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Learnings from Hidden 6-Figure Manufacturing Costs

Shopify masters: Stary Sixty creator Kirpal Bharaj

Stay Sixty is the maker of stylish reusable water bottles created by Kirpal Bharaj. Driven by the environmental cause of reducing single-use plastic water bottles, Stay Sixty combines the ritual of hydration with thoughtful design. In this episode of Shopify Masters, Kirpal chats with us on the hidden costs of manufacturing and introducing new products with Facebook ads.

For the full transcript of this episode, click here

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Show Notes

Applying big brand strategies when launching a start-up

Felix: The idea behind this business started with your own experience with dehydration, so tell us more about that.

Kirpal: It was a funny experience. It was a routine blood test, a usual checkup that you need to make sure that everything is working correctly. When you're over 30 years of age, you need to check that things are ticking along okay. The nurse wasn’t able to take any blood from my veins during a routine blood test, which I thought was really strange and quite worrying, but apparently it was just a case of severe dehydration. She said it can happen quite a lot, so it's more common than we realized, and actually, it happened to my father as well. 

It urged me to start hydrating more regularly, but that was through single-use plastic. I’m referring to the big Evian bottles and things like that. I was inspired to look a bit deeper into the environmental impacts of single-use plastic water bottles. I started searching for a reusable bottle, but at the time there really wasn't anything that I could find that really matched the aesthetic that I look for in the accessories that I carry. I'll be honest, I'm quite fussy about the type of things that I carry in terms of accessories, the type of clothes that I wear. It's not a case of designer labels, it's that they need to be designed well and last long.

I couldn't find anything that, number one, really appealed to a male audience, or number two, really had the design principles, the look, and the quality that would make me want to carry it on a daily basis, which I found really important. So I went to my brother and said, "I think we can do a better job here. I think we've got the skill set to actually have a go at this market and create something really good." So we went for it and luckily that's how we started the business back in 2017.

Felix: Can you describe what the bottle looks like, and how it stands out on the shelves?

Kirpal: It’s very different. Firstly, I would say around 90% of the water bottles that you see are off the shelf from China. They would have been designed a few years ago by Chinese designers and engineers in China, and what happens is people from other countries will then just buy them off the shelf and not design anything. That’s what we would never do. We started from scratch and we looked at the other products and said actually, we can make it better through a lot of different features, but in terms of the actual aesthetic, it’s very sculptural, it's got a very distinct shape to it. A lot of that's down to the carry collar, as we call it, which is a carry strap that wraps around the neck of the bottle. We’ve patented the design itself, which is really important for us because it gives it its real form.

It also has a special cap that we patented as well. The way that works is you semi-twist the top half of it and you can drink straight through it and it regulates the liquid flow. It allows your body to hydrate more effectively because you can't gulp, gulp, gulp. If you're gulping and chugging water and you're taking it down too quickly, all that will happen is your kidneys think that they are drowning and you will just have to go to the toilet. It doesn't allow your body to absorb the water, so it lets out all the liquid. There’s a lot of different added functional benefits: the cap in the way it allows you to hydrate and structuring straight through it, the carry collar, the actual sculptural property of it, but also the way you can carry it.

You can carry it with a forehand, you can carry it in a certain way for running, you can grab it from different angles. It’s really intuitive, instead of the usual finger loop where you can use your finger and swing it. Also the color, it’s got a really high-grade paint to it, and we color match all the components, so we take ages color matching everything. Again, we thought that was something that people within this market don't take enough care and attention and thought. We actually take a lot of inspiration from high-end audio brands, like the Bang Olufsen’s, the Sonos', the Urbanears, and things like Common Projects, which are a really great European footwear brand. If you look at the care and attention to everything on that product from the color matching, to the materials used, to the finish and the quality, that's our inspiration and that's the process we put behind our bottles and our range.

Felix: You mentioned that you thought you and your brother had the right skill sets, what are your backgrounds? 

Kirpal: I've got around 14, 15 years in advertising. So media strategy, creative agencies, media agencies. I've worked on clients such as Virgin Media, Barclays Bank, Hendricks Gin, Sailor Jerry's Rum, and quite a lot of the big tier brands, so it would be a case of understanding. We would get a brief in order to understand their audience with the tools that we have, such as; this is your target consumer, this is how we speak to them, this is where we speak to them, these are the touchpoints, and here's your budget. My job would be taking that client brief and getting into the nitty-gritty of the consumer market, product, literally everything to say, "Here's the strategy, here's the best way to go out there and market your new proposition, or your new brand, or your new product."

Starting a company and starting a brand couldn't have been any better grounding for me personally. I thought if I'm doing it for other people, if I'm any good, I should be able to do it for myself. My brother Raj has a financial systems background, he worked for a company that used to print money in the UK. He was head of financial systems there so he's got a finance background, and I've got more of the creative strategy background so it marries quite well. I leave him to do the numbers and then he leaves me to do the fancy stuff and it works quite nicely.

A model using an emerald water bottle from Stay Sixty.
Consumer research, surveys, and interviews helped Stay Sixty understand the existing market. Stay Sixty 

Felix: What are some of the big brand strategies and tactics that you applied from your background when starting up your own small business? 

Kirpal: Good question. It's very different because you're not dealing with ridiculous amounts of budgets. The key is to start from the consumer, understand the consumer, do all of your consumer research, whether it's using things like SurveyMonkey speaking to your friends, speaking to anyone that might use your product in order to get a real idea of the market. What they're using, how they use it, and what they think of the current products out there. A key part of my previous job was the insight part of things. The insight part of launching a business is really, really important because without that insight you're not going to create a great product, or the right product, to be able to get that product-market fit with it if you haven't done the groundwork in terms of consumer research.

A lot of the campaigns that I worked on were big budgets, so there would be TV, a hell of a lot of digital advertising, a lot of out of home, some radio. Obviously, things were shifting more digitally, a hell of a lot socially, but a lot of brands now, even the bigger brands most of their budget will be social and digital-based. Especially now in the current climate, it's the power of social and how you can really utilize that and leverage it for your benefit as a brand really.

"The key is to start from the consumer, understand the consumer, do all of your consumer research to get a real idea of the market."

Felix: For your brand, how did you go about conducting the consumer research to make sure you found your market fit? 

Kirpal: We did some SurveyMonkey stuff with a lot of my friends within the industry, but also within our design team as well and their friends and so on. A lot of it was looking at what's out there in the market, why they weren't great in terms of the products-there are some very good products, but there are some very bad products as well. A lot of it is looking at what's already there and how we can improve it, then speaking to the consumers to see how they would use it and how we could add certain elements to the product to make it more of an accessory that they would want to carry daily around with them. What makes it a better product for them to use more regularly? So to hydrate more, yes, but also use less single-use plastic because we are adding those bits that they really want and a key to them carrying it more often.

Felix: You focused a lot on the competition and what already existed in order to inform your design, what specifically did you look for, and how did you make those improvements? 

Kirpal: A few things. A lot of the stainless steel bottles that you see in the market are quite clunky. They’re not that intuitive in the way that you can drink through them. What was really important number one was making a commercially viable product on a number of levels. It needed to be a commercially viable retail price, so for us in the UK that’s around 35.00 pounds, which is an expensive point, but it isn't a £95 water bottle. What we found is the tech side of things wasn't needed. There are smart water bottles that are great, but the people that we spoke to were like, "Actually, I don't want to spend that much on a water bottle. What I want is something that looks great and feels great in my hand." That’s number one, we had to look at really great stunning, distinct visuals, and to create a design-led product so it looks a certain way. 

Number two, it needed to be easier to hydrate from, you don't have to take a big bulky cap off all the time in order to keep hydrating. We’ve eliminated that by the little semi-twist that allows you to drink straight through the cap. It also needed to be perfect for both water and coffee or tea. A lot of times if you have a sip cap it's either a straw or a little hole. The problem with that is nobody really wants to drink coffee from a straw. It's a bit weird, it's not a great user experience. We wanted to create a cap that is great for water hydration, is great for coffee and tea as well and then we've got the extra layers of insulation which keeps everything super fresh and super cold and super hot. So it needed to be perfect for both water, coffee and tea to make it the one bottle that you keep with you all the time so you really invest in it. The key to that was the cap really and then like I said, the aesthetics are really, really important as well.

The pros and cons of 3D printing your first prototype

Felix: Walk us through the design process, how you actually turned those ideas into a product

Kirpal: When we originally launched in 2017, it was always a case of this is our MVP, this is the minimum viable product that we can release with the budget that we have. It’s a very good product, but with the budget we have, it was a hell of a lot of tooling. It was about making a simpler version of what we really wanted. Then we went about with our design team, my friend owns a design team that we work really closely with, they're almost an extension of our team. It was a case of okay, here are the visuals that we like from other brands and they're not actually brands within our market taking inspiration from them and saying, "How do we then create that in a water bottle really?"

A lot of them were very Scandinavian, very minimal. That’s the kind of look that we wanted, and then we put pen to paper and started creating that with the team to come up with a few options to start with and then we narrowed those down. There are certain functions on there as well that we added, so then we came up with a design that we really liked and thought would fit the brief. Then it was about speaking to manufacturers in China to see what was possible, what the tolling costs would be which is where all the money really is, which is a really expensive outlay. We found it was easier to speak to manufacturers in China for the first product compared to the second product, which is far more technically advanced, the one that you see now where we spoke to a few manufacturers and they couldn't produce certain elements.

There’s a lot to be said for a simpler product, it makes it easier to manufacture, but that was the brief to start with. The brief now is a very different approach, in a very different busy market to create a much better product. It was designing something and then taking it to certain manufacturers to see the cost of it, and then once we had the right manufacturer, the right costs, it was a case of then prototyping, tooling and then manufacturing on mass.

Felix: What does the time frame look like between having an idea of elements you’d like to incorporate, and producing a final, finished product? 

Kirpal: The first thing that you would see with your own eyes is obviously, the sketches. Honestly, that would probably take a good two or three months if you're doing it right. From there it's the 3D visuals, which can take another maybe two months. Then it's prototyping. We did a rapid prototype in the UK first, so 3D printing, and that would be another couple of weeks. Then what we did this time around is create a really great prototype with our manufacturer, which took around a month to create that first prototype. That prototype then wasn't 100%, we had to go back and get certain functional elements right, which took another two months. It’s a long process, if you want to get it right, it’s a really long process. From the initial idea, down to getting that prototype, the prototype that you want to sign off was probably around eight months.

Felix: What are the pros and cons of 3D printing your first prototype, rather than sourcing straight from the manufacturer? 

Kirpal: That was purely for sizing because the product is so sculptural, we wanted to see how it would look. It was so quick and simple for us to do it, we thought, why not? Let's check this, let's check the 3D drawings to see how it looks. With the 3D printing, there was no functionality, the cap didn't work for example and the strap for example, didn't come off so it was more the look of it. It was just to say, "Yes, this looks right." When we first did the 3D printing, we could see straight away that the strap was too big. That allowed us to recalibrate, change the sizing, take it in a little bit before we sent everything to the manufacturer. It cut that process further down the line which is what would have just happened. It was almost a sense check with the quick 3D printing more than anything else.

"The 3D printing was so quick and simple for us to do, we thought, why not?"

Felix: Do you do any consumer testing throughout these stages, where you actually put the product in front of the target customers? 

Kirpal: The first part of consumer testing is when we have a prototype from the manufacturer where there are some functional elements. I would say that was almost an alpha test, where we put it in front of people within our circle. It was probably around five or six people, so the design team, us as founders, also a bunch of people that we were close to, in order to sense check. What do you think? How does it look? How does it function? We’ve got a tight-knit group of people that we trust and rely on to give us good, sound opinions because they have very similar tastes.

The ascetics that they like are very similar to us, the brands that they really like are very similar to what we like so we have some trusted people that we can always go to and get their opinion. That’s the first bit. The next stage was when we had proper colored pre-production samples. Then we went out and spoke to a few retailers and that's when it was more of a beta test.

Felix: Do you remember any tweaks or changes that you and the team wanted to make after these rounds of testing?

Kirpal: The first one was changing the size of the strap through 3D printing. There was a hell of a lot that changed in the cap, in terms of the way that it would stop at a certain point. It was actually very difficult to get a quarter turn, there's a top panel that drops, so you basically quarter turn the top half of the cap, the top panel drops and you can drink through it. What was happening to start with was an infinite turn, which is pointless.

So there was a lot of re-engineering to get the cap right, it was mainly the cap that's the most difficult part of the product. Everything else was okay. When we were testing samples and colors, there was a lot of paint testing, the right paint, the right finish, the right logo finish, the right finish on the silicon strap, the right finish on the cap. Like I said, even color matching the components took us absolutely ages to get them right. There were a lot of iterations along the way, we took our time to get it right really.

An emerald water bottle by Stay Sixty.
Prototyping through 3D printing was a good way for Stay Sixty to gauge the initial changes they wanted to make to their hero product. Stay Sixty 

Felix: How did you know when you were ready for manufacturing?

Kirpal: We had the manufacturer in place when we had the signed off sample, so we already had them in place. We were already having conversations with a partner that was recommended to us. We did our due diligence, we knew that they were really, really good and we have a great partnership with them. The whole process of signing off on a sample was probably around 12 months of design, development, prototyping. We had a plain stainless steel version, so it's kind of pre-tooled, but it wasn't colored, none of the components were colored, but we could understand the functionality.

That moment where I sipped from the cap, the flow was just perfect and the functionality was just right. I'm very fussy and it was an instant smile on my face and it was like, "Bingo! This is perfect. This is what we wanted, I'm really happy." I'm quite a hard man to please so it got to the stage where I was really happy. Then it was a case of a finger on the button in terms of how we can get the colored samples, with the functionality signed off. Once the colors are signed off then it's a case of yeah, hit the button on production.

The hidden manufacturing costs to be aware of as a start-up

Felix: Any tips here on identifying the right manufacturer to work with?

Kirpal: To give you a bit of background, the first product that we created was with a different manufacturer than the one we have now. We sold out of our range at a certain point, but we were still in the process of moving manufacturing, but we wanted to take our time to get it right and get the right manufacturers on board and get everything spot on. We had a phase of around six or seven months that we were completely offline, and we had people coming to us and saying, "Can we still buy your product?" And retailers saying, "Can we still get your product?" So, "No, I'm really sorry but we don't want to sell that. If you can wait for a few months then we'll bring something new and you'll love it and we'll take it from there."

One of the reasons that we shifted was they were not a great manufacturer. There are a lot of things that can go wrong in manufacturing in general, there's a lot that can go wrong in China, especially with IP, or the communication not being great. We learned a lot from being quite green and almost too trusting with people we didn't really know. Then moving forward, we have NNN agreements, we have multi-lingual manufacturing agreements, we have everything in paper, all of our IP is protected in China as well. We have really done things properly this time compared to the first time when you don't know, and you just jump in.

What’s really important is having that trusted manufacturer. The first time around we went through Alibaba which wasn't a great idea. Trade shows in China or in Hong Kong are a great place to find manufacturers, if you can get a recommendation pretty much on anything, but especially a manufacturer it's worth its weight in gold if you know they work with good people and good brands. Our manufacturer works with some of the biggest brands so we know we're in good hands as well there. It’s always good to understand who they work with, what they manufacture and take a look at the quality of that production. We knew we were in safe hands as soon as we saw the quality of their output and who they worked with.

"If you can get a recommendation pretty much on anything, but especially a manufacturer, it's worth its weight in gold."

Felix: Can you elaborate on some of the hidden costs that you encountered that people might not know of either? 

Kirpal: A lot of people don't realize the tooling costs involved in certain aspects of designing and creating your product. Obviously, you need a tool or a mold to create certain components of a product and that can cost a fortune, especially if you have a lot of components in your product. Always scope out estimates for tooling is really important before you do a lot of things. You could have designed something that's great and you're really happy with it, you could have paid a design team a lot of money to create that and then you didn’t realize that you’d need to spend six figures on tooling, it Kai-Bosch’s everything.

Quality control with any manufacturing is really important. On our first round of production, we had to get a quality control team to check every single individual product because we weren't 100% on the quality of their output. That cost a fortune, they had to check every single bottle before we shipped it. You don't want to get yourself in a situation where you have to have such an extensive QC process because it will cost you a fortune and a lot of that stems from bad manufacturing. We didn't have to do that this time, we had a good level of quality control where, it's a third party team who go in and check a sample size of your product.

They would check everything including the packaging, the barcodes, the quality of the paint finishing, the insulation, the way that certain things have to function, the weight of the product, the size of the packaging, everything. Always have an extensive Quality Control process. If all goes well, it should be a sample size of your whole production run, to sense check and it put your mind at ease because if you have a good manufacturer then the quality of the production should be good anyway. Making sure you have a good manufacturer is the key and most important thing in China I would say in terms of manufacturing.

A male model drinks from a stone colored water bottle by Stay Sixty.
Having a good manufacturing partner and quality control processes were most important to the Stay Sixty team. Stay Sixty 

Felix: That first production run where you were creating units for sale, how big was that?

Kirpal: That was around 6,000 units.

Felix: How did you start to generate traffic and encourage prospective customers to come and check out the product?

Kirpal: That was pretty much all through Facebook advertising. I'm self-taught, I do all the social advertising, paid social in house so everything was through Facebook and Instagram in terms of getting your funnels right. Obviously back then it would all be perspective, awareness-based targeting to really get our brand out there. It seemed to work quite well because the initial product launched at a stage where there was less competition in our market. Now there's a lot more competition and there are a lot more people on Facebook trying to get eyeballs and impressions. We had pretty good cut through, some good creative, and a product that was distinct and stood out. All of those things worked really well for us on Facebook and allowed us to pretty effectively and efficiently sell all of our stock within a certain amount of time obviously.

"Make sure your photography and your images are as high end as it could possibly be, but be distinct, be bold, be different, be better, is our mantra."

Felix: How do you introduce a new product to a marketplace that has never heard of you before? 

Kirpal: I've always said that a product is king or queen. We focus on our product as much as we can. The quality of it, the look, the aesthetic. Then photograph it, make sure your photography and your images are as high end as it could possibly be, but be distinct, be bold, be different, be better, is our mantra. By doing that, it's easier to get your paid marketing, your earned marketing, and your own channels to work a hell of a lot more effectively and efficiently. Because our brand was more distinct, it was a very different looking product and is very high end in terms of the premium aesthetics, the premium website, and everything that we would do, it allowed us to get awareness and cut through probably more than we should have.

Every pound that we would spend worked efficiently because we took our time to create a very, very good product, get the branding right, get the imagery right which made our paid channels work better and more effectively and more efficiently. The creative was very distinct, we used some really nice gifs and stop animation, and high-end photography. It allowed us to cut through and do pretty well within our market and within Facebook. Everyone’s feed now is full of ads so you have to be distinct and be bold and be better whether it's your product or whether it's your advertising. So it was about being distinctive to get the awareness really.

"Everyone’s feed now is full of ads so you have to be distinct and be bold and be better whether it's your product or whether it's your advertising."

Felix: Did you outsource an agency for photography? 

Kirpal: It’s all outsourced. We have a good tight-knit team of photographers, animators, and people that we work with that give us the premium look and feel that we want. Get the best images that you can, the best photographer that you can, obviously on a budget, but if it makes you feel like a much bigger brand. Especially for us, we're asking people to spend £35 on a water bottle, so we have to have everything looking right and everything super premium. Photography is a real part of that because especially on Instagram, everything is super visual at the moment so we outsource everything to get the highest quality that we can.

Felix: Any tips for working effectively with a photographer or creative agency in terms of communicating your vision? 

Kirpal: I see myself as a co-founder and a creative director as well, I know what I want or what we want as a team. We've got an idea of the aesthetic that we want and again, a lot of that is looking at other brands that we really like to source that kind of imagery. Then we'll speak to the photographer and say, "Look, we love this, can we emulate that?"

We’ll have a set designer as well as part of that and then between us, we come up with a mood board of what we want. Then the set designer will create the assets, but we will be at the shoot to make sure everything looks right and that everything's on-brand. But we're confident in the people that we use, that they understand the aesthetic that we want. It’s more about us being there to get a sense check. It might be a bit of input here and there, a bit of direction in the styling, and things like that.

Felix: What is a good amount of assets to walk away from a shoot with to consider yourselves to have enough for good paid advertising? 

Kirpal: I like to get as much as I can, probably too much sometimes. I push my luck a little bit in terms of the amount of output that I want from a shoot. Sometimes you think that can be a good thing, but what happens is it can deteriorate the quality of certain things. I personally think now it should be a case of focusing, understanding what you want from a shoot. Whether it is a still life shoot, a lifestyle shoot, an animation, what we've done sometimes is try and squish them together and have everything in one.

We had a shoot where we had around 50 to 60 assets and I would say we've used about 20 of them. We could have gotten better quality if we had separated things, which is what we do now. You want to get photographers that are better at certain things and will specialize in certain things, whether that is still life versus lifestyle. We’ve tried to put a still life and a lifestyle shoot in one, and it hasn't worked anywhere near as good as focusing on particular shoots. I would say you would want at least 20 assets that you can use from a shoot.

How to use Facebook ads to optimize your mid-funnel retargeting efforts

Felix: So once you’ve set up these ads, where are you trying to drive the paid traffic to? 

Kirpal: If we're using a carousel ad, which can work really, really well, that's where you show a collection of products that you have on sale. Currently, we have four products, they're all the same product, but in different colors. We display the four in a carousel with color-matched backgrounds and it is really distinct and it works really well. It's minimal, but it creates a good cut through. You get a lot more impressions than a normal one-unit ad so that could work quite well.

That drives straight to the product page of that particular ad, so it's almost like a shop listing page on Facebook. You can select the product you want to look at, click on it, and go straight to that product page. That works well because there's less friction, but the problem is it doesn't allow you to do that mid sales point, which is to sell people into the brand unless they're going back into the website, but it's a bit counterintuitive. So we have a combination, we have the carousel ad that goes straight to the product page, and it's a lot less friction in terms of that purchase journey, but then we also have some animation that drives straight to the homepage.

That allows people to flow through, understand the brand, understand what we do in terms of our sustainability initiatives. They can see more images of the product, why we're better, and the spec of the product so it's a combination of both really. Then we have retargeting ads at three different levels. One is people that have clicked on the website and it optimizes for purchases, abandoned carts, and then a reach base one, which is much more cost efficient to hit more numbers. It's more mid funnel retargeting, as opposed to hitting more people that have clicked on the website. There’s quite a few layers in the way we do it.

Felix: You seem brand focused. Where do you lead traffic for brand awareness? How do you communicate the brand mission and values once they arrive? 

Kirpal: There’s a couple of things. We try not to greenwash people by talking about plastic pollution all the time, that's a real problem at the moment. There are too many brands that are talking about that, but actually don't have a great product. We try not to talk about plastic too much. We do it on our ethos page and it’s in the design principles. How we sell them into the design of the brand and why it's better, why it's tangibly better. The idea that you buy better, you buy less, which means that there's the less natural resource being used. There’s less carbon being emitted because you're buying it once and then you keep it because it's made so well.

That’s one thing in terms of the sustainability story. Then the other part is the fact that we help with the prevention and collection of single-use plastics in the ocean through a partnership with Plastic Bank. We donate to them as part of each purchase to help address the root cause of plastic pollution. We also offset all of our carbon imprints through wind farms in the Philippines. There’s a lot of different elements to it. We drive people to the homepage, that's more about the aesthetic, the design, the slow fashion and the quality. If people want to find out more, there's another page that talks about us giving back and helping in terms of offering a root cause solution to plastic pollution.

There’s a couple of ways we look at it, but we don't oversell it. We don't hammer people with it. There's nothing about it in our adverts, our adverts are, here's the product, here's why it's better. Then we sell them into the sustainability initiatives and the slow fashion element within the different pages on our website.

Felix: What does it do for you as a business if your first touchpoint is selling them on the brand and the values? How does that affect your conversion rate? 

Kirpal: Personally I think every brand should have a purpose. That’s really key. More than ever, moving forward brands with purpose will resonate more with the right consumers and will stand out if they're doing good. It’s not just a branding exercise for us, we want to do good. It’s really important to us. It’s something that we would always want to do, we always wanted to do as part of setting up a business. How do we have a positive impact on things around us? We always wanted to be a positive company in that way. This is our brand, this is what we do, and people like it because it makes sense and all of the initiatives make sense in terms of the product that we have.

Naturally, we are reducing single-use plastic by people buying our product, but then we are also offering another solution. First and foremost, brands need to have a purpose. More and more brands are doing it. Consumers can trust you as a business, that you're doing the right things, so that trust then can lead to more sales. They will talk about you more to people, so more word of mouth. There’s a variety of ways of looking at it, but first and foremost is to start a brand with purpose.

Using curated content and PR to generate consumer trust

Felix: You mentioned that PR was a fantastic resource for driving more customers, specifically British GQ and The Guardian. How were you able to land that kind of press?

Kirpal: Thankfully the press got behind us quite well. We used a PR agency, we did outsource that to a really good team, and we used them again for the launch of our new product. Being a brand with purpose helps because it gives you that story. It gives them something to talk about. If you have a really, really great product, that also helps with that earned media, which is basically PR. People talking about you because it's like, "Okay, we can see this is tangibly very different. Okay, this is why it's different. Okay, this is the positive thing it does. Okay, I can talk about that, it gives me more to talk about as a journalist."

So yes, we use a PR agency, but because of what we're doing and how we're doing it we're giving them more to talk about. Our press releases have more information, more of a story, and allows journalists to get on board with it. We also send out a sample to certain journalists, so all of the press that you see, they would have had a sample of our product. Which is great, because it means that they love the product and then they talk about it. It all leads back to having a great product.

"Being a brand with purpose helps because it gives you that story. It gives them something to talk about."

Felix: You mentioned another fantastic way of generating traffic was through these “Best of” guides. Can you talk a little bit more about that? 

Kirpal: It’s when people are searching for 'best reusable water bottle' or 'best water bottle to buy in the UK'. That’s really important. We need to do more of it. We have a few hits that work really well for us because it's a great part of the purchase journey. If you’re making a hat for example, and you're in the “best hats to wear this summer guide” and it's online, the majority of people are going to be googling “what's the best hat to buy this summer?” Then naturally if you're in I don't know, GQ or something that's naturally going to rank really high in terms of Google ranking. It funnels into your purchase journey, but then adds a really amazing layer of trust. If a publication is recommending your product and they’re already an active seeker for it, then that will obviously link to your website, and it does a lot of the heavy lifting for you. It adds that layer of trust, sells them your product before they've even gotten to your website, and that's like gold. We’ve had that specific piece where we had a really great write up in the 12 best reusable water bottles. The conversion rate from that is the highest that we’ve had from the channel because again, it does all the heavy lifting. It tells you about the product, but it's being recommended by a key journalist. As soon as they come to your website, which links straight to the product page, they don't even look at the ethos page or anything else because they're already sold, they buy it in a couple of minutes.

"If a publication is recommending your product and they’re already an active seeker for it, then that will obviously link to your website, and it does a lot of the heavy lifting for you."
A hand holding a mug backdropped by a stone colored water bottle by Stay Sixty.
Investing in great photography and visuals were key to building up Stay Sixty’s brand. Stay Sixty 

Felix: Obviously having a great product is key, but what does the outreach process look like for getting featured in more of these guides? 

Kirpal: It really is having the contacts. It’s the PR agency for us. I've tried personally, sometimes it works, but the PR agencies have all of the right contacts. They take them out for lunch, they're on the phone to them all the time, they're emailing them all the time. They have the relationship, it's far easier. They know when the guides are coming out or if they're looking to get onto a guide. They will check with the journalist which they probably have a relationship with already, “Is it being updated? If it is great, can we send you a sample?” It works a lot more efficiently than a cold email from us, which we've tried.

Not everyone can afford a PR agency, so you can go to a freelancer to do your PR, but make sure they're in the right industry because that means that they will have the right contacts. It’s a case of understanding when those “Best of” guides will be updated, who the journalist is, making that contact, and then following up with a sample because they'll have to test it.

Felix: Any recommendations for ensuring you find a PR agency that’s the right fit? 

Kirpal: There are a lot of agencies out there, and there are a lot of agencies that will charge a lot of money as well. Speak to as many as you can, if you can get a recommendation that's always the best way. For us, it was a music artist that I really like because I'm really into music and it was a piece. That music artist was wearing a pair of socks that our now PR agency had sent him and that's how I found them. I looked at their roster and it was all kinds of high-end tech, premium tech brands actually, and a lot of audio brands as well.

I said, "Okay, this is interesting, this could fit." It's a little bit different for them, and high end eyewear and things like that they do, but the brands that they have are great, which means that they'll have all the right contacts. I spoke to them and I really believe in having the right personality fit as well because you can speak to people and instantly see that they probably won't be the right partner because the fit isn't there. As soon as I spoke to our team it was like, "Okay, good guys, we can trust them." They were also relaxed, not too salesy, not too pushy, because a lot of the PR agencies can be because that's what they do on a daily basis is sell your product to journalists.

So it's about getting that right fit, finding the roster that they have. If it's similar to yours which means that the journalist contacts that they have will be in the right market for you as well. If you look at a brand that you like, find out who their PR agency is. That might be a good way of doing it, an easy way of doing it.

Felix: Let’s talk about some of the apps or tools that you rely on to help run the business. Any recommendations? 

Kirpal: We’ve recently set up Yotpo for reviews, which certainly you need verified reviews on your website. We set that up a few months ago. It's good, it's okay, it can be quite clunky sometimes, but it does what we need it to do so that's okay for now. We use MailChimp at the moment again, but I think that's something that we could probably phase-out. We’re looking at other alternatives as well. We probably need to be stronger on our app game to be honest, in terms of our Shopify platform. They're the main ones that we use at the moment, then we've got certain bespoke ones that allow us to add certain features to our pages that aren't standard on Shopify.

So there are apps built in by our developers that allow certain flows and certain elements to the product. I'll be honest, I'm not that techie to remember the name of it. So we could be a lot stronger on our app game, but for us the key for Shopify is it was so great to set up, to design, to make it as bespoke as we wanted to. The back end is super easy to use so that we can look at it daily and update anything. We have a designer and a developer that we use to get things looking as we want it, but it's more the aesthetic at the moment that we've got in a certain place.

Felix: Looking forward, what do you think is going to be the biggest challenge that you will face?

Kirpal: The biggest challenge for everyone and especially small businesses is the new norm after COVID. How does that look? How does that change consumers purchasing behavior? Will there be less consumer confidence? How does that affect digital sales? How do you optimize the D2C side of things, because retail is going to be a completely different ballgame? There’s a lot that comes out of what has happened with COVID-19 and how do we respond to it as small businesses as digital native businesses? How do we optimize for the new normal, and make the most of people buying digitally more than they ever have, but having less consumer confidence? Seeing what happens in the next few months and after COVID-19, understanding what the new norm really is, and then seeing how you can really respond to it from there really.

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