John Cascarano is a lawyer-turned-serial entrepreneur who has launched and scaled multiple successful businesses. His current brand, Beast, is a personal care company that focuses on vegan and cruelty-free products with sustainable ingredients and reusable packaging. In this episode of Shopify Masters, John shares his methodical process behind building and scaling a business, and some hidden benefits to offering customization and gifting options.
Diverging from the traditional path: Lawyer to Entrepreneur
Felix: The idea behind the business all started from a passion of yours to create a specific type of brand. Tell us more about where the idea came from.
John: Sometimes I say it came from early middle age, but it came from a combination of things. I was working in my prior business–over a decade ago–in personal care products for women. At the time, I saw guys starting to become more interested in grooming and personal care. The beard trend was starting. Beyond that, guys just started “upping their grooming game” as we say at Beast. I was getting into my late 30s. Life was giving me a lot of responsibility. I was looking for a combination of things I wasn't really finding out there in the marketplace. It started in the shower, but something that would just wake me up: turn it up. It was really a hobby. Like, all right, we got all these women's products. Let's take some of the best stuff that's happening there–and some really good stuff was happening there–and let me just crank it up. Let me turn up the eucalyptus, turn up the peppermint. Wake me up in the shower. That's where it started.
Felix: It sounds like you have an entrepreneurial past. Tell us a little bit about your past endeavours.
John: When I was a little kid something happened and I always had this anxiousness to do something different. Going back to elementary school. My friend and I made bracelets and would sell them to other kids. We set up a little booth at a fair and sold them to parents. That was the first venture: little yarn bracelets. Flash forward to college, some friends and I started a magazine on campus. This is 1999. Other people were doing tech startups and we did a magazine on campus. It was called Mental Floss and we worked on that for a while. I ended up going to law school, of all things. My two friends kept working on it and ended up turning it into a good media property while I went to law school. As I say, I paid 150,000 dollars to meet my wonderful wife. Practiced law for five years. Then the financial crisis happened. I remember being in a big building in Philly in a big firm watching the stock market drop and being like, "Well, things are changing."
Out of that, I started a new business. That was that prior business that was products for women, with my father-in-law who was a dermatology professor at NYU and had a private practice up in New York. Initially it started just to meet a need for his patients, a lot of whom were women. Then eventually out of that grew Beast.
Felix: You mentioned that you practiced law for five years before jumping back into the startup life. Tell us about the transition from starting off with an entrepreneurial background, then going more traditional and back again to unconventional.
John: There's no easy way to do that. They're very different. Especially going from a law firm where there's a very distinct career path that a lot of people thrive in. Where some people really grow, I felt really stifled, but it was consistent. Moving to a startup life, all of a sudden there was no structure. The structure was whatever I made of it. From the first day it was like, "Wow, I can do anything I want." At the same time it's scary. You can do anything you want, but if you don't make the right moves, it's on you. It's all on you now. Heavy lies the crown. You start a business. Congratulations and best of luck. You have to know yourself. It's more of a science now. Over time starting a business has become more of a study and pursuit and science. You think about and establish good habits, because in the end a lot of what the books say you should do, you should do.
I stumbled a lot at first getting back into it. I played golf. I had some savings from being a lawyer. I quickly went through those savings and had to learn how to create a business that could make money. I also had a newborn baby at the time. It went from being a fun time, an exciting time, to a really real time really fast.
More of a science than an art: Methodically building a business
Felix: You mentioned that starting a company is becoming more of a science. That's an interesting take on it. Can you speak more about this?
John: At the time, especially in consumer brands–and I'm assuming a lot of listeners are going to have some kind of product like I do. I backed into it out of fun, really. I wanted to create something that woke me up in the shower: something that wakes me up and makes me feel something. That's a good start. Ultimately, you're trying to get to product market fit. There are now books and books and classes on product market fit. It took me five years to get there. The original brand was called Sasquatch with the tagline tame the beast, and we got a cease and desist over Sasquatch. Then we started rolling with Tame the Beast, and all along the way the formulas were changing. I'm making little improvements listening to customers. This is playing out over years. We also had a trademark on Beast, and ultimately started looking at, "What do customers really like? What motivates them the most? What gets them excited about the brand?" We did surveys. You hear a lot through customer support. Just give it enough time and the customers will tell you what you should do.
Ultimately the brand became Beast. We still put Tame the Beast on some products, but there's something about just that word Beast that's really awesome. I'm lucky to have gotten a trademark on that in personal care products, but number two, what could that name be at its highest and best use? It took years and years to really hone in on that. In our case we could've expedited it by doing more surveying and potentially focus groups. There's different tools you can use to try to expedite that process. But in the end for me it was years and years of listening to customers, taking feedback, and making incremental improvements.
Felix: If you were to start a business again today, what are some of the most important details or processes that you would focus on nailing in order to be successful?
John: Beyond some of the branding things–which are super important–you need all the social handles, the URL. Consistency is super important. People need to find you. They need to be able to find you on social and your website and have it all be clear and consistent. I've read that in order for a brand to resonate in our minds we need ease and we want it to be fast. If people can find you easily, regardless of what your name is, you’ll be okay. That consistency is super important. If you're in tangible goods, you need the systems of delivering the product to them. Obviously a website, a host provider. You need good fulfillment. Fulfillment is probably one of those things that gets overlooked a lot but that is one of the most important. It’s your customers' experience with your brand after they've had the digital experience. Then customer service, and marketing. Every one of these things becomes a department in and of itself.
"What do you want people's first experience with the brand to be versus their next experience? For each one, you're going to develop systems, email, text etc."
Within marketing there's new customer marketing versus existing customer marketing. Some people call it remarketing, but they're different experiences. What do you want people's first experience with the brand to be versus their next experience? For each one, you're going to develop systems, email, text etc. There's all these customer communication channels that we have and are changing. These days people are using a lot more text than email, but email is still critical. There's your paid ads, and around each there's choices. Apps, providers etc. Same with fulfillment. There's a million fulfillment providers and many of them don't do a great job. It's an ongoing process to get that right for us.
Maintaining brand identity at scale
Felix: How do you make sure the brand guidelines and customer experience remain consistent as the business scales and moves beyond what you’re able to control on the day to day?
John: Having good people and good systems is the answer. When I started out, I did customer service, I did marketing, I was all the departments. You have a direct link to your customer. The canary in the coal mine is a lot of times customer service telling you and being able to respond fast. If you're doing it yourself early on, it's great. Then all of a sudden you have people and systems that need to be able to scale and I think it's about having good tools. You have to start looking at metrics more and more. "What is our response time on customer service?" There's plenty of apps. We use an app to help with customer service. There's a whole ecosystem of apps. You pick one and roll with it and look at the analytics and the reviews and have systems of seeing those reviews in volume, product reviews and site reviews. Everything public-facing about your brand and then potentially surveys. We've started to do that more. Just simple surveys. Sometimes just a text or an email to customers. "How was your experience? Is there anything we can help with?" With no real purpose around it other than to be helpful. You learn a lot.
Felix: How do you identify what system to build or to focus on first as you're building out your business?
John: Probably the biggest decision is the ecommerce platform. This is Shopify. We use Shopify. There was a time where there were a lot more options in building an ecommerce platform. Some companies would even build their own from scratch. That's the biggest decision. We've always chosen Shopify, so let's say you roll with that. Maybe that's the iPhone of platforms. Then you have your apps. Just like with the iPhone, there's a robust app store. I've consulted with some friends too and you reach this moment where you have your brand and what apps do you need. You need a developer and you need someone to build your website and there's going to be choices. Do you pay someone to start it from scratch? Do you make a choice?
With customer service, we use Gorgeous. It's one of a number of customer service apps. Really, you have to go through it and sometimes you learn out of necessity and find a solution out of volume. The volume tells you what to do. You start having Facebook comments, text responses, and emails. All of a sudden it's not manageable for a small team so you need something to suck it all in. There's a problem and then there's a solution for it. But among other things, fulfillment is a really important early decision for a lot of people.
Felix: How do you decide which–and how many–tools to invest in? I think as a new entrepreneur you can be easily overwhelmed by the variety of options and costs of tools out there.
John: Yes. Each app may or may not have a charge. I have three daughters. We try to manage their screen time, and it's similar with the business. Sometimes you get the in-app purchase and before you know it you're like, "Man, this was free, but now there’s so many add-ons." Then you’re sitting there and trying to install this thing and get it set up. "I've spent all this time on this." It's a challenge. At our company, there's a number of us now. Our CFO, for example, he's really conservative. Doesn't want to spend an unnecessary dime. He doesn't want to introduce more complexity. It's a trade-off. I'm inclined to try the latest and greatest shiny model. I definitely think there’s a balance. Through experience I've learned to be cautious. Make sure there's a true need for this. There's always a decision. Do you outsource? Do you not outsource? Do you get an app? Do you not get an app? Sometimes we ask our developer, too, "Is there a simple solution rather than installing a new app?" There's always challenges when installing a new app: installation process, integration etc. Before you know it, you're banging your head against the wall with this or that aspect that you didn't anticipate."There's always challenges when installing a new app: installation process, integration etc. Before you know it, you're banging your head against the wall with this or that aspect that you didn't anticipate."
You just have to be cautious and not overly stressed. It's more of a fear of missing out than anything else. We all assume that there's some magical app that'll do this or that. Look, if you got a good product and you can get it in front of people, that’s the main objective, making people aware of your thing. You can have every shiny app in the world but if no one knows you exist then no one wants to buy what you got. It doesn't matter.
Finding purpose in every failure
Felix: You mentioned that you now view the business as more of a science that you learned the hard way. What kept you going and persevering in the beginning, as you were learning more about how to start and run a business?
John: I think that goes deep. I think it’s mostly the fear of failure. I've thought about that. "Why do I do what I do?" It comes down to wanting to achieve something. It's personal things that push me on when some people might've advised me not to keep going in a really competitive sector. You go to any store and there's no lack of shampoos on the shelf. It's not easy. It's not like we invented something that didn't exist. It’s a very competitive sector. It's really just believing in the brand, that there was something about the Beast brand and the name and the feeling. Positive customer feedback and reviews help: that you have customers that get it, what you're trying to do, and you're making them feel better. You're improving their life just a little. They go in the shower and they have a more elevated shower experience. That feels good.
Having some purpose, and then over time the brand evolved some to incorporate an eco-friendly side too. I grew up in south Florida and I spent a lot of time at the beach snorkeling. I was a beach rat. There were coral reefs there that aren't there now. It's not that they bleached. They're gone. They're sand. Trying to incorporate that made something sad into something positive. Having a purpose to what you're doing beyond just the making of money. Now we're starting to reduce plastic in our product line and looking for ways to deliver a product that people want and need but minimize the climate impact. The combination of all those things is what drives me.
Felix: You mentioned wanting to create something. There’s often this dichotomy that tends to occur in founders between the creator versus the CEO: the creating versus the scaling and maintenance of the business as the brand matures. How have you handled that transition?
John: Yeah, I have. Early on, trying to create something people want. [Y Combinator's] motto is, “make something people want.” The process of how to make it more efficient, how to grow it, how to increase brand awareness is very different from making people want something. Those are more execution things whereas the first stage is more of a creative enterprise. Now I have a board of advisors, a board of directors, and we’re learning to report to other people. All of a sudden it introduces a certain hierarchy. It's having a boss, having bosses. You started this thing as a rebellion against being in an established company or organization and then you're creating it. I mean, I aspire to have something that is established. Bit by bit it becomes bigger and more regimented and structured and you need systems.
It has been hard. It is a hard transition and I think I've had to talk to a lot of other people, who have made that transition. It's good. All I can say is talk to other people who have been there and done that.
Embrace people who tell you what you don’t want to hear
Felix: Is it clear, when you come to that crossroads, that it’s time to start focusing more on the systems and procedures, and less on establishing the brand or perfecting the product?
John: I'll speak from my experience. I over-created. I created too many products. You get into a certain mindset of creating–and we created some pretty cool stuff. One of our most recent products is a great product: Beast Gold wash. We have the Olympics coming up. We've got an Olympian on team Beast. She owns shares in the company. She's going to be in the Olympics. Kelly O'Hara on the US women's soccer team. There's also a real argument that maybe we shouldn't have created Beast Gold because from an efficiency standpoint and the products scalability. I had people telling me, "You need to stop creating. Look at the business. Look at the dollars and cents. Don't run out of money. You run out of money, game over." Profit does matter.
I think I over-created. I knew it was time to stop because I had people tell me, "You have to stop." Smart people–finance guys–said, "Listen, you have to stop. You have to shift." Having people around you who are smart who will tell you, "You need to start cooling down. It's time. You need to stop." On my own, I didn't get there.
Felix: What was happening in the early days that totally prevented you from over-creating?
John: This brand originated on Amazon. It's interesting. You look at a lot of brands that launch “more cleanly” on their own website with only three sku’s, maybe five. Amazon ironically it fed my urge to create and fill holes. "There's nobody doing something quite like this. Let me launch that. Let me launch that." You're right. It nearly ended the journey. I did have a marketplace for the things but not everything sold. "So let's create... If we do this, it'll sell." I definitely nearly ran out of money a number of times. Hopefully people listening will avoid that and find a way to do it.
The methodical approach that we're taking now is we have customers telling us what they really want. We listen and we know what to make next. We plan more in advance, have a budget, be responsible, and then focus the creativity around a specific project. That's a much smarter approach. Yet I see so many friends with businesses and they just create, create, create. You need to be self-aware of that and have good people around you that will reign that in.
I heard a great quote when we went to do a commercial, he said, "Give me the freedom of a well-defined creative brief." I thought that was a great phrase. It's like there is something liberating in knowing we are creating around this. Here's the box we're playing in. Let's do that.
The most important step in the product development process
Felix: You mentioned that product development now starts with the customers and what they’re telling you they want. Tell us more about that.
John: It's a combination of listening to the customers and looking at the marketplace. When you reach a certain size and people start replying to your emails. We'll almost give people free stuff just for feedback. It's so invaluable. I will say this: not all feedback is created equal. The customers that clearly know the product line, they've tried a lot of stuff, and then they write something thoughtful, those are valuable. You hear that from multiple customers and you're like, "Okay, there's something there." Then you go back out and look at the marketplace and say, "There is a need for this product next. This makes a lot of sense." You have to look at the R and D side too. How hard is it going to be to make it? How long will it take? What will it cost? It's a give and take in that way.
Felix: Tell us more about how you use the marketplace and customer feedback in conjunction to inform product feedback.
John: Now there are a lot of beard oils on the market. That's one example. There was a time where there weren't many at all. The oils were out there like argan oil or jojoba oil. Those are great oils for hair: head hair or beard hair. They're very smoothing. Women knew this before guys and then the beard trend happened. Now there's a ton of beard oils out there. We've definitely had people ask for different varieties of beard oils, but is it worth investing much more into? Is it core to our product line? Where's the trend going? It's the business side, really. You have to balance the customer request with the business you're in. That's one example. There's one or two other examples that I'm going to save for me, because we've definitely had products that we know are the next great product to make. There's stuff happening in other sectors.
We've actually moved towards being more of a unisex brand and we have some unisex offerings. We started as a men's brand but we've moved to unisex. There are some products that are in the women's area that women want cheaper. There's sometimes what's called a “pink tax.” There's articles on it out there where women will actually buy a product from a unisex or men's brand just because it's cheaper. They know it's the same damn ingredients and there's this premium being charged. It's incredible. There's an overlap of what the customer's telling us. Like skin care for guys that women want cheaper too, where there's a market opportunity and the customer base. A lot of our customers are saying, "Make something like this."
Felix: Regarding the transition to a unisex brand, how to you approach a market where you’re not necessarilly the end user? When you’re not the end customer, how do you make sure that you’re optimizing your strategies?
John: With dumb optimism. Being bold, wanting to learn. Searching for opportunities, sometimes that's all it takes. You're looking for an opportunity. You're listening and you’re diving into something. I definitely dive into the pool first whereas other people might check how deep the water is, I'll just go in. That's what happened. I just jumped, for better or worse. With Lock and Main, we carried other people's products to start, so we were a pure retailer of specific things that women in New York City wanted and were having a hard time finding. We were still serving a need. That's an opportunity. You hear the need that's there and you have people telling you, "There's a market here." Over time you learn the industry and it takes you in a different direction. I started learning. I got to know some celebrity stylists. I was like, "How'd you make it? You launched this brand, you're not a chemist. How'd you do it?"
Eventually cultivating relationships led to me having a relationship with a cosmetics lab. We all want to see each other succeed. I'm really competitive but I also really want everyone else to succeed. The third or fourth lab picked up on that and they started working with me even though I wasn't paying them anything or didn't have a lot of money. It was simply because in part their business is that they need the next latest and greatest brand but they also just wanted to see someone succeed. Same with the formulation. We're bringing in a dermatologist to help advise me and it went bit by bit like that out of my prior company until I was like, "I have a unique brand here that people might want to buy."
How this founder elevated a brand's organic reach
Felix: You were also an ecommerce director at Able, a womens apparel and accessory retailer. Tell us about your experience there.
John: At that point in time I had sold Lock and Main. Beast existed but was still getting off the ground. I wasn't 100% sure how big it was going to be and that I had really cracked it with that brand. A friend introduced me to the CEO of Able, their livefashionable.com. I just fell in for their mission. They are, I believe, the first Tennessee B corporation. At the time they were doing nearly a million dollars in revenue organically off word of mouth. They're a national company–from people talking about them and sharing them. Their website was at 20 second load times. They had a woocommerce site. I just was like, "If you guys sped up the site, improved it and launched a little marketing around this mission, this could grow really fast." This is Facebook ads pre-iOS changes this year. It was a different world, but I saw simple things they could do. They had a beautiful message too. Their statement was beautiful products by women who have overcome. With a product image on a faster website with some digital ads, they grew quickly. Their mission is to create jobs for women. It's a combined mission like many B corps. It's to make a profit like any company but also fulfill this social purpose.
The other thing, too, is I walked in the office the first day and this woman gave me a hug. She had a whole history. She had recovered from addiction and she was just so amazing. I remember walking in that day and thinking, "This feels good."
Felix: What else have you done that you feel like has had the biggest impact in terms of growing the brand and brand awareness?
John: The Beast brand is similar to Able. There's no magic. There was a small period where it felt like Facebook ads were these magical things–and they kind of were for a period–but then a lot of people saw there was a limit. The secret got out and, like any marketplace, prices went up and things changed. I've heard this 360 degree approach to marketing, but we've spent a lot of time creating content ourselves. If you go to our YouTube channel or Instagram account, we have a lot of images and videos going on. Video content is something I point to. It comes back to that whole conversation about not over-creating, making sure you're not just spewing stuff out there. The right video with the right selling points regarding what's different about your product or service and brand can go a long way. Sharing it organically and of course testing it in ads–in paid ads–then measuring conversions.
We've created a lot of videos ourselves and we've dialed in on that process. A lot of times I'll write the first script. Maybe in the shower the idea comes. Get out of the shower, write it down. I don't send it to the team right away. I sleep on the idea. Make sure it's good. A lot of times, a lot of ideas we have in the light of day you're like, "It's not a good idea." For us I would say good, concise video content on brand is key. We don’t over push our YouTube channel, but we spend a lot of time there. YouTube.com/tamethebeast. You can see some of our hits, and some of our misses. That's been a good area to focus for us.
Thought the trademark “jingle” was in the past? Think again
Felix: How do you angle the videos? Is the product typically the centre of attention, or do you have a storyline as well?
John: You launch and create a new product, you're going to need all the assets to go with it. Once you make that product decision to create, there's a lot of work that naturally follows. New product, new collection. Why did we launch that product? What are the selling points? People have low attention spans: three seconds, six seconds, eight seconds. It differs a little by generation but it's short. We're hyper smart at reviewing media, so you have to make it quick and really showcase what's different about this product. What do people really want? Look at other people's commercials in the area. We look at Old Spice. I hate plugging another brand, but they revived a legacy grandfather brand, and how'd they do it? What are they touching on in the commercials? What can we learn from them?
A lot goes into an effective commercial. For instance, one of our products is the Extreme Yawp. It was actually the first product where I thought we had something. It was the Extreme Yawp Beard, Hair, and Body Wash. We were like, "What's unique about this?" It's the feel. If you put Beast in a bottle, what are people's expectations? Over time I learned you expect something. You want to feel something. You want to smell something. Beast is an experience. We came up with some great copy for it. That's one of the top videos on our YouTube channel. There's this husky voice and it's, "Extreme Yawp Beard, Hair, and Body Wash. With an exhilarating eucalyptus tingle that's a nice reward for being an adult." Then there's a roar.
The other thing I would say is think about a jingle, too. Someone from Procter and Gamble early on told me, "Come up with a jingle." For us right now it's our roar. We throw a beast roar, which is actually a combination of like three animals that our sound person had meshed together. He was playing with animal sounds and meshing them together. He was like, "I think this is it. This is the roar." I was like, "That's it. That's the roar."
Enabling customization to drive new sales
Felix: You have this “build-a-set” feature on the website. Tell us about that idea. The reason behind it, where it came from, and how it’s affected the site.
John: Back at Able, I saw that people want customization. There's something sticky about that. People who customize spend more time on the site. There is even data from different cohorts that found people who get to customize their product are more loyal customers. The more they dig in with a brand. Part of the mission that drives us now is reducing plastic. How do we do that? More reusable bottles, or bottle refills. You have to get people to change their habits incrementally and we want to capitalize on some of the other data around customers and loyalty. That's where it came from, but also it's about trying to make it easy and to reduce friction for the customer. People come to the product line and it's a full line: shampoo, conditioners, soap, lotions, shaving products. "Well darn, where do I get started?" It's like, "Here. Let's make it easy on you. Start here. Pick a bottle. All right, great. Pick a pouch." You just pick one and then boom. It's a three step process of getting people into a product line easily and incrementally changing their habits.
Felix: That’s a great insight about how the more time you spend on the site customizing it,the more memorable it is. Are there any other parts of the website that surprised you by having a big impact on conversions?
John: What's funny is I've seen this on a couple sites: the shop all. That's often one of the highest converting pages. People just want to see and scroll. It sounds silly, right? Shop all. They can see the whole thing and scroll down. We definitely see people later in their life cycle approach and start visiting sustainability pages or “about the brand” pages. Having the quiz page. We have a quiz now where we try to pair you with one of our scents. That's another great example that I got from Able, too. Both at Able and Beast we did something where it was a little fun for the customer to do but also instructive. We're taking people down the path just answering a simple question and then we recommend some products and it helps them understand our different scents. I would encourage people to try a quiz with their customers.
Free gifting as an inventory management strategy
Felix: I can also see on the website a call to action saying, “Want a free gift from us?” But it doesn’t disclose what the gift is. Was that intentional?
John: Yeah. We wanted flexibility to change it up. Sometimes it's an inventory management thing, too, where we're like, "Darn. We're out of those."
Felix: Are there any other apps that you use that you can recommend to use to run the business?
John: Going back to our app discussion earlier, product reviews are essential. Early on you may not want to invest a lot of money in product reviews but at some point you start realizing, "We need to feed these reviews into Google. We need to syndicate them to other places. We want functionality so customers can easily share their reviews. Yotpo Reviews was a good one. We're all in on Yotpo. We have Yotpo Loyalty, Yotpo Reviews, and we've tested some Yotpo SMS. Then there's Data Feed Watch, which is a feed generator. That one's more affordable. It allows you to generate a feed that you can spit into Google or Facebook or other marketing channels. Bing, where you might need to generate a product feed early one, that's a useful one too. Octane is a good one too for marketing. Klaviyo for email. Klaviyo has emerged as one of the top email ones. Octane's like email and text but for Facebook Messenger. That's the problem that Octane solves. That's a good one for people to look at.
Felix: I'll leave you this last question. What do you think is the area that you want to focus the most over the next year?
John: It's going to sound silly but fulfillment. If you're listening to the podcast and you place an order on our site use code beastboss, because you're the boss of me, the Beast, or your own self as the Beast. That'll give you 20% off. If you then get the items and email me and tell me about your fulfillment experience, I'll send you another free thing. I'll look at what you ordered and pick something else from our product line and send it to you. Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Buy something. Use code beastboss. Save 20%. Get the products and then email me. Give me feedback–simple feedback–on fulfillment and the unboxing, and I'll send you something extra for free.