Learning From Mistakes

Digitizing a Startup & Making $170,000/Month

Matboard and More is the number one online retailer of custom matting and framing in the US. Mehdi built it super simple and spent some thousands of dollars in digital marketing. This way, he was able to achieve $170K in revenue per month.

Matboard and More - Mistakes

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Hi Mehdi! What's your background, and what are you currently working on?

Hi! I am an Engineer/MBA that couldn’t survive the 9-5. In 2012 I realized no corporate job would give me what I wanted in life and the opportunity came up to work on Matboard and More which is now the number one online retailer of custom matting and framing in the US.

Matboard and More Boards

The picture framing industry is one of the oldest in the world and we saw that with some technology and sophistication we could create something new and fresh. You can now easily order custom mats and frames in any color, size, and quantity with just a few clicks.

I’ve been in charge of Marketing and Business Development since we launched. Most of my focus is on the digital side, including PPC and SEO. We are currently working on getting our mobile site updated and I’m extremely excited to see that go live :D

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

When I think of how I came to be involved in Matboard and More, there are three important parts of my life that came together to make it happen.

One, I got my first job as an engineer designing traffic control devices. I was actually really passionate about traffic... because I hated it! I hated the powerlessness of sitting in front of a green light and still not being able to move because of the thousands of cars ahead of me. Traffic to me is a symbol of how screwed up our society is. How willing we are to waste hours a day commuting to places we don’t like. It’s become an accepted part of life, sitting in traffic, but I couldn’t do it. I would get stressed out of my mind thinking… waste of time, waste of energy, stupid… so I got a job in traffic thinking if I was working towards solving the problem it would make things easier. It did for a short time but then I realized this problem was going to be solved with self-driving cars and nothing else.

My bigger realization through working as an engineer was that I hated not having control. I couldn’t control my schedule, what I worked on, who I worked with and most importantly when I could take my damned vacations! So, I realized that my personality is simply incompatible with working the standard job, and I needed to find work that gave me freedom. This became crystal clear to me in 2010 and I spent the rest of my life ensuring I would one day achieve my goal of controlling my own life.

Two, I didn’t really have a clear idea of what I needed to do in order to gain that freedom and control in my life but I figured quitting my job and getting an MBA was a good start. The next two years I spent a lot of time reinventing myself from a nerdy engineer with limited social skills into a pretty cool guy who was not afraid to ask life for more. I can say that I didn’t learn a tone academically in my MBA but I gained the confidence to know I could be successful at whatever I put my mind to. I wrote a blog about this at the time.

Third, circumstances came together perfectly when my brother and brother-in-law came to with me this awesome idea. I can’t take credit for the idea or the initial startup phase, I got involved as the site was getting ready to launch. You can’t underestimate the power of having a good team.

Now since this is Failory, I should mention that during my MBA I specialized in Organizational Behavior and was looking to get into HR Consulting. For the life of me though I couldn’t get an interview, save for one with P&G. I guess I did terribly because they didn’t take me past the phone interview. I was actually devastated at this point because it was about 4 months on the job hunt (with loads of MBA debt) without any leads before Matboard and More came into the picture.

So, to summarize, my drive for control and freedom, my transformation during my MBA and great partners were what made Matboard and More possible for me.

 

How did you build Matboard and More?

The initial website was very simple. Just a wizard that allowed you to pick a matboard, change the size and quantity and order. No accessories, very few options and a pretty rough layout. It worked though, we were getting orders! They just cost an arm and a leg in AdWords spend.

In the first days, I called every customer that ordered to get feedback and also because I was so grateful to see success! I remember personally taking $200 orders at midnight because a customer needed something rushed. It was so much fun; every order was like a signal from the heavens that we were going to make it.

For the first year, all we did was pay for traffic, analyze that traffic, get feedback and iterate on our marketing campaigns and the website. After about a year we had a website that was turning a positive ROI on marketing spend and I had become an SEO/PPC expert. From there we added frames and other accessories. Continuously improved the website, built systems for production and customer service and kept growing.

I will say having relatively slow and steady growth was probably a good thing. In those first years, we ran into lots of problems. Production couldn’t keep up, equipment would fail, employees would quit, partners would have kids (I kid, I love my nieces :)). It was fun though every day was a new challenge and we just kept at it. I do think we missed out on some opportunities by not investing more in technology and the website early on. We never got any outside financing for our business which was great but at the same time, an influx of money early on would have accelerated things.

At any rate, by year three we were number one for most of our big keywords and had very effective PPC campaigns.

The last couple years have been focused on launching a new site which is mobile friendly and much easier to use based on the learnings from the first version of the site. We hope to launch this soon and I believe it’s going to take us to another level!

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Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?

Our marketing strategy has been almost exclusively digital. We certainly have a presence at various art and trade shows around the country but we find time and time again that the most effective thing for us is Google. Showing up in search is so valuable and nothing in our marketing has ever come close.

SEO and PPC are both very detail-oriented tasks, that require much patience and experimentation. I’d spend hours daily in the first couple years looking at our AdWords and optimizing them.  We now have gotten to a point where there is not much room left for optimizing and we’ve maximized our budget.

I will say we are having a harder and harder time finding new avenues for marketing. Facebook hasn’t been successful, nor has social media as a whole.

Mobile is where we have the most room for growth. Beyond that, we have lots of new products we are launching including new frames, and possibly prints in the near future.

Matboard and More Product

What were the biggest challenges you faced and obstacles you overcame?

The most difficult parts of running and growing Matboard and More is team management. As much as I desire total control and freedom in my life and business, it's never completely possible as you don't work in a vacuum. There are always going to different opinions, competing personalities and managing those is the most difficult. I won't go into more detail than that as it delves into the personal but suffice to say, conflict is only productive when it's focused on tasks and processes, so don't let things get personal.

The other big challenge was that I knew nothing about either matboards or digital marketing. This didn't scare me as I've always been a fast learner but when you think that I started from literally zero knowledge and self-taught myself to the point where Matboard and More is number one in SEO and PPC in the industry, I do feel proud of that.

All I can say to that effect is that it was extremely fun and never felt like work. I love learning and having a challenge. The hard part is defining the problem, once you understand that it's a matter of simply working through it. I think most entrepreneurs that fail aren't really sure what problem they are solving so they don't have a clear direction. For me it was simple at first, improve conversions and increase ROI. Everything was focused on that and through experimentation, iteration and a lot of intuition we found the right sauce.

 

Which are your greatest disadvantages?

This one is easy for me. My biggest disadvantage is that I work remotely in Toronto. We don't even ship orders to Canada so I can't utilize my network here. It's also difficult to stay engaged when you feel like your whole business is on a laptop.

When I visit our headquarters in Atlanta it's amazing how motivating it is. I get to meet with my partners and discuss strategy. I get to walk through our facilities and face to face talk to our amazing employees. It always feels like a lot gets done and my productivity increases tremendously when I'm more engaged.

On the flip side, working remotely has tones of personal advantages and I wouldn't trade it for the world. That in itself has been a big personal motivator.

The matboard market (minus frames) is fairly niche. Everyone knows what a frame is, but matboards have got to be one of the most pervasive products that few people actually know what they are called and made of. Literally everyone, has seen hundreds of mats in their lifetime but when you ask them about matboards you get a blank stare, until you explain it’s that inside border of the frame :)

This lack of product awareness means that it’s tough getting as much traffic as we’d like to the website. We’ve maxed out our AdWords budgets for a long time and there simply isn’t more traffic to gain. This was tough because it limited our data and analysis.

With frames, it’s the opposite problem of a hyper-competitive market where bids are expensive and rankings are tough to get.

We’ve found a nice balance however, and with our new website which has a much better experience for purchasing frames we are confident we are going to gain a huge share in the frames market as well.

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During the process of building & growing Matboard and More, which were the worst mistakes you committed?

There have been a few critical moments where we've screwed up as a business, but thankfully we bounced back stronger each time. Some of these mistakes were simple stupidity, others stemmed from a lack of planning.

For example, our display ads were suspended for a few weeks because I didn't get the email notifying that me that we were not in compliance with AdWords policy. I was out of town and not checking the campaigns regularly. That was a significant loss and was plainly just not paying attention, but easy enough to fix.

A more serious problem was during our second Christmas season where we got way more business than expected. We could hardly keep up, and our machines broke down so it was weeks of nearly 24/7 working trying to get things up and running. We spent the next year focusing on in-house systems and technologies instead of the website. It was a tough decision that slowed down growth but we had limited resources and all that work helped set us up for the future growth.

As a general principle though, we probably made a lot of mistakes of inaction as much as mistakes of action as well. We probably should have put more resources into certain areas and pushed our growth earlier. This may still be the case in fact, but it's difficult to know and hindsight is 20/20.

If you had the chance to do things differently, what would you do?

I would have pushed harder, earlier. When we first started out, we didn't have a good idea of how big this could be. I had a strong feeling early of a great opportunity this could be but frankly, my partners weren't as sure and we didn't sync up properly. Technology wasn't as focused as they needed to be. Production was working on our wholesale customers more than the e-commerce side.

I could see from the digital marketing side that there was a lot of room for growth but it took us about four years to capture that. In the process, we missed the boat on mobile which we are just rectifying with our upcoming launch. These are all big opportunities missed, mostly because we weren't willing to risk and invest like we should have.

At the same time, slow and steady has served us well and helped us work out a lot of kinks. I mentioned the Christmas rush and production issues which we needed to work through already, there were many of those types of things.

Apart from mistakes, what are other sources of learning you would recommend for entrepreneurs who are just starting?

The internet is a massive resource, and there really aren't any specific sites I recommend over others. Reddit is a good source if you can get in with the appropriate communities.

Where can we go to learn more?

Check out our website and stay tuned for our mobile launch!

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