What I Learned While Building JetSole 3.0
I started JetSole with the notion that customers wanted sneakers delivered to them instantly and retailers needed help connecting with customers in their respective cities.
Boy was I off (partially), not about the problem but about the solution. Over the last year and a half since launching I’ve learned what was wrong with my initial assumptions and approach the only way I know how too, by getting my hands dirty.
JetSole is the offspring of my childhood love for exclusive sneakers and my adulthood need for convenience. During high school I woke up every Saturday to spend my hard earned money from working at Mickey Ds on the latest Jordans. I was a bonafide sneaker head, I knew the release dates months in advance & craved each minor detail of the wearable artwork. This was prior to the information age we currently live in where we have the entire world at our fingertips, so the only way to stay in the loop was to really have your ear to the streets and getting to the stores early every time. The process was pretty straightforward as well, if you woke up early you got your pair.
Fast forward to the end of 2013, I’m 5 years removed from undergrad, a senior level application developer at JP Morgan, city nightlife connoisseur and a world traveling addict. My love for exclusive sneakers had taken a back seat to my new found interest and priorities. Another factor that caused me to fall out of sync with the sneaker head culture was the complexity that arose during my absence. The rise of social media, e-commerce, people who identify as sneaker heads, BOTS and the complexity of releases pushed me away. I just didn’t want to exert the amount of energy needed to secure a pair of coveted sneakers. The culture had changed as well, when I was a peak prime sneaker head in high school your main objective was to discover and rock sneakers that were not only great looking but extremely unique. We all went after Jordans but we also made sure we diversified our collection by adding gems that no one else had, like a crisp pair of Diadora’s or suede New Balance’s. I was now in an era where everyone chased the same sneakers due to the HYPE, and I am in no way bashing the HYPE or hype beast, it’s just a facet of the culture and something that we must acknowledge along with its impact on the way we view & purchase sneakers today.
At the same time the advent of instant service arouse, customers had become huge users of services like Uber, Seamless & Amazon. I became almost dependent on being able to get what I wanted immediately and the idea of having to visit a physical store began to be a distant memory. Convenience is the new premium in this hyper connected world and has penetrated many industries. With these factors in place I came up with JetSole, my frustration with the complexity added to acquiring sneakers along with my need for convenience I wanted to build a product that allowed users to easily get premium sneakers and have them delivered to their door same day. JetSole would display the in store inventory of local boutiques and customers could order from the app. The app would be the first of its kind, solely dedicated to footwear.
With my app dev skills in hand and my can do attitude my first move was to jump right into designing and building the app. While in grad school I used the techniques I picked up to complete customer interviews, get in touch with sneaker retailers in NYC and gauge their interest in the service we would provide. The initial feedback was positive and fueled the momentum of the initial release of the app. We invested in brand influencers on Instagram and Facebook to promote the service, put together content for all advertising channels and partnered with boutique media groups for a big splash on day one to attract new users.
A key ingredient of the JetSole value proposition was that we were going to focus on selling unique sneakers, ones that weren’t on the HYPE radar but were stylish and from brands we deemed as quality. To do this we wholesaled from different footwear companies to go along with the sneakers that would be sold from the retailers we partnered with.
The initial launch was a success, our investment in influencers resulted in 10K downloads over the first couple months, orders were steady and our presence on social media was growing. Then everything came to a screeching halt, new users stopped downloading & registering, our churn (the rate at which users drop off) was extremely high and we couldn’t get new stores to onboard to the app. What went wrong? What changed or wasn’t happening that caused the app to fall off a cliff? Here’s where I started to deep dive to get a better idea of what was going on. The hardest part about building a startup is admitting when you’ve made a mistake, the second hardest part is putting in action the things needed to change what you’ve identified as a mistake.
The first mistake or lesson identified was how I went about crafting the functions of the solution. It was a top down approach instead of a bottom up one. I didn’t live in the market and allow the customers to guide my solution. After launch I began to meet and talk with our existing customers, attend sneaker and streetwear events (I actually camped out for quite a few releases) and became a power user of the other apps and websites in the market. I learned that customers didn’t know or TRUST who JetSole was nor did they want a lot of the items we were selling. The sneaker community is a crowed market with low barriers of entry but before someone will buy from a new channel it must have been recommended by someone they know or a name that has been circulated around the community organically. Authenticity is a major issue in the secondary market which leads to caution when shopping from a new app or website. The HYPE is real and if you don’t carry any of the items that are coveted then customers won’t even entertain any of the other footwear you might deem as quality. I also learned that partnering with boutique retailers wasn’t scalable, retailers are held to very strict rules when it comes to selling the inventory they have by the brands they partner with. Also the tech that most retailers are running on is segmented and makes it that much harder for our systems to communicate with them so our inventory was stagnate which can’t happen in the ever changing sneaker world.
The second lesson identified was not to invest a dime into marketing until you have a product that is robust and fully functional. The investment I made in social media influencers while helpful in getting our first batch of users and customers into the funnel, was too soon and almost wasted because the the product couldn’t sustain a rush of users. Users didn’t remain on the app because it was missing key features they were looking for. Pouring money into marketing can be a tempting thing because you are constantly being told growth is the only thing that matters, more customers, more revenue, more more more! But the downside to pushing marketing too soon is opening up a buggy product to many customers and squandering your first impression. Also you run the risk of losing money on the ads & promos that don’t translate to retention, at a time when the budget is small and every dime must be used on things that will have a high ROI (return on investment).
The third and final lesson i’ll touch on (there have been many but these are the key ones) is being focused on profit from day one, something I’m glad I applied. Because I have application and web development skills I didn’t need to spend money building the product but I did spend on things like marketing, ads, shipping materials and other services. While spending I made sure to pin point all costs that were taking away from the bottom line. Once identified I made sure each costs was analyzed with a fine comb to ensure it was a needed or just a nice to have, anything not needed was dropped. It allowed me to manage a shoe string budget as I bootstrapped JetSole which is really the biggest killer of early stage startups, not having the capital needed to run your business. Many companies raise money early on to fund the early expenses while they grow in exchange for equity. While this approach is favorable amongst most startups its one I decided against, instead I wanted to keep control of the company and grow at my own pace. Bootstrapping comes with its own channels but none bigger than having to use your own money but as a result you become much more stringent on how the money is spent because its yours. Forming this habit early on I believe has yielded the most results and made sure JetSole not only stays afloat but has the opportunity to grow. Lean and mean growth.
So since coming to grips with these vital lessons I worked to implement new processes, services and features into JetSole that keep these principles at the forefront. JetSole 3.0 was launched October 10th 2017 and allows users to buy and sell premium sneakers easily and securely. We are transparent about the pricing of the sneakers because users can see the highest bids placed and lowest asking price. We ensure no sneakers are fake because every item sold is sent to us for authentication first. We have also added a a monthly membership service that allows customers to get curated boxes of sneakers and streetwear at a price less than the retail price of all the items sent. This service was a direct solution to the discovery and the price issue our customers face in the current sneaker secondary market. JetBox gives users the ability to get the premium gear they covet at a discount while also leaving the styling to JetSole, our staff curates each box based on the style profile of each member.
Over the last few months, we have been visiting more sneaker events and conventions to organically build the presence in the sneaker community while connecting with customers and potential partners. Posting of original and relevant content on all our social media channels has lead to more engagement and spikes in followers and ultimately downloads. All content is generated in house while marketing is all word of mouth and non paid which has given us the ability to grow in a sustainable way while remaining profit focused.
The initial response to the new improvements we’ve added has been positive, but more time is needed to get a clearer view of the affects. We have ways to go before we get to our ultimate goal, which is to be the only destination customers come to for all their sneaker and streetwear needs. JetSole 3.0 brings us closer to that goal.
In summary I learned these 3 major lessons:
- Be profit focused from the start, figure out how your business will make money from day one and what your costs are so you can limit them.
- You must live in the market to truly understand your customers and know what they want now and might potentially want in the future
- Growing slowly, quietly and organically is better than forcing the growth with paid marketing and ads
Download JetSole now from the Apple App Store: JetSole
If you found this useful, please share it! You can find JetSole on Instagram @jetsole and me at @nelsonjlgedeon. Visit https://www.jetsole.com for company updates and to join our newsletter. This post is also in response to https://www.toptal.com/business-intelligence/a-bootstrapped-remote-company