Welcome to the first instalment of our People of Retail Series!
Possibly the best part of our jobs at Milk It Academy…actually scrap that…the best part of our jobs is the time we get to spend with rock star retailers. We spend our time studying successful businesses, working closely with them and celebrating their wins.
It would be rude of us to let you in on a little of what we’ve learned so here it is – our new blog series, The People of Retail!
To kick things off with a bang our first every ‘Person of Retail’ is none other than the Jen Geale – Marketing Master and co-founder of Australia’s favourite mountain biking retailer, Mountain Bikes Direct!
Hey Jen, let’s kick things off with a quick intro and of course MTB Direct’s elevator pitch.
Jen: MTB Direct is an online-only retailer, specialising in parts, clothing and accessories for mountain biking.
We enable Aussie riders to get their hands on high-quality gear at globally competitive prices. I’m Co-founder and Head of Marketing, meaning I spend my time focused largely on strategy, which I love. I live and work on the beautiful Gold Coast, with two young daughters and am (happily and successfully!) in business with my husband Michael.
When starting MBD how did you define your ‘why’? What was the frustration, light-bulb moment or ‘shower thought’ that drove that ambition?
Jen: For several years, we’d owned and run a local bike shop (which also specialised in MTB). From that, we knew that overseas online retailers were posing a significant threat by selling the same or similar products as most Australian retailers but at much lower prices.
However we also realised that no-one in Australia was doing a bang-up job of selling MTB gear online, and so we crunched the numbers and realised there was an opportunity here for us to fill that gap.
You’ve made the daring transition from a physical to an online store. How did you know it was time to take your business online and what were the challenges you faced?
Jen: We could see that many customers were preferring to shop online – not just because of price, but because of convenience, access to what they need when they don’t live close to a shop, or a personal preference for researching products themselves and coming to their own buying decisions.
However, not everyone was convinced that online is ‘all good’ and we had to work hard to encourage everyone in our supply chain to support us.
After overcoming some initial obstacles, you really hit the ground running, going from strength to strength. How do you maintain a small-business culture when you’re growing so fast?
That’s an awesome question! Until recently, we’ve been a super-small team. We’re still not massive (customer service, marketing and IT come to a total of 14 people), and with those numbers, I think we’re still able to remain naturally agile and open to ideas and trying new things. We also take the time to get to know each other and how we all work, and what our strengths are – so that we can confidently delegate, give everyone sizeable projects and significant scope so that we’re not ever stifled by bureaucracy or lengthy approval chains.
Not losing that zest for change and experimentation is something we are very conscious of moving forward.
Business growth often comes down to the perfect cocktail of many factors. However, if you could pick just one thing that really kick-started your growth what would it be and why?
Jen: Actually, I think it was when we pulled back from growth, that we positioned ourselves to grow successfully.
In the early days, we were essentially pursuing two goals – profit, and growth. But when you’ve got limited cash (we’re a bootstrapped business), you can’t successfully achieve both those goals. Y
You either have to go for growth and assure yourself the profit will come, or you can dial in your business model so that it’s profitable at a low scale, and then work towards scaling up.
It was only after some deep soul-searching that we made this realisation. So at that point, we cut all expenses that were not business-critical, we scaled back what we were trying to do and we aimed to dial in our business model. Within just a few months of concerted effort, we had something profitable we were a lot more confident to scale. At that point, we could then begin actively trying to grow.
And if you had to identify one ‘dead-weight’ that you had to remove in order to grow what would that be and why?
Jen: The idea we should be everything to everyone. When we started out, our ambition was to stock everything MTB – from bikes (across the price spectrum), through to tiny spare parts. However we realised this was a massive cash-suck and we were better off focusing on items that were selling well online – refining our range and focusing on stock turns and profitability. With that solid base in place, we’ve now been able to grow our stock range and we are increasingly able to say we have everything MTB – but it was something we had to earn.
We know from working with you how highly you value your loyal customers and the lengths you go to in order to retain their business. In your words, how do you optimise your Customer Experience (CX) and how do ensure you remain customer-focused?
Being customer-focused doesn’t mean begrudgingly saying “the customer is always right”. It means actually trying to put yourself in the customer’s shoes all the time. So when a customer experiences an order issue (it does happen!), instead of thinking “gee buddy, we made a mistake, lighten up!”, we think “maybe this was a gift and now they have nothing to gift? Or maybe they’re doing a race this weekend and they were relying on this part”. And with that in mind, how can we actually get them rolling?
We look at our website the same way – it’s no use our team of MTB-experts writing descriptions that make sense just to them. They have to write them to cover the whole spectrum of people who may buy from us, whether that’s professional bike mechanics or people who’ve just been for their first MTB ride ever.
How valuable has it been for your business to retain your loyal customers and have them as advocates for the brand?
Jen: Very!! For some time, we did no paid advertising (while we dialled in our business model), so we relied on providing an exceptional experience that people wanted to tell their mates about.
We do more advertising now, but that doesn’t mean that having advocates out there isn’t important.
I recently saw a thread in a Facebook group where someone asked if anyone had any experience buying from us – 50+ responses later, and not one negative comment.The original poster was like “alright, alright, I’ll buy the shoes!” It was such a cool thing to see happen.
Anyone that checks out your reviews on social and online forums will be immediately sold on your quality of service. What steps do you take to keep your customers happy and when mistakes happen, as they do, how do you ensure a customer still walks away with a smile?
We never make assumptions about how to fix a customer’s problem – we make sure that where possible, we offer a few options so the customer can choose what works for them.
For example, if we go to pack an order and discover that the last pair of blue gloves is damaged, we don’t just ship a red pair of the same model and size. We ask the customer – perhaps they really really want that pair, and are prepared to wait until we get stock back in. Or perhaps they’d prefer a different model of the glove, but still in blue. Or perhaps a red pair would be fine if we can we will upgrade them to express shipping. It’s all about communication!
We also put our money where our mouth is. Mistakes don’t happen often, but when they do, we don’t just say sorry. Anyone can say sorry, but we also make sure customers are not out of pocket and that we’ve compensated them for lost time and frustration through refunds, store credits or free stuff.
The CX you deliver from first acquisition through to conversion and beyond is remarkable and yet it doesn’t stop there for MBD.
You also remain highly involved in the MTB scene, supporting clubs with you Dollars for Dirt Community Fund and sharing experiences with customers online. For you, what is the value of really cementing yourself within the community, not just as a chosen supplier?
Dollars For Dirt is all about recognising that our amazing sport doesn’t happen without groups all around the country literally putting their back into it – digging trails, running races and events, advocating for trail access.
Because we’re an online business, we don’t necessarily have a single local area that is ‘ours’ – instead, we want to try to support as many clubs across the country as we can. Dollars for Dirt contributes to 3 clubs every month, and we’ve already supported over 60 clubs, in every state and territory.
You also have an entirely remote team; do you have any advice you growing businesses that may be considering remote employees?
Jen: We have had incredible success with a remote team because it has allowed us to bring on-board people who are super passionate about MTB and who have a wealth of technical bike knowledge, no matter where they are located. It also means we can offer live chat and email support across extended hours, without the overheads of an office operating long hours 7 days a week. I think if you have a niche like that and can find passionate people who genuinely love what you do and want to be part of it, and so are more likely to be self-motivated in your environment, it’s definitely worth considering.
You’re already ahead of predictions with an entirely remote team, however, there are some changes to business culture and the industry landscape that you can’t always prepare for. What roles do innovation planning and new technology play in your long-term strategy?
Jen: Absolutely, you can’t plan for everything. What you can do though is be really clear on what your mission is and what you are trying to achieve, so that as new things bubble up, you can quickly assess whether they are something that could be a fit and you should examine further.
For example, when we’re thinking about our strategy we sometimes ask ourselves somewhat absurd questions like – “what if MTB was banned tomorrow?” or “what if the GST went to 50%”, etc. The answers to these questions often reveal interesting things about our goals and what were are truly out to achieve. They also give us a useful framework for assessing other (more realistic!) things that do appear in the landscape.
You were recently named in Online Retailer’s Top 50 People in eCommerce – Congratulations, well and truly deserved!
As one of the leaders in the industry, how do you feel about the current state of Australian retail? Are you excited by the level of innovation and customer service?
Jen: I genuinely love being in e-commerce, and that particular award is the one I am most proud of! Because the Australian e-commerce industry is a really fun space to be in, full of “ideas people” who are also adept at getting stuff done, and who are often very open to sharing their learnings and experiences.
If anything I think the appearance of Amazon and constant changes and competitive pressures encourage us all to keep innovating
For smaller independent retailers, in particular, to band together to work on solutions and push the entire industry forward. Australian consumers are rightfully expecting high levels of customer service online, and I’m excited by the opportunity to find innovative ways to deliver that service without standing next to them in a showroom!
And finally, because we believe we believe in sharing the love, can you give a shout out to a ‘ballsy’ Australian retailer who you think is doing great things and really making an impact on the market?
Jen: It’s pretty hard to go past the team from Flora & Fauna – I just love how they are all about putting their heads down and getting sh*t done while being so uncompromising about their values and their “why” for being in business. Definitely inspiring!
I hope you enjoyed the first instalment of this series and thanks again to Jen for sharing her honest insights and letting us in of a few of her secrets to success. I’m on the hunt for more people to interview for this series, know someone? Reach out!