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Leveraging Influencer Marketing to Build a 7-Figure Jewelry Brand

Shopify Masters: Nominal founder Akram Abdullah

Nominal is the jewelry brand that blends culture and fashion to create meaningful accessories. Founded by life and business partners Lena Sarsour and Akram Abdallah, Nominal grew from an idea of expression into a 7-figure business. On this episode of Shopify Masters, Akram shares with us how the company found ideal manufacturing partners and how to use influencer marketing to scale the business.

For the full transcript of this episode, click here

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Show Notes

The importance of finding the right manufacturer for your product

Felix: You talk about meaningful assessors. Where did the idea behind this business come from?

Akram: Essentially, in late 2017, I had this idea of changing the background of my phone to a wallpaper that had a specific quote, a certain phrase, or sometimes even images of people that I looked up to. I did that to remind myself every single time I unlocked my phone to have a positive mindset. Whether it be a background that has the word faith, or patience, or my favorite quote, I’d use it to have that positive reassurance frequently throughout the day.

I shared this strategy with many of my friends and family members, and I told them it does help get your mind right. What else do you have with you in your pocket, 24/7? Then I thought to myself, how can I scale the same concept? I thought I should incorporate these meaningful words, quotes, and old languages onto jewelry on pendants, and eventually onto clothing. That's how it all started.

Felix: Was it difficult to communicate to people the benefits they can get from incorporating these small visual cues into their lives? 

Akram: At first, I thought it would be difficult, but it was the opposite, and that's why we started the business so quickly and why it took off. Everybody loved the idea right off the bat, and everybody wanted to hold the word that is so sacred to them. I think everybody has a word or a quote that just really means a lot to them, and they want to keep it as close to them as possible, literally on their chest or on their arm or on their finger. It resonated with people pretty quickly. It didn't need too much explaining or introduction. It was pretty self-explanatory what the piece meant to people.

Felix: Do you have any background in creating a product like this or a business? 

Akram: Yes. I've been an entrepreneur my whole life. All through high school, I would buy and sell iPhones, iPads. I would purchase hats from China and sell them on Amazon and eBay. I've always been buying and selling. It's been a passion of mine. My dad has his own real estate company, Fix and Flip. During undergrad, I worked with my dad within his business. I would help him with his properties. So when I graduated from my undergrad in business management with a focus on entrepreneurship, I worked with him for a few years within his business.

Then I started my own business, before Nominal, where I would take verses from the Quran and I would get them cut out on wood or engraved on wood and then sold as wall art. I did that for a little bit. That was the first time that I started experimenting with an online store, and I did it through Shopify as well. Then I started my MBA program in 2017, finished that in 2019, so one year after starting Nominal. That's my background. I did have some entrepreneurial background before Nominal.

Felix: What were the first steps of getting it done once you decided to scale this up? 

Akram: The first step I would say would be proof of concept: make sure that there's actually demand out there and make sure that this actually is a product or an industry that people would be interested in. I did create a few samples first. I started with bars that had engravings on them: faith, love, patience, happiness. Meaningful powerful words like that. We also started with the name necklaces. That way people can represent their identity, where they're from, the language they speak, their culture, things like that. I started out with samples just within the community, presented them to everybody, and then everybody loved what it was that I was offering. From there, I went into bulk production. But first, before bulk production, I had to make sure that I was very confident in the manufacturers that I was going to work with.

The recommendation I have for a lot of people when they're looking for a manufacturer, you don't sample from just one, you sample from multiple. I sampled from four different manufacturers, and then I went and took that jewelry and I put it in a bowl of water for 30 days each and then I put it outside in different weather conditions for 30 days each, and then I went with the manufacturer that provided me the best quality. We do offer a lifetime warranty on all our pieces, and we can confidently do that because I found the manufacturer that has the best practices and the best materials. I was very patient with the sampling and manufacturing steps within the business.

"The recommendation I have for a lot of people when they're looking for a manufacturer, you don't sample from just one, you sample from multiple."

Felix: How did you know what to look for and how to test the product to determine whether it was considered to be high quality or not? 

Akram: I did a lot of research, and I also asked the manufacturers a lot of questions. As I reached out to get the bids and hear what it is that they have to say, their pitch to get me as a client, I started to realize that some manufacturers would talk about the different amounts of coating of gold that they would put on their jewelry. First, I didn't even know that was a thing. But then one manufacturer told me they do one layer of gold plating, another told me two, another told me three, and then one told me four. Four is the most that I've seen.

I asked if they can do five. I decided, let me try to take it to another level. Just from me reaching out and asking so many questions, I realized that they all had different answers, which told me that everybody does something in a different way. It was from that moment on that I realized I do need to make sure I ask as many questions as possible. Then I decided to go do some research on gold in general and jewelry in general. I looked through a lot of reviews of other companies that sell jewelry as well to see what it is that customers are asking and what complaints they're having.

A lot of customers’ main complaint with jewelry was that it changes color or it leaves a certain mark on their skin after a certain period of time, or they can't swim with it; they can't shower with it. I made sure when I was speaking to the manufacturers that I was able to handle those objections. I want to make sure that they never need to take it off. I want to make sure that we can offer that warranty. I would say just proper research, take your time, look at reviews for other companies, ask questions. Then that's how we came out with our final product.

An array of golf foil pieces along with a necklace from Nominal.
Showcasing Arabic words and phrases that are meaningful for people whether they are familiar with the language or not, is at the heart of Nominal’s values. Nominal

Felix: Where were you putting out your samples for feedback? 

Akram: In local communities, within my friends and family. Then also with my business that I did for about a year before I started Nominal, it was called Kufi Artists. As I mentioned earlier, it was an Arabic legacy wall art company. I actually started off with the pieces only being in Arabic. Until this day, we still specialize in the Arabic language. But because I had that business, I was already very niche. People were purchasing Arabic calligraphy designs. I decided to take some pre-orders within that business for these pieces, but at the time, they weren't Nominal branded. They were just Kufi Artist branded. So I took some pre-orders with the small number of followers that I had, and I got a little bit of traffic on that website.

I took the orders over there, and there was a lot of proof of concept and that people loved it. I realized that there's more opportunity in the jewelry than there was in the wall art, so I decided to stop Kufi Artists, take a step back and focus more on jewelry and accessories and fashion. I started looking for a name for this new business, and that's how I came across the name Nominal. But basically, yes, I took some pre-orders from my last business and then decided to go all out with the new business.

Felix: How did you position the messaging for a new product to an existing audience that wasn’t even sure yet if they wanted this new product? 

Akram: It comes down to setting proper expectations, and then also pricing it properly. I wasn't super confident when it came to demand, I didn't really know that yet. I decided to go ahead and present it at a very low cost. I was only selling them for about $20 at the time. With that, you can't really have that high of an expectation from a customer standpoint. Then I also reassured them that there's no risk when you purchase from us, from Kufi Artists at the time. We say the same thing right now with Nominal. There's no risk because no matter what, you're going to leave happy. If you don't like your product, we'll give you a refund or an exchange or whatever it may be. I did preface it with that, and then when they see that there's no risk factor, then they're able to purchase with confidence.

Felix: Did you get any feedback that led to redesigning the product or going back to the manufacturer to make any tweaks?

Akram: Definitely. Not so much from a quality standpoint, but more from a length standpoint. For example, maybe the pendant was too big or it was too small or the necklace chain was too small or too big, or people wanted to be able to make it smaller and bigger without having to buy another chain. Then we started offering extensions within the chain itself. That way, it's multipurpose and they could wear it with different outfits. We did learn over time based on feedback. We do accept reviews on our website, which is very valuable. A lot of people sometimes run away from reviews, but really reviews are an opportunity for feedback. One star and two-star and three-star reviews are sometimes the best reviews, that's where you get your new ideas. Yeah, definitely, we continue to make adjustments.

People said they want more options, they want more colors. First, we started with only gold, and they said where's silver, then they said where's bronze. Then we started offering more of those colors. People asked, "I want more customizable options." Then we started doing that as well. We always kept an open mind, open ears, looking for any feedback possible, paid attention to what questions people were asking and just made sure that we addressed them.

"One star and two-star and three-star reviews are sometimes the best reviews, that's where you get your new ideas."

Felix: What specifically made you decide to go all-in with Nominal versus keeping both businesses active? 

Akram: I closed that down and focused on Nominal. The reason I did that was my previous business was an art, and so only I could create it. People were buying from me and I felt like that wasn't scalable, and I felt like it was in general just more of a difficult business. I was selling wall art. In order for someone to buy wall art, number one, this is an item that's priced much higher. There's that. Then number two, you need the space within your house, and then number three, just from my standpoint, it takes longer to create and it's a lot more fragile when you ship it. So there's a lot of opportunities for it to get damaged during transit. Of course, every business has obstacles, but I felt like this specific business had even more obstacles.

I also found myself to be more passionate about jewelry and accessories than I did about art. I've always been big on watches, I've always been big on jewelry, necklaces, bracelets, rings, and so it's been a dream of mine actually as a kid to start my own line, my own fashion brand. I felt like this would be perfect. I would always have this constant energy and passion and laser beam focused if I can just take my passion for business and have it be right side by side with my passion for fashion. That was the transition. I really love jewelry and design, and so decided to just go all out in that direction.

A recipe for success: purpose, trade shows, and influencer marketing

Felix: 2018 to now as a seven-figure business. What was your strategy in the beginning to generate that kind of traffic? 

Akram: I would give all the credit to three different avenues within business. The first would be, we have a mission in place. Every single month we choose what we call a “deed of the month” where we choose a certain cause in a certain country that we donate a percentage of proceeds towards. We always use the word shop with purpose. We want to be able to have a platform where people can really make a difference with what it is that they purchase, and we're able to use that platform to raise awareness towards different causes and important issues. That's the backbone of our business. Every single month, as sales grow, so does the donated amount. It’s important for us, and for business in general, to give back to not just their local community, but give back to the world. Then when people purchase, they want to purchase knowing that their money has gone to a good place. I would say that was the first thing that really helped us grow, just putting a lot of purpose behind our brand and providing a story and real change. 

Second would be, we went to a lot of conventions. We had a lot of trade shows, more and more each month. We went to Houston, we went to Nevada, we went to Toronto. We had a plan for the UK but that got canceled with Coronavirus. We went to New York, we went to Chicago, D.C., California. So many different States. Basically any state or even country that offered an opportunity for us to set up a booth, we went. That way we really got to be in front of the customers, and with each convention we would grow as well, and we would have more and more tables.

We started out with one table, then two, then three, then four, then five, then six, literally all the way down to 16. We went as one person, and then all the way to 12 people would travel all from Arizona or would fly people out from different states to this one convention, and we would basically run the show. What's great about conventions, and I do highly recommend it, is that you get to get in-person feedback. You get to put personality behind your brand. A lot of people, they'll see your Facebook or Instagram ads, but every single brand runs ads these days. So when they see you in person, they're like, "Oh, I saw this ad." Now they're able to put a physical memory to it.

"When people purchase, they want to purchase knowing that their money has gone to a good place."

Some people are hesitant to purchase online, and when they see that you're real, they get reassured and they build that confidence. We give them an in-person experience. On top of that, we listen to their feedback. We pay attention, and I tell everybody, take notes as to what people are asking. Are they asking a certain question over and over and over, and we keep telling them no, that means we need to figure that out and make sure that we offer it next time. For example, we had adjustable rings. People said, "Oh, do you have rings in different sizes? I don't like that adjustable ring." People kept asking that question. We decided, okay, clearly this is something that we need to offer. We discontinued the adjustable rings and now we offer rings in different sizes.

Those questions don't always come online. A lot of times they're only asked in person. We just really try to listen to what it is that they're asking us, we take notes on what they're asking us, and then we even pay attention to what they're saying to each other. A lot of people come with their friends. They say things to each other, we catch on and then we take notes and we try to make an adjustment to our business. 

Felix: Were those the two things or was there another one that you mentioned you credit the success to?

Akram: Yes. One more as well, that would be influencer marketing. Influencer marketing has been huge to us. There are certain strategies to do proper influencer marketing. From the very beginning, we of course didn't have any budget at all. We couldn't afford to pay anybody. Even somebody that told us their fee is $50, that was way too much for us. It just comes down to sales 101, where you reach out to a 100 people, 10 people respond, you close three. We just did that. By we, I mean me and my wife at the time. We would just send as many emails and DMs as possible, and we'd get some responses, some would respond with a quote that we couldn't afford.

But we didn't end the relationship there. We said, "You know what? No worries. We unfortunately can't do this collaboration at this time as we don't have the budget for it. However, we still love to give it." Every single person, we still tried to send them three items, and just make it seem like it's a gift, and it is a gift. A lot of times what ended up happening to our favor is they would still post and they would still tag us because they really loved the item. I think influencer marketing just worked very well for us versus a lot of other products because Jewelry is something that you wear, and so they end up wearing it.

Even if they don't tag us in their pictures or in their videos, maybe some of their followers ask, "Oh, where'd you get your necklace," and then they might end up tagging us. Or we can now ask permission for that picture from the influencer if we could repost that on our page. Although we didn't pay them, now we have content and this content is someone that a lot of people follow and they see. We build that credibility through a famous person wearing our product that we didn't really pay for aside from just the cost of shipping and the cost of goods.

"We build that credibility through a famous person wearing our product that we didn't pay for, aside from the cost of shipping and the cost of goods."
A hand wearing a ring from Nominal backdropped against a field of sunflowers.
In addition to meaningful jewelry, Nominal brings meaning to their customers by making charitable donations to causes they support. Nominal

Felix: I want to break these three credits down, starting with the mission. How do you handle that logistically on a month to month basis ? 

Akram: It's difficult to be honest with you, Felix, because there are so many people around the world that need help, so many countries that need help. It's hard to choose one over the other. That's why instead of having one focus towards one country and have that be a part of our mission throughout the lifetime of our company, we change it up every single month. In that way, we can really provide help to as many people as possible. For example, February of 2019, we did a medical camp for Yemen where we raised a few $100. Then March of 2019, we did a bread for Syria campaign for Syria where we raised $2,000. Then we built a water well in Mali, where we were able to raise $2,500, just through our sales and through donations as well.

We donated money towards an Academy for orphans in Africa and Palestine refugee families within May. We change it up each month. Of course, there are a lot of months where we end up going back to a previous campaign and just raising more money towards it. So it depends on what's happening in the world. Right now, again, actually we're raising money towards Yemen because there are a lot of starving families there right now, and with coronavirus, it makes it 10 times harder for them to continue to live their lives safe and healthy. They need help desperately. We try to base it on urgency and who is maybe not getting attention that should be getting attention. Maybe there are a lot of businesses or a lot of brands, that are already focusing on certain groups of people or certain countries, but no one's focusing on Yemen, for example. So then we decided to focus on Yemen. Every single month is different. We discuss internally as to where we want to donate proceeds to. Yeah, that's how we do it.

A strategy for optimizing conventions as a small B2B

Felix: Now the trade shows and conventions, are they being attended by retailers or actual customers that end up purchasing and using the product themselves?

Akram: I would say with each convention, there's probably 50 to 100 booths, sometimes up to 400 booths being the biggest one that we went to in Chicago. By booths, I mean 400 small brands like us. It's not Macy's or any of those big brands. It's just small up and coming brands or mom and pop shops that are local. I would say probably half of each convention, people fly out like us. We've flown out to every single one. Unfortunately, there aren't really any trade shows in Arizona. Then they had their own group of people in terms of customers that came to visit.

We sell towards customers, not towards other businesses, if that's what you were asking. It's not B2B, it's B2C, business to consumer. With every single convention, a lot of them are annual, so people know to expect this next year and they try to advertise it towards the entire United States, sometimes even globally. People fly from other countries to come visit. Every single convention is different, but they have their own group of audience and it ranges up to 30,000 people. I think that was the biggest one that we've seen.

Felix: You’d have to pay to have a booth set up at these conventions, correct?

Akram: Definitely, yes. It typically ranges between $500 for a booth all the way up until $1,300 for a booth, and we've been as big as nine booths.

Felix: Are there ways to identify which ones have been more worthwhile than others, especially when you might be starting out and have a tighter budget?

Akram: Yes. It depends on where each brand is located. A lot of brands, conveniently for them, they're located in either New York or Chicago, and that's where the majority of the conventions are, New York, Chicago, D.C. area, and so they can drive there. Because that's where the majority of the expense comes from. It comes from the travel, the hotel, the flight, the food that you need to bring. But if you live in that area and you can drive, then you should probably go to every single one of them. Some, yes, do make us more money and get us more exposure than others. For those, we still decide to go to just about every single one, but we don't necessarily go to every single one again. Based on the previous experience, the first year's experience, we make adjustments as to whether or not we want to include them within our list for the next year.

Some conventions we've cut from our list, the majority of the conventions we continue to go to, but we might just have less booths. Maybe we realize we don't need nine booths; there are not that many people. We'll only get nine booths if we realize from a previous year that every single side of the booth gets busy, occupied, we're selling on every single corner, et cetera. But if we feel a lot of the booth is not even getting attention, then we decide, okay, that's a waste of money. Let's cut it down to maybe four booths instead of five or six, so that we can save at least on expenses.

Felix: Do you have any best practices for trade shows that maximize your sales and efficiencies? 

Akram: We try to focus on display, experience, and relationship building. We try to talk to as many of our fan base, whether old or new, whether they've been following us on Instagram or whether they saw us the previous year at the convention. We try to really have conversations with them, get to know them, find out how they found out about us, whether or not they already own something Nominal. We try to get to know them on a personal basis instead of just being transactional. That way, we can give them the best experience so they can have that memory, and we can even maybe follow each other's personal Instagram pages.

I would say that's a lot that we pay attention to. Of course, when building our team to decide who's going to the convention, we do try to focus on the interpersonal skills as well. Then from a display standpoint, we want to make sure that it's set up in a way where people want to take pictures of the booth. We try to make it look pretty, we try to get a lot of attention, we get neon signs, we get grass walls. We have beautiful display pieces. So we really do want to be a shiny booth within the entire convention place. We try to really get a lot of attention and build curiosity through our booths.

Felix: Do you have any advice or tips for designing a booth that attracts a crowd? 

Akram: We go with the mentality that less is more. By that, I mean that we try to have a very minimal clean look. That's the theme of our brand, minimalism. That's how the word Nominal even came about. I was looking for a synonym for simple, minimal, and then I came across the word nominal, and I ran with that. So we try to be as accurate with our brand name as possible. But we have a very unique look to our brand. Then we also try to incorporate certain things, like lights. It’s important to have lights. We always have this neon light that we bring with us, a big neon light.

It's so beautiful to the point where people ask if they can take a picture with it. That's happened many, many, many times. At our last convention we even got a hanging ceiling banner, which cost a lot of money. It was about a $3,000 investment, but it got a lot of attention. No matter where you were within the entire hall, you could be super far away where it takes 10 minutes for you to walk all the way to us, you could see the big hanging ceiling banner. It was 20 by 20 feet, it had our brand logo on all four corners of it. I would say, try to incorporate lights, try to incorporate a unique design, don't overcrowd your space. Don't try to put products on every single corner.

Too much confuses customers as to what it is that they're looking at. They may get overwhelmed. We want it to be pretty clear what it is that we're selling. We put a little stand next to each product that explains what the product is, like a museum or art gallery, where you see a piece of art on the wall, and then it talks about it a little bit on the side of it, gives a name to the product. That way we can also keep the customers looking and engaging with the product and with our booth for longer, and they really start to invest in it. The more time that you can get someone to spend at your booth, the higher the likelihood it is that you're going to convert them. We try to give them something to read, and tell them a story. Yeah, I would say those are some keys.

"The more time that you can get someone to spend at your booth, the higher the likelihood it is that you're going to convert them."

Felix: So how did you determine which influencers you were going to reach out to? 

Akram: Our niche right now is for the most part the Muslim market, those that are of Middle Eastern or Asian ethnicities. We decided to focus within the niche, and then also those that spoke the languages that we were advertising, whether it be Arabic, Urdu, or Punjabi. We tried to find the influencers that were within those demographics. There's a little feature on Instagram that helps you find more people. Let's say I land on this one specific profile that matches our demographic. Their followers are likely to purchase our products because they speak the language or they're of the same religion or whatever it may be. Where it says “following,” there's an arrow that points downward. If you click on that arrow, it'll show similar profiles.

I don't know how the Instagram algorithm does all that necessarily, but it's typically pretty accurate. Then we go through all those profiles that it recommends that are similar to this one profile that we landed on. Then with each person that we found through that feature, we're able to find more and more. We try to focus and make sure that their demographic is similar to ours. I think that matters. A lot of people will make the mistake where they'll spend money or send products to just about any influencer, anybody that has a lot of followers. That’s incorrect. It's not the best strategy, also a waste of time and money. You need to make sure that their demographic is similar to yours. You need to make sure that your two markets align well.

Then even from a location standpoint. At the very beginning, we don't have the means to ship internationally, especially because sometimes the packages will get lost. So it's not just about the shipping cost, because typically the customer pays the shipping cost if it's below a certain minimum cart value. But sometimes the package may get lost or it may get delivered to the wrong address, or even if it breaks, we offer a warranty. So then we have to send it again, and if we send it again, then the customer doesn't pay the shipping, we pay the shipping because it's our fault. Then we'll be in the negatives for that order. So at the very beginning, since we had a limited budget and there's a huge market within the United States, so let's just focus on influences in the United States.

Influencers in the United States, the vast majority of their followers are typically also in the United States. Those that have our influencers in London, their followers are likely in London or in the UK, or just in Europe in general. We really narrowed down our market, where our target audience is, and then we find influencers that meet that criteria.

Felix: What does that pitch look like? How do you approach these potential influencers?

Akram: Definitely. You need to really level with them. You need to not copy and paste messages. Copying and pasting is the lazier route, and you will get some responses and you will be able to close deals by simple conversions. If you want to increase your percentage, you've got to personalize the message to that influencer. Go on their site, spend a little bit of time, see what event they just posted at, see whether or not they just had a baby, or whether or not they just got married. Learn something about them by scrolling through their profile, even if it's not for that long a period of time. Then we mentioned it, so we used their name.

For example, I'll say, "Hey, Sarah congratulations on your baby," or, "I hope you came back home safe and sound from your trip to London. I just wanted to reach out. Our company name is Nominal. We specialize in meaningful accessories, Arabic inspired jewelry. I would love to send you some free items. Take a look at this link.” I attached some images of what our best sellers are. We personalize each message and we also attach images because sometimes someone may not want to click on the link, but the image is already there. Images, you could see the thumbnail. When you see the thumbnail, maybe it catches your eyes. We try to get their interest in different avenues, even with email. If there's a lot on your website, then it's important that you just try to make their lives easier, try to get them to spend as little time as possible to become interested in the email that you just sent out.

A selection of rings from Nominal in gold and silver.
Nominal uses email and social marketing as key drivers for repeat purchases. Nominal

Felix: What strategies do you use to try and encourage repeat purchases? 

Akram: A few different ways. With each order we get their email and we send them emails. We do some email marketing, and to try to remind them that we're still here and show them the new product. This is in case they're not already following us on Instagram. If they're following us on Instagram or our Facebook page, and maybe that's how they found us from the very beginning, we just try to constantly post and engage with them. We try to get their feedback and send out surveys every now and then, we'll also do Instagram Live. If you don't continue to update them on what's happening within the brand, then they may feel like nothing new came out or they may feel like they've already done what they could with you.

They already purchased their favorite products, but if they don't know that you have new products that could now be their favorites, that they can add to their collection. That will just never happen. So you have to make sure that you make them aware of what it is that's happening with your company through your different marketing channels; email, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. We use Pinterest as well. So every single platform possible, we try to use. Maybe they don't use Facebook as much as Instagram, so we make sure we post on Instagram. Maybe they don't use Instagram, they only use Facebook. We have to make sure we post on Facebook. We just try to make sure that they're at least following us on one of our platforms. That way we can advertise on that platform and just continue to have their interest.

Felix: Are new product releases usually the best way to get them to come back and purchase?

Akram: Product releases, and then we also send an automatic email about 10 days after we've shipped their product asking them for feedback. That’s important because it shows them that we're not afraid to receive a bad review if that's their experience. We care about what it is that they have to say. If someone had a bad experience and we just left them in the dark and didn't show them that we care that they could have possibly had a bad experience. Once we send that email out, they typically respond and they provide feedback on the potential bad experience, and then we make sure that we address it and take care of it by either offering them a replacement, or a refund. We do whatever it takes to gain them back.

That’s typically the way that we get those return customers to come back. We don't always do this, it’s seasonal, but sometimes we'll put a piece of marketing material that provides them with a discount for their next purchase. Sometimes we run ads that target someone that has already purchased, not someone that hasn't purchased yet. There's specific methods like that from an email marketing standpoint or from a flyer standpoint for people that purchase for the first time, or from an ad standpoint to only target second and third time potential buyers.

Why you don’t want to develop an elaborate in depth business plan

Felix: You mentioned that you can’t wait for the perfect opportunity or idea to come along. Your business plan will change overtime anyways. Why was this message so important for you to get across? 

Akram: I actually learned that from one of my entrepreneur professors during my undergraduate years at ACU, In a lot of my business courses, they would have us go through different assignments that are related to business plan creation. We would always do that. Then finally, I got to her class and she spoke that she actually disagrees with a lot of these professors and thinks that you shouldn't necessarily have a business plan. Yes, you should have some kind of direction as to where you're going to head, but if you spend so much time trying to perfect it, like a whole year or two years or whatever for this perfect product, I mean, the entire market can change by then.

Right now you have a certain plan, but the whole world could be different six months from now, and then now your plan is going to change. You might as well get started and make adjustments along the way. Have a little bit of a direction. For example, I live in Arizona, so Nevada is North of us, let me just head north. Even if I don't know the exact direction, even if I don't know the most optimal route to get there, let me just at least start heading there instead of waiting to get on the internet. We’ve changed our business so many times.

Our business literally changes every single month, whether it be a new system that we put in the back end or something design or packaging related, or if there's something within the details of the quality that we need to change, or even a manufacturer that we just feel isn't providing us with the quality or the delivery time that we would like, and now we need to make an adjustment there, or there's product that we just want to discontinue because it causes too many problems, or our attention is just more valuable in a different industry.

The business world just changes so quickly. Even right now with coronavirus, people may have had plans to open a restaurant, a gym or, a barbershop or whatever it may be, and then COVID-19 just shut it all down. You never know what's going to happen in the world, and so there's just no such thing as a perfect opportunity. You just have to get started, and the earlier you get started, the earlier you can start making mistakes. If you look at mistakes the right way, you can make adjustments to those mistakes and whoever started first will win.

Felix: Let’s talk about the website. Did you design in-house, or did you hire outside for the build? 

Akram: Designed in-house. I started building it myself and I got the little experience that I had building the Shopify website before Nominalx.com, which was Kufi Artist. I had a little bit of Shopify experience from there. But Shopify, to be honest with you, is such an amazing platform. I love it so much. It always blows me away. Building a website is not as hard as some people would think. Everybody should try to build their website on their own. I built the majority of the website, and then my first full-time partner, his name is Akhmed.

He came a little over a year after I started the company. We're about six full-time right now and a few part-time. But he was the first full-timer and he's also obsessed just like me with anything UI, UX related, website layout, backend, the abandoned carts , all converging related things. Now it's a combination of me and him that build, create, and optimize the layout and everything, but all in-house.

Felix: Have there been any changes that you've made recently that have made a big impact on conversions?

Akram: Yes. Yes, actually. One of the most awesome features that we added just a few months ago, actually. We select a few items every single month where we donate 25% of those proceeds towards our “deed of the month” campaign. For example, this month we're donating 25% of six different items towards Yemen. Before people just needed to know which items those were, and maybe they would add it to their cart but they didn't really know exactly how much was being donated or maybe they didn't even know about our deed of the month. Maybe they didn't even know that this item was donating a percentage of proceeds. Now when you add the item to your cart, it’ll give you this pop up. It'll say 25% of your deed of the month items are being donated to the hunger crisis in Yemen, $20 from this order is going directly to the cause. It's an awesome feature because it automatically does the math on the items in your cart that are a part of the deed of the month campaign. It doesn't matter if it takes 25% and then it lets you know how much of your cart is being donated towards the cause, which is awesome and provides a lot of transparency to the customer. It makes them feel good. They know that they're purchasing from a company that's really making a difference, and they're able to be with us and make that difference themselves. 

"They know that they're purchasing from a company that's really making a difference, and they're able to be with us and make that difference themselves."

Felix: Is there a significant decrease in cart abandonment by putting that there?

Akram: To be honest, I wouldn't say a significant decrease. Our conversion right now is probably on average around 2.75%. But it was at one point around closer to just two. Some might think that a difference of 0.5 or 0.75 is not a lot, but it’s really a lot in terms of conversion. I would say that it's definitely helped, yes. We were probably stuck around 2.25 for a while, but right now we're at about 2.75% conversion.

Felix: What are some apps or tools that you use to power the website or the business as a whole?

Akram: We use a lot of apps to be honest, which is crazy because the first year before Nominal, I didn't even know that sort of thing. A recent one that we just added is Klaviyo, the email marketing platform. We're using that. It's fantastic. Yotpo is a fantastic app for reviews. That's where we get all our reviews from, they manage the reviews and they just provide us a very user-friendly service. They send automatic emails to customers after a certain amount of days that they've purchased. We have an app called Surveyor, S-U-R-V-E-Y-O-R.

Basically, on the order confirmation page, when they're all complete, it provides them with a survey which gives us information to ask them, "How did you find us? What was your experience with us? What did you run into? What didn't you find?" It gives us a ton of feedback that's very useful. We didn't have surveys for a while, which has been game-changing for us. Another app called Showcase where we're able to sync it with our Instagram account, and then any picture that we post on Instagram, we're able to tag the items within that picture, the actual item that we're selling on the website, and then once we tag those items within the Instagram pictures and now showed that tag within that product listing, which is super cool.

With each product listing on the website, you upload certain images, and now every time that we post on Instagram, any picture on Instagram that contains this product will now show also on that same product listing page. That's pretty cool. We do affiliate marketing as well. So basically we give people the opportunity to make 5% back on each purchase. It's called LeadDyno affiliate marketing. Free Shipping Bar is fantastic. We're able to create settings for different countries that provide different free shipping minimums.

When someone adds something to their cart, let's say, we shipped for free to Canada and the United Kingdom above 100 USD, so now when people add, let's say, a $50 item to their cart, it'll say, "Spend another $50 and get free shipping." That has also been fantastic for us. We've been able to increase our average cart value and increase our conversion through that. For the most part, those I would say are our best app. One more would be Best currency converter. When someone lands on the website from a different country, it detects the IP and changes the currency, the price of our product for that currency, and that way they don't get scared or they feel they're shopping locally. That's really good as well.

A watch, rings, and earrings in a jewelry box.
By showcasing soon to be launched items on their site, Nominal is able to build up anticipation and stimulate sales. Nominal

Felix: One thing that I noticed about your website is that you have a lot of ‘coming soon’ products at the top of the landing page. What was the idea behind this?

Akram: For the new products, we like to put them on the website, even before they're available. You can't purchase it, but you can add it to your wishlist. We add these items so people can start engaging with it and start looking at the pictures, they can start adding it to the wishlist, that way when the sale goes live, they can check out immediately.

It builds hype as well. We for the most part advertise on Instagram. Maybe someone isn't paying attention to Instagram but is shopping on our website. If they don't know about the sale through Instagram, they're going to find out now through the website, through the coming soon. It's going to get their attention.

Felix: Have you done this before, this approach of building up hype before a sale?

Akram: Yeah. Yeah. We try to do it more and more each time, and every single sale we do our best to beat the last one, and we typically do. Building hype is definitely important for the success of a launch or a sale.

Felix: What’s the method or best practice for promoting a sale like this? 

Akram: We try to plan this out months in advance so we can start designing and then sampling all these new products. By the time we finalize a sample, we have to factor in the lead time for the bulk order and then make sure that we have the bulk order in time. But with each sale or each big launch, we try to launch at least 15 items. We start building hype about 10 days before the sale begins or the launch begins. 10 days before is when we post the first picture of the new item or one of the new items, and then we post two to three times each day. For example, today this morning, we already posted one new item that's going to be a part of the sale.

Yesterday night, we posted another new item. So we just keep posting new items to continue to build the hype on Instagram and really get everybody engaged. But I guess our timeline would be 10 days before the sale begins, and then we post two to three times each day, each post being a new item or an item that was a hot seller from before but sold out and will be at restock within the sale. We really try to overwhelm our customers almost with how many new items that are going to be available.

Felix: What would you say needs to happen this year for you to consider the year a success?

Akram: Of course, we have certain revenue targets. We also want to donate more than $100,000 this year. That would be a huge accomplishment for the company. That's been a goal that we set at New Years’. As soon as January 1, 2020, we had a team meeting, and we spoke of what things would be so awesome, how we would feel so accomplished, how can we create actual change within the world with our company as a platform?

Aside from all the sales goals and growing the team to a certain number, we of course, have to always remember that at the end of the day we want to be able to create as much change as possible. So we set a donation goal, and that's money that we're donating based on purchases that people are making. There's a difference between donations and raising money. These are substantial donations made by us, so it's different campaigns. Our goal is 100,000, and I think we will hit it.

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