When my father bought and launched a succulent company called Mountain Crest Gardens to complement his tree seedling business back in the 1990s, it wasn’t a main focus of his.
Instead, it was a natural extension for his contract-based conifer tree seedling business:
A small side hustle that sometimes broke even and sometimes was a tax-write off when it wasn’t profitable.
Mountain Crest Gardens was a very different type of business than the type my father had grown to be an expert at.
In the beginning, the company he bought that became Mountain Crest Gardens sold plants via print catalog and mailing lists.
He tried to make it a wholesale operation. But working with big box stores, distribution centers, and large garden centers was such a pain.
He gave up by the early 2000s and decided to move the business online to sell and ship plants directly to customers.
That’s when he reached out to me – his son with a computer science and marketing degree living more than 500 miles away from home.
It was mostly my initiative to help with advertising and remaking the website. I was naturally drawn to the competitive and creative nature of retail business.
Initially, I saw it as more of a hobby and “helping our family business out a little bit” than as a viable career path.
That was the early 2000s, back when we had a funky website on an old platform. Didn’t everyone then?
I was helping to make sure our Google Adwords were up and running and that we weren’t overspending our budget.
That was about it – and things putted along.
I still had a full time job in Southern California. My father still had his full-time B2B family business.
You might have two guys going after a side-hustle, but that doesn’t produce the outcomes of a full time focus. Sales were flat throughout the 2000s.
Nothing really happened.
Nothing might of ever happened, if it weren’t for Magento Go shutting down and recommending their customers to BigCommerce.
Today, Mountain Crest Gardens is California’s fastest growing online succulent seller. And, we’re getting better and more efficient than ever.
In 2017, we saw a 45% increase in revenue with a decrease in Google ad spend vs. 2016. That’s huge!
Here’s how we got there.
The Sunset of Magento Go Meant a New Day with New Tech
In 2012, I decided it was time to turn that funky old website into something semi-usable. I found Magento Go and used my computer science background to rebuild the site.
- Sales went up that first year.
- They went up even more that second year.
That’s when I started to realize:
“Oh, maybe this can be an actual job for me.”
And then, 2014 – Magento Go announced that they were shutting down.
The email they sent to alert us recommended BigCommerce. To me, it was an opportunity to seriously reconsider the mechanics of building an online brand that complemented the offline side business.
Suddenly, I was putting more and more hours into my side-gig, getting more and more serious about this website that was turning a profit despite our reluctance.
After all, things had been complicated on Magento Go.
Yes, we saw an increase in sales, but:
- Changes required my dedicated time and attention.
- Any new features needed to be integrated –– by me.
- Small changes were a big demand on my already limited time.
There were a lot of reasons to not put too many eggs in the online business basket.
But then things changed – fast.
The reason? On the new platform, our sales skyrocketed.
We quickly grew from a team of three to a team of 20 – and in just about four years, our sales are up 10x.
By that time, I had already quit the corporate job, but the growth had me moving back home to Northern California to grow the team and build a world-class brand.
Today, I’m an executive at Mountain Crest Gardens and I oversee all our operations.
So how’d we get there?
How did I go from an interesting, family side hustle to bring my father’s B2B business (which we still operate) to a consumer audience via the web?
Well, that’s a story about fear, Amazon and making sure my father’s legacy survives beyond my generation.
David v. Goliath, or: Buffering a Family Business from Amazon
Things were going well after our initial transition to BigCommerce:
- Traffic went up
- Conversions went up
But there was still an elephant in the room: Amazon.
I was well aware that Amazon was (and is) taking over every industry.
I knew that it behooves small businesses like us to build out communities and lifestyles NOW before Amazon comes for our segment.
I knew I needed to buffer the brand from Amazon ASAP. This meant a shift in focus around our marketing efforts.
We specifically needed to leverage our community through:
- Content marketing.
- User-generated content.
- Social content.
Because here was the thing: until I could make the elephant in the room more of a mouse, I wouldn’t be able to grow the Mountain Crest Garden brand effectively.
I needed to buffer us, and secure us from Amazon’s overarching reach.
And to get that security, I needed a community.
To build that community, well – I needed content, and lots of it.
Uncovering Amazon’s Achilles Heel
Amazon’s business model rewards cheapness of product over anything else, something that doesn’t really fly for most people in the world of live plants.
You can’t palletize and store plants in a Prime warehouse without quality suffering, for example. Amazon also can’t do community and lifestyle like niche segments can.
They can’t harness the passion and experience of my father, which he passed down to me, and that I can now share with our customers.
This is where the biggest problem comes in for brands like me (and I’m assuming like you).
How do you create the content needed to build a community to beat out Amazon?
Back in 2015, I was getting emails like crazy from apps and tool companies trying to get me to use their service.
I ignored almost all of them.
After all, sales were going up, traffic was going up. You only have so much time in the day.
But when I realized I needed content to build the community necessary to bumper ourselves in from the impact of Amazon, I knew I needed help.
That’s when I looked back into a company that had reached out a few months earlier.
Rivet Works had come to me via email with a content-based marketing solution they said helped brands promote user-generated content.
The first time they reached out, I was too busy. Google AdWords was working, and I was heads down in the day to day.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized the potential was there.
It was automated user-generated content via reviews. Their pitch was this:
- Scrap regular text-based reviews.
- Ask customers for it all: a review, a photo of their product in the wild, and a star rating.
- Get their permission to use all of the above for marketing purposes.
- Automatically update those images and reviews to the correct product pages –– and then launch social advertising campaigns with the content sent in by users, and their own reviews of the goods.
It was intriguing – though to be fair, I still don’t 100% buy in to the idea of completely scraping text-based reviews.
On top of Rivet Works, I also use Shopper Approved (which automates a survey as well for text-based reviews).
It’s an all-in reviews strategy: get quick text reviews to establish popularity, but also get photo based reviews for social proof and great original content.
Shopper Approved does indeed net a larger number of reviews overall than Rivet Works,
They are just less exciting.
With Rivet Works, I got photo proof that people liked my products – with no extra work on my end.
And at the time, I had gotten good at Google AdWords. I figured that if the rest of the process could be automated and all I needed to do was learn a new advertising platform (Facebook), it was like a win-win.
So we moved on it.
I pushed Google AdWords management to an agency (Logical Position shout out here because it’s working great!), built out our team, and we leaned into a new marketing strategy.
Here’s what happened next.
Automation, User-Generated Content + Becoming BIG
A big part of our new strategy included leveraging social proof through user-generated content.
We wanted to start gathering user-generated content that:
- Added context around how our products are used in buyers’ everyday lives
- Were instances of real, authentic social proof
- Accommodated the seasonality of our business
With Rivet’s help, we started doing just that.
We began spotlighting photos of what customers were actually doing with our plants.
Within a year, we gathered more than 2,000 user-generated photos, and began highlighting them all over our website, videos, blog and on our social accounts.
To encourage submissions, Rivet helped us incentivize this process via a contest in which customers who submit images are entered to win a $100 gift certificate once a month.
Today, we’re still doing this – and it’s working.
Year over year, we are seeing a 40% increase in customer engagement and submission.
- February 2017: 90 photos and videos submitted.
- February 2018: 125 photos and videos submitted.
And, February is still very much our off-season. Last year we had 119 photos and videos for March, 204 for April… then it skyrocketed to 494 for May!
So, apply 40% gains for those months, and you’ll get an idea of what we expect this year.
Then, we repackage this user-generated content as social media material.
On the average Facebook post that features one of our customer photos, we see high organic engagements: 100+ likes, a handful of shares, and 3,000+ reached.
It’s effortless organic marketing for us – and the sales keep rolling in.
The Secret to a 20-Person, 7-Figure Brand: Automation
Along with user-generated photos, we also put a big focus on collecting customer feedback and reviews, which we then leverage for both our internal and external marketing efforts.
We encourage all new customers to complete our short pop-up survey through Shopper Approved, which asks questions about why the shopper selected a particular product and why they’re buying from us.
Once they’ve received the product, we follow up with a full email survey, which again helps us gather important elements of social proof like testimonials and reviews – while also helping us better understand our customers.
The best part of all of these efforts: They’re largely automated.
That means we can remain hands-off and watch this rich, relevant content roll in month after month.
The Next Generation of Our Family’s Legacy: From Seedling to Success
Looking back at where we started, it’s incredible to see how far we’ve come.
This business didn’t take off overnight. For years, it was just…there.
It wasn’t until I was able to put my full attention into this operation and we started using automated user-generated content that it transformed from a mere side hustle into a growing, profitable operation.
Not only did this growth enable me to leave my corporate job, but it’s also now something I can pour myself into 100%.
- That I can experiment with.
- That I can watch grow.
It’s an opportunity to build something that lasts – as an extension of the family business.
And while I focus heavily on site design and UGC, these aren’t the only tools I use to turn what was once a 1990’s offline, B2B succulent farm into California’s most successful succulent site for both our traditional B2B customers and whole new, growing segment of B2C consumers.
I obsess about these things even more than marketing:
- Constant re-evaluation of all business procedures and expenses, looking for inefficiencies.
- Take advantage of a great ecommerce benefit: constant experimenting with pricing, new products, names, description, and onsite information.
- Landing pages, landing experience, and on-site SEO are supercritical! An area where sweating the small stuff really pays off.
- For aesthetic products like plants, obsess about the quality of your main product photos (angles, background, lenses, lighting, post processing and editing, and realism).
- Be honest about the luck involved with good timing in a particular market. Maybe you had a great idea but the time just wasn’t quite right! I’m not sure how Mountain Crest Gardens would have grown 10 years ago when succulents were mostly known as “cactus” and novelty collector plants – even if we had all this same tech!
In the end, though, we’re building our community. We’re buffering against Amazon. We’re bringing this family business into the next decade.
And I couldn’t be more proud.
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