Restricted products are inherently difficult to advertise on the same platforms that most entrepreneurs rely on, such as Google and Facebook.
So, what do you do under these circumstances? You get creative.
In this episode of Shopify Masters, you’ll hear from an entrepreneur about marketing restricted products and how he grew by finding influencers in Facebook groups.
Saadiq Daya is the CEO of VanGo Vapes, which creates liquid for inhalable-flavor connoisseurs.
We’re not allowed to do Facebook ads, we’re not allowed to do Google ads. It’s very restrictive so we really have to be out there and get people’s feedback.
Tune in to learn
- What to do when you cannot advertise your product on Facebook or Google
- How to use Reddit & Facebook groups for influencer marketing
- How to approach your business when the industry transforms from a sub-culture to mainstream
- Store: VanGo Vapes
- Social Profiles: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram
- Recommendations: Shogun (Shopify app), Supple Pricing Bold (Shopify app)
Felix: Today I’m joined by Saadiq Daya from VanGo Vapes. VanGo Vapes creates liquid for inhalable flavor connoisseurs. It was started in 2014 and based out of Vancouver. Welcome, Saadiq.
Saadiq: Thank you, Felix.
Felix: So what are inhalable-flavor connoisseurs?
Saadiq: So we have kind of branched off from vaping. Vaping has a term, and it’s been around for years and years, and so we technically create liquids for vapes, but the way our liquids are a bit different is we really put a lot of emphasis on flavoring, and personally, I believe that the flavor has a lot to do with the journey from cigarettes to e-cigarettes to nothing. I believe flavor is very important, and it kind of ties with almost aromatherapy, where the flavors and the smells put you in a certain mindset, or a certain state of mind.
Felix: Got it, so you mentioned that you wanted to go down this path because you wanted to create the business to create those flavors that you’re talking about, but also leave the consulting world. Tell us more about that. What was the story behind why you guys started?
Saadiq: So, a few years ago, back in 2014, me and my brother actually, we were both working at a consulting firm, and I had been doing that for a few years, and it’s … I started vaping at the time when I was a little bit tired of the consulting side. To be honest, I did it for quite a few years. I found it to be extremely … it was extremely tough. It was a constant challenge to constantly be out there networking and selling yourself, and it was a different style of business, and through the consulting, I found myself.
I enjoyed the industries and the e-commerce quite a bit, and so when I personally started vaping around that time, there weren’t a lot of options in Vancouver for suppliers, and so I started looking into the numbers behind it and looking into the logistics and all that, and one of the most interesting things was that it was a brand new industry. There really wasn’t much out there. I was heavy on the software side, so even on the software side, there really wasn’t anything out there, and so the challenges were very intriguing to me. I wanted to kind of just dive in and see what’s it all about, both with the flavor side, and starting in an industry that doesn’t have … the business practices or the software or the commonplace flow that other industries do have.
Felix: Got it, so you had this experience from the consulting world, and you recognized that a lot of the players that were in the vaping space, vaping industry didn’t have the kind of expertise that your more established world had, so you figured that you come in and apply a lot of your kind of business experience and learnings and essentially dominate or compete in the marketplace.
Saadiq: Exactly, and another thing that we really brought to the table was the innovation aspect. So, internally, one of our, one of the cores that we pride ourself on is the fact that we have a fully custom ERP system that is, for this industry state-of-the-art, and so that’s what has kept us going through the years, and it’s given us the ability to have so many SKUs, but still produce, manufacture and distribute them efficiently enough too that we’re obviously turning a profit.
Felix: Got it, so this is the first business that you’ve started or have you launched other business in the past?
Saadiq: This is the first business that I’ve personally started. It’s the first one I’ve started. I worked with a lot of different startups when I was a consultant, and then one of the largest ones that I worked with was a steel fabrication company. They did structural steel, and I was with them from six months in till about four and a half years, and through that time, we were able to increase revenues tenfold, up till the seven digits, and it was a quite a journey. Learned a lot along the way, and it really taught a lot about the growth, and growing is really where I saw a lot of companies having issues with this.
It’s not a huge challenge to run a company with two or three people. I find that the challenge is going from two to 10 to 20 to 50, because each stage requires different structure, different aspects of the company that you have to constantly keep implementing, and not implementing these things or thinking that it’s the same is usually where the problems happen because you can’t treat a company with 10 employees the same as you’d treat a company with 30 employees. There’s other things that have to come into play, and if they don’t come into play, that company ends up just burning itself out.
Felix: Could you talk about scaling up a business, and it’s not hard when it’s just you yourself, but then once you start scaling, you have to put things in place. What are these things? What do you have to start doing differently as you go from just yourself to maybe another person, then to maybe 10 people? What are some things that you want to put in place?
Saadiq: Well, first thing is procedures and documenting the procedures. I find that as size grows, it’s more and more important to document more and more procedures and housekeeping, so again, in going back to the example you have two employees, and you’re hiring a third. It doesn’t really make sense to have a huge manual with everything about the company in there. Policies online, which policies … it makes sense to have your framework there, but to spend so much time creating a whole huge document for someone that it would be just as easy just to quickly tell them a few times is totally fine.
But, once you start getting into, you know, 10 employees, 20 employees, even things like processing payroll, if you’re using time sheets and you’re using other ways of manual submission, that’s really when you’re going to start to feel those pains, so implementing software for payroll tracking, implementing payroll for HR management, implementing your benefits and stuff like that, so as it gets bigger, it’s more like problems start to get bigger until the point where there’s such a big problem they need a solution.
So, do you need an HR software when you have two people? Personally, I don’t think so. When you have 20 people, you’re just really starting to get into that area, and once you hit 50 people, if you don’t have that HR software, you’re going to have so much headaches that, again, if you’ve a headache in HR, then you’ve got these similar headaches across your company. You’ll feel those pains.
Felix: Got it. So, when you are ready to start doing these documenting procedures, what do you find are some of the most important procedures to document that you maybe, if there’s a low-hanging fruit, like something that all businesses should start documenting when they are starting to scale?
Saadiq: One thing that I always advise people is when you start your company, really imagine where you want the company to be. Of course, there’s some stories where they start, and they never imagined that they would have the success that they did, but I find it’s very important to create that goal, or create that image in your head, because that will help you work towards that. If you are starting your company, and you have no plans on going more than five employees, then you have to build your company around that. It’s the product that you’re creating.
For example, if you’re a baker, document every single step along the way on how you want it, or how you want the work done, and I find it’s extremely important that the person in charge makes sure that it only happens in that way that they’ve asked it to be. When there’s variances from procedures, or when people go off procedure, that’s always when problems happen, especially when looking back. Three months later, looking back at the history of what happened over the last couple months, it’s much easier to find problems when you know that there’s a defined, specific way of doing things, but when you have multiple people doing multiple things, that’s when you’re opening up the doors to way more problems.
Felix: Okay, so you had, well you mentioned you had these business practices that you took from more established industries, and that you wanted to come in and apply it to the vaping industry. Can you dive a little bit deeper into what particular advantages you saw that you had that you wanted to bring into this industry?
Saadiq: So, the manufacturing aspect is where I did a lot of work with before, and so that’s really what I brought into this industry. I created the first version of the software that we use for the manufacturing. Now, the manufacturing is an interesting one, and that was one of the biggest challenges I found when we first started is it has similarities. Creating liquids or creating e-liquids has a lot of similarities to a bakery in the way that there’s multiple ingredients, they have to be specifically measured, and then they have to go through a process.
Now, the thing that a little different about this industry, especially when you have lots of flavors is the number or SKUs. One flavor, for example, blueberry, will come in 30, 40 different SKUs because we have to offer it in multiple bottle sizes, multiple VG ratios, and multiple nicotine strengths, so there’s, all with these factors, one flavor could easily by 40 SKUs. We can’t sit and make every single SKU that we offer, and so the original software, basically it would calculate both the forecast, as well as it would plan out the production in the most efficient manner.
Let’s say for example we have 20 flavors. Each of them has 40 SKUs. Now, each flavor will have a unique set of flavorings that we use in them, and so what the software does is it collects the list of all the unique flavors from the batch you’re creating, and it gives you an easy way of creating all of the flavors at the same time using the flavors one by one. So, it’s kind of a process of manufacturing. Instead of going by batches, we went according to … by work order, and so by just switching that, the software facilitates this, and has increased … the efficiency goes through the roof. It’s not even really feasible to do it any other way, in my opinion, and so that’s, because we’ve created the system, we’re one of the only companies that is able to offer the variety that we do at the level of quality that we offer.
Felix: So this gives you a larger catalog than your competitors?
Saadiq: A much larger catalog, and it gives us much more access to our capital. We’re not tying up a huge amount of capital in inventory just to be able to offer all the SKUs. We have a good mix of on-hand and made-to-order, but it’s like the mixed is taken care of by the computer, by the software, and so through that, it still guarantees or ensures that we’re able to ship out everything within 24 to 48 hours.
Felix: Got it, so you had this software for scaling up the SKUs from the very beginning, or did you add this in after launching?
Saadiq: So, we started at the very beginning. That was the first thing. I knew that that was imperative on the company actually being able to progress, especially also on the R&D side. There’s a lot of R&D that we do. It’s a brand new industry, and so what we do is we take food flavors, and we mixed with vegetable glycerin, and turn it into a form that’s vapable. Now, that whole process takes a lot of R&D because of the different flavors you’re working with, so playing with the flavors, playing with the combinations, all that stuff, and so being able to with the software, we’re not only able to manage the operations, but we’re also able to facilitate the R&D, and so we’re constantly working on new flavors.
We’re constantly putting out new flavors, and again, it’s not a huge strain on the organization, where I feel like what we have found is that other companies have a huge struggle with the balance between R&D and production that R&D is really kept back to the second, on the back-burner as a secondary project, and when they do come up with projects, they’re very restricted with how many flavors they can release, and so we’ve kind of established ourselves as the flavor company because we have a few very unique, very interesting mixes that come out twice a year. People have recognized that, and so as the flavor company, we’ve started to sell our actual concentrates, not the liquid, but the actual concentrated form of the flavors as well.
Felix: So you, what you’re describing so far is about efficiency, right? How do you make your business as efficient as possible for you guys to invest more in operations and R&D and scale up the business, but how do people find out about, that the business and all of your products and all your SKUs to begin with?
Saadiq: So, at the beginning, we … there’s, we were very restricted. This industry is very restricted on how we can advertise, and so the two main things that we focused on, there was a few online forums like Reddit that we became active in, just letting people know that we’re out here, we’re creating flavors, and we found quite a few active members within the forums, and so we sent out the liquids to them to get their feedback and their review, and so that kind of kicked it off.
People were starting to hear about it, that there’s this company that’s creating flavors. They’re focused on connoisseur flavors, and they’re always so focused on kind of the variety, and a lot of other companies would focus on just, you know, oh we have these few candies, or we have the strawberry and cream. We went the other way where we wanted to go more off the spectrum, so we wanted to make sure that we had fruits, but at the same time, we made sure we had tobacco flavors, and we had mint flavors, and we had kind of like the world of flavors, and so through the forums we started getting known.
There were also quite a few Facebook groups for vaping. Each province has its own group, so we were fairly active in there, and that helped us both network and get the product out, and then through those two in combination, we started getting into retail locations, and so we would reach out to them, and a lot of times, they had already kind of heard of the name.
Felix: Because of your activity in the community.
Saadiq: Exactly. So that, the activity in the community, the activity in the forums and the Facebook groups, those were really the base, the backbone of the beginning in getting out there. We’re not allowed to do Facebook ads. We’re not allowed to do Google ads, so it’s very restricted, so we really have to be out there, be active, and get people’s feedback. That was a huge part of it is working with micro-influencers on getting their feedback, and helping us get the product out.
Felix: So how are you approaching people, let’s say, we’ll start with Reddit. How are you approaching them to get that feedback early on? Were you just creating a post or were you direct messaging people to see if they were interested? How were you beginning down that path with Reddit?
Saadiq: So, for Reddit, we didn’t do as much, but what we is there were a few members that were identified as being vape specialists or vape reviewers, and so we would reach out to those people as well, anyone … as well we would keep an eye out for people who were very active. They were constantly posting about different liquids they had tried, different hardware they had tried, and so we would reach out to these people as well, so we’d look for either people that were publicly doing reviews or people that seemed to go through quite a few liquids, and who kind of knew what they were talking about.
Felix: Got it. So you would approach them, and then you would just, how would you present yourself?
Saadiq: Oh, we would just tell them, like most of the times we would just reach out, very straightforward and say, “Hey, we’re a manufacturer in Vancouver. We’re releasing a few liquids, and we’d really like it if you were able to try our liquids and give us your thoughts,” and 99% of the time, people would say, “Yeah, no problem.” I mean, it’s very rare people are going to say no to free. So we would … Yeah, we would reach out to them directly, and message them, and they’d try it, and then usually we wouldn’t really have to ask for much more, as after they’ve tried it, they would usually give their feedback to the public. So in a way we were taking a risk because if they didn’t like it, they would say that. “You know, these guys sent me some liquids. It was terrible. I didn’t like it,” but we rolled on, we stood behind our product, and we hoped that they would take it as well as we hoped them to.
Felix: Got it. So they would post a review back onto those subreddits, and what was your interaction there? Were you guys jumping into the thread and responding back to comments? What do you do usually after an influencer leaves a review publicly?
Saadiq: It really depends. A lot of times, we would, we wouldn’t really comment on it. We wanted everything to be as organic as possible, and so especially with the Facebook groups, commenting on it would bring it to the top of the group, and so sometimes people looked at it like too much. We try to keep the groups as organic as possible. They don’t want it to be full of spam, and so we tend to keep our activity to being authentic, so if we have something to put in, if they put up a review, and there’s something for us to say, we will say it, but we don’t just go in there just to say something for the sake of it.
Felix: Got it, and then these Facebook groups, were they, were you also approaching individuals, or were you just posting in the group itself for feedback?
Saadiq: So, at first we started posting in the group, and then we ran a few contests, actually. The contests, we did quite a few at the beginning, so the way we would [inaudible] the contest is we would first approach the admin, make sure that they’re okay with it, and make sure that they’re okay with us running the contest, and then we’d create a graphic, and it would be very simple. At the beginning, we did try a few more. We put up a picture and say, “Like our page, and comment on this post, and tag two friends,” and so we’d have all these requirements, but over the years, we’ve kind of scaled the requirements back.
So, the recent contest we did in August, it was simply just comment on the picture. What we did is we put up a picture of nine different bottles. There was three sets of three. One was a minty path, one was fruity, and one was decadent, and then we told them, “Look, just comment which pack you’d like to win,” and so they were just going on commenting that, and then at the end of the contest, we will just pick however many people at random, contact them and send them a discount code for the website, so that they can go on and claim their prize, and then they’d go onto to the website and collect their prize.
Felix: How long were you guys doing this for, this initial outreach through Reddit and the Facebook groups?
Saadiq: So, we actually have never stopped. We’ve … that’s one of our core marketing strategies is through the Facebook groups and these forums. We don’t, we’re not as active on Reddit any more, because I find that it really requires an authentic or organic … It requires authentic content, and it requires constant engagement. With the Facebook groups, it’s a little bit more informal, and we’ve been working with them for many years now. A lot of them are the same admins, and so we’ve established fairly good relationship with them, so usually every, let’s say two to four months, we’ll let them know that, hey, we want to do a contest, and then we’ll run the contest similar to what we did before, and like I said, we’ve gotten … become simpler with the contests, making it easier for people to join, and then in between the contests, we try to stay active in the groups.
We, you know, we’ll give feedback. The groups will have anything from a new juice to someone posts a picture of their vape, and they say, “Okay, I don’t know what to do. It’s not working,” and so we try to be active, and stay on top of the groups and kind of just remain visible in the groups, and then every, let’s say one to two weeks, we’ll do a product shout-out. So, we’ll put up a product of ours, we’ll put up a little description, and we’ll ask for some feedback or thoughts on something related to the product. We might ask people who’s tried it or what do you think of the white grape that we put in here, or something along those lines.
Felix: So, you can sustain a business just focused on Facebook groups?
Saadiq: To an extent. I mean, we would, like on the other side, our main business is wholesale, so we do trade shows and we do quite a lot of events, and we work fairly closely with the stores that we do, so I feel like our success has been a combination of our efficiency, our relationship with our customers, our commitment to the brand, and then the marketing strategies we’ve done through the blogs and through our Facebook groups.
Felix: Right. I guess another way to ask this question is if someone out there is looking for a marketing or sales channel for themselves, is Facebook groups a profitable kind of long-term plan if you were just to focus on just that channel? If you weren’t looking to scale up and go down the avenue of wholesale, and you just wanted to build a profitable business, can you just focus on Facebook groups based on your experience?
Saadiq: Yeah, yeah it’s very possible. It would depend on the number of groups that are out there, and the type of groups. One thing that was interesting about this industry is because there were no, there were not that many other avenues, and because it was such a new industry, people were attracted to these groups, both for information and as almost like a news source of what new products are in their local market, what are people doing, what are they talking about.
So, to be honest, I don’t know how well they’d do in other industries, and the one thing I have noticed though is that over the years, the groups have become less and less active, so they were a lot more active when it was subculture, when it wasn’t a mainstream. Now that it’s becoming more and more mainstream, I’m finding that the activity is going down less. It’s getting less than what it was once upon a time.
Felix: Right. Now, how large are these groups that you’re working with?
Saadiq: The average group is about 1,500 to 2,000 members, but I have seen a group, there’s one group in the U.K. that we work with, they have 25,000 members.
Felix: Have you guys ever thought about, hey, let’s just create a group of our own. Is that something that you would do?
Saadiq: We’ve played with the idea before. We were planning on launching something called startvaping.com, and so under that banner, we were thinking of launching a group to be like a support group for anyone who is starting to vape, so anyone who’s got questions, anyone who wants to start, anyone who has, you know, they’ve been vaping for a bit and now they’re kind of confused, just kind of a support group, not tie it to any geographical region. A lot of the groups that are out there right now is like, for example, BC Vapers, Edmonton Vapers, Alberta Vapers, Ontario Vapers, and so with startvaping.com, we may start a group, and that would be more of a national group for support.
Felix: Now why are the groups so geographically … I guess designated?
Saadiq: I think for, again, for this industry, especially a few years ago, there was so much saturation in the industry where every locality was totally different, even actually from a manufacturing point of view, it’s interesting to see that for example, in BC, we sell the most tropical fruit flavors, but then you go to Alberta, we sell loads of heavy menthols. You look at Ontario, we sell loads of creams and custards and stuff, so I think the preferences vary province to province, as well as the products available. Four years ago, we were only available in BC, and so we were mainly focused on BC vapers.
When we started to go into Alberta, then we started to reach out on to the Alberta Vapers page, but I find that a lot of these groups, they want it to be products and people that are more local, right? So they’ll put up a question saying, “Where can I find this juice?” For example, they might see a VanGo juice, and they’ll put up a picture, and they’ll say, “Hey, where can I find this juice locally? I want to go pick it up right now.” So, it kind of causes itself to become localized groups. There are national groups, but I haven’t found, I’ve found that they were never as active as the localized groups.
Felix: Makes sense. It’s probably more specific to that group’s problems or questions. That makes sense why the more specialized ones are more popular, or more active. So, is it worth targeting all Facebook groups, or is there some kind of criteria that you like to look at to determine if you should be working with a group or not?
Saadiq: It’s … It really comes down to resources. You know, I find that just finding groups and putting up pictures doesn’t really have much value. It’s just spam. I find that it really only brings value from the groups if you’re an active member of the group, if you’re a known member of the group, so being active and contributing to discussions, contributing to questions, contributing to the overall activity in the group, commenting, things like that.
That makes you a valued member of the group, and then you’ve got some more credibility, where, for example, on BC Vapers, John Smith comes in and posts his product, and we don’t hear about him ever again, it doesn’t really have any value. Yeah, okay, we saw ads, but it doesn’t really have any value, and if he was to come back every week and just post up a picture, it would be considered spam, and oftentimes the admin would just kick them out.
Felix: Can you just delegate this to a team member, hey, you’re focused on … Can’t you just, can you just hire out for someone to be responsible for that? Can you scale that up that way?
Saadiq: We have. We do have someone in-house actually that part of his job is to stay on top of the groups, so once a day, he’ll kind of summarize, in a way he’ll summarize kind of what happened in the groups that day, and then he himself will make sure that we’re active, so we have an account called Vinny Vango, and that’s the account that is our kind of anonymous face company. So, me, myself I’m fairly active, as well as my brothers, and then we have Vinny, who is more of like associated with the company as the company face, and he himself is active in the groups as well.
So. he’ll comment and he’ll give suggestions and stuff like that, and it’s a user that we kind of bounce around. Sometimes, I’ll use it, but there is someone who is assigned to it full-time. A big thing is really though knowing what they’re doing, so if they’re going to hire out, they can do that, but just make sure that they remember that this person is representing them in that group, so making sure that even what they say, the comments they do, the comments, that the type of comments they put reflect the company’s goals and values.
Felix: When you approach a group, the administrator, how do you, what’s the pitch like? How do you get them to essentially agree to work with you?
Saadiq: Usually, to be honest, we’ll reach out to the administrator first, and we’ll say, “Look, are you interested in trying some of our products out?” I find that if the administrator is behind the product, and they back the product, they support the product, it goes a lot smoother. So, oftentimes talk to the administrator first, see what their thoughts are, and definitely don’t step on their toes. Some of them will say things, like there’s a group that we’re in.
It’s a good group, fairly active, most of the time there’s a lot of good content, and they have a rule that you’re only allowed to post company-related items before three o’clock on Thursdays. Obviously, make sure that you respect their … you respect their boundaries, and respect whatever they ask you. Just to get into a group … To get into a group, anyone can join a group. If you want to work with the group, I would say talk to the admin first. Try to get them on your side. Make sure that they’re happy with what you’re trying to do, and then go from there.
Felix: Yeah, I’d imagine that there’s probably your competition or other people that are selling to the same customers that are also wanting to work with the administrator, and promote their products in the group. How do you, how does that work with what you’re trying to do?
Saadiq: Yeah, we have no problem with other people advertising, and none of the groups are exclusive to any one company. So, there are, the competitors do promote in the similar groups as well.
Felix: Got it. Now, this approach of focusing on Reddit and then mostly on Facebook groups to the point where you were able to get the backing of the community to eventually approach retailers and sell wholesale, how long did this take? What was the timeline between getting started with your first micro-influencers through these communities on Facebook and Reddit, to the point where your product starts to show up in stores?
Saadiq: They were both very, there were roughly around the same time, to be honest. We joined BC Vapers in, I believe it was about October of 2014, and in December of 2014, we … There was a new member in that group actually, Digital Vaper. They were also a member in that group, they announced that they were opening up their shop, and so being members, we saw that obviously, and so we approached them, and we said, “Hey, can we work with you? This is our product. We’d like to see where we can take this,” and so we started working with them.
So, it was about two to three months, two months after we had joined the group and start soliciting that we were able, that we got into a store, and then from there it kind of grew. Again, the group helped, the groups helped a lot because a lot of the store owners were in the group, and so as more store owners came on board and were saying good things about the company, good things about the product, it became easier and easier. People would see it, and then customers would go to these stores. They’d take a picture of the bottle, they would put it in the group, and so the more visibility we go, the more traction we got.
Felix: That’s awesome that the customers, and the business owners that you’re going to sell to are both in the groups, so they’re seeing that kind of … that validation from the community that they like your products.
Felix: Now, what’s your approach to growing this wholesale business, other than people just kind of discovering and wanting to carry it. Do you actively try to open up more accounts that might not have found you through the groups?
Saadiq: Yeah, no we, so we have hired a few people over the years. Right now, so we have one person in-house. He’s our Director of Sales, and so he basically reaches out to people to help them kind of get on board. At this point now in Canada, I’d say most of the shops or most of the vape shops have heard of the brand, so it’s more of a, it’s more that the … someone from internally we’ll reach out to them, introduce ourselves, send them some samples, but the process is much smoother because it’s a known brand.
It’s a recognized brand, so we are constantly outreaching, and another thing we do is trade shows. We do all the Canadian trade shows, and now we’re trying to, we’re starting to branch out, so we’ve done three in London, we did one in Atlanta, we did two in Seattle, so we’re starting to reach out internationally now, and so the groups were more a Canadian thing. As we go into the international market, we’re shifting more to trade shows and distributors.
Felix: Right, so now that you are … really started off by being part of this exploding subculture, and now it as you mentioned is becoming more mainstream, what does this typically mean for how you run the business because it’s gone from a subculture to becoming more mainstream?
Saadiq: Well, we’ve always tried to run the business as business-like as possible, so right in the first set … In our first software, we’ve always been keeping track of batch numbers and expiration dates and all these kind of different things that we thought would be necessary, and now as the industry has become mainstream with the regulations, a lot of these things that we project, predicted many years ago have actually been put into the regulation.
So, for example, on the bottles, we’ve always had little poison symbols, and we’ve had the warnings, both in English and French. We’ve had the nicotine value, we’ve had bar codes and batch numbers and stuff. These are all being required by November, I mean, sorry. In May, April or May, the government released their regulations, and as long as you were pretty close, you could keep your products on the shelf, and so we were pretty close to what they required.
They gave us the six months window to get everything up to standard, and so in November, it’s a strict deadline. Anyone with any sort of content, any sort of products that are not compliant will be disposed and potentially fined, so as it’s become more and more mainstream, we’ve definitely tried to make sure that we’re always professional, but overall, we’ve always tried to keep that since the beginning.
Felix: What about the marketing and messaging when your category does become more mainstream? How does that change?
Saadiq: I think it just, it opens the doors to more avenues, as the market size has grown, it’s … you know, four years ago, it didn’t make sense to do things like billboards, where now it’s starting to get to the point where there’s enough of a market out there where we can justify some of these more, larger projects. So, in December we’re launching startvaping.com. It’s a website that’s geared around helping people to start vaping, so information, FAQs, some myth-busting, kind of just a basic resource, and so with startvaping.com, we want to do more of a mainstream approach with some … with ads and billboards and stuff like that to just get the name of vaping off the ground, especially right now.
I think that there’s a lot of, one of the biggest problems, one of the biggest challenges this industry has is the misinformation, and so getting into the mainstream age, I think it’s very important that the true information is being spread out there, especially for vaping. It’s been tarnished so many times in the past. I think that the biggest problem is just the misinformation.
Felix: Got it. Can you give us an idea of how successful the business has become? How much has it grown to?
Saadiq: Yeah, so in 2014 when we opened the lab … No, sorry. So 2014, summer 2014 is when we officially started. We started getting the recipes, the R&D, the logo, all that stuff. 2015 is when we got the lab that we’re at right now, and from there we’ve grown to about 20 employees. We’re in the seven digits revenue, and we’ve got four websites. So, we’ve got a U.K. website, a U.S. website, Canadian retail, Canadian wholesale, and then in the next few months, we’re launching vangoflavors.com, that will be just selling the actual flavor concentrates, not the e-liquid, so this is for both manufacturers of nicotine liquid, as well as CBD liquid. They’re very interested in the flavoring aspect of it, because we’ve been doing flavoring for inhalation for so many years.
Felix: Now why do you need different websites rather than just having it all concentrated onto one website?
Saadiq: For the regions?
Felix: Yeah, for the regions and then also you mentioned your new product line. What’s the advantage of having multiple websites?
Saadiq: Well, so for the regions, we had no choice. I mean, we were playing around with the idea of switching over to Shopify Plus. I think that that’s in the next few months, we’re going to be looking at that. Right now, the reason we have multiple websites is the U.K. and the U.S. both have different regulations for the products, so the products have to look a bit different. The products are different, the pricing is different, so we found it easier just to have several websites to take care of all this.
Felix: Got it, and how’s the websites, how are they designed? Do you have an in-house team or do you hire out to an agency for that?
Saadiq: Yeah, so we have a … we have an artist that we have full-time working for us that just creates art, and then we have a marketing firm that does the actual web, the website creation. There’s also a firm that we use, an agency. They’re a Shopify Expert, and so they do the actual … any time we need to do coding or anything unique, they’ll help us with that.
Felix: Got it. Now, when you look at the design of your website or the ones that you want to launch, what are some of the key things that you want to make sure you have on your site?
Saadiq: The most important thing for us is it has to be visually appealing. When you come on to the website, it has to be inviting. It has to be a look, it has to look beautiful, and so we’re really anal about artwork. Artwork is, you know, we’re constantly working on new art work. We’re constantly working on new content. We change our banners on our website at least once a week. We’ve got flavor of the week, and I feel like one of the biggest, the most, one of the most important things of a website, of course it has to be fast, but it has to be very visually appealing.
It has to be when you come in there, you feel like you’re almost in a museum or a art gallery. You’re like, “Wow. I just,” you’ll take those few seconds just to take it all in, and if you come to a page that looks garbage or it just looks ugly, it doesn’t matter how fast it is. You just, you don’t have any … you just don’t feel like staying in that website for long, so I feel like the visuals have a lot to do with it. Just nice colors, nice graphics, nice pictures. Yeah, images and pictures.
Felix: Got it, and what about applications? Do you use any other Shopify apps or just tools to help run the business?
Saadiq: Yeah. We do a lot. Actually, that’s what’s kind of kept us, that’s what brought us to Shopify and has kept us. We tried many different platforms before, and the plugins and the apps were just not that good. Shopify has a huge, awesome ecosystem of developers who are creating amazing apps, and so we use, for example on the wholesale website, we have a pricing one, and the pricing one is really awesome because we can just tag different customers with different tags. They all see their own pricing.
Felix: Is that Supple Pricing? Just want to make sure I get the app.
Saadiq: That’s, yeah, Supple. So, we use Supple quite a bit there. Their wholesale pricing is amazing. It’s the best one we’ve played with. They don’t create new and different variants. We used a few of the Bold apps for pricing and for sales. They have a few that we use, actually, even the Upsell one. We have Liquid Lotto, or Liquid Loot, I believe. It’s a points program. That one does really well. We’ve got a couple sliders, we’ve got an Instagram plugin. Shogun is another one actually that we use quite a bit for creating the actual pages. It helps go around kind of like the overall restriction you have, or the way that the product page looks like by default. With Shogun, you can create the page to look like whatever you want.
Felix: Got it. Now, what are you focused on these days? You mentioned the Facebook group and the activity there. You guys jump in every once in a while, but your main focus now is in wholesale. How do you just spend your days though?
Saadiq: Myself personally?
Saadiq: For me personally, my day is split between in running the company, so meetings. A lot of meetings. Accounting, marketing, production, shipping, kind of just watching over everything, making sure that the … operations are going well, and then whatever time I have left for R&D and reaching out and talking to our customers, making sure that everything’s going smooth, that they’re still happy. I do a lot with R&D nowadays as well. We’re always working on new flavors, and the flavor side of it is … it’s quite a process. So, for example, just one, like the flavors that we’re releasing at the end of October, we’ve been working on them since last August.
Felix: Wow, so it’s not just like something that’s easy to do. You got to spend a lot of time on R&D. Now, what do you want to see the business be this time next year?
Saadiq: Hopefully we’ll be in four more countries. We’re, this year in November we’re doing our big official launch in the U.K., so that’s going to be huge. There’s a massive trade show that’s happening, and so we’ll be doing a huge thing over there, and then as we go into 2019, we’re going to be going into France, Germany, Spain. So, we’re starting to get into more of the European countries. So, the goal by next year at this time would be to be in four more, four to five more countries between Greece, I mean Spain, France, Germany, those kind of places.
Felix: Beautiful, so vangovapes.com again is their website. Thank you so much for your time, Saadiq.
Saadiq: Appreciate it. Thank you, Felix.
Felix: Thanks for tuning in to another episode of Shopify Masters, the e-commerce podcast for ambitious entrepreneurs powered by Shopify. To get your exclusive 30-day extended trial, visit shopify.com/masters.