Episode 434 - Todd Westra / Jeremy Parker

00:58 Hey, welcome back to the show. And today I am so excited because we don't meet many people that have four letter domain names to their belonging. And today we do. We've got one on the show, four letter domain name swag .com. Jeremy, will you tell us who you are and what do you do?

01:13 Nice to meet you, Todd. Thank you so much for having me. So I am the co -founder and former CEO of Swag.com. A little high level of Swag .com, we became the fastest growing company in the promotional product space. So that means by Amazon and Google and Facebook and all these big companies and small startups buy quality promotional products from us, branded t -shirts and notebooks and water bottles and mugs and all that kind of stuff for their internal employees other best customers, leads, etc. We built a really automated e -commerce experience that streamlines the process. We have about 15 ,000 plus companies that buy from us. In 2021, we were acquired by a company called Custom Ink, who is the leader in the promotional product space. I've been the CEO two years after acquisition and more recently started a new division called Swag Space underneath Custom Ink that basically takes all the technology that we built over the last 10 years and gives it for free to the promotional product industry world so anyone could easily start selling swag to their audience.

02:20 Smart move, wow. Very cool. So you went from leading the industry and developing the tech that people can utilize to order, but not necessarily be the middle man. So you're offering this to who? Who's your target with this swag space?

02:36 Sure, there's about 18 ,000 promo distributors. So this industry is a $25 billion industry, if you could think of it. And there's some guys that make over 20 million, 30 million. There's some people in our industry that make over a billion, right? But the majority of the industry is three million and less, right? Like the sub three million. The guys who are doing three million and less, they're mom and pops, they're knocking on doors, they're traveling salesmen. Everything that they do is manual, it's fragmented, it's broken. And our idea is this, what if we gave them the most streamlined e -commerce experience for free, that they could upload their logo, their brand colors, instantaneously have the best e-commerce experience, and then when they make sales, it hits our backend and we become the de facto supplier as well. So we're not only the front -facing technology, we're also the backend supplier, and if we do that, we could streamline their operations and make it really easy for them to sell swag.

03:28 All via white label.

03:29 All white label exactly right.

03:31 I love it, I love it. I just thought in my head I've got a good friend that's a franchisee of another swag signage producing production company. Probably your ideal client because they're a small town doing signage. If they could offer more, they would. This is cool.

03:47 That's exactly right. Yeah. So the initial target demo is these 18 ,000 promo distributors, but we have all these ideas for promo adjacency, like screen printers and party planners and designers. And so there's all these other industries that we believe this could be valuable to. But before we get there, we kind of want to just make sure it really works for the core industry.

04:06 Love it, love it. Man, I've got referrals all over my head right now, just dancing around for you. This is gonna be awesome. So if you're listening and you need to add swag to your, the way you lay your business out, think about it, man. You could do it now without having to go to China and set up the relationships, the production, all over the world I'm guessing is where you manufacture. Am I wrong?

04:27 All over the world, everything is vetted, tested by us. You can make sure quality control is there. You gain the catalog of 7,000 plus products. You're getting massive amounts of technology to streamline the experience. But you're also getting the operational know -how to make sure we can get boxes up together. We can warehouse for you. We can do individual distribution if you're sending it to remote employees or your clients want to send swag to remote employees. All the things that we've developed over the last eight, nine years with swag .com, basically we're giving for free and saying, hey, here you go. Maybe this can help you out.

05:01 Love it. Love it. And as being one of those nerdy guys that just loves to wear swag material, who doesn't like swag? I mean, come on. If you're supporting a company and they got cool swag, all the better, right?

05:14 That's my belief. Everyone needs a little shtickle of swag in their life.

05:20 Dude, they totally do, they totally do. So along with that, this is very, very cool. So as you develop this new strategy, tell us looking back, as you were developing swag .com and kind of building that business, what was the key thing that you did? I mean, obviously buying the domain doesn't happen all right up front, but was there a key decision or series of decisions that you made that kind of helped you? go from, hey, I just launched a swag company into something that's gonna explode.

05:49 Yeah, there's a lot of small micro decisions. And obviously, as your listeners know, they're entrepreneurs. There's not one key decision, but there's like hundreds of decisions and zigzagging. I'll kind of go through a couple of them. In the early days, we had no money whatsoever. So we're competing, as I said, with 18 ,000, 20 ,000 other companies. How does swag .com stand out? Well, obviously, we wanted a brand name. The brand name wasn't just to be Flash. It was actually for real needs. The initial idea was what if we could turn offline conversations to online purchasing? That was the initial idea because imagine you're browsing Facebook and you see a pair of shoes, right? You might buy it. It's an impulse purchase. No one's browsing Facebook and seeing a swag ad and putting $5 ,000 on their credit card. You have to have a need for it. So what happens is if you start advertising in January, the person who sees the ad might not actually purchase till November, December during holiday season. So you have to stay on top of mind. So the name was so important so that we could, spend money, drive traffic, get people's eyeballs, and then retarget them, and then ultimately they may not even need to click on the retargeting ad, they could just type directly into the browser swag .com. So that was kind of the first idea to try to cut through the noise. The second thing was, well we had no money for marketing, so I had to be a traveling salesman. So me and my co -founder Josh, we literally walked up and down the hallways of WeWorks in New York City, and just asking people questions like, How do you buy swag? What's the experience buying swag? Legitimately got doors shut on our faces, not interested, but it didn't matter because we were either gonna make the sale or we would learn. That was kind of the mentality in the early days. Those early conversations set us up for success because I'll tell you this, early days as an entrepreneur, there is some ego involved, right? You have an idea, you think your idea is right, but oftentimes your idea's not right and you kind of learn that by talking to customers. So I'll tell you my ego and where I was wrong. Early days, I thought I would go after the marketing teams because marketing teams to me made initial sense. They have the biggest budget. You could go after a 10 person company and they can be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of marketing. This is the right audience to go after. But when we were speaking to all these marketing managers knocking on doors, we realized that everyone goes after the marketing manager. Like they're inundated with so many requests. It's impossible to break through noise, especially we had nothing at the time. We had a swag .com coming soon landing page. How do we break through the noise? And what I realized early on was that it's the office manager that we should be going after. No one's going after the office manager, but office managers are really the gateway into the company. If the office manager buys a hundred t -shirts for the hundred employees, that means every t -shirt that says swag .com and the inner label goes to the marketing, goes to the sales team, goes to this office and that office. It basically allows it to get in the door and it has that connection that the company's already vetted us and using us. Why don't we use the same company for our marketing needs? It was a way like around the door. So that was kind of, I would say the biggest insight that we had early on. And that only came from those initial conversations.

08:48 I love it. You know, this is such a good lesson for everyone listening. And if you are listening thinking, how do I get my business to gain traction? This is it. Find the actual avatar that is the buyer. I think you're exactly right. It's not the marketing department, it's the one that the marketing department says, hey, will you go place an order for these shirts? And they've already designed it, but they need someone to print it. Is that right?

09:12 Totally. And even just the office manager in general, like it can be a 10 person company and there's the office manager. Office manager does everything for the office. They do the holiday parties, they get the office furniture, they buy the swag for the company. If you have a 15 person company and the office manager buying 15 t -shirts, that doesn't sound like a big win, right? Like who wants to sell 15 t -shirts? But when you take it a step further and now the marketing team sees that t -shirt and they love that t -shirt and they see the print quality, and then they could buy a thousand t -shirts for the marketing needs. So it's a roundabout way to get in the company so that people can be discovered. And early on when you're a startup and you have a lot of money, you have to use everything that you have at your advantage. So figuring out this kind of use case and getting around in the back door that this was the way to kind of get in. And as I look back on eight years of swag and even in real time, you don't realize it, there was so many of those kinds of things that just like, happened, I'll tell you another one. So that was the early days, it was just manual door to door salesmen, right? That's what I was early on. But then at some point you have to scale bigger than that. So then we started to do paid Google advertising, right? And Google is very expensive, but it got us more customers and more feedback. It was like this feedback loop. That was what it was all about at the beginning, learning as much as we could from customers so that we could build the right solution. But then when Google got too expensive for us, we said, well, we can't afford Google anymore. But we have now a better product because we had all those conversations with these clients, we then pivoted to SEO, which is free. And we started writing hundreds of pieces of content and appearing in number one Google searches. And then what we realized is, well, there's a lot of search terms that we want to appeal for, but we couldn't because people have owned those terms for years. We started partnering with all of those companies and did affiliate links. So let's imagine, and that's a real story, there was a company that owned the term swag ideas. And a lot of people search for swag ideas in Google. And there was this other company that was in the first top 75 swag ideas, right? So, right. And that company happened to not be a swag company. They were using SEO as a way to get lead gen. So like they were selling to marketing teams, a different product, and they wanted to get, because they knew that the same marketing teams that are looking for swag might want their product. It was a very smart idea. But I didn't want to spend three years trying to build up this keyword terms in this blog post overtake them. It'll be very hard. So we partnered with them and we said, hey, all those top 75 swag ideas, why don't they link to 75 products on my site and we'll give you an affiliate for every single time there's an acquisition. So we, without having the SEO, without starting super early, we pretty much own that page. We had to give a kickback and over those three years, we started writing our own content that could compete. Now if you look up swag ideas, our swag .com post is the number one. So now we own like the number one and number two spot because of these things. 

12:09 and all of their spots. Yeah.

12:10 So exactly right. And you get the backlinks and you get the credibility and it's like, there's ways to get around things, even if you're not the earliest or you know, there's ways to kind of work with people and try to figure out ways to kind of jump over your competitors by being a little bit creative.

12:23 captainscouncil.com

14:02 You know, I love the way you're talking because it is such a valuable thing. You know, you as a startup or you as a young business or even as an old business who hasn't done much digitally, if you're looking to grow, you don't always have to be the owner of that audience. You can go to the owner of the audience and work with them. And Set Eggman Affiliate Program is probably the smartest thing most of you out there could do right now because you don't own a lot of the assets. You don't own that audience, but other people do and they would love to tap into a little extra revenue if it means that they don't have to do anything different other than throw your ad up on their page, right?

14:39 Totally. And it felt organic, because this specific thing was the article was about swag and we are the swag company. But we started doing this with everything. We started doing this with so many different links and we were literally buying the first spot of every search result of key terms that was valuable to us. It gave us enough time to write our own content to jump over them, but for those three years where it took time to build up our credibility, we had control over it. So that was another thing. And then there's things just in business where kind of magic happens, you know, and I would say luck or we say mazel, you know, there's, there's, there's something that could happen that is unforeseen or you can't really explain. So I'll give you my example of that. I was in a Chicago, I was part of this incubator called tech stars. It was like, it's like a Y combinator type of program. And there's like the last week, yep. And the last week of the program, they basically connect you to other entrepreneurs in the area. And I was in Chicago and I met with this company and I go for the day to the office and the CEO of the company says to me, Jeremy, I want you to like kind of a shadow or office manager and see how she works. And like, maybe you could get into her brain and see how she does things. So within the first 30 minutes, I'm in her office and there's five other office managers sitting on the floor, unboxing swag, reboxing swag, writing handwritten note cards. And I said, what are you guys doing? And they said, they're doing something called account based marketing. I guess it's a very popular term now, but this is 2017.  This is seven years ago or so.

16:00 Wow! Yeah.

16:02 And there's, and there's talking about buying Swire from all these different locations and re -kitting and boxing and shipping it out to their best customers and their leads as a thank you and all these different things. And I said, well, why doesn't your swag provider who you're currently using, it wasn't us at this time, we just met this company. Why don't they do it for you? And they just didn't do it. There was no company that was consolidating things. So they were buying things. They had to spend days unboxing, re -boxing, handwritten. And this was in 2017. And the idea came, well, what if I became that play? of once people go through the checkout flow, as opposed to shipping it in bulk to their office, they click a button, we hold their inventory and they can do individual distributions to remote addresses. Now that's a great idea. And we launched it in January of 2020. Now, as you all know, three months later, COVID hit the world shuts down. Now the world shuts down in COVID. Everyone's not buying swag, right? There's no trade shows. There's no events. There's no one in the office. There's no need for swag, but we had this magic formula. We had this individualized distribution to remote employees. It was positioned and branded on our site as account -based marketing, marketing to your best customers. But when we realized that no one else had this technology and this service and this offering, and we spent a year and a half building it out, what if we reimagined the branding of it and it was all about engaged with your remote employees when no one's in the office? So it became less about marketing, it became more about community and bringing people together and making people feel safe. And we were able to grow from 7 million in 2019 to over 15 million in 2020 when the whole industry shrunk. 

17:33 Congrats. beautiful.

17:34 And I think it's a hard thing to predict that. But I think for your audience, the important lesson here is that there's opportunities sometimes where things look bad for everybody. And maybe that's actually the best time to capitalize or to jump over your competitors or to double down and go forward when everyone is kind of cowering and hiding.

17:53 I love it. You know, one of the things I love about that story too, Jeremy, is that you literally didn't, like the only thing you changed was above the fold in a sense. Everything below the production, the way that you fulfilled, everything about the process, you already had in play. But what you didn't have was the pain point at the top saying, hey, your employees need to feel your love right now. Let's send them some crap, right? And when, as soon as you did that and you just changed the top of your fold and the pain point that you're addressing, all the production value was the same. All the fulfillment was the same that you'd already been doing and already had in play, but you just re -bundled the pain point. Have you done that at all any other time? It sounds like you're kind of doing that right now with your white label.

18:39 Yeah, well, I'm doing it now in some capacity and I'll get to that Swag Space. No, I mean, at that point, it was a very dark time. I mean, everyone can remember COVID. It was very scary. We had to throw things against the wall and see what worked. And we reimagined all of our branding, all of our website, all of the design, all of our marketing, everything for that to work. And when we got acquired by Custom Ink in 2021 and I was the CEO for swag .com, and by the way, even earlier, for the last eight years, I had this idea for Swag Space. And the reason SwagSpace, I think, is just powerful is that there's so many of these promo distributors out there that are stuck in this fragmented industry where everything is kind of old and broken. And honestly, I know it because I was a traveling salesman for the first year before I built swag .com, the tech site. And I found myself spending about 20 % of my day on selling and 80 % of my time on the bullshit. And honestly, that's what everyone's doing. Everyone's 80 % on the bullshit. It's all price quotes and back and forth emails. But that's how the industry is set up. And my thinking was, what if we could white label this technology and give it for free to everybody and allow people to streamline that 80 %? Maybe people don't need to spend 80 % of the bullshit. They spend no time on the bullshit. They spend 100 time on the selling. And that's kind of the beauty of it. So I'm excited by it. We just launched four months ago, but we haven't done any real marketing. We're still very early. We're refining it. And I'm getting back into this entrepreneurial mindset of you know, what do customers really want versus what I think they want? What do they actually want? And we're learning a lot and we're changing things and we're making things better.

20:13 That's fantastic. So looking back on those different stages of growth as you made those decisions, you just shared three awesome examples of times where you kind of weren't really sure what to do, but the things that you were doing were driving information, were giving you information to kind of build and reshape your model, or at least some product lines that could hit the model, right? So what did you learn? I mean, were there any big surprises outside of COVID? Because COVID was the big surprise for all of us. But was there a big surprise that as you started to grow and scale, something that showed up that was a real pain in your butt that you didn't think would happen that did?

20:50 I mean everything, our business specifically, I want to try to think of something that's valuable for your audience. But in our industry, we can't manufacture every product. It's just impossible, right? We have 7,000 products in our catalog. It's just a lot of really crappy stuff out there. And our brand is all about quality. And even from the very beginning, the idea was, what if we curated what's out there? And by the way, there's hundreds of thousands of millions of products out there, and we're narrowing it down to 7 ,000. So it has to be a curated solution that has to be easy to find what they're looking for. And it has to be really good because what happens when you buy poor quality swag? It ends up in the trash. It costs the company money. It tarnishes your brands. Bad for the environment, bad for everything. So we have to like make sure we're really focused on the best of quality. So for us along the process, the supply chain was always a challenge because there's people who are just, there's human error to it. And at the end of the day, when Facebook's buying from us, they don't care that we're buying it from a supplier. It's us, it's on the line. So it's really trying to make sure the quality is there. So it's been a constant effort and that's, I would say, the biggest challenge of our business. And then obviously getting customers, getting the right type of customer, getting people locked in, understanding their pain points and building the right solution for them that keeps them happy and keeps them there. For our industry, and I'm sure for a lot of your audience, we're B2B. So a lot of our customers stay with us for like a two year period and then leave. Right. That's just it. Like an office manager, they're, they're at a company for two years and then they leave. And then we just lose Facebook. I mean, we just have Facebook. They're spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and then the person leaves. And so we have to make it super sticky that once the person leaves, they want to introduce their new replacement and say, Hey, you should be using swag .com. And it's, that's a big challenge in the B2B. And we figured it out. We've done a lot of interesting things to make it work, but as you grow, there's always more difficult challenges that appear and you kind of always have to kind of adapt and figure out the right way to get around.

22:50 I love it, I love it. You know, there definitely are a lot of pain points that appear as you start to grow on scale. Most of them are, to your point, people related because people don't stick around forever and once you feel like you've solved one problem, that person's gone and now you got another problem to solve, which is retention and kind of reintroducing yourself to the company, right? So.

23:12 It's not just that for clients, it's that for internally too. Your audience will see the people you hire as the first 10 employees might not be there with you. And vice versa, you might hire the wrong people in the first 10 spots because maybe you thought they had an amazing resume, but they weren't the right fit for the early roll up their sleeves. And me and all my friends, we've all made mistakes in hiring. It's a very challenging thing to hire the right people. And it's usually the most challenging early on because then you'll It's a completely different mentality and it's easier when you hire people when they're already, you know, stacked and there's layers to the industry and there's like management and there's a process in place early on. There's no process in place. You know, they're reporting directly to you and you may hire the wrong people because based on their historical work and big corporations, it might not be the right fit for your business at the right, you know, period of time. So it's challenging. It's definitely challenging.

24:03 Now I'm hearing you speak and I'm hearing, you know, I know a lot of people in the swag industry and I'm thinking about like your culture because clearly one of the successful things that you've been able to do is to take your energy and likely your partner's energy and somehow convey that to your team to be able to grow to the level that you did because people like buying from people they like and in an industry like yours where there are so many options, how did you focus on your culture development? And what did that do to your productivity and your client acquisition?

24:37 It's a good question. Yeah, I mean, for us, as you said, there's so many people that sell these products. So from the get -go, we had to make sure that the products we sell were the highest quality, right? There could be other sites that sell similar products, but we wanted to be sure at least we had the best quality products. That was like a given. We had to build the best e -commerce experience that was automated, that was streamlined, that made it easy for people to buy. That was a given. But at the end of the day, it comes down to people. People like to deal with people even on the e -commerce experience, you know, somebody could go through our site and buy $4 ,000 worth of t -shirts. Typically they don't do that from the first order. They want to talk to somebody. They want somebody to help them. They want somebody to handle them. And they let, they need that experience with the customer service or their sales rep that they feel like, I like this person. I want to deal with this person. And maybe by the third or fourth order, they come back and they automatically buy it because they've already felt confidence with us. And this is not the first time thing. So for me, it was always customer is always right. Like really making sure the team, gives the best experience to every single customer and puts themselves in their shoes. Like I always said, whenever we messed up, I looked at the situation from a really, like a bird's eye view. If I was in the customer's shoes, would I be pissed off? And that was like my indicator of like how we should solve it. Like I could completely see, and I told my team hundreds of times, I completely see where the customer's coming from. If I was them, I would be completely pissed off. Like there's certain things that we could control and there's certain things we can't. We can't control if a supplier that we're working with messes up, but we can control how we react to it. We can control, do we help them or give them a discount or do we get well in advance to them and apologize and say, hey, we're getting some feedback that it's not going to come out exactly right or they might be delayed. Like there's ways that you could improve things, even if it's not our fault technically, it's always our fault in the customer's eyes and we have to have that mentality.

26:26 I love that. Thanks so much for sharing that, honestly. That's something that a lot of people don't experience in the realm of, you know, customer success is such a huge piece of what people should be focusing in the growth scale because a referral from a positive customer experience is so much better than, you know, you need a lot of those positive experiences to outweigh the negative experiences that people write about your company. So I appreciate you sharing what you've done to kind of improve that and enhance that. Now, last thing before you go, I really want to know, you know, is there somebody as you were getting this thing going, I mean, to go out and buy a big domain like swag .com and try to own that thing and evolve into, hey, we are the swag daddies, we are building this thing the way that people want it. Was there someone kind of pushing you along? Did you have a motivator mentor? Like, how did that evolve for you?

27:19 I didn't have anyone specifically, you know, I've had a lot of mentors over my career. I have a very interesting background. I was a documentary filmmaker in college. I've been a lifelong entrepreneur. I've had several failures. I've had one success before this that sold to a publicly traded company. I have obviously Swag .com that got acquired. I've had a lot of really interesting entrepreneurs around me. But when it came to Swag .com, I was insanely self -motivated when it came to this. You know, I was 30 years old, I was single at the time, I was in between things, didn't really know what I wanted to do. And truthfully, when I started Swag, it wasn't to become the fastest growing company in the industry and doing tens of millions of dollars a year in sales. That wasn't the initial idea. The initial idea was, can I do something that I really truly enjoyed? That was my impetus for starting this. I wanted to build something that could be with me for a long time, that I can make a couple of hundred thousand dollars in salary a year and control my destiny. And as I went out there and I started learning from customers and seeing the pain points, I realized early on that this could have a lot, this could be a lot bigger than I initially thought. And then once I realized that, I said, well, why can't I be the guy to do it? And I just went all in and I had this mentality that just my mentality with everything is consistency compounds. And usually when you start a business, you know, you want, you dream of a million dollars, right? And then you build and you work and you work and you get to a million and you're like, wow, that was unbelievable let me try to get 10 million, right? And then 100 million is so far gone. Then you get there and you always look back and it's like, well, it makes sense how it happened when you look back. But in like, when you're looking forward, it seems impossible. These things seem impossible. And you just, I think it all comes down to just being super consistent and every day having the mentality like I am going to win or I'm going to learn or I'm going to, you know, like I'm going to make this business work and I'm going to pivot and zig and zag until they make it happen. And I had just this intense. Me and my co -founder Josh, we just were like super intense about it and super focused about hitting our goals and thank God it all worked out.

29:22 Love it. Dude, Jeremy, fantastic story. I love the experiences you have and honestly, your new iteration of what you're doing with swag is so exciting for me because I see that what you're doing is going to be a huge, huge development in the industry for people who just don't have the connections, who just don't have the resources to do what you've done and it all goes back to build your initial swag investments but also build these other guys. This is just a fantastic, fantastic iteration. Love it.

29:55 Thank you so much. Yeah, we're super excited. And honestly, it's a true passion project. It's eight years in development in my head of what I wanted. And it made total sense with Custom Ink. Custom Ink is one of the largest players, hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue. They have immense buying power. It really worked because of their buying power combined with ours and the technology that we spent the last eight, nine years building. It's honestly a win -win for everybody. So we really hope people check it out. And we hope it could positively impact people's lives in a real way.

30:28 Jeremy, fantastic man. Love it, love the story, love the business, love what you've done and Jeremy, thanks so much and we wish you the best in all you're doing. For those listening, I hope you found some inspiration here and I just can't wait for you to dive into this interview and look at Jeremy's past, look at his present and where he's going with his product and we'll catch up with the rest of you later. Thanks so much Jeremy.

30:49 Thank you so much, Todd. Appreciate it.

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