How One PTA Meeting Turned Into a Thriving School Supplies Business with a Charitable Arm
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“If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”
– Reid Hoffman, Co-founder of LinkedIn
These words have made quite an impact on the ever-growing entrepreneurial community to promote a philosophy of launching a product and iterate rather than perfect before launch.
Specifically, this mantra has been the inspiration of Trevor Seret, President and Co-founder of Sprout School Supplies, a company that simplifies back-to-school supply shopping for busy parents and gives back to local school communities.
From Analyst to the American Red Cross
An environmental science and economics major at the University of Virginia, Trevor graduated from college and started a laundry delivery service for college students with one of his friends, Cainon Coates.
He and his friend found a commercial laundromat that already provided wash and fold service, worked out the delivery routes and schedule requirements, then bought a large van and started small.
That early start was a recipe for success which led to a partnership with the university, and later established the blueprint for his future one, Sprout School Supplies.
Meanwhile, Trevor landed an operations analyst role at a private label baby food company with a mission to provide families with a less expensive baby formula option with the same quality as the expensive stuff.
There, he was lucky to have a wonderful mentor, Adam Burke, and learned a lot in terms of what it takes to run a larger business from how to manage the components and what financial metrics to evaluate, to doubling down on what worked and eliminating what did not.
A couple years in, though, and Trevor was looking for a more personal connection to his work. With a job offer in hand from the American Red Cross national headquarters, he moved to D.C. to help the non-profit help others.
Starting a business with a full-time job
Working at the American Red Cross provided him with more flexibility in his schedule, and Trevor was able to return to a personal passion of his from high school and college – volunteering as a tutor.
Non-profit and volunteer work aside, Trevor’s entrepreneurial spirit couldn’t be subdued.
At one of the PTA meetings he attended, a topic of conversation began around school supplies –– with the parents groaning in unison about what a nightmare it was to shop for over the summer.
Trevor’s light bulb turned on and he’d solve for this pain point.
After all, he had the logistical expertise from his laundry business to get goods from one place to the next. More importantly, he had been inspired since childhood by the Newman’s Own brand, and finally saw the opportunity to build a similar intersection between cause and commerce by giving back to educational communities through school supplies.
Sprout School Supplies business is planted
To begin, Trevor created a volunteer pilot program at the school and was able to successfully put together school supply kits and cross an important item off parents’ to-do list.
After his success, he began to think about seeing whether this side project had the potential to grow into something bigger. He soon teamed up Jeff Manthe, a teacher with a passion for helping schools beyond the classroom.
He did some market research and was surprised to find a couple of similar businesses already existed, including a subsidiary of Staples.
Nevertheless, he pressed forward with the attitude that “McDonald’s didn’t invent the hamburger.”
He knew his business wouldn’t start out with the scale of his competitors, but saw ways he could provide a better service to parents, and connect more with customers through a charitable component.
Trevor worked on bringing Sprout School Supplies to life, while still holding down his full-time job at the American Red Cross. After all, he had no outside capital to mention and needed to bootstrap all operations.
It was ten months until he put in his notice and began focusing full time on his fledgling business.
I caught up with him to talk through his experience with ecommerce platform, scaling his sales, his philanthropic component and so much more.
Trevor Seret, Co-founder, Sprout School Supplies
Shopify Payments Impact on Profit, switch to BigCommerce
In 2013, the Sprout School Supplies website launched on Shopify. In the beginning, Shopify had a lack of features but it didn’t really impact the business much at the start. We were able to work around or use third-party apps.
Eventually, as we scaled and grew, it became more of an issue. We needed to customize our website and in order to do so, we needed a developer that was fluent in Shopify’s coding language, called Liquid.
After getting some quotes that started at $50,000, it was completely out of our budget so we decided to assess our options.
One feature that was really important to us was the ability to create product options and collect product details specific to product options so customers could enter information associated with the individual supply kit.
That feature required customization and development on Shopify’s platform came standard with a BigCommerce plan.
When you’re collecting tens of thousands of orders, families that have more than one child, there was more than one student name or identifying information to be included with an order.
In Shopify, there was only one field for that information. It was impossible to correctly manage information this way.
Another reason we wanted to leave Shopify was because of Shopify Payments. Shopify’s payment processor is Stripe and that’s the only option you have when it comes to payment processing. When you’re a small business and your revenue is low, it’s not a significant factor.
However, as you grow, percentages, especially on a gross level, start to make more and more of an impact on your total profit. They become hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the ecommerce revenue of your site.
BigCommerce’s World Class Technical Support Team
What really attracted me to BigCommerce is the customer support team. The technical support team is incredible and fantastic. I’ve never had less than a completely positive experience and it’s available 24/7 and I’ve used that 24/7 support!
I think every entrepreneur at some point finds themselves awake at 3:00 AM, trying to figure out an issue with the website that needs to get fixed “immediately.”
There’s lot of great things about ecommerce, but one downside is that you have to be open for business at all times.
If there’s an issue, you feel that very quickly.
When customer emails start to flood in with, “I am having trouble with mobile checkout. My credit card was declined,” that pressure builds very rapidly. BigCommerce has always been there from a technical support aspect to help solve those questions immediately.
I’d say I’ve likely called the BigCommerce tech support line over 50 times and 95% of the time the person I spoke with was able to answer my question and solve my issue on the phone in 15 minutes or less. If not, they escalated the issue and put me in touch with someone who did know how to fix the issue. I think I’ve only experienced an issue that lasted more than 24 hours once. All other issues, someone with BigCommerce helped me fix.
Data Architecture Helps Streamline Inventory Management
We worked with Andrew Riggins at oBundle to design a website with easy navigation to ensure a great user experience. Andrew informed me they only do development for BigCommerce websites.
That endorsement and a much lower cost are why we decided to go with BigCommerce.
He added the functionality that requests a school code on the homepage. This one feature simplifies the process for our customers. The way we are able to manage data is very effective and it’s because of the way we’ve designed our data architecture to work, our school code is directly associated with our SKU codes and from an inventory management perspective, the two aspects are complementary to each other.
Advice to fellow entrepreneurs
Experiment constantly, but do it small. Always try to make mistakes when the stakes are low.
My 80/20 rule: Always prioritize your customers over growth.
It’s better to have 80% of your potential customers with 100% satisfaction, than 100% of your customers with 80% satisfaction. If you focus on 100% satisfaction, the growth will come.
You can’t learn to swim from a book. Get out there and start to try to sell your products immediately, then analyze that feedback very carefully.
Transitioning from a job to entrepreneurship is like a trapeze artist releasing one bar to grab the other – you know when you’re ready and at the right moment, you just have to let go.
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