Tom Cote is an experienced CEO and business founder. He has started several companies, including FoodBuddy and Sidekick Digital Media, all in different fields. With these companies, though, he has emphasized the use of modern digital techniques to deliver satisfying experiences to their clients.
At FoodBuddy, Tom Cote helped develop a patented hardware solution that customers can put in their fridge. The hardware also comes with an app that helps customers track the contents of their fridges, decide what to cook based on these contents. The app also lets customers know when the food should go bad, and what to buy next time they visit the grocery store. With the app, people would avoid wasting food, thereby helping families do their part in limiting climate change.
Next, at Sidekick Digital Media, Tom Cote has founded an “anti-growth hacking digital marketing agency.” However, Tom says that the company is a “brand builder,” and not “growth hackers.” Tom knows that you don’t build brands by skipping steps, most certainly by following all trendy “growth hacks” that crop up every day. For Tom, growth hacks are merely band-aid solutions to keep up revenue.
At Sidekick, Tom Cote and his team focuses on enabling brands to grow by implementing a marketing ecosystem for their clients. Within this ecosystem, brands can enjoy sustainable growth for the long-term. Even if companies are all moving online, smart marketing techniques could still work.
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Jerome Knyszewski: Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Tom Cote: I started my career at Microsoft working on their Xbox team. It was an awesome experience, couldn’t ask for a better job out of college. After a couple of years, I started to get the entrepreneur bug. I had a couple failed startups in college so it seemed crazy to make the leap, but I knew I would have to make the jump at some point.
After year 3 at Microsoft, I was tired of the corporate world. I had saved up a bunch of money and decided that it was time for me to do what I had always dreamed of doing.
Jerome Knyszewski: What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Tom Cote: Working at Microsoft, you quickly realize how critical tools like Excel are to everyday life. We’d use it to plan for everything, including spending hundreds of millions of dollars on Xboxes for the holidays. Not everyone, myself included, was good enough with Excel — it’s just not taught that way in college. One of the things I quickly realized was that we could use templates to make it easier for myself and my co-workers. After seeing how much it helped and sharing them with friends and family, Simple Sheets was born! From there we’ve constantly looked for new opportunities to expand and grow.
Jerome Knyszewski: Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Tom Cote: I was making six-figures with Microsoft when I left to start my own company. The first two years were a grind, making about 15% of what I was making with Microsoft. Certainly, there were times when I asked myself ‘What am I doing?’ Deep down, I knew that my goal was to be an entrepreneur and attain a certain level of freedom I could never acquire working for someone else, no matter how much money I was making.
Jerome Knyszewski: So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Tom Cote: Our businesses are going to do north of a million dollars this year. I’m working with friends I’ve know for 10+ years. The turn-around has been incredible. It would have been easy to give up and go back to my desk job. The good thing about pursuing what’s important to you is you naturally have a stubbornness about your own capacity. Other people may not see it, but I saw it and that’s what fueled me through the times where it looked like a dead end.
Jerome Knyszewski: Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
Tom Cote: It’s funny now, but not believing in myself. When I first started, I didn’t think I could sell and I needed clients. To help I worked with a friend who was responsible for sales so I could focus on delivering our product. After some rough months we were barely above zero sales and not growing. So, with all my savings gone, I tried to start it again from scratch myself and make the sales. Turns out a little belief can go a long way. Within the first week trying to sell myself, I had my first client and it just grew from there. Always believe in yourself, you’re more capable than you think!
Jerome Knyszewski: Can you share a few examples of tools or software that you think can dramatically empower emerging eCommerce brands to be more effective and more successful?
Tom Cote: Canva is one of the best resources for eCommerce brands who don’t have the money to hire a designer. Design is not my strongest skill, but I can still whip something up that looks decently pretty using Canva. Another would be UpWork and Fiverr. Hiring people full-time is a huge commitment so it can help to have skilled people to help you with things you don’t have competency in or time.
Jerome Knyszewski: As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies an eCommerce business should use to increase conversion rates?
Tom Cote: I’ve hammered down on this one, but I’ll say it again because it’s worth repeating. E-mail is the best way to convert a prospect into a sale. Rather than focus on driving sales, we will actually optimize for driving email signups because we know they convert at an extremely high rate.
Jerome Knyszewski: Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that an eCommerce business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
Tom Cote: We’ve made a commitment to having a customer service team that is available 24/7/365. It’s amazing the difference in customer satisfaction when you respond quickly to people, no matter the time. Aside from having a great product that delivers on its promise, having responsive and trained customer service people will go along way towards making sure the brand is elevated in consumers mind.
Jerome Knyszewski: Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful e-commerce business? Please share a story or an example for each.
Tom Cote: Here are the five most important things every successful e-commerce company must use to thrive.
1) The right product and business model. This takes time to decipher. Testing whether the product is viable and a profitable price point is an art, one that requires a lot of iteration. For Simple Slides, we started at a ridiculously low price point just to see if the product was a winner. As soon as we got some data in we upped the price point. We tried increasing it to a very high price and that failed so we settled on a price point that maximized volume of orders and margin.
2) You need captivating videos, photos and copy for advertisements and a process to which you do it. You’re constantly seeing what message sticks with your customers. If it takes weeks to get a video or image right, your feedback loop is too long. It’s a game of speed and the faster you get test creative the cheaper you’ll acquire customers for.
Our first couple of ads for Simple Sheets were total failures. We thought about discontinuing the brand at one point they performed so poorly. With iteration, we found the messaging that worked and saw a 275% increase in leads over the course of testing different ad copy for 2 months. Had we not had the infrastructure to spin up different ads and messaging quickly, this brand would never have seen the light of day.
3) Running paid ads on platforms like Google and Facebook. We’re a digital agency at heart so this is a core competency for us. The internet allows you to scale a business and reach millions of people fast, as long as you have the capital and product to see a return on that investment. Successfully operating on Google and Facebook can be difficult — their platforms actually aren’t easy to pickup although you would think they would be given they want you to spend as much money as possible, right?
4) It’s a roller coaster. The goal is to find sustainable growth channels, but that’s a process that takes time and a team. Most companies are reliant on paid ads for growth so keep in mind that ecommerce requires thick skin. There’s so many variables.
One month our sales will be through the roof, next month it will be 40% of what it was the previous month. You have to consider whether it’s a ‘phase’ or a genuine drop in demand for your product. That’s a journey as well.
5) Bundling and Unbundling. Many of the services we use focus on either bundling or unbundling. Look at the music industry for example. Even if you like only one song on a CD you had to buy the entire album for $11 or $12. Apple unbundled the CD and allowed you to buy a single song for $1.29. Funny enough, the industry has now reversed to bundling as Spotify and Apple Music charge you a subscription for a ‘bundle’ or artists and songs to listen to.
See what your market is and identify whether there is an opportunity to either bundle products together and give people the freedom to use your product at volume, or if selling unbundled products can disrupt the bigger companies who may have a hold on the market.
Jerome Knyszewski: How can our readers further follow you online?
Tom Cote: We stay off social media 😊
Jerome Knyszewski: This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!
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