Michael Bower tells the Sellry story. A full transcript of the episode is included below!
Michael: Hello folks, and welcome to eCommerce QA. This is the podcast where store owners, directors of eCommerce and eCommerce managers can stay up-to-date on the latest tools and technologies in eCommerce. I'll be joined on the show by my colleague and partner-in-crime, Dillon Holst. Our goal is to handle one or two questions per episode. You can check us out on the web at ecommerceqa.tv. There, you will be able to get in touch, ask us questions, and just generally participate. Hello folks, and welcome to eCommerce QA. This is the show where we keep it frolic-y and futuristic, talking about the latest in eCommerce. I’m joined by my colleague Noelle. Hey, Noelle.
Noelle: Hey, Michael. So today, we’re going to reverse the roles, and I’m going to interview you on Sellry’s evolution as well as your thoughts on a few different questions. Ready to go?
Michael: I’m ready.
Noelle: Alrighty. You started out as Mike’s Biz Help. Now you’re Sellry. Can you give me a brief on what each company was, and why you switched?
Michael: Yeah, you know, there’s been several iterations. So, back in the day, I used to do eCommerce with some other family members, and we were selling stuff. And the company didn’t work out, and I’d like to say that it wasn’t really my fault. It was probably partly my fault, but I learned a lot. So, from there I kind of got cold feet and felt like, “oh, I don’t have a real job”, so I started working in a machine shop, which is a great career if you haven’t done it before. But it was a little bit challenging for me since I was used to the freedom of doing whatever needed to be done. I also wasn’t that great at it, and so I was one of the first layoffs in 2009, the spring of 2009, February. I remember because I thought I had mono, and I was in bed for weeks, and I got the call saying that I was going to be let go. And I felt a strange kind of relief, because within a day I had called everybody I knew and I said “hey, I’m available. I can help you solve your problems that you have in your small business.” And I called myself Michael Bower Digital, and that was supposed to encompass anything that I thought I could handle digitally. Building flash banners, and fixing problems with email, and fixing people’s computers and so, yeah that’s kind of how I was a small business handyman. I quickly realized that I’m an informal person, and decided to change the brand to Mike’s Biz Help. Rolls off the tongue a little more easily, shorter.
Noelle: Yeah, yeah.
Michael: And I tried to do everything minuscule, branding-wise. Like, my email address was mb instead of my full name, and my website was kind of minimalistic and it was fun, fun stuff. But after that, I started focusing more instead of going into people’s offices and fixing their technical problems, I focused more on the marketing and the website side of stuff and that was working great for me, so I continued to focus on that, until I could basically work from my office and handle not only their in-office problems over LogMeIn, but also their website problems. And then I heard about this thing called Magento, and that was when Magento was just coming along strong. This was about 2010/2011. I decided to completely niche and focus on Magento because I thought it was going to be a really big thing, and it was.
Noelle: Yeah, yeah.
Michael: Yeah, that’s what I did then. I mean, Sellry now, of all surprises, right? We still do some Magento work, mostly for higher-end projects, people with special requirements. The main thing that’s changed, I would say, back then I was essentially just a hired gun. I didn’t have any teammates. And now we’re able to solve some pretty complicated problems.
Noelle: That’s awesome. You talked a little bit about it, but what got you into eCommerce in the first place? Was it just like a love you have, was it just “oh hey, I can do this; I’m out of a job, I’m going to go do it”, and then it evolved? What was the catalyst there?
Michael: I mean, yeah, like I said, going from running an eCommerce company, every part of it, and having my hands in all the pots, to a more traditional career, I felt like my life had been constricted. When I finally was able to broaden back out and do what I had really enjoyed doing, it was great. I loved the freedom that eCommerce brings as a business model. You can live anywhere, you can work with anyone.
Noelle: Yeah, I do love that as well. What are the three most strategic moves that you’ve made, that have really helped you along the way?
Michael: That’s a good question. I can definitely point to a few strategic moves, I think I can summarize it to three. So the first one was niching down on eCommerce, and Magento specifically. That was a really good move; it was perfectly timed. And that was 2009/2010, right when the great recession was going on, but we grew every year even then, we were growing.
Michael: The second one, I would say, was focusing on the needs of logistics companies and companies that are in that space. This was right when a lot of eCommerce companies were realizing that it’s cheaper potentially, especially when you get to volume, to use a third-party logistics provider. And so we started working with logistics software companies, they would refer us to their clients who were warehouses, and those warehouses would engage with us and they would also refer us directly to their clients. So it was kind of a two-tier referral system. The third thing, I would say, is the fact that we’ve remained relatively agnostic with regard to technology. So while we do have partnerships with certain software solutions, we avoid partnerships that would require us to endorse one solution contractually, or to not offer another solution even when we thought it was the best, and so on.
Noelle: Yeah. Which, I think that’s perfect. I mean, just from the little experience I have, everybody’s situation is so different. So, to have the freedom to really provide the solution instead of having to stick with one thing, in my mind, is so crucial.
Michael: I mean, there’s some drawbacks to it, for sure. We aren’t as close to the most cutting-edge data that would be provided to partners, but I think it’s worked out well. It’s definitely something that’s important to me, is to maintain a certain a certain level of ability to “be objective”.
Noelle: Uh-huh. Cool. So, moving on, we touched a little bit on Sellry, and now I just kind of want to get your thoughts on a bit more random assortment of questions. What qualities aided you the most in starting your company? Another way to say this question would be, for a new store owner or service owner/service provider, what would you say are the three most important things that they lean on? Or, it can be less than three.
Michael: Three most important things for a business person?
Noelle: Mhm. What helped you starting, and what would you say would help others starting?
Michael: Oh, what helped me. Ok. Well, I can think of three things, and they’re related. One of them I’m good at, one of them I’m bad at, and the other one is…well, you’ll see. The first thing is, I have a lot of staying power for whatever reason, so I’m able to work on one problem for literally as long as it takes to solve that problem. And sure, I get frustrated but I just keep working on it, I don’t give up. Just born that way. And then there’s the flip side of that, which I’m actually not very good at, which is knowing when to stop working on something. So, sometimes I’ve looked at the software landscape and realized, we should’ve stopped working on this platform a year ago because nobody uses it anymore. And we’ve gotten better at that, just keeping track of ––like, every year we do a review now, to figure out what’s coming down the tube, what’s important, what’s not. I do a lot of reading, so I try and counterbalance that.
Noelle: Yeah, that’s great. So, you put the supports in place for where there is a struggle, for the challenge.
Michael: Yeah, and then the third thing I guess is the wisdom to know the difference. So, when you need to keep going at something, when you need to stop, and a lot of this is dependent on scale. So, a company who is really small needs to be really smart about where their cash goes, ‘cause they need to spend cash wisely in certain ways but if they spend it in the wrong order, you can go bankrupt. What’s the order of events? Well, it’s easy to say, oh well get more sales, raise your revenues, raise profits. Well, there’s a lot that goes into that. Knowing which thing to do first is tricky.
Noelle: Do you have a favorite quote or saying that you either used to motivate yourself or you used as a model for the company?
Michael: Yeah, so I have two that I can think of. One is more of a personal motivation thing. It’s just a simple phrase, “hope can’t be taken”.
Noelle: Hm, I love that.
Michael: No matter who you are, no matter what you’re doing, it’s more than just “while there’s life, there’s hope”. Hope can’t be taken, it can be forfeited though.
Michael: So, we can choose to give up our hope, for something, for someone, for your future, but you don’t have to. No matter what your circumstances are, you can maintain that. And yeah, that’s important to me. The idea of hope.
Noelle: That’s great, yeah.
Michael: The other one is more of a motto, more for the company. It’s a quote that’s attributable to Einstein, though I’m not actually sure whether he said it or exactly how it goes, but a paraphrase I’ve heard and latched onto was “make things as simple as possible, but not simpler”.
Michael: So, I love that. It’s like, there’s this idea called Occam’s Razor, which is the idea that the simplest explanation is probably true. Well, I’d like to contest that. But, the simplest explanation for a technical problem that actually meets the need, that’s definitely the one you should do most of the time. Yeah, I like that quote.
Noelle: Yeah, no, that’s great. And this next question, it’s a bit random, but I have enjoyed talking to different store owners about this and just getting their feedback, and it’s on mentors. And what are your thoughts on business mentors?
Michael: Everybody knows it’s a good idea.
Noelle: For you personally, has it been?
Michael: It has, yeah. I mean, especially early on when I wasn’t sure what to do, what to focus on, and what to ––you know, which technology should I focus on? When I didn’t know anything about the industry, it’s particularly important.
Michael: And now I feel like it’s important again, although probably for a different reason. I
think when I’ve hit major decisions or plateaus, knowing how to get past those is…you know, somebody who’s already done that before is really helpful.
Noelle: Yeah. And when you’re looking for a business mentor, what qualities, or what really makes so you go, oh that person, that would really help me out.
Michael: For me, it’s “do they get it?”, and what I mean by that is, do they actually know what they’re talking about? Usually if you watch someone enough, you can tell whether or not they’re just talking or whether they know what they’re talking about. And that’s the thing, everybody knows about certain things, knows a lot about certain things. Everyone’s an expert on something. If you’re looking for a mentor, I’m a big advocate for finding a mentor who has more expertise than you in not just one area, but a small range of areas, so maybe a marketing expert could be a mentor in marketing. But I’m not going to go to that person and ask them to tell me how to run operations.
Michael: I mean, I know some people that can know all those things and that’s great, but I find, for me at least, it’s really helpful to hear input from a lot of sources and then I can…it’s almost like a…do you know how an old CR television works, where there’s three electron guns that are shooting at the screen really fast; one of them’s shooting red, one of them’s shooting green, and one of them’s shooting blue.
Michael: And when all three combine, then you see the picture.
Noelle: Yeah. Oh, interesting, yeah.
Michael: So that, to me, that’s how mentors are.
Noelle: To you, it’s almost like you need a lot of input from a lot of people, so they’re not actually formally mentors, and yet it seems like you kind of have mentors even though they’re not formal mentors. So you get a lot of opinions, a lot of input, and then like the tv, it all comes together, you see the picture, you make your move.
Michael: Yeah, I mean, there’s also the term “advisor”, that’s used a lot. And that’s a good one for less formal, here and there. And for me, mentor, I would say, is probably a smaller number of people. But it’s still somewhat discipline-oriented.
Noelle: Yeah. Could you share any tips on finding a business mentor?
Michael: Well, I think that, for me, when I think about who I would want to be mentored by next, I usually…my head goes to someone like Elon Musk or someone who’s way up there, and I’m pretty sure that Elon wouldn’t be willing to mentor me. You know, he’s busy doing other things, he’s very careful about his time. But I think just going ahead and reaching out, and even doing that exercise…well, putting yourself out there, even to someone you think might be above your league, and just taking that step. I heard something great about a year ago. The idea was that, if you have an idea that you know is good, you just don’t know if it would be able to happen, spend two minutes and figure out what the person’s email is, and email them.
Noelle: Hm, so just putting out there, basically, just trying.
Michael: Yeah. If you don’t try, it won’t happen. If you do try, it might.
Noelle: Yeah. So what are three values you incorporate into your client experience?
Michael: So, there are three things that are really important to me. I’m not just making up those things, it does happen to be three things. The first is, being on time. And this is something that’s a challenge for technical firms who are building software, building websites. And the reason for that is, the process to build something that’s not the same as what everybody else has, is more like building a custom house than it is building a pre-fab house or a tract house. Tract houses, you’ve seen these go up, you can build a hundred of them in a day, it seems like.
Michael: Custom homes take a lot longer because you’ve got to figure things out along the way. But it really irks me when we’re facing a situation where a client needs something done by a particular time, and somebody says “well, we just don’t know how long it’ll take.” Even if that’s the true answer, that’s irritating to me. So, I’ve always been very passionate about getting things done on time. And if not, being up front about the fact that that we can’t do that on time. Another thing is the idea that, we want to do the thing that’s actually the right thing. And I alluded to this earlier, but knowing in what order to do things is important to me. You know, if you come to me and you have a small company, and you say, “I would like to implement an ERP”, which is a very big, expensive piece of software, I’m going to say no, that’s not what you need. I don’t want to help you do that because that will be…we’ll all lose out. You know what I mean? So, doing the thing that actually needs to be done, and that goes into, what’s the visual style that needs to be accomplished?
Noelle: Yeah, guiding the client. Not just doing whatever they say, but if you know better than what they’re saying, putting that info out there, so you’re kind of protecting them along the way.
Michael: Yeah, I’m kind of like a bulldog. I said this earlier, I can tend to hang on too long to something. But I’m really ferocious about wanting to make sure we’re doing the right thing for the client, and we often don’t. I mean, it’s hard to figure out what the right thing to do is, and sometimes things go sideways, but that’s pretty important to me. I would say a third thing is just, I’m not a real big advocate of the brand of lifestyle business that basically means, raise your rates through the roof and be highly unavailable, and the perceived value will increase, and people will think you’re great but you’re actually just not giving good service. So, there’s kind of a big movement in the web world of service providers who are trying to get a better lifestyle and not be so much on the hook for late nights and things like that, and so they tend to do everything they can to formalize processes and not be as available, and not give up their phone number, and raise their rates, and it makes them come across as maybe more professional, or maybe they are more professional, but that’s not me. I don’t know, I want my clients that I am working hard to help succeed to be able to get ahold of me. Availability, I guess?
Noelle: So you’re basically willing for a more high touch.
Michael: I enjoy it. I like talking to people about how to solve their problems.
Noelle: Hm. And I’m sure for clients like that, it would be really helpful.
Noelle: For sure. So, kind of the same question, what are three values you incorporate into your team culture. So, maybe they’re not values, but what are things that you really love having the freedom to do, and you want your team to experience the same thing?
Michael: Yeah, ok. So, I really want my team to experience the same thing I was provided early on in my career. Which was, “Hey, here’s a problem, solve it”. You can have all the resources you need, you can have all the advice you need. You can have everything you need to solve this problem, but you take it by the horns and solve it. I work well with people who are able to do that, I try and hire people who are able to do that. That’s something that is important to me, is the ability to figure out a solution without relying on somebody else. Another thing is just, we value transparency as a team. So, there’s certain information that we’re not able to disclose with all team members, but in general we make it very easy for anybody to find out the information that they need. We try and keep things very flat, try and value people’s opinions, and really just help people feel empowered to do what they need to do.
Noelle: Hm, that’s cool.
Michael: I think those two are probably the biggest ones.
Noelle: Ok. What helps you go into your week, prepared?
Michael: The biggest thing for me is, when I roll out of bed, to write down ten things I’m thankful for. And some days that’s all the time I’ve got. I need to go right in and take care of something, or a meeting or something like that, but there’s always enough time to be thankful. And I find that when I do that, it changes my whole outlook.
Noelle: That’s cool. A few more questions, then we’ll wrap up. Define, if you will, why you’re doing what you’re doing, and what success in the company looks like for you.
Michael: So, I’ve had a vision for a long time, of helping people with awesome missions help make the world a better place. And, I mean, I’d like to think we’re doing some small version of that now; we’re working with some really great clients, people that care about more than just thinking about people who are trying to improve other people’s lives. And I come from a family of people who, a lot of relatives are in social work and education. And these other professions where it can be really hard to get things done or you can work really hard for a really long time and see things change in a negative direction. And I want to become kind of a consultant to the type of people who are trying to make big moves in the world to improve it, but they’re not quite sure how to do it practically, or they don’t have the resources. I want them to be able to focus on their mission and to support them in that.
Ultimately I’d like to y’know, fund movies, really powerful, really great films. So, I want to help people through doing business, I know that sounds like “oh yeah, yeah...like every person who’s running a business says that.” But, I’ll be candid and say that I don’t see that we're doing this all that much right now, but that’s what we want to do.
Noelle: Yeah. Well, I can sense your passion there, and I think that when there is a passion for that, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to do it, y’know. I think the results from that will be good.
Where do you see Sellry in five years?
Michael: In five years we’re going to see a couple of changes in Sellry, I think, I hope. One is that our kind of, more complicated and tricky projects, I’d love to see us take those learnings, and make them accessible to everybody doing eCommerce. The market as a whole is trending in the opposite direction. For a little while here, since 2008, just the emergence of a plethora of open source software, we saw that it was pretty easy to implement a website that, in many ways would rival the big guys. That gap is actually widening now, it's becoming more expensive to keep up with the Joneses as it were. I think that’s understandable as the industry begins to mature, but at the same time, there are some things I’d love to be able to make accessible to vendors that they wouldn’t have access to otherwise.
Noelle: Huh, that’s cool. Then I think our last question for the day is, what can you tell us that would be helpful to other store owners and operators for the rest of their career.
Michael: The rest of their career as a store owner?
I like the term product because it applies so well to eCommerce. You can think of product as the thing you are selling, but for me, product is actually the eCommerce property, the website. I like to think about it as improving the one main thing. What’s the one main thing you need to improve? Keep that top of mind. Every single store owner I’ve talked to knows that certain products are better than others. Well, take one, and work on improving that above and beyond the others. I’ll give you one specific thing, if you like.
Michael: If you’re selling eCommerce right now, take one product, treat it like an info product. Make a long-form landing page for it. Treat it as special, do a kick-starter on it. Do something that makes that one product really succeed, and then scale it out. So, I think you can apply that in a lot of ways. If you’re selling timeshares, what is the one location that shows the most promise? Focus on that.
Noelle: So basically select, and then hit that one selection hard.
Michael: Yeah because, in eCommerce the thing is it’s easy to sell more product, but there’s not enough of an emphasis on drawing attention to the thing you do best. Surprisingly, sometimes it’s the smaller companies that do this best.
Noelle: Cool well, this has been a great discussion, I’ve learned some things through it, and I loved some of the quotes you shared, those were great. So thank you for the time Michael, and we will talk again soon.
Michael: Sounds good, thanks again for the interview. Folks, show notes for some of the interesting things we talked about will be at the bottom of the page, on ecommerceqa.tv, you can go there and sign up as well so you receive a notification every time we release an episode.
Thanks again everybody!