Jules Fishman is a serial entrepreneur and Amazon ninja. Starting with the Air Lounger, Jules has created a line of outdoor products under the Chillbo brand, several of which dominate their categories on Amazon.
In the uber-competitive world of online retailing, this level of success doesn’t happen by accident. Curious to learn how Mr. Fishman cracked the online sales code, I reached him in his homeland of Australia. (Note: Jules’ remarks have been lightly edited for brevity and readability.)
Jules Fishman – Founder & CEO, Chillbo
Online Retailing In 2020 – It’s Not Your Dad’s Internet
John Greathouse: Jules – great to reconnect. We’ve known each other for about seven years… in that time, you’ve been busy. Let’s start with your current venture, Chillbo. What’s the company’s origin story and how did your prior experiences lead you to launch an outdoor, lifestyle business?
Jules Fishman: Thanks John. I spent the better part of my twenties working hard to save my dollars before quitting the rat race to go traveling for six months to a year, at a time. I did that three times and I’ve backpacked through eighty countries now. I loved the freedom and adventure that came with backpacking and whatever the adventure, I always returned home refreshed and ready for my next professional challenge.
Professionally, I’d had some really great experiences building a bicycle business in Australia and helping early stage startups find and validate their first customers at a Startup Accelerator in Silicon Valley. I get really excited about strategy and taking an idea from concept to (the) real world.
With the age of the internet upon us, there has never been a better time to build a business. Many aspects of business, like international sourcing, for example, were previously only available to large companies who had significant resources. Today, those same functions can be performed through apps, software and marketplaces that have leveled the playing field.
Having seen the air loungers in early 2016, I quickly realized that I’d been wanting one of those for my backpacking trips all these years, without even knowing it. I knew straight away that Chillbo was the logical marrying up of my entrepreneurial passion and my love for travel and the outdoors.
Greathouse: Nice – you saw an opportunity before it became a trend and leveraged it to build a sustainable business.
Your company’s mission is to, “… inspire people to get outside and connect with the world.” I can very much relate, as this is the same sentiment that motivates CLIQ Products – in fact, it was my involvement with CLIQ that caused us to recently reconnect. (Note: I’m an Advisor and investor in CLIQ).
I understand that your initial plan was to create a family of outdoor products to supplement your grand slam win, the Air Lounger. How has your strategy shifted from this initial, go-to-market approach?
Fishman: Our business has definitely evolved over the last four years. We could barely keep up with customer demand in the first eighteen months and rolled out a number of new camping and outdoor oriented products to complement our best-selling loungers. Our products are all very distinctive due to our custom patterns and we were very confident that they’d be as popular as our debut release.
However, what we’ve learned is that it takes something really special for someone to upgrade to a new product. It can’t be twenty percent better than what’s out there, otherwise consumers don’t have the impetus to make a new purchase. Your new products need to be twice as good as what’s currently out there, to really get people excited.
As such, we’re now focusing less on making small incremental changes to products already on the market and (are now) focusing on game changers. The air lounger was a game changer and we’re looking for the same transformative innovations in our new products.
Greathouse: Even if they aren’t all game changers, I’m impressed with the number of products you and your team have created in the past four years. Without giving away any secrets, what is your approach to new product development?
Fishman: The first thing that entrepreneurs need to be wary of is getting stuck in the weeds. When we looked at the big picture, we realized that Chillbo was a great brand, but it was a myopic viewpoint to only look for good products in the sphere of camping and outdoors.
We changed our perspective and opened our new product development pipeline to consider all categories. This has been a great move because it makes your business less dependent on one product or category and smooths out the seasonal selling cycle of camping products.
Nowadays, if we find a great product that shows early signs of trending, we determine whether we have an existing brand that it naturally fits into, or whether we need to create a new brand. It’s a really fun process that’s only limited by your imagination.
Greathouse: You’re a world-class online retailer and an Aussie, yet your home country’s sales are a fraction of the business you do in other countries. What is the current state of the Australian online retail market? Are there endemic cultural or structural issues that have impacted its development?
Fishman: Yes, I am often lambasted by other e-commerce entrepreneurs about the state of online retail in Australia. Sorry, not my fault!
Jokes aside, Amazon is very new in Australia and I can probably count the Aussies I know on one hand who have used Amazon to purchase physical products. The main issue with Amazon in Australia is the large area and sparse population that makes shipping expensive. Additionally, there is a low level of price competitiveness and product selection, meaning that most Australians get better pricing, better product selection and faster delivery if they go to the store. We don’t have Prime Shipping and most third-party sellers will only start sending inventory to Australia once the online penetration picks up.
Greathouse: Many online retailers struggle to keep from getting crushed by Amazon, yet you’ve embraced their marketplace and have become an elite merchant. What misconceptions are holding back other online retailers and what should they do to overcome them?
Fishman: There have been some stories about the growing trend of large brands moving away from the Amazon platform so they can exude more control over their end-to-end customer journey. Amazon has strict policies about trying to divert customers to other platforms and they charge a pretty penny for providing the world’s largest online marketplace. Some brands believe it’s better to focus on promoting their own website sales or employing a retail distribution model at the expense of building a presence on Amazon.
However, if you’ve got a really great product that’s unique, you’re missing out on a massive amount of customer demand. People often go to Google when they are doing their product research. Once they’ve found a product they like, they head to Amazon. If you’re not on Amazon, you’re potentially missing out on a big piece of the pie. We feel it’s important to meet customers where they are…. and (in many countries) that’s on Amazon.
If you’re looking to get into Amazon, the first thing I’d do is find someone in your community who has experience as an Amazon seller and can show you the ropes. The marketplace is much more competitive than it was in the early 2010’s and the landscape is built on shifting sands. Beyond that, there are a myriad of courses and podcasts that can arm you with the right tools to build a great business. What I would avoid is the mindset that, “I’ll just throw a few products up on Amazon and they’ll start selling like hotcakes.” That is dangerous in today’s market.
Greathouse: Are there particular podcasts you’re comfortable recommending?
Greathouse: When thinking about products that tend to succeed on Amazon, what characteristics come to mind?
Fishman: There are loads of products on Amazon. More than you can ever imagine – 70,000 different iPhone cases alone. The trick with Amazon is to develop unique products that stand out from the bevvy of me-too products. If you’ve built a brand and social following off-Amazon, that will only help support your products’ sales on Amazon.
We like to focus on products that are new, fresh and trending. Anything that has been around for a long time will have a bunch of top-selling products that have over 2,000 reviews. It is almost impossible to compete with that when your product is new….
Bottom line – unless your product is super unique, has a strong off-Amazon brand or is clearly a much better product than what’s currently out there, I wouldn’t recommend selling your products on Amazon.
Greathouse: Amazon is obviously the dominant online marketplace, but there are others. Which ones have you found the most effective and how do your tactics differ on non-Amazon outlets?
Fishman: Building our Shopify storefront has been effective for two reasons. Firstly, it’s important to have a platform where you own the end-to-end customer experience. There’s no point driving a lot of traffic to Amazon, when you can’t see any attribution data because Amazon is a closed book. This really impacts your paid ads and email marketing strategy. We’re able to see our online ad performance and email metrics with great accuracy on Shopify and that helps us find and nurture leads on our terms and scale up the best campaigns.
The second reason why our Shopify store has been effective in growing our brand relates to social proof. Today’s customers are super smart and do their research. Customers will often head to our website to learn more about our brand and product offering. Once they see that we’re an authentic U.S. brand, that can help accelerate sales on Amazon.
In terms of the different tactics we employ on our site, we definitely spend more time and effort driving organic and paid traffic to our Shopify store. Amazon is very effective at bringing you customers, but you need to work harder to get people onto your own website and optimize the customer journey.
Greathouse: 2020 is a new decade. What innovations can we expect from Chillbo in the coming weeks, months and years?
Fishman: We’re always looking to innovate and explore and we have some big ideas for 2020 that have already got us pretty excited. In addition to new Chillbo designs and products that will hit the U.S. later in the year, we’re focusing on brand collaborations in the Outdoor and Lifestyle market.
Product and marketing collaborations can be super effective at growing your audience, brand awareness and social proof when the target demographics overlap nicely – they can also go horribly wrong when the partnerships are poorly conceived. We love working on organic strategies to build off-Amazon audiences because it helps accelerate both Amazon and website activity. Plus, people in the outdoor industry are pretty laid back, so they’re a pleasure to deal with.