attract really good customers. They like what we do and they come back. An initial sale is worth much more than that initial sale.
Nathan: Yeah, so what I’m hearing, I have had epiphany, is yes, you could achieve the same amount of revenue with less product, but launching new product-
But two years from now maybe you’d be at less revenue.
Nathan: That’s right. So you guys are launching new products and the power of launching more product is the data that you get for where new markets might appear.
Rob: Big time. Yeah, one big part. Another thing is I think after a certain time, and I don’t like talking about this too much is, you get that kind of flywheel effect where you’ve already got momentum and parts of the business can keep himself going, because if we stopped advertising today, we will still sell tomorrow. Six months from time, maybe we won’t be getting many new customers or whatever, but there’s a bit of that flywheel effect that goes on. But these are all things I don’t think you want to bank on. You’ve got to make it work without them, and then when they kick in, it’s very nice.
Nathan: Why don’t you like talking about the flywheel, man?
Rob: Because if I hadn’t been thinking about the flywheel, maybe you start when you’re early on. Maybe you start giving yourself excuses that, “Oh, this will get better when, this will work if this happens, this will …” I like being, “No, we need to fix this now,” and then if it kicks in and does better, great. Loving it. It will make our jobs easier at some point. But yeah, I just feel what we do, we never want to be waiting for something to happen or waiting for something to kick in or waiting for an opportunity to come by. It’s like, no, no, no. Like, let’s go fix that thing. Let’s make that opportunity. Let’s go find out if there’s a way we can do it better now, and if there is, let’s do it.
Nathan: Yeah, because one thing I find interesting even when I look at Foundr is we’re products business too in many aspects. Magazines, books, courses. Now I think in many ways that-
Rob: Everything’s a product.
Nathan: Yeah. Yeah, and I think in many ways the way you can scale a company is through volume of product, and finding one customer or a certain kind of person and serving them in many different ways and tackling different problems for them, and that’s how a lot of companies scale.
Rob: They do.
Nathan: But I think it’s a fine dance though when it comes to ecomm, because you can do it too early.
Rob: You can definitely, and especially physical hardware products because the thing is that new widget that you may be making, the first one might cost you $100,000 and if you can only go get a hundred customers with that, it’s not really going to work out, kind of thing. So you got to test, you got to learn, you got to try and make sure you’re doing the right thing. I mean it can cost you a lot more than $100,000. Like just cost you a lot, but that’s the thing. You’re never going to be certain. You got to be certain as you can be.
Nathan: I’m curious. When it comes to Quad Lock and product development, testing, launching, you got any stories of products that may have bombed or products that you thought weren’t going to do well but have done very well?
Rob: Most of the products that we know are going to do well generally tend to do very well.
Nathan: So you always got helps.
Rob: Well yeah, data, and the other thing is just the more you’re selling to a similar bunch of people, you just get to know how they think, how they click. You see the same requests for similar-ish products come through. They don’t know what you’re working on, but they’re asking the right questions. You see that come through a few hundred times a month. You go, “Okay, there’s something in this.” The other thing is that there’s things that are really great products and we get really great feedback on it that haven’t done as well, but it’s just because they’re in a market that is harder to stand out in a lot of ways. I think our armband is a great example of that.
The product is good. People who use it love it. People run so much with it they wear out the armband. We now sell replacement straps. You can just go on and buy the strap, so the people that use it love it. The thing is that product could be bigger, could do well, because the market’s huge for it, right? It’s maybe bigger than the cycling market in some regards.
Nathan: Yeah, 100%. Yeah.
Rob: Thing is though, it’s a very saturated market. There’s heaps of stuff out there. It’s hard to stick out. Ours is done differently with a quality case. It’s just completely different to everything that’s there. It’s harder for us to stick out in that market and, we do okay. Does it do brilliantly? Probably not. Yeah, it’s just one I think about sometimes.
Nathan: Would you say that at the scale you guys are at and the things that you’re thinking about is like a competitive advantage for you or any company that’s in the products business and they’re playing with reasonable dollars, and you know, you guys are a market leader in your space. The competitive advantage and the number one of the biggest things you need to focus on besides creating good product that people want is that speed of implementation.
Rob: Yeah, so that’s something that we’re working on right now. To just do more, be faster, get more to market. We’re investing in that area to try and up our output effectively. The one thing we have on our side is what you said, being the market leaders. Even if two companies pop up today, this has happened, can pop up today and have a greater product range than us. Thing that you can’t have, you can’t just manufacture like that. You can manufacture product. You can’t manufacture the brand that’s synonymous with the problem that you’re solving. So people that pop up, like I’ve seen it. Things would pop up on Facebook and that that look similar to that. They just get hammered. This is a Quad Lock copy, a Quad Lock knockoff, blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. And you know, they can sell it. They can sell it a bit cheaper. They can do this.
It’s going to take time for them to build a brand around that problem that they’re solving and the products that they’re offering, so they may have a bigger product offering but when the brand doesn’t match up with the product offering and what it is, it still doesn’t have quite the cut through, and then we have other copies type product or ambulation products that they just go to the market and go, “We’re just going to try do similar thing and just do it cheaper.”
The thing for us is, that’s not that big of a worry either because the person that wants it at half the price of what we sell it for, and it’s an inferior product but even even putting that aside, they’re probably not our customer anyway. They’re not the Quad Lock customers, so it’s kind of like-
Nathan: Yeah, you guys are premium products.
Rob: Yeah, someone else can have that part of the market. It’s not the part that we want because we’ve got this part and that’s what we’re doing well, and yeah, there’s this part. There may be mad volume there as well, but it’s hard to go and get the whole thing. We’ll just take our part that’s here.
Nathan: I’m curious because you guys have had heaps of copycats a lot.
Rob: It’s something we’ve-
Nathan: Does it get to you?
Rob: It doesn’t get to me anymore. It’s almost laughable when another one pops up sometimes, and just what’s funny is when the product’s similar but then the video is almost frame by frame same, the website is just rehashed, that kind of thing.
Nathan: Do they ever last? Do they stay around?
Rob: Most of them don’t. One or two have. One or two have become competition. It’s a funny game. Look at customer reviews, because we put our reviews right there for everyone to see. Companies that copy us do that as well, but when we have got, I was showing someone new at work this just yesterday and she’s like, “Oh, so you’ve got 3,600 on a single product, and they’ve got six.” I’m like, “Yeah, and that’s only 3,600 in the US. Let’s go to the EU store. We’ve got another two and a half thousand there.” And see, okay, I still think we’re doing a fair bit more when they copy us anyway, and that just comes back to they may have a brand name. They may have a widget. How long’s that brand been pushing that widget?
When people think about, “What’s the thing that locks an iPhone to the bike?” People think Quad Lock. If you go on Google Analytics and type in iPhone bike mount, you can see the iPhone bike mount search go down and now Quad Lock’s a bigger search than the actual organic search term.
Nathan : Yeah. It’s crazy.
Rob: At that point you know we’ve got something that’s going to take quite a bit of work for someone to knock us off.
Nathan: You guys are category killer.
Rob: In saying that, you got to keep the edge. You don’t want to get complacent because you know, you can grow fast, you can probably go the other way fast as well. We haven’t experienced it and we don’t want to, but we just want to make sure we hold our spot and I think a lot of it comes back to, we’d rather put out one good thing than four average things.
Nathan: Hundred percent.
Rob: We’ve just got to keep that in mind because it’s also the quality, the branding, the price point, all that. It’s the story we tell ourselves and our customers. It’s also the expectation that we have, you got to have of yourself, and your customers will have of you. So the expectation is that we’ve got this thing, and you’ve had three or four Quad Lock here. You go, “This is going to be good.” You might not even look any further, but, “This is going to be good. I’m going to buy that,” because they’re sold already. So you got to respect that and you got to try and live up to that and not every brand is going to live up to it every single product every single time, but you just got to show that if you don’t, you’re there to fix it and then you get that product to where it needs to be.
Nathan: That’s a really interesting point because it is a fine dance around like, we both can agree that in order to scale and continue to scale, you need more products and you need to speed up that product growth cycle of getting to market. That’s your competitive advantage. If it usually takes you 18 months, if you can drop that down to 12 or six months, then you can put out three times more new product and give yourself the chance to get that data and find your next tipping point product, but then at the same time you have to have some sort of scoring around, does this product hit this? Like the benchmarks of, because you can put out a whole tonne of rubbish and lose. You know?
Rob: Totally. I mean, we’re at the point because say getting a product to market for us is a big thing. We’re at the point where we sort of do the dead set winners, if you know what I mean. So we’re sort of picking those dead set winners and going. We’re back in the sure thing. So it probably is a space where, we’re all learning. There’s probably a space where you’re doing two or three dead set winners, one outlier or something like that, or some other product that is a bit of a red herring but it could be really cool in your product mix.
Nathan: One thing I think’s really smart as well that you guys have done is you’ve created a brand, and you’re not just like the, yes, you do have the mounts market, but you can bolt on other things-
Rob: Other things, yeah.
Nathan: In different areas and I think a lot of companies, they get pigeonholed, product-based businesses where they even call themself something so specific, and then how do you get out of it? Because when you have a product-based business, things die.
Rob: I had two conversations over the break with two separate people and they were talking Quad Lock … And they’re like, “Oh, how’d you come up with the name?” I’m like, “Well, it’s the quad, and it locks on.” And then I realised, the actual name Quad Lock now, in some people’s mind who just maybe, it’s just a thing. It’s not the quad that … Like, you know, it’s not a quad point that lock-
Nathan: No, no, no.
Rob: It doesn’t matter, and I thought, “Ah, that’s very, very good. Mission accomplished.”
Nathan: Yeah, that’s a good lesson. Yeah, yeah. That’s a good lesson because I think one thing I think about, because we’ve found as I said, we’re a products-based business and we’re trying, to same as you, speed of implementation, speed to market, but still keep great quality.
Rob: Buts it’s a brand as well.
Nathan: It’s the brand, so you’ve got the brand so we can bolt on different things. But one thing that we and I’m always thinking about is that S curve. Have you heard about the S curves where while one product’s going, your job, when you’re at decent scale, your job is to find the next one so then you can keep growing, right?
Rob: I think it’s like that piggybacking idea.
Nathan: Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Rob: I didn’t know it was called the S curve.
Nathan: Yeah, yeah, yeah. They’re called S curves.
Rob: Probably sounds better than piggybacking.
Nathan: That’s another thing to think about, right? Is yes, you might have winning products right now, and it’s a fine dance, but it will die out. Like the Nokia mobile phone, you know, when you were playing Snake. I used to love that. That died out, man.
Rob: The value is in the relationship with the customer because your widgets will change, but if you got that relationship with the customer as well as a brand. Because it’d be easy to have a brand that’s only sold through, I don’t know, a whole heap of other stores and you’ve got no other way, and when your widget dies, they don’t need you anymore and even if they put that brand on the shelf of something, if you don’t have that way of talking to that community and explaining, “This is who we are and this is now what we’re doing,” or pushing that new thing into that market.
If you just become that one widget solving one problem, you will never be able to live through something like that effectively where when you got that relationship with your customer and you’ve got more than just a customer database that’s a whole heap of emails of people that you know and you know where they’re going to buy and what they’re going to buy and all that. More than that, the data’s nice but if you got the relationship with them and they trust you, it gives you the opportunity to do all these other things. Because if they’ve had a couple of good experiences with you, they’ll want more.
Nathan: Yeah, I agree. I’m curious, what things should people be thinking about when it comes to deepening that relationship, going deeper? Besides having great product.
Rob: Besides having great product is, yeah, I think all these things. All these little things we talk about can work if you’ve got great products. If you don’t got product, then you’re in trouble as well, but I talk about not trying to get someone to solve your problems. So if your problem is that you need to sell more, don’t look for someone else to solve that problem. Because when you do, when they do solve it for you, it’s like a short term measure or they’re going to take some more value out of that relationship or they’re going to own that relationship. So you hear brands going, “We were having trouble selling here. Retail is dying. We need to go online. We’ll go to Amazon.”
To me that’s a nightmare. It’s like, hang on. You’re having trouble in retail. You want to sell online, build your own online store, get your own customers, come to your own online store. Maybe there’s part of it the strategy could be Amazon, but Amazon’s not the strategy. Because Amazon can drop you. They can put in something else. You’ll be competing against everybody else on that marketplace. You can’t email them. You can’t get them back. You can’t do any of these things.
So I think keep that relationship. Keep that relationship strong with the customer. Keep your brand at the forefront of whatever they’re doing so they’re not thinking, “I’m going to go to Bunnings and get a Ryobi drill.” They’re thinking, “I’m going to go to Ryobi and get the Ryobi drill.” And so that to me is the plan that I think we’ll see many more brands take on in the next couple of years. People are starting to do it now, but I still think their approach is fragmented.
Nathan: Rob, let’s talk a little bit about the course and the module you taught. We talked a lot about product development. Obviously you spent a lot of time thinking about this stuff, as do I, so what can people expect to learn in your module of the Ecommerce Masters course?
Rob: I think we talked about knowing the right time to come out with that second product, second album. When do you hit the market up and say, “We were this and we’re now this and this,” and how do you do that? The differences between that sort of complementary versus that brand new product that’s going to bring in new exciting customers, get you into a new product market, but then we also talked about the fact that it’s a bit simple to think that, “I need to grow. I need new customers.” Like, there’s other ways of growing your business that is developing new markets and pushing that product into the new market, and that could be geography-based or it could be just market-based within the same geography that this product can actually go between a couple of different markets, so using that same widget throughout different markets.
So there’s multiple ways to develop new products, multiple ways to work out which products are the best ones to develop. We look at how to prioritise your ideas and what could be of more or less value. Just because you like something, you don’t ask your girlfriend and your best mate. You try and look a little bit deeper than that and see, because people are only going to tell you everything’s great, but you may be the only person that likes that idea so you want to work that out quick. We touch on all of that and much, much more.
Nathan: We have to work towards wrapping up. I’m excited to get Emily to go through your particular module because I know it’s going to help her. She’s going through a product development phase. I’ve even talked to you about it offline around yeah, conquering and stainless steel and all this kind of stuff and yeah, there’s heaps to be done, so I’m really excited and thank you for taking the time to teach for this particular module for this course.
Rob: Yeah, no worries. Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure and an honour.
Nathan: Yeah, you’re welcome man. You’re really good at what you do. Want finish off with we were just saying offline, this is a great conversation. We hit the cameras, we hit stop, and I said, “This is a good conversation because no one talks about this kind of stuff.” Like, we’re kind of talking about reasonably high level stuff around product development and-
Rob: Without the beer.
Nathan: Yeah, without the beer. Yeah, because usually we talk about this stuff over beers, and it’s not like the typical stuff you’d see on a podcast or an interview where it’s like your ten steps to success. And I just wanted to ask you, what do you think people should be thinking about if they want to build a successful multimillion dollar ecommerce brand, without giving us the ten steps to success?
Rob: I think for sure, don’t worry about the ten steps of success. Worry about looking at people who are doing things that you wish you were doing. Don’t compare yourself to them, but learn from them. Look at why they’re doing something. Look at what they’re doing and then why they’re doing it, and if you can start to work some of that out, because often people are not telling you their best tricks. And they’re not necessarily tricks. Their lessons, their learnings. It’s stuff that they’ve tried and tested and they’ve had success with and now they’re looking for the new success, maybe doing something similar in a different aspect of their business or whatever it is. There’s usually something there that successful people are trying to leverage off or trying to have similar success again. So you just want to look at those people, see what they’re doing, and try and read between the lines.
Because that’s really where the gold is. The gold’s in the lessons and the learnings. It’s not in the actual tips, because exactly what works for them won’t exactly work for you, but if you can see why they’re doing it. They’re doing it because they are at this point in your business. Understand that, okay, when I’m at that point, maybe that’ll be relevant to me, but there’s so many different bits and pieces out there that you can get and so anytime you get that opportunity to get an insight like that, really take it. And don’t take it by sitting down with a notepad about to copy down exactly what they say. Take it in, let it wash over you, and try and really look for the lessons and the learnings within it.
Nathan: Yeah. I love that, man. One thing one of my mentors Mitch taught me once was this concept of situational stage advice. Just because Gary Vee says that you should respond to every single person on your Instagram account, if you’re just starting, you don’t have time to do that and that might not be the best use of your time. But he’s got like, a thousand-person staff.
Rob: But what that means is, I’ve got to try and get back to a few.
Nathan: Yes. Yeah, exactly.
Rob: And when he says you got to do a hundred content pieces, you’re like, “Can I do that? Probably not. Can I do more than I’m doing today tomorrow? Probably.”
Nathan: Look, thanks so much for your time.
Rob: No, thank you, man.
Nathan: Yeah, always a pleasure.
Rob: Always. Thanks, man.
Nathan: Awesome. Hey guys, so I hope you enjoyed this in depth conversation with Rob about everything product development and scaling your ecommerce brand, and if you enjoyed this and you’d like to learn more on how to actually scale your ecommerce brand and you actually have an ecommerce business and you got revenue, you’re trying to grow it. Let’s just say you’ve got a couple of team members and you’ve got a product that sells quite well, or a couple of different products and you want to learn from Rob and five other incredible instructors that have all built multimillion dollar ecommerce brands. Make sure you go to Foundr.com/EcommerceMasters or Foundr.com/AdvancedEcommerce.
We’ve launched this incredible course. We’ve found legit practitioners, not gurus. People that spend most of their time all they’re doing is growing their businesses. They don’t teach this stuff. We’ve twisted their arm to actually teach what they’re learning building real businesses, so if you want to learn more I highly recommend you check out that course. And if you do want to start, like you haven’t started an ecommerce store, make sure you check out our other course called Start and Scale by Gretta. She’s an incredible founder. She’s built four multimillion dollar ecommerce stores. She’s our instructor for how to start your own ecommerce store.
Key Resources From Our Interview With Rob Ward
- Visit the Annex Products website