Most Sumo-lings have built their businesses and agencies around digital products. But many of the apps that make SaaS companies thrive also complement the business of those selling physical products.
We recently sat down with Jimmy, a co-founder of Minaal, a travel backpack and accessory company.
Jimmy’s elevator pitch for Minaal?
“We make travel gear for people who want to be at home everywhere.”
Cool, right? Now pay attention.
How to Build an Ecommerce Businesses Remotely
The Minaal origin story
Jimmy and Doug co-founded Minaal in 2013. But their inspiration for the company started years earlier.
“We traveled a lot,” Jimmy explained. In fact, they traveled so much and so extensively that they worried they were hurting their careers. Taking months off to travel around Asia isn’t something most employers allow at all — let alone on a regular basis.
As Jimmy and Doug traveled, they ran into a recurring problem: their backpacks.
“We both had our bags explode,” he explained. Other times they got stuck in security lines digging forever to pull stuff out quickly.
As remote workers, they couldn’t find packs that could transition from the trail to an office setting without looking terribly out of place. From meeting fellow travelers on the road, they also realized that other people shared a similar struggle.
In other words, no matter how many bags they tried, Jimmy and Doug couldn’t find one they wanted. So they created it themselves.
“We knew we wanted to work together in 2007 — when we started traveling together. By 2010, we were talking about a bag we could create. By 2013, we launched.
The business idea slowly grew over bowls of noodles in Vietnam — but I do remember thinking Doug was crazy when he said he wanted to create a bag. It was a complex idea from the start.
My original hope for the business was that it would allow me to stop working for other people. I wanted to keep traveling. The best way to do that was to be my own boss.”
They launched Minaal during the “golden days” of crowdfunding. For Jimmy, preselling was a game-changer because he didn’t need to raise capital. The initial growth path: prove people wanted it.
How they launched and how they operate
“We started in 2013 with a crowdfunded campaign. Then, with funding, we opened an online store. We have a warehouse in Hong Kong and a warehouse in Idaho.
We’re a remote team with no office. That’s a challenge for a physical product company.
We design in New Zealand, we manufacture in Vietnam, we ship to LA and Hong Kong, and from there orders process through and we ship them out. Full eCommerce, only through our own site.”
Why did you start using AppSumo to build your business?
“Because it was a no-brainer. There were amazing deals on amazing products I knew I’d use every day. There are tools that improve the efficiency of our business and make our lives easier — which is what we’re all looking for.
My favorite part about being an AppSumo customer is the discovery. There are always new things popping up. There’s a sense of curation that saves me time even in the curation itself. I don’t have time to seek out these products on my own, so the curation is a constant part of it.
Since we started using AppSumo products, we’ve become more efficient per team member. If before, we might have had to farm out five different tasks to five different people, now we can do it with two people because we’re more efficient and have tools that can do the leg work for us. It’s given us a sense of velocity.
I keep an eye on AppSumo in general because the curation of tools is very important to me. It even teaches me to solve problems I didn’t know I had. I like to keep up with tools that make me more effective and efficient.”
Any AppSumo product(s) you’d recommend?
“I always found communication in a remote team very difficult. CloudApp lets me screengrab and communicate in a very personal way. I use it every single day. Our team can keep communication lines open, even across time zones. I use CloudApp every week to screengrab a walkthrough.
I can have my face in the corner, make it more personal, make the conversation more engaging while still working through a text-based or visual set of information. Communicating that without speaking to a bunch of people is very difficult. If you have an engaging walkthrough, it really works. It solves time zone issues.”
“One of the most important tools for me was something that has just saved me time. I got a year of Abroaders premium.
We earn airline points through paying for a bunch of services with credit cards. But I’ve got more impactful things to be doing than trawling notoriously-unhelpful airline sites trying to find cheap points flights. Abroaders know all the tricks and take it all off my plate so I can focus on building great bags. It’s a time-saver and a sanity-saver.”
“RelayThat helps us create creative collateral for ads really quickly. We’re able to do that so much faster and get to market faster with our ads.”
“CrazyEgg is obviously a much bigger company now, but we got in early. It helped us know why people were dropping off and leaving our website.”
What was it about AppSumo that helped your business?
“You’re saving money at the core, but saving money doesn’t grow a business, so I look at value. Most importantly, the tools we’ve gotten have helped us be more efficient at talking with our team. And it’s really helped us bridge the ‘remote team’ communication gap.
We’re trying to build physical products in a digital space. The more tools we have that help us contextualize and make sense of all that, the easier our life is and the faster we can move. That’s what grows the business.
My only concern when I started using AppSumo was that it couldn’t be real. After using whatever it was I bought first, for a year I thought ‘this is legit.’ I kept on coming back.”
How much money has AppSumo saved you?
“Certainly hundreds, maybe thousands — maybe tens of thousands. But what’s more important is that we’ve kept on using the tools. It’s helped us move and grow faster.
The value is much more important to me than the money it saves — but that’s nice too, by the way.”
What makes your job meaningful?
Jimmy’s job is meaningful to him because he gets to make things that people want. “We also don’t have to answer to anyone else — we get to create something that really makes a difference in people’s lives.
Our customer is someone whose life is full of movement and creation. They have tools to transport. They need to be able to pack things in a certain way.
We allow them to do that by wrapping a ton of features into a minimalist shell. You have what you need inside the bag, but you’ll never be embarrassed by it in any situation. It has shock-protection, security.”
Put simply: Minaal helps you arrive at your destination less tired.
When did you realize you could grow this into what it is today?
“It’s hard to believe we’re allowed to do this. It still surprises me that it’s still going because it is so great. The first day of the first Kickstarter campaign was when we understood that it was going to be a viable business. I thought I knew a lot about eCommerce when I started, but I don’t think I knew that much at all. We were basically starting from zero.”
They went down various deadends at first but through testing, they eventually found a model that brought their original vision to life.
”Even if no one else ever bought a bag, we’d have a perfect bag to fit our own needs. But as we created the bag and showed it to other people, we knew this wasn’t a bag just for us.”
How did you first start running your business vs. how you run it now?
“One thing that was hard in 2013 was that nothing was integrated. It was a whole bunch of siloes. Datasets didn’t speak to each other very easily. Now tools can connect together with things like Zapier.
I also learned that people hate uncertainty. Customers, myself, etc. It’s the feeling of waiting for a bus at a bus stop. If there’s a time listed on the sign, you’re calm. If there’s no sign, you’re constantly looking up and down the road.
The more you can communicate — even if it’s bad news — people are generally good about that.”
What problems did you encounter?
“One problem we faced early on: communication. We were a siloed team. We could speak directly to one person but people weren’t speaking to each other. There was little to no communication between the team. Solving those communication problems was one of our biggest successes but also an ongoing challenge.”
Let’s back up. Zapier. I love Zapier. What are your top 3 zaps?
“My favorite zaps are:
1. Asana to Google Sheets:
We use a dedicated Asana project for milestones – important dates, notable events, website deployments, product launches, etc. – which gives us an upcoming calendar of important dates to plan for. We also used Asana custom fields to denote the perceived importance of those events and the area they represent (website, product, etc.). When we complete a task in that project, it’s zapped into Google Sheets to serve as a record of milestones we can review over time, giving us a sense for the things that may have had a positive or negative effect on the business.
2. YesInsights to Google Sheets:
We use YesInsights for a super quick one-click survey, emailed a short time after someone buys from us, asking ‘How did you hear about Minaal?’. We zap those responses into a Google Sheet, and have the results automatically populating a chart view, so we have a great visual on the best places to talk to users and potential users.
3. Helpscout to Slack:
We use Helpscout for email support, and incoming requests that get tagged as ‘pitches’ by our support lead are zapped into a Slack channel as a summary we can review and discuss across the team. This alleviates the need for everyone to log into Helpscout and lets us have fluid conversations about opportunities in Slack, our primary discussion tool.”
Have people treated you differently because of the success of your business?
“No, but now I have something interesting to talk about. In general, people treat me pretty much the same. Occasionally I’ll meet someone while traveling who’s wearing one of my bags. Usually they don’t recognize me so I can get some easy customer feedback.”
What’s the nicest thing you’ve heard about your business?
“The nicest thing anyone has said is that we’ve changed their life. It’s a hard thing to imagine a bag changing someone’s life. You don’t expect a bag to have that much impact. But I think people who are traveling to see the world, it’s a very meaningful thing for them.
And if you can change the way they experience the world, that actually does make a big difference. We never go out thinking when we change one aspect of the bag that we’re changing people’s lives, but from what people tell us, that’s what happens.”
What’s the most gratifying thing about growing your own business?
“We’re seeing a change in the way people approach travel. It’s becoming less of an escape and more of a lifestyle. People’s ability to work and live anywhere — that’s really exciting. Many people have made that lifestyle change: one day they’re working from an office in a big city. The next day they’re working remotely from Thailand.”
What’s your favorite part about being an entrepreneur?
“My favorite part is the ability to create things with other people who are excited about what they’re building.
When we started out, it was a very niche idea of people thinking about working and living remotely. Now it is really taking off. There are more doors opening for people to live and work wherever they want. You have control over your life instead of your life having control over you, if that makes sense.
We try to make tools for people who want to do those things.
I have two favorite customer stories — both on different ends of the continuum.
The first: a guy who told us how fast he was able to pack the bag was the difference for him in making it to the hospital before his wife had their baby.
Another story: a guy who got deported from a particular country said he would have been lost and had all his possessions taken away if he hadn’t been able to put his stuff away and get to his flight out of the country.
Throughout the wide range of human experiences — from having a baby to getting out of a country really quickly — us being able to speed up those transition has made a difference and that feels pretty cool.”
What’s the future of your business?
“The future is wider than bags and accessories. I think we are really focused on making people feel at home everywhere. And that means a lot of things, right? That could be products, it could be experiences, it could be community. I’m just excited to help people create that feeling wherever they are in the world.”
Most successful growth channels?
“The thing that’s worked best for us is word of mouth. But that doesn’t happen in isolation. Initially, it was crowdfunding and Kickstarter. From there it’s been email, paid ads, and our own efforts of growing community — connecting Minaal users. We often get photos of people meeting other people wearing Minaal.
You can start by crowdfunding. You can cultivate that community with a few different tools.
My favorite growth channel is just meeting people in person by traveling the world.
We are a physical product that uses a lot of digital tools to run, but sometimes I feel the most powerful thing is just to get out the front door and go talk to people.”
Watch the interview here:
You can learn more about Jimmy, Doug, and Minaal by visiting their website here.
Do you enjoy these Sumo-ling stories? Nominate a fellow Sumoling who you think should be highlighted in a future article. (Nominating yourself is cheating and you know it. Don’t even try.)