The eCommerce business is an industry that has changed dramatically over the last couple of years from the days of AOL, Lycos, and what else was out there to where we are now. In this episode, host Ben Baker interviews eCommerce consultant Curt Anderson. Curt founded an eCommerce business in 1995 that eventually landed on the Internet Retailer Top 1000 eCommerce Companies three years in a row. Since selling the company, he has served as a business advisor working primarily with small manufacturers on implementing eCommerce strategies. Today, Curt talks about what brought him to eCommerce and shares some strategies to help you bring your business to the next level.
I have a great guest. Curt Anderson is from Falconer Electronics and he and I are going to talk about eCommerce. He has been at this probably as long as I have if not longer. We both harken back to the days of AOL and he got some phenomenal tips to bring on. Curt and I met because I was a guest on the Dennis Brown Podcast. He happened to listen to the show and all of a sudden Curt gets in touch with me and tells me about how much he liked my show. He actually bought my book, which blew me out the door. All of a sudden, this LinkedIn article shows up out of absolutely nowhere and he is talking about my book. He's talking about what I do. It was unsolicited, it was gracious, it was humbling, and it was an amazing experience. I had to get him onto the show. Welcome to the show, Curt. You are my friend for life.
Ben, thank you. It's a huge honor and privilege and you're exactly right. Just so your audience knows, I caught you on a podcast. I'm friends with Dennis Brown and I was blown away by your points and connected and reached out. We connected on LinkedIn. I purchased your book and I strongly encourage your audience to grab your book. It’s wonderful, a quick read, entertaining, it has great stories, personal aspects of your life. I got a lot out of the book. I've never done that before. I've felt compelled to type up a little blog post on you and for my connections on LinkedIn or in anybody that follows my posts so we've become friends since. Thank you and I appreciate your friendship. I'm honored to be on your show.
I wrote Powerful Personal Brands and it's amazing the journey that that book has taken me. It's available on Amazon. The book is all about how do you understand who you are, what you do, why you do it and communicating your value. Why don't we get into that? Let's talk about Falconer Electronics, Curt Anderson and where you came from and what brought you into the eCommerce business. This is an industry that has changed dramatically over the last couple of years from the days of AOL, the Lycos and what else was out there to where we are now. To evolve yourself through that maze of things is a testament to you because a lot of people probably didn't survive.When you try a lot of things and you fail, you learn and fail less every time you do it. Click To Tweet
Three days after graduating from college, my family had a small business and there was an illness in our family and the business had failed. I was asked upon graduation, “If you're not doing anything, could you come back and help salvage and run this business at 21-years-old?” I did and that was in 1990. That was a school of hard knocks. They don't teach that in college, how to handle family failed businesses. That was an incredible learning experience. I got the business back on track and it was very challenging. About 1995, as you're describing the internet. If you remember AOL was doing Superbowl commercials and this whole internet thing and modems. We were still struggling. I'm like, “This internet thing, what's going on here?” You’re right, it was a long journey. There’s a magazine called Internet Retailer. Every year about ten, twelve years ago, they started coming out with their top 1,000 companies, similar to an Inc. 5000 that they do. We had a nice run in the 2000s and we made the top 1,000 three years in a row.
I took on an amazing, incredible business partner who is just a pit bull businesswoman. She wanted to buy the business. I was ready to move on to my next chapter and she purchased the company from me at that time. I was looking for a business to buy at the time and I was hoping maybe I could stumble through another business situation that wanted to get an eCommerce. I kept finding myself consulting businesses, in particular manufacturers. There was a huge need and I enjoyed it and connected with the clients. That’s what I've been doing. Now, I'm with a company called Falconer Electronics. It’s a great company. We're executing eCommerce with this business. That's my 30-year journey.
What people don't realize that have come into eCommerce is how different it was. I remember 14/4, 28/8, and 50/68 modems. Having to dial into the internet and what that meant in terms of speeds. A 486 computer with four megs of ram and 120-meg hard drive with screaming fast, and the phone that you probably have in your hand is 100 times, if not 1,000 times more powerful than that computer was. We're only talking twenty plus years. It is amazing to me to look at where eCommerce has gone and the technological challenges that we've had to come through to get to where we are.
Because of you, if you take a look at it from an industry point of view, if the technology that has allowed the industry to drive, thrive and survive. It takes smart people, it takes people understanding the technology and it takes people understanding how do you use this medium in a viable way to be able to bring people online and bring people to a destination to buy. If the technology wasn't there, Amazon couldn't exist. Walmart online couldn't exist. None of these companies could exist without high-speed broadband technology and reliable computers that are not going to crash at the moment's notice.
Looking back from the journey I took, you can almost pinpoint times where it escalated. You had the internet bubble and in ’99, 2000 and 2001. That weeded out a lot of the players at that time.
It was called the dot-bomber for a reason.
What was great behind it was in 2002 was when Google came on the scene. I think they were founded in ‘96, ‘98. When they've started becoming a household name, it was about 2002. I know for me that was a turning point when Google came on the scene and you could start using pay-per-click. The next phase, 2006 for me, everything was cloud. There are a lot of different eCommerce platforms at the time and nothing was solid and secure. Oracle had come out with a product. It was a division of Oracle called NetSuite. It was one of the first all in one eCommerce, CRM, ERP, on the cloud. It’s totally cutting edge in 2005, 2006. When we went on that platform that was a turning point for us.
Social media, we tried to be very apt to whenever something new came out. I'll be the first to admit, when Twitter came out I said, “Who’s going to type 140 characters. This makes no sense.” The only thing I'll take credit for is I was lucky hiring well. I had a young staff, twenty-something at the time and we started shooting YouTube videos in 2006, 2007. We got on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. We were vlogging and doing a lot of engaging early. That helped catapult our business. Going from pay-per-click to cloud, to social media early on, those were the things that helped me during that phase of having an eCommerce business.
You brought something in and glossed over it, but let's delve into this a little deeper because you and I are both on the right side of 50. We both passed that milestone. We're heading for 100, which is the best way to be. You talked about having innovative young staff. I think it's critical. It's not just the closer they are to the technology, the fact that they are embracing the technology, but they have this love of technology and they don't have the fear of doing something wrong. It's that youthful exuberance of sitting there going, “What if?” instead of, “Oh no.” When you bring staff on board that is young, talented, cutting edge and you can lead them and sit there and say, “This is where we're going. This is what we want to do. You guys figure it out.” It's an amazing marriage.
You're making a great point. After I sold the business and became a consultant, I worked with hundreds of different companies. I ended up working with an agency called the Small Business Development Center. It's here in the States and it's an every all 50 states. I worked with a lot of manufacturers, but I'd have a lot of startups. You sit there and listen. Some of the times these ideas would be wacky, crazy and I never wanted to be the guy. I didn't buy into Twitter. When I had a client sitting across me, I didn't want to be that guy that said, “Twitter is never going to work. Facebook's never worked.” It's challenging to not be the cynic. Keep an open mind but also diagnose like, “This isn't palpable. This isn't going to work.”It's challenging to not be the cynic. Keep an open mind but also diagnose like, “This isn't palpable. This isn't going to work.” Click To Tweet
I had the business and we had a dynamic team. When you've had your career long enough, you appreciate when you're with a great team. I didn't want to put the company in a position where we lost the competitive advantage because we ignored a technology that was available. Especially with social media, it was free. Time is not free and you simply dabbled, tried this and experimented that. We had a lot of duds. I admit we had one little startup thing that we were trying to do and I wasted probably tens of thousands of dollars trying to do this thing, but that bomb turned into another success that exploded for us. I didn't want to lose a competitive advantage by taking a line in the sand and saying, “We're not going to do that. We're not going to waste that time.” We were eager and hungry to brace anything new that was coming out at that time. We even had a MySpace company page.
That’s a challenge. Let's get into that because there are literally hundreds of social media platforms. Most people don't realize how many different social media platforms there are. The question is most companies unless you've got a department of 40 or 50 whose sole job is to manage social media for you. You can't be everywhere and you can't do anything. It's impossible.
What I talked with a lot of companies about, we talk about social media fatigue. I think you and I have even talked about that. It’s where's your audience? Where are your people? Where can you connect? You can't be everywhere all over the place. We have a limited amount of time and energy, especially for small businesses. You need to focus on, “Where can I execute and where can I get the greatest ROI?” In the 2000s, it was pretty limited. There was a handful coming out. What's fascinating is it's generational. Facebook was connected with a college and we had a social media intern program, which was phenomenal. With the intern program, what we did is we were connecting digital immigrants. Those of us born before 1980 and that was my target market where people that were this whole digital thing caught them off guard.
We're connecting them with the Millennials or kids in college that they can speak the social media language, but they can't speak the widget language. The digital immigrant is the widget expert. He or she have been making or doing this product or service for 20 or 30 years. We created this program. It was wonderful, very successful and dynamic. Bringing the two generations together where the Millennial would show the digital immigrant, “This is how you use the social media platform.” They would teach them, “We're going to talk about this service.” It was wonderful to see the two generations come together.
Even myself, I came from direct mail. I killed a lot of trees. Do I understand A/B testing? Absolutely. Do I understand about needs analysis or talking to the voice of the customer? All of those kinds of things I absolutely get. My business, 90% of what I do is on LinkedIn. Twitter is probably number two, Facebook and I do have a YouTube channel, but the YouTube channel is a repository of videos that I repurpose on LinkedIn and Twitter. Taking that marketing knowledge that I have and being able to translate it effectively to the new medium and be able to speak in the way of the Millennials and the Gen Zs tends to be a little bit of a shadow box for me. You don't get it all the time and you tend as a business owner to sit there and go, “I can do this. I've been marketing for 25 years.”
You try a lot of things and you fail, you learn and you fail less every time you do it. I've gotten to a point where I'm sitting there going, “There are companies out there that specialize in LinkedIn marketing.” There's nothing wrong with spending a little bit of money with people that are young, enthusiastic and experts in the field and giving them the direction to say, “These are the people I want to talk to. This is how I want to talk to them. This is what I want them to do. Go and speak to them in a way that makes sense for the medium because they understand the execution far better than I do.” You have to have that marriage. You have to give them direction. It doesn't matter what you do.
When you're a leader, you need to be able to give the people that you're in trusting direction and then you have to trust them that they can go out there and do it. It's all about to follow up, follow-through, evaluation and all those stuff that goes with it. When we can sit there and say, “I've got stuff that I can learn from twenty-year-olds and twenty-year-olds have things that they can learn from me.” It's cool if we build our businesses that way instead of saying, “I'm older. I know everything. You're younger, you don't know anything.” That world doesn't exist anymore. We all have talents. We all have things that we do well. We have things that we don't do well. Things that you'll blind spots. God knows we all have blind spots. It's connecting yourself with people that augmented your skills and be able to put yourself in a position where to say, “We're going to hire good people that understand things that I don't and let them do their thing.”
You're a great point. What was fascinating with our intern program is each year I've asked the students like, “If you were stranded on a deserted island and you could pick one platform, what would it be?” The funny thing is that almost every year it would change. The new platforms were coming out so quickly, even siblings say, the sibling that was a senior in college versus a freshman, they were on two different platforms. I believe Instagram came out. The freshman was on Instagram, the senior was on Twitter. What they were on is Facebook because not only was mom and dad on Facebook, grandma and grandpa were now on Facebook. Facebook wasn't cool and they didn't want to be on Facebook.
You don't want your grandmother seeing your pictures on Facebook.
The next would be Snapchat. It was fascinating. Each year it was moving so fast. If you own a 30, 40-year-old company, whatever your service is, how do you keep up with that? We keep talking about your book and it’s an amazing job you did with your book. What I got out of it was staying in your lane, maintaining that focus and exploiting strengths. It's great to overcome weaknesses, but when you can exploit your strengths, in my experience, that's where you can build the trust that you preach about. You can build wealth and success. When you have those weak spots, bringing in, whether it's a generational divide or those experts you're talking about to help you prop up those weaknesses.When you've had your career long enough, you appreciate when you're with a great team. Click To Tweet
Tell me about the right knee guy’s story if we're going to talk about staying in your lane.
In my business, in 2000, the internet bubble, I had a wholesale business and who knew what the internet or eCommerce was going to because it just blew up. I did a decent job at acquiring sales, but the fourth quarter of 1999, all of a sudden I was losing a ton of money and it happened so fast. It caught me off guard. I have a running joke. I sold my dollars for $0.97. Nobody could sell their dollars better than me, $0.97 unless you sold yours for $0.96 or $0.95. All of a sudden I get the end of the fourth quarter, I come into 2000 and I had a significant loss. I brought in a consultant to help figure out what I’m doing wrong.
At the time, I had five different channels of revenue that I was trying to create for my business because I didn't want to be caught. I was probably 31-years-old. I took pride in being diversified. She comes in and she's like, “Tell me about your business.” I'm pounding my chest. I explained the whole thing. She goes, “What are you best at?” I'm like, “Our legacy is kind of this, but it's dying.” She's like, “Where's your future at?” I'm like, “I'm putting everything I've gotten at eCommerce.” She was like, “What are the other three things?” I'm trying to justify it feebly. She looks at me and within 30 minutes, she's like, “I'll tell you what your problem is, why you're losing money. You're doing five things horribly instead of two things or even one thing exceptionally in killing that one thing. Get out of the other three to four things and focus on one thing.” I'm like, “You just solved my problem in half an hour. How good of a consultant are you because I don't need you anymore.”
We were kidding about it. I lost touch with her. I hate to admit this but I don't remember her name. I should be sending her gifts every year. It completely changed my whole complexion and my focus. That was the turning point for me and my business. I had four points that were on my desk and every time there was a decision about the business. We have focused on one thing and that was eCommerce. It made life very easy. The business did well. We had success. I ended up selling it. I found myself consulting and dealt with a lot of different businesses. I used to teach LinkedIn at a community college. I had a nice audience and we're engaging and talking. This one gentleman that's sitting in the audience, he's a consultant on the theory of constraints. I wasn't at the time and I was a logistics major in college and somehow this slipped past me.
In the 1980s, a gentleman by the name of Dr. Goldratt wrote a book called the Theory of Constraints. It's similar to the Dr. Deming theories, lean, quality and it's all about removing the constraints within a business. It could be a restaurant. It could be a doctor's office. It's primarily in manufacturing. You're bringing a bunch of raw materials together and where's the bottleneck in a business? Why can't we complete the finished good out the door fast enough? This gentleman is sitting in my office and he is a theory constraints consultant. He's educated me on it. I’m like, “What’s your goal? Where are you trying to take your business?” His struggle was he's a little bit of an introvert, he was marketing LinkedIn. We're chatting, he looks at me and he goes, “I want to be the right knee guy.”
He keeps going. I put up my hands like in a time out. I'm like, “What'd you just say?” I go, “What's the right knee guy?” He goes, “If you hurt your right knee, who are you going to go to? You're going to your general doctor. You're going to some practitioner or are you going to go to the world-renowned authority on that subject, the right knee guy? Especially if you're an athlete, wherever you live, I want to go to the guy that's taking care of your local Major League baseball team or your local football team. I want to go to the doctor that says, ‘If you hurt anything on your body, I can't help you. If you've hurt your left knee, I don't know a thing about it, but if you've hurt your right knee, there is nobody on this planet that knows the right knee better than I do.”’
That's what I want to be with the theory constraints. I want to be the right knee guy of theory constraints. The guy's name is Max Crew. He’s on LinkedIn if anybody wants to connect with him. He is a phenomenal guy. We're close friends. What was funny was every time somebody came in my office and I would call it “going to Russia.” People would come in and like, “I'm doing this with my business.” I'm back to my undiversified thing and why I call it, “I'm going to rush.” I'm a little bit of a history fan and Napoleon is concurring Europe. What gets him? Russia. Germany crushing Europe, London bridges are falling down. What got Germany? Russian winner.
Every time somebody is diversifying, I like to ask, “Does this make sense? Can we be the right knee guy at this or are we going to Russia?” Just trying to have a laser focus. I can't tell you how this right knee thing became part of my shtick, where I'd have clients in my office, we'd be sitting there talking and all of a sudden I would explain to write in each story. I wouldn't see this person for six months. I'm like, “How's it going? How's a business?” They'd be like, “I'm trying to be the right knee guy. I'm trying to be the right knee girl.” It resonated. It was like a light bulb went out with the simplicity of the analogy of staying in your lane, being laser-focused and exploit with what you're best at.
When you're dealing with manufacturers because manufacturers are all over the place. It comes down to staying in your lane. It comes down to focusing. It comes down to everything. What do you think is the number one hurdle that manufacturers are not getting when they sit there going, “I want to be an eCommerce solution?”
Sinking my teeth into the project I'm in now, a couple of discoveries as you’re saying the changes. The big thing is Amazon. When I was having an eCommerce, I was in a product line that wasn't found on Amazon. Amazon was still in growth mode in the 2000s. $0.50 of every dollar is spent on Amazon. If a manufacturer has a proprietary product, meaning that they manufacture their own good, they have to consider Amazon. What the challenge is, traditionally they ship pallet loads and they shipped semi-loads. They want to sell a semi-load to another manufacturer or retailer. The challenge is I'm going to put a finished good on Amazon and now I'm selling a $30 product. We haven't done that. “Grandpa started the business, dad did the business, and I've been doing the business and we've never sold one good to a consumer.” The change in the mindset is, “How do I sell one unit when I'm used to selling pallet loads?”Be eager and hungry to brace anything new. Click To Tweet
Is that a question that you asked somebody when they're talking about it saying, “Do you want to get into this business?” There is a huge difference between shipping 40-foot ocean containers directly from the factory, direct to your client, one invoice, one purchase order, one check to breaking it all apart. Pick, pack, ship and all of this stuff that goes along with it. It's a matter of getting people to understand that eCommerce isn't for everybody.
The second component that is a big challenge is you can go on Amazon and you're less than a needle in a haystack on Amazon. Can you be found? The other component is eCommerce stores are so inexpensive. You can create an online presence almost over a weekend. College kid, if you're teenager, a web designer and I realize it's not going to be bells and whistles. In 1999, you can be on BigCommerce or 3DCart, whatever the shopping cart. The challenges, you're less than a needle in a haystack. You're not going to come up organically on a Google search unless you have a unique keyword or product line that that's not being exploited. You can get on pay-per-click and those clicks are extremely expensive. It's a totally different animal of, “What's a strategy?” You've got Amazon, how do I have a presence on Google? Can I be found on Google? What social media platform? How can I get my product into people's hands and how am I competing with this finish good direct to the consumer versus overseas imports?
The nice thing is manufacturers skipping the chain going directly to the consumer. That's a nice competitive advantage. Where the real competitive advantage comes is the company that can customize. That's the wheelhouse that I've fallen into. I call it scaling your proprietary process with eCommerce. There are two kinds of manufacturers. There's a manufacturer that has its own preparatory product. Some engineer has created a widget, they've solved the problem, they put a name on it and they sell that product. The other manufacturer is the custom manufacturer who makes a component that goes into the finished good and then the OEM is the Original Equipment Manufacturer. Let’s say the Caterpillar and Ford, they probably have dozens if not hundreds of vendors that make a little widget.
I produced the camshaft that go into Caterpillar tractors for an example. That's all I do.
You're the right knee guy of wire harness that goes into a fitting tractor. The challenge for those custom manufacturers, typically 50% or 60% of their business will be with Caterpillar or Ford or whoever that OEM is. They're a little bit vulnerable and the problem is they get so caught up and they've gone years of taking care of that one customer. All of a sudden if something falters with that customer, they’re in trouble. That's how I've evolved into Falconer Electronics. Falconer Electronics is an amazing manufacturer founded in 1985 owned by the same owner. What their legacy is, if you walk into any Walmart in North America, Canada, US, Mexico and you go to their television section, there's a metal fabricated back panel power strip that every single television is plugged into that's produced at Falconer Electronics. If you walk into Lowe's at Christmas time, every single artificial Christmas tree is plugged into this amazing metal fabricated power strip that was manufactured at Falconer Electronics.You can't be everywhere all over the place. You need to focus on where you can execute and get the greatest ROI. Click To Tweet
The challenges as brick and mortar has decreased over the years. Walmart is not making as many stores as they did in the ‘90s and 2000s. All of a sudden a company like Falconer Electronics got caught a little bit off guard of, “What do I do?” What we've done is we've gone through this whole process of taking their proprietary process and scaling it by taking products that they make for Walmart or Lowe's. They make a similar product for Target. We've converted it into preparatory products and we're selling these products on Amazon. We're selling them on eCommerce and we've actually created software tools where a company can come on their website and they can customize, configure their own product, and create an incident quote within 60 seconds. That's a nice competitive advantage where they can't purchase that overseas. It's pulled on the spot. Those are the types of things that we've been working on.
I have one last question. When you leave a meeting, when you get in your car and drive away, what's the one thing you want people to think about you when you're not in the room?
My goal is I always want to be more interested than interesting. I know it’s cliché, give value. I work relentlessly to be a positive person and try to give value. When I'm out of my wheelhouse or I feel that I'm going to Russia, I need to get back out because I'm not giving value to the company I'm working on.
That's an important thing. For people to sit there and say, “When you can add value to your clients, even if that value is, I don't know, let me go find somebody who does know and let me make that introduction.” You become that valuable resource and you become that trusted person. Even if you can't solve that problem, when you can solve the problem, you're going to be the person that they can trust. Thanks for being that person that trusts, Curt. Thank you for being on the show. Thank you for being a wonderful guest.
Thank you for your friendship and thank you to your audience.
Curt founded an eCommerce business in 1995 that eventually landed on the Internet Retailer Top 1000 eCommerce Companies three years in a row. Since selling the company, Curt has served as a business advisor working primarily with small manufacturers on implementing eCommerce strategies.
This includes spending 4 years with the New York Small Business Development Center.
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